Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sensory Description

Monday, June 22nd

Today topic in class was sensory description, and what a day to discuss it. I was afraid my own sweat and dry mouth would distract me during the writing down the senses exercise. But it didn’t, and today I learned one of my most important exercises that will help with my rewrites. Here it is:

Write about your character as if they’re blind.

I have a big problem with eye cues, and I use them everywhere. I’d never thought about it, but if I do this, thinking about sensory perception is suddenly much easier.

Talk about a facepalm moment.

The senses that are used most are sight followed by hearing; least used is taste, touch, and scent.

Not a whole lot of instructing, but the follow-up of writing a short story in thirty minutes drove the exercise home. Senses make even a boring story marginally better.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Friday, June 19th

Ahh, dialogue. One thing I’ve realized about dialogue is I can learn something new about it no matter how many times it’s discussed. Dialogue is so hard to get right; not only does it inflect character, intonation, and information, but it also lends to immediacy. Dialogue has so many parts put into it – word use, accents, etc – that perfecting dialogue is tricky; particularly since dialogue can never be as loose as real dialogue, but is a brushed up, carefully worded construct similar to real speech patterns.

Honestly, I could talk at length about it, but the only thing that makes for good dialogue is lots of practice.

I received Jan’s feedback on Devil’s Tongue today. Although I enjoy and appreciate the critiques given me, it was fun to sit down to fresh stories by other writers and critique them. I love editing pieces, both line and content-wise. I learn so much about myself as well as the writers that by the end I felt like I knew Jan and Marcia better than before. Both of their backgrounds shine so clearly in their writing styles. Jan focuses on detailed, vivid description, and Marcia tends to write in a more editorial, journalism sort of way. I hope both of them keep working on their pieces and clean them up; I’d love to see them in print.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Making a Character Sheet/Plotting

Wednesday, June 17th

Today we did my favorite exercise to date. I’ve added it to my tool arsenal for future works. It’s a character quick fact sheet, consisting of the victim, villain, primary suspect, and hero. You can use this tool for more than mysteries.

We talked about clich├ęs, and the differences in who-dun-it versus how-dun-it. I’d never realized there was a how-dun-it; it’s one of those things you don’t consider until someone points out the obvious to you. I think that’s what CSI (both the show and the books) falls under.

I’ve learned a lot about what’s good and not good for an author to do watching the afternoon talks. I assumed somewhere in my illogical brain that talking about writing is next to writing for writers, and that this would transfer into many fascinating afternoon talks. I’d forgotten that as much as we all love writing, it doesn’t mean we’re all speakers. Another lesson learned.

I went home and looked around for the police citizen’s academy; they’ve got one for St. Louis County. Success!

Thursday, June 18th

Today’s talk in class focused on plotting. Lots of points hit home with me, and I had a ton of highlight marks scattered throughout my notebook. One of the things I wanted to take out of this class, besides a bit of inspiration to get me back in the grind, is to get me back to remembering the basics of writing. I’ve worked hard the past two years pumping my fiction skills up - part mechanic and part business – and sometimes you get lost in the whirl of it all. This has helped remind me of what’s important, and where to cut the crap.

Some of my favorite points that stuck out today:

- A synopsis is key to determining whether a plot is a plot, or an idea that will fizzle throughout.
- No matter how many books you write, we all start at the same place.
- “What if” are the two most important words in writer’s arsenal.
- When you add a sub-plot, it must be resolved well ahead of the main plot, or else the main plot loses its drama.
- In endings, your protagonist must choose between two alternative courses of action that force them to make a decision.
- Hope/fear = suspense

One thing that we talked about today reminded me of something funny shared with me by other fantasy writers. We talked about the importance of pacing and how characters need a chance to breathe as well as the readers.

In fantasy writing, there’s a tendency to stretch the impossible, and I don’t mean by magical means. There’s a Fantasy Novelist’s Exam you can use to check and make sure you’re not guilty of stupid tropes within the fantasy genre. My favorite, #56, is: “Does anybody in your novel fight for two hours straight in full plate armor, then ride a horse for four hours, then delicately make love to a willing barmaid all in the same day?”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Writer Workshop - Characterization

Tuesday, June 16th

My teacher, Suzann Ledbetter Ellingsworth, is using her 20 years of writing experience to educate us. Now that I've dinged her Google Alerts (Hi Suzann!), let's talk about characterization.

"A good novel tells the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." G.K. Chesterton

Class continues to educate and impress me. Today’s talk was about characterization. Some of the highlights:

- fiction exists to entertain & inform
- Don’t beat symbolism over a reader’s head
- Three-dimensional characters are vital
- Write forward, learn about characters from beginning to end.
- Don’t confine characters to a box

I didn’t realize how much us talking about mysteries in class would help. After talking with Suzann after class about my project, I realized something significant for me – I’d always looked at this as a fantasy/mystery, but Suzann looks at it as a mystery with fantasy elements. She mentioned Devil’s Tongue would probably be marketed as a mystery since it has a larger market. I’d never thought of it that way.

Also learned that licensed PI’s have to remain within the bounds of the law. Thank goodness I was corrected of that error before I made a big oopsy.

The talks today weren’t what I was expecting by a long shot. No offense to the speakers, but a talk about meditation and playing word games, and a paper analyzing history isn’t exactly shoptalk. I hope the others are more interesting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New from the Super Secret Writer's Workshop

**Begin Transmission**

-crackle- Things have been busy and I've just managed to escape. My apologies for the delayed response, but I can only give eyewitness accounts. Handouts will commence as soon as I find access to a scanner.

Monday, June 15th

The first day of our writing institute. I can’t really call it a conference; workshop is a better term. The keynote speaker, John Dalton, was fabulous. I don’t usually have a need for an inspirational speech from a writer; I figure I make my own inspiration whenever I sit my butt in the seat. His website has a wonderful story that, if you're feeling a bit down about getting the novel done, is a great read. However, having started my new position in OT has made things a little hectic as I figure out my job. I’ve been so tired for the past three weeks that my usual work ethic has gone down the tubes. This is my chance to recharge and think.

John Dalton's Contrary Writer's Rules, as mentioned in his keynote speech:

1) It takes time to develop your work.
2) You can learn a lot from workshops, but you have to learn the most important ideas on your own.
3) Books are often boring.
4) The best writers are all nerds.
5) There's cause for hope.

In class we focused on the writing industry and making writing a career as a whole. We talked about how non-fiction is a great way to break into the writing field and establish contacts while making cash. It also teaches a writer about marketing, focus groups, and forces a writer to learn how to research.

Important distinction:
*Non-fiction talks about fact.
*Fiction uses lies to tell the truth.

I enjoyed the reinforcement about research, as it’s hard to remember that you can only fake so much in fiction. Don't be afraid to talk to experts in a field to get an accurate account of how things are done in the field. Right now, as I started rereading my police procedural book, I’m trying to figure out how much I can “bend” without outright breaking rules in my novel.

I love research. :o) -crackle-

**End Transmission**

Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Exercise in Violence

For my writing workshop. Sharing an experience of violence you've experienced/witnessed.

When I faced my opponent in the ring, the fact that he was six inches taller than me was the only thing running through my mind. It didn’t matter that we were both fresh green belts; the fact that they stuck me with Legs didn’t bode well for the upcoming match.

We bowed, but my eyes never left him; all I could think about was how to outsmart him and hope he tired faster than me. I remember the first ki-hap, then the rest was a blur of circling, jabs and kicks.

I landed the first hit; a solid kick to the side. The whistle blew and the flags flashed my way; one sweet point on my side. He won the next point, but he was tiring. I knew I could win.

I punch him square in the chest twice, enough to make him wobble even with the pads on. No whistle. I glanced at the ref in shock, blocked a punch and kicked his off-side. No whistle; no flags.

Even though it wasn’t fair, I couldn’t think about the ref. Sweat trickled into my eyes. I wiped it off, and that’s when the first low kick blazed towards my shin.

I didn’t remember how many of those dirty blows hit, but my friend outside the ring said she counted forty. All I remember is the searing, agonizing pain as my shin swelled an inch and the referee didn’t say a word. I scored one more point before I started limping. Legs scored the final three points for victory as I hip-hopped around the ring. No calls from the ref for intentional blows, no time out or disqualification. What’s a kid to do when their degree-ranked heroes disappoint them?

Your Conference Spy, Reporting In


My mission, which I have chosen to accept, is to infiltrate the two week writer's workshop known as Summer Writer's Institute. My goal: to obtain information for the good of writerdom.

Any information obtained will be reported immediately to said writers brave enough to follow this blog. Be on the lookout after Monday, June 15th, for important messages.

This messages will self-destruct.

**End Transmission**

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What Are You Doing for Your Writing?

Writing is like anything else you love and cherish - you have to exercise it, give it a chance to grow and mold itself into the best it can be. If your writing is worth it to you, then it's vital to give it the same care and attention of anything else important in your life.

I start a small 1 credit writing workshop this Wednesday that goes through August at my university. In addition, the countdown to my two week writer's workshop has begun. Just 5 days until I get to spend two weeks of incredibly productive creative time around like minds. I can't wait. Some people may think it's weird to use vacation to take a class, but hey - they take vacation for all sorts of things I wouldn't bother going to. Baseball isn't important to me (sorry, Dad).

For my writing, I'm grooming it with some good classes and giving me the chance to actually write. May-June are hell in the finance world, and it's been difficult finding time to write this month; rare for me, but it happens.

Make sure you do what it takes to take care of your writing, whether it be taming it down to a schedule despite its protests or letting it take a sip of whiskey and see what happens.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Writing Advice is Hazardous to Your Health

/dusts off her small box and climbs on top

Ahem. This rant, writers of non-repute, is for you and your incessant received writing advice.

There is a thing called too much advice. If you're on your first draft, if you haven't taken the weed whacker to the selection, or had a chance to finish the arc to see where it goes... how can you get advice that's truly valuable? Good advice about a story is precious, and requiring someone to validate your writing every chapter won't help you accomplish anything except angst, and we writers have enough of that.

I know how you feel when you have a WiP. The excitement and madness of writing down your heart's thoughts and your head's emotions. The thrill of racing along with your protagonist as you're swept into their story is beyond compare. And who can blame you? For you, the story is crystal clear.

You've written your first chapter, or perhaps the entire novel, and that little voice, the who's so proud of your work and yet desires some advice speaks up. It tells you to get out there and get people engaged in your piece. Perhaps a Hooked contest over at Authoress's blog, or a writing forum; maybe even the coveted writing group.

To see if you're you're headed in the right direction, of course.

I mean, it was written for you and others to enjoy, right? A little advice and some compliments in one go - how bad could it be?

Let me give you an example from a fellow writer I know. She's a good writer, is free with her writing advice and time for others, and has a wonderful WiP that's shaping up nicely. My friend recently relayed an incident to me where she asked for people in this writing blog group she's in to give her critiques on her WiP. She got 18 people giving feedback on the entire thing.

18 - gosh, she must feel incredible, right? So many people came and gave advice on her piece! And as it turned out, she had several people remark on the same thing, and did find something useful.

The problem, however, was that verbal flood overwhelmed her. While some of the advice was good, just as much of it wasn't. There were people who didn't know how to act like professionals, and there were so many specifics that by the end she felt like she had to please everyone. It became frustrating and depressing to read - knowing when to not listen to unprofessional people still doesn't stop you from feeling down about it.

I know many people say the advice helps them to improve their writing, and I'm not saying advice should never be sought - it should only be sought after you've put it through the wringer and your writing is ready to be viewed by the public for final tweaking. Stephen King calls those people Ideal Readers; an apt phrase.

The thing is, until you've had a chance to sit and sweat over your writing a few times, any adivce you get will be moot, as you'll end up changing the whole darn thing anyways.

Another example: a second friend of mine recently had the first part of her chapter 1 put up for critiques on a board. The dozen or so comments that followed were about as useful as an umbrella with a hole in it. Vague comments about how they didn't like or liked it, with only one person pointing out any specifics was a total wash from her. She knew her first chapter needed some work, but all she found out was that it didn't work for most people. Oh, and the place two people wanted her to start at was trite and overdone for her genre.

If you take the time to sit with your story and look it over, you can figure out yourself the extensive rewrites you'll need to get the much-valued second chapter. All the advice in the world may or may not give you ideas and help, but it'll be their ideas, not yours. Your piece is your creation for so long before people start putting their mark on it - go through it at least twice on your own before delving to the outside realms.

You yourself, and the fact that you stuck your butt in the seat every day to finish the 60k-200k monstrosity is validation. Every day you go back and chip away at the boulder of a bad scene, or use your plot hole shovel, or wield those slice and dice knives - that is validation.

If you need permission to brag, you have it. Less than half of the people who say they'll write a novel end up starting it, let alone finishing a first draft.

When that voice starts speaking up, smack it with a stick. I'm serious. Advice is always a two-edged sword, and putting a piece out somewhere that's not ready to go will give you bad jujus.

Patience, young padawan. You'll know when the time is right to pass out those copies for others to read. Find those ideal readers, the ones whose advice you can trust won't steer you off into stereotypes or change your writing style.

Your writing and you - the best duo in the world. Keep it that way.