Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sex Wars - What I'm Reading

Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New YorkIt's post-Civil War New York. So what's the first thing you'd think of? A woman President, of course!  Based on the first real-life woman to ever run for the Presidency, this book is a rich tapestry of the Who's-Who of late Victorian NY. First we have Victoria Woodhull, a real life woman who starts out as a spiritualist medium attempting to get in the graces of millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt who is seeking to make contact with his dead son, then becomes the first woman stockbroker and later aspires to the highest post in the land. Through Victoria we meet suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony. as well as orator and statesman Frederick Douglass, Horace Greely and a host of other historical characters.

Contrasting the scheming and glamorous Victoria, we have a second fictional protagonist, Russian Jewish immigrant Freydeh Leibowitz, living in a tenement and who makes her living manufacturing and selling condoms.

Enemy to both, is Anthony Comstock, a moralist crusader who founded the New York Society for the Supression of Vice, and worked to make illegal the delivery or transportation of "obscene, lewd or lascivious" material or anything related to birth control. Playwright George Bernard Shaw worked to make a mockery of him, coining the word "comstockery," as "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality," but at the moment, he's thwarting both Victoria's rise to power and Freydah's livelihood.

Victoria Woodhull
Rich in history, intrigue, politics and betrayal, Sex Wars by Marge Piercy is brilliantly researched (Did you know that a married woman couldn't sign legal documents?) brutally honest and seething with sensuality as Freydah and Victoria battle the gender wars of their time.

Go Somewhere Strange - Keep Your Story Going

One of the tricks I like to use when I get blocked on my writing is to throw in an oddball location. The more incongruous to my story so far, the better.

So make a list - where's the last place you'd expect your characters to show up? Here are a few ideas:

The circus
A child's birthday party
A biker bar
A witch's sabbat
A parade
An antique sailing ship
The zoo
A greenhouse
A tour bus
A petting zoo
A nunnery
A dude ranch
The kitchen of a fast food restaraunt
A photography studio

Now if you're writing a story about a biker, then a biker bar won't be an odd place for your character to show up. And if your protagonist is a clown, then the circus or a child's birthday would be a normal location. But a biker in a nunnery? A clown on a sailing ship? That might spark some ideas.

Whole plots have come out of oddball locations. Put a second-rate Las Vegas singer in a nunnery and you have the beginnings of the plot for Sister Act. Throw an alligator egg into a birds nest and you have Flap Your Wings by P.D. Eastman. Have two kids run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we end up with From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, one of my (many) favorite books as a kid.

Focus on Contrast

Send your steady churchgoing mother of three to a strip joint or bordello to help out a friend in trouble. Put your fashonista in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Throw your urban Sam Spade detective into a small Midwest town.

Why Are They There?

In Willa, I use a chase scene to get my characters through a petting zoo and onto a tour bus. And after that they get in even more trouble. Lets say your character is a fashion model turned amateur detective. What might bring her to any of these locations? Well she could be following a clue, obviously. Or maybe she's doing a fashion shot on a sailing ship when she finds a dead body hanging from the rigging. Perhaps your biker protagonist is conned into taking a friend's kids to the zoo.

Who Do They Meet?

At the zoo, the obvious characters might be:
A zoo keeper
A small child
A stall owner selling anything from touristy trinkets to cotton candy
A tour guide
The mother of a lost child

At a dude ranch:
A cowboy
Any number of patrons, also vacationing there
A horse or cow with a bad attitude
A wild mustang that needs to be saved from the knacker

Pick a character or two who would also be unlikely to interact with your character - or who might be at odds with them - and you have the makings for at least a chapter, if not an entire book.

Do The Research

If things start taking off, be willing to do more research into the location. For instance, learning that your local zoo has a herpetology expert might give you more information on snakes, and even if your character doesn't end up at the zoo, they may get bitten by a snake, or snuggled by a python.

Visit the circus and learn that each clown has their own personal makeup scheme. Or learn something about the rigging on ships and the history of figureheads or the difference between a belaying pin and a fairlead.

Or go into that fast food joint and find out what's in the Special Sauce. Of course you might not ever eat there again, but maybe the guy who works the fryer will tell you a story that leads to something else.

There's always the possibility that learning something new will spark a new plot direction or an entire book.

You Might Never Use It

Be prepared for the possibility that the scene you end up writing may never make it into your book. That's fine, if it gets you writing again and sparks other ideas. Even if the scene doesn't end up in your story, it may give you better insight into your character and how they react in strange situations. After all, this is just an exercise, right?

Or it may spark something that becomes a flashback, a future chapter or an entire new book.

So take your character somewhere weird and have fun.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Turn Trash Into Writing - Where to Get Story Ideas

No, I'm not going to tell you about how to take your old writing and recycle it, though that might be a good idea for another day.

Instead I'm going to ask you to take a walk around your neighborhood and pick up (or at least take note of) at least 10 items of trash that you find and bring them home. If like me, you live in the middle of nowhere, you can still walk around your property and find out of place things, or do this exercise when you take a trip into town.

Here's what I found on my walk:

Feathers from a dead bird, obviously killed by some critter.
A smashed beer can.
A flier for a local nightclub.
A wrapper from the local fast-food place and a plastic fork.
A page of coupons for the local supermarket.
A busted bicycle wheel.
A plastic water bottle.
A plastic shopping bag.
A child's sneaker.
Scraps of a busted tire.

Of course your first benefit in doing this exercise can be having a cleaner neighborhood, with less trash on the road. But there's a writerly benefit to this exercise as well.

Now, pick at least one of the objects you found and ask yourself how that item relates to one of your characters, and write about it. Or perhaps the item will spark an entirely new character!

Using the list above, here are some thoughts on what you or I might get out of it:

Feathers from a dead bird, obviously killed by some critter.

In my story, "Willa," I have the protagonist's mother bring home a dead bird in the first chapter. It ends up illustrating some interesting things about my characters:

Her mother is squeamish about handling dead things, but wants to preserve the natural beauty of the carcass.
Willa, on the other hand is not squeamish.
The manner in which they use the wings from the bird not only sheds light on their beliefs, but the bird wings (taken by her sister for Show-and-Tell) later lead to a crux point in the story, where Willa realizes her brother and sister are in danger.

In your story, a dead bird might send your character on a rampage against the local cats. Or they might be avid birders and need wonder what sort of bird it was. Or in a detective novel, the dead bird might be a clue. Was the bird poisoned?

A smashed beer can.

My present protagonist is a 16 year old girl who does not drink, so a beer can won't remind her of wild nights out partying and tossing beer cans out of the car, but it may for you. Willa would probably reflect on the sadness of people ruining the environment. Or she might pick up the can and give it to a local hobo for recycling. Or use it as a container to boil water in. How about your character?

A flier for a local nightclub.

Perhaps your character decides to check out the nightclub. Maybe they meet someone there. Or spend a lonely night reflecting on how this just isn't their kind of place. Maybe the flier contains a scrawled message that leads them to a clue.

A wrapper from the local fast-food place and a plastic fork.

This might lead to anything from a rant about how impossible it is for plastic to biodegrade, to a visit by your protagonist to the fast food joint. Or maybe they'll complain about their weight. Or if you're writing about a busy parent, perhaps they'll debate bringing home some food or the perils of getting their kids to eat healthy.

A page of coupons for the local supermarket.

Is it time for your protagonist to go shopping? How do they feel about clipping coupons? Do they consider it necessary savings? Do coupons clutter their house? Do they feel that coupons "force" them to buy products that they wouldn't buy otherwise? What are the coupons for? Do they suggest that your character needs to do the laundry? Make a microwave dinner? Bemoan the fact that they'd love some fries but their figure can't handle it?

A busted bicycle wheel.

Maybe your character takes a bicycle trip and the darn thing breaks down. Are they the sort to flag down a passing motorist for help? Will they walk home and drag it? Or leave it on the side of the road? On the way home do they see something of import? Maybe your protagonist hits a bump or a rock and goes flying. Do they need stitches? Are they whiny about the injury or do they take it in stride? Is it really an accident or does someone crash into your character? Could this be part of a chase scene? Does seeing a broken bicycle remind you of an incident as a child when bullies stole their bike? Or when they were the bully?

A plastic water bottle.

What kind of water is it? The expensive kind that athletes get? Just normal everyday bottled water? If the former, does that suggest a scene where your protagonist goes to the gym or otherwise gets themselves fit? Or meets a big burly gym-goer? Is your character thirsty? Why? Were they running? Is it a hot day? Do they buy a bottle of water for their dog?

A plastic shopping bag.

Does your character go for plastic or paper, and why? Did their bag of groceries break? Who helped them pick it up? Could your murder victim be smothered by a plastic bag? Is it time to go shopping again? What's the label on the bag and where could that take them?

A child's sneaker.

Where's the other sneaker? How did the child lose it? Does your character wear sneakers? Or only dress shoes? Does a sneaker reveal a past memory? Does your character jog? What happens when they go jogging? Do they play some other sport? How do they feel about sports in general?

Scraps of a busted tire.

What would happen if your character got a flat? Do they change it themselves? Call Triple-A? How did they get that flat? Driving crazy? Not maintaining their car? Something dangerous in the road? Someone slicing their tire? Is your character on a long journey by car or other vehicle? Are they afraid of big trucks or do they drive one? Maybe this leads to you writing about a tire swing. Or your protagonist's first car. Or their present car. Is there an accident ahead on the road? How does your character respond when they get stuck in the traffic from that?

Or maybe the entire exercise in trash picking causes you to write about trash, or about a garbage man, or a landfill or dumpster.

So pick up some trash and let it inspire your story.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"I'll Not" Write This Way and Other Regionalisms

Maybe its a southern thing. Two of my favorite authors (I won't name names but they both happen to be from the south) use the contraction "I'll not," and related contractions: s/he'll not, we'll not, they'll not, you'll not, they'd not, s/he'd not, I'd not.

It drives me buggy. One of these writers I've only caught in the act once or twice. The other one, I can count on her doing it at least three to four times in each novel. I read her work anyway, because she's a fabulous writer and I enjoy her style. But every time I come across it, my suspension of disbelief gets zapped to heck and I remember I'm reading a book.

Okay, color me nitpicky. As I understand it, the correct phrase would be "I won't, she won't," etc. Now I'll be the first to admit that I don't have the right to be the grammar police. For me, good writing is about learning the rules well enough, and then learning when to break them. And I start sentences with conjunctions. In fact the grammar checker on my word-processing program hates me. It often accuses me of writing sentence fragments. So I turn it off.

Maybe it is a regional thing. Her characters are from Georgia, and what do I know about how they talk there? So I deal.

Then one day this author brought in a character who was supposed to be from New York. And guessed it. He said, "I'll not."

At this point I had to take a short break from the book. I'm from New York. I know how we talk. New Yorkers do not talk that way. In fact we only say "do not" when we're ticked off or making a point. Otherwise we say, "don't."

So the moral of the story, if you're writing about a character with a background that's like yours, write the way you speak. If you're writing about someone from a different place, find someone who's from there and ask them to read over the dialogue. Or better yet, have them read it to you, over the phone or on voice chat.

What regionalisms have you noticed in your writing or another writer's and does it make "y'all" crazy. What good uses of regional dialect have you found?

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit - Indispensabe Books for Writers

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction WritersThe first time I read Telling Lies For Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers by Lawrence Block I was about twelve. Mom and I would take turns reading this one aloud while we did chores. It wasn't just an intelligent, useful book on writing, it was witty and a great read. We chortled, we cried, we read chapters over and over again, we went out to find his Matthew Scudder books, his Bernie Rhodenbarr books and anything else we could find by him. Yes, the writing in Telling Lies was just that good.

Block taught me a lot of important things about writing. Probably the most useful was when to give a bear a canoe.

Writing the Novel: From Plot to PrintThe first part of the book is on the business of writing itself. And Block should know a lot about that. He has somewhere near 60 published novels, numerous short stories and articles; and his Writing the Novel From Plot to Print and Spider Spin Me a Web are also stellar books on the art and craft of writing.

Part Two of Telling Lies deals with getting your writing written, from setting writing hours, to dealing with writers block to revising effectively and where to find ideas to write about in the first place.

Parts Three and Four, however is where this particular book shines. Block teaches you how to start a story with a bang...or a body; and why you shouldn't start at the beginning. He handles details, transitions, creating a strong plot and a powerful, sympathetic character...and then making his life miserable. Then the details of making your writing exciting to read, covering dramatic dialogue, creating verbs with punch and sultry adjectives.

Spider, Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction WritersIf I had to choose one writing book from my shelf and give up all the others Telling Lies for Fun and Profit would probably be the one I'd keep. Now excuse me while I marmelade some toast, and jump into my canoe to go hunt down a bear as I cuddle up with this old friend.

 Search for Lawrence Block

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Catch As Cat Can - What I'm Reading

Catch as Cat Can (Mrs. Murphy)Just finished Catch as Cat Can by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown (her cat), my latest in the Mrs. Murphy Mysteries.

If you're not familiar with them, Mrs. Murphy is a tiger cat who lives in Crozet, Virgina and likes to solve mysteries with the help of her human, postmistress "Harry" Haristeen, Tee Tucker, her faithful corgi companion and Pewter, her feline buddy.

In Catch as Cat Can, spring is in the air, the Dogwood Festival is about to start and BoomBoom Craycroft (not Harry's favorite person) is hooking Harry up with a handsome diplomat from Uruguay, which doesn't make Harry's ex, Fair Haristeen happy. Meanwhile a dead woodpecker and a set of stolen hubcaps lead to the inevitable dead body. This is a murder mystery, after all!

Crozet is a charming little middle-of-nowhere town with a host of quirky locals and seemingly a good number of murders and intelligent pets. There's Miranda, a sixtyish widow who works at the post office with Harry, bakes scrumptious muffins and can quote the Bible perfectly; Big Mim, the "Queen" of Crozet society; Little Mim, Big Mim's daughter who's still trying to find herself; the loveable Reverend Herb and Cynthia Cooper the sherrif's deputy, who's bound and determined to find the killer, with Harry and Mrs. Murphy's help. This book also introduces us to Pope Rat, a rather despicable rodent and Abraham a courtly and helpful old hound.

Six of OneI've adored Rita Mae Brown's novels since I first encountered Six of One, a rollicking tale about a pair of sisters growing up in the prohibition era, in the equally amusing town of Runnymede, MD who have been "fighting like banty roosters" since 1905.

Wish You Were Here (Mrs. Murphy Mysteries)As with most of Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy books, things start off slow - after all, nothing ever happens in Crozet, right? - but soon leads Harry into danger, and her animal friends have to get her out. If you're like me and enjoy starting with the first of a series, I recommend Wish You Were Here.

Keep a Notebook by Your Bed - Where to Get Story Ideas

creFortunately it happened at a time when I was keeping a regular dream journal!

I had a very weird dream about dragging a small child through a park while he was handcuffed to a shopping cart. Somewhere in the same dream, evil faeries were peeking in my window. It was all very odd.

Now Freud might have had something to say about that one, but I'm a writer, not a psychologist, so after jotting down the dream I went to my computer and started writing.

Within hours I had the first chapter of the story that I'm calling "Willa" until I think of a better title. Several years later, the book is about halfway done. I haven't yet come to the point where they're getting chased through the park, but I'm getting close to that chapter.

So how do you remember your dreams?

Keep a Dream Journal

Keep a notebook - and possibly a flashlight - by your bed. Or get a voice recorder if that works for you. The sheer fact of doing so can encourage you to recall your dreams. As soon as you wake up give yourself a few moments in the morning to jot down your memories. Write down the basic idea of the dream and any strong memories or impressions.

Tell Yourself You're Going to Remember Your Dreams

Just before you fall asleep, tell yourself, "I will remember my dreams in the morning." Or make up some other visualization. Simple but effective. Just the intent to remember your dreams can help you recall them.

Get Enough Sleep

If you're tired it can be harder to remember your dreams and you may be too in need of sleep to bother writing them.

Creative Dreaming: Plan And Control Your Dreams to Develop Creativity, Overcome Fears, Solve Problems, and Create a Better SelfOne of the best books I've read on dreaming is Creative Dreaming by Patricia Garfield

Warning! Dream Journaling Can Be Addictive

By the time I'd been keeping a dream journal for about a year, it was cutting into my time. I remembered so much that it usually took at least an hour to journal my night's adventures. If this happens, give yourself some time off. Stop journaling them unless it's a dream you really want to recall. Or be briefer in your journaling. Focus on the parts of the dream that were really interesting and might be fodder for your writing.

Ask For a Dream to Get Unstuck

When my plot is stuck, I go to bed and say to myself, "tonight I'm going to have a dream about (story name). Then I'll go through the story in my head, thinking about my characters, where the plot might be going, and so on. Sometimes I'll get a new idea even before I fall asleep. Other times it might take a few nights of this before something relevant comes up.

Using Your Dream Journal

Now that you've gotten the basics of your dream down, go to your computer/typewriter or other writing implement and see if the dream sparks something. Is it a situation that one of your present protagonists might get into or think about? Or does the dream offer an entirely new protagonist?

Maybe you just had a dream that you were eating oranges. Okay, let one of your characters eat an orange. Maybe you'll discover that they hate oranges and why. Or you might find that the oranges lead to a conflict where one character splashes orange juice on another. Or your character gets a cold and eats oranges to get rid of it. Or you may end up with an article on the history of the Screwdriver. Or a recipe for Orange Carrot soup.  Who knows what you might dream up?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

10 Secrets for Dealing with Distractions

By Singe

I was born in chaos. We lived in a house without central heating, so in the winter most everything took place in the kitchen around the pot belly stove. If my father was not chuckling over and reading aloud from what he called his “nut stories” (science fiction) he was fixing a flat, charging a battery or putting together some weird science experiment. Our house was a magnet for clutter. Kitchen shelves might contain anything from crocks of fermenting birch beer, skeletons of animals found on the road, bird's nests, a bucket of nails, ball bearings, a microscope. Years later, I realized that I missed that atmosphere of fun that surrounded my childhood, and that I need a balance of order and chaos to create. Part of me believes that it is distractions that make my life more interesting, while the other is resentful of anything that takes time away from my writing.

This is always a challenge for me. Here are some things that have helped me cut down on distractions that keep me from writing. Maybe they’ll help you.

Immerse, Let Go, Return

Strike a balance between obsession and release. Become immersed in your subject, let the work become part of you, fill notebooks with info and become an expert on your topic. Write letters or blogs to and from your characters, fill pages of journals that he or she might write. Or, if you are going through some angst or major passage in your life, write heartfelt letters and do not send. Glean from these efforts and turn limp passages into words that sing. When I care passionately about a scenario it is like a world opens and I see different events like a movie I live in, pen near at hand.

After you feel spent, then remove yourself and do something else, preferably something you love. This year, I found great pleasure in planting clematis and grew the biggest sunflower ever. When I returned to my writing after gardening, I felt renewed and ready to start again.

Post Calling Hours

Be ruthless about keeping away interruptions. Turn off phones, avoid e-mail, and shut down IMs or any other communication devices. Tell everyone that you are writing between whatever hours, and you love them, but only an emergency qualifies for your attention during that time.

Crisis Happens, Use It

When someone dares to have a crisis, leave your last sentence unfinished. I have found that the restlessness of that jagged edge leaves a place for the imagination - it may help to get you started again. Or rewrite the last paragraph. Any emergency that happens is fair fodder for your writing, too. Exaggerate or tell the truth and change names.


Wear disguises if you must. Go somewhere else, you pick the scene. I escape by haunting internet cafes, some place in nature, my local library or a parking lot if I have to.

Make Lists

A list relieves you from repeating ideas in your head and aids in focus. Keep a notebook handy just for your writing. Keep another notebook to write down chores and people you need to contact later, and get nagging voices out of your way. Prioritize your list into: Imperative, Things That May Go Away If Ignored and Things to Do When You Can’t Get Into Your Writing. Make time for chores so they don't pile up and a separate time for your writing.

Ignore Messes

Neat freaks and clutter maniacs alike can be waylaid by objects out of place. Schedule cleanups away from your writing time and if necessary wear blinders - it works with horses.

Separate Creative Writing Time from Research

If you are writing a piece about a place or time you have never been and the flow is going good, don’t stop to verify a fact until you have squeezed the most out your plot angle or character study. For example, I was writing about an event that took place in 1867, and my character wore a bustle – years before they were invented, but the energy of the story worked. Later, when I did the research I was able to dump the bustle and add in the proper garment.

Write While the World is Asleep

Odd hours, especially for me around 4a.m., “the Hour of the Wolf”, can be a time for chasing dreams and going deeper into your work. Pick a time where your family and friends won't interrupt you.

Create a Writing Ritual

A ritual can be anything you wish that draws you into the mood to do your work. It can be as simple as putting paper in your printer, or playing a certain piece of music or sharpening your pencils. One writer I know takes a walk around the block before setting down to her writing. Make up something specific to your own needs. You might like to try meditations, scents, lighting candles, taking a shower, or whatever resonates for you. Before I sit down at my desk, I like to light a candle, get in touch with my breath and ask to connect with clear writing.


Once you have worked a piece to its end knowing it is as good as it can get, savor that feeling. Remembering it will help propel you forward on your next project.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Give Yourself a "Themed Break" - Keep Your Story Going

Sometimes when I want to jumpstart my story, I take a theme that's an entire aside to what I'm working on, and write it with my characters in mind.

Years ago, around the time I first started my Willa story, one of my metaphysics teachers gave our class the homework of taking the Runic Journey and re-writing it from our own perspectives. The second "aett" (eight) of the runes consists of Hagal (hail; a disaster, destruction, testing) Nauthiz (need; obstacles, desperation, frustration, hardship and its overcoming) Isa (ice; a blockage, stagnation, reflection) Jera (year or harvest; change, things coming to fruition, time) Eihwaz (yew; initiation, confrontation of fears, a turning point, death-rebirth) Peorth (dice cup; rebirth, mystery, transformation) Algiz (elk; protection by or from the gods) Suwilo (sun; victory, positive energy, health, celebration).

The traditional teaching story goes as follows: The Prince is hunting with his men in the forest when a blizzard comes up. He is separated from his men and in desperate need finds a crack between rocks to shelter from the storm. As he rests there, the crack in the rocks ices over and he is entombed there. Time passes and the Prince confronts his fears of death. He undergoes a mystical transformation where he begins to understand his place in the Universe and how all his steps have led him to this point. The gods recognize his transformation and decide to protect him. They shine the sun onto the crack in where he is entombed, and it melts. Victorious and changed, he returns to his people as the wise King.

The story I wrote from this had my sixteen year old protagonist, Willa wandering in the forest with her younger brother and sister. She's been separated from her mom and the other adults in the story. The villains of the story are closing in on her and she needs to cross a river to get them back to safety. When her brother falls in, she undergoes a personal transformation and also manages to rescue him.

This rune-story ended up becoming an entire chapter in my book, and sat waiting in my files until I could get her into a position where I could use it. Until I was given that homework, I didn't know anything about this part of the story.

Now I had some goals for my writing:
Find a way to separate Willa and her brother and sister from the adults.
Obviously they need to end up in the woods.
The villains need to be aware of her general location - how do they accomplish this?
Her mom needs to be unaware of her location - why are Willa and the kids out of reach and why doesn't mom know where they are?

The rune story is just one example of a "themed break" that you might write about. I call it a themed break because I decide the backdrop or theme ahead of time, and because it gives me a break from trying to follow the plot that I've set so far.

The basic idea behind this exercise:

1) Find a theme that interests you. It doesn't have to have any relation to the story you're working on.
2) Put your protagonist in the setting or situation.
3) Don't worry about where in your story this will happen. Just go ahead and write.

You may never use this bit of writing. It might give you a revelation into your characters that is for you alone, but tells you something about them that you didn't know. Or you may find, as I did, that it grows into a future chapter and gives you a guideline to shape the plot of your story.

Some ideas for themed breaks:

A birthday party.
A camping trip.
Watching a candle burn down.
Dinner at a restaurant.
A phone call from another character.
A breakdown with a vehicle.
Grocery shopping.
A surprise (and perhaps strange or questionably appropriate) gift.
Digging a moat or ditch.

Another idea is to take a TV show or a chapter from a book you've read recently and boil it down to its very basic concepts. For example, here's the "boil down" from a recent episode of CSI:

Someone is attacked but survives. It is discovered the attacker has been watching the victim. Someone else is attacked by the same person and killed. Eventually it is discovered that the killer knew secrets about both victims and wants them to confess their sins.

Boiled down even more: Your protagonist knows someone's sins and wants them to confess OR someone else knows about your protagonist's sins and wants him/her to confess.

Here's another from a fairy tale, in this case "Stone Soup"

If you recall, in the story a group of travelers come into town. They're hungry but don't want to obviously beg. They tell the townsfolk that they have a magical stone which makes the best soup in the world. Each villager wants to try the soup and ends up "garnishing" it with a bit of turnip or a piece of meat until the whole town has put together soup, and they all share.

In essence, the scene in Tom Sawyer where he gets the neighborhood kids to help paint the fence is very similar.

The "boil down" would be that one character wants to accomplish something. They pretend it is important/exciting and trick or convince others to help.

So, pick a theme, throw your protagonist into the works and see what happens!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Living With Your Inner Editor - Keep Your Story Going

I have at least six novels and three cookbooks in the works. On one hand, this works well for me. When I'm bored or frustrated with one book, I'll move on to the next for a while. Usually this leads to a giant burst of creativity, and I'll end up with with several pages, sometimes even several chapters flowing out.

On the downside, it means that I still have six novels and three cookbooks that are unfinished.

Contemplating why this happens, I realize that one of my problems is my Inner Editor. You know, that writer who sits on your shoulder and tells you that your writing isn't "good enough." Often instead of actually writing something new I'll read through my previous chapters and start editing them. "Hmm, this isn't clear..." or "I forgot to mention this thing about my character..." or "I should really foreshadow that..." and sometimes, "Geez! this sounds like drivel!"

Going back and rewriting isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it will lead me to new revelations. In the main story I'm working with right now (titled "Willa," after the main character, until I think of a good title) this kind of back-editing introduced a new minor character just recently, and with it, new revelations about my protagonist.

On the negative side, this also means that I have several books with supremely polished first chapters and am stuck in the middle of them.

So what can you do to stop your Inner Editor from stalling your progress?

Thank Your Inner Editor...

One of the things I've learned from hypnosis/NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) classes is that every part of you serves a good purpose. As an example, lets say you're afraid of snakes. Well, the part of you that fears snakes isn't "bad." It serves to keep you safe, and it's doing that job for a good reason. After all, some snakes are dangerous. They can disfigure you (I made the mistake of watching one of those nature programs where a guy lost his thumb to a rattlesnake bite the other day) or even kill you.  So the snake-fearing part of you is good and a friend.

Of course if you happen to work in the reptile house of your local zoo, then the snake-fearing part of you might stop you from doing your work as effectively and as safely as you need.

In the same way, your Inner Editor is a good part of you as well. First, your Inner Editor works to protect you from being hurt or humiliated. Your Inner Editor probably remembers a time when someone somewhere read your writing and told you how lousy it was. We've all had that day. Lets face it, most of us didn't spring full-blown from the womb as another Shakespeare. Writing is a craft, and like all other crafts, it takes time, experience and practice. But your Inner Editor doesn't always understand that. It just wants you not to get hurt.

And for most of us who practice hard at the craft of writing, we already know what doesn't work, what sounds phony, or "done before" or just plain hackish. So the more we grow as writers, the more loudly our Inner Editor screams in our ear.

So silly as it may sound, take a moment, close your eyes, and ask your Inner Editor to come forward. Tell it "thank you" for all the help it's doing to keep you safe and be a better writer.

...And Ask For Its Help (an NLP exercise)

Now ask your Inner Editor, since it wants you to be safe, and be a better writer, if it would be willing to work with you and allow you to write more prolifically in ways that would still allow you to feel safe, but would also help you to complete your other writing goals.

When it answers yes, ask your Creative Part to come forward. Everyone has a Creative Part - the part of us that thinks up new ideas and new ways to manifest them. We writers have Creative Parts in spades! Otherwise we wouldn't be writing in the first place! Ask your creative part to generate a thousand different ways that you and your Inner Editor can work together so that your writing will be stronger, better, more powerful, and still keep you safe.

A thousand ideas may sound like a lot, but your Creative Part is capable of generating infinite possibilities. You may find that you know what some of those ideas are...or you may have no clue what ideas your Creative Part has thought of. Either is fine. There's no reason to know what they are or to list them. Just trust that they are being thought of, somewhere in your Unconscious. Give yourself a few minutes and ask your Creative Part to let you know when those thousand or so ideas have been generated.

Then ask your Inner Editor to talk to all your other parts and to pick one or two of those thousand ideas that you can start manifesting right now, in a way that is safe for your Inner Editor and that will be the healthiest and best for all your other parts as well. Again, you may have an idea what that new way of expression is, or you might not. Just allow a few moments until you get a feeling that your parts have decided on something.

Now say a big thank you to your Inner Editor, your Creative Part and all your other parts, and get back to your writing!

Make a Date with your Inner Editor

Pick one day a week, and make it your Editing Day. That's your day for going back and polishing your work. Cleaning up plot threads and tying them together, rooting out cliches, making note of things you left out or want to expand.

Every other day is a writing day. No backtracking or editing allowed.

Often you'll find that your Inner Editor is so thrilled to be acknowledged with her OWN DAY that she'll leave you be the rest of the week.

Pick a Number and Don't Stop Till You Get There

Decide on an amount of writing that you want to get done. It could be 1000 words or 5000 words, 3 pages, two chapters, whatever's right for you.

Then determine that until you reach that goal you won't go back and edit a single syllable.

The important factor in deciding this number, and making it work is to be REASONABLE with yourself. If you churn out 20 pages a day with no problem, then setting a goal of 10,000 or more words might be reasonable. (And if you churn out 20 pages a day every day, you probably don't need this article!) If you can barely struggle through two pages - or two paragraphs! - a day, then set a goal that's high enough above your usual output to make you feel good about having written that much, but well within your ability to write, given whatever time constraints of your daily life.

Write Bad on Purpose

Sometimes the trick is to actively plan to write dreck. "Its going to be crappy. In fact I WANT it to be crappy. I'm going to write trash today...but goddamnit I'm going to write 5 whole pages of trash!" Then go and write your protagonist's shopping list, or their letter to their local newspaper editor, or anything else that sounds fun.

Often when I try this, I find that at least some of my writing is actually pretty good. Even when it does turn out to be complete garbage, it may give me a new way of looking at my character or my plot, an idea for a scene, or even for another story.

What are some of your ideas for living with your Inner Editor?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Meet Lemur and her Partners in Crime


Since I was old enough to hold a pen, I've felt naked without one. Writing is my passion, my dream and one of my major reasons for living. Next to my husband, my critters and my mom, my typewriter is my best friend. I've been writing since I was eight years old and I'm on the far side of forty-something now. Published a few times in magazines and a how-to book, but I'm still working on the Great Novel.

Right now I'm working on a few novels. The most pressing one at the moment of them is a fantasy (elves, magic and such) novel which seems to be heading for the teen market. I've also got a couple darker fantasy novels in the works. LOL one of them is definitely not for teens since it starts with a ritual sacrifice. The other is a fantasy/romance. Then I have a science-fiction novel that I started when I was fourteen, and which I haven't worked on in a long time, but I'm starting to see how I can still use parts of it. I also have a mystery or two on the backburner. I've got a few magazine articles here and there. Some profiles of other artists, some related to Dungeons and Dragons (one of my hobbies), and a few others.  As if that wasn't enough I'm working on at least 2 cookbooks, since besides writing, cooking is one of my favorite things to do.

The CRITTER Project is my other blog, where I'll discuss the perils of moving to a farm the middle of nowhere with 4 cats a dog and three yaks (so far).  This blog is just for us Writers. Pull up a cozy chair, grab yourself a cup of tea or your other beverage of choice and lets play with words.

And Friends...


Born near the end of WW II, the child of radical left politicos, Singe has always felt on the cutting edge of history. When a log thrown onto a fire gave her a sudden haircut, she took that name.

She started writing in the fifth grade, and has not stopped. Her passions are her family, friends, keeping communication open, and writing, mostly fiction. Wielding her video camera, she has documented road trips, performances, political actions, and written scenes performed by local artists. Having published a couple of books of poetry and short fiction, a few in magazines, she is now working on a memoir and a novel that takes place in the nineteenth century.

She lives with her husband who turned his love of books into an online antiquarian book store in their home. She adores cats but refrains being owned by any, knowing felines would tear apart the books.