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.)