Category Archives: Craft of Writing

Pick a View – Any View

There is no absolute point of view from which real and ideal can be finally separated and labelled.  

~T. S. Eliot~

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I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is “stuck” with where she’s at on her novel.  She read me what she’s written and it occurred to me the voice may be horribly wrong. Yes, I used a little more tact when I told her that and she took my criticism with aplomb.

When you are settling in to write, what you first put down on the page may be glaringly obvious whose voice the story is in – needs to be in. But then, there are the other times when the voice may change, the story doesn’t work as well the way you have it or the impact you want changes. That’s the time it helps to revisit the point of view. This isn’t a piece I’m currently working on; however, I wanted to show an example of first person POV versus 3rd person.

I started writing this in 3rd person omniscient and thought it was “okay.”  Keep in mind, these are just the scenes from a draft…

            At 6:33 in the morning, the table was set for three with her great-grandmother’s Haviland China and a pair of the Waterford toasting flutes she received for a wedding present ten years earlier. In the third spot, she tenderly positioned a silver child’s cup and flatware for the child she finally carried. The test showed positive last night.

Meredith was ecstatic and she took the stairs two at a time as she went to wake her husband. Her plan was to wake him with kisses and then give him the good news as soon as he came down for breakfast and saw the third place setting in the dining room.

Her husband, Dr. Jason Brooks, was already in the shower when Meredith reached her bedroom. It was unusual for him to wake before the alarm at seven o’clock, but she reasoned that he must have an early consultation or possibly even a surgery scheduled. She picked up his Blackberry to check his calendar. Nothing appeared on the schedule.

As she was about to set the phone down, the phone chirped for an incoming text message.  She read it, put the device back down where she found it and then slipped unnoticed from the room. He had an early morning consultation that wasn’t on the schedule and she didn’t think it had anything to do with plastic surgery either.

She ran her fingers through her hair as she went back downstairs. Meredith silently removed the Haviland and the Waterford and the silver cup she bought for the occasion. She wished she’d never given the maid the day off.

It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t really do anything for me.  I thought it needed a little bit more zip so kicking back at the keyboard, I changed the point of view and as a result, the voice… and with it the tone changed in a way I believe is more powerful.

At 6:33 in the morning, I set the table for three with my great-grandmother’s Haviland China and the pair of the Waterford toasting flutes from our wedding ten years prior.  In the third spot, I had positioned a silver child’s cup and flatware. The test showed positive last night.

Unable to contain my excitement, I took the stairs two at a time as I went to wake Jason.  My plan was to smother him with kisses and then give him the good news as soon as he came down for breakfast and saw the third place setting in the dining room.

He was already in the shower when I reached the master bedroom.  Unusual.  He never gets up before the alarm at seven o’clock.  He must have an early consultation or possibly even a surgery scheduled, I thought. So I did what any wife would do, I picked up his Blackberry to check his calendar. No. Nothing on the schedule. This wasn’t so unusual as Jason could be quite forgetful, but his office secretary wasn’t.

I was about to set the phone down as it chirped for an incoming text message. I read it, put the device back down on the bureau with shaking hands and then slipped unnoticed from the room. He did indeed have an early morning consultation that wasn’t on the schedule.

I trodded slowly downstairs then silently removed the Haviland, the Waterford and the silver cup I bought for the occasion. As I threw them in the trash,  I suddenly wished I hadn’t given the maid the day off.

 

This is only an example of how voice changes a piece. If you are “stuck” on what you are writing, try using a different point of view. Make the trek from first to third or third to first person. It might create a new door where there was once only a wall.

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What Inspires You?

“I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched.”
~Edgar Allen Poe~

ImageWhat inspires you?

Such an innocent looking question, isn’t it?

Does inspiration come from something our soul touches? Does it come from a place of understanding and acceptance or maybe the search thereof? Is inspiration born of emotion or found in the depths of apathy? Is it divine intervention? The reason we are inspired to do the things we do, to write the things we write or to be who we are is unique to each of us. What illuminates my universe and prods me forward may give you hesitation.

I was reading a news article this morning about a woman in Chicago who was charged $787.33 for two-mile cab ride. I love stories like this for a couple of reasons.

  1. Stories like this I tuck away in case I need a character whether it be a cab driver, a college student or even a worker at a credit card company. The truth in a story like this gives better depth to a character, even if a minor one.
  2. The comments in the story from others who were overcharged were sometimes ridiculously funny. Some offered helpful hints as to how to avoid overpaying for cabbie services. Others made me cringe. All spoke of the universality of human nature.

I’ve taken my fair share of taxi’s, though not in Chicago. Almost all of them have been in New York City. Only once have I gotten into it with the driver, who claimed the credit card machine didn’t work. As I didn’t want to be late for my flight home, I just shelled out cash and got on with it. Yes. I’m an idiot. But we learn from our mistakes, eh? Will I use that experience at some point in my writing? Probably so.

You see, the piece I’m working on has much of it taking place in the Big Apple and it would be easy enough to wind in a scene with a NY cabbie and a main character. If done right, it would provide quite a comedic moment as I wasn’t familiar at the time with how hacks operate and this individual would be just as clueless.

So back to the original question. What inspires you?

My inspiration is drawn from everything around me, but mostly things I have experienced. From the experience I ask the question “what if…?” and see where it takes me. (I’m hoping it takes me back to New York. I love that town.)

(Photo courtsey WFLD)

Give Them the Axe?

“Unbeing dead isn’t being alive.”
~E.E. Cummings~

I was chatting with my friend, TD, about one of the characters in the novel I am working on.  We were discussing the killing off of said character and at this time, I have no plans to annihilate this being. I’m quite fond of him and he’s essential to the well-being of another major individual in the book. This leads me to a couple of other conversations I would like to share with you.

My oldest daughter is trying her wings at writing. She had a character who, for all practical purposes, was a red shirt and she didn’t know what to do with her.  When it comes to characters, one of the most vital things you have to ask yourself is, “What purpose do they serve?” I asked her that to help her figure out how to “get rid of her.”

If they are just there to take up space and don’t help to push the story along, they are a red shirt. If they have have a bearing on another character, provide insight into a situation, but don’t have a major contribution to the plot/story, then they are a minor charactor. These individuals need to have some depth to them, but you don’t have to know everything about them. Your major characters are central to the story and need to be fully flushed out. You need to know them and know them well. You need to know what makes them tick, what makes their hearts go bump in the middle of the night and why they do the things they do. My daughter was trying to make her red shirt into a minor character, who didn’t really serve a purpose other than die. Seriously. By rewriting the scene and leaving this individual as a red shirt, the emotional response by the main character rang authentic. Boom! That’s how it’s done.

Another friend of mine is a fabulous writer. She has the art of paring down characters to an art form. She’s on her second novel and I sometimes howl in delight with the way she is able to craft things. After she got rid of a lot of the unessential cast. As a result, her writing is much tighter and many scenes are either 1) much funnier or 2) more poignant. Isn’t that what we all strive for?

There are many, many works where characters are killed off – whether on the page, the stage or screen. I think Shakespeare actually ENJOYED killing off his characters – it seemed as though someone always died in his plays.  Television has had it’s own share of characters who have bitten the big one, moves that have stunned audiences around the globe. (Thinking back now to who shot JR…)  These deaths can sometimes feel forced and contrived so care must be taken when eradicating a beloved character – especially a major character.

<SPOILER> One of my favorite characters who was obilterated was Professor Snape in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Love him or hate him, his demise was masterfully crafted.  Unlike a redshirt, he was a major player and without him, Harry Potter wouldn’t have achieved what he did or become who he did.  (And also using Rowling’s Potter Series… she did her own fair share of killing off of characters, but over seven books, I think she was allowed.)

Before cancelling your character’s life-check, ask yourself what purpose he/she serves – Major, minor or red shirt? Once you have that figured out, the rest should be a little easier to write.

More Than You Think… The Writer

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For years I hid the fact I’m a writer. It was too difficult to explain what it is I actually do. Most people seem to think I sit down at my desk, type a few pages and go about my day. But like many others, my life isn’t like that. My life is rather exhausting. I have a full time job, a family and some  dogs who, for lack of a better description, bother the hell out of me while I’m concentrating. I don’t have the luxury of secreting myself away for days on end until a piece is done. I try to carve out chunks of time to get done what needs to be done. Sometimes that ends in success – others are epic failure.

So what is this “being a writer” thing?

It is first and foremost being a goal-setter. It doesn’t matter if you are writing for newspapers / magazines or writing a novel. You have goals in mind that must be met. Whether it’s writing four articles a month or if it’s writing two pages a day, it’s still a goal.  I have found I have a better shot at achieving my goals if I am held accountable by letting my critique group know what I plan to do. Others have success by writing them down in a prominent place. A sticky note on the bathroom mirror is great for this.

So how do you set writing goals? You need to remember the SMART mnemonic often attributed to Peter Drucker.

  • Specific – how many words, pages, what kind of writing (Fiction/Non-fiction)
  • Measurable – find a way to show you are making progress whether it be word count, number of pages or chapters.
  • Assignable – who is responsible for what? As the writer, you are assigning the goals to yourself.
  • Realistic – this is where most goals fail. If I’m writing a 120k word novel, there is no way I can do this in 30 days while taking care of a family. Keep your goals within reach.
  • Time-related – deadlines are important. Give yourself one. Someday your publisher will and you need to know how to work under deadlines and the associated pressures if you have never done so before.

 A writer is also a thief of sorts.

Yes. I just said that. I seriously doubt any of us will be convicted in a court of law (unless we are plagerizing); however, we steal all the time. We filch bits of conversation from unsuspecting people around us. We gleen ideas from news articles, other books, names, places, and events. We take inspiration from the tales told to us from others and someone else’s moment in time becomes our own.

Writers are expected to be excellent story-tellers.

Strangely enough, this is not always the case.  One may be able to write brilliant and earth-shattering prose, but cannot tell a story to a group of friends in order to save a life. However, as long as they can deliver on the page, that’s all that really matters, eh?

Writers are notoriously private.

I tell people all the time I’m “anti-social.” Their eyes widen and mouths open in shock. Maybe it’s because I’m fairly friendly and outgoing, which sounds like an oxymoron to being private. But many writers don’t open up to people unless they are really close to them.  When you start talking about being reserved or dare I say clandestine, many people may think about authors such as the hermitic Orwell, Woolf and Plath who suffered from madness, or Nietzsche who preferred solitude and was also a bit mental.

Today, writers/authors have to have a “public face” if they are to be successful. Their writing will speak for itself, but marketing & book promotion will include book signings and interviews. Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets are becoming more expected from authors. The public wants to connect with you. This does not mean that you have to detail every thread in the fabric of your life. But you do have to make accommodations you might not want to.

A writer is so many different things to so many different people. I describe what I do as: I’m an analyst, researcher, creator and wordsmith wrapped in a cloak of thievery and mystery out to transform the universe for but a moment in time.  But… maybe that’s the madness speaking.

Tools of the Trade

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
― Stephen King

Stephen King is a prolific writer and gifted storyteller. I have to admit I’m partial to his earlier works. I find when talking about the tools of the trade, Stephen’s quote is essential.

The Thesaurus. Most writers will use one at some point in time in their writing life. I freely admit I will use one as the moon turns blue, but it’s not to search for the “right word.” I use it to break up word echoes within my writing. In writing fantasy, I have a sword – a blade. But within a page how many times do I want to write those two words? I may throw in weapon. I may change it to the type of sword (katana, broadsword, foil, rapier, scimitar…) or I may use the word “brand.

The thesaurus is sometimes used by writers who are not avid readers. I’ve found if you are an avid reader, you absorb the words you read and bolster your vocabulary.

The Dictionary. There is never a reason to use the wrong word. When I am reading a story and find someone has misued a word it dulls the experience and makes me call into question their experience and ability.

This goes beyond the “they’re”-“their”-“there” issue (which should never be an issue with someone who is looking to be a professional.) I am talking about someone who misuses words such as “irregardless.” It’s NOT a word people. You may mean irrespective or regardless. But irregardless is irresponsible. Use a dictionary. Look it up.

Books on Writing. There are good ones. There are bad ones. And I’m not going to give you recommendations (though I have read MANY) because what my needs from one of these types of books are may not be what your needs are.

These are books I do recommend for several reasons:
1) Subject Matter. If you have problems with plot, dialogue, characterization or world-building, there are books to address each of these issues. Advice in these areas aren’t gospel, but helpful if you are trying to figure out how to solve the problem you have.
2) Naming. Books regarding names are essential. Names have meanings and that subtle impact of the “right” name – including surnames makes all the difference in the world.
3) Story Starters. Don’t go nutso with these. However, one or two of these books are most excellent for breaking writer’s block, clearing the mind and finding new ideas.

There are some other considerations for writers – tools that can be helpful.

Every writer needs tools in his/her tool box.
Every writer needs tools in his/her tool box.

A small blank notebook. You never know when ideas / inspiration will strike. It’s helpful to be able to jot it down on a moment’s notice. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You just don’t want to have to look for receipts in a purse or use napkins or dollar bills to scribble your ideas on.

A voice recorder works equally as well for many people. Some smart phones these days have this feature. But if you don’t have either available, call yourself and leave a voice message. Don’t lose a good idea because you can’t write it down.

Writing Implement. For all that is good and pure and holy in the universe. I LOVE pens. I’m rather a pen kleptomaniac and have had to learn not to just snag someone’s writing utensil. With that said, a good pen or pencil is vital to any writer. It also corresponds nicely with the aforementioned notebook.

Computer / Software. I prefer to write on a computer using a standard word processing program. I also utilize a writing program for my novel needs. It rather depends on what I’m doing at that moment. There are many different types of software designed for writers and I have several I have used in the past. I’m currently trying out Scrivener. I’m not sure yet if I like it or not. We’ll see.

The publishing world has stepped into the digital age and truly, even if it’s an older computer. I believe that some sort of computer with a word processing program is a tool that cannot be overlooked.

I know much of this sounds like common sense, but sometimes we, the writers, lose our common sense when crafting our work and also forget to eat… which reminds me. I forgot breakfast again.

What’s Better Than Smart A$$

“Some feel that to court a woman in one’s employ is nothing more than a serpentine effort to transform a lady into a whore.”  ~ Leopold, from “Kate & Leopold” (2001)

In today’s world, it’s so easy to come up with a crass comment or put-down; however, there is something to be said about thinking one’s words through in order to have the most impact. The aforementioned quote from “Kate and Leopold” is a prime example of setting someone in their place without specifically calling someone names or challenging them directly. It’s beautifully written and something to think about next time you wish to utilize the art of “speechfare.”

Related side note: Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman are a perfect casting combination and make for a lovely couple in this movie. Liev Schreiber, who subsequently worked with Jackman in the 2009 movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine – starts off as a cad and becomes completely likeable. This movie has some brilliant cinematography, sharp and snappy writing and Jackman’s charm makes this a romantic comedy worth checking out.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

Each generation wants new symbols, new people, new names. They want to divorce themselves from their predecessors.
Jim Morrison
 


A rose by any other name may still smell as sweet, but we call it a rose.
We spell it “r-o-s-e.”

This leads me to one of my biggest pet peeves that really shouldn’t be, but is.

Names.

Recently in the news, not that she is newsworthy, but that aside, Kim Kardashian and her spousal unit decided to name their unsuspecting child “North.” Seriously? That poor child is going to grow up with all sorts of complexes as it is and you have just laden it with the mother of them all – a crappy name.

One might think that I would be appalled because Frank Zappa named his kids Moon Unit or Dweezil. Not really. One would expect something like that from the outrageously creative Zappa. Jane or Harry would have been totally out of character for him.  But naming a child “North West” opens the doors to many, many years of childhood jokes that no amount of money can buy your way out of. (Let’s just start with “The Wicked Witch of the North West” and work our way from there…)

But North isn’t the only baby name that I find incredibly bad.  “Cricket” makes my top ten list as well as Rainbow Aurora, Blue Ivy, Kal-El Cage (Superman jokes anyone?), Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf Lee, Moxie Crimefighter Jillette (That’s Penn Jillette’s son. I swear I hope he becomes a cop.) There’s also kids named, Sailor and Seven and Daisy Boo.  One I find strangely cute, Apple – Gwen Paltrow’s daughter, and I hesitate putting it on the list. There are others of course, but North is pretty freakin’ horrible. 

But beyond that phenomena, is the “creative spelling” of names that drives me “Banzai Bat Crap Crazy.” I deal with a lot of people on a daily basis and the older I get, the weirder names and spellings have become. I don’t know why parents have to do this. Is it because they think it’s “cute”, “creative” or “original?” Is it because they want to be different? I don’t rightly know.  Poor “Maddisyn” (actual spelling of a kid’s name I saw in a local yearbook) hasn’t got a prayer of ANYONE ever spelling her name correctly … EVER. And take it from me, I have a fairly “normal” if not quite so common name and few people have a clue how to spell correctly, if at all. 

There is a scene in the book by Billie Letts, “Where the Heart Is” which was also made into a movie. (Excellent by the way…) There is discussion about the main character, Novalee, naming her child. She’s given the advice to name her child a good, sturdy name – a name that means something.  

I stand by that philosophy and I’m sure plenty of people will be ticked when they read this. When you name a child, their name SHOULD stand for something. It should hold it’s ground and be the pillar for that child. A name like “North” doesn’t do that. It’s shaky and opens the child to ridicule which is unnecessary. I’m not saying you have to go all 1950’s names, but really, at the end of the day, why do we want to set our kids up for misery?