Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Not Being Insecure

Today is December's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

Whew! I almost missed writing this month’s Insecure Writer post.

I suppose I could blame NaNo and the holidays for this lapse, but I think the real reason is that I don’t feel all that insecure this December. This might sound a bit surprising considering I only managed 25K words during NaNo, but I learned a lot about my writing methods in the last month and I’m feeling much better about this whole writing thing.

Of course, next month I’ll probably be insecure again, but that’s the life of a writer, isn’t it?

Here’s what I learned from NaNo.

1. I’m a slow writer. (LOL, I’ve known that for years) But I also learned I can write quickly as long as I have a good grasp of what a scene is about and where it’s headed. The scene will need massive revisions before anyone can see it, but my scenes always need massive revisions -- even when I write slowly.

2. I discovered I’m a plotser. No matter how much I plot beforehand, until I start putting the words down on paper I have no idea what the real plot will be until I finish the first draft. Angela Quarles apparently has the same problem.

3. As a result of all this re-plotting, my NaNo story is now far stronger than it was before. Yay!

4. Staying away from my original WIP for the last month has made me even more eager to get it finished.

That's all for now.  I promise to be more insecure next month – assuming we all survive the 21st of December, that is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How I Impressed My Wife With Story Structure

Think story structure is just for writers? Guess again.

Recently, my daughter was assigned to watch a movie for her 7th grade theater class. The movie was “Newsies,” a musical based on the New York City newsboy strike of 1899. So my wife picked up a copy of the DVD at the local library and brought it home for the family to watch. We popped some popcorn, snuggled into our sofa, turned out the lights, and started the movie. Although I had some reservations about watching a musical, it turned out to be pretty good, although I could have done without the singing. But that’s just me.

Anyway, we were somewhere past the halfway point of the movie when my wife turned to me and asked when I thought the movie would end. Turned out she had to leave for an appointment in thirty five minutes, and if she was going to have to leave just before before the movie ended, she would rather stop the movie right then and have us finish it later.

According to the DVD jacket, the movie was 121 minutes long, but as we hadn’t noticed when we’d started, that wasn't much of a help. It’s possible, maybe even likely, there was some way of having the DVD player tell us how much time had elapsed, but none of us knew how to do that, so my wife was ready to press the stop button, much to the dismay of our daughter.

Then I suddenly realized the movie was in the middle of the “All is Lost Moment.” For those of you unfamiliar with story structure, the AILM is that point in a movie or book where it appears the hero is about to lose. In this case, the MC had been arrested, the evil newspapermen had threatened the father of the MC’s best friend, and the strike was falling apart. Classic AILM.

The AILM comes at the end of the second act, just before the second plot point, and according to story structure, should occur at the three quarter mark of a book or movie. And according to Larry Brooks (Story Engineering) and Blake Snyder (Save The Cat), Hollywood takes the timing of these milestones very seriously. For a 121 minute movie, therefore, there should have been only thirty minutes left before the end. So I told my wife the movie would end at 8:17. She was skeptical, but agreed to let the movie continue.

The movie ended at 8:19. Booyah!
The wife was much impressed.

I may struggle with putting my thoughts into words on paper. I may have trouble with showing versus telling. But dammit, I understand story structure.

Thanks guys.

Links worth checking out.

Story Engineering

Save The Cat

Plot and Structure

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Showing and Telling in a Nutshell

I'm always on the lookout for books dealing with the concept of "showing versus telling," so when I discovered  Jessica Bell's new book, Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing, I volunteered to post some information about the book on my blog.

I purchased the e-book for my Kindle last week, and after pouring through the pages for a few days, I find myself able to recommend the book, although that recommendation comes with two caveats. 

First, the title suggests the book will show examples of "telling scenes" being converted to "showing scenes" - which isn't exactly true.  The "telling scenes" aren't really scenes at all.  They're synopses of scenes - four or five sentences describing what will happen in the scene, similar to what a writer might jot down on an index card.  This might sound like nitpicking, but I believe it's an important distinction.  Writers who have trouble with telling (like me) rarely jump right into a scene and start showing.  Typically we only get around to fixing (or trying to fix) the telling after the scene has been fleshed out.  So for us, starting out with a fully realized scene and transforming some of that telling into showing is where we need the most help.

Second, no explanations or discussions accompany the converted scenes, nothing to explain the author's rational for how and why she wrote the scene as she did.  I understand this might raise the price of the book, but in my opinion, such discussions would be worth their weight in gold for those of us struggling with telling.  It's easy to look at a scene (written by someone else) that "shows" and agree that it's good.  It's much harder to figure out how to write it yourself, which is what I struggle with every single day.    

Anyway, if you're interested in fixing all that telling you've been doing, keep reading the blurb below and consider buying Jessica's book.

Click to add me to Goodreads!

Have you been told there's a little too much telling in your novel? Want to remedy it? Then this is the book for you!

In Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing you will find sixteen real scenes depicting a variety of situations, emotions, and characteristics which clearly demonstrate how to turn telling into showing. Dispersed throughout, and at the back of the book, are blank pages to take notes as you read. A few short writing prompts are also provided.

Not only is this pocket guide an excellent learning tool for aspiring writers, but it is a light, convenient, and easy solution to honing your craft no matter how broad your writing experience. Keep it in the side pocket of your school bag, throw it in your purse, or even carry it around in the pocket of your jeans or jacket, to enhance your skills, keep notes, and jot down story ideas, anywhere, anytime.

If you purchase the e-book, you will be armed with the convenient hyper-linked Contents Page, where you can toggle backward and forward from different scenes with ease. Use your e-reader's highlighting and note-taking tools to keep notes instead.

The author, Jessica Bell, also welcomes questions via email, concerning the content of this book, or about showing vs. telling in general, at

“Jessica Bell addresses one of the most common yet elusive pieces of writing advice—show, don't tell—in a uniquely user-friendly and effective way: by example. By studying the sixteen scenes she converts from “telling” into “showing,” not only will you clearly understand the difference; you will be inspired by her vivid imagery and dialogue to pour through your drafts and do the same.” ~Jenny Baranick, College English Teacher, Author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares
“A practical, no-nonsense resource that will help new and experienced writers alike deal with that dreaded piece of advice: show, don’t tell. I wish Bell’s book had been around when I started writing!” ~Talli Roland, bestselling author

Purchase the paperback:
$4.40 on Amazon US
£3.99 on Amazon UK

Purchase the e-book:
$1.99 on Amazon US
£1.99 on Amazon UK
$1.99 on Kobo

About the Author:
The Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell, also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest.

For more information about Jessica Bell, please visit: 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Are You a Plotter, Pantser, Or Something Else?

We’re half way through NaNo and, as expected, I’m behind on my word count. No surprise there – I’m a slow writer – but changing the plot five days into NaNo didn’t help either.

What’s more important is that I’ve learned something about my writing process. In my first book (which is still a work in progress, BTW), the plot, subplots, and characters changed over and over again during the first couple of years. I figured this was probably just a natural consequence of having never written a story before, along with the fact that I hadn’t bothered to plot anything out beforehand.

One thing I did learn during those two years of revisions was that I was a plotter at heart. Story structure makes so much sense to me these days, I can’t write without it. So for my NaNo story, I outlined the whole thing ahead of time. Plot points, the midpoint reversal, the “all is lost” moment – yep, it was all right there. None of this “I’ll worry about that stuff later” attitude. So when November 1st rolled around, I was sure the writing process would go more smoothly this time.

Yeah, right.

After five days of writing I was ready to change the plot…
and some of the characters…
and most of the scenes.

Just like my first book. Arrrg!

So what have I learned in the last two weeks? That no matter how carefully I outline a story beforehand, the real story ideas don’t occur to me until I’m actually putting words down on paper. I may begin a project as a plotter, but I have to switch to pantser mode when I’m write. Then, after all these new ideas come pouring in, I have to switch back to plotter mode in order to fit them into the story. And then I switch back to pantser mode again and continue to write. Back and forth. Over and over again.

I feel like Jekyll and Hyde. I’m not a plotter or a pantser. I’m a plotser.

So which one are you?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Insecure Writer and NaNoWriMo

Today is November's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me insecure this month?
NaNoWriMo, of course.

Waking up every morning for the rest of the month and wondering if I'm going to be able to write another 1667 words before the day is over isn't something I'd wish on my worst enemy. Besides, I have far worse things planned for them anyway.

I’m happy to say I met my NaNoWriMo quota for the first five days (yay!). And I owe it all to having created the story outline in October. I've learned many lessons during the three years I’ve spent (so far) writing my first story and one of those lessons is that it’s a good idea to put together your outline before you begin writing.

When else would someone write an outline, you ask?

Afterwards, if you're me.

When I began writing three years ago, all I had were individual scenes. No plot and nothing to tie the scenes together. Yeah, I know. Total newbie. But at the time I wasn't planning on writing a story. It was more of an intellectual exercise.

Eventually I worked up a plot and began ordering the scenes, but that turned out to be more difficult than expected. Scene X would have to go before scene Y, but after scene Z, while scene W would have to after scene Y but before scene X and... Arrrg! For a while I almost gave up trying to find an order that satisfied all the scene requirements, but eventually it all worked out. But I'll never begin writing a story again without having the plotline already developed.

So it's good that I have an outline in front of me this November. Unfortunately, I also see a potential downside. What happens when I run into a scene that's tough to write? Will I just sit there and fight my way through it, or will I glance down at my outline and skip ahead to a scene that’s easier to tackle? If I do too much of the latter, I'll wind up spending the last half of November with nothing but tough writing and my NaNoWriMo word counter will come to a grinding halt.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why Did I Ever Sign Up For NaNoWriMo?

It’s becoming a pattern. I wake up in the morning, ready to start another day, then cringe and hide my head under the pillow when I remember I have to write another 1666.66 words for NaNoWriMo. Arggg!

One of the tricks to succeeding at NaNoWriMo is to find ways to motivate yourself for the task of sitting down in front of the computer (or notebook) every day. And for me, that means setting up the proper atmosphere. I do most of my writing in my basement office, so I've decorated that room to look much as I would expect a potions master's office to appear.

Hey, what do you expect? I'm a chemist.

My desk and bookshelves are filled with books on alchemy, along with flasks, beakers, and bottles with brightly colored liquids and powders. Lighted candles help create the necessary ambiance for writing stories about magic and castles and such things. (To be honest, the candles also serve a more practical purpose. Since I haven't gotten around to replacing the fluorescent lights in the ceiling yet, my only other source of illumination is the computer screen.)

So far, my office has done its part to keep me motivated. But we're only three days into November and I have a loooong way to go, so wish me luck.

BTW, if any of you entered NaNoWriMo, be sure to buddy me. My username is ChemistKen.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Perils of October

My blog posts have been a bit erratic lately, but that’s not unusual for the month of October. Fall is my favorite time of year and I enjoy spending time outside, savoring the sights and smells of Autumn before they go away. (Fall doesn’t last long in Michigan) Best of all, the season culminates on Halloween, one of my favorite days of the year. As a result, my muse is firing away on all cylinders and it’s difficult to stay away from my manuscript -- especially since Halloween is the perfect time to be writing a story about Hogwarts and the wizardring world.

This year, however, I have the added workload of preparing for NaNoWriMo. Yep, I decided to go for it this year. I’ve known about NaNoWriMo and the challenge of "writing a novel in a month" for a couple of years now, but I’ve always declined to enter. My main reasons were:

1) I didn’t want to steal time away from my Hogwarts story.
2) I wasn’t ready to think about a new story.
3) I’m such a slow writer I couldn’t imagine writing 50,000 words in a month without having to throw away 90-95% of it anyway, so what was the point?

But these days I find myself more and more anxious to work on something I can actually publish, and NaNoWriMo seems like the perfect kick in the pants to jumpstart the process. I’ve had an idea for a story for a couple of years now (fantasy, magic, high school students) and this is my chance to lay the groundwork for my story.

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks outlining and plotting, and as November approaches, I can feel it all coming together. I may still end up throwing away 50% of November’s writing once December rolls around, but that’s a number I can accept. Besides, I getting used to having to change 50% of chapters after my critique partner gets a hold of them anyway.

So I wish the best of luck to everyone else who’s participating in NaNoWriMo. I suspect this blog won’t be the only one to hit a lull in a week or so.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Do You Clear Your Throat When You Write?

Every writer has certain words that seem to sprout up like weeds in their manuscripts. For me, those words are “started” and “began.” Apparently, my characters are unable to do something; they have to “start” doing something. They don’t climb the stairs; they begin to climb the stairs.

Why is this bad?

Because these added words weaken the sentence. Writers refer to this problem as “throat clearing” -- when the author pussyfoots around the verb instead of just coming out and telling the reader what happened. I throat clear a lot, as demonstrated by the many strikethroughs I’ve left in the post.

Consider these instances of throat clearing.

He stepped to the front.
I write: He took a step to the front.

He opened the door.
I write: He managed to open the door.

He walked to the kitchen table.
I write: He began to walk to the kitchen table.

Do you see the problem? Instead of sticking with the active verb, I change it to a noun or an infinitive, which decreases its impact, and then add a weaker verb whose only purpose is to point toward what should have been the verb in the first place. Both versions of are grammatically correct, but the second sentence is wishy-washy. Pull this stunt too many times throughout your story and your readers will notice.

“Started” and “began” are among the worst offenders of throat clearing and I think it’s because of the way writers have to choreograph scenes. When we write “He walked to the kitchen table,” we are telling the reader that the character reached the table before anything else happens. Which is fine – assuming that’s what we meant to say.

But what if something happens before he gets there? You don’t want to write, “He walked to the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a fur ball before he arrived.” You’d be jumping back and forth in time and confusing the reader. So how do you get around this problem?

Solution #1: Use “started” or “began.”

“He started to walk to the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a gummy worm before he arrived.”

This is the main reason, I think, why “started” and “began” litter the pages of so many manuscripts. The author wants the reader to know the character is doing something, but doesn’t want the reader to assume that the character completed the task. But throat clearing isn’t a great solution.

Solution #2: Use Past Continuous tense.

“He was walking to the kitchen table when the cat hacked up a rubber band.”

Okay, this works. Not surprisingly, because this is exactly the type of situation past continuous was invented to solve. Unfortunately, past continuous is considered weaker than simple past tense, so editors tend to frown on this.

Possible solution #3: Change the wording of the action so that it can be completed immediately.

“He walked towards the kitchen table, but the cat hacked up a rubber spider.”

By adding “towards”, the character only needs to take one step in the desired direction for the action to feel complete, so the reader doesn’t assume he made it to the table.

What words cause you the most throat clearing problems in your manuscripts?

BTW, for the record, our cats do eat a lot of strange things.

Friday, October 12, 2012

I Joined SCBWI!

This will be a short post today.  It's my birthday!

Assuming I did everything correctly, you might have seen the new SCBWI logo on my blog's sidebar. (I'm still playing around with the positioning) As a birthday present to myself, I ponied up the money to join the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) . My critique partner, Sherahart, has been recommending this for a while, so I used my birthday as an excuse and joined. I signed up only yesterday, but being a part of SCBWI already makes me feel more like a real writer. :)

I signed up for the Michigan listserv, so if there’s anyone else from Michigan reading this post, be sure to drop me a line. Actually, if you’re in SCBWI and not from Michigan, send me a message anyway. I’d love to hear from you.

Back to planning my next birthday present.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Getting What You Wish For

Today is October's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me insecure as a writer this month?
Answer: Time.

As some of you know, I have a day job – research chemist, of course – so I have to squeeze my writing in at night – after I’ve fulfilled my other obligations as father and husband. This doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing. Now I’m not complaining. I’m sure many writers are in similar situations, but the simple truth is that I’m a very sloooooow writer (just ask my CP) and the lack of writing time hits me harder than most.

I’ve often wondered how much of my slowness stems from being forced to do most of my writing in quick fifteen or thirty minute spurts. Seems like I’m just getting started when it’s time to quit. On those rare occasions when I can spend three or four hours straight working on my story, I (usually) make good progress. So I occasionally daydream about what it would be like if I could stay at home all day and just write. How much difference would that make?

Be careful what you wish for.

Due to circumstances at work, I just learned I will be spending several weeks at home this November. And while I’m not happy about the hit to the wallet, I’m cautiously excited about the prospect of having all that time to write. Of course, my wife has her own ideas on how I should spend that those days at home, but I should still have oodles of time left over for writing.

But I also admit to being nervous about the whole thing. What if it turns out I don’t write any faster even when I have plenty of time? That would be pretty disheartening.

So wish me luck and I’ll keep you posted on my progress when the time comes.

Is it coincidence or fate that this will occur during NaNoWriMo? You tell me.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Life of a Hoarder

First off, let me apologize for not keeping up with this blog in recent weeks. Between vacations, some personal issues at home, some hectic weeks at work, and a few other commitments, I’ve had little time for writing. And what time I did have left was devoted to working on my book. Now that my schedule has returned to normal, my goal is to return to my usual Wednesday, Friday schedule.

Now on to the post.

My wife thinks I’m a hoarder. She’s wrong. I just don’t like throwing stuff away.

It’s not as though I never throw things away – although a photograph of my office might suggest otherwise - but every time I do throw something in the trash, I almost invariably need it the next day. Honestly, this has happened so many times I no longer fight it. If there’s the slightest chance I’ll use something again – no matter how broken it might be - I’ll find somewhere else to store it. It gives me a nice, warm feeling to know I can still put my hands on it anytime I want.

Assuming I can find it, of course.

When it comes to Internet links, though, I am an avid hoarder. I just can’t help collecting them, especially ones about writing. It’s no secret I probably follow way too many writing and author blogs, but I’ve learned so much the past few years about writing I simply can’t stop piling up the links.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee I’ll ever go back to these links again. A quick check of my writing links folder reveals that I have over 900 bookmarks waiting to be clicked. I tell myself I’ll eventually go back and read them again, but I know it’s not going to happen. But that’s okay. I still get that warm fuzzy feeling from knowing the links are sitting safely on my hard drive.

Not surprisingly, I’m still collecting links. I think I’ve saved four of them this morning already – most of them having to do with self-publishing and social media.

Help! Is there such a thing as Link Hoarders Anonymous?


P.S. Please forgive my excessive use of the word “it” in this post.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Not Having a Clue

Today is September's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me insecure as a writer this month? The fact that I have no clue as to what makes a book successful.

What helps relieve some of this insecurity? The fact that, as far as I can tell, no one else has a clue either.

The standard answer is that if you want your book to be a success, write the very best book you can. Sound advice, but I’m sure we can all think of good books we’ve read that never seem to gain any traction on Amazon while lesser books make the best seller lists. Agents and editors tell us that sometimes the stars have to be aligned just right for a book to succeed – which I think is another way of saying they don’t have a clue either. So how is a beginning writer such as myself to know if his or her manuscript has a chance to be a success?

I don’t know. And that's the problem.

I can follow all the rules of writing I've learned over the past few years, but will that lead to success? Perhaps, but it seems the books I enjoy most break many of those rules. Consider Harry Potter. Rowling broke tons of rules - lots of telling, more adverbs than you can shake a stick at, imaginative dialogue tags, a first chapter that could well have been a prologue, very little character arc for her MC (I’m talking the first book here, not the overall series), and the occasional drift into a distant omniscient narrator (supposedly a dying POV) - and I think her book did reasonably well. Apparently readers care less about the rules of writing than do writers.

Hmmm. What about social media? If I suddenly became social media savvy and developed an army of followers, would that help make my story a success? Perhaps, but for me, the learning curve for social media is even higher than it is for writing fiction. (Hey, I’ve tweeted three times this month already! That’s progress, right?)

So, in the end, all I can do is write the best book I can, get the word out there as much as possible, and hope for the stars to align.

And people make a living doing this?


Friday, August 24, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Back From Vacation!

My family and I just returned from a trip to northern Michigan, so this is going to be a short post. Overall, it was a great trip. We did all the necessary touristy things - climbing Sleeping Bear Dunes, swimming (or at least wading) in Lake Michigan, and trekking through miles of forests. Northern Michigan can be a fun place to visit, but it’s easy to get lost up there, even when you have maps. The locals are rather relaxed about the whole street sign thing, and even when there are signs, you aren’t guaranteed that the naming system used by the signs match the system used by the maps. For example, the road called "County Highway 708" on all of our maps was named Deadstream Rd on the signs.  Took us a bit to learn all the proper translations.

 BTW, I’m going to have to find a way to use “Deadstream” in one of my stories.

Speaking of stories, despite dragging my laptop along on the trip, I did absolutely no writing. I tried working on the manuscript once when everyone else was in bed, but was so sleepy myself all I could do was notice how much rewriting needed to be done and so I called it quits. Still the story was never far from my mind.

When you're walking through woods like this, it's easy to image I'm trekking through the Forbidden Forest. 

Or that I'm gazing at the lake which lies next to Hogwarts?

At least now that I'm home I'll be able to work on my manuscript again. Yay!

P.S.  Thanks to my wife and son for taking these pictures.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Links

Here’s an article which should be of interest to writers. How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read. Interesting. Makes me wonder if we’ll be reading a similar article about e-books in ten or twenty years.

Madeline Ashby’s debut novel, vN, came out a couple of weeks ago and there is a small writeup about it over at BoingBoing. Sounds fascinating. Perhaps if I were better connected to the reading world (instead of spending all my free time writing) I might have heard about this one before now.

Finally, have you heard of LeakyCon? It’s one of the annual Harry Potter conventions and it wrapped up this last weekend in Chicago. I’ve never been to one, but would love to attend one at least once. It’s probably not going to happen though (unless it comes to Detroit – yeah, right!) What makes me really jealous is that next year LeakyCon will be held in London. OMG! I’d take a trip to London even if LeakyCon wasn’t there.  And this is from soneone who doesn't like airplanes! Anyway, Selina Wilkens over at Hypable wrote a quick article describing her experiences at LeakyCon .

Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Breaking Up is Easy to Do

One skill new writers have to learn is how to provide a description of a new location or a new character without slowing down the story. Experienced writers have discovered all sorts of tricks for weaving descriptions naturally into the story, subtly slipping them in during bits of action or interior thought or in the middle of dialogue. For those of us who have yet to learn these skills, our descriptions tend to read more like lists. You know what I mean. Three or more sentences in a row whose sole purpose is to list the contents of the room the MC has just entered or to catalog the physical appearance of the character who has just shown up. I’m guilty of this myself. And while this method works fine in most cases, as long as the description is written in an interesting manner, there is room for improvement.

One trick I’ve been using of late involves breaking the description up into pieces and spreading it out over the page. Instead of starting out with four or five sentences describing the spooky room the MC has just entered, I find it works better to limit myself to two or three descriptive sentences at first, enough to give the reader the right impression, and then dispersing the rest of the description over the next several paragraphs (or pages).

Not only does this keep the story moving, but by delivering the description in piecemeal fashion, you make more of an impression on your readers. One thing I’ve learned while teaching chemistry is that you can’t drown the student with too much material at once. You need to spoon it out a little at a time and then build upon what you’ve already told them.

It works the same way when writing fiction. You can only have so many sentences in a row telling the reader the room is spooky before their effectiveness dwindles, but by spreading the sentences out over several paragraphs, their effects multiply. Every time they see another hint that the room is spooky, it reinforces all the earlier references to spookiness.

This technique works for backstory too. Although I don’t mind backstory as much as some, too much backstory all at once can be a drag. By dripping in bits of the backstory a sentence or two at a time, in small doses dispersed over many pages, most of the problems with backstory disappear, especially if you’re good at weaving backstory naturally into the narrative.

Question: Are you one of those writers who weave description gracefully into your story, or are you like me?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Links

Okay, so Friday is almost over in Michigan, but I can't miss two Fridays in a row, so here goes.

First up, we have a letter from Pete Docter of Pixar, in which he writes about how patience and working on your craft can pay off.  Enlightening.

Next, for those of you who enjoy the castle I have on my blog's banner head, here's a link to more pictures of the same castle.  It's called Castle Miranda and it's in Belgium. 

Finally, from my CP, a periodic table for Harry Potter.  This excites me both as a Harry Potter fan and as a chemist.  Thanks Sheryl.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simplicity is Often the Best

A few weeks ago, I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies on TV when my wife, after having checked the schedule, announced the movie would end at 10’oclock. “No way” I told her. I’d seen the movie many times before and knew there were plenty of scenes yet to go before the movie ended – definitely too many for it to end by ten. To no one’s surprise but my own, the movie ended at the appointed time, not only managing to include every scene I remembered (plus some I had forgotten), but with enough time left over to show us previews of the next scheduled movie.

Turns out it took less time to get through those scenes that I thought.

And that’s the point of today’s post. Now that I’m revising my way through my first draft, one problem that keeps popping up is my tendency to use more words than necessary to describe a scene. I’m not talking about simple filler words such as "just," "really," "sort of," and "rather" – although I do use them too much – I’m referring to my need to over-explain.

Periodically I go back and read Rowling’s chapters, not only for inspiration, but often to see how she handled a particular type of situation. And I’m astonished at how often I come across a scene that I remembered as being long and full of complicated explanations only to discover that the scene was only a page or two in length and written in surprisingly simple terms. Rowling had given me just enough information to explain what I needed to know and my imagination had filled in the rest.

And that is what I’m struggling with. Turns out I’m a very visual writer, so I feel the need to explain every movement and action that occurs, whether the reader needs to know or not. Here’s an example. Imagine a scene where a band of adventurers are about to enter a castle that looks ready to collapse at any moment. The leader of the party is out in front of the group (and is the POV character).

John looked up at the tower which leaned perilously over to one side. “Robert, you stay here. Sarah will enter with me.” John was disappointed when Robert merely nodded, his previous enthusiasm apparently dampened.

Here’s the problem (well, besides the obvious telling). As far as the reader knows, John is still looking at the tower and wouldn’t be able to see Robert nodding behind him. I suspect most readers would understand that John has probably turned his head at some point, but as a writer I feel this compulsion to add “John turned” somewhere in there in order to make sure no one gets confused.

I have yet to learn the art of subtlety in writing. Every time one of my characters moves, or sees something, or does something, I feel obliged to mention it. And that’s a habit I’m going to have to break. Learning the technique of giving the reader just enough information to understand what’s happening is one of those milestones I’ll have to pass if I ever expect to get published. And I might as well get started now, as I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when I get around to editing action scenes where all sorts of things are happening all at once.

Does anyone have any tricks they use for tightening up their scenes?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Letting The Rules Rule Your Writing

Today is August's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

This month’s insecurity is a little different from the ones I usually discuss. My previous entries have focused on my insecurities about being a writer and how I deal with them. This time I want to focus on a more subtle insecurity – a fear of the rules.

We writers are inundated with rules. Showing versus telling, dangling participles, too little interior thought, POV shifts, too much interior thought, head hopping, etc. You know the drill. And while I have learned enough rules in the last two years to last me the rest of my life, I wouldn’t consider myself comfortable with them. At best it’s an uneasy truce. And therein lies the problem.

You’ve probably all seen posts and comments by agents and editors bemoaning the fact that so many of the submissions they receive are lacking in voice. The authors have tried so hard to make their stories sound professional that all the voice and style have been beaten out of their manuscripts.

And I’ve begun to realize the same thing is happening to me.

Years ago, I discovered my natural writing style tends toward the whimsical, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Douglas Adams, JKK. Rowling, and Eoin Colfer. It’s definitely one reason I’m attempting to match Rowling’s style in my Hogwarts story. When I’m in a whimsical mood, early drafts flow like water and life is good. But when I get around to worrying about whether I’m following all the rules correctly or when I’m focused on sounding more authorly (whatever that means), much of that whimsicalness disappears – along with my voice -- and my story no longer sounds like a Harry Potter type of story.

I’m not saying I need to abandon the rules to get my voice back. That would be a disaster of epic proportions. I just need to become comfortable enough with the rules that I can naturally incorporate them into my voice. Of course, there’s no guarantee anyone will care for my voice once it's out there for all to see, but that an Insecure Writer’s topic for another month.

Question: Have you ever let the rules of writing take away from your natural style?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday Links

It’s time again for Friday links.

First off, we have the bone chapel in Evora, Portugal. Seems like the kind of place Voldemort might enjoy.

How It Should Have Ended has another video up on Youtube. This time it’s “How Prometheus Should Have Ended.” It’s not their best work, but it’s still fun.

Finally, I love magic, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed Harry Potter so much. Here’s a video showing a series of illusions by Dutch illusionist, Hans Klok. They’re done in rapid succession, so don’t blink or you’ll miss it. If you like magic shows, you’ll love this.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

At Least My Garden Is Coming Along Nicely

Back in March, I showed you a picture of my garden in all its post-winter messiness glory and discussed how gardening is much like writing a book. Here’s what the garden looks like now.

Considering the heat and lack of rain, I’m relatively pleased with the garden, although there should be a good deal more yellow in the photograph. Unfortunately, we live next to a *&^$#@ woodchuck who insists on eating every marigold the instant it flowers.

I only wish my story could undergo such a dramatic metamorphosis in just four months.

I’m happy to say I just finished a rewrite of my third chapter and sent it out to my CP. I’m unhappy to say I spent three full weeks doing the rewrite. Arggg! Where did the time go? I suppose three weeks wouldn't have been so bad if the chapter had turned out nice and polished, but it didn’t. The only reason I stopped at three weeks was because I was so sick of staring at that chapter, I knew there would be no further improvements until I had spent a month or two away from it. So I just sent it off to my CP as is and let her deal with it. (Sorry, Sheryl)

Anyway, I’m moved on to the next chapter. But before I open the file, I plan on staring at the picture of my garden for a while and thinking happy thoughts.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Links

It's time for Friday links.

Ever wonder how the sun ages your skin? This article will show you.

Be careful where you sit.  You never know where some prankster will leave superglue. Read for yourself.

This next video has been around for a while, but I go back and watch it so often I thought I'd share it with those of you who haven't seen it yet.  A Rube Goldberg machine designed around and synced to the music of OK Go's song "This Too Shall Pass."  The video is here and a link to an article describing how everything was put together can be found here . If you haven't seen the video already, check it out. You will not be disappointed.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I Know What My Scene Is About -- Do You?

First off, let me apologize for not posting Fridays Links last week. I was sick (along with my daughter) and didn’t feel like it. Sorry. Now on to the post.

Yesterday I came across a post entitled “What is the scene ABOUT?” over at Edittorrent, (a site I heartily recommend, BTW) and was reminded of the dramatic change I made in the way I approached my story.  A change that helped tighten up my chapters.

When I first started writing my story about further events at Hogwarts, I had little concept of how chapters or scenes should be constructed. My strategy was to just let things happen in chronological order until a natural break occurred and then start a new chapter. After doing it this way for a while, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea for organizing the book. Since lots of wild and crazy things happen at the school throughout the course of the story (most of them only tangentially related to the plot), I decided that each of these events would become the basis for a chapter. Then I would shoehorn the necessary plot points or dialogue (or whatever) into whichever chapter seemed most appropriate.

Surprisingly enough, this actually worked a few times (mostly by accident), but most of the time it failed miserably. The plot moved in fits and starts. And the book lacked cohesiveness. After an embarrassingly long period of time, I realized a book should be organized around the plot and so I rearranged everything appropriately. The book improved significantly, but many of the chapters still seemed bloated, with no sense of focus. It took me another year and a half, but I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. I had no clue what the scene (or chapter) was about. I was packing so many different events and unrelated plotlines into my chapters they were falling apart under their own weight.

So, similar to Theresa’s post above, I went through my manuscript and determined what the purpose of every scene and chapter should be. I would write a one sentence description for each scene and perhaps two or three sentences for each chapter. For example, “The MC learns about a clue and proceeds to investigate.” And then I ruthlessly went through each scene and tossed out everything that didn’t further that goal. I’ll admit it was a painful exercise. I have no assurance that the many paragraphs I removed will ever find a home somewhere else in the story, and I will shed a tear for them if they don’t, but the chapters are much tighter now. And that has made all the difference.

Do any of you have trouble keeping your chapters focused?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What Kind of Reader Are You?

It was relatively quiet on the writing front this week. My family and I took a trip down to southwest Missouri to attend my niece’s wedding. The wedding was fine, but the heat was brutal. Mind you, this is coming from someone who think Michigan is too hot, but a few records were set during our stay.

With little reason to leave our air conditioned rooms during the daylight hours, you’d think it would have been a perfect time ti stay inside and write, but we managed to keep ourselves busy enough that my writing time was limited. What little time I had was spent doing a complete rewrite of my third chapter (thanks to my critique partner), so no new forward progress.

I came across a post over at Patricia Wrede’s blog a few weeks ago that I found very interesting.  Apparently, not everyone reads the same way. According to Patricia:

“Nevertheless, there seem to be at least two common types of readers: those who “see” the story as a movie in their heads, and those who “hear” the story in their heads as if someone were reading it. There are also the rare types who “feel” the story as they read it – who lean forward and tense up when the protagonist is running or jumping, and sometimes even fall off the chair if they’ve become too involved in the action.”

I’m not sure which type of reader I am. I usually enjoy stories the most when I feel as if someone is reading/telling it to me, which is probably why I enjoy omniscient POV, but which is also probably one of the reasons why I have such trouble with telling versus showing. At the same time, I know I read like I’m watching a movie too, which is why I enjoy third person POV much more than first person.

Check out the post and let me know what kind of reader (and writer) you think you are.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Friday Links

I'm on vacation this week, so I only have two links for you.

First is a link to a video of "Starry Night" done in dominoes.  Looks nice, but I can't imagine spending that much time setting something like this up.

Next, for those of you who watched episode after episode of Dora the Explorer with your kids, then this is for you.  A  trailer for a Dora the Explorer movie.  It's a spoof, but it's funny if you remember the show at all.  If you're not familiar with the show, don't bother.

 I've saved the best for last.  My daughter clued me in to a Akinator, The Web Genius. You choose a famous person or fictional character (singer, actor, whatever), then answer twenty yes-or-no questions, and the website will attempt to guess the name of your character. Scarily accurate. It managed to figure out such unlikely characters as Steve Austin, Space Ghost, Annie Lennox, Gilligan (from Gilligan's island), Wimpy (from Popeye cartoon), Robby the Robot and many others.  The database must be huge!

What's really freaky, though, is the way it works.  Most of the questions are pretty general and when it tells you it thinks it knows who the name of your character, you often laugh and think the program can't possibly know yet -- that there must be at least a thousand people who fit the answers you gave.  So when a picture of the correct character appears on your screen, your first thought is that someone must have planted microphones next to the computer to spy on you.  Seriously freaky.  Just try it and let me know what you think.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Being Slow at Writing

Today is July's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

In my ISWG post back in January , I fretted over my painstakingly slow progress and worried aloud that my book would never get finished. I set Christmas 2012 as my target completion date and promised to give you an update of my progress in June. Well, it’s July and it’s time for that update.

Since this an Insecure Writer’s post, you’ve probably guessed by now that the news is not good. Unless some sort of miracle occurs – an accident in the lab where I ingest a chemical mixture that turns my brain into a writing machine, I lose my job and spend my time sitting at home with nothing else to do but write, someone writes a piece of software that can take a rudimentary rough draft and convert it into publishable prose at the click of the mouse – I’m not going to reach my goal. Not by a long shot.

Out of a thirty chapter first draft, I’ve only managed to give my critique partner the first four chapters. That’s less than a chapter a month. You don’t need to be a math major to know that isn’t going to cut it. To be honest, the lion’s share of this time was spent rewriting the first two chapters repeatedly to fix a structural problem my CP was kind enough to point out, so I expect things to move along more quickly now.

But I’m still in trouble.

And this brings me to this month’s insecurity. Every time I load up a chapter to send to my CP – a chapter I thought was in good shape back when I wrote it last year - I’m shocked to discover just how much more work it needs before I can send it out. I’m not talking cosmetic changes here. I'm referring to missing paragraphs replaced with the words “mention XXX here” or “describe the character” marked in red. Entire pages that need to be rewritten to align with changes I’ve since made to the plot. Scenes that need reordering. It’s gotten to the point where I’m more comfortable spending hours tweaking a chapter I’ve already sent off to my CP than with moving on to the next chapter and having to discover just how much more work it needs.

To help give myself the illusion of accomplishing something, I’ve added a progress bar to the blog to track my manuscript. It’s rudimentary and I may jazz it up a bit later, but it’ll do for now. Its purpose is to shame inspire me to write more quickly. If any of you ever notice the bar hasn’t moved in a while, feel free to ding me for slacking off.

Have a happy 4th of July (for those of you in the states)!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Links

I have a few links for your amusmenent this Friday.

First off, HISHE (How It Should Have Ended) has two new videos. One for Tangled and one for Titanic. The one for Titanic hasn't made it to Youtube yet, so I'm giving you the link to HISHE's site where you can find both videos.

Here's a link I found over at Angela Quarles' Blog.  It's The Harry Potter theme on wine glasses. Captures the eeriness of the music quite well, in my opinion.

I have a Pinterest account now. I'd heard about Pinterest before, but never thought I'd use it much. But after reading how other authors use it generate ideas for their books, it sounded intriguing. So I plan on creating boards dedicated to all the things that made me want to write this book in the first place - castles, Britain, alchemy, to name just a few. Once I get a bit more settled I'll put together some general thoughts on my experience.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Your Characters and Their Names

This will be the third Wednesday in a row in which I harp on characters and how to deal with them. Why? Because I have yet another problem with my characters. And this time I have no one to blame but myself.

After working on my story for nearly three years, I have yet to decide on the names of the characters. Yep. You heard me right. Of the 20 or so named characters in the story, I’ve only chosen names for five of them. And of those five, one has since been dropped from the story and another has a name I’m already itching to change. I don’t know if this is a matter of me being lazy or just overly anal-retentive.

The truth is, I’m being very particular about these names because Rowling was very particular about her character’s names. And since I’m patterning my story after her books, this kind of detail is important to me. Rowling often chose names that had some sort of special significance to the story or hinted at a character’s traits, usually deriving them from the Greek or Latin forms. And while I’ve had fun working up lists of possible names based on their alchemical significance (another little quirk of Rowling’s), I have yet to assign any of these names to my characters. I really need to sit down some night with a glass of wine (or something stronger) and make some decisions, but I just keep putting it off.

All this means I’m having to get by with placeholder names, which does have its advantages. For instance, I often use my friends’ names for the characters I like and the names of people I don’t like for the villains. I’ve found it’s much easier to write scenes loaded with conflict when I have a more personal connection. Since my story takes place at Hogwarts, I also need names for all the instructors, so I either name them using their field of study (Professor Herbologist) or their main trait (Professor Worrier). In a few cases I use the same names Rowling used, so my Potions instructor has gone by the name of Snape for a couple of years now.

But I’ve discovered a hidden danger with this method. You can’t let the placeholder name influence the character’s actions. You don’t want your character to behave like the friend whose name you’ve temporarily bestowed upon them. For example, I’ve called my potions master Snape for so long that it’s hard not to think of Alan Rickman (the actor who played Snape in the movies) whenever I play out a scene in my head. My potions master and Snape are similar in some ways, but very different in others, and I’ve had to periodically yell at my character for acting too much like Snape. (Heh. It’s fun to get mad at your characters, isn’t it? That is, as long as your family doesn’t overhear the arguments. L)

So how do you decide on your characters’ names? Do you ever use the name of someone you know?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Links

Not a lot of links today, I've been busy writing. Really.

First up. Are zombies real? Yes, according to Wade Davis. Check out this link to learn the Secret of the Zombie Poison.

Next, if you're into new art forms, here's an image created by a single unbroken black thread. Cool.

Yesterday evening, we saw the most beautiful rainbow from our house.  If the pictures we took look any good, I might post them when I get home.

That's all for this Friday.  Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Can’t Our Characters Just Get Along?

When I began writing my story, my MC didn’t have much in the way of problems with the other characters. The bad guy didn’t see eye to eye with him, of course, and one of the other major characters had no respect for him, but other than that, the rest of the cast were on pretty friendly terms with the MC. And the guy who didn’t respect him grew to like him long before the end of the book. Basically one big lovefest, I guess. I didn’t see a problem with this approach at first, but as I learned more about the concept of conflict and tension, I discovered this lack of tension made my story a little too boring.

After reading oodles and oodles of blog posts and craft books pointing out how your characters always need to be at odds with something or someone, I began to change how the other characters felt about the MC. It was a slow process (I tend to get along with other other people and don’t have a lot of conflicts with which to draw inspiration), but now almost everyone in the book either ignors or hates my MC. Even his best friends are constantly telling him what he’s doing wrong all the time. And these changes have made the story stronger. The MC now has to find a way to get along with everyone, since he needs their support in order to succeed with his overall goal.

Besides, it's more fun to write dialogue when the speakers don't get along.

So I ask you, how long was it before your characters starting hating on each other?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Links

Saw the Avengers movie last week end. Not bad for a superhero movie. The story was a little predictable, but who cares? The CGI was awesome.

In other news, I received the Liebster Blog award this week. Thank you, Escape Artist Linda . I’m glad you liked the castle pic. According to the rules, I have to pass this award to five other bloggers. Sounds like a great excuse to read blogs over the weekend.

Friday Link #1
Do you like your eReader? Which do you prefer - a touch screen model or one with physical buttons you can physically feel under your fingers? Turns out you might be able to have the best of both worlds someday. Tactus Technology is already demoing the technology. According to TGDaily:“Tactus uses microfluidic technology to create physical buttons that rise from the touchscreen to give users the experience or feeling of operating a physical keyboard. When no longer needed, the buttons recede back into the touchscreen, leaving no trace of their presence.” Now that sounds like something right out of Harry Potter!

Friday Link #2
For those of you who can’t get enough of Game of Thrones, you can now pick up Beyond The Wall, a series of essays based on G.R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice.” As Wired puts it:, “Beyond the Wall contains contributions from fantasy authors and science fiction experts and takes a closer look at everything from the history and timekeeping in Westeros to the recurring themes of feminism and power in the series to Petyr Baelish’s barely contained sanity. The book is kicked off with an excellent defense of the fantasy genre by the incomparable R.A. Salvatore.”

That's it for this Friday.  Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Value of Not Leaving Your Character Alone

My CP dinged me the other day as being too stingy with my MC’s thoughts. And she’s right. It’s one of the (many) areas of writing I need to work on. Interior monologue is a necessary part of fiction, the time when the character ponders what has happened or what is happening or what might be about to happen. It can be used to deliver necessary information and to keep the reader firmly in the mind of the character. After all, stories can’t always be about non-stop action. Sometime the MC just needs to stop and think about things.

This problem often manifests itself when I write a scene with lots of dialogue. I forget to add the character’s thoughts because I assume the reader can figure out what the MC is thinking by his words and actions. This may be true in some cases, but without those bits of interior thought, my characters can seem emotionless and distant.

My biggest challenge occurs when my character is alone and he’s feeling some sort of emotion (nervousness, fear, confusion). Other writers seem to be able to write pages and pages of interior monologue without sounding either overdramatic or heavy handed. Not me. My attempts to write emotionally charged interior thoughts tend to devolve into a morass of cringe-worthy prose within two or three sentences.

The solution? My CP suggested I bring in a throwaway character to solve the problem. Instead of my MC waiting at a train station by himself, thinking about how nervous he is, I'll have a chatterbox show up. That way my MC’s nervousness can be shown by how he responds to the incessant chatter. I'm looking forward to see how well that works.

Question: Do you consider yourself good or bad at adding interior thoughts?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Friday Links

Just a couple of links today.  First off, have you ever thought about the smell of used books?  You know, that aroma you notice in used books stores.  Apparently some scientists have now classified the smell.  Check out Natalie's blog for more info.

Next, here's a link to an article about the security (or lack thereof) of those free WiFi services you find in coffeehouses and such.  Make sure you're protected from the bad guys!  Hmmm. Sounds like a great plot for a story.

And finally, from Sheryl Hart's blog, a speed reading test. We writers need to learn to read quickly in order to leave as much time as possible for writing.  Head on over and take the test yourself. 

Note:  Staples has apparently removed the test, but Sheryl has located some alternate links.  Just scroll down to the end of the post.

Happy Weekend!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Insecure Writer and Fan Fiction

Today is June's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

Why am I an insecure writer this month? Because my current WIP - my very first WIP as it turns out, the story that got me hooked on writing fiction in the first place - is fan fiction.

Hardly what real authors would consider real fiction.

It’s not that I have something against writing a publishable story – that’s my goal as soon as I’ve finished this WIP – but right now I’m content with using fan fiction to hone my writing skills.

But the stigma of fan fiction means I never know how seriously I’ll be taken by other writers, and as a result I’m often reluctant to mention the fan fiction part whenever I interact with them. For example, plenty of websites host contests with chapter critiques as the prize, but I never enter for fear of the reaction I might receive if I were to win and sent in a chapter based on JKK Rowling’s world. I can easily imagine the person offering the critique feeling as though their time was being wasted.

I shy away from local critique groups since I can only imagine the response I might get should I hand out copies of a story with the word Hogwarts sprinkled liberally throughout its pages. I’m not using any of Rowling’s characters or plotlines, but I’m not sure that makes any difference.

I finally worked up the courage to participate in Rachel Harrie’s beta reader/critique partner match (Highly recommended, btw. Thanks Rachel!) back in February and was fortunate to find a few writers who were willing to critique fan fiction. Thanks to them, my story has improved greatly in the last few months.

Even so, I still feel like an outcast at times, which makes me want to hurry up and get started on my own story. But I’m not moving on until I finish this one. This was the story that showed me how much I enjoy writing fiction and I plan on polishing this puppy until it shines. Besides, I still have so depressingly much to learn about writing that I need a story I’m obsessed with in order to keep learning.

Did any of you start out by writing fan fiction?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Friday Links

It’s Friday, so it’s time for some fun links.

A couple of days ago, while I was watching TV, my daughter entered the room and announced matter-of-factly that the zombie apocalypse was now upon us. Perhaps readers of zombie fiction already knew this, but I had to ask her what she was talking about. “There’s a story on the Internet about some man eating another man’s face off,” she said. I thought this was some sort of Internet hoax, but sure enough it did happen. Read all about it here.

As if that one incident isn’t enough, here’s a link to a list of other zombie-like behavior’s that have recently appeared in the news. Zombie apocalypse indeed.

The “How The Avengers Movie Should Have Ended” video is now out. Go on over and take a look.

And from Bob Mayer’s blog, a link to an article on the “Amazon Effect.”

Enjoy the weekend!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Do You Do Your Best Creative Thinking?

I am not a morning person.

This simple fact wasn’t a problem back when I was a graduate student. I could get up as late as I wanted – unless I was teaching a class – and work as late as I needed to. Sometimes past midnight. No matter. I’d just get up late the next day anyway. Ah, those were heady days. Then I got a real job and an alarm clock. Shudders. At least I’ve trained myself to only hit the snooze button four or five times before I get out of bed. (My wife swears it’s more like six or seven.)

My problem isn’t just the difficulty in dragging myself out of bed. I learned a long time ago that I’m not a good decision maker early in the morning. My thoughts tend toward the pessimistic, and ideas which sounded great the night before somehow seem hopelessly pathetic when I’m first getting out of bed. For this reason, I never allow myself to think about my WIP when I wake up. I’d have given up writing years ago if I based my decisions on my early morning opinions of my manuscript.

So I’ve been surprised to find that I do some of my best creative thinking about 15 minutes after I get up. Whether I’m in the shower or eating breakfast or driving the 50 minutes to work every day – this is when I get my best ideas. Of course this often means I spend ten minutes sitting in the parking lot at work, jotting down all these ideas, but it’s better than losing them to the ether. I should probably invest in one of those portable voice recorders.

When do you do your best writing?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Friday Links

It’s Friday, so it’s time for some fun links.

First off, “How It Should Have Ended” has released another video. In preparation of their upcoming release of “How the Avengers should have ended,” they’ve released a teaser showing the drawing session for Black Widow. I haven’t been able to watch it yet, but I’ll bet it’s good. Here’s the link

Next, a link to a story about how one guy became a screenwriter almost overnight.

And finally, because I love castles, ruins, and almost any very old building, I give you a 360 degree panoramic view of the Cistine Chapel. . They sure knew how to build buildings back in the day. It’s no wonder I love writing about Hogwarts.

And for those of you living in the US, have a Great Memorial Day weekend.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should Scenes Always End in Disasters?

Some time back, I ran across a blog post describing the author's routine for developing scenes. She would work out the scene goal, the conflict, the setting, the character’s motivation, the dialogue beats she would use to set the tone, and the end of scene disaster. And it’s that last item I want to discuss.

One of the unwritten rules I've found for writing fiction is that every scene has to end on a disaster. The MC goes into a scene with a goal and the scene ends when the MC fails to meet that goal. Alternatively, the MC might attain the goal, but then discovers the resulting consequences have pushed their ultimate story ending goal even farther away. In other words, the MC has taken a step back.

I don’t always agree with this rule.

Now I'm not saying you shouldn't have end of scene disasters. They're a useful technique for keeping the tension and stakes high enough to make the reader turn pages. My beef is with the idea that “every” scene has to end in a disaster. In my opinion, unless you’re writing some sort of non-stop action thriller, you'll wear out your reader if you do this every time. Occasional successes by the MC, without the subsequent “oops, I guess this wasn't the best thing after all” moment, in my opinion, are good for the reader. It allows them to catch their breath.

Consider the first Harry Potter book, “The Sorceror's Stone.” In chapter eleven, we find Harry approaching his first Quidditch match, and his goal is to not embarrass himself or cause his team to lose. His team wins the match, of course, due to Harry's successful snagging of the Snitch, and the chapter ends with no ill effects. In fact, on the very last page, Hagrid accidentally reveals a clue that’s been eluding Harry for the last several chapters. A win-win all around, with no hint of a disaster. (Although Hagrid might have disagreed.)

The scene works because it ends on a promise. A promise that the stalled investigation is about to make some headway. And that's the most important thing when ending a scene. Leaving a new question in the reader's mind. What’s going to happen next? It doesn’t have to be a disaster to keep the reader interested.

To be honest, many authors get around this problem by defining “disaster” rather loosely -- considering anything that adds tension at the end of a scene to be a disaster, even if it’s good for the MC. Fine. I can live with that.  My problem is with those authors who insist that the MC should always be worse off when the scene ends.

What's your opinion on end of scene disasters?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Links

In an attempt to force myself to post on a more regular basis, I’ve decided to try scheduling my posts. Every Wednesday I’ll post on the topic of writing and Fridays will be devoted to all things funny and quirky. Depending on how well this works, I may even add Mondays at a later date.

This Friday’s offering comes from, an amusing site dedicated to rewriting the endings to well-known movies. Their latest entries take on the Hunger Games movie. The links, which I’ve included below, take you to the Youtube versions, although you can watch them on the original site too if you wish. Enjoy!

How the Hunger Games Should Have Ended

How the Hunger Games Should Have Ended - Bonus Feature

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rowling's Way or the Publisher's Way?

I’ve been in a bit of a quandary lately. I might even go so far as to call it a crisis of sorts. As many of you who follow this blog are aware, I’m writing a story based around Hogwarts, the school of magic invented by J.K.K. Rowling. Although this all started out as an exercise to discover how Rowling might go about writing another series based on her wizardring world, I’m now using this story to teach myself the art of writing fiction. And believe me; the amount of information I’ve learned so far is staggering.

The thing is, my goal is to write the story as close to Rowling’s style as possible – partly because I feel my style is naturally similar to hers (although still pretty raw) and partly because I have a pet peeve against fan fiction that doesn’t sound as though it was written by the original author.

And therein lies the problem.

I want to use this story as a learning tool, but Rowling’s style breaks a good many of the so-called rules. She often wrote in a distant third person, occasionally drifting into omniscient POV, which American agents and publishers don’t care for as much as their British counterparts (or so I’ve been told). She mixed in a lot of telling along with her showing, her pages were filled with adverbs, and she used a ton of dialogue tags other than “he said.”

Now when I read the HP books, I didn’t notice any of these “rule-breakages” until I began learning the “rules.” Rowling’s style has been described as feeling as though you are being told a story rather than experiencing it, which is supposed to be a bad thing, but personally I often enjoy that style – as did, apparently, legions of her fans. It has to be done well, of course, and the narrator has to have an attitude of some kind (funny, sarcastic, etc.) or it won’t work. But I feel it is a valid style.

The upshot of all this is that I’m always running into situations where my CP reminds me I’m not following the rules I’m supposed to be learning, which can be maddening when I can find Rowling doing the exact same thing in her books. So should I stay with the way Rowling does it or should I follow all the rules?

So what do you think?  I would very much like to hear your opinions.

Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I Saw the Hunger Games Movie!

I saw Hunger Games this weekend with my wife and daughter. I had been looking forward to it for weeks, especially since my daughter had already seen the movie and liked it enough to want to go again.

I have to admit I came away feeling a little underwhelmed.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but based on everything I’d heard about how well Suzanne Collins had nailed the characters and their emotions and the whole feel of the games (I haven’t read the book yet), I expected more from the movie. I don’t know. Perhaps the kind of things which made the book rock just didn’t translate well to a 2 hour movie.

The biggest problem for me was that the movie felt too linear to be considered a great film. Everything was just a little bit too predictable and by the numbers, or so it seemed to me. For example, every time Katniss got into trouble, “someone” or “something” would conveniently show up and help her out. And when that turned out to be a “someone,” it didn’t take long before someone else conveniently showed up to kill that helpful person - just so Katniss wouldn’t have to do it herself. After a while, there didn't seem to be any suspense left. 

Still, I enjoyed the movie and would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind watching kids killing each other.

Anyone else have opinions about the movie?

BTW, I’m proud to announce my daughter raised over $2000 in April to donate to the The Water Project, an international organization dedicated to providing water to undeveloped regions. The money will be used to build a well in Kenya.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Insecure Writer and a Lack of Ideas

Today is May's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me insecure as a writer this month? Two things, actually. First, I noticed a good percentage of my posts this year have been for the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group, which tells me I’ve been lax about posting in a timely manner. Some of this had to do with my reluctance to spend what little time I have on my blog until I finished the structural rewrite of my first two chapters. I’m pleased to say the rewrites are essentially done, so my postings should become more frequent. No promises, though. Now that my WIP is moving forward again, I’m even more driven to spend time on it.

The main reason I’m insecure this month is because I’m worried about whether I’ll be able to come up with enough ideas for my next book. Now this might seem odd considering that I’m still probably at least a year away from finishing my current WIP, but this concern always sits there in the back of my mind.

You see, I’ve had (and continue to have) no problem coming up with ideas for my current WIP. In fact, I’ve had to strip many of them out simply because the book was becoming too long. One of the reasons I started to write a story about the further adventures at Hogwarts was because I found it so easy to dream up the wild and crazy stuff that happens there. But when this story is done, I’ll want to write something I can legally sell, so I’ll have to move on to my own worlds. And I have no idea whether the ideas will flow as easily once I walk away from Rowling’s world.

I already have the basic plots for two different story lines in my head, but it’s the filler scenes – the ones that flesh out a story - that have me worried. I’m afraid that, without the wonderful world Rowling created, I won’t be able to come up with enough new ideas to keep the story interesting.

Do any of you unpublished (or published) authors have the same fear? The fear that after pouring your heart and soul into your first book you won’t have anything left for another? If so, let me hear about them.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

I'm Guest Posting Today!

One of my critique partners, Sheryl Hart, has graciously asked me to do a guest post today over at her blog, My Written Art. She's taught me quite a few things about the art of writing, so head on over and add her blog to the list of those you follow.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mental Blocks and the Insecure Writer

Today is April's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.

What makes me most insecure as a writer this month? Getting stuck in a scene or chapter and not having a clue how to get past the problem. In fact, it happened to me two weeks ago. I needed to rewrite a chapter using a different POV and the difficulties in delivering all the necessary information to the reader in this new format were kicking my butt. I sat and thought about it for a long while and piddled around with the words on the page, but nothing happened.

Eventually I did what I always do in these situations. I just sat down and started banging away at the keyboard. I don’t bother trying to reason my way out of the mess. I just try things. Randomly, if need be. Moving sections around, adding stuff here, taking stuff out there. Rewriting sentences over and over again until I’m sure I’ve tried all possible permutations. A brute force approach. Just hammering away at the WIP for days (or weeks) until I finally hit upon the right answer (usually by accident) and then everything falls into place and the world is right once again.

So far this technique has never failed me – assuming I don’t stop until I’ve solved the problem. But hammering away at your WIP based on a blind faith that there must be a solution and that you will find it is a surefire way to feed your insecurities. Especially after a week or two.

Just so you know. I solved my problem about three days ago, so my sleep patterns are back to normal.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Selling Ebooks Directly to Your Readers

Author David Gaughran, whose blog is filled with interesting posts about the art (science?) of self-publishing, wrote today about Gumroad, a company that allows you to sell your e-books directly to your readers. I don’t have anything to publish (yet), but the concept is intriguing and I’m sure I’ll eventually try it out someday. Head on over and read his post.

Have any of you ever considered the idea of selling your books yourself?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Angry Birds Space is out for the Kindle Fire!!!!

Angry Birds Space is now out for the Kindle Fire! Yeah, I know I already said that in the title, but some people don't read blog post titles.

If you read my earlier post about the Kindle Fire, you know that my wife had to have the game immediately. She’s already blown through all the other versions of Angry Birds. Besides, it’s so easy to tap the screen a few times and have the game magically appear for your gaming pleasure.

Unfortunately, the Kindle went black in the middle of downloading the game and refused to turn back on. I tried plugging it back into the charger, but to no effect. I began to sweat. Was it the charger or the Fire itself? The Fire was less than three months old. What kind of warranty did I have? Argh!

Then I did what I always do when I’m feeling insecure. I went to the Internet. Sure enough, it didn’t take long to discover the Kindle occasionally requires a reset, which is accomplished by holding the “on” button down for twenty seconds. I did as the Internet commanded, finished installing Angry Birds Space, and all was happy around the house again.

Today I bought a backup charger – just in case.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Best Time to Write?

It’s weekends like this that make me happy when Monday rolls around. After two birthday parties for my son, attending a two hour Tae Kwon Do class to watch my daughter test for her green belt, and running the local Robofest computer club meeting (the big competition is next week!), going to work today seems like a breeze. And this doesn’t include the two chapters I critiqued for my CPs or the many hours I spent attempting to solve a major problem with my own manuscript. Not bad for a weekend.

I learned one thing this weekend. The part of my brain I depend on for writing works best during the morning and early afternoon. After staying up till 1:30 on Friday trying to fix my second chapter – with little success – I woke up the next morning and promptly solved the problem in less than thirty minutes while vacuuming the house in preparation for the first of the birthday parties. I suppose it could have been the act of pushing the vacuum around that set my creative juices flowing, but I doubt it. I always do my best writing during the early part of the day.

Too bad that all my free time comes at night.

So when do you guys do your best work?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writing is a lot like Gardening

I’m not sure if it’s the aftereffects of the time change or not, but it’s not even eight in the morning and I’m already drinking Mountain Dew. Not a good sign.

Speaking of signs, it’s spring in Michigan. Okay, maybe that’s a bit optimistic, but the recent warm spell sure makes it feel as though winter is gone. I even spent a few hours this weekend cleaning up our garden. Here’s what it looked like afterwards.

It may appear to be a mess now, but just wait until summer!

While I was removing the two barrels worth of leaves that had buried most of the patch, it occurred to me that gardening is much like writing a book. There are certain steps you have to go through if you want your book or garden to be great.

First you have to lay the groundwork. Decide where the boundaries will be, purge the area of rocks and weeds, and decide upon your overall theme. Cottage garden? Shade garden? Fantasy? Romance? You have to know this before you begin.

Next you consider the perennials – think of them as the basic structure of your story. They will form the backbone of the garden. Around them you will add annuals – think of them as the smaller story details (characters, setting, sub-plots). They have to fit amongst the perennials in a manner that enhances them. Is there too much of one color in one spot? Will the annuals overshadow the perennials? Are you putting shade-loving plants in full sun?

It’s easy to stick words flowers together. It’s blending them together in just the right way that makes a great book garden.

Of course, once everything is planted, your work isn’t over, unless you’re one of those people who write perfect first drafts. No, you have to keep your words watered and fed, you have to deadhead the parts of sentences that no longer add value, and you have to keep pulling out all the unnecessary words (that, was, really, etc.) that keep popping up like weeds everywhere. If not, your CPs wife and neighbors will complain. A lot. You may even find that some of the flowers need to be moved to other sections of the garden in order for them to shine.

I think that’s about it for the garden analogies today. I’ll keep you updated on the status of the garden over the year. I should warn you, however, that I’m not what you might call a true gardener. True gardeners think of bright colors in the same way many writers feel about adverbs. Too much marks the gardener as an amateur.

But I can’t help it. I love adverbs bright colors!