Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard

Butt in Chair – Hands on Keyboard – BUCHOK – it should be the motto of every serious writer. I first heard of his from a fellow writer (who by the way earns his living freelancing). There is no substitute to getting dirty in playpen of words and sentences.

You need a plan for writing. Most successful writers I know have a plan. Maybe they get up a hour before everyone else in the house (helpful if you have small kids.) Or maybe late at night. You can write a page or two – amazing what a limited timeframe force you to accomplish in a short period of time. If you can average 2 pages a day – you’ve got an entire book (or two) by year’s end.

At our monthly writers meeting I see (at least) two kind of folks – both who what to be writers – one dreams about it – thinks about it – wishes for it – and may be very, very talented. However, without that butt in the chair and the hands on the keyboard, publishing success is unlikely to happen.

Then there is the other kind -- one that reads every book about writing they can get their hands on – they write all kinds of stuff – searching for the genre that best fits their talents and disposition. They write and keep writing. They read. And then they write some more. This kind of writer will make it. They may not be published yet – but what I’ve observed again and again is that persistence pays a better dividend than talent. If you have both then you are indeed blessed.

Time is a wasting – write something today – right now. Write a sentence – maybe two. Turn it into a paragraph. Can you write an entire page? Sure, it may be worthless stuff – frankly most writing is only fit for the garbage can (even for experienced writers). But, when you write and write and write, you will eventually hit your stride – words will come from your mind and heart that are golden. Capture those, keep writing. Oops, the garbage is back – that’s okay. Keep writing. The golden words will appear again. When you’ve created enough golden words, you have a treasure – something you have written that is worthy of reading. All because you put your butt in the chair and your hands on the keyboard.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

7 Steps Toward Character Diversity:

7 Steps Toward Character Diversity

One problem than plagues most writers is creating characters that are too similar -- too much like themselves. If I had it my way, my stories would be full of middle-age fat bald guys. Hey, it might not be interesting be it’d be easy for me to “get into their brains.” Okay – not a good idea. How then shall we create characters? Here are seven ideas you can use to populate your story with diverse characters.

1. Make characters physically different. I took a Disney animation course once where animators discussed how they chose a “cast.” According to them, the ideal cast consists of a diverse group of characters. The starting point is physical characteristics. Select characters where some are tall, some short, some overweight, some skinny, some beautiful, some not so much. On another occasion I sat in on the decision about casting the move “Closure: The Problem with Money.” The director talked about the importance of selecting a supporting cast only after the key players are in place. This is obvious when some characters are supposed to be children of the others – but it is also important for the cast to have a “look” – not that they all had to be similar kind of people – but that the group form an interesting ensemble of people. So it is in any story – select cast members that are physically different from each other – to tell them apart and to bring diversity to the story.

2. Select characters that are emotionally and culturally different. Marge is a whiner. She’s best friends with Kathy who is an optimist. George is a staunch God-fearing Republican whose house backs up to his neighbors Buffy and Hank the nudists who like to take midnight skinny dips. Abu the Hindu gets stuck in the elevator for 11 hours with Donna the voluptuous Pentecostal gospel singer. And they both have to pee. Diverse people make interesting things happen. Of course, sometimes people who are too similar make things happen as well. What about the two feisty red-headed teenagers who both want to be the head cheerleader – they are similar in many ways but you’ve still got to find something that makes them different so they will take a different route to achieving the same goal.

3. Create characters with different sounding names. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Use them generously when selecting names. Readers or viewers easily get confused when Mary the detective is after Merriam the hitchhiker because she’s suspected of killing Martha the heiress. Carefully select each name to be different from others. Rarely create characters with names that begin with the same letter – unless there is a reason. You might have triplets named Larry, Luke, and Leonard… if you do have such a situation -- you need to give each one of them some unique characteristic that separates them in your story, otherwise your audience will get confused.

4. Give characters different voices. Authors tend to write dialog using their own voice. Don’t do it. It is a sure killer for any story. Listen to other people speak. Choose what makes their choice of words different – don’t depend on different accents -- an Irish brogue versus a southern drawl. Let choice of words, length of phrases, level of formality, intelligence and other aspects of language define your characters. Sit in a public place and listen to people talking. Write down phrases you hear. Develop an ear for each character so you can hear them talk – and then write down what they say.

5. Give characters differing life goals. People react to situations because of their beliefs or life goals. Two people find an envelope on a city street. It contains $500 and no other identification. A person who gambles, cheats on his income tax or who needs to buy cocaine will react differently than a honest-as-the-day-is-long janitor or a Sunday School teacher (we hope.) Specifically pick out, write down, know by heart, the core beliefs of each of your characters. That way when they are put in challenging situations, you will know how they might act. Plus – make sure the reader has an inkling of that character’s belief system so when they do act, it is not “out of character.” If your character does something unexpected – make sure there was some seed planted earlier (and maybe not fully revealed until later) to explain the behavior.

6. Use character tags. We don’t like to pigeon-hole people or make them one-dimensional, but tags do help define a character. Do you want your banquet dinner prepared by the cigar-chewing short order cook with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeves? How about by the fastidious blue-ribbon chef who takes the temperature of every pot at precise thirty minute intervals and insists that the floor is kept squeaky clean? Tags can define quick aspects of a character – but it doesn’t have to limiting them. The fastidious chef may NASCAR fan and the short-order cook might also train seeing-eye dogs because his kid sister is blind. By all means never create a character that is a perfect representation of a tag.

7. Give characters different but specific purposes within the story. Most characters are included in a story for a specific reason. A wise-cracking brother-in-law might give your story some levity. If he does – let him do his wise-cracking job throughout the story – don’t change him (without reason) into a sullen pessimist half-way though – unless that’s necessary for your story. Create specific characters to do certain tasks within your story. Your hero, for example – will have redeeming qualities that make him or her able to face up to some dire circumstance that the story will provide. Your hero may have an ally – someone who is a helper (Sam in Lord of the Rings comes to mind.) He may have a mentor, an opponent, a love interest, and so on – each one with a specific task to do in moving the story forward. Of course there are also shadow or changeling characters who start off as one type of character (an ally) and are later revealed to be something else (they are really a mole for the enemy.)

Look back at these items – they have to do with creating an interesting ensemble of diverse characters who will be able to carry your story. Your homework is to make a list of characters in your current or proposed story. For each character write down how they meet each one of these seven criteria. Use this as a start to then flesh out other biographical characteristics of each character – get to know them as unique individuals.

(c) Alan C. Elliott, 2008

Saturday, May 17, 2008

74 Character types for your story, novel or screenplay

74 Character Types: I’m at the beginning of writing a new story and at this point I’m working on the creation of characters. I want each character to be unique and have something about them that is interesting, appealing, scary, obnoxious or fascinating. In these early stages, I’m looking at various things that make people work – some characteristic that drives their decisions. Of course, the characters will develop with more depth as I get to know them – but this is a beginning…

I’ve come up with these characteristics (and a few characters that exhibit the characteristic.) I mention some known characters, but I don’t want to make mine exactly like the one mentioned – it’s just a starting place…

1. Proper – Like Mrs Bucket in “Keeping up Appearances”
2. Miser – Silas Marner
3. Orderly, picky, OCD – Detective Monk
4. Puzzle-solving – Sherlock Holmes or Peter Whimsey
5. Adventure – Indiana Jones
6. Protective of home, environment – Tarzan
7. Gutsy woman – Katherine Hepburn in African Queen
8. Suave – James Bond
9. Insane leader – Hitler
10. Control-freak leader – The Godfather
11. Clever conniver – Time Robbins in Shawshank Redemption, MacGiver
12. Disturbed good-guy turned villain – Darth Vader
13. Self-effacing hero/friend-leader – Charlie Brown
14. Loyal – Sam in Lord of the Rings, Alfred in Batman
15. Misplaced loyalty –Alec Guinness in Bridge over River Kwai
16. Crazed intellect – Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, Dr. Brown in Back to Future
17. Unexpected hero – Rick in Casablanca
18. Normal guy put in unexpected danger – Cary Grant in North by Northwest
19. Gives up own desires to help others -- Jimmy Stewart in Wonderful Life
20. Bucks society norms to fight for justice – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
21. Naive hero – Forrest Gump
22. Overcome unfairness – Women in 9 to 5, Working Girl
23. Dreamer – Dorothy in Wizard of Oz

I could go on… here are some other driving characteristics that come to mind. Think of about people for whom this characteristic colors all their decisions: power, sex, love, money, success, revenge, survival, defense, learning, science, politics, helping others, shyness, gullibility, prejudice, bigotry, handicapped, blind, sick, cancer, congestive heart failure, health, workout, obesity, stuttering, bulimia, hearing, bald, ugly, sexy, beautiful, lonely, ignored, misused, perfectionist, just, (un)acceptance, purpose, greed, warrior, street-fighter, class clown, want children, want a spouse, reconciliation, escape, eating, drugs, alcohol, ashamed, defensive, etc. That's 74 -- if I've counted correctly.

Give your character one or more of these traits, put them in a situation for which this trait is a hindrance and see how they react. As I said, this is just a starting point – to create a character with traits that make them interesting.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Getting Published - like a seed in the desert

Like a seed in the desert: Have you ever seen one of those nature films where an unusual rainstorm comes to a desert? There are places in the world where it may rain only once every few years – sometimes as infrequently as every 5 to 10 years. And what happens? Within hours, dormant seeds hidden beneath the desert sand start to germinate. They blossom quickly. Insects are attracted to them and feast on the flowers and vegetation. A few seeds are produced that fall back to the desert floor, waiting for the next rain.

You might think of your writing like a desert. You’ve written a few novels, some poems, a screenplay – and nothing germinates. Or, if you manage to get an agent interested or the book actually published, it goes nowhere. This can be disheartening – and can make you give up. In fact, it makes most people never get a good start. What, if anything, can writers learn from the seeds in the desert?

I think the world follows a plan. The way one part of the world works is similar to the way another part works. If we can figure out the rhythms of nature, there is a chance we can apply those patterns to our everyday lives – and our writing. Let’s consider seeds.

Jesus told a parable about seeds that were sown on several different kinds of soil. (Matthew 13) Those that fell on good soil germinated and developed in full plants. Some fell into marginal soil and sprouted only to be choked by weeds. Some fell on bad soil and never germinated – or died immediately.

A fortunate writer creates a piece that falls on good soil. It finds a targeted audience (like the insects to the desert blossoms) and it grows like wildfire. Many more creations have some initial success (they get published or performed) only to languish in the marketplace and die quickly. Many, many other pieces never make it out of the desk drawer – or if they are sent to a publisher or agent, they fellowship with other unfortunate souls in the slush pile.

How do you find good soil for your writing? If I could tell you a cut-and-dried answer I’d be on the New York Times bestsellers list every week. However, indulge me a while and I’ll speculate.

Good soil is made up of a number of components. There is dirt and there is dirt. If you’ve ever prepared a flower bed, you know that plain old dirt is not your best bet for growing day lilies or begonias. You usually have to enrich the soil, add things to it – get it ready to nurture and feed your plants.

Good soil for your writing is made up of a number of components. You can’t grow most pine trees in Texas clay soil and a publisher of science fiction is not interested in your mystery romance. You’ve got to target your writing – so it will fall on the soil that it good for it.

Next, you’ve got to consider timing. The desert seeds are patient. If they try to germinate when they feel like it, they will die in short order. No… they wait for the proper moment. You too must wait for your topic to be “hot” if you want it to sell and keep selling. Good luck trying to predict the marketplace. Nevertheless, you should be passionate about your writing, prepare it the best you can, and seek both the good soil and right timing to get it into the hands of the public.

There is also the contents of the seed to consider. It contains viable food within itself – food that gets it started when the timing is right. Bad writing – the contents of your work -- rarely sells even when the soil is good and the timing is right.

Finally, (although I’m sure I could think of other seed-things) nature creates seeds in abundance. I recently noticed a field of wildflowers that seemed to go on forever. This one field must have contained tens of thousands of plants – and each of them was producing seed for the next year. Some would not make it – some would. Don’t put all your hopes into one piece – create many seeds.

Like in nature – if you are patient – you may find that good soil and proper timing to make one of your seeds blossom and grow into a giant sequoia

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Is Creativity Out the Window for Novels?

I’ve just finished preparing a proposal for a novel. Using the guidelines provided by an agent I created a ten page document (along with 3 chapters) to “sell” the book. Things have come a long way since I first submitted a novel fifteen years ago. Back then agents and editors wanted a cover letter and the first few chapters. What’s changed?

The publishing industry is evolving. A decade ago you could still occasionally query a publisher directly with a submission for fiction. Now it’s almost impossible. Publishers only want to look at submissions from agents. So, the monkey is on their back. To keep their relationship and reputation right with publishers, agents want to make sure the books they suggest are targeted, well written and from a writer who means business.

Thus, the proposal for a novel is now similar to that of a non-fiction book. (For many years, the standard for submitting a non-fiction book has been the proposal document consisting of lots of marketing information. )

I went through the hoops and prepared the 10 page sales document for the agent. But I’m troubled. I know that most publishers are now part of big conglomerates – and they watch the bottom line like a hawk. Because of that, they want to be extra careful where they put their resources. But we know from Hollywood that the creation of clone products (which corporations’ find safe) is not a great stimulus for creativity.

There is a great story about Walt Disney. When his short film about the Three Little Pigs became popular, people clamored “Give us more pigs.” He refused to make a “follow up” film. When Snow White was a hit he didn’t do a sequel – he did Pinocchio instead. When other animators reused film in scenes (such as a chase scene) Walt insisted that no portion of his films be repeated. This kind of insistence on newness and creativity could only have been demanded by a person with Walt’s power. (Notice that Disney now does sequels of even mediocre successes.)

What does this mean to the writer? Is creativity out the window? Perhaps not. First of all, you can still find avenues of creativity in the safe projects corporations want to do – if you are creative about it. Secondly, there are other ways to “publish” now – although typically not very lucrative. Some blogs ago I wrote about the cell phone novel in Japan – millions of novels written (mostly by teens) on cell phones and uploaded to the Internet. Some were good enough to make it into print – and became best sellers.

Perhaps that’s where creativity will come from in the next generation of fiction – eBooks. Some will rise to the top and be successful enough that the big corporations will publish them – and if they are a new genre or introduce some innovative way to tell a story – then it will open up the mainstream for something new. Who knows…

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Automated backups saved my bacon

How Allway sync saved my bacon: Since I write at several different computers, I store my working manuscripts on a USB drive -- you know, one of those thumb drives. They are very handy. I’ve been doing this for several years and have had nary a problem. Taking my own advice since I’ve told people time and time again to back up data because, “it not if you’ll lose data, its when” I performed backups every week or so. But – it was up to me to remember to do them.

I should have smelled trouble coming last month when I opened a Word file I’d been working on and it was corrupted. Fortunately, I had a recent backup. I did lose about an hour’s work, but I took it in stride.

Something told me I ought to do a better job of backing up my files, so I searched around and found this program called Allway Sync. You load it on your USB drive and tell it what folders to backup. It came as a free evaluation version so I tested it once and thought “kind of cool.” Then I forgot about it.

The bytes hit the fan last Monday. I was in the middle of printing a copy of a manuscript to send off when an error message popped up and the printing stopped. (The Word document for the script was on the USB drive.) I cancelled the printing and tried again. No dice. I closed the document and tried to reopen it. Word said it couldn’t find it.

I tried rebooting. Now the computer saw NOTHING on the USB drive. Something must be wrong with the port, I thought. I tried another port on the same computer with no luck. I pulled the USB drive and tried it on another computer. Still no luck. Drat!

Now I began to count my costs. I hadn’t done a backup in a couple of weeks. If I’ve lost everything on the drive, I was looking at a major computer file catastrophe. I looked at all of the manual backups I’d performed and the latest one was two weeks old. Draw! Drat!

I broke out in a cold sweat – not really, but I did get mad (at myself.) Then I remembered Allway Sync. I opened it up and saw where I’d set as the backup folder. I rushed to the folder and saw that it had backed up my USB the night before -- automatically -- without me even knowing it! Eureka! My bacon was not fried!

Believe me, I quickly paid cold hard cash ($20) to make the evaluation version into a registered version.

Now, I know that there are other backup programs out there and other methods of backing up (over the Internet for example.) Choose one you like, but choose one. I say again – it's not if you’ll lose your computer files… its when. Do you have your files on automated backup?

Friday, March 28, 2008

What shall I write about?

Dang, I can’t decide. I’m a self-professed polymath. If that’s not on the tip of your vocabulary, it’s someone interested in many things. The most famous was perhaps Leonardo Da Vinci. Somehow, I haven’t risen to the level of that master, yet.

Here’s the rub. I have this list of a hundred possible writing projects. Some are fiction, some are nonfiction. There are some children’s books, screenplays and stage play ideas in the mix.

The practical side of me says stick with non-fiction. After all, I’ve had over 15 non-fiction books published. Of course, they are all over the spectrum -- from a children’s book about weather to an American History book to a book on statistical data analysis.

The fun side of me says – write a novel, write a screenplay, write something creative. I’ve had a little success in this area having co-written a screenplay that was recently made into a movie.

Someone save me from myself. I’m smart enough to see that really successful people tend to be those that focus on one genre. Publishers like this person. Editors like this person. Agents like this person. They are predictable. They are reliable. If this author has had one or two good books in an area then he should be expected to continue to produce in that area. Its expected. No one expects Danielle Steele to write a how-to book on plumbing or Stephen Hawking to write a romance novel.

So here I linger. I have no answers. If I could have a conversation with Da Vinci, maybe I could figure out he did it – mixing art with science and doing both better than anyone else in the world. Hmm… maybe that’s an idea about a book to write. “Dinner with Da Vinci.” But I diverge.

Writing is a spiritual discipline. I read some author describe the creative process like this: there are streams of ideas floating around in the ether (that’s everything surrounding you.) If we open ourselves up to it (to God’s direction if you are a believer) then we can tap into a mysterious and wonderful creative process that will take us on a journey that we could never predict on our own.

Here am I. Lead me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Write Humor Like Anne Lamott

Write Humor Like Anne Lamott

I attended a meeting recently where Anne Lamott promoted her new book, Grace Eventually, to a mob of adoring fans. She speaks as she writes (or is it the other way around) – in punch line after surprising punch line that is riddled with her foibles, her shortcomings, her fears and her passions. I first learned about Anne from her book Bird by Bird, which is on my must read list of books for all writers. I don’t write like Anne and I don’t think like Anne but I can see in her a passionate communicator and that is what I want to learn from her – to be able to connect with other people through my writing.

To that end, during her talk I paid attention to how Anne handled herself --to her delivery and her story telling as much as her content. I’ve occasionally been accused of being overly analytic. That evening I was guilty. I’m fascinated by humor. It is a complex form of art that’s easy for some people and is as tough as a chicken fried steak from a fast food restaurant to others.

Humor is timing, disconnect, and surprise. A timed pause in a story and a look that tells more than words is hard to do on paper. Timing can be done in writing by setting up a situation and resolving it later in the story in an unexpected way. In fact, most story telling comes from these two incidents – the set up and the resolution. Too many times a writer will put the resolution too close to the set up. Let there be time and space. In fact, you might have several set ups and a single resolution that “solves” them all. And, although we’re talking humor here, this also works for horror, drama, or any other type of storytelling.

Disconnected humor happens when two things happen that are seemingly unrelated but effect one another. For example, one character might be talking to someone about death while the other person thinks they’re talking about trimming the rose bushes. The reader knows the disconnect and (hopefully) a bit of humor happens as the two characters try to resolve conflicting statements.

Surprise humor happens when something happens that is (usually) a pleasant surprise. Suppose a friend is setting at a bar and insists on introducing you to his companion. He builds up this guy, but you don’t see him anywhere. Is he in the restroom? Is he coming back? Your friend then turns to an empty stool next to him, puts his arm around an invisible being, and introduces you to a six foot rabbit name Harvey.

I’ve heard many times that on-stage comedy is harder to do than drama. I think it’s the same in writing. But, don’t believe that it’s only the natural comedians who can do it. Learn from people like Anne Lamott – she’ll be the first to tell you that to write a good funny 500 word story takes a week and thousands of words that are thrown in the trash.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

5 Writing Gotchas

5 Writing Gotchas

If you want to improve your writing skills, attend a critique session. This is where a writer reads his (or her) work. It is verbally then critiqued by professional/published writers. Everyone in attendance benefits, not just the reader. It is an eye opening experience for some writers and for others it confirms what works and what doesn’t.

In the last few critique sessions I attended I saw a pattern of gotchas that a number of writers, included me, experience from time to time. Here’s my interpretation of five of these writing blunders:

One: Avoid ‘was.’ I attended a workshop led by editors last year and one of them talked about how many submissions crossed her desk each week. She could never read them all, so she developed a read/pass criteria to help speed up her work. She looked at the first page of each submission and saw how many times the word “was” appeared. If the page included more than one or two she passed on that piece and tossed it into the rejection pile. One of our critique panel members told us about early story she’d written. An editor who passed on it told her to count the number of times she used “was.” On the first 10 pages she’d used “was” more than 100 times. She rewrote the piece using “was” only twice. It vastly improved the story. What’s the problem? The word which must not be used makes your writing passive. Passive writing is not as immediate or exciting as active writing. “Was” is not the only culprit, but I challenge you to take out a piece you’ve recently written and count the number of uses of that word. Rewrite your piece without the offending word and see how it improves your work. (By the way, I had to struggle to write this paragraph without any use of the blighted word.)

Two: Watch your format. Another criteria editors use to quickly reject your work is the way the words look on the page. Before submitting anything, look at a publisher’s style guidelines and follow them. Usually, you’ll want your work to be double spaced with 1 inch margins. Use Times Roman or Courier font. Your printing should be clean and dark – always black on write paper. Some agents I’ve used insist on bright white paper, 24 pound. If you learned to type using a typewriter, you must forget some things. For example, don’t use a double dash - - to create a strong break in a sentence. Use an em-dash—(press Alt-Ctrl and the minus sign on the numeric keypad.) Also, don’t put two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. If your typing teacher taught you to do it, forget it. It’s old hat. There are too many format issues to talk about here — check out the Chicago Manual of Style or other resources to make sure you’re not making any boo-boos that will put your work into the rejection pile.

Three: Watch for repeating words. Writers tend to get stuck on the same words over and over again. I have to constantly rewrite paragraphs to avoid this blunder. Enough said.

Four: Get to the point. If you’re telling a story, writing a how-to book, or composing a letter, make some point that will capture and keep your reader’s interest. Even if you’re creating a scene where the setting is important, don’t spend too much time describing the landscape, warehouse, toad-stool or whatever without injecting some action to keep the reader’s interest. Readers (maybe today more than ever) are impatient.

Five: Read your work out loud. We had a couple of readers in the critique group who stood up and “read” their piece—but what they read differently significantly from what appeared on the printed page. As they read, they rewrote in their mind, usually making a sentence clearer or more active. The panel members recommend that writer read his work out loud before finalizing it. Hey suggested that he record his reading, and play it back—and see what changed. Do this with your own writing. You might be surprised at how verbalizing your work can help you improve the flow and voice of your story.

There you have it—five things to help improve your (and my) writing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Publishing contracts, the bald truth

Yikes, it’s a contract! The magical day arrives. A contract for your book or article appears in the mail. You’re so happy you can barely read the small print because of tears of excitement. It’s a fun, fun day. Enjoy it. Take your friends, spouse significant other or next door neighbor out for a juicy steak or sushi (or whatever is your celebration food.) Buy a rich chocolate dessert and bask in your new found fame. Tell all your friends you’re about to be a published author.

When the excitement cools down a little, go back and reread the contract’s fine print. Now, I am not a lawyer and I’m not about to give you details of the specific wording you need to watch out for. But, I will share some experiences. I’ve been through 15 or so contracts, so I have some idea what’s going on.

First of all, the publisher is usually out for themselves. Period. Most publishing houses are part of a large corporation who watch nothing closer than the bottom line. They may be willing to pay you a few thousand dollars advance or offer you some other incentive, but they are calculating their profits all the time.

Do not, I repeat, do not blindly sign the contract.

I’ll confess.I did blindly sign one of my earlier contracts. Years later when the book was out of print and I had an offer to redo and republish it, I had to pay big bucks to a lawyer to secure the rights to my own book because the original contract allowed the old publisher to keep the rights even after the book was out of print.

Publishers want to get their grubby little hands on your work and keep it forever and distribute it in any form, universe-wide. That’s part of what the screenwriter’s strike was about – former contracts hadn’t taken into account the distribution of works on the web. The studio was making money, but not the writer. Within each contract are terms that not only spell out how the original work is to be published. It also gives the publisher certain rights to distribute your work in other ways. Often, a contract will give the publisher all or most revenue from these subsequent sales – unless you change the contract.

And yes, you can change the contract.

However, I’d advise against handling the contract yourself. Get a contract lawyer or literary agent to review and provide changes to the contract. You will have to pay the lawyer a fee. An agent, if they agree to represent you, will take a piece of the action – usually about 15%. What you gain from using a (legitimate) agent is that they can often negotiate a higher advance. They also (should) have the knowledge to change your contact so that it provides you with better terms – now and for the future.

The bottom line is this. The corporation has a covey of lawyers who want nothing more than to make money off of your work. To them you are a schumck who knows nothing about law and are fair game. (Okay, so there are some publishers who aren’t this callous.) But – better safe than sorry. Do your homework before you sign on the dotted line.

Once you’ve signed the contract – now it is official. You’ll soon get that giantnormous check in the mail and you’ll be able to pay for that celebration dinner you had earlier.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Point of View

Point of View: I’ve heard a number of editors say that the biggest problem in learning to writer effective novels is to understand POINT OF VIEW.

Generally speaking, every scene should have one, and only one, viewpoint character. During the course of that scene (could be a paragraph or an entire chapter) the action takes place through the brain and eyeballs of your viewpoint character.

Know what point of view you are using, and make it crystal clear to the reader what point of view is being used.

What are Points of View?

First Person – I did this. I saw that. I think something else. (Author is the primary character.) More intimate – focused.

Third person – Bill did this. He did that. He did something else. (Author is narrator)

Multiple Focus – Controlled and calculated mixture of points of view. (Omniscient POV) – Gives author (and reader) variety and can get into the mind of the characters and reveal more about them.

Leonard Bishop, in Dare To Be A Great Writer, 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction says, "The multiple viewpoint can explore more characters through their own responses. The characters can be viewed in different places at the same time. The story can develop greater variety through the array of other fully developed characters.

Dean Koontz in How to Write Best Selling Fiction (Writer's Digest Books, 1981) says "Warning! At least three-quarters of all successful main stream novels are written from the modified omniscient point of view. The mainstream audience demands a story with greater breadth and depth-in terms of characters, background, and thematic structure-than does the general audience. Most writers find that it is easiest (though never easy) to create a story with breadth and depth by writing ii the modified omniscient voice, for there is total freedom to enter the minds of all the characters, whereas other narrative voices limit the author to the mind of just one character, the lead. The modified omniscient point of view also offers total freedom in placing the reader at all of the major dramatic story events, rather than restricting him to those events witnessed by the lead character... If you choose to write primarily in the modified omniscient voice, as I have recommended, you must understand that it is never permissible to switch points of view from one character to another within a single scene."

Albert Zuckerman in Writing the Blockbuster Novel says (of points of view), "I would recommend the smallest number possible, taking into account the story you're telling, but no fewer than three or four. With only one or two points of view, it becomes quite difficult to work up the kind of plot complexity and interpersonal drama readers expect in a big novel. With more than six or seven, the emotional focus tends to become diffused, and reader involvement with your lead characters is likely to diminish.”

Sol Stein in Stein on Writing recommends:
  • “Is your point of view consistent? If it slips anywhere, correct it. If it isn't working, try another point of view.
  • Is your point of view sufficiently subjective to involve the reader's emotions? Have you been too objective?
  • Have you avoided telling us how a character feels? Have you relied on actions to help the reader experience emotion?
  • If you're using the first person, have you used another character to convey in conversation what your first person character looks like?• Is the "I" character sufficiently different from you?
  • Have you told the reader anything that the "I" character couldn't know or wouldn't say? Is the author's voice showing?
  • Is there anything in your material that is not likely to be known to someone with your character's background or intelligence?
  • If you're using third person or the omniscient point of view, have you used particularity in describing that person?• Would it pay to narrow your focus so that the reader can identify more readily with one of the characters?
  • Have you established limitations or guidelines for your third-person point of view? Have you then adhered to those limitations?
Subjects taught in colleges and universities are called disciplines. Writing is a discipline. And one of its most disciplined techniques is that of point of view. The choice of point of view is yours, but once you've decided, be sure that you stick to it as if your reader's experience of the story depended on it. Because it does."

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Feeling like writing, fighting writer's block

Feeling like writing: I’ll be honest with you – there are times when I don’t feel like writing. Sometimes it’s in the middle of a project and I have to write any way.

Then something happens. I get caught up in writing and start to enjoy myself. That’s when I figured out that (at least in part) the problem isn’t not wanting to write – its not wanting to start writing.

There’s that old Chinese proverb – a trip of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Okay, I get the logic of that – but there is something deeper. Taking the first step is not the entire problem. It’s wanting to take that first step that is often the problem. It’s forcing ourselves to take the first step. It’s putting ourselves in some kind of situation where we have to take the first step.

I know that when I’m upbeat, when things are going my way, I can’t wait to get the computer to write on my current project. Unfortunately, those days are not numerous enough.

There’s another saying – this one a little more modern I think although I don’t know who first said it… “Life is so daily.”

I’ve gotten into a rut more than once in my like (okay more than dozens of times.) Ruts are easy to fall into and hard to climb out of. I get in that rut and I don’t want to come out. It may not be exciting, but it’s predictable.

Okay, I’ll stop after this third saying, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Ouch, that hurts because it is so true. Why on earth can’t we as intelligent people convince ourselves to do what we want to do instead of doing what we don’t want to do?

Humans are incapable of perfection. We don’t, we won’t do the right thing. We don’t, we won’t write when we know we should (instead of watching another episode of Dancing with the Stars or NFL Football.)

We could easily wallow in our guilt and frustration and forget about this writing thing.

I wish I had a solution. I know of none. I fight this in my life all the time. I bet you do too. What I can (and try to) do is to realize that I’m like everyone else. Take it or leave it. Maybe that’s the good news in all of this. Even with all of us fighting this problem of human nature – stories DO get written, books are finished, paintings are painted and poems penned. No one can live on a mountain top all the time. We all have to spend our fair share of time in the valley.

But we don’t have to stay there…next time you tumble into that valley, get a grip. Sit down and write one word on a sheet of paper. Then write a phrase, a sentence. More often than not, if you can somehow take that first step, you’ll soon be back on track of taking that trip of a thousand miles (or pages.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Create an Idea File

Create an idea file. Its an essential tool for every writer. In the olden days writers used to have a little box – a shoe box worked well. The purpose of this little gem of a file was to collect information that popped into your little pea brain -- scribbled on a scrap of paper.

Every writer should have an idea file. (This means you.) Nowadays the file tends to be electronic rather than a box (although either will work.)

Collect anything that tickles your ear or strikes your fancy -- ideas, phrases, word plays, names of people, situations, snippets of conversations, etc.

The thing is – when you’re writing you can’t remember every little turn of a phrase that’s gone through your mind over that last umpteen years. When you’re in a bind and searching for a character or a phrase or an occurrence, shuffle through your idea file and see what comes up. You might just have a Eureka! moment that turns your ho-hum scene into a show stopper.

This is not cheating! This is how many, many writers make their writing seem fresh, pithy and witty.

For example, one day I got into a mood to collect funny names for people. I’m sharing these names with you not because they are great. In fact, they are somewhat stupid. But, they illustrate what I’m talking about. I cut and pasted this info directly from my “ideas” file. Laugh if you wish, but if you are serious writer you MUST play with words. You MUST come up with ideas and write them down no matter how stupid they sound at the moment. Don’t worry about complete sentences or grammar – these are NOTES – scribbles of information. Get loose. Okay, hold your breath – here are my stupid notes on types of people and their names:

Paige Tern – a bookworm

Particular Paula –Wipe the mustard off your lip. Stand up straight,

Lunatic Larry - A high maintenance person always griping about everything. Nothing is good, nothing meets his standards

Diane the Drama Queen – She is staging her own drama with you as the supporting cast

Jennie – The Gen-Xer -- It’s about me, me, me. Selfish.

Lucius - Quiet schemer, turns people against one another

Loud-mouthed Lyndon– Talks too loudly. Talks incessantly. Says embarrassing things.

Eavesdropping Earl – Has to know everything about everyone – salary, love life, etc.

Ditsy Dolly – Head up in the cloud, full of psychobabble

Freddy Friend – Jovial friend who is always borrowing things, eating your food, he peeves you but you can’t help but liking him.

Military Max – Spit and polish, by the rules

Okay, that’s enough. You get the idea? Here’s the plan. Have a few post-it notes in your wallet or purse and a stack beside your bed. If you’re high-tech get one of those little digital recorders. Then, when an idea strikes, capture it, and put in into your own personal idea file. And don’t just do it this next week – do it for many years to come. Believe me, it will come in handy later.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dorothy Sayers Story/Mind of the Maker

Want to write like God? Wait a minute, don't throw me to lions yet. Do you realize that when you're creating characters, situations, worlds and stories you are acting like God? It's no wonder then that someone studied this very topic.

The Mind of the Maker is a book by mystery writer and academic Dorothy L. Sayers is one that I recommend to every writer. Although she presents a specifically Christian look at the creative process, I think any writer of any persuasion will find plenty of thought-provoking substance in this work.

Sayers lived from 1893 to 1957 and was a popular British author, translator, student of classical and modern languages, and Christian humanist. A contemporary and friend of CS Lewis, she created an amateur aristocrat sleuth named Lord Peter Wimsey who appeared in most of her mystery novels (the best is perhaps Gaudy Night). Professionally (as an academician), Sayers considered her translation of Dante's Divina Commedia to be her best work. Along with Agatha Christie, she is considered to be one of the Queens of the Golden Age of the British Detective.

The Mind of the Maker takes an in-depth look at what makes stories work. Sayers’s work elevates the artist, and the author in particular, to the level of a god. (Don't you like it when someone elevates the stature of the artist/writer!)

Sayers makes the case that since we are created in God’s image, and He is a Creator, we too are (in our finest hour) creators. As God conceptualized and created the physical universe, we as artists conceptualize and create works of art. We are in fact, creators like God and as such the process of creation is a high calling – it is in fact the most important role any human can play in this world – to imitate God and to use the resources He has created in us to emulate His creativity by producing works of art, music and writing.

Like God, we become a trinity in the creation process, taking on three distinct roles. Awesome....

God the Creator made the heavens and earth, we are told. But what happened before He created? He had to think up the idea. Somewhere before the first tick of time, God thought about how He would create the universe. He conceptualized His creation, figured out details. He knew what He wanted to it be like. In an ideal world, when we conceptualize a story, we know the “big picture” of what the story is about, know how it will end, have intimate knowledge of the characters within the story. In Hollywood terms, we have a “high concept” at least in our own brains – we know, see, visualize, feel the story. Sayers discusses the fact that an author would rarely know every turn of events within a story – characters and events sometimes take interesting turns within the creation process. Nevertheless, if the story is not cleanly conceptualized, it can get out of hand and turn into a mish-mash of events that don't work. Therefore, step one is to (like God) have a grand idea before “On a dark and stormy night…” is ever written.

Jesus is also God. His role in the Trinity is that He “wrote the story.” In fact He is “The Word.” He was with God in the beginning and participated in the creation. (See the Gospel of John.) Furthermore, to carry out the critical part of history, Jesus came to earth physically to complete the most important chapter. As His life unfolded, He said that he could not do anything that had not come from the (mind of the) Father. Jesus, was in fact the “Creative Energy” that brought God’s idea into reality. A Sayers notes, this is like the process of writing your work. You had the idea – a clear conception of the story, characters and elements. As you write, your story can (if it stays on track) do nothing except what comes from the original idea. If you stray from that idea, your work becomes something else. It is not the same story – in fact (she says) authors who do not have a strong “second part of the Trinity” are those who do not have or use the skills to successfully tell their story – they fail to communicate their original vision.

The Holy Spirit is the third role of the Trinity. He is the disseminating "Power.” When Jesus’s earthly work was done (after his resurrection,) He told his disciples that He was basically now turning everything over to the Holy Spirit. It is His (the Holy Spirit’s) task to take what the Creator has conceived and what Jesus has brought into reality, and to complete the story – manifesting the story to the world. That is, once the process of writing the story is complete, the story must go out into the world to fulfill its mission. The sculpture must be seen by the public. The music must be performed and heard. The novel must be published and read. The art must have life within the world. Without the Holy Spirit taking the story to the world, no one would experience God's story of grace, forgiveness and salvation. If we keep our stories in a drawer, in our head, or on a hard disk, no one will ever "experience it."

When we as creators emulate God’s creativity, we are in fact, participating with God and fulfilling our destiny. Artists come closest to knowing the Mind of the Maker by being what He meant for us to be – creators like Him.

See, you can act like God. Or at least like a god. This is slightly heavy stuff, but worth reading. In fact, like most books worth the glue in their covers, Sayers’s work must be read again and again to glean the depth of its message. This pittance of a description only scratches the bald surface of its content.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Bald Truth about Critique Groups

Note from the Bald One: This is a guest column today -- James is a fulltime writer and recently served on a critique panel at the Dallas Area Writers Group (DAWG). Ladies and gentleman, boy and girls, please welcome James Gaskin to our blog....

The Bald Truth about Critique Groups

I would like to thank Alan for giving me this opportunity to say a few words. This is a good forum to make a couple of points I didn't have the chance to mention during the critique meeting on February 12th.

First of all, I thank all the DAWG members at the February meeting for inviting me to help critique your work. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Alan's format for reading worked great, as people stood and read for 10 minutes without interruption. Use this as the quickest technique to improve your own writing without having to face an audience.

Print your work, stand up with a pencil in hand, and read your work out loud. But instead of an audience, use your own critical listening skills. Whenever you are tempted to say something different than what's on the page, mark that line of text. Don't stop reading, just make a quick mark. Whenever you notice a phrase was hard to say, or made you stumble, or confused you as it went from the page through your mouth, mark that line of text.

When you finish reading all the printed pages, sit down with your pencil. Find each marked line and fix it. Often the fix is simple, like a verb tense or misplaced comma or confusing preposition. Reprint and repeat until you make no marks.

Think about the entire flow of the work. Could you feel the structure of the story as you read? Did you hear the famous beginning, middle, and end? Even non-fiction better tell a story, or readers become page turners and look for an article with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Secondly, there were a couple of pieces I didn't like, but my friends Win Shields and Ginnie Bivona did. If I was the agent receiving the work, I would pass. You would be, and feel, rejected. But if Win or Ginnie received the same work, you might feel elation and success. If I was a really good agent, and I hope I would be if I was an agent, I'd send your work to Win or Ginnie in the next office. But don't trust the reader of your work to be so helpful.

Whenever possible, target your work to the agent or acquisition editor at the publisher who likes your type of work. Read acknowledgments in books in your genre for the names of agents or contacts at the publisher. Send your work to those people. Put your work in the hands of industry insiders who like your type of work.

The best mystery novel in the world will be rejected by an agent who specializes in romance. The best science fiction novel written in 2008 will be rejected by every publisher specializing in political commentary and election analysis.

Every agent and acquisitions editor handles multiple topic areas, but they usually list their strongest topic areas first. Some new writers are tempted to send their work, let's say a mystery, to an agent handling romance, young adult, chick lit, and mystery. Since the agent doesn't see as many mysteries, the writer feels they won't have to compete against too many other mystery submissions.

If you don't believe your mystery is good enough to be accepted by the best agents for published mystery writers, you now know what to do. Print your work, stand up with a pencil in hand, and read your work out loud. Repeat until everything is smooth, natural, clear, and tells a good story.

...and now back to the bald one: Thanks, James.

P.S. See James' Blog (Technology is Broken -- How to fix IT in your Business.)
P.S.S. You might enjoy reading some of James' humor in the book Poser's Guide to the Internet and World Wide Web.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

More about screenplays

Screenplay continued… I mentioned last time that I co--wrote a screenplay coming out soon.

So, how did we get our screenplay into production? I’ll have to speak in terms of our local drama group on this one.

Our group’s experience is that we didn’t intend to do a film – our troupe was all about stage plays. Oh, like every dreamer we imagined how cool it would be to do a film, but never thought it would happen. That’s where a couple of things kicked in we hadn’t planned on.

This play is a spiritual journey of a man who discovers what life is really about. As it turns out, that’s a hot idea right now. Hollywood is looking for faith-friendly films (since Passion of the Christ.)

People don’t use the word "providence" much any more. But here’s one time when it looks like God was working in the background. This is how things unfolded: My co-writer had a long-time friend at a movie production company in Burbank. They emailed back and forth for a while. About a year ago the topic of screenplays came up. This company was looking for faith-stories. Hey-- our drama group does faith stories (stage plays.)

"Are any of your plays original?" he asked.


"Send us something to read."

We sent it, they read it, and liked it. They proposed that we rewrite the stage play for film. That we could do (or at least attempt.) But there was one big catch. Independent films have to raise their own money to make a film – for example Napoleon Dynamite, My Big Fat Green Wedding, and Facing the Giants.

We took the idea to our theater troupe board and said – if we can raise the $150,000 by March 30 then we’ll give it a try – otherwise it’s a no-go. (This was in late January.) The board’s conclusion was that if God brought this opportunity our way then He’d be the one to see that it got done. Everyone on the board kicked in some money to get the ball rolling.

We began telling friends about the opportunity. (Yes, we also did the legal paperwork – which was donated to us.) As far as I know, we never specifically asked anyone for money – we simply told people about the proposed project. Those that were interested asked us if they could invest.

We didn’t raise the $150,000 in the allotted time. We raised more than $170,000.

If I had a 100 page book I could tell you many other stories of “providential” happenings related to this movie. It sort of took our breath away. For example – we worked hard in finding locations to shoot the film – and every one was donated. However, on the day before shooting was to begin the building owner where we’re planned many of the most important shots backed out.

Big, big disaster was in the air.

The crew had arrived from LA. Everything was in place to start the next morning. Whether we shot film or not, the money to pay the crew was coming out of our meager funds. If we missed this first day, chances were that the entire project would be doomed. We had to start filming by 8am in the morning. Yikes!

Late in the evening, only a few nerve-wracking hours before the shooting was to begin, a new location was offered to us – free of charge. Here’s the kicker -- it turned out to be far superior that what we had originally planned. Far superior! I’ve never seen anything like it. These and other heart-attack miracles could only be a sign that God wanted this project to get done.

So there you have a little glimpse into the story of this movie project. We wrote a script, put our heart and soul into it (as a stage play) and through steps that we could never have planned ourselves, God took us on a journey we could never have imagined.

By the way, the website for the movie is www.theclosuremovie.com.

I think many creative people understand this -- God is the great Creator and Producer. When we open our minds to this greatest creative power in the universe, He takes us on a journey of imagination, creation, and production that is beyond our comprehension.

Although I’d never put myself in their league, I marvel at creative geniuses such as Bach. He claimed many times that all his works were “for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” When he finished each manuscript he wrote on it, Soli Deo Gloria – to the Glory of God. I think all writers would benefit from that kind of determination, commitment and faith …I pray that I'll have it on my future projects.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Screenwriting tips for Oscar Week

Oscar week… how many writers dream of being called up on stage? One thing I know for sure – I don’t have to write an acceptance speech this year.

However, I do have some good movie news. The first screening of a movie that I co-wrote will be taking place in Dallas in a couple of weeks. Yeah!

The movie is Closure: The Problem with Money. It’s a comedy about a wealthy businessman named John Money who is more concerned about money than his family. John is visited by a quirky angel of death who wears a loud Hawaiian shirt and likes chocolates and donuts. John finds out he’s about to die soon, so he spends his last few hours trying to understand (mostly without success) what life and death are all about.

This script was originally written as a stage play for CrossWise Players, a local community theater group, in Dallas. The story originated from my co-writers imagination in the 1980s and sat on a shelf until it was resurrected and reshaped for the stage about five years ago. It was produced twice by the CrossWise group and once by another community group (CATZ) in Lewisville.

I’m telling you this because I’m mulling over a talk I’m suppose to give in March -- about screenwriting. My first question is “What do I know anyway?”

Okay, I guess I learned something. Let’s see, for one thing I learned that novel writing and stage writing and screenwriting are similar and different. Wow, what an insight! Bear with me -- all three forms have common story elements. For example, you want the first act – first few minutes or first chapter to do at least three things. It must set the time and place, it must introduce the main characters (or at least some of them) and it must contain some kind of inciting event that hooks the reader or spectator.

Once the plot is in motion, there must be challenges for the main characters, conflict, twists and so on until a final resolution. Hopefully the end is a surprise and wraps things up nicely. These things are common to all three venues.Here are some differences. In novels you can go anywhere you want as many times as you want. To can create fictitious places, go to the future or the past, go a castles and dungeons – anywhere you can imagine. For a stage play, your action must be limited to a few places because of scene changes. You can only have a handful of locations (fewer and simpler in Community Theater than on Broadway or where you have a larger budget). For film you are also limited to the number of scene changes – mostly determined by your budget. You have to be pragmatic about your scenes when writing a screenplay.

Okay, if you are Stephen Spielberg and have a hundred million dollar budget you can do anywhere on film.

For a smaller budget film, (i.e. independent films) you’ve got to keep scene locations in mind. First or all, you’ll probably have to film at real physical locations (except for green screen shots or CGI which can get expensive). Let’s assume you’re writing for an independent film with a limited budget. It’s best if the story is contemporary – chances are, you can more easily find locations to your scenes. For a limited budget, it’s best to film in one general location (i.e. one city). If your story takes place in Amsterdam, New York and Sydney then you’re going to spend a lot of money traveling. It’s better if your locations are all nearby. In fact, you might consider writing “location neutral” so the film can be made anywhere (unless location is important to the plot.)

Another expense to keep in mind is how many crew setups and breakdowns you’ll need. Don’t throw in a new scene just for the heck of it. Each location change may add many thousands of dollars to your budget – and take valuable time. If you’re creative, maybe you can make one location look like two (or three) with a few changes of furniture, lighting or shrubs. It might be easier to change these things than to move the crew, cameras and lights.

These are some practical things to think about when writing for a smaller budget film.

But, you ask, how did you get your screenplay into production?

Continued in part 2…

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Playing with Story

Playing with Story. The process of creating stories fascinates me -- not that I am a master (yet.)

If you're a writer, you should play around with the story process -- toss it around in your mind -- notice how a seven year old tells the story of how she got stung by a bee. As you're sitting in a Taco Bell (or some other public place) listen to stories around you. Why do some interenet email stories get forwarded to a million people and some are flops?

What makes a story work? What makes one unforgetable. It's something every writer must know to be a good communicator. Think about it... you probably remember some story someone told you 10, 15 or 20 years ago, and you can tell it with some accuracy. There are other stories you heard yesterday you can hardly recall. What's the difference? What made one memorable and one forgetable?

I saw someone changing a tire recently and thought -- how is writing like changing a tire? Let's play around with that thought...

You're driving down a country road. It’s a normal day. You're dealing with your everyday phobias and anxieties. You wish things were better or different, but there's not so much to do anything about it.

Compare that to: It’s a dusty day in Kansas. A young girl has the normal teenage angst about life – its boring. There must be something more to life. But there is no escape from the Kansas farm.

Suddenly you come to a rough spot in the road. You drive over a big pothole and your back wheel goes ker-thump as it hits the hole hard. You hear a loud pop that rattles your car and causes you to lose control. You panic and swerve into the oncoming traffic.

Compare that to: The Kansas weather starts kicking up. The wind is blowing – harder and harder. The sky turns a yucky green and in the distance the funnel of a tornado can be seen. It gets larger and larger – its coming your way! Everyone scrambles for the storm shelter. Where is the dog, Toto? The girl rushes back into the house to get the dog then the tornado hits. She’s thrown this way and that. It looks bad for her.

That’s part one – some call it the inciting incident or hook – it’s the thing that gets the story rolling. Or in the case of a flat tire, stops the car in its track. Often, that’s the easiest part of the story.

Now what do you do?

Your pleasant drive was interrupted. You get out of the car and see that you have a flat. You’re in the middle of nowhere and you see wolves peeking at you from nearby bushes. You’ve got to solve this problem or you’re the main course for dinner tonight. You get out the jack and put it under the car. If its like one of the old fashioned jacks it has a long handle that you push down to ratchet up the jack.

With each push down on the handle, the car inches up. That’s the middle of your story. It's a series of events that are like that handle on the jack. The emotions, hopes, and expectations go up and down with each push of the jack handle. As each scene goes from hope (up) to crisis (down) the jack (tension) inches up. Up and down each scene goes – giving hope, taking it away. Giving hope, taking it away.

All the time the tension is mounting.

Compare to: Dorothy is in Oz. Her life in Kansas is interrupted. She’s presented with a way to solve the problem – go to see the Wizard. Like the jacking up of the car, she must go step by step (with the help of friends) but on her journey she experiences a series of hope and failures. Each up and down of hope and failure seems to make things worse. Tension mounts with each little scene. Will she ever be able to get to her goal?

Up and down the jack goes as the car rises. The wolves are licking their chops. Finally, the tire comes off of the pavement and you can now put on the spare. But at the last minute you can’t get a lug nut to loosen. The wolves start inching toward you. You almost panic and run – but then they will surely attack. You remember that you have some WD-40 in the trunk – you get it and spray the lug nut like crazy. Then, using all your strength you jump up onto the lug wrench and the nut loosens. Success! You take off the old wheel and put on the spare. With the flick of a knob the jack descends much faster than it went up. You throw the jack into the trunk as the wolves descend, but you jump into the car and you’re protected.

The wolves must get dinner someplace else and you continue on your journey. You were not eaten by the wolves; but perhaps you are a wiser driver now and will watch out for potholes.

Compare to: Finally, the Dorothy makes it to her goal – to get the Wizard to send her home. But as he prepares to take her home, the balloon is launched prematurely and it seems all hope for her is lost. Then the good witch gives her an alternate way to get home – using the ruby slippers. She returns to Kansas. Nothing much has changed there, but Dorothy is wiser and knows more about life and love than she ever did before.

Here's how I look at a story -- the beginning is a sudden interruption of the norm, the middle is a ratcheting up of tension to a point where it looks as if all hope is lost and the solution comes quickly and wraps up the story.

Next time you’re fashioning a story – think about changing a tire. It might help put all of the pieces are in place to make your adventure more exciting and memorable.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Getting Published: The bald truth

Getting Published: The bald truth: I have no magic formula for getting your work published, but I do have a few suggestions.

Here are a few bald truths from our local writers group (The Dallas Area Writers Group or DAWG for short) that meets every month. Typically, each month an experienced writer tells us about his or her writing experience. There are a few common themes that run through these talks so I thought it would be worthwhile to ponder them in today’s blog.

One of our speakers (James Gaskin) told a story of how he answers the question “How long did it take you to write that article?” with an answer something like – “It took two hours and twenty years.” It took two hours to write the article and twenty years worth of experience to know how and what to write.

So my first worthwhile point is this – read, study and learn.

Virtually every writer I know is also a reader and a perennial student. (If not, make sure you have a good day job.) The fact that you are reading this blog probably means that you read and you're seeking to learn. Good job. Keep it up.

Point two: Learn by doing. Most writers don't make it big on their first submission, or twenty-first or fifty-first submission. It takes most people a while to break through the ice. They learned the writing craft by doing – they submitt query letters – they learn from rejection letters – they learn from other writers, from books, from conferences. On the other hand, I know of wannabe writers who keep mulling over the same short story for five years and never submit anything. There is very little chance they will ever be published.

Point three: Peresistence. Writers need persistence. I believe that almost anyone with a reasonable grasp of the English language can get published if they persist. By being persistent I don’t mean writing one thing and keep trying to sell it. Write several books, a dozen articles, or a hundred poems. Then maybe one of them will become golden. Look at the success of song writers like Irving Berlin and Fanny J. Crosby – did you know that each of them wrote hundreds of songs that never “made it?” And even in their prime they write many songs that never made it. A writer is a writer of many things – not just one story. If you only have one story, your best bet may be to get a ghost writer to write it for you – and pay them well.

Point four: Treat writing as a business as well as an art: Writers who make a living writing know that writing is a business. The product is creative, but it is disseminated (generally) through a money grubbing enterprise (i.e. a big corporation who runs a publishing house.) Most publishers think about selling writing like selling a box of soap. They want soap that sells. They’re not interested in last year’s type of soap. They want the new soap. Writers must know the current and future trends in the publishing world to be successful. Most of the books I had published ten years ago wouldn’t get off the ground today – the world has moved on. A smart writer anticipates change in culture and can read the future – or at least keep up enough with trends enough to know what publishers think the future will hold.

Point five: Be focused. Generalists are a hard sell. Publishers, editors and agents want focused writers. They want a writer who will devote heart and soul to a particular genre. This is hard for many writers (like myself) who are polymaths. We’re interested in too many things. But publishers want writers who can build a career. They want a sci-fi writer to write sci-fi. Not romance. Not a mystery. Sci-fi. Only Sci-fi. In fact, I know a pretty successful sci-fi writer who had several novels published but felt the calling to do another type of novel. To make a long story short, she lost her publisher and had to pretty much start from scratch on building another writing career. Pick an area of writing that you like and stay focused.

Those are the bald facts. These are a few of the tips I hear mentioned over and over again when an experienced writer talks to our group – be an expert on a subject – be persistent in what you are trying to do – know what the publisher wants – and stay focused in your area of expertise.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Write Like Rowling, Harry Potter Books

Write Like Rowling? A lot of writers wish they could conjure up something as successful as the Harry Potter series.

Recently I visited Edinburgh and happened to stop in a coffee shop called the Elephant House. It claims to be one of the places where Rowling wrote some of her early work. In that era, Rowling was a single mom caring for a small child while depending on public support. Without much money and no good place to write, she started going to local coffee shops where she stayed for hours writing her stories with her baby in a stroller next to the table.

If you visit the Elephant House today you’ll find that it indeed sets the mood for the Potter series since it sits in a quaint Edinburgh neighborhood the is situated in the shadow of an old Scottish castle.

Another thing you’ll find in the coffee shop are would be writers at various tables with laptops or yellow legal pad writing their hearts out. They are trying to capture the magic that Rowling found in the coffee house.

Whether any of them will find it, I don’t know.

As a writer, I too imagined Rowling sitting at one of the tables. I ordered a cup of hot tea and people-watched for a while. The shop was a hub-bub of white noise as people discussed various things from office matters to politics to the little pink nightie that Aunt Betsy bought Sue for the baby shower.

I imagined that Rowling saw some of her characters pass through the coffee shop door, and probably snatched a phrase or two from conversations that surrounded her in the shop. Did see see a Dumbledore or a Malfoy or some other personality in the coffee house's customers?

I wondered what in her background provided her with the ability to create a story that would capture the imagination of millions of readers. In those earlier times she was simply a desperate single mom trying to eek out a living – she was hungry to make something happen. She had no idea at that time that the Harry Potter stories would catch on. Writing is always a long shot. She had to know that. I’m sure she hoped her book might make her a little extra money. Perhaps she had visions of moving into a nicer apartment. But she didn’t know, couldn’t know what was in store.

What did she have? She'd experienced bad times in her life -- the death of her mother, the divorce, the embarrasment of living on welfare. She had desparation. She must had had symphathy for others who were downtrodden. (like Harry?)

She imagined an escape from the bad things in life, as many of us would. For her, reading took her to places of escape. Every good writer must start with that.

While sitting in the coffe shop it occurred to me (since I had recently read Douglas Adam’s book The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul that came out in the 1989 era -- the same era that the first Harry Potter book was bring penned) that there were some similarities in their created worlds – in Adams' book a man goes to a railway station and somewhere between the tracks steps into a parallel world occupied by old Norse gods. In fact, it is revealed in the bok that many of the "people" walking around the streets of London were really Norse gods.

Could it be that when Rowling was writing the first Harry Potter that she got an idea from Adam's book. It would be no surprise. Virtually every author's work is an almagmation of what he or she has heard or read. It’s what any thinking author does – he reads something that gives him an idea and then turns it around, changes the characters and make it into something unique.
So what did I learn by sitting the Elephant House watching the wannabe Rowlings? I learned that any writer has to find a place – whether physical, emotional or spiritual – where creativity can happen. You’ve got to keep your antennae up – listening for ideas, reading ideas, hearing ideas. You have to actively and purposefully capture those ideas in a journal, on little slips of paper or in a Word document. And you have to be hungry.

How may times have people asked what it takes to get published. I think of the old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is of course, “Practice, practice, practice.” It is the same with writing. How do you get published? You have to write, write, and keep writing.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Cell Phone Novels, Oh My!

Cell Phone Novels: An article in a recent New York Times talks about the suddenly popularity of cell phone novels in Japan. Did I read that right? Novels on cell phones? Oh my!

It seems that by the end of 2007 half of the best selling novels in Japan were written on the cell phone. Unbelievable!

In our Dallas Area Writers Group (DAWG) meeting a few months ago the Betsy Haynes, author of 76 juvenile novels talked about trends in the juvenile genre in America. Have you noticed that the US always seems to be behind the rest of the world in cell phone use? But, we may be catching up. Betsy showed a recent US juvenile novel that was written in the style of cell phone conversations – and it turned out to be very popular. Who'd a thunk?

Back to Japan – what makes these novels appealing and successful? First of all, old bald people like me don't read them and don't want to read them. They appeal to a particular group of people – mostly young girls whose eyes still function correctly. It’s long been known that most US books are purchased by women. I suppose it’s the same in Japan.

These cell phone novels, often typed into the cell phone using amazingly fast thumb typing techniques aren’t your run-of-the-mill novels. Now there's a surprise! They use short sentences, brief detail, special emoticons and special characters that, if you’re not familiar with cell phone dialog, will make little sense to you.

According to the article, most young Japanese your women don't relate to the long complicated sentence of “normal” novels . They are told in quick simple and sometimes partial sentence full of cell phone abbreviations. Plus, because the authors of these cell phone novels are in their same generation, the stories are about things they're interest in – angst, teenage love, sex, rape, parental problems, coming of age, broken relationships, and so on.

Sounds like episodes of Desparate Housewives.

Another interesting aspect of the Japanese experience is how certain novels rose to the top. It seems that over a million of these cell phone novels were uploaded to computer web sites. The stories that were good were read most often. A few great stories were read by thousands of readers, and from these top novels, printed versions were hatched by publishers who then sold lots of copies – enough (as I said earlier) to make 5 of the top 10 novels of 2007 of the cell phone genre.

Okay, fellow wordsmith, what can we learn from this phenomenon? Chances are, unless you are under 25 (and more likely under 21), you’ll have a hard time jumping onto the cellphone novel bandwagon unless you have the ability to think like a 16 year old girl. (That would hurt my brain!)

On the other hand, publishers are starting to turn their focus (and checkbooks) toward this type of writing. And as we know -- money follows success. The NYT article mentioned that some of the cell phone novelists have opted to start using a computer to compose their works, but still using the cell phone jargon. Its obvious that from a million novels (that's what the article said--hard to swallow) , a few talented story tellers would rise to the top.

My prediction is -- look for a spate of US teenage oriented “cell phone” novels appearing in the next few years. It’s unclear to me what other types of books might take a lesson from the cell phone novel success – biographies? textbooks? “Cliff notes?” how-to books?

Do you have a clue? You may be the one sitting on the next dynamite keg of an idea.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Writing about love

Writing about love: There is no more powerful emotion or force in the world, I believe, than love. I'm talking about real, committed, dedicated, chosen love. There is something spiritual and captivating about real love. I wish I could tell you how to write about it. I wish I knew more about how to express its power and wonder. But, on the Valentines day, I simply present two examples.

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..."
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints, --- I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! --- and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

And another powerful statement of love...from

I Corinthians 13

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I
reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

On this day when people celebrate love it is my hope that you and I as writers will help this world experience greater and purer love -- not just toward those near to us, but that each and every one of the six billion people on this planet may enjoy a life where love comforts in times of trouble, where it lifts spirits in times of grief, where it settles disputes in times of anger and where it brings salvation to all who embrace it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Writers Critique Groups

Writers Critique Group: Unless you are an odd duck, the reason you write is to have someone read your work.

Most of us would like to get on the New York Times bestsellers list and be an Oprah book selection. Or, at least get our joke published in Reader’s Digest. We write to be read.

That’s what magical about a critique session. In our particular group we have a panel of four published authors who graciously listen to a ten-minute readings from members. The panel then comments on the writing.

It’s not only the writers who benefit from this – the entire audience gets to learn about the craft of writing from people who’ve “made it.”

Some of the comments at our last session had to do with punctuation. Usually, there's too much of it. Several of the works were filled with commas, dashes, colons and semi-colons out the kazoo. Long sentences were also a problem. The writers were encouraged to make their writing more conversational. Make paragraphs and sentences vary in length. Don’t use fancy words that people in your story would never use. Give each character a unique voice.

If you’re not in a critique group, look for one. If that’s not possible then there are some alternatives. Read your work into a recorder and then listen to it.

One of the readers didn;t exactly read what he wrote -- he changed his sentences as he read them. What he said in his "edited" version was more conversational than what he wrote. He’d benefit from reading his work, listening to it and modifying it to make it more natural.

In some future blog I’ll describe ways to make your computer read your work. I’ve used to analyze what I’ve written and to locate problems. Like a lot of writers, I sometimes leave out words in sentences. When I read it on the screen my mind provides those missing words. When the piece is read out loud, they stand out like penguin in a prairie dog town.

Lord knows, I don't hold myself up as a perfect writer. I'm particularly grammer challenged. I've had folks comment on the web on my typos. They tend to occur with words such as it's and its and your and you're. Yes I know the difference but I'm usually in too much of a hurry to get the blog out to catch all of my blunders. Frankly, I've never let that slow me down.

However, before I submit something to an editor I check, double check, and have a few folks who know somthing about grammer read the thing before it gets into the mail. Let my mistakes remind you that you're never going to get your work into a perfect state. Do the best you can and keep trying.

Keep writing, keep reading, and I’ll see you again soon…

Monday, February 11, 2008

ebook readers: the bald truth

E books Readers – the bald truth: The latest attempt to sell ebooks is by Amazon with its Kindle product. The Kindle is described as a “wireless, portable, reading device with instant access to over 90,000 books, newspapers, blogs, etc.” These ebook readers sell for a few hundred dollars, but you can put hundreds of books on them, and the ebook editions cost less.

Who are they kidding? The Kindle is is attempt of an old idea -- it reminds be of the video phone (that's been tried since the 1960's) or the "speech to text" applicationthat IBM and others have advertized so much. Yes, they both work, but neither has been widely adopted -- except for specialized applications.

Here's the bald truth about why aren’t people flocking to the e-reader devices:

First, they are "new fangled" devices and people don’t know what to expect of them. As with any new device you've got to build up a critical mass -- I'm not sure this one will reach that point.

Second, you'd have to be a really avid reader to plunk down 399 greenbacks for a Kindle -- and then pay more cash to read the newspaper and books.

Third, I’m a little leery of having such a device. When I’m reading a book on vacation or in a public place I don't worry about the book being stolen. On a beach I don’t worry about the sand getting in the book. With a $399 electronic device, I'd worry. (Maybe if I only read in my bed at night this wouldn’t be an issue. )

Do we really think these things will be the wave of the future?

If they do take hold, how will it impact authors? Cover yourself. Be very careful when you sign a contract. Some clever publishing contracts give you a decent royalty for a printed edition. Then, slam-bang -- all other forms of royalty are severely discounted. (i.e. foreign, CD, movie rights, e-book readers, etc).

You have two choices -- be an idiot and sign contracts without knowing what you're signing, or get an agent or a lawyer who understands these things and will adjust the contract so you don't get pummelled.

Okay, so lets assme the future will include “published” material that's never actually printed on paper. It's already true of blogs. And blogs are successful. Thus, publishers reason -- perhaps books are the next logical step.

Believe it or not, there is already a market for "cell phone novels" -- book length stories that have been written and are read on cell phones. Yikes -- it makes my thumbs hurt to think about it. Increadibly, millions of people (mostly teens) are already reading these novels on cell phones (not something I look forward to doing.) So who knows – maybe e-readers are the wave of the future.

Here's my bottom line -- the cost for the e-readers is too high right now. So, when would I get one? I can think of one scenario (if anyone from Amazon is interested.) My son and daughter just finished college. It was not unusual for the price of textbooks for a single semester to reach $500. Now, if the Kindle people offered to provide ebook versions of the textbooks plus a bundled Kindle for $500 (or even $600). I might leap at the chance to buy one for my kid – if (big if) in future semesters they could purchase their texts at lower than the printed edition price. (Remembering back on student days when I lugged a ton of books around, I’d be happy to carry around a small device that contained all my textbooks.)

There you have it -- provide me with a financial incentive and make my life easier and maybe I'll get one of those new-fangled Kindles. So Amazon, if you’re listening, I think you should contract with some high schools or colleges to make such a deal. End of marketing 101.

Back to author concerns – yes, fellow authors, we need to keep an eye on the progress of the ebook readers. Pay attention to what folks at places like the Author’s Guild are doing on the legal front to protect authors agasint all of these new techn0logical ways of using our words. Pay attention to your contracts – not only for books but for magazine articles and other printed items. I can even see music scores being placed on (big screen) e-readers. If there's a way for a publisher to get an advantage (and keep more money) they will do it -- often times at the expense of the author.

Let the writer beware.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The bald truth about self-publishing

The pallet of boxes arrives. The stack in my garage is four feet tall, four feet square and weighs hundreds of pounds. The boxes contain books. Two thousand of them. I’ve self published this book for fifteen years, have gone though numerous editions, and have sold over a million dollars worth of them. But, I hesitate to recommend self-publishing to any writer. In fact, this is the one book I self-publish. All fifteen other books I've had published are through the normal publishing route.

Let me explain. When you write a book, typically a novel or memoir, you put your heart and soul in it. Afterwards you find out how hard it is to get a publisher to buy it. You get frustrated. Very frustrated. You search on the Internet and send out some queries. You run across agents who will read your book. Yeah! They recommend that you hire an editor (that they recommend) to polish your work. For a fee, they will find you a publisher. In the end, they lead you to an epublisher or self-publisher or publish-on-demand publisher.

Or maybe without one of the “agents” you find the willing “self” publisher yourself.

Here’s what usually happens.

Scenario 1: You pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to get your book published. Your pallet of hundreds of books arrives and is stacked up in your garage. Now you are on your own. You make some inquiries to the local bookstores only to find that they won’t carry self-published books – or if they do (maybe a mom-and-pop store) it is by consignment, which means you don’t get any money until they sell it. You soon find out that it’s going to be a lot of work to get your book in more than a handful of stores, and they may each sell one or two a year. What are you going to do with the other 998 copies of your novel? You are stuck.

Scenario 2: You set up with a publisher on demand. That’s better – no huge pallet of books in the garage. People can order your book online and you’d get a few bucks for each one ordered. Of course, with the thousands of self-published titles out there, don’t expect too many orders on line. On the other hand, you can simply order as many as you need, so you don’t have to print a thousand at a time. Trouble is, each book you order from the epublsiher is going to cost you $10-20 (or some substantial amount). If you try to consign them to a bookstore they will want something like a 40 to 50% discount. That means for your $20 they’d have to sell your book for $30. Unlikely.

I’m telling you these common scenarios to help you to make sure you know what you’re getting into before you’re parted from your hard earned cash.

Here’s the bald truth.

First of all, if any agent wants to charge you for anything, or send you to someone who charges you for editing then that should be a red flag. Agents make money if and only if you make money. And, there are a LOT of so-called agents out there who are looking to make a buck off of you. Go to the Editors & Preditors site (http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/) for information about how to find a good agent or editor and for additional warnings. (Click on warnings.)

Second of all, the only way you can make any money self (or on demand) publishing your book is if you have a platform to sell it. Novels are very hard to sell this way (but not unheard of.) Specialty non-fiction books stand a better chance.

What is a platform? If you are an on-fire promoter, you speak at meetings and conventions, you are a celebrity or well-known expert, you have time to travel and stage book signings at hundreds of bookstores, you can get on radio and television talk shows – then you can promote your self-published book and sell enough to get the attention of a real agent or publisher. Then, I’d recommend getting a good deal from them and letting the professionals handle the printing and distribution of your book (while you continue promoting your book.)

On the other hand, if you're writing a family memoir or some other book that you know will only be of interest to a few people, and you're not interested in making any money from the book, then find a printer who will print a hundred copies of your book, realizing that the chance it will ever be sold in a bookstore is slim to none.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Writer's Journey, 10 books every writer should read

The Writer's Journey: This is book 2 of 10 books every writer should read. In this book by Christopher Vogler, subtitled “Mythic Structure for Writers,” the author describes historic techniques of storytelling.

Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, this is a valuable read. Okay, so maybe it’s a little more valuable for fiction writers. But, even nonfiction writers tell stories, and this book helps clarify the typical structure of a story.

I know what some are thinking: writing is an art form, don’t lock me in to some formula. You are exactly right. But this book is not a formula book. It is a concept book.

Some years ago I took a class from the prolific TV icon Bob Banner once (producer of the Carol Burnett Show, Garry Moore Show, Live at the Apollo and many others – winner of a number of Emmys.) In that class he described how even in a three minute sketch it was important to have the critical elements of a story present. His staff writers included the likes of Woody Allen, Neil Simon and a number of other greats.

Take the ingredients explained in this book and cook up any kind of story – but like a cake with the sugar or flour or baking powder left out – you’re going to have a hard time making your story palatable if you leave out critical elements of story telling. Its not impossible, just harder.

Where does this book get its information? The basic information is from the work of researcher Joseph Campbell. Vogel took Campbell’s academic work and adapted the concepts into a book for the modern writer. He takes common elements of storytelling from global cultures of the past and condenses similarities down to a few components. The theory is that we humans have developed in such a way that we understand stories that contain certain elements in them. This could be hard-wired into the human brain or developed over thousands of years of civilization – I don’t know the answer to that. Nevertheless, it is valuable information for any writer to know and understand.

Without going into the details of the book (you need to read it yourself) the premise is that a story is like a quest. There is a beginning – something that causes the quest to begin. There is a hero that is called on to do the quest. (Don’t get taken back by somewhat archaic labels – the “hero” is typically the primary character such as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz or Rick in Casablanca.) The quest is a problem to be solved – maybe personal, maybe earth shattering, maybe humorous, maybe horrific.

Once our hero sets out (or is forced) on the quest, he or she meets up with a variety people that either make the quest harder or easier. They are people such as mentors, rivals, opponents, people who aren’t who they seem, etc. Each of these people contributes to the movement of the story and perhaps to the development of the hero’s character. In the end, the hero finds some resolution to the story’s initial problem.

This is a crude and brief outline of the contents of the book. Inherently, you already know the structure of a story – you tell stories everyday of the guy who almost ran you off the road, of the person who broke in line at the Starbucks, of the friend whose boyfriend ran off with another girl (or guy). Even though you know the basics of telling a story, if you want to rise to a new level, to understand the components of storytelling then read The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler.