Wednesday, February 27, 2008
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
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
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
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.
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
"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 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
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
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
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
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
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: 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 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
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 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
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.
Friday, February 8, 2008
Writers are artists.
We sculpt in words. We paint pictures in phrases. Our lyrics make music come to life. I recommend that you read this book with a few friends.The book is like a 12-step program. It came about from Julia’s experience in helping other writers fight writer’s block. But it is more than that. It creates in you an artist’s mindset. And it’s message is best put into practice by meeting with a group of people over a 6 to 12 week time frame and studying this book chapter by chapter.
Now some would say such as book is a bunch of hooey. Some woud say is a kind of voodoo book that's supposed to turn a frog writer into a prince (or princess). Believe me, there is a lot of hooey out there having to do with writing and getting published. I think this book is not one of those. Yes, it is touchy-feely. It deals with your spiritual nature -- your creativity. But after all, if you can't be a little touchy-ffely and creative as a writer, what are you doing in this line of work anyway?
Let me tell you what I got out of going through the book in a group setting (twice.) One of the crucial exercises in the book that can change your life forever is the morning pages. This is an exercise where you handwrite three pages of anything every day. You let your mind wander as you write and see where it leads. Sometimes it leads to silliness, sometimes to revelation, sometimes to confession and forgiveness, expressions of hatred or love, ideas for writing or a reminder to call the plumber to fix a leaking faucet.
The morning pages are cathartic. They allow you to spew your thoughts in privacy, to discover what is important to you, to have revelations and eurekas about writing, art, life and plumbing. I don’t want to make this book sound to pie-in-the-sky, but let’s face it. Writing is not calculus. It is art.
As art, it must be fed with creativity. Without creativity there is poor communication. With creativity even an article on atomic physics can be made understandable and interesting. And if you can get your writing to the level where you can make any topic interesting and readable, then you will stand out from the crowd. Most people I meet who want to get published are not willing to jump into the fray and immerse themselves in the writing process.
The Artist’s Way encourages you to get into deep water – to discover what it is about yourself that holds you back. It makes you ask yourself, what would I write if I knew I would be successful? Or what would I write if I didn’t have to worry about what Aunt Mabel would think? What would I write if I knew my writing would change the world for the better? Or what would I write if I knew God was on my side?
The Artist’s Way is a spiritual journey. No matter your spiritual beliefs, creativity is spiritual. God is a creator. We are made in His image. As little gods we naturally emulate our parents – we want to create just as God created. I think, in fact, that this would be a much darker, sinister, murderous world if it were not for the writer’s (and artist’s) creation of beautiful, inspirational, thought-provoking, comedic, real-life, revealing, and society-challenging works.The Artist’s Way is a beginning for every writer.
Don’t be like most wanna-be writers and think that you can write the great American whatever without paying your dues. Like any athlete, concert musician, college professor, or electrician, you have to learn your craft thoroughly and be connected to it spiritually before you will experience what it really means to be a significant and successful writer.
This book is your nursery school. It is your graduate course. It can help you make the most of your God-given talent for creativity so that you will begin thinking like and acting like a noteworthy writer.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Texture and flavor are two things (among many) to keep in mind while you're writing. Texture is how something feels -- the grittness of sandpaper -- the smoothness of silk. They are both interesting and useful, but in different settings. You'll hardly ever find a dress made of sandpaper.
Texture in writing is mixing up the mechanics how you present your idea. The days of two-page long sentences a la War and Peace were buried with the buggy whip. I tend to write in run-on sentances and when I pay attention, I go back and fix the sentance up. I make some sentances and paragraphs long (not too long). '
And some short.
There are at least two reasons to mix up the size and demeanor of your sentances. One reason is because your sentances dictate pace and mood to your reader. If you're describing a chase you may want short clipped sentances with powerpacked words to emulate action. A romantic interlude may use more mellow phrases and carefully selected words that set a an alluring.
The second reason to consider texture is to make your writing look more inviting. Whether you’re writing a magazine article or a blog or a nonfiction book, you should be aware of how your sentences look on the page. Are you pages full of words, words, words? Think about fitting in short paragraphs along with the others.
I’m not sure if people are just lazy today or if we’re all stupider than we used to be. But readers don’t what formidable writing. We’ve grown up on thirty second commercials and five second sound bites. We don’t want our paragraphs too long.
Give readers a little information at a time--enough to cover a thought and not much more. Be brief. Be focused. Be sharp.
In most writing markets, except academic, it’s okay to occasionally have very short and even incomplete sentences. Go ahead. Try it. It won’t hurt. See? And, it breaks up the rhythm of your writing. In fact, think about writing in a conversational style. It can keep your writing from become boring.
And speaking of boring. Don’t be. Spice up your writing with flavor. It’s like my grandpa used to say, “Put enough ketchup on it and anything is edible.” Colorful writing can come in a lot of forms. You can be regional – I’m a Texan so my writing can be as revealing as a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader outfit.
There are lots of flavors to choose from. Try writing with humor (always effective), sensuously, witty, hatefully (I hate that one) or forcefully. Define your voice. Find an appealing, engaging, powerful and flavorful voice.
If you keep texture and flavor in mind when you're writing then your work will be more readable and your material more saleable.
Go for it.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Okay, I tell myself. Get a grip. Its all part of the writing process.
No, I reply – I will not get a grip! My baby! My baby was rejected! I birthed that idea. I gave it life. I brought it into the world. And those lame-brain editors rejected it! How dare they!
Take a deep breath.
You are not the first or last writer to get rejected. Surely you remember the 100 rejection letters you got before your first book was sold? That didn’t stop you then. Why should it bother you now?
Okay, okay, I remember those 100 rejections – but I have more experience now. Don’t those editors know that? Don’t they know my qualifications, my experience? Don’t they know that I agonized over every word?
No, they don’t. They’re in it for the business. It wasn’t what they wanted. That's it, nothing personal.
I still hate those letters.
Maybe there's a bright side. Remember that most of the rejection letters you’ve received have been photocopies of photocopies of rejection letters – enough to wallpaper your entire house? This time you got a personal letter and an email – both of the editors took enough to say some good things – they took the time to let you know that the pieces just didn’t fit what they wanted.
Okay, okay – maybe I sent them to the wrong places. Maybe those particular editors aren’t complete idiots. But I still feel bad.
Take a few days to mull it over. It’s part of the writer’s life. Try to learn something from the experience. Is there some way to target the pieces to a publisher who would be more likely to accept them? Were the concerns they mentioned in the rejection letters real? Should the pieces be changed?
Stop. I don’t want to think about that now.
Okay, go on to other projects for a while. Come back to these in a few days – maybe a week – but don’t wait too long. Keep your proposals in the mail – always keep your proposals in the mail. They will never be sold sitting on your desk.
Maybe I’m feeling a little better. Sometimes I just have to vent.
I hate rejection letters.