Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Where a comment turns into a post

Today I read a post on the very helpful writing blog "Word Play," and tried to leave a comment.

My computer believes, however, that - though I can sign into Google to write on my blog - my password is incorrect when trying to leave a comment on another blog. This fallacy has caused me many a moment of frustration the past few weeks, but tonight I'm determined that good shall prevail; I'll just post my comment in post form. (Be sure to read the post on "Word Play" first, to make sense of my comment. As a brief summary, I'll just say that the topic was about realizing that good stories usually need time to "brew" before you sit down and write them, and you shouldn't rush the process.)

Here's what I said in response:

"This is very encouraging to me! The story that I am working on right now has a few chapters typed out on my computer...but I stepped back from it a couple of weeks ago, feeling that I needed to "chew on it" a while longer. I've felt worried, wondering if I should just force myself to "do something," but my gut feelings say to wait. I'm glad to hear that's not a crime. :)

On the other side of the coin, however, I'm worried that my brain is just lazy, and I'm making excuses to not work on the story in earnest. I guess I'm the only one who can know if that's true or not, huh? Or are there clues to look for, to tell me if this story is one that's gonna stick around for the long haul?"

What do you think? How would you answer my question? Are there prompts that you use to get your mind truly working on a story? How do you know when you're being lazy, or the story just isn't ready?

Come on, now - I know I have more than one reader out there, and you can't all have the same issues with Google that I have. :) Even if you're not a writer, you've experienced creativity of some sort. How do you get it flowing? Do you ever "force" yourself to be creative? Does that work, or is it counter-productive? I'd like some feedback on this topic. Should I be worried that my story isn't "flowing"? Even though I stepped back in order to "chew" on the idea, the "chewing" isn't really happening. Ideas don't seem to be coming.

I'm thinking that what I need is just some down time, where I don't have other things on my mind. But that can be hard to come by. Should I do my thinking with a keyboard under my fingertips? Should I make myself write? What do you think?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Bit of Rant

I'm gonna rant a bit today. Consider yourself warned.

"What is she 'gonna' rant about?" he wondered to himself.

Don't you hate that "wondered to himself"? Come on! How else do you wonder? Have you ever "wondered to" somebody else? Adding "to himself" just means you threw two unnecessary words on the page.

"Never thought about that," he chuckled.

May I ask how you chuckle words? What happens if your tongue slips while chuckling big words like "contrariwise" or "enunciation" - do you choke?

"I see what you mean," he smiled.

You just did it again! How does one smile words? It must be very hard to get thick words through your thinly-spread lips and closed teeth.

"You are ruining my fun," he said. "....Are you happy now? I used 'said'!"

Actually, no. Without proper context, how am I to know how you said it? That sentence doesn't define itself. Did you growl it? Whine it? State it? I don't know much about you - how do I know how those words came out?

Now, if you had said "Come over here, Amber," and there was nothing in the previous text to indicate that you were upset with me, I could assume you just "said" it. But if you added an exclamation point, you must - again - define if you shouted, screamed, or cried the words. Context is everything.

Dialogue is big, important stuff. Absolutely essential. But so are the words that come after it! Please, please, please, don't give yourself away as an amateur writer by putting the wrong words there. Characters do not:

chuckle words,
smile words,
laugh words,

They can, however:

...and a multitude of other things, along with the ever-important "said."

Of course, our characters do chuckle, smile, and laugh. They just don't speak it. (If you disagree, try it yourself.)

So be sure to separate the two. Put the words; "I think I get this" then a period; "." (NOT a comma!) then "he laughed."


Now you have no excuse if you write something impossible, like, "It's no big deal," he laughed.

But wait a minute! If I write "'It's no big deal,' Harold said," how do I convey that laughing tone of voice that he's using?

Talent, my friends! Talent!

Without those crutches, you'll have to show Harold's emotions with the words he says, not you say. You'll have to convey it with his actions, not your descriptions. Use laughing words, and punctuation that shows how he's catching his breath and doubling over. For that matter, mention that he's doubling over, and his eyes are crinkled up, and his missing teeth are showing. If all else fails, just say "Harold laughed loudly."

There is some gray area, though. For example, two words I'm not sure on are "groaned" and "sighed." Can you groan words? Or sigh them? What do you think?

Oh yeah - there's another thing that bugs me.

"Laughing loudly," is fine.

"Screaming loudly," is not.

How else do you scream?

Whispered quietly?
Flew quickly?

The only time you need modifiers like this is when the context demands it. For example, "laughed joyfully" is usually redundant and unnecessary. However, if up until now the character has been laughing wryly and sarcastically, a bit of explaining is due.

Leave your "ing" and "ed" words alone unless context demands you explain that they aren't laughing joyfully, flying quickly, running quickly, standing erectly, etc.

....And my pizza dough is finished rising, so I must abruptly end my ranting, and bid you farewell.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stuff to watch for

I watched a new movie recently.

To be kind, I won't say the title, but I don't think it was very well done. However, while watching, I was reminded of a few things that can apply to writing stories:

1 - Strong plots can carry poor actors. Even though the actors were...well...pretty amateur, I still wanted to see what happened next.

2 - Characters shouldn't sound like they are reading their lines. At first thought, this applies only to actors, but I think it translates to book characters too. They shouldn't sound so...bookish. Would a person in really life say that? Would they say it like that? Think before they talk.

3 - Action and plot isn't enough. You still have to connect with the characters. Ideally, you should bond with the character before they are placed in action, or in danger. Otherwise, you simply don't care. Don't plunge right into things before your reader gets his footing and identifies in some way with the character. Do something to make him/her catch the interest of the reader - even if it's only a sentence or two before you plunge into that opening action scene. (This was a good reminder for me.)

Have you ever learned things about writing from watching a movie? Or reading a poorly-written book? Have you trained yourself to watch for mistakes, and see them as a way to learn, not just annoy you? What have you been taught through this habit?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Things I learned from my recent reading material

Today I read a book that focuses on concrete, heavy adjectives. There are a lot of action scenes in the book, but somehow you get the feeling that the outward action is a blur, and the only thing in sharp focus is the thought-life of the characters, ...and their thoughts are full of adjectives.

In a way, it was a engaging book, pulling you in to the character's mind and emotions. But in another way, it left me feeling like saying "enough with the introspect - let's turn your eyes outward and see what's happening in the world!"

Don't get me wrong - it was well done. The authors (the book was co-written) worked all those descriptions in there pretty smoothly. They don't use many italicized thoughts, so rarely are you quite sure whether the descriptions you are reading are the narrator's voice, or the voice of the character's thoughts. This keeps the characters from sounding "like a book." And, if you read it slowly, (like I rarely do), the similes are great word pictures. Definitely a good source for adjective, metaphor, and simile ideas.

One thing that did get confusing, though, was the fact that the book had two main characters, and the viewpoint was constantly changing mid-scene, or even mid-paragraph. I've come to the conclusion that I don't want to use this writing style, although I have tried it in the past. Even if you are very clear - and these authors were fairly good at that - it's too much work for the reader's brain. (Ahem.) Switching viewpoint between scenes is often enough for me.

I realize this is a rather rambling collection of thoughts, but I just finished a hour-or-so spurt of writing, and my brain is tumbling all over the place without an outline to follow. I just thought I'd put out these pros and cons, and ask what your thoughts on the matter are. How much "introspect" is enough? How do you know when you need to focus more on the action of the plot, rather than the emotions? And how do you know when you need to back off the action and throw a meditating character in there?

What about viewpoint switching? How often do you think it should be done? What's your rule of thumb?

What habits of authors do you find tiring as a reader? Do you see any of them showing up in your own work? What can you do to discourage yourself from forming habits and styles that are fun for the writer but extra work for the reader?

Waiting to hear from you!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blessings Unexpected

Just when you're feeling like the life of a writer is a high (or low) and lonely road, you are surprised by an act of kindness, an appearance of a fellow human being - one who reads what you wrote...and likes it.

I received just such a surprise today: check out this blog post!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Creativity and The Spiritual Dimension

Well, folks, I've been working on formatting and editing my book, and so far so good.

I was wondering today - are all writers deep thinkers? It seems to me that certain characteristics are common to all writers, and deep thinking must be one of those. I'm sure that more than a few of us have been made the end of good-natured jokes, since being lost in thought is quite humorous for those watching it from the outside.

For example, how many of you have done at least one of the following:

~ Passed a turn while driving, because you were thinking of other things
~ Finished a meal and not been able to remember what it was you ate, because your mind was on your story plot, not the food.
~ Stood at the bathroom sink, mechanically brushing your teeth for over 5 minutes, because you were lost in thought. (My hand is waving high on this one.)
~ Read the same page three or more times because you were thinking of characters, not research. (Guilty on this one, too.)
~ Been working on something, and had someone walk by and talk to you, asking you some questions. You respond. A minute or two goes by, and you look up. "What did I just tell them?" you wonder.

Yes, it's amusing. In retrospect, anyway. (I refuse to say how many times that last one has happened to me.)

But thinking, meditating, and chewing on ideas is how books come to life. I confess that I actually consider this a weak point in my writing; I don't think I think deeply enough or often enough. My imagination was much stronger when I was younger. I used to read more, then, too.

Have you ever chastised yourself for not being creative enough? "Oh, if only I was as creative as they are! How do they ever think of such plots? Why didn't I think of that first? Why can't my imagination work today? Why am I so unoriginal?"

I've been there, done that, many times. God is creative, right? And I've been made in His image, right? And I believe He's made me a writer...so why can't I think up something totally original?

I can't seem to do it. Everything I think of is a combination of other things I've read, watched, or heard. And this saddened me.

But yesterday, I was reminded of a grand and glorious truth about ourselves.

We can't truly create.

What is "creating," anyway? How did God do it?

I don't know. He spoke, and things became. He made the elements, the laws of science and math, and time and space all from nothing. That's creation. That's creating.

Can you do that? Can you make something from nothing? Of course not. So you can't really create. You shouldn't expect yourself to create.

We are not creators. We are creative. We imitate God, like a child imitating a parent. But we don't start with emptiness; we start with the building blocks He's given us. So everything we humans "create" is simply a rearrangement of what He made in the first place.

That goes for stories, too. If you think about it, God has made history and real life; all stories are rearrangements of that. We think "what if this happened? What if that happened?" We rearrange the events, but it's all happened before. Wars. Death. Kidnappings. Falling in love. Finding courage to do something difficult. Coping with hardships. Poverty. Tyrants. Weak good guys. Dashing good guys. Betrayals. Strong families. Snowstorms. Shipwrecks. Knights on a mission. Escapes. Haven't these all happened in real life? Did you really think some human created the first "love story"?

So don't strive to be original in what you say; you'll fail. Seek to be original in how you say it.

And here's the key to making how "you say it" sound believable; real life events always have a spiritual side. A building block has three sides - it's 3D. A story-building block has a physical, mental, and spiritual side. Anything that doesn't is flat, the half-hearted imitation of an author who thought they could create something...and ended up only destroying something that would have worked, and calling the remains their own invention.

Don't try to work this element up in your story any more that you try to "work up" something else - it's already there. You are using building blocks that come from real life. How does God use those events in real life? A story told in only the physical and mental dimension will fall flat - there is always, always, always another dimension. And I don't care if you're writing fantasy stories, either - there's a spiritual dimension. Greek mythology has a spiritual dimension. Everything has a spiritual dimension, and you'd better account for that in your work, or you'll be a failure as a story teller. But how much better when it's a true spiritual dimension? How much better when you can use your story to reveal truths about the real God?

That's what story telling at its height of glory really is; an echo of a spiritual truth we know to be true.

That's why a daring knight fulfilling his quest against all odds can make our hearts sing even when we know he doesn't exist; we've been through struggles ourselves, and we know that such a thing can really happen. If the knight has relied on God for help, and God has stepped in and done something amazing, we are doubly entranced, because all humans are fascinated by the supernatural. And when the supernatural is real, when that supernatural thing could have actually happened....well, heartbeats triple in speed.

Make use of the building blocks God gives you. Grab story ideas from real life, and don't forget to grab their spiritual dimensions along with them. Keep those ideas 3D, and you'll have the foundations for a truly creative story.

...Well, as creative as any human can get.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Hard Story

Well, fellow writers, I'm here for encouragement.

There's a book I started working on five years ago. I began it because I felt inspired - because I believed God wanted me to write that story.

I knew when I began that I wanted to self-publish, and I also knew I lacked the funds to publish the book. But I wrote anyway.

I poured sweat, tears, and agonies into that work. I did more research than I had ever done for any other project. I struggled to find the words to write, in a suck-in-your-breath-and-dive kind of way; they didn't pour out like they did on other projects. I lost my drive, then prayed for strength, and kept plodding on.

I sent it off to a well-respected author friend. He kept the manuscript for many months - long enough to make me sure he had left it buried under a pile of papers, forgotten.

But he hadn't. He sent it to me, finally, with hundreds of notes scribbled in the wide margins. He was tough - he said what he thought. And, at the end, he liked it.

He liked it.

But he said it needed work.

So I tore the thing apart, editing for hours at a time. Every so often I would reckon how long it had been since I started, and sigh to myself, but I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Then...it was done. Finished. Ready for publishing.

And I still had no money to print it.

But I was still convinced that God had led me to write the book, and I assured my author friend (who recommend that I take out a loan, he was so eager to get the book in print soon) that God would provide.

And He did - little by little. I worked. And saved. And worked. I didn't tell many people I was saving to publish my book. I wanted God to work it all out by Himself. I kept my savings in an orange-and-white bank envelope, coloring in squares on the front each time I stepped $50 closer to the goal.

That was several years ago.

This book is written for older children. This book is about a preacher. A forgotten man. The man whose preaching God used to start a revival - which in turn formed the "Bible Belt" of the southern states of America. This is the man whose preaching God used to fire up patriots, and teach them that souls are meant to be free, not subject to the will of the Anglican Church of England.

Churches all over Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and the land that became Tennessee and Kentucky rose up for the cause of liberty because this one man preached freedom of the soul. These congregations formed armies. They fought battles. They stamped out injustice.

And when modern history books speak of this time in history, they talk for a paragraph or two about the Boston Tea Party. Then, let's move on to the war of 1812.

My heart aches for young people - all people - to know about this history. Not so much because of a great man, but because of a God who worked mightily in His people, and performed wonders on their behalf. I want these stories, of patriotic Christians, to be well known!

It was for this reason I labored on this book. And worked. And saved. And cried during many a church service.

All the while, the manuscript has laid quietly on my hard drive, waiting on God's timing.

During the past few months, something in me has come alive that I thought was sleeping. Something is saying "it is time." Two dear ladies have pried out of either my mother or me the story of this book; one gave me all the money she had in her purse at the time (no small sum), and the other offered me such a large sum I declared I could not take it. She replied by giving me a few simple jobs, to 'earn' the money. I'm almost done with those jobs.

And my orange and white bank envelope, well-worn and fraying at the edges, is fat and heavy. I'm almost there.

Close enough, in fact, that I've set a goal; I want to publish by Christmas.

That, my dear readers, is thirty-some days away.

But that's not all. Here's where I need encouragement:

I brought out that dear, old manuscript last night. I hadn't looked at it in awhile - it was too saddening. As I read the first few pages, I began shaking my head.

This wouldn't do. I'd grown since I last wrote this. I could do better than this. This story deserved to be told in a manner worthy of it.

And I'm sitting here now, overwhelmed by the thought that I haven't dared to really think....yet is in my mind anyway.

I have to re-write. Or at least do some major editing.

I'm so close. I want to be close. I want to be done. But I can't, after all this time and work, send a manuscript off for publication unless it is the best I can do. I would regret it forever.

I don't know what to do. What to feel. Should I bury my face in my arms and cry? Should I burn the midnight oil for twenty days straight, until it's done? Should I give up - No, no, I will not even think that. This story was meant to be written.

But, O, it is meant to be written so much better! It is a saga, a masterpiece of God's history - it deserves to be told with skill and a master hand! I want to do better.

I feel empty. This story is not in me. Do you understand? It isn't in me. It's been so long since I started - I have other stories burning in my mind now. How can I make myself sit down and tear apart a book I started five years ago?

But I must. I cannot dare not to.

Please, tell me something. Tell me anything. Just talk to me. Tell me I can do this.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Free E-book!

I've been enjoying the blog Wordplay, by author K.M. Weiland. It's full of helpful advice and inspiration. I've never read any of K.M. Weiland's novels, but she's a good writer - one who loves her craft.

There's an extra bonus on the site; right now, on the top of the left sidebar on Wordplay, there's a link to sign up for a newsletter. If you sign up, you get a free e-book, by Weiland, called "Crafting Unforgettable Characters." I've never been one to impulsively sign up for things, but character crafting is a weak point of mine, and I decided to give it a go. After all, who can resist a free book? And a free book on writing? I'm gone.

It was worth it. I read all 50-some pages in a single evening (not much of a feat), and was inspired to get to work on my current characters. I've now created a new word document for character development, and I've copied and pasted just about every "character interview" I found online. I have SO many questions to answer for each character! I'll know them all inside and out by the time I'm done coming up with answers.

Right now I have a conversation going with one of my favorite characters; Philip. I was working through the typical questions - "how old is this character?" "what is his favorite color?" "what is his goal in the book?" etc., and I came to the beginning of a new set of questions (copied from a different website). These were written as if talking to the character. The first one I noticed was "What do you want?"

Philip answered. I wrote it down.

Then I found myself asking, in writing, "That's fine, Philip, but what do you really want?"

He told me. We ended up having a very profitable conversation, in which I learned a lot about him, and about putting his voice and expressions on a page. He's a very troubled young man.

But those characters make the best stories, don't they? :)

Anyway - get a copy of that e-book. It's a good read! And many thought-provoking or humorous quotes are scattered through-out. You'll like it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

New Website

Ooooh, I like this website!

Write Better English

What do you think?

A Favorite

I'd like to introduce you to THE book when it comes to style. You will not find a better writing handbook than this. I've loved many writing books, but this one is a classic. Take a look at the contents:


    1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's
    2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
    3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
    4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause
    5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma
    6. Do not break sentences in two
    7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject
    8. Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation

    1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
    2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
    3. Use the active voice
    4. Put statements in positive form
    5. Omit needless words
    6. Avoid a succession of loose sentences
    7. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
    8. Keep related words together
    9. In summaries, keep to one tense
    10. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end



Can you get more basic and to-the-point than that? Strunk and White were the gentlemen who first taught me that less is better, that concise is power. (Omit needless words! Omit needless words!) And they follow their own advice. The book is only 105 pages. Don't cringe at the hint of grammar - yes, it's in there. And it's totally enjoyable. Don't be such a rebel that you can't learn to use words in the way that will best convey your meaning. Words are your tools - learn to control them! Grammar isn't evil.

Repeat: grammar isn't evil.

This book doesn't sound like a grammar book at all, or a boring English book, either. It's a gem of potent advice. Some copies come with ridiculous cartoons, to illustrate each point, but I prefer the black-and-white text-only style. I'm strange that way.

I've had our library's copy checked out many, many times. I keep saying I need to get my own private copy. (Hint, hint - Christmas is coming up, Mom!) I would think that every library would have a copy of this classic, but just in case yours doesn't, I'd like to offer this site as a place to read the whole thing online. Isn't technology great?

Maybe you don't think less is more. Maybe your style is more "flowery, poetic, and full of adjectives and words." Fine. I won't try to convince you. Just get the book. And read it. If you still believe in packing in the words once Strunk and White are done with you, I dub you unreachable.

Do you write or do you WRITE?

We writers are a strange lot.

There. I just had to say that.

But, really, we are. We talk so much about how we love to write. We can discourse on our latest project. We can tell stories of past plans. Someone mentions that "stack of stories I've started but never finished," and we all groan in unison and knowing sympathy. We talk an awful lot about how we love to write.

...But do we actually write?

It ought to be top on the list of "hindrances to writing." We just don't write. We do everything but write. We go to the library to "research." We brainstorm on a scrap of paper. We discuss ideas with friends. But it takes a lot to get us to sit down and write.

But that's what separates the true writers from the wanna-bes. We all know that person who is constantly talking about "their book," but never progressing. We silently sigh inside, and know they are never going to finish it. They've been working on chapter one for four years...once every three months, for about two days straight. Then the inspiration dies, and they push the work to the side.

Do you really want to be one of those? Is writing just a hobby you tinker with, or are you committed to it? You've gotta know. If God has made you a writer, you are out of His will until you get about the business of honoring the talent He put in you, and directing it to His service. If you are only playing with writing, you are wasting precious time and thought in something that isn't meant for you. Get busy doing what you are meant to do.

I'm not saying you shouldn't learn to write. Everybody should learn to write, just like everybody should learn to speak. But don't fool yourself into thinking you are going to finish that book someday and become a published author if you don't have a level of commitment that goes beyond the person who "likes writing." You've gotta do better than that. You've gotta have drive, buddy. There never was a great book written that didn't have sweat-stained pages.

True writers make themselves write. They have dedication. They are always moving, progressing, learning, changing. They aren't a stagnant pond - they are a living, flowing, body of water, whether they be a minuscule creek or a raging river. They are clean, and they are alive.

So, I ask you - which are you? Are you truly a writer? Did God put that in you? If He did, are you using that? Are you working? Are you striving? Stop the playing! This is real life. You've got a mission. You're blessed to be asked to do something you love. So love your work, but do work.

Wow, am I feeling convicted.