Wednesday, May 30, 2012

May's Bunch O' Links

And how was your May? 

Writing Tools
By Alex Villasante

I've heard of Save The Cat a lot, but haven't picked it up yet. Maybe it's because that writing book is associated with screenwriting? I don't know. But Liz at has a good post on Plotting for Pantsers (that's me) and how it measures up to Save the Cat.

There's also a really cool online tool to help you figure out Goal, Motivation, Conflict - something most writers have to amp up in first (second, third) drafts. Shawntelle Madison created a GMC Wizard here. She's also the author of Coveted, which sounds amazing and I can't wait to get my hands on it. 

Finally, if you follow my blog (and just pretend you do, make me feel good) you'll know that I've started using Donald Maass' Breakout Novel Workbook for my wip, FIND ME. I can't tell you how much it's improved my story. Okay, I can tell you. It was like a little explosion in my writerly brain. Suddenly I had pops of inspiration. His questions get you to delve deeply, even when you thought you didn't have to, into the meat of your characters and story. He's the real deal. He is not related to me, I swear. And he doesn't pay me. I am just a fan. You can look at worksheets from his other book, The Breakout Novelist, here, to give you an idea of the awesome.

Carrot & Stick
By Greg Hardin

Writing Motivation is hard to find, and not everything works for every writer. So here are two sites to get you writing.  A hilarious help to nonstop writing.  Every 100 words you write gets you a new kitten picture.  :)  For those who need something a bit harsher than kitten pics.  This app will punish you for becoming distracted in your writing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I Wrote Out of Sequence - And I Liked It

When you start writing, you quickly figure out what kind of writer you are. You're an outliner or a pantser (as in, writing by the seat of your pants); You're tightly scheduled or you scribble whenever you can; You edit as you go or you let the torrent out on the first draft and edit at the end. You write chronologically or you skip around (this is related to the outliner vs. pantser profile.)


No. I really wanted to fit into a writer type - after all, what better way to identify yourself as a writer than to figure out what kind? It bolsters your image of yourself and makes it easy to talk about the writing life. But the more I tried to squeeze myself into a mould, the more uncomfortable I felt. Sometimes I'm scheduled, sometimes I write in the car waiting for Girl Scouts to be over. Sometimes I outline in my head an end point I want my characters to reach, usually I dig around my story, uncovering what comes next.

Thanks to a trip abroad, I had an extended period of enforced writing time (BEST PLACE TO WRITE - airplane, because you have to sit and there's nothing better to do.) But the scene I was on was giving me trouble. I knew that several chapters down my character would be taking a bus to Tuxedo, New York. But I didn't know all the steps that would get her there - I didn't even know who would be going with her. I've never written out of sequence before, but did I mention how boring I find flights? The movies are terrible, the food is depressing and the bathrooms are just sad. So I stuck with the writing and took a leap of faith.

It was strangely liberating. I didn't know how she got to the bus station, or how much she'd changed since I left her last. I instinctively felt that she would be different, more desperate and serious, more vulnerable. So I just made her that way without waiting for the things that would make her so. I surrounded her with people who should be there, whether she wanted them to be or not. I made her uncomfortable. I put her in a bad place, having NO CLUE how to get her out. HE HEE! It was fun.

I know that I will not use the scenes I wrote as they are now. I need to go back and make the connections, plant the seeds of what I glimpsed in that later scene. But writing out of sequence made it possible for me to see that I need to pump up the danger by about 100%. When I was writing in sequence, I was meandering (I tend to do that) and now I have a long list of things I need to do - things I didn't know I needed before.

It's fine to define your writerly self - but don't do it so strictly that you don't let yourself experiment. Be the outliner that occasionally doesn't know what's going to happen next. Be the edit-as-you-go type who (just for a few scenes) lets go and writes without stopping. Surprise yourself. Only good can come out of your being out of your comfort zone.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Balancing Act of Paragraphing

A reader is a visual creature and judges a blog post, story or novel by its cover or how it looks at first glance. They want to know what’s in store for them before they read.

When you approach writing, you want to attract and entertain your readers. One step is an editing technique called paragraphing.

You know dense, never-ending paragraphs bore you to tears. The same goes for your readers. The solution? Varying your paragraph lengths. It not only avoids the dreaded half-a-page to page-length paragraphs, but the white space on the page gives your readers time to think, reflect and allow their imagination time to play. Invite them to interact with your writing.

The last thing you want to do is intimidate your reader with large sections of writing. Manageable chucks let your readers know they aren’t about to dive into an AP History textbook, but rather an enjoyable blog post or story.

How do you know when to start a new paragraph? Well, one red flag we’ve been learning since elementary school is when a new idea or thought begins. Help those great notions receive the attention they deserve in your readers mind by giving them their own paragraph.

Dialogue is another chance to break up a paragraph. Not to say you have to do it every time a character speaks. Just keep in mind the visual look of your story. It’s just as important as the words you’ve crafted.

When you experiment with the length of your paragraphs, you’ll find it evokes a particular emotion or experience in your reader. Shorter paragraphs create tension and move the story a long faster. Your reader is more engaged.

Longer paragraphs hypnotize your reader, coaxing them into your story. They take a leisurely walk with your characters. It gives you the chance to provide background or set them up for a surprise or shocking moment. And since the length of the paragraph gives them the illusion of safety, they can experience the moment along with the character. You strengthen the connection between your story and your reader. Now, they have to continue reading because they are feeling the same panic or excitement as the character in the story.

As always, you want to shoot for a balance between the frequencies of paragraphs. Use the length to create the rhythm of your blog post or story to mimic the characters emotions or to just keep your reader engaged. And remember, your reader is first and foremost a visual creature. Entice them to read your story without intimidation.

So, take a look at your current writing project. How much white space do you see? Do you have too many long paragraphs or too many short paragraphs? Can you improve a scene by paragraphing?  

P.S. Varying the length of your chapters can create the same effect as varying the length of your paragraphs.  

Browne, Renni and King, Dave. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print. Harper, 2004: New York.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Boring Bits

By Greg Hardin
Three years ago I finally learned the difference between “its” and it’s”.  For years I labored under the uncertainty of which version to use when I needed a contraction of “it is” or tried to show an object’s possession.  Finally, I just buckled down, dug out a grammar book and memorized the rule.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I stumbled upon a great graphic from discussing apostrophes, and one of the subtopics was where to use an apostrophe with “it” and “s”.  BUT, after learning that elusive grammar wisdom, I did dig into some old (and not-so-old) grammar books in an effort to repair the potholes of my grammatical past.

            It was around the time I was switching careers from being a photographer to being an English teacher. I realized if I was going to teach writing to students, I probably should understand it more. I have not regretted that decision even once, and I wonder why I didn’t make more of an effort before.
            Most adults know how to write.  We’ve written so much over the years that the basic rules of grammar, spelling, and structure are inhumed deep in our subconscious and only accessed by sections of our brain we’re not even aware work. If asked to diagram a sentence, most adults would balk.  If asked what the rules for comma usage are, most of my friends would change the conversation.  And that’s fine.  Because somehow all of that previous knowledge and practice and schooling churns somewhere deep inside and bubbles up when we need it to, inserting commas in the right places and telling us where to put the noun and verb, and when to start a new paragraph.  And it works.  Except when it doesn’t.

When it doesn’t work, most people don’t notice; they don’t realize there has been a communication error.  But it happens a lot more than it should. Lynne Truss wrote a book titled Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It is a fantastic book on grammar and the loss of common rules in civilized society. The title refers to the old joke about the panda and its definition from the dictionary.  A mere comma determines whether a panda eats plant material, or goes on a killing spree after meals. Her book gives concrete examples of the public misusage of punctuation, often to humorous affect. It also helps fix misconceptions derived from years of “sort-of-knowing” the basic rules for grammar.

            All would-be writers should read books like Ms. Truss’s. If you’re a writer, you need to know how to write.  We need to know the rules, especially if we’re going to hold ourselves up as even partially knowledgeable of our craft. A musician knows his scales and chords and practices those boring building blocks of his profession so he can rock out when he’s performing something much more interesting. As a writer you need to practice and learn the boring bits – the foundational stuff.  I always tell my students, “learn the rules, so you know when to break them.”

            Find a book on grammar and give it a read through.  Do it once a year to refresh. Find some basic lessons on writing structure and review.  You might find yourself saying something like, “oh that’s a dangling modifier.” Sure, a lot of you writers already know all of this – you’re already experts.  Good.  I’m proud of you, for those of you for who that’s true.  Most of us still rely on those ingrained rules that we don’t really understand.  Acquire understanding.  Constantly research your craft, not just the subject of your craft.

            While writing this, I looked up the definition of “balk” just to make sure I was using it correctly. (I was, and my ego rejoiced.) We should double-check ourselves all the time, and not just for ego-stroking. Am I using this comma correctly? Where does the apostrophe go? Do some research, look things up, admit you don’t know everything about the rulebook of English. At least, admit it to yourself. Then, you can maintain the appearance of English know-it-all to everyone else.