Develop a Habit of Research in Writing...

Over a lifetime, a writer might develop an amazing array of facts and information because of lengthy research into the topics of their stories.  In a study of medieval Paris, an author may learn all the historical landmarks, the city streets and their ancient layout before the city was modernized, or the placement of walls and battlements that are no longer standing in the present day.  The writer might also discover customs now lost to society, such as the rag-catcher who would collect the used handkerchiefs of the city dwellers and take them on to be ‘recycled’ in other ways.  This research can stay with a writer for years after they have finished their story and it is a product of research conducted once the writer has the germ of the narrative firmly in mind.  This is the research that most of us come to associate with the daily life of a professional writer. But research can occur at any stage of the game, in many forms, and should be a universal writing habit. The curious writer is the one best poised to uncover story almost by accident, thus sparing himself the discomfort of having to dream up a narrative from scratch. It’s a common adage in the writing community that one does not think up a story, one writes it down like a faithful assistant. Julia Cameron attributes this to having a good sense of direction. A good habit of daily research means that stories come to the writer, rather than the writer chasing them down like butterflies with a net. The writer must be curious. A curious writer is rewarded with ideas that she never strove for and these are the most natural and organic ideas. They become discoveries like buried treasure...

Choosing Character Names in Fiction...

How do you choose a character name? There are several ways to choose an effective name in the process of writing a short story. The easiest way to choose a character name is to browse through popular baby names on the internet. There are several sites that will show up on a Google search, especially if you use search terms such as, ‘popular boy names’ or ‘names for girls.’ To choose a character name that is from another nation, you can perform an online search for French or Japanese names and surnames. Books are also printed which contain an index of hundreds of character names and you can find these books in the writing section of your local bookstore. One excellent resource is from Writers’ Digest, The Character Naming Sourcebook. It contains an extensive list of first names and a good handful of common surnames as well.  What about surnames? Just as with first names, you can perform an online search for ‘surname’ or ‘last name’ as well. You can also use a character surname based on street or location names in your local geography. There are many ways to refine your selection of a character name. You can choose a name that simply sounds good or a character name that has a particular meaning. Many name sites on the internet will give you the meaning of a particular name, as will most books with indexes of names. Not all characters have realistic names and you may want an outrageous or poetic character name to fit a particular mood in your writing style. For example, science-fiction character names may sound quite outlandish and unusual. In this case, you may want to try an unconventional approach to the given name and surname, such as using...

NaNoWriMo an abbreviation every writer knows...

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is happening through November. The idea behind the project is to give writers the opportunity to write a large work on a deadline and to have the support of their peers throughout the process. The goal is to achieve 50,000 written words between the span of November 1 and November 30. Just thirty days to write 50,000 words. To give a rough estimate of the size of the project, that’s the size of a slim novel. The project is not only open to established writers, but encourages any creative individual who has an idea to partake in the contest. An excerpt from NaNoWriMo’s site reveals that last year: “310,095 participants started the month of November as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.” The structure provided by the project is what helps new writers the most. With their step-by-step contribution scheme, NaNoWriMo encourages continual work from the aspiring author, asking for daily word counts, providing inspirational content or meeting grounds in order to help with writers block. Finally the site asks the writer to submit a full text of their manuscript for validation. This process confirms that the writer did in fact write 50,000 original words and once validated, the writer ‘wins.’ There are no official prizes other than a feeling of satisfaction. So winning of course means that the participants have completed the word count and are now in possession of a first draft of a novel. The publishing world considers a novel to be anything larger than 50,000 words. This also means that there can be more than one winner in every National Novel Writing Month. The worldwide contest has few restrictions and the possibility for writing content is really...

Tools of the Trade: Editing tools for writers...

Let’s discuss what writers need beyond a pen and paper or that all essential keyboard especially when it comes to making revisions.  The best tools are an exceptional dictionary, a handbook guide to grammar, a thesaurus and/or rhyming dictionary, a set of resources for naming your characters, tool bars and a search engine ready to look up not just information but to confirm quotations and facts, and personally I never leave a desk devoid of a stack of chocolate. The Dictionary Why is it necessary? Today we have spell-check everywhere. Except the more you write the more you realize that spell-check is not a highly functioning tool. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a relatively obscure word that a spell-checker embedded into major software has not been able to clear and identify. I have these Twilight Zone moments when I race over to an online dictionary like Merriam-Webster.com and console myself that I’ve spelled the obscure word correctly. When I am correct, I’m sure to add the word to the spell-check dictionary by right-clicking on the word in whatever program I’m using to add it in. But imagine if you’re sometimes using a small program like Notepad, or in two or three various email apps or web browsers, or you’re using Word. You’ll never want to stop and take the time to open every single place you have spell-check software to correct it. Not when you’re on a writing deadline. Ain’t nobody got time for that! So get a good dictionary, even if you only go online to Merriam-Webster Online and use it. Merriam-Webster Online is free and if you add it to your bookmarks toolbar, it’s right at your fingertips. Enter the word into the search box and it will...

Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism part 3...

Before a writer gets into final revisions, there is usually a process of peer review.  Some writers will join a critique group.  Others will have mentors who are professionals in the field or perhaps they are on staff in some academic facility.  The first external review of a work is often the hardest part of the process.  The manuscript is not in its final stage and the people that the author invites to read it must be sensitive to that understanding. Many fledgling writers are pulled into the allure of the critique group.  It’s my opinion that a good critique group builds a solid writer for a few years, but sooner or later, the dynamic begins to shift when a writer starts coming in to their own professionally and takes on a strong professional voice and begins to kick the training wheels off their bike and ride with the pros.  Eventually you will want to find readers rather than writers when you’re looking for feedback as you evolve as an author because at the end of the day your work will be primarily in the hands of readers, not writers, and there is a distinction. There is a difficulty in navigating most critique groups in that everyone in that circle with you is not only another writer, but also usually a direct competitor.  This is an implicit dynamic that no one likes to acknowledge openly but it’s imperative that you understand this when going in to a group of other writers.  They have agendas and so do you.  The point is to push past this to give and receive a meaningful critique.  There are many good critique groups out there that get it right and most of them have rules and guidelines that help...

Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism, part two...

Research is a must when you are getting into your structure and working on the writing of scene after scene.  If you do your research before or during your writing you will save yourself the pain of finding contrary discoveries later when the editor or copy editor gets hold of your words later in the process.  It’s important to be as critical of your own work as possible now, rather than experience an extensive period of rewriting later. In some ways you can’t avoid certain aspects of rewriting even if you’re a careful researcher or editor on your side of the work.  When books are written largely for target market audiences today, you will find that more often than not, people will ask you to make amendments to what you’re putting on the shelf.  Particularly with large publishers, they do have target demographics out there and they do research on what will and won’t sell according to those demographics.  This can be a trying process for a writer in general as you wrestle with your vision in the waters of a market place that can feel fickle and faddish. The best thing you can do is make sure that your work is well-edited either way.  The most important thing is to hone your voice within the work and to essentially be yourself.  People will often still be drawn to an author’s style or tone.  Authors are like friends to the reader; they will come to read what you have to say the way a good friend opens your emails every day.  So once you’re pushing through structural edits, you need to settle in to what makes the work sound like it comes from you and no other author. One writer, Julia Cameron, suggested that...

Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism...

We’ll be looking at criticism for the next few weeks and I’ll be reviewing the steps within the author’s editing process, then the whole process of editorial review at and before the publishing level, as well as what happens when the critics finally assess your story or novel. The fine art of criticism begins with the author and continues in many stages through to the editorial phase of any work. There are many pitfalls along the way, and some of them are natural and occur because it is impossible to be perfectly objective about one’s own work. The closest you can get to being truly objective is to put something away long enough to absolutely forgot that you’d written it in the first place. When you pull out the manuscript and wonder what had compelled you to write this or that detail, or what possessed you to add this or that scene, then you have a good grasp on what it’s like to be on the other side as the reading audience or the editor looking over your work for the first time. This is why a lot of authors have taken years to perfect a work of art. Some, like E.M. Forster, sat on manuscripts for up to forty years and sometimes it was not by choice. But the time to perfect the manuscript, to age with your piece, is nevertheless valuable. What a writer looks for in tightening up a draft is manifold really. At the start, the most important factor in your drafts is to take the large view and work to the small view. This is why it’s vital to just keep putting down pages daily and building up the material you have to work with. As a writer, we’re one...

2013: A Year of Accomplishments...

As the new year approaches, it has been a tradition to look back over the year’s accomplishments and struggles, and give credit to those around me who have made the year a success. I am proud to view Musebreak’s launch and its continuing publications as a success. In July we began Musebreak as a way for artists to help spread the message about the value of art to those not in the field. A handful of people banded together and decided to write about art, music and literature, and possibly make a difference in some way. I would like to commend the people of Musebreak for this year’s effort. You have done a fantastic job! In six month’s time, we’ve published 56 articles. I would like to especially thank Patrick and Fiona for their consistent efforts in getting out articles each week. For a volunteer force, I’m extremely proud of their effort to bring something of interest each week. I would also like to thank all of the others who have contributed with either articles or interviews as they could. I know it’s not easy to take time out of busy schedules to volunteer your time. Finally I would like to thank Musebreak’s audience, the readers who stop in each week to learn something new. Musebreak would be nothing without either. Since our launch in July our viewing numbers have grown. We now regularly receive over 4000 page hits per weekly publication. I count that a success, considering we are a small organization and I hope to see us grow in the years to come. I have made requests for more writers and interviewees and have yet to have much response, but I’m hoping in the months to come, people will realize that talking...

Writers Journey: Sensationalism...

Sensationalism is a modern American phenomenon these days.  We should take care to notice that goals of any positive value are worthy of respect and admiration.  This is not just a warning for writers, but for anyone with a career goal.  If a student wishes to graduate from college and enter a career as a teacher’s assistant, earning an income of thirty thousand to fifty thousand a year, this is a worthy goal.  So long as that student keeps their expenses in under their wage, this person can be said to have attained success.  They earn more than they spend, and they provide a service to humanity. However, one will often encounter mental hiccups in their most basic endeavors because of an obsession with sensationalism in America today.  If you are not a Forbes CEO, or a national best-selling author, you may encounter many blank stares among family and friends, and even your college faculty.  I recently sat through an unfortunate session at a local college where students were encouraged to earn a hundred thousand a year, find two houses, have three cars, and this was considered ‘making it.’  And I realized that this ideal is extremely sensationalized let alone economically and environmentally unsustainable.  Two houses.  Three cars.  Everyone should have it.  So the theory goes . . . Nowhere does this apply more than to the working artist.  A writer is automatically successful because they finish a final draft.  That’s it.  That draft may never see publication, but the success is still there.  Looking at history, this is how now-famous writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were initially successful.  They wrote stories for their families, for each other, and those stories were taken by their families to publishing houses which accepted...

Writers Journey: Support and Freedom...

We live in an age where we are expected to earn revenue on what we produce.  This expectation was brought about by the Age of Enlightenment and furthered by the Industrial Revolution.  If we are successful novelists, for example, we must churn out a New York Times bestseller every year or two.  Culturally, we are told a myth that insists that we earn money from our art. This ‘Hollywood fantasy’ of earning money per project is actually very new and flies in the face of thousands of years in which artists lived under another kind of system:  namely support from a patron.  I don’t advocate that we go back to having patrons, which is what you might call feudalistic even on a good day, but I do want to point out that it’s easy to mistake one thing for another and this is where we can accidentally confuse having money and being paid for our art with true freedom to make the art that must be made. The biggest misconception an artist faces is the definition of the word resource.  If you want something, say quality light and space to paint in, that doesn’t mean you need money to get it.  It means you need a resource (space and light) and your first inclination may well be to pay for studio space for it.  Stop right there!  What you really need is space and light.  In our consumerist mentality, we will often equate this with real estate.  But space and light is not the same thing as a studio situated downtown.  Space and light may be had in a breakfast nook, or outside at a park, or on the back lawn.  One of your friends may have space and light that they’ll willingly share...

Musebreak: A Vision

When I contemplated the idea for Musebreak, I envisioned an online magazine dedicated to bringing the world information about The Arts. A place where everyday people could take a break from their everyday world and learn about the muse that inspires us all. What we deal with as artists, where we come up with our creative ideas, where our challenges lie. I believe that as creatives, we are obligated to explain our choices and talk about what drives us to do what we do, so we can break down the barriers holding us in an awe-inspired isolation; an enigma to the rest of the world. I envisioned Musebreak as an outlet for this purpose; a way to share creativity to those who have not found theirs. Most creatives tend to hang with other creatives, because they share a common bond and draw inspiration from the symbiotic relationship. They feel understood. There’s no need to explain behaviors that don’t necessarily conform to the norm. Unfortunately, that leaves the rest of the world shaking their heads and wondering why this type of person does what they do. My vision for Musebreak would enlighten those not privy to the artistic world—I had no idea what a challenge this would be. Being 100% volunteer, getting writers to volunteer their time has been a struggle. It is here that I have to sing the praises to the writers who have chosen to help me in this quest. Their weekly contributions are done without any type of feedback or pay. The only thing I can offer is to promote whatever artistic venture they are involved in and a space to write, free of strict deadlines or strict editorial constraints. I also feel the need to apologize for my attempts at...

Writers Journey: Ancient Wisdom...

The Roman poet Virgil spent a great deal of time thinking about the life of a writer. In fact, his first major work spends many lines just dwelling on it. It is called The Eclogues and young Virgil wrote this daunting piece of work while looking for his patron in the arts. He rose to the eye of Augustus shortly afterward so the work has held some merit in the eyes of history. Questions of the writer’s life or the validity of art in the big picture are themes to be found all over The Eclogues which are set in a pastoral, idealistic setting in order to help overcome place and time and project the reader into a tranquil state for reflection. In Eclogue 3, two poets perform before a laboring farmer in the fields. Their names are Damoetas and Menalcas. They perform before the farmer named Palaemon. This farmer is busy irrigating his fields but he listens with some patience and attention to each poem recited by Damoetas and Menalcas. In the end, Palaemon can only admit that he likes both poems and then he wanders off to finish his tasks for the day because his fields are finally irrigated. Here, David R. Slavitt remarks in his discussion of Virgil, “Which doesn’t have an awful lot to do with art except to suggest that in the real world, it is difficult to get the attention of the public and almost impossible to hold on to it. The real world intrudes as represented by the farmer, who has practical concerns to deal with, is, at best, willing to listen but not much involved, and therefore – let us not kid ourselves – is not particularly knowledgeable either.” This insight dates to about the 1st...

Writers Journey: You Need Philosophy...

When I started the Writers Journey series of articles, I made mention that a writer must have something to say. Further to that is: a writer needs to tap into some universal truths about the human psyche or condition. Even during periods of popular writing styles which went against such sentiments, such as the trenche-de-vie (slice-of-life) style, the most enduring of those works ended up touching upon core truths by way of subtext or analogy even when their writers were attempting not to do that. In fact I would argue that part of writing is drilling down into a thought so far that you end up striking literary oil whether you wanted to or not. Most writers will eagerly tell you about their defining moments, moments when they really got into a piece of work. It’s the point where they can feel the whole of the work coalescing together like water slipping rapidly down the vacuum of a drain. But how does a writer hone this skill for finding the core truths of life? There is the ultimate draft upon draft way until you blindly hit upon something. There are also other ways. One way of writing with something to say is to study philosophy. Here, you probably are wrinkling up your nose. And I did. When I started getting serious about writing in my early twenties I could not be bothered with such challenges. But there comes a point where life itself may toss a writer upon the rocks and leave them bereft of every floating surface that ever buoyed their perception of reality. Most people call this a mid-life crisis and when it comes it usually shakes up life and forces someone to find a new point of view. The mid-lifer reassesses life. Some people...

Supporting the Arts from the Ground Up...

“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.” –President Barack Obama The news is full of stories of hard economic times causing funding cuts in arts education. More than a few schools have slashed support of the arts; some have eliminated them entirely. For artists this is alarming, for most others it’s a non-issue. Why should we spend our sparse education funding on painting and music and writing? Our math scores trail many other developed countries. Many students leave school barely able to read and write at a first grade level. Artists know the answer to this question. The arts exercise the mind in ways that the mere ingesting and regurgitating of facts can never do. Unfortunately, the ones who make the decisions on where to spend the money rarely see it that way. It is our responsibility to educate them, so they will educate our children. When people talk about supporting a school’s football team, they don’t mean for people to sit around and hope that the school will come up with the funds to keep it going. They’re talking about putting butts in the seats. They’re talking about an enthusiastic demonstration of support and good will. Why should we approach support of arts education any differently? How successful would a football program be if the only people who showed up for games were the mothers and fathers of the players? And yet, when a school music ensemble has a concert, or the theater department is presenting a play, they’re lucky to get as many people in the audience as they have on the stage. One big problem that arts programs have is, frankly, that the teachers rarely have the time or know-how to promote their programs...