Category Archives: writing helps

Determining What to Write About

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One of the first and most important decisions for every writer is determining what to write about. Making this decision can feel overwhelming often because of long-held notions we have about what it means to be a writer. Many people believe that authors just have ideas that come to them or, worse yet, that authors are so intelligent that they are able to create something unique that has never been seen or thought of before.

In reality, neither scenario is entirely true. Most of the time, authors decide what to write about from examining their personal lives and interests or by examining the work of other authors and making parts of existing material into something new and different.

Writing about things you know and care about is important for several reasons. For one, it usually makes writing much easier: if you are writing from personal experiences, you can spend more energy on adding creative twists to a story that already exists.

Second, if you are writing about something you care about, you usually have a deeper sense of the subject and will have more information from which to write. Choosing topics or experiences that you care about will develop a sense of “you” which only you can create.

Here are some strategies for coming up with ideas for writing:

Make lists of topics or things that you are interested in—hobbies, issues, things, places

Draw a floor plan of your home and make a list of three memorable events that happened in each room

Make a list of problems that you have seen characters face in movies, TV shows, or books, and use one as the basis for your own story

Make a list of your most memorable experiences and determine which might be the basis for a piece of writing

Maintain a personal journal and collect thoughts and descriptions that might be used as the basis for a piece of writing

Think about “small moments” of life to expand and explore rather than creating large, involved stories Read and re-read the authors that you are fond of.

Look for places where you can pick up where they left off or think of how the story could be retold from a different character’s perspective

Take elements from an existing storyline from a book, movie, or play and work your own real-life or past experiences in to create a new story

Make a list of your favorite movies or books and look for patterns in the storylines or look for storylines that can be combined or changed

Read, read, read—all great authors are readers who constantly look for ideas from other authors For more information:

Developing Ideas for Writing (Prewriting): http://www.esc.edu/ESConline/Across_ESC/WritersComplex.nsf/3CC42A422514347A8525671D00 49F395/CE2B510E7D9975AE852569C3006ACCCC?OpenDocument

Originally published by NCTE (National Council Teachers of English) Date unknown

How to Start a Blog: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers

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Good Morning, I’ve been on vacation in North Carolina and had an absolutely wonderful time visiting with my girlfriend.  Since it rained the entire time I was there, we stayed in the house, laughed, talked of old times, old friends and ate lots of good food. A better vacation couldn’t have been found anywhere.

This article is from “The Write Life” originally published in July. I liked the fact it gives step by step instructions which will help Newbies as well as Old Timers. Enjoy and have a blessed day.  Shirley

blog

So you want to start a blog?

If you’re a writer, it makes perfect sense: You can use a blog to serve as your author platform, market your book or find new freelance writing clients.

But where do you begin? Though you’ve got the writing part down, the rest of the process can be overwhelming. Hosting, themes and all that other techy stuff can stand in your way for years.

Well, today is the day that ends. We’re here to help you navigate every step of starting a blog, from choosing your domain name to publishing your first post.

Here’s how to start a blog as a writer:

1. Pick a domain name

First things first: Where are people going to find you online? As a writer, you are your brand, so we recommend using some variation of your name. To check availability, simply visit Bluehost and click on “new domain.”

If none of the obvious options are available, try tacking a “writer” onto the end of your name, as in susanshainwriter.com. You could also use a “.net” or “.biz” domain, but keep in mind that most people automatically type in “.com” before thinking of other endings.

You can, of course, opt for a creative blog name, but remember that your interests and target audience may change as the years go by. When I started blogging in 2012, I focused solely on adventure travel and named my blog Travel Junkette. Since then, I’ve expanded my niche and recently switched to susanshain.com — because my name won’t change, no matter what I’m blogging about. I wish I’d started out using my name as the domain, and would advise you not to make the same mistake I did.

Once you’ve settled on your domain (or domains, if you’re like a lot of us writerpreneurs!), don’t wait to buy it. Even if you’re not ready to start a blog right now, you don’t want to risk losing the domain you want.

Before you actually click “purchase,” though, you might want to read the next step; we’re going to tell you how to get your domain name for free.

2. Purchase a hosting package

Now that you’ve picked out your domain name, it’s time to choose a web host. Your hosting company does all the technical magic to make sure your site actually appears when people type your newly anointed domain name into their browser. In other words, it’s pretty important.

We use MediaTemple to host this blog, but it’s typically better for blogs with lots of traffic, so you probably don’t need that if you’re just starting out. For a new blog, try Bluehost. It’s used by top bloggers around the world and is known for its customer service and reliability. Bluehost’s basic hosting plan costs $3.95 per month — and as a bonus, the company throws in your domain name for free when you sign up.

Be sure to put your purchase (and all the purchases listed in this post) on a business credit card and keep those receipts; they are investments in your business and are therefore tax deductible.

3. Install WordPress

We’re almost through with the techy stuff, we promise! You have several different choices for blogging platforms, but we like WordPress best. Not only is it totally free, but it’s easy to learn, offers a wide variety of themes, and has an online community and lots of plugins that make blogging accessible to everybody.

You can read comprehensive instructions for installing WordPress on your new blog here. Once you’ve completed that, you can officially log into your blog and start making it look pretty.

Still too techy for you? Try WordPress.com (as opposed to WordPress.org). It’s a cinch to set up, but won’t allow you as much control over your site’s design and functionality. If you choose to go this route, you can skip steps one and two of this post. Simply visit WordPress.com and click on “Create website.” Though the free default inserts wordpress.com into your domain (susanshain.wordpress.com), you can pay to use your own domain(susanshain.com).

4. Put up an “under construction” sign

While working on your blog’s appearance, you might want to put up an “under construction” or “coming soon” sign to greet visitors. You don’t want any potential clients or readers to Google your name and find a half-finished site. (And you may think you’re going to finish setting up your blog tomorrow — but we all know how badly writers procrastinate when there are no looming deadlines!)

To set up a little sign that says “under construction,” just download this plugin. You could even include a link to your Twitter or Facebook page so visitors have an alternate way of getting in touch with you. When you’re ready to share your blog with the world, simply deactivate and delete this plugin.

5. Choose a theme

Now we’re getting to the fun stuff! Your theme determines what your blog looks like, and you’ve got a lot of options to choose from. Yes, there’s a wide range of free themes, but if you’re serious about blogging, the customization and support offered by paid themes can’t be beat.

Here at The Write Life, we use Genesis, which is one of the most popular premium themes available. Another popular and flexible theme is Thesis. For my personal site, I use Elegant Themes, which has a wide selection of beautiful themes at a reasonable price. All of these themes come with unlimited support — essential when you’re starting a blog.

6. Create a header

If you truly want your blog to look professional, it’s worth getting a custom header. You can ask your favorite graphic designer or create something yourself with Canva.

My favorite option? Order one on Fiverr. I’ve had great luck getting headers and other graphics designed in this online marketplace, where thousands of people offer their services for $5 per gig.

7. Write your pages

Though you’re starting a blog and not a static website, you’ll still want a few pages that don’t change. (“Pages” are different from “posts,” which are the daily/weekly/monthly entries you publish on your blog.)

Here are some pages you may want to create:

About

The about page is frequently touted as one of the most-viewed pages on blogs, so don’t overlook it. Include a photo and brief bio, and explain why you’re blogging and why the reader should care. What makes you an expert? How can you help them?

Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through — blogging is a personal affair!

Contact

You want your readers to be able to get in touch with you, right? Then you’ll need a contact page.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; just tell your readers how best to reach you. Avoid putting your full email address on here, as spambots could get ahold of it. To work around that, you can use a plugin, which we’ll link to below, or simply write something like “yourname AT yoursite DOT com.”

Portfolio

It’s your blog, so flaunt what you’ve got! Show your prospective clients and readers that you deserve their time and attention with examples of your past and present work. You can see examples of great writer portfolios here; personally, I love Sara Frandina’s.

Resources

Do you have a list of favorite writing tools? Or maybe books that have inspired you? Readers love resources pages, and for bloggers, they can also be a way to earn income from affiliate sales. Check out The Write Life’s resources page for inspiration.

Start here

You probably won’t need this at first, but a “start here” page is smart once you have a decent amount of content. It’s a great opportunity to express your mission and highlight your best work, so your readers can see the value of your blog without wading through months or years worth of posts.

Joanna Penn does a good job with hers, encouraging readers to download her ebook and then choose a topic that interests them.

Work with me

If you’re using your new blog to sell your writing services, this page is crucial. Be clear about how you can help people and how they can get in touch with you. You could even list packages of different services, like Sarah Von Bargen does on her site.

Once you’ve set up all your pages, make sure they’re easily accessible from the home page. If they’re not showing up, you may have to adjust your menus.

8. Install plugins

Plugins are great for everybody, but they’re especially useful for those of us who are less comfortable with the technical side of things but who’ve managed to set up a self-hosted blog. Think of them as apps for your blog; they’re free tools you can install to do a variety of things.

Though having lots of plugins can undermine the functionality and security of your blog, there are several we recommend everyone look into:

Better Click-to-Tweet: Encourage readers to share your content by including a click-to-tweet box within your posts; this plugin makes it easy.

Contact Form 7: If you want to avoid putting your email address on your contact page, use this contact form plugin, which is frequently updated and receives good reviews.

QuickieBar: Want to get readers to sign up for your free newsletter? Or want to announce the release of your latest book? This plugin allows you to create a banner for the top of your blog.

Mashshare: These “Mashable-style” share buttons are like the ones you see here on The Write Life. Another popular option is Digg Digg. It doesn’t matter which plugin you choose; it’s just essential you make social sharing easy for your readers.

WP Google Analytics: This plugin tracks the visitors to your site so you can see what people are interested in and how they’re finding you.

WP Super Cache: Another plugin that’s not sexy, but is important. Caching allows your blog to load faster — pleasing both your readers and Google.

Yoast SEO: This all-in-one SEO plugin helps you optimize your posts so you can get organic traffic from search engines.

9. Install widgets

If your blog has a sidebar, you might want to spruce it up with a few widgets, which are small boxes with different functions.

Here are some ideas:

About box

You’ve probably seen this on a lot of blogs; it’s a box in the upper right hand corner welcoming you to the site. Check out Jessica Lawlor’s blog for a simple — yet excellent — example.

Social media icons

Make it easy for your readers to follow you on social media by including links to your profiles in the sidebar. Here’s a basic tutorial for adding custom social media icons.

Popular posts

Once you’ve been blogging for a while, you might want to highlight your most popular posts in the sidebar, which you can do with a basic text widget. We do this here on The Write Life so you can find our most popular content quickly and easily.

10. Purchase backup software

Don’t overlook this important step just because you don’t have content yet! It’s better to install this software early than to start blogging and not remember until it’s too late.

Free options exist, but I’ve never had good luck with them — and for something as important as my entire blog, I don’t mind paying a little extra. (It’s a business write-off, remember?!) Popular backup options include VaultPress,BackupBuddy and blogVault.

11. Start your email list

I know, I know — you haven’t even started blogging and I already want you to build an email list. Trust me; you’ll be so glad you did.

Alexis Grant, founder of The Write Life, agrees with me. “If I could go back and do one thing differently for my business, it would be starting a newsletterearlier,” she writes. “My email list is THAT important for my business, bringing traffic to my website, buys of my products and opportunities I never could’ve expected.”

Even if you don’t have anything to send, just start collecting email addresses. The best way to entice people to sign up is by offering a free ebook or resource. For great examples, check out The Write Life’s How to Land Your First Paying Client or Grant’s social media strategy checklist.

Our favorite email newsletter platform is Mailchimp. It’s intuitive, fun and free for up to 2,000 subscribers. There are lots of other tools you could choose, though; here are a few more options for building your email list.

Once you’ve created your list, entice your readers to subscribe by adding a subscription box to your sidebar, and maybe even installing a plugin likePopupAlly.

12. Write!

If you really want to start a blog, you’re going to need to… start blogging.

We recommend creating an editorial calendar — even if it’s just you blogging. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it can even be scribbled out in a notebook.

What’s important is that you plan your posts in advance, so you can keep track of your ideas and stick to a schedule. It’s also a chance to assess and tweak your content strategy. What do you want to write about? How will you draw the readers in?

Don’t forget you’re writing for the web, so your style should be different than if you were writing for print. Keep your tone conversational, use “you” phrases to speak to the reader and break up text with bullet points and sub-headers. Keep SEO in mind, but don’t make it the focus of your writing.

13. Promote, promote, promote

You’re almost there! Now that you’ve started writing, it’s time to get readers. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but for many writers, this is one of the most surprisingly time-consuming aspects of blogging. Though it’d be nice if we could just write (that’s what we love to do, right?), it’s nicer to have people actually reading your work.

One of the best ways to attract new readers is guest blogging on more popular blogs. To help you out, here are seven writing blogs that want your guest posts, plus seven more. (And don’t forget about guest posting for TWL!)

It’s also essential to interact with other bloggers. Share their content with your community, comment on their posts and support them when and where you can. Hopefully, they’ll return the favor!

Social media is another great way to get more traffic to your new blog. In addition to sharing your posts and networking with fellow bloggers, make sure you’re constantly trying to grow your author following on social media.

14. Get help if you need it

If you feel stuck at any point, don’t be afraid to invest in a course or ebook, like these ones:

Sometimes a little outside help is all the boost you need.

Other than that, creating a successful writing blog is about hard work and consistency. Keep posting helpful and engaging content, optimizing it for SEO and sharing it with your networks — and you’ll soon see your new blog start to blossom.

Congratulations, you’ve now officially started a blog as a writer. Guess it’s time to get writing!

Do you want to start a blog? What stood in your way until now?

Susan Shane

Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors

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We are always wanting to glean what other authors know about writing.  This blog by Steve Silberman gathers together authors and has them give suggestions on how to improve your writing and make your book great. I thought it was something worth sharing. Have a blessed day.  Shirley

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I love books. My late father Donald, who taught Wordsworth and Melville to inner-city kids for decades, used to read Ulysses to me while he carried me on his shoulders. Perhaps it was inevitable that I grew up to be a writer. Now, after years of investigative reporting for Wired and other magazines, I’m finally writing a book of my own.

The subject of my book is autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement. The seed of the project was an article I wrote for Wired in 2001 called “The Geek Syndrome” about autism and Asperger syndrome in high-tech communities like Silicon Valley. I’m happy and humbled to say that it was an influential article, and I still get email about it from the families of kids on the spectrum and from autistic people themselves, though it was published more than a decade ago.

The science of developmental disorders has made significant advances in recent years, and some of the social issues that I raised in the piece — such as the contributions that people with atypical cognitive styles have made to the progress of science, technology, and culture — seem more relevant than ever. At the same time, the wave of kids diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the ’90s is now coming of age, and their heroically devoted families are facing fear and uncertainty about the future as crucial government-funded services and support provided to families of special-needs children dry up. Meanwhile,neurodiversity advocates are challenging narrow definitions of “normal” cognition, and autistic people — even those who are unable to employ spoken language — are using assistive technology like the iPad to express themselves. There’s a lot of new ground to cover.

I’ve signed a contract with a wonderful publisher — a Penguin imprint called Avery Books — and a sharp and enthusiastic editor named Rachel Holtzman. One of the most thrilling moments of my life as a writer was walking into Penguin headquarters in Manhattan and seeing classic jackets for Jack Kerouac’s novels like The Dharma Bums framed on the wall. It was reading the exhilarating, compassionate, and perennially fresh poetry and prose of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and their friends that made me want to grow up to be a writer in the first place.

I’m not sentimental about old media vs. new media. Nothing will ever replace the sublime feeling of sanctuary created by the printed page, but I treasure the books on my Kindle too, particularly when I’m reading at 30,000 feet. What I love is words — storytelling, the flow of well-wrought sentences, the gradual unfolding of a long and thoughtful tale, the private communion with an author’s mind.

But now comes the hard part. It’s one thing to work up a 4000-word magazine feature and another to sit down and write a 100,000-word book. I’m acutely aware that I’ve been granted a precious opportunity to cast light on forgotten history and provide a platform for voices that are rarely heard. At the same time, I’m scared out of my wits that the two decades of journalism that have led up to this project have not prepared me to write a good book. I wake up at 3am staring into the darkness, wondering if I’ll have the skills, discipline, and inner resources to pull it off.

I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”

I’m delighted with the sheer range of practical advice that poured in. The writers in this group are as diverse as the volumes that line the shelves in my home office.  There are top science writers and journalists like Carl Zimmer, Jonah Lehrer, Deborah Blum, Paula Span, and David Shenk; prolific blogger Geoff Manaugh of the endlessly fascinating BLDGBLOG, which focuses on architecture and the future of urbanism; award-winning poet and essayist August Kleinzahler; a wise-beyond-his-years entrepreneur named Ben Casnocha; a Zen master named John Tarrant and an author of Buddhist bestsellers, Sylvia Boorstein; two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and two of the geniuses who helped launch 21st century digital culture and the spunky “maker” movement, Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing. A more diverse group of writers, talking about the nuts and bolts of their craft, would be hard to find anywhere on the Web.

A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential. And thirdly, I’ll certainly be buying and downloading a software program calledScrivener, which is a powerful word processor specifically designed for writing books and keeping vast amounts of related data in good order.

Reading these tips has made the voice in my head that whispers I can do this a little louder when my eyelids snap open before dawn. I hope the advice here inspires the creation of many great books, not only the one I hope to write. I’m deeply grateful for the time and attention of the master writers assembled here.

Enjoy — and good luck with your own writing!

The Tangled Bank by Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

Author of A Planet of Viruses, The Tangled Bank, and Brain Cuttings

  1. Do as much research as possible away from the Internet — with living people, in real places.
  2. Be ready to organize vast amounts of data. Use a wall, or software like Scrivener.
  3. Be ready to amputate entire chapters. It will be painful.

The Genius in All Of UsDavid Shenk
Author of The Forgetting and The Genius in All of Us

  1. Make it great, no matter how long it takes. There’s no such thing as too many drafts. There’s no such thing as too much time spent. As you well know, a great book can last forever. A great book can change a person’s life. A mediocre book is just commerce.
  2. Get feedback — oodles of it. Along the way, show pieces of your book to lots of people — different types of people. Ply them with wine and beg them for candor. Find out what’s missing, what’s being misinterpreted, what isn’t convincing, what’s falling flat. This doesn’t mean you take every suggestion or write the book by committee. But this process will allow to marry your necessarily-precious vision with how people will actually react. I find that invaluable.
  3. Let some of you come through. You’re obviously not writing a memoir here, but this book is still partly about you — the world you see, the way you think, the experiences you have with people. And trust me, readers are interested in who you are. So don’t be afraid to let bits and pieces of your personality and even life details seep into the text. It will breathe a lot of life into the book.

For the Win by Cory DoctorowCory Doctorow
Author of With a Little Help, For the Win, Makers, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

  1. Write every day. Anything you do every day gets easier. If you’re insanely busy, make the amount that you write every day small (100 words? 250 words?) but do it every day.
  2. Write even when the mood isn’t right. You can’t tell if what you’re writing is good or bad while you’re writing it.
  3. Write when the book sucks and it isn’t going anywhere. Just keep writing. It doesn’t suck. Your conscious is having a panic attack because it doesn’t believe your subconscious knows what it’s doing.
  4. Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.
  5. Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

And Then There's This by Bill WasikBill Wasik
Author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture

  1. The first tip is that readers expect books to be exhaustive on their subjects. That doesn’t mean they want the books to be long — it means that they expect that you will cover all the basic ground that needs to be covered to understand the subject, even if they know some of it already. This piece of advice may or may not be relevant to your subject. In my case, with a very idiosyncratic book on viral culture, it led to people asking me at readings why I hadn’t included an analysis of X or Y viral phenomenon in my book. “Because you already know about it,” the magazine guy in me always wanted to respond. But in the book world, people want to see you mention the stuff they already know, at least in passing (or to knock it down)– otherwise, how can it claim to be a book on the subject? It’s worth taking that point of view seriously.
  2. This is a basic piece of advice, but it can’t be overstated when you’re trying to go from magazine-length to book-length writing: hone your outline and then cling to it as a lifeline. You can adjust it in mid-stream, but don’t try to just write your way into a better structure: think about the right structure and then write to it. Your outline will get you through those periods when you can’t possibly imagining ever finishing the damn thing — at those times, your outline will let you see it as a sequence of manageable 1,000 word sections.

The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh
Author of The BLDGBLOG Book

  1. Don’t hold back on that fantasy site visit / phone call / interview / query / meeting that you have always wanted to do, lest it become too late to include the results in your book. Do it now! This book is your golden ticket.
  2. Don’t lose track of your notes and/or future ideas for inclusion by writing things down in multiple notebooks or on scattered pages of the same notebook; concentrate, aggregate, cohere, reread, and compress. Keep it all in one place (with back-ups). Obsessive-compulsive organizational habits are your bestfriend; telling insane and vaguely embarrassing stories later on, about how you used eight different colored markers, four highlighter types, and multiple versions of extra pages stapled into a vast mega-notebook that you re-read every night before bed – and that you also took digital photos of lest you lose the whole thing in a house fire – will be a lot more fun than explaining how you forgot to include certain things and your book sucked because you never got your shit together.
  3. Quick, tossed off, last minute additions, typed right before you submit the final manuscript, probably aren’t a good idea, no matter how funny or emotionally powerful you might feel they are at the time of impulsively writing them. Always allow time to come back and read something from a distance.
  4. And run all quirky one-liners that you hope to include in your author’s bio (do you “always enjoy a good latté”?) past a close friend; they don’t age well.

The Mad Professor by Mark FrauenfelderMark Frauenfelder
Author of The Mad Professor and Rule the Web

  1. Use Scrivener to write your book. Awesome organizing tool as well as word processor.
  2. If you have the feeling an interview isn’t yielding much, get off the phone as soon as you can. On the other hand, when you strike interview gold, keep it going as long as you can.
  3. Don’t forget to write the book that you want to read.

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah BlumDeborah Blum
Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and Ghost Hunters

  1. here are a few things that i’ve learned or that people have told me along the way. i’ve written five books. the first two (monkey wars, sex on the brain) were issue books. the best advice i got when writing an issue book was to write the first chapter LAST.  this isn’t absolute, but it’s in the research and writing of later chapters that you often figure out what your primary points will be and how best to frame them.
  2. the best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. this was with my first narrative book, love at goon park. my editor suggested that as the over all arc — how is harry harlow ever going to persuade the scientific community that love matters? — and within that to have him confront an obstacle in every chapter. i’m a little looser with that now, not an obstacle in EVERY chapter, but it’s still a great way to think about structure. for instance, in poisoner’s handbook, every chapter is a poison. so my heroes must confront arsenic in one chapter and thallium in another…
  3. i usually try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. this turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. but, again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. so with monkey wars, the primary sentence (not brilliant for sales, but still) was “animal research is really about us.” number one species on the planet, can do whatever we want to other species. and i used that to frame every chapter around a decision that a researcher was making in his use of non-human primates, from brain surgeries to testing on endangered species.
  4. i let my first draft suck. kind of the anne lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” to me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. if i get stuck, i just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) with one of my books (sex on the brain) i did this so often that i had literal nightmares about it, that people were coming up to me and asking me if i had adopted an avant garde writing style.
  5. i’m obsessive about the research. i organize and cross-list and file from the very beginning. i make notes of key points, issues, and themes. the amount of research one does for a proposal is very different from the amount of research one does for a whole book. so i keep track of all these key moments in a way that lets me recognize patterns that i didn’t see earlier. and also so that when i’m later actually writing, i know where to find everything. writers waste a lot of time looking for that study that they filed, well, somewhere.
  6. i recognize that today’s book author isn’t done even after the manuscript is accepted. publishers expect us to be part of the marketing of the book and the sooner that starts the better. i used to tell people that i wanted to be the j.d. salinger of science writing and just stay home and let the royalties wash over me. but that’s mostly in the moments when i’m just overwhelmed. the new public version of a science writer is actually pretty fascinating.

Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August KleinzahlerAugust Kleinzahler
Author of Sleeping It Off in Rapid City and Cutty, One Rock

  1. I find it helpful sometimes — and still to my surprise — trying to explain to someone what it is I’m trying to write about, usually someone bright but in a different intellectual zone, and not a writer. Or, likewise, in a letter or email to such a person.
  2. When my self-disgust reaches critical mass I seem to be ready to go.
  3. I tend to discover the structure, a structure, after diving in the deep end and swallowing water awhile, until I stop swallowing water, make my way to the surface and figure out how far it is toward shore or the side of the pool, and what mixture of treading water and the Australian crawl, given my limitations/aptitudes, might get me safely home.

My Start-Up Life by Ben CasnochaBen Casnocha
Entrepreneur and author of My Start-Up Life

  1. Shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott nailed it! But with books, it seems to be more like “shitty 20th drafts.” So shitty, for so long.
  2. Develop a very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions. I use an app called Self-Control on my Mac.
  3. Develop a very, very, very serious plan for dealing with internet distractions.

The Mindfulness Revolution by Barry BoyceBarry Boyce

Author/editor of The Mindfulness Revolution and In the Face of Fear

  1. You’re better off than you think, because you’ve done this before, just not in as large a format. Almost every technique and skill you’ve used to structure and tell a story at feature length scales to book length. So, let go of the excess anxiety about never having done this before.
  2. Planning. Planning. Planning. It’s a campaign. I used some project management tools in the end to put some order into the vastness. That’s the thing about the bigger scale. It requires more management to support the creativity. Cultivate a good relationship with your editor from the beginning. He/she is going to be your task master at some point. That’s going to go so much better if he/she is also your friend, colleague, supporter, and fan. The campaign of writing a book can get so lonely sometimes, you need a good attaboy just to remind yourself of why you’re doing it and that you’re not the crazy loser who needs to get out more.
  3. As Trungpa Rinpoche said (I paraphrase): enjoy refreshing activities from time to time. If you’re planning and scheduling well, you can find opportunities regularly to breathe more fresh air into your life and replenish yourself, because “the work fills the available space” is nowhere more true than on a book project. Watch out for self-indulgent and cheap substitutes for actually taking an honest to god break, of whatever duration.

The White Hand Society by Peter ConnersPeter Conners
Author of Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead and White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg

  1. When I’m writing a book I only read other books that somehow inform my book. If it doesn’t serve my process — no matter how much I want to read it — I don’t. I suspect there are a lot of people who will give the opposite opinion (take a break from reading about your subject matter, etc.), but I’m not one of them. This is your time to be completely and justifiably obsessed. So go ahead — bask in the madness.
  2. Non-fiction shouldn’t mean poorly written. Writing is writing and art always counts. Make your book beautiful to read and you’re more likely to communicate your messages to your reader.
  3. Don’t focus on the promotional aspects of social media. Just share your passion for the subject matter as it filters through your writing process. The promotion aspect will be an organic extension of your passion.

Long Time Gone by David CrosbyDavid Crosby
Singer-songwriter, founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, author of Long Time Gone and Since Then

  1. Cathartic effect.
  2. Love of the well-turned phrase.
  3. Set specific times to work.

When the Time Comes by Paula SpanPaula Span
Author of When the Time Comes

  1. You already know what you need to know to do this.  The fact is, my 60,000-plus-word book was pretty much like writing 8 to 10 long-form pieces.  I didn’t do it differently, in terms of research or writing or rewriting.  My existing skills were perfectly adequate to the task; yours will be too.  It took me 2.5 years but then, I was teaching and freelancing at the same time; had I focused solely on the book, it probably would’ve taken 18 months.  So you will make your deadline, even if your book is longer and more complex.
  2. Unhelpful, right?  But maybe not.  Bottom line, this is not some whole different sphere for which you are ill-prepared.  For better or worse, whether you use some nifty software to organize your material or you use a whole bunch of yellow legal pads and photocopies in hanging files (like me — so retro), this is familiar territory and you are an old hand.  So get to it.

Aspergirls by Rudy SimoneRudy Simone
Author of Aspergirls: Empowering Women with Asperger Syndrome andAsperger’s On the Job

  1. I had the easiest time of my life writing my three Asperger books. I just ran like Secretariat once I got going. But, I did learn that questionnaires make good research tools. I had three levels of questionnaires, each expanding on the one before it, so I didn’t have to individually interview each person. I did that by email or phone if and when it was warranted. By the time I wrote Aspergirls I had it streamlined: The questionnaires were posted on my site, the first one visible to the public so anyone could use it, then the 2nd and third were on hidden pages that I gave my participants the URL to. The data was compiled and I received email alerts whenever there was a new entry. So while I was researching certain elements of my book, the questionnaires and the people who used them were doing a lot of the legwork. Being that I’m fairly uneducated, I think I did a pretty good job with it.

Short by John SchwartzJohn Schwartz
Author of Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All

  1. Advice from a Newsweek editor I worked with in the ’80s, Nancy Cooper. Roughly my age, but so much smarter and more worldly and sophisticated. I was worried about writing the opening story of the nation section. And she sent me a note that read: “You just start working and you keep working til it’s done. That’s all there is to it; no mystery.”

Happiness is an Inside Job by Sylvia BoorsteinSylvia Boorstein
Author of Happiness is An Inside Job and It’s Easier Than You Think

When I settle into writing, i.e. proposal signed, accepted, etc., I…

  1. Do not open email until 5PM on any weekday or other day when i expect to be writing much of the day.
  2. Do not read other people’s work on the same subject. That might be hard for you, since you are collecting research data, but I say very little about what other people have said or thought. They’ve already said or thought it.
  3. I am VERY selective about having other people read it as I go along other than my editor, and that only when I have enough written to feel secure that I have found my voice.
  4. When I do not like how what I’m writing is sounding, I quit. I leave the computer. I do something else, like cook soup. I “hear” what I am about to type before I type it and if it is not sounding like me naturally talking, I know i am not clear or balanced enough to go on.
  5. I do not write from the beginning to the end. I write in the order that particular parts take form in my mind and I enjoy mulling them over… I mull and mull and imagine I am explaining them to someone and then I write them down. I have the order in mind, so I write whatever part is bubbling energetically in my mind, print it out (always) and begin a stack on THE BOOK on a corner of my desk into which I can add pieces (in their proper order) as they get written and so I have a visible proof at all times that something is happening.
  6. I take the due date for the first draft EXTREMEly seriously., like everything depends on that day. it makes the project energetically alive for me, like a James Bond five-minutes-and-fifty-two-seconds until the whole world blows up movie and even if the draft is finished a week early I push the SEND button just after 12AM on the day it is due. Theatrical, I know, but I learned it from a friend of mine whom I admire as being a fine writer who prides himself on doing that.

Nameless Book by AnonymousAnonymous
Author of notable books on science and psychology

What I wish I didn’t know now that I didn’t know then:

  1. How hard writing a book would be  on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)
  2. How important and valuable the final reward would be. Not the money, but (in my case) the promised trip to a very special place. Wish I had put the photo of my destination on my screensaver long before I did, as it worked like an extra force of gravity pulling me to the end. The trip also gave me a coda to write into the book, just an extra added benefit.
  3. How inept publishers are at selling books, even books that, as in my case, they have a significant financial stake in and that they profess to love. Once they get rejected by Today and Terry Gross and once the Sunday Timespasses (or, as in my case, assigns a  review and then never runs it), they’ve exhausted their playbook. Solution: what you’re already doing, which is to build your brand among your intended audience.

Playing in the Band by David GansDavid Gans
Musician, radio producer, and author of Playing in the Band and Conversations with the Dead

  1. The most striking thing about my book processes was that no one at the publisher did any editing at all.  No fact checking, no line editing.

Lincoln's Melancholy by Josh ShenkJosh Shenk
Author of Lincoln’s Melancholy

  1. Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.
  2. Find ways to break it into chunks and set concrete deadlines with friends/agent/editor. I’m sending my agent material every week now. The shit is super rough, but at least I’ve got *something* on page. Also consider a writer’s group. When I asked Bruce Feiler for this advice at the start ofLincoln’s Melancholy, he said: “emotional management.” I told him, yeah, but I really want practical advice, etc. etc., and he repeated the phrase. Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.
  3. What’s the idea/argument in a sentence or two? You shouldn’t have this necessarily at the start but will want to by the time the book is done.
  4. Apply to MacDowell, Yaddo, Blue Mountain Center, Headlands — a few other good residencies, including one in Cali I can’t remember now. Four to eight weeks of you, quiet, among other artists, with people feeding you on schedule can do wonders.

Bring Me the Rhinoceros by John TarrantJohn Tarrant
Author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros & Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life, and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul & the Spiritual Life

Here’s a triplet of things that may apply only to me.

  1. Ideas don’t come from anywhere identifiable, so I’ve come to trust that they will be given. This is along the lines of not whipping the donkey.
  2. The process of lining the book up, giving it a bedside manner, asking “Is this what it is about? But what is it really about?” was a plunge. I had to explain the work to myself in more and more elementary language. I came to enjoy doing this. It helped when I realized that the discovery process was part of the writing and I didn’t have to be through it already.
  3. There is always period when I wrestle alone with my own process and at the same time I like collaboration. So I’ve learned what kind of editing works for me. A good editor is an impersonal force who says things like, “You could ditch the first half of your first chapter and start with what comes next,” and immediately I know if the edit is true or not. So I learned to be confident about sharing my work when it is not fully formed, learned that the process is robust and will look after itself.

How We Decide by Jonah LehrerJonah Lehrer
Author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist

  1. My one piece of advice is to insist that your editor be brutal — there should be red pen on every page. At least in my experience, the book only gets decent during this phase, as all the darlings and digressions get killed. It’s such an important process, and yet too many editors are too meek (or overworked) and too many writers resist their edits. A good editor is a great thing.

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin
Seth Mnookin

Author of The Panic Virus and Feeding the Monster

  1. If you’re a Mac guy, I whole-heartedly, full-throatedly recommend using Scrivener. I think you can get a free 30-day trial, so it’s at least worth checking out. Especially with this last book, it totally saved me from having hundreds of (virtual) stacks of thousands of (virtual) scraps of paper.
  2. For me, it was vitally important that all non-book related reading be as mindless as possible. I binged on mysteries…Rex Stout and Donald Westlake/Richard Stark in particular.
  3. I tried, not always successfully, to start each day with some discrete goal I wanted to accomplish: write 200 words, or get through a certain amount of research, or conduct two interviews, or whatever. If I set out to spend a day “writing,” that would be so overwhelming I’d end up just farting around online all day instead of starting the climb the mountain.
  4. Finally: assume your book is going to completely tank commercially. That’ll help you remember that you’re not writing this for the purpose of writing a best-seller (at least I assume you’re not), but because it’s something that you care passionately about and excites you intellectually and because you hope to be able to share your thoughts and observations and conclusions with a group of people you respect and want to discourse with. Everything else is gravy. At the end of the day, what’s important is producing something you believe in…not producing something that’ll catch people’s eyes at B&N.

Superbug by Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna
Author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil
  1. Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has.  At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck. (I use DevonThink, OmniOutliner and Filemaker Pro. David Dobbs apparently has a quite different flow. We hope to do a workshop on this at NASW.)
  2. Don’t wait too long to start writing, especially if your book incorporates descriptive or narrative elements. Write at least a quick sketch of the sensory and emotional elements that stick with you as you come back from field reporting.
  3. You’re going to spend a lot of time in your head. Take care of your physical self too. Be just as committed to that as you are to getting your writing done every day. If you don’t care about your health, think your vanity — there’s an author video and a lot of public appearances in your future.
  4. Bonus tip: Be good to your spouse/partner and protect time for them. They’re in this with you, but unlike you, they didn’t choose it.

Writing Fiction? 10 Common Writing Errors That Make You Look Like a Newbie

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This is an article by Sarah White that I thought I would share with you. It’s always a good thing to read advice that can help improve our writing.  Shirley

You’re about to work on your first big writing project. Whether it’s a novel, memoir, or short story, you don’t want everyone to know it’s your first (even if you’re shaking in your boots, just a little).

Many first-time writers fall into traps that can decrease the quality of their piece, and these newbie blunders can diminish their credibility.

New writers fall into these habits for all kinds of reasons: putting pressure on themselves to write something enormous and profound, attempts to mimic other authors, and probably in the most common occurrence, a bad case of writer’s block during their first big project of their career.

The pressure is on and your brain has gone into panic mode, resorting to comfortable cliched phrases.

Not to worry: these writing pitfalls can be easily sidestepped with some awareness.

Here are 10 of the most common writing errors that new authors should strive to avoid.

1. Including too many cliches

Just because it’s the most popular phrase doesn’t mean it’s the most effective. Consider your personal experiences before plunking down a common saying or phrase — those unique reactions are what give you an edge as a writer.

Even when writing fiction, use your own perspective to your advantage as you play with metaphors and other ways of developing your story.

2. Writing inauthentic dialogue

Suspending disbelief is easy when the dialogue in your story universe sounds natural. Dialogue is extremely hard to do well, but can also make or break your story.

Listen to conversations around you; take note of verbal ticks or idiosyncrasies that appear in normal human speech.

3. Rushing the plot

Getting your characters from Point A to Point B is certainly important, but not so much as providing a solid foundation for these transitions.

Whether you decide as you go or map out your character’s story beforehand, ask your editors or critique group if they can name the cause and effect of each major event. DIY MFA’s mapping technique can help you organize the interwoven events that take place over the course of your story.

4. Choosing a cop-out ending

“And then he woke up” is a perfect example of a cop-out: an ending that negates all other given information that the readers have been led to believe is useful in analyzing the plot, characters, and ending.

After fully engaging with the universe you’ve created, your readers don’t want to feel tricked!

5. Abandoning or using your characters

If a character suddenly makes an “exciting” choice that makes no sense with his or her aforementioned stable traits, your readers will instantly question your motivation for inserting that choice into your story.

To avoid this pitfall, take special consideration when choosing your point of view. An event in your character’s life that might read as mundane in a typical third-person scenario might come across as more significant in a first-person voice.

6. Repeating syntax

An entire paragraph — let alone an entire novel — of “The [adjective] [noun] [verb-ed] the [adjective] [noun]” sentences will not hold the attention of your audience, no matter the reading level.

If you’re cranking out a first draft, don’t spend too much time worrying about this. But if you’re ready to have a colleague review your work, scan each page for this predictable repetition.

7. Not trusting your audience

Over-explanation can be just as harmful to your work as under-explanation. As mentioned earlier, your audience does not like to feel deceived, and they certainly do not like to feel belittled, either.

Much of the joy of reading is discovering your connection to the author’s writing. Remember to let your readers dig into your story independently.

8. Changing the setting excessively

Unless constant shifts in space and time are essential to your piece, you need not create pauses after every event. Connecting to a piece of writing is challenging when there isn’t at least some sense of fluidity.

While there can be many settings, timelines, or universes — and creating an unusual format is always an interesting feat — consider whether every shift is a necessary one.

9. Not doing your research

Even if you “write what you know,” it’s critical to verify your information for factuality, especially if your story is heavily based in realism.

Say that your story’s villain is a world-renowned scientist; you’ll lose your readers with the first innacurate algorithm. No one is scared of a mad scientist that can’t even do the math for his own experiments.

Figure out how to access the databases at your local public or university library to locate journals, documents, and other research to support your story.

10. Forgetting your audience

“You can’t win ‘em all,” they say, but you can win over the hearts of yourparticular demographic. Know who you’re writing for and who you plan to reach, or you risk reaching nobody. If you’re in love with your historical fiction piece, don’t write to please the romance enthusiasts.

If you find a couple of cliches or other common errors after your first draft, don’t sweat it!

We’ve all come across at least one of these holes in our own writing. In the end, a good portion of creating fresh, interesting work relies on trusting your own instincts.

Keep an eye out, use good judgement, and most importantly, write from your own experiences and your own heart.

Five Steps to a Great Book Contract

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manuscriptSome writers have been fortunate enough to land book contracts, but unfortunately for the majority of writers that’s not the case. Ryan Van Cleave says, “reach beyond the obvious to achieve success.” Ryan is a Florida basted writing teacher and author of twenty books.

You have a terrific book manuscript that’s ready to submit.  Thats great! Or maybe your’re pas the halfway point on a new project and you want to start thinking about the next step.  Before you start stuffing envelopes or firing off email queries, take a moment to reflect on pre submission and pre contract realities.  Is there anything you can do now that might increase your odds for success?

Writing advice espouses the obvious: Take classes, write well and solicit quality feedback on your work.  Here are five actionable, less than obvious steps you can take right now to stand out from the crowd and earn a writer friendly book contract once you’re ready to put your work out into the literary world.

1. Change your attitude.  Literary agent Lisa Hagan says to strongly consider your “attitude regarding changes that need to be made to make the manuscript the best that it can be.”  It’s not about ego or sticking to the original plan.  It’s about producing a publication worthy book.  No one willingly chooses to work with an inflexible stickler.  Be open to suggestions, especially those from publishing experts.

2. Prepare your own pitch.  “The writing may be wonderful,” says Sourcebooks editorial director Todd Stocke, “but can I distill it down to something quickly and easily explained.  Ultimately, that’s the publisher’s job, to find ways that connect the author and the readers.  But sometimes those of us who do this for a living still can’t find the pitch.”  Clearly share your vision for the pitch.  The publisher is still welcome to come up with a different one for the back cover, catalog copy or PR materials, but sometimes you’ll bowl a publisher over with you well-reasoned, compelling pitch that leverages angles they hadn’t considered.

3.  Be proactive with your BISAC. With more than 3,000 BISAC(Book Industry Standards and Communications) subject codes available for a published book, it’s imperative that yours gets the right one(s).  When Random House changed the BISAC for a strong-selling title from “Fiction-General” to “Fiction-Suspense,” the sales increased by 55 percent.  Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you know what BISAC codes the publisher intends for your book.  Do some research so you have ideas ready in case they’re missing ways to increase visibility.  Having the wrong BISAC can make your book essentially invisible.

“Go to a bookstore,” Stocke advices. “Spend time in the stacks, really understand where your book might sit in that store.  What books will be around it?  What authors am I most like?  With what am I competing?” Or is your book better suited to readers finding it in other venues than a traditional bookstore?  Figuring all this out can help your future sales immensely.

4.  Chase down the co-op.  Most publishers have money set aside to spend on book promotions, front of store displays at Barnes & Noble that cost thousands of dollars a week but have huge results in terms of sales.  Make sure you ask any publisher offering a contract if co-op is available for your title.  If not, consider offering to match any co-op dollar for dollar, up to whatever amount you can afford.  Sometimes that’s enough for a publisher to commit those limited resources your way.

5. Run from red flags.  Is the publishing company undergoing big changes?  If so, be wary, warns Hagan.  In terms of book contracts, she prefers to have the “right of first refusal” clause deleted.  It’s not exactly a red flag, but “it saves time for future projects,” she explains.  ” I don’t like to be locked in.”

Stocke says one red flag is if publishers don’t have extensive experience publishing books similar to yours.  They also should have initial competitive/comparative research if thy’re offering you a contract. “What’s their plan for the format, the price, the size, the brick verses e-tail opportunities? How are they going to title, package and pitch it to get it in front of people?  What does success look like, and what does the opposite of that look like?” Anything but good, reasonable answers here are red flags for sure.

Far too many writers spend months on a manuscript but then fire off the final product like it’s a radioactive hot potato.  Take your time to create a clear, informed plan so when you do put that masterpiece into the hands of a literary agent or publisher, it’s with no regrets.  Listen to the experts and give yourself the best chance to earn a great book contract with writer-friendly terms.

Fleshing Out a Story

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              Good day everyone, I want to share an article that I found that explains fleshing out your story in great detail.  I have always had problems due to the fact I am a bare bones writer.     I’ve never had the ability to sit down and write a story without an editor or another knowledgeable person telling me it needs to be fleshed out.  I wasn’t even sure what that meant.  I write like “The cat climbed the tree.” Fleshing out, to my understanding would be like “The white cat climbed the tree with the purpose of catching a bird.”

I had a English teacher by the name of Mr. Collier. He walked into class one day and set a coke bottle up on the chalk ledge of the chalk board.  He then proceeded to tell the class to write three pages on describing that coke bottle.  How can anyone use three pages to describe a Coke bottle. You know, some students got an A on that assignment.   Needless to say I wan’t one of them. The best I can recall, I failed.

I hope this article helps you as much as it did me.  Have a blessed day.   Shirley

                                                       How To Flesh Out a Story Without Padding

by Marg McAlister

You’ve finally finished the first draft – celebration time!

Or is it?

When you read it through, you realise with a sinking feeling that it seems a bit… well, skimpy. And maybe it’s a tad short.

There’s no getting around it. You have to concede that your story needs a bit more flesh on its bones. But how can you make sure that you add substance, rather than just padding? How DO you flesh out a story?

Some Signs of Padding

If a story is padded, it is packed with inconsequential detail that makes the story longer, but doesn’t enhance it in any way. Here are some signs of padding: 

  • Dialogue that meanders and doesn’t move the story forward.
  • Too much description (flowery or technical).
  • Too much interior monologue. (The viewpoint character ponders too much and for too long.)
  • Extra ‘walk on’ characters who just bloat the cast without adding value to the plot.
  • Grandstanding. (The author is obviously using the story as a soapbox to espouse a pet cause or to express feelings about an issue.)
  • Inconsequential ‘problems’ for the characters to solve. (The hurdles put in the characters’ way are perceived by the reader to be annoying side-tracks rather than genuine sources of conflict.)
  • Inefficient transitions. (The author takes unnecessary pages to move the characters from one place or time to another.)
  • A delayed ending / unnecessary explanations. (The story should have been over in Chapter 29, but the author has added another five chapters to ‘make it the right length’. Sometimes this is in the form of tedious explanations about why characters did things and how they outsmarted people. This should have been obvious from the action in the story.)

How to Flesh Out a Story

If the above list shows you signs of a story that’s padded, rather than well-rounded, then what can you do to fix it? What are some good ways of adding depth and texture?

First, you have to decide what your specific problem is. Some writers have problems with their stories because they are ‘bare bones’ writers: they have difficulty adding emotional punch, exploring their characters’ thoughts, and bringing people and places to life with carefully chosen descriptive phrases. Their stories are all action.

Other writers can handle all of these things, but always seem to end up with a story that’s too short. They know it needs expanding, but how? (Sometimes their story is novella length – say, 30,000 words. Too long to be a short story; too short to be a novel.)

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

1. If your story is too short…

(a) Add a new plot twist. (This brings with it more problems and a new level of complexity to the main story).

(b) Add a new sub-plot. (This should be a secondary issue that CAN be removed from the main story without affecting its flow or the outcome of the story. However, it must add depth to at least one of your story people. It might explain a character flaw, or distract the main character from seeing something obvious, or generally make his/her life more complicated in some way.)

(c) Add a new character (A SIGNIFICANT character, whose life is interwoven with the main character’s life – not just a caricature whose job is simply to take up a few more pages and add extra lines of dialogue!)

(c) Add a new dimension to your main character – a secret in his/her past; a secret hobby or interest that for some reason needs to be hidden from others. This may or may not be related to a new plot twist or sub-plot.

2. If your story is too bare-bones…

(a) Identify what you are NOT doing that you SHOULD be doing. Explore this by reading the work of other authors. Identify writing that seems (to you) to work well, or to be something you’d aspire to. Then write out several pages of the published book by hand, or type it into the computer. Get a ‘feel’ for the way sentences flow and the way words are used. Then take an excerpt from your own work and try to replicate the technique.

(b) Look at the way you describe people, events, and places. You’re quite likely to find that you are too economical with words, and that you haven’t chosen words or phrases that evoke what you want. Rather, you settle for something that easily comes to mind, then move on with the action of the story.

Take the colour RED.

What is the red of embarrassment?
What is the red of sunset?
What is the red of a fire?
What is the red of plush velvet curtains?
What is the red of a fine wine?
What is the red of blood?
What is the red of a stop sign?

Find pictures of all of these things, if you can (do a search via Google images). Now look at the range of tones in ‘red’. What are all these shades actually called? Can you think of a creative colour name that will help readers to see exactly what you can see?

In my copy of ‘Words That Sell’, I can find these:

rose, burgundy, ruby, crimson, scarlet, vermilion, russet, auburn, copper.

Then I typed ‘Words to Describe Red’ in to a search engine. On WikiAnswers.com I found these:

Scarlet, vermilion, crimson, ruby, cherry, cerise, cardinal, carmine, wine, blood-red, coral, cochineal, rose; brick-red, maroon, reddish, rusty, cinnamon, damask, vermeil, sanguine.

No doubt a thesaurus would turn up even more.

But… don’t just think of colour names. When you look at a ‘red’ object, start using your other senses.

What is the smell of red wine?
What is the sound of a fire (or fire engine?)
What is the texture of red velvet curtains?
What is the taste of blood?

Already, you can see how your bare-bones writing might start to develop depth and texture. (If you do nothing else, start thinking in terms of the five senses. That alone will give your story more emotional punch and help the reader to picture the scene.) Your special challenge is to use this sensory detail in a well-turned phrase that will help the reader to experience your character’s life. The trap you can fall into is to write too much boring description.

Closely tied to using the five senses – for obvious reasons – is the task of getting viewpoint right. A lot of writers produce bare-bones narrative because they can’t get into the mind of the main character in the scene. They ‘tell’ the reader everything, moving along at a rapid clip, instead of playing out the scene and letting the reader become part of it.

In the end, being able to flesh out a story means that you need to develop more mastery of your craft. It will involve either adding more pages (working on plot and characters) or adding more depth (working on viewpoint and emotional punch). You should be constantly building your skills and adding to your writer’s toolkit.

Writers who work at their craft are the ones who ultimately succeed.

Writing: Profanity and Obscenties

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Although it is often used to denote any objectionable word, profanity literally means words that are considered profane—that is, words proscribed by religious doctrine. (Proscribed generally means forbidden by written order.) In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this primarily means taking the Lord’s name in vain (that is, not in prayer).

For the love of God, stop complaining.

Jesus Christ, look at the size of that thing!

In writing as in life, profanity can seem gratuitous or, worse, a thinly veiled shock tactic. And it can offend.  All of which might jolt the reader out of the unfolding action.  As a result, it’s important to use profanity only when it’s adding something essential.

I have to admit that when a book has so much profanity and obscenity that it’s the only thing that I keep seeing instead of the story, I quit reading the book or watching the movie. I was raised in a time when four letter words and obscenity were insulting and crude. They were used, but not in mixed company. People used clichés as, “cussed like a sailor.”

Obscene means something disgusting or morally abhorrent, often connoting sex. The f-word is considered the most objectionable of these. (Adding “mother” as a prefix ups the ante.)

Non-objectionable variants of the present participle form of the word—besides “fugging”—include “fecking,” “freaking,” “flipping” and “fricking.” (To be honest, I really don’t know why that “u” is so important.)

“Screw” is a milder word. Notice that both the f-word and “screw” are used not just too literally describe the act of intercourse, but to connote “taking advantage of”:

Don’t go to that repair shop—they screwed me out of $500 for a brake job I didn’t need.

Words referring to the pelvic area, male and female, are also considered obscenities.

To help you understand why I think like I do let me tell you a personal story that I remember as if it were yesterday instead of the 1950’s.  I was a small child maybe five at the most.  My father and my uncle were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking. I can’t say they were drunk because I was not old enough to really be aware, but I do remember a bottle setting on the table.  I was sitting in the kitchen floor by our refrigerator watching and listening to what was going on.

My dad was talking and gesturing with his hands.  I heard my father say that four letter word and the next thing I knew my uncle knocked my father out of the chair to the floor.  My uncle then told my father not to say that another time in front of me.

I asked my mom about what happened and she told me that daddy had used a word that he shouldn’t have. That one event impressed my five year old mind so strongly that anytime I hear it, I see my dad hitting the floor.

It seems to me that today’s language is filled with four letter and curse words, and is accepted as norm by mostly young people. Truth be told, I still find it offensive no matter how much I hear it.

In writing language choices should stay true to the character; however, the narrative isn’t riddled with profanity.  Using restraint allows one to achieve voice effectively and maintain authenticity while avoiding the likelihood of profanity’s potential pitfalls.  Such language can seem be a departure for a character, and that contrast can also be revealing.

When profanity influences characters or becomes pertinent to the unfolding action, it can be necessary.  In the autobiography Black Boy, Richard Wright uses strong profanity and racial epithets to show the ways in which white characters try to intimidate and terrorize him.

When used incorrectly, profanity can be a shortcut to emotion and the reader is bound to remain unconvinced.  Try to convey emotion through action, gesture or different dialogue for a more nuanced effect.

 

Creating Your Protagonist

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Writer2From story to story, from novel to novel, protagonists vary widely in psychological make-up, goals and dreams, in the types of conflicts they face and in the way they resolve these conflicts.  Among all these differences, compelling characters may have some common qualities as well.

Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay It Forward and 24 other novels, believes compelling protagonists share two chief traits.  “I think he or she needs to be someone with a strong will to move through adversity, and someone readers can relate to,” she says, adding that relatable characters also require vulnerability. “We’re all vulnerable on the inside, so our hearts go out to anyone enduring struggles we understand.”

Authors are often told that readers must be able to root for their characters, yet Hyde believes that protagonists don’t necessarily have to be likable or sympathetic.  They do need to be human, or readers won’t be able to relate to them.  To accomplish that, says Hyde, you have to get inside your character’s head, and thats when the “humanity will begin to shine through.”

Here’s how Ishmael Reed gets inside of Paul Blessings, a character in his 10th novel, Juice!

I’m a survivor all right.  After generations of ancestors working in the fields, factories, cleaning homes and offices, my generation had a chance to go to school, read books, attend plays, and do desk work just like W.E. B. wanted it.  Like an old time Talented Tenther, I even had a season ticket to the opera. Only falling asleep once.  During Wagners’s Die Meistersinger, I think it was the droning, lumbering trombone score that did it.  Besides, like millions of my contemporaries, I’m fond of gazing and staring.  This “sedentary” lifestyle got me in trouble with glucose, which one geneticist has said we should avoid more than the snakes we were originally programmed to fear.  A bakery display of cake, muffins, and cookies is like a nest of cobras to me.  They should invent a candy bar for diabetics called the Grim Reaper.  How did I know that sugar had a dark side.

Blessings comes fully alive for readers with his open, frank self-revelation: regarding his roots, his generation’s opportunities, his drifting off during the Wagner opera, his sedentary style and his health crisis.  Wryly, Reed situates diabetes in a framework that surprises us by an utterly bizarre comparison: snakes and sugar.  We want to learn more about this intriguing character.

Of course, it’s one thing to know what a compelling protagonist and still another to create one.  Should you begin with notes for a fully fleshed out character, or should you discover your protagonist as you write.  Virgil Suarez, author of several novels and short story collection, plans out his protagonist in advance of writing.  “I love to create an entire biography and history for a character,” he says, even though only 10 percent of what I imagine about a character actually makes it into the story or chapter.”

While Suarez does a lot of initial planning, much of his characterization happens as he writes.  Intutive discovery of character may be key to solid character development. Instead of engineering or controlling characters, let their own voices take action. “I’m on the lookout for a fictinal person with a good story to tell me,” says Hyde.  “After I make that connection, it feels more like a process of sitting back and listening.”  This act of listening worked well fro Grissom, who says her two first-person narrators spoke clearly to her. “I wrote down what they were saying.” She had to edit later, but through attentive listening, she came to know her characters well.

Excerpt from Returning To The Elements by Jack Smith

Leaving The Joy Out of Writing

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dog coutureWriting is not always fun.  There are times when it’s downright taxing.  Various authors have compared the process to cutting veins and bleeding onto the page.  Certainly everyone has had the feeling of being discouraged, of thinking that the words are flappy, the sentiments trite, the whole thing a complete waste of time.  Many writers get so stuck in the morass that they can’t get our, and so they write word after every begrudging word with any joy at all.

Often this happens when a writer gets stuck on one particular story.  I have often seen it happen that a writer will carry around a story for a decade.  He will work on nothing else.  He is going to finish it if it kills him.  He submits the same story over and over and over again to be critiqued.  Although I suggest politely that he move on and write something else he can’t.  He has to tell this story. But now he hates it, and quite honestly, I hate it.  I’ve critiqued the character, the plot, and the dialogue.

I suspect this is even more likely to happen to novelists than to short-story writers, because we’re more likely to put big chunks of time into a novel.  Certainly it’s harder to walk away from something you’ve spent four years working on.  That was how long I worked on my novel, Courting Disaster.  It was the story of a woman who gets engaged 17 times and then falls in love with a man named Chuck Jones.  My novel was a finalist for a number of prestigious literary awards, got a lot of agent and editorial attention, but after four years of writing, rewriting and submitting, no one wanted it.  I was depressed, to put it mildly I was also discouraged at the prospect of having to write a whole new book.

But I did.  I wrote a book about a woman who teaches a fiction class, and I began to feel something I hadn’t felt n a while: excitement.  At one point, as I was trying to figure out who the students were in the writing class, I realized that my old friend Chuck Jones, would be perfect.  I had been obsessed by this character, and I was delighted to move him over to my new novel.  The Fiction Class was, in fact, published by Plume, a division of Penguin.  Often when I’m at book clubs, people will come up to me and tell me how much they like Chuck jones, and I always feel like that’s a tribute to the beleaguered part of me that struggled so hard to get a foothold in this business.

Don’t be afraid to start something new, if this is what you need to keep going.  Start a new story.  Take what you’ve learned and apply it somewhere else. But don’t give up the joy that brought you into this insane profession in the first place.

<div style=”font-size: 8px;”>Original by Susan Breen</div>

Rushing and Muddying Your POV

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We All Get There

We All Get There

Before we get into the meat of the blog of just wanted to say that I hope all of my Christian family and friends had a wonderful Christmas and have a great New Year. As I say every year, “its hard to believe that 2015 is here.” The time we have been given passes very quickly. When you’re young it drags and you know you will be young forever, but that is just a smoke screen. When you get past 30 the time starts increasing at a rapid rate. Before you know it the majority of your life is behind you and Christmas seems like it happens every two weeks.  Enjoy your life and make it mean something to someone or a lot of someones.

Now onto the blog.  If there’s one issue writing students worry about more than any other, it’s point of View. What is it? they ask.  Am I doing it right? Am I in omniscient of third? Should I be in omniscient or third? Many times the confusion over point of view overwhelms the writer.  The key thing to keep in mind is that choosing the right point of view will help you tell your story.  That’s all.  No one will come out and arrest you if you got it wrong.  You’re just likely to confuse the reader.

Consider the differences between these two paragraphs. In the first: Cinderella longed to go to the ball.  She dreamed of finding true love because no one ever loved her.  She looked at the rose bush in front of her, inhaled its delicate bouquet, and hoped that someday she would hold a bouquet like this when she married.

In the second: Cinderella wanted to go to the ball.  Prince Charming hoped he would meet her there.  She put on a dress.  He wanted to find some slippers. There was a pumpkin in the window.

In the first example, (which I hope you think is better), we’re seeing the world through Cinderella’s eyes.  We’re identifying with her.  In the second example, we don’t know whom we’re rooting for: Cinderella, Prince Charming or the pumpkin.  Finding the right POV helps helps the reader understand what the story is about.

We all want to be done. We all want to see our book in stores, our story in the magazine, our screenplay made into a movie.  Oh, and we’d like the money, too.  Ten thousand dollars would be nice. Right now.

One of the very first things I did as a writer, when I had written no more than three paragraphs of my first story was look through a reference book for places that might publish it.  My list had more words in it than my story. And I’m, embarrassed to say that the minute I finished the first draft, I sent the story out.  To 20 places. Each of them rejected me with a form letter. I actually called up Redbook to ask why there was a problem, and I believe I got someone in the circulation department.

Unfortunately, some things can’t be rushed.  You have to take time with your story;  writing a first draft isn’t enough.  You need to go through a couple of drafts.  You need to deepen the character, intensify plot, tighten the dialogue, and flesh out descriptions.  You need to proofread. You need to take enough time to do it right.

Many, many writers they that if they get good enough idea on the page and send it out, some insightful editor or agent will read it, recognize its inner value, take the writer under her wing, and fix it for her.  This worked for Thomas Wolfe, but I don’t think you can count on it as a career path.  Although there are lovely agents and editors out there, they are not really looking for extra work.  They want you to finish the job yourself.

There are however some things you can do to give your ego a boost before you’re ready to send that story out.  Try joining a writing community.  A positive critique can make you feel great.  You can also try writing some shorter work, which may be easier to get our quickly.  Seeing your name in print on a flash fiction piece may give you the boost you need to finish that novel.  Read literary journals and consider volunteering.  some of the smaller ones need people to help read submissions.  Sighing up can be a fun way to become part of the literary world.