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...

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: 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: Writing is Hard...

There are things you should know as a new writer. There are things you should remind yourself as a working writer. The biggest of these is that writing is just hard work for most people. It’s not as fun as people think it is and once you do two or three paragraphs, it gets harder and harder to keep pulling out material. I once heard a great analogy for writing as a process: Writers, unlike other creatives, first have to make their material from scratch. A potter sits down with a lump of clay for example but a writer has to first make the clay with which to work; clay in the shape of the first words of any rough draft. Then a writer gets to work with those words like a potter works with clay. Making the clay can be boring stuff and very hard work besides. In this respect, writers are stuck with an extra layer of work above and beyond other artists. I would say that only a composer of music has the same experience. The composer must first have a piece of music with which to play his or her instrument. On top of that, nonfiction writing is quite difficult even for creative types. Technical writing is hardest of all; even technical writing about artistic endeavors. To explain the process of craftsmanship takes a certain type of person; one who is a good teacher, really, a good expositor. In art school, for example, some of the best fine artists can’t articulate how they do the most basic things. If asked how they made a certain stroke, they would be hard pressed to put that experience into words. This makes sense because many artists are drawn to a non-verbal medium in...

Writers Journey: Too Long Didn’t Read Culture...

We live in a too-long–didn’t-read culture today. (tl;dr) No one feels this more than the aspiring novelist. The poet may have a better chance at success in such a short-attention-span marketplace. The difference between the poet and the prose writer is worth mentioning either way. There are novels that are filled with poetry. And there are nearly novel-length poems. But the genres are separated by a small distinction in that prose is largely carried by the mind; poetry by the heart. For all of James Joyce’s poetic wording in Ulysses, the story is driven by the rational mind along some essential plot. Whereas a poem goes where the heart goes, even if it is as long as Virgil’s Aeneid, which may be said to have a fragment of plot within its mythic design; the chief ambition is to evoke emotion. A novel evokes an experience that may further produce emotion. Today, we rely on recording devices as our memories. That reliance has advantages but also with it comes the disadvantage of poorly sustained personal memory. A glance down a common list of symptoms for today’s many modern illnesses will reveal ‘difficulties with short and long term memory’ as frequently listed. Sometimes I wonder whether or not this is simply a universal symptom of the human condition today. In the ancient times, poets like Homer had whole ballads the length of The Odyssey and The Iliad in long-term memory, able to call upon those tales at festivals and recite them before an audience. They were trained to do this of course but they came from an oral tradition in which their culture valued recitation of verse at least once a season of every year. We rely very heavily on books to provide us with entertainment...

Show Your Appreciation for Art Aug11

Show Your Appreciation for Art...

Most of us know a musician. We may even know someone who writes, or have a friend who creates artwork of some type. We don’t generally think of them as artists though. Bob may work at the factory and play drums in his band in the evenings. Sarah is a tour guide for a museum even though her artwork could be hanging on the very walls where she works. Sam writes his novel at home, working at the local coffee shop each morning to earn a living while he waits for his latest work to become a best seller. When we think of these friends, we generally associate them with the job that pays the bills. There are very few artists who can actually live off of what they earn by creating. Some would argue that’s because they’re not good enough artists, but I disagree. From what I’ve seen, their work is exceptional,  just not well-known, or maybe well-valued is a better term, by the masses. The only difference I would say is that those who are more famous, have better marketing people helping them succeed at their chosen career. And for that they pay a percentage to their agent, or publicist or manager, because… people do not work for free. And yet, many seem to think that artists should have to struggle financially for their art. Everyone knows the phrase “starving artist” yet no one seems to think it odd that artists have to work more than one job just to survive. Surely it can’t be because their work is mediocre, because I’ve known many a mediocre waitress, plumber, or lawyer and they seem to only need one job. What is it, as a culture that makes us not value art? Is it...

Writer’s Journey: True Characterization...

Compared to any other form of writing, the novel is the most psychological, followed closely by the short story.  A short story may not have as much time for psychological delving, and by its shorter word count, becomes limited in introspection, but the greatest function of both narratives is to delve the inner soul or consciousness of its characters as much as possible. E.M. Forster said that a “novel’s success lies in its own sensitiveness, not in the success of its subject-matter.”  By sensitivity, it’s the empathy of the author in question.  A writer must be keen enough to pick up the reflection of the world around them, even if they are writing about a story that took place in another time or on another world.  Character is that reflection; character brings any subject matter to life.  To find character, one must treat the novel as a psychological journey. The word psychological may be off-putting to several people but it’s the best modern word for the subjective narrative experience.  There are novels that are less psychological and focus almost entirely upon pure story-telling, but they are usually classified as adventure novels, or exist in a category of some field like science-fiction where the play of words is focused upon technology and world-building for a good reason.  Isaac Asimov is a good example of this.  And we only need to look at Robinson Crusoe for a classic example of an adventure tale. But the psychology found in novels is not to be equated with modern concepts of weekly therapy sessions, so-called happy pills, or even how the writer feels about his or her mother.  It’s more subjective in its analysis and was traditionally known as building character.  It becomes social psychology when readers pick up...

Writer’s Journey: Truth Bears Repeating...

“What is important is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.” – Gene Wolfe, Introduction to The Sandman: Fables and Reflections In this quote we see another way of phrasing the role of fiction in the world. Humanity has a short memory but by the seventeenth century, it was the advent of the printing press which was responsible for much the same glut of material published as we now see on the World Wide Web. Possibly less in volume, but with the same difficulties as the current literary crowd has observed today. Quality control, mainly. In those days novel reading was a scandal, and novels were seen much as soap operas are seen today. Most works of fiction were published anonymously, or by unsupported authors without any gatekeepers. (Does this sound like the net today?) There need be no judgment call on this. It’s an inevitable process of creation and there are days when a dime-store novel is satisfying for its own merits. There are days when you need to find an obscure reference or opinion on something online and it’s there. The point in bringing this relevant period of history up and comparing it to the self-publishing renaissance of today is that once before we learned that the power of story was in the lasting truth of its vision. Gene Wolfe...

Writers Journey: Begin...

Before I began, the page was a blank space. In the Japanese language, the radicals that create the full kanji pictograph for the word ‘line’ are a thread, over white or blank water. That is probably because even in ancient times, people saw the blank page as a vast sea over which one small thread seemed barely visible; thus they probably felt as daunted as we do. Usually a writer is compelled to begin when she has something to say. That is different from having an idea. Behind every generated idea there must also be something worth saying. Some of the most memorable journeys were made by authors who were wrestling with some problem they wanted to understand, or some point of view that they felt as a cry to be generally understood. This compulsion is what can propel a writer over the ‘white or blank water’ and make the first few marks on a pristine page. This applies to fiction and nonfiction equally. It’s a mistake to feel that just because we write fiction we are exempt from saying something important in the subtext of our words. A setting and a character is not enough. A writer can spend years building a world from scratch, or researching a setting and characters. But until that compulsion to say something arises, there will only be note-taking and contemplation. Sometimes it’s simply the need to be understood that triggers the writing flow. Sometimes it’s a desire to impart a certain world view or ethic. Very often, a writer begins a piece because they have someone in mind to speak to, even if the narration may never show it. A mother writes a story for her child’s bedtime. A young lover writes a poem or short story...