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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Desperate Situations: WL 366 (#16)

Lesson 16: Put your characters in desperate situations right away.

If you read my last lesson "In Medias Res" you might be wondering how to jump into your story right in the middle of the action. It's simple: put your characters in desperate situations right away.

You can work in description as the situation unfolds, but readers stick with active scenes where characters struggle for something. Giving your reader a desperate situation to follow right away is an instant character-reader bonding technique.

Knowing that Suzie wears her blond hair in braids and blue is her favorite color hair bow isn't going to make your reader feel anything or want a deeper connection to Suzie. Giving Suzie a plight your reader can empathize with--that's the voodoo mind-capturing stuff great writers are known for.

Once you've captured us, then feel free to tell us Suzie likes blue hair bows (if you must, and if and only if it adds to your story in some way--that's a whole other post I'll share later).

Bova ( rough character drawing)
In my current fantasy novel, the first paragraph begins with Bova, a berry picker, frozen in place as a poisonous serpent curls up his leg. Bova's situation becomes more desperate as the chapter continues, and through it all description is peppered in--Bova's winged ears clapping against the side of his leathery head, for example, as he shivers. This description clearly a reaction to his situation, which makes it a logical and visual part of the story rather than an unnecessary detail.

And unnecessary details can bore your reader and take their focus off your character's desperate situation. 

Tell us about one of your stories where your character is thrown into a desperate situation on page one.

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Medias Res: WL 366 (#15)

Lesson 15: Start your story in the middle of the action.

In the literary world the Latin phrase in medias res is often used. It's translated into the middle of things, and it's a very powerful tool in the hands of a talented writer.

In it's simplest form, in medias res means to start your story in the middle of the action. In other words, don't start your story at the beginning with lengthy exposition setting the scene, describing your characters, filling in the backstory, and other telling narrative. Start where you're most likely to hook your reader--with some action.

Scene, character description, and backstory is important, but all of this can be worked in gradually and creatively in small doses rather than in one massive injection.

Most people today are not patient readers. They don't savor the words and relish the beauty of the language like they did before our society became so rushed. They bore easily, and a bored reader stops reading and tells everyone on Amazon what a great doorstop your book makes, and because of its solid binding, they were feeling generous enough to give you one-star.

If your material is written for literary academics, which there are an extremely small number of compared to the rest of the reading world, this won't apply to you. But if you are writing for a mass audience (and I hope you are thinking internationally as you write--you don't want to limit your book's market), consider starting your story in medias res.

Do you prefer books that jump right into the midst of the story, or do you prefer some lead-in?

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Your Process Must Be 'Your' Process: WL 366 (#14)

Lesson 14: Your writing process must be your writing process if it's going to work for you.

Yesterday, I shared how important it is to develop a writing process. Today, you need to know that your writing process must be your writing process if you want to be successful at this writing game.

I do not believe there is a single book, mentor, instructor, or writer out there that can teach you the perfect process. Each writer will have her own individual writing process--it's never wrong as long as it works for you. I'd love to hear about your process. Here's mine for novel writing (my screenwriting process varies, but it's similar):

A sample of draft-two revisions in my novel

Step 1: Idea generation / note taking - If you're like me, you probably play with ideas and take notes for a while before you actually start writing. My idea for my Cornelius book series came to my mind around February. I didn't start writing the book until July.

Step 2: Write draft one - This is my brain dump. I write it fast and furious. I don't worry about style, grammar, punctuation, or technique. My goal is to get the story out of my brain and into my computer's brain. Oh, and editing in any form is forbidden.

Step 3: Write character biographies / outline if necessary - Yes, you've read this right. I don't write my character biographies until after my first draft is written. I don't do outlines unless I need it to work through a difficult section. My first draft tells me where my story is going and who is going to be in it. An outline is too structured for me in novel writing, however, I have to do a very detailed outline in screenwriting (before writing the first draft).

Step 4: Write draft two (draft-one revisions)- This is where I sculpt the true shape of my story. I add in the character personality enhancements based off the profiles I wrote in step 3. I delete scenes that don't work, and I add scenes where they're needed. I shift it all around until the puzzle fits together nicely.

Step 5: Write draft three (draft-two revisions) - This is where I add my style and flavor, enhance conflict, strengthen plot lines. This is also the draft where I make my characters shine by taking their personality enhancements in step 4 and making them larger than life.

Step 6: Write draft four, five, . . . and the final - This is where I polish it. I review grammar and punctuation, and I fiddle around with it--nip it, tuck it, puff it up--until I like it.  

Tell us about your writing process.

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Develop a Writing Process: WL 366 (#13)

Lesson 13: Develop a writing process.

The best way to develop a writing process is to write, and write a lot. It takes time for the rough, blurry edges of your process to sharpen into full focus.

To complicate things further, the process for a short piece will be different than it is for a long piece. Fiction and nonfiction will vary. Writing a screenplay will follow a completely different process than writing a how-to article.

I wrote dozens of articles, short stories, and poems and three novels (Okay, we're being honest here, right? Make that three partial novels.) without a strong, sharp process. It wasn't until I wrote my first screenplay with a writing partner that I discovered the beauty of a focused process.

Screenplay writing is heavily structured and formal. It reminds me of sentence diagramming but on a much larger scale--everything has its place. What you write is wholly and creatively yours, but where you write it and how you express it is wholly defined by the industry-standard screenplay format.

When you write a screenplay with a writing partner, you have to have a process that focuses you both. When we finished our screenplay and I started writing my fourth novel, I was fascinated to discover that the majority of the screenplay process translated nicely to novel writing. And it must work because we finished our screenplay in just a little over four months, and I finished the first draft of my novel in two and a half months. I'm currently on draft three, and on schedule to complete it by the end of the year so I can start agent shopping in January--I started writing my first draft in July.

There's a reason I didn't finish the first three novels--I didn't have a process. Having a process focuses me...and my writing projects. 

Do you have a writing process?  

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson, which will include my writing process.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Join a Writers' Group: WL 366 (#12)

Living Writers Collective - Fall Feast 2011
Lesson 12: Join a writers' group and attend regularly.

A good writers' group will support your writing addiction. They won't try to hold interventions like all those outsiders (non-writers) who think you've somehow fried your brain with all this writing nonsense. 

A good writers' group will encourage your writing strengths while providing helpful critiques of your writing weaknesses.

A good writers' group will grumble when you grumble, fret when you fret, and curse when you curse over that undeserved rejection letter, and the one before it, and the one before that one, . . .

A good writers' group will rejoice, do the chest bump, and dance a little jig with you when you sell a piece, finish your novel, land a writing gig, or get accepted into your dream MFA program. Of course, they'll be green and seething on the inside, and they'll probably go home and kill off the character they named after you, but then they'll happily raise a glass, or ten, to your success.

A good writers' group sees your manic depression and raises you a pseudo-schizophrenia and a bimonthly acute anxiety attack, which usually coincides with the enhanced conflict scenes in each writer's WIP.

A good writers' group will inspire you, motivate you, educate you . . . fuel your writing engine, churn your writing desires, feed your writing passion.

A good writers' group is filled with people who will become some of your coolest and closest friends.

A good writers' group will give you a place to escape the real world and feel normal for a while.

This is my good--no, amazing--writers' group. Do you have one?

Living Writers Collective - Fall Feast 2011 (being our crazy writer selves) 

LWC - Fall Feast 2010 (being our crazy writer selves)
Visit for more information about Living Writers Collective.

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Fast and Furious First Draft: WL 366 (#11)

Lesson 11: Use a fast and furious approach when writing your first draft.

When you think of writing your first draft, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Is it something akin to the angelic choirs of heaven drawing you into paradise, or is it more like the demonic headbangers of hell dragging you over shards of glass as you struggle to breathe life into every word?

Most writers have an extreme like or an extreme dislike for this part of the writing process. There's rarely an in-between.

The first draft has more power over you than any other draft. Its completion clears the road for your success. It's lack of completion--that first draft that you've been on-again, off-again working on for the last ten years--well, please don't hate me, but that's a big fat fail. If you've been working on the thing for ten years, then chances are you aren't in love with your story. Finish it, or break up with it and move on.

Creating something from nothing is hard work, and that's what draft one is all about; creating a story and characters where none existed before. For me, that's the hard part. It's the place where I'm most likely to fail if I don't shift it into high gear and force the pedal to the floor.

Once I reach the first-draft finish line, I program my GPS, shift it into low gear, and set the cruise at a steady but comfortable speed. My destination now certain.

I love love love--no, lust lust lust--the revision process. Draft two, draft three, draft four--the mere mention of them is like a hot, sexy kiss that makes my toes curl. I'll share more about revision drafts in a later post--and maybe even hot, sexy kisses if I'm in the mood.

So, here's the key to the first draft: write it fast and write it furious. Don't analyze it. It's your brain dump, just get it out of your head and onto your paper. You can clean it all up and shift all the puzzle pieces around once the framework is done.

Write untamed. Write with abandon. Write uninhibited. Write rebelliously. Write uncensored. Write as if every crazy idea you have is completely plausible. No one is going to see your first draft but you, so remove every filter and race to the finish line.

Because once you reach the first-draft finish line, a victorious future awaits.

Every writer should have their own first-draft finish-line goal. If I write three hours per day, I should be able to complete the first draft of a three hundred-page manuscript in three months or less (my first-draft theory of threes). What's your finish-line goal? 

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Create a Friendly Writing Space: WL 366 (#10)

Lesson 10: Create a friendly writing space.

There are two things you are going to want (notice I didn't say need) when you decide to get serious about writing. One is a dedicated workspace. The other is a clean, clutter-free workspace.

Why can't I just park it anywhere--like at the folding table in the laundry room with twenty years of dusty newspapers stacked next to it and the kitty litter box underneath?

You certainly can write above the kitty litter box if you don't mind getting soiled sand between your toes, but if you have the ability to do so, find a place to write where you can't be distracted.

Don't get me wrong. When I'm in the writing zone, nothing distracts me. Sometimes, though, it's hard to get in that zone, and if my office is unappealing or cluttered or dirty, there's only one thing on my mind: no wonder I can't focus on my story, look how ugly, disorganized, and gross my work space is. Why risk hindering your creative thought processes over an unfriendly work space?

Additionally, you need to make sure your work space fits your needs.

When I first decided to get serious about writing, writing on my laptop in bed wasn't going to work anymore (I actually charged my laptop on an ironing board next to my bed). So I cleared a corner of the guest room, bought a tiny desk and bookshelf, and called it my office. It worked fine for a few years. It was crowded, but it was clean.

Then last December when I got a screenwriting partner and we planned our first big project, my tiny corner wasn't big enough. Screenwriting takes a lot of space with scene boards and picture boards--you need to be able to spread out. I had to take over an entire room that would fit both of us and all of our stuff.

I still have my tiny desk because I've grown attached to it, and it fits nicely in the corner. Besides, if I had a bigger desk, it would just be more work surface to clutter and gather dust.

It's important to understand that you should never let anything defeat your writing dream. If the laundry room table with the kitty litter box beneath it is all you have, don't let that deter you. Great writers have written masterpieces in much worse conditions.

Tell us about your writing space. Does it look more like the good? . . .

The not too bad? . . . 

Or the dreadfully horrid?

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Writing and the Lazy Muse: WL 366 (#9)

Lesson 9: Muses are lazy--work without them when necessary.

Here's something you need to know about muses: they are the laziest presences on planet Earth, and they love to take extended vacations. Maybe you're blessed with an energetic, productive muse, but in the real world of writing, hard-working muses are rare.

Of course, before you think I've totally lost it, remember from my last post that your muse is that internal fire that inspires you to write. But here's the problem: inspiration doesn't come easy for a lot of us. I'm lucky if my muse shows up for work on time and fully dedicated to the day's task a couple of times a month.

The serious writer who has made the decision to write every day doesn't have time to sit around and wait on her muse to show up. If he isn't making it to work on time or fully focused, that's his problem. You still have a story to write, whether your inspiration is present or not.

Never become dependent on your muse. 

"A pro is someone who writes whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing." - James Scott Bell (The Art of War for Writers)

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Connect With Your Muse: WL 366 (#8)

Lesson 8: Connect with your muse.

Your muse is the power that inspires you to write. It's an inner fire that burns, flickers, or fades depending on the day. Some writers use a tangible object that represents that fire--that daily feeding of inspiration.

My friend Cece has a troll. Jen has a stuffed devil horse. Alan has a picture of his granddaughter. For Frankie, it's her library card. And Eric has a wooden, featureless man. I don't know the story behind their muses, but I know they mean something to their writers.

For me, it's Grumpy. No, not the bail bond chick. Grumpy the Snow White dwarf. Grumpy tells it to me like it is. If I'm ready to give up and go take a nap after just six hundred words, all I have to do is look at Grumpy, and his face tells me exactly how he feels about that. He doesn't like nonsense, so he keeps me level headed and focused on my writing task. Sure, he can be hard to get along with at times, but a little kiss on his nose softens his demeanor, and then we can work together just fine.

Before you think we're all a bunch of wackos, consider the fact that most writers become deeply attached to their characters, and it's considered completely normal (well, normal within the admittedly eccentric world of writing). If we can become attached to our paper people, why not to a muse-representing object that inspires us to create those characters and the world in which they live? 

Writing is a lonely endeavor. Certainly you can understand why a writer must connect with her muse . . . and occasionally give him a little peck on the nose.

Do you have a muse, tangible or nontangible? Tell us about it.

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Don't Stress When You Can't Write Every Day: Writer's Leap 366 (#7)

Lesson 7: Don't stress when you can't write every day.

There will be times when, despite what I told you in "Write Every Day," you're going to miss a day . . . or two . . . or a week. Don't stress about it. Things happen. Life gets in the way.

The kids are going to want to go to Disney World eventually. Give into some of that guilt you've been feeling over neglecting them since you started all this writing craziness, and go to Disney World. And I speak from experience here, just leave the laptop at home because Disney isn't the kick-back-and-do-some-writing kind of vacation. You'll be lucky to get your shoes off before you collapse into your overpriced hotel room bed each night, much less have the energy to unzip your laptop bag. 

Here's what you don't do when things happen: you never ever give up under the pressure of assumed defeat. You have not been defeated, you've just had a little lapse in your schedule. 

Here's what you do do when things happen--come in real close, you need to hear this: write the next day. And voilĂ , victory is yours.

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Write Every Day: Writer's Leap 366 (#6)

Lesson 6: Write every day.

If I miss a day of writing, it's that much easier to miss another day of writing . . . and another . . . and another. And when I miss even one day, the connection to my story--especially when I'm writing a lengthy project like a screenplay or a novel--becomes static.

When the movement slows, it's harder to get back into the world of my story. I have to review my character biographies to rebond with my characters. I have to skim prior chapters to refresh my memory.

The easiest way to not waste precious writing time and to keep your story real in your mind, is to create a block of writing time every day.

My most productive block of time is in the morning. If I don't get a good chunk of writing done between nine and noon, I'm likely to get no writing done because the day grabs onto me and turns my attention elsewhere. And oftentimes, if I've spent my designated three-hour block writing, I'll continue writing into the afternoon because I have a hard time stopping once I get moving.

Maybe your block of time is from nine to eleven at night. Maybe your life circumstances don't even allow you two hours--maybe it's one hour or maybe only thirty minutes a day. But whatever your circumstances, if you read my last blog post and you've decided to "Get Serious" about writing, your next step should be to dedicate time every day to the craft you love.

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Get Serious: Writer's Leap 366 (#5)

Lesson 5: Get serious about becoming a writer.

Where are you on your writing journey? Just beginning? Is it a hobby? Is it a dream to someday do something more? Are you already published but backslidden?

A little over four years ago, I was a hobby writer who thought nobody but me would ever care to read the stuff came out of my twisted little brain. And to be honest, after four years of "getting serious" writing to compare it to, I think "not good" is a pretty accurate description of my writing back then. Four more years of writing experience and learning will probably provoke me to look back at today's writing and cringe over it's erroneous simplicity (we writers are odd like that).

So how do you know when you're ready to get serious about writing? 

I can tell you how I knew--how I finally faced the inevitable and surrendered.

I realized it was the thing that set me on fire and the thing that cooled me in it's embrace. In the midst of the frenzied excitement of story creation, I'd lose hours of time, or I'd stress in a long drag of hours over story uncertainty. Writing released me at the same time it consumed me. And God was persuading me at the same time the devil was dissuading me.

When these mental dichotomies revealed themselves to me, I knew that no other job in the world would ever be good enough again.

And I knew it was time to get serious about writing.

How about you? Are you ready to get serious about writing or are you already there?

Visit me tomorrow for another Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Scrap Paper Happens: Writer's Leap 366 (Lesson 4)

Lesson 4: Write ideas the moment they come to you. 

If you've done a lot of reading about writing, you've probably come across the advice to always carry a dedicated note pad and a pen so when an idea hits, you're prepared. Well, I don't know about you, writer friends, but I can barely keep track of my kids much less a dedicated note pad and pen. Not to say I haven't tried--I've had at least ten dedicated idea note pads. Most with only a page or two of notes each because at some point I lost them, and the ideas entombed there, and had to start another one.

I do, however, get ideas. And often.

What I've discovered is that in the general routine of daily life, scrap paper just happens: old receipts, envelopes, tissues (preferably not used--though I'm not above it if it's all I have), window flyers, paper towels, toilet paper, church brochures, . . . Heck, I've used my own skin in a bind.

Don't let the ideas go and assume they'll come back. Sometimes they come back, but sometimes they don't, so why take that risk? Keep pens everywhere--in the car, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, next to your bed. Do whatever you have to to get those ideas out of your brain and onto something visible.

But, Karen, you say. Last night my idea note pad was at home (see, this just proves my point about the impossibility of keeping up with the note pad), and I was at Chuck E. Cheese with the kids, and I had just cleaned out my wallet--all that I had was my VISA, my Master Charge, my Discover, and my Shell card. Come on, writer friend! Chuck E. Cheese will let you borrow a pen . . . and he has napkins, or

. . . you have skin.

Visit me tomorrow for the next Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Write Everything: Writer's Leap 366 (Lesson 3)

After my last post, "Start Small, End Big," you might be saying, Shoot, Karen, I'd be happy to start small if I only knew what to write in the first place. Well it's a good thing you stopped by today because I have an answer for you.

Lesson 3: Write everything and anything.

Yes, everything . . . and anything. Are you a stay-at-home mom? Write about it. Are you a stay-at-home mom who likes to make your own soap? Write about both of those things. Are you a stay-at-home mom who likes to make your own soap and sell it at your neighborhood swingers' club (and I'm not talking playground swings here)? Write about all three of these things--though you might want to write about the neighborhood swingers' club under a pseudonym or risk losing your cub scout den-leader mom status.

Then pick up a current Writers Market Guide and search for publications that print what you write. I guarantee you there's a market for every topic I listed above and countless more. If you're good at it (cleaning toilets, selling used books online, changing brake pads, getting your children to do their homework, . . .), there's a market for it.

Maybe you're good at being imaginative and you want to write short fiction. What would make a better short story than a stay-at-home, cub scout den mom who makes soap and sells it at her neighborhood swingers' club? 

So, write it all, and start submitting.

Visit me tomorrow for the next Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Start Small, End Big: Writer's Leap 366 (Lesson 2)

Lesson 2: Start with small writing projects and build up to the big stuff.

McDonald's didn't start out as the world's largest chain of hamburger fast food restaurants. None of us learned algebra before we learned addition and multiplication. Babies aren't born walking. The United States of America wasn't built in a day.

And your first writing project shouldn't be a novel, screenplay, or other large writing endeavor.

Start with the small stuff--short stories, articles, journal writing, newsletters, essays, or even blogging. Build your writing skills by practicing on the smaller projects. Notice I didn't say the easier projects; smaller doesn't necessarily mean easier. Smaller projects just tend to be more manageable as you're learning.

Once you've mastered smaller pieces of writing, then write that next great novel.

Visit me tomorrow for your next Writer's Leap 366 lesson.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Your Daily Writing Bread: Writer's Leap 366 (Lesson 1)

It seems fitting to start my new series, Writer's Leap 366, with one of the two most important things I've learned about writing in the past four years. I'll unveil the second in lesson 366. Yes, you really have to wait until October 31, 2012 to find out what it is. How's that for a cliffhanging hook (we'll learn more about hooks in later lessons)?

Lesson 1: Learn something new about writing every day.

A writer needs the knowledge of writing like they need bread or water or shelter. If you neglect the daily feeding of your writing brain, or if you think you've already gorged yourself and mastered all there is to know about writing, you'll starve yourself of essential writing nutrients. And like the body feeds off it's own fat and muscle when it's starving, the old writing muscles--the result of things you learned in the past--will be consumed until there is nothing left when you are in the midst of a learning famine.

Maybe the something new you learn is a review of something old. That's okay, too. Reinforcement is a powerful learning tool and a necessity in the writer's diet.

How do I learn something new about writing every day?

1. Read this blog over the next 366 days. Some of it will be reinforcement--pumping up the old writing muscles, but I hope you'll find a few new bread crumbs to nibble on while you're here.

2. The Internet is a great source. Find reputable blogs by agents, authors, or publishers, and devour them often.

3. Check out books on writing at your local library, and take a few bites of their contents each day. Okay, not real bites or the librarian will look at you funny and fine you when you return the book.

4. Go to writers' workshops or conferences, take notes, then digest the material a little at a time.

5. Join a writers' group. If you're in the Middle Tennessee area, Living Writers Collective is a great option. It's free, and it's run by yours truly and an awesome committee of dedicated members. And we love to eat--I mean really eat. Click on the link above to learn more about us.

6. And if you still hunger for more, consider enrolling in a writing education program. You can find most any to fit your needs, and most offer learn-at-home options--from a beginner course all the way to the MFA low-residency programs.

Visit me tomorrow for your next Writer's Leap 366 lesson.