Friday, May 28, 2010

The Perils of Sing-Song Names

I couldn't resist this lesson in choosing character names. I'm serious here. Really. Use care when naming the folks who populate your stories or your masterpiece may become just a bad joke . . .


A Shaggy Frog story.


A frog goes into a bank and
approaches the teller. He
can see from her nameplate
that her name is Patricia
Whack.

"Miss Whack, I'd like to get
a $30,000 loan to take a
holiday."

Patty looks at the frog in
disbelief and asks his name.
The frog says his name is
Kermit Jagger, his dad is
Mick Jagger, and that it's
okay, he knows the bank
manager.

Patty explains that he will
need to secure the loan with
some collateral.

The frog says, "Sure. I have
this," and produces a tiny
porcelain elephant, about an
inch tall, bright pink and
perfectly formed.

Very confused, Patty explains
that she'll have to consult
with the bank manager and
disappears into a back office.

She finds the manager and
says, "There's a frog called
Kermit Jagger out there who
claims to know you and wants
to borrow $30,000, and he
wants to use this as
collateral."

She holds up the tiny pink
elephant. "I mean, what in
the world is this?"

The bank manager looks back
at her and says:

"It's a knickknack,
Patty Whack.
Give the frog a loan,
His old man's a Rolling Stone."


(You're singing it, aren't you?
Yeah, I know you are..)
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Choice And The Writer

I remember hearing a routine once from comedian Howie Mandel where he talked about driving along on an Interstate highway. His bit was about how he related to the traffic around him. He noted that everyone who drove faster than him was a maniac while everyone who drove slower than him was a 'grandpa.' That's silly and yet completely understandable, isn't it?

How boring it would be to live in a world where everyone thought and acted and behaved exactly like us, and yet we have this innate amazement that anyone behaves in any way different than we do.

I'm endlessly fascinated by the differences between people. I think I allow for it more than most because I'm so aware of it, and yet even I fall prey to this very behavior even knowing how strange the impulse is.

The same holds true for writers and how they choose to think and process and react and operate. A recent blog post by SF author Nancy Kress talks about a book by Barry Schwartz entitled THE PARADOX OF CHOICE in which he makes an interesting case: (1)Americans rate ourselves as being less happy than we were in the past, and are less happy than many other cultures. (2)Americans have far more choices available to us now than we did in the past. He looks at the number and variety of choices available to us versus our ultimate satisfaction with the choices we actually make. But getting back to my initial statement, people are different, and we don't all react the same way in this examination of choices and subsequent satisfaction.

Scwartz divides people into two broad groups, which he calls "maximizers" and "sufficers." The former are the people who want the best choice possible. They research, they shop around a lot, they continue looking even after they find something that meets their criteria. After all, there might be something better out there somewhere! These people often end up with better "goods" than most people, but less happiness with those choices. They regret, they experience "buyer's remorse," they think about the road not taken.

The "sufficers," on the other hand, just want something "good enough." They shop around less than maximizers. When they find something that meets their broad criteria, they choose it, commit to it, and don't think any more about the other possibilities. Although this group may end up with goods objectively not as snazzy as the first group's, and although they still can become stressed by the process of choosing, on the whole they are happier than maximizers.

As I read all this, the application of it to writing fiction came to mind. I have had "maximizer" students, who agonize over every word choice in their manuscripts, endlessly revise, and are not happy with the finished story, even if they sell it. They compare their careers to others (a classic maximizer trait), and are frustrated or disappointed. These people don't seem to enjoy writing very much. Meanwhile, other students of mine, although willing to work hard and revise as necessary, can sense when a story is "good enough." They can accept with equanimity that they will never be Tolstoy. These people seem to enjoy writing more and, I've noticed, they publish more, too.


image by pareeerica, http://www.flickr.com/photos/8078381@N03/

Reading the post and working through those thoughts in my head, I have questions. As a writer, are you a maximizer or a sufficer? Is that hard-coded into you, or is it something that can change? And is that change something that can only happen to us, or is it something we can affect ourselves? Having read this and thought about it, will that knowledge change anything? If you know you have maximizer tendencies, will you make an effort to change? If so, why? If not, why not?

These are the things I think about sometimes, although only as long as it is pleasurable to do so. At some point in time, I realize that not knowing everything about everything will have to suffice.

And I'm ok with that. ;)
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Friday, May 21, 2010

Fabulously Fun Friday: Mentoring Younger Writers


Today's moment of writing whimsy and wisdom is from the fabulous AdviceToWriters blog, whose tagline is WRITERLY WISDOM OF THE AGES / Collected by Jon Winokur


Then it was four o'clock, or nearly; it was time for Eliot to conclude our interview, and take tea with his colleagues. He stood up, slowly enough to give me time to stand upright before he did, granting me the face of knowing when to leave. When this tall, pale, dark-suited figure struggled successfully to its feet, and I had leapt to mine, we lingered a moment in the doorway, while I sputtered ponderous thanks, and he nodded smiling to acknowledge them. Then Eliot appeared to search for the right phrase with which to send me off. He looked at me in the eyes, and set off into a slow, meandering sentence. "Let me see, said T. S. Eliot, "forty years ago I went from Harvard to Oxford. Now you are going from Harvard to Oxford. What advice can I give you?" He paused delicately, shrewdly, while I waited with greed for the words which I would repeat for the rest of my life, the advice from elder to younger, setting me on the road of emulation. When he had ticked off the comedian's exact milli­seconds of pause, he said, "Have you any long underwear?"

DONALD HALL
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pacing Emotion

The man’s chest was not moving; he was not breathing. Nick leaned over him, the pistol now dangling in his left hand by his side. He placed his right forefinger on the man’s throat and felt no pulse. This was no surprise; the staring eyes had already announced that the maniac lay dead.

He’s dead, Nick thought. I’ve killed him.

He was suffused with terror. I killed this guy. Another voice in his head began to plead, defensive and frightened as a little boy.

I had to. I had no choice. I had no . . . choice.

I had to stop him.

Maybe he’s just unconscious, Nick thought desperately. He felt the man’s throat again, couldn’t find the pulse. He grabbed one of the man’s rough, dry hands, pressed against the inside of his wrist, felt nothing.

He let go of the hand. It dropped to the ground.

He poked again at the man’s chest with his toes, but he knew the truth.

The man was dead.

The crazy man, this stalker, this man who would’ve dismembered my children the way he butchered my dog, lay dead on the freshly seeded lawn, surrounded by tiny sprouts of grass that poked out sparsely from the moist black earth.

Oh, Jesus God, Nick thought. I’ve just killed a man.

He stood up but felt his knees give way. He sank to the ground, felt tears running down his cheeks. Tears of relief? Of terror? Not, certainly not, of despair or sadness.

Oh, please, Jesus, he thought. What do I do now?

What do I do now?


(Company Man, Joseph Finder, St. Martin's Press, 2005. Reprinted with the author’s permission.)

You’ve heard of giving a fast pace to your high action scenes by using shorter sentences and words. This isn’t a high action passage. The action occurred in the pages before, in Nick’s heart-thumping account of discovering an intruder. Of trying to make the intruder stop his advance, to make him leave Nick’s home where his children slept. Of the bullet that hit it’s mark, and the subsequent rise of the downed enemy. And of the last shot that put the enemy down permanently.

But this scene is raw emotion, adrenalin giving way to stunned panic, and it’s illustrated the same way–short, choppy sentences, short words, lots of white space on the page. The entire structure of this excerpt shows the main character’s inner turmoil.

Notice the first paragraph. Each of the sentences are longer. Finder even uses the supposedly taboo semicolon to avoid a choppy sentence structure. This paragraph comes immediately after Nick realizes the bad guy isn’t going to get up again, and it illustrates that instant of lucidity before the stronger emotions set in.

From the moment Nick realizes he killed a man, the pace changes. Finder uses a couple of “telling” sentences to mark the shift from lucidity to panic. In the paragraph beginning, “Maybe he’s just unconscious,” Finder installs two complex sentences and omits the conjunction. “He felt the man’s throat again, couldn’t find the pulse. He grabbed one of the man’s rough, dry hands, pressed against the inside of his wrist, felt nothing.”

There are no italics, no quotes around Nick’s internal thoughts, nothing to distract the reader from the progression of emotion Nick is experiencing. Just the progression itself is illustrated: from stunned to defensive to disbelieving to self-justification to pleading with God. This is another wonderful lesson from this passage. Not only can you pace the writing to show emotion, you can pace the emotions themselves from bad to worse. Draw them out, intensify them. The pace of the scene, combined with the progression of emotion, produces the page-turning tension that is the goal of every writer.

A critical eye on the excerpt can find violations of conventional writing wisdom in the text. As I typed it from the book to this page, I found seven such violations that I didn’t see when I first read the scene. Unlike other books I’ve read, Company Man kept me so engrossed that I wasn’t distracted by little things the “powers that be” consider rule-breaking. I have no doubt Joseph Finder knows the rules, but more than that, he knows the craft. And because he does, Company Man was a New York Times best seller.
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Interview With ChristianWriters.com Founder K. Rebecca Taylor

Three years ago, in a random search on Google, I stumbled across the writing forum ChristianWriters. It was one of the most fortuitous discoveries I’ve ever made. The site is the stomping grounds of one of the friendliest, most helpful, and just all around fun bunch of writers on the web. Featuring critique-trading workshops, an atmosphere designed to help writers sharpen each other’s skills without devolving into destructive flame wars, and a writing showcase, the site is an ever-growing destination for newbies and experienced authors alike. Working behind the scenes to keep things running is author and web designer K. Rebecca Taylor, who took a few minutes from her jammed schedule to discuss the site and explain her journey with it:

AC: Tell us a bit about ChristianWriters.com. What is the site designed to do?

KRT: ChristianWriters.com is designed to provide writers with the resources and encouragement they need for a successful writing career.

AC: What’s the story behind ChristianWriters’ origins? When did you start it?

KRT: I became a Christian in the late 90s, and had a great desire to find other people who shared both my faith and interest in writing. Many of the secular writing sites were hostile to any expression or discussion of faith, and to my knowledge no sites for Christian writers existed. I felt led to create a spot on the web for writers of faith and launched the first version of ChristianWriters.com in late 1999.

AC: What’s your background as a writer? As a web designer?

KRT: I have fourteen years professional experience as a webmaster and web designer and am currently a contractor employed as the Sr. Webmaster for a government agency. I’ve also done many years of freelance work and enjoy running sites such as CW for a hobby.

Although I occasionally construct web content or articles for clients, most of my writing is for pleasure. I really enjoy the process of creating characters and throwing them into a situation to see how they react. I’m sure this sounds nutty to anyone who doesn’t write fiction, but many times the characters seem to take on a life of their own. There’s a great excitement when you hit that spot where the characters “take over” and begin to tell you their story. Many times, I’m as surprised by the outcome as the people reading the story later!

AC: What are your future plans for the site?

KRT: Future plans are to continue expanding CW and adding useful features. Currently, we’re working behind the scenes to improve the showcase feature and turn it into a full-fledged article and story sub-site of CW. This should bring in a greater audience for our writers and help to market their work and expand their fan base.

We’re working to expand CW’s utilization of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Also in the works is a section for writer markets and/or guidelines for publications. This has been discussed for a while, but is taking quite a bit of time to implement.

As always, if anyone has a suggestion for a new feature or improvement I’d love to hear about it! Please feel free to post in the Suggestion Box section of the support forum at CW.

AC: What other web projects do you have under way or plans to get started?

KRT: My husband and I are currently working on a site called Inkspire.me, which will be a sister site to CW. Inkspire.me will offer many of the same features and services as CW, but is geared toward the secular marketplace and will also offer features for artists.

We believe the upcoming Inkspire.me site will be a great asset to many CW members who write for both the Christian and secular markets. If anyone is interested in the upcoming site, please feel free to sign up. The site is under construction, but feel free to poke around and check out the features!

AC: What do you feel has been the high point of the site’s existence? Low point?

KRT: I think every site has its ebb and flow, but overall the development of CW has remained pretty consistent.

AC: What kind of people do you hope will benefit from the site?

KRT: The ChristianWriters.com site is geared toward discussion of writing and of the Christian faith, but anyone is welcome to join in. As the showcase develops, it’ll be great to see more readers flock to the site to support our writers and their work. With the introduction of the writer markets, I also look forward to seeing more publishers and content providers frequenting the site.

AC: Any words of advice for those who would like to join up?

KRT: My advice is to just jump in and have fun! Be sure to introduce yourself in the Open Forum by starting a Meets & Greets thread so we can give you a proper welcome. If you have any questions, post them in our support forum and we’ll be happy to help.

We look forward to seeing you there!
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Friday, May 14, 2010

Fabulously Fun Friday: Funny Instructions

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

AC's Anniversary is Almost Here!

AuthorCulture's first anniversary is May 31! About this time last year, I invited Katie and Lynnette to join me in this venture, then did a series of cartwheels around the house when they agreed. We bounced ideas all over cyberspace and held meetings in the Christianwriters.com chat room where we each typed so furiously, it's a wonder we knew what was going on at all. It was the equivalent of everyone talking at once, but it worked.

We came up with some pretty good ideas, and judging from how quickly we've grown, our readers seem to think so too. If I had my way, I'd give a $25 gift certificate to each our 281 readers (as of this date). But since I'm not related to Donald Trump or anyone else in the Fortune 500, we'll have to settle for a drawing. Keep an eye out for May 31 to see if you're the lucky winner of a B&N gift certificate!

We've been running a survey, too, looking for ways we can improve our site. Out of all our readers, we have only thirteen responses. These thirteen folks really love our writing tips (92.3% consider them to be their absolute favorite). Most of them (63.7%) aren't too crazy about the writing contests, so we won't be having them anymore. Also, about 63.6% of them put guest posts on the bottom of their lists, so we won't have quite as many of them.

Of course, if you don't agree with how this tiny group responded, you can fill out the survey yourself! It only takes a few seconds and is open until May 28th.

You, our readers, are valuable to us. I wish there were a better way to show our appreciation, but just know that Johne, Lynnette, Katie and I feel truly blessed that you take time to read our posts and leave comments.

Thank you!
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Monday, May 10, 2010

End Reader Rubber-Necking

You want to write a serious drama. You want your readers’ hearts to twist over your character’s plight. You describe the catastrophe, the conflict, the heartbreaking situation with words guaranteed to bring tears to your readers’ eyes and torment to their souls, and you believe you’ve got them hooked, right?

Nope.

At most, your readers will engage in a bit of morbid rubber-necking as they drive past the scene.

How do you get them to stay, to jump out of their cars and become involved? By giving them a reason to care about the victims. There are as many ways to do that as there writers with active imaginations.

Recently I read a contest entry where the author used a touch of humor to bring us closer to the characters. Her main characters, a husband and wife, are suspended in the dark, on the eve of discovering whether their baby will be born with defects. The novel’s opening tone is somber, but the husband quickly tosses out a lame joke, a stab at levity. Of course, it falls flat where the wife is concerned, but his feeble attempt to cheer her and distract her from her heartache endears him to the reader. All it took was a couple of lines in the second paragraph on the first page.

In the opening pages of the non-fiction piece, Chosen by a Horse, author Susan Richards tells the reader what the dramatic issue is and why she is the wrong person to handle it. Several abused and neglected horses have been rescued from a nearby farm, and although she is emotionally incapable of handling illness and injury, she is there to help save one. Her immediate admission of her weakness, and how that weakness conflicts with the problem at hand, makes her sympathetic and snags the reader into the story.

The most elaborate scheme for gaining character sympathy I’ve ever seen is in the mystery Red Leaves, by Thomas Cook. The entire first chapter is written in a curious form of second person–not where “you” is literal, but rhetorical, similar to a parent’s lament, “You try and you try to teach ’em right from wrong, and look what happens!”

The main character, Eric, delivers a basic backstory information dump, making “you” intimately involved in all aspects of his life:
When you remember those times, they return to you in a series of photographs. You see Meredith on the day you married her. You are standing outside the courthouse on a bright spring day. She is wearing a white dress and she stands beside you with her hand in your arm. You gaze at each other rather than the camera. Your eyes sparkle and the air around you is dancing.

Although Eric describes some of the happiest times of his life, the overall tone of the first chapter brings to mind a man jamming his fingers through his hair and wondering when it all went bad, what went wrong–a man whose dazed mind is plagued with more questions than answers. By the end of the chapter, the reader is not only intimately involved, but longs to know the answers as much as Eric does.

You can pick just about any disaster film and see that the opening scenes are snippets of the soon-to-be victims' personal lives. Quick scenes intended to wrap the viewer with concern for the characters before the flood drowns the village or the asteroid destroys the country or the monster ants carry revelers away. The principle is the same: before your reader can care what tragedy your character faces, he must care about your character.

Put a stop to the drive-bys. Make your reader want to get out of the car and render aid to characters he's come to care for. Make him want to see the end results of their tragedies.

Put an end to rubber-necking!
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Friday, May 7, 2010

What's the Same About Legos and Writing?

Words are a lot like Legos. You can make anything out of them. And the cool thing is, the meaning is all in the arrangement. Take the same set of words and rearrange them and you have a totally different meaning or tone.


I love writing! (And I kinda like Legos too. :))







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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Review of The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Despite the slew of “rules” that can sometimes clutter a writer’s mind, the craft of writing is actually a rather hazy territory, in which most writers are guided more by instinct than any solid formula for writing the “perfect story.” In fact, most formulas claiming to be no-fail guides to fiction often produce lusterless, cookie-cutter stories that are robbed of all originality and personality. At first glance, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller may appear to be another formulaic dissertation that breaks story down into stereotypical pieces. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

This marvelously insightful book takes a look far beyond even the dissertations of successful techniques offered in most helpful books on the craft. It dives below the various parts of the story (character, plot, dialogue, etc.) to look at the foundation itself. What makes a good story? What particular arrangement of story components guarantees success, no matter your genre? The answers are surprising, accessible, and entirely brilliant.

Truby, one of the most sought-after story consultants in the film industry, strips dozens of excellent books and movies down to the bare bones to show his readers how to build a powerful story from the ground up. His discussions include selecting a promising premise, fleshing out the “seven key steps of structure,” designing characters who can fulfill strong and memorable thematic arcs, using setting and symbols to back up your story’s message, and, most particularly, how to construct your plot to maintain the perfect rhythm.

Truby tackles a weighty, complicated subject and condenses it to a step-by-step creative process that all writers can follow. This is a book that belongs, not on your bookshelf, but on your desk, within easy reach, so you can refer to its wealth of information over and over again. Five out of five stars.
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Monday, May 3, 2010

Passive Marketing


This is going to sound strange, but stick with me. Passive marketing can respect the people you come in contact with without forever directing the conversation to your new book (while directing people to your new book).

There's nothing worse than being spammed by an author with a new book, but there's nothing worse than having a new project and not being able to get the word out. There has to be a happy medium. Happily, I think there is. Let's say you've published a new book and have already gone through your initial wave of marketing. You've put yourself out there, now provide three simple ways for the curious to turn around and easily, painlessly learn more about you.

Here are three tips from prolific author Regina Paul that I'll use to develop my point:

  • Create a presence on the Web. There are many ways to do this, but having your own website to promote your writing is the best way. There are lots of places that have free webpages, but Bravenet has everything you could ever want (webjournals, tell-a-friend service, guestbook, and mailing lists to name a few) and this includes free hosting.

  • Be a regular on message boards, answer newbie’s questions, and don’t forget to add your signature with your website address. The important thing to remember here is to pop in on a regular basis, otherwise it looks like the only reason you’re there is advertise, and participants won’t take you seriously.

  • Speaking of signature lines, create one and add it to all of your emails. This is one of my favorite freebies. People do read signature lines and I have actually ordered books because I found them via the signature line.


Having a website, even a simple, clean blog, gives people to go to find out more about you and your works.

I'm a regular on a select couple forums message board. I post links to writing or culture-related articles to help my peers and give myself a place to go back and search when I go looking for something I've posted in the past, a one-stop history of such articles. It's a way to help others and serve as a resource for myself later down the road.

There's one thing to keep in mind when creating signature lines in your e-mails or forum's signature block—keep it clean and simple. I'm not a fan of signature lines with pictures, animation, or that are loaded with bloat. However, two or three simple lines can do wonders if you simply list your website, your social media names (Facebook or Twitter), and a link to your latest book. Then, as you go about your daily life online and interact with people, you provide the curious a passive resource for discovering more about you and your work without beating them over the head with incessant announcements or outright spam.

Creating a place on the web, becoming active in message boards and forums, and giving people a place to go learn more about you and your latest works is an active way to excel at passive marketing, providing people with simple, effective ways to track you down and learn about your latest works.

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