Monday, March 27, 2017

On Creeks, Mucking Around, and the Writing Process

March 2017
"People sometimes ask me to quantify how much time I spend in the different stages of the writing process. That's a tough question. If you held my favorite teddy bear hostage and forced me to answer, I'd say roughly 5% goes to Pondering and Mucking Around, 15% is spent Scribbling, 70% is Boiling Down the Bones, and 10% is figure out how to Craft Chords and Singing." --Laurie Halse Anderson, madwomanintheforest

Adventures in the creek happen occasionally around here when hubby takes grandkids exploring. This was the case recently (kids ages 8, 6, and 4). They think it quite a lark--at least this time of year when the mosquitoes haven't come out yet.  There are stones to overturn, salamanders to find (they call them geckos), elusive crawdads to search for, splashings, rock skippings,  and balancing acts on tipping rocks. Although they did bring usable footing for the occasion (rubber boots, crocs, and flipflops), they still came in the house with wet pantlegs and dirty feet--and of course stories to share. But that's par for the course when mucking around in the creek on a Sunday afternoon. (photo sans kids: an after-the-fact re-creation since neither I nor my camera accompanied the original exploring party)

Laurie Halse Anderson (above quote) divides her writing process into percentages, saying that  5% of her process is spent "pondering and mucking around." Doesn't that tell it like it is in the first stages of writing? I love her creative way of describing her practices and found these treasures when I visited her blog at madwomanintheforest. And what prompted me to go there? I just finished reading her fantastic Seeds of America Trilogy (Chains, Forge, and Ashes), was moved and inspired by the stories, and wanted to learn more about the author.

About the Seeds of America Trilogy, from Amazon:
"What would you risk to be free? It’s 1776 and Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth have only ever known life as slaves. But now the young country of America is in turmoil—there are whisperings, then cries, of freedom from England spreading like fire, and with it is a whole new type of danger. For freedom being fought for one isn’t necessarily freedom being fought for all…especially if you are a slave. But if an entire nation can seek its freedom, why can’t they? As war breaks out, sides must be chosen, death is at every turn, and one question forever rings in their ears: Would you risk everything to be free? As battles rage up and down the Eastern seaboard, Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth flee, separate, fight, face unparalleled heartbreak and, just like war, they must depend on their allies—and each other—if they are to survive..." 

Loved this series. Ms. Anderson is also the author of the award-winning YA contemporary novels Wintergirls, Twisted, and Speak, along with numerous other books.

She is an engaging writer. And it's always a treat to get a glimpse into a successful author's life. She elaborates on her methods in her post, "The Bones of the Writing Process--Part 1", where she describes the stages of her writing process as:
  • Pondering
  • Mucking Around
  • Scribbling
  • Abandonment
  • Boiling Down the Bones
  • Chords
  • Singing
  • Storytelling

Of Mucking Around, she says: "When the idea takes solid shape--I know a bit about the character and I think I know a couple of the book's important moments of conflict--I start jotting things down. I play a lot of 'What if' games and start exploring the relationships..." (note the word exploring!Of Scribbling she means the first draftOf Boiling Down the Bones and Crafting Chords: "Let me explain that last 80%. It's rather important. Other people call it Revision."

And Singing? "You've got chords now so you can sing! With your imagery in place, with your plot and character development in place, now you can really plunge into the vast ocean of language and come up with precisely the right words to elevate your prose to a new level."

I don't suppose she had creek beds and salamanders in mind when she visualized this imagery (though maybe she did!). But her words help us traverse the rocky streams of writing and come out of it with a sense of discovery, and with our own stories to share. I've done my share of mucking around in this latest project, but that's okay. I'm like a kid making discoveries in the creek. Although I am looking forward to hearing those chords sing.

How about you? What stage are you in? Have you read any of Ms. Anderson's books? Do you have a favorite series of books you would recommend?

And if you want to see one amazing writer's cabin, check out the youtube video: Mad Woman in the Forest Gets a Cottage. Custom built for Ms. Anderson, it's a place to dream of. It even has a magic window. You'll wish you could put your boots on and truck over to a place like that for all your writing needs. 
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Saturday, March 11, 2017

March Classics

March 2017
"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." --Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

It was one of those kind of March days around here today. Mr. Dickens (1812-1870) hit it right on the mark from where he wrote all those years ago. His description makes me want to revisit his books. It's been many years since I've read either Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. I'm thinking maybe it's time?

Opening words to whet the appetite:

Great Expectations: "My Father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip."

A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

If you were to revisit a classic, which title would you choose? What about the classics is special to you? How are the opening lines of your books (short stories, poetry, memoirs) coming along?
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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Revisiting the Basics: Antagonist

photo courtesy pixabay
"Protagonist drives the plot forward. Antagonist tries to stop him." --Melanie Anne Phillips

I've been crafting character sketches lately as I draft my WIP and am finding it helpful to continue a review of story-writing basics (my previous revisit was on scene, here). This time? The antagonist! My first stop was to tap into Laura DiSilverio's article, "6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys." Ms. DiSilverio introduces her topic with a tongue-in-cheek take from the antagonist's point-of-view: "Dear Author, we antagonists, villains, bad guys, femme fatales--call us what you will--don't get no respect. We're overlooked, underdeveloped and squeezed into a space that would cramp your average gerbil. When we get short shrift, your books aren't nearly as good as they could be. They lack tension and depth. They're forgettable. Not that I'm one for pointing fingers, but I've got to tell you, it's your fault...Sincerely, Eva N. Carnate"

*Smile* This fun intro sent me on a quest to return to, re-evaluate, and re-establish the roots of my story's antagonist. Some points I've gathered along the way:

1. First, Just Who is the Antagonist? From Literary Devices: "In literature, an antagonist is a character or a group of characters which stand in opposition to the protagonist or the main character. The term antagonist comes from the Greek word 'antagonistes' that means opponent, competitor or rival. It is common to refer to an antagonist as a villain (the bad guy) against whom a hero (the good guy) fights in order to relieve himself or others...The antagonist opposes the protagonist in his endeavors and thus the conflict ensues."

2. How Important is the Antagonist? In Ms. DiSilverio's article (above), she follows up on her fictional correspondence with her antagonist by saying, "I don't know how the above email got into my inbox, but it caught my attention immediately. Did Eva have a point? It didn't take me long to review my work-in-progress, analyze some novels I'd read recently and realize that she did. Many authors are guilty of discriminating against their antagonists. Yet, they're just as important to good stories as the protagonists are. If your antagonist is not fully realized, lacks depth or is a caricature of evil, your story will suffer." She follows up with six great points toward making your antagonist more compelling--helpful reading for sure.

3. Understanding the Role of the Antagonist. The antagonist not only sets the tone, but also sets the stakes and defines the hero, this according to Danyelle Leafty in her article A Case for Villains. It's a tall order, but Ms. Leafty gets to the essence of the subject with this story-equation: "no villain=no conflict=no plot=no point."

4. What Should We Know About Antagonists? This from Chuck Wendig's article 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists: Opposition is key. "Character is the driver. Plot is the getaway car. Character drives plot; plot does not drive character. The antagonist isn't just here as a rock in the stream diverting the plot-churned waters--he does not exist in service to a sequence of events, but rather, he exists to change them, sway them, turn them to a sequence he wants--a sequence that stands in opposition to the protagonist. For opposition is key."

5. What Makes a Strong Antagonist? Janice Hardy spells out ten traits in her article, 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist. Highlights include "...a strong antagonist is trying to accomplish something"..."is hiding things"..."is in the path of the protagonist's goal." She concludes, "An antagonist who never crosses path with the protagonist isn't much of an obstacle. She needs to cause the protagonist hardship and trouble over the course of the novel, even if she's not doing it deliberately. Her plan and actions can cause trouble even if she's not yet aware the protagonist is fighting her. But at some point, these two will come face to face and only one will win."

6. The Antagonist's Position. Melanie Anne Phillips writes about this in her article, The Archetypal Characters: Protagonist and Antagonist: "The Protagonist represents our Initiative, the motivation to change the status quo. The Antagonist embodies our Reticence to change the status quo. These are perhaps our two most obvious human traits--the drive to alter our environment and the drive to keep things the way they are...The important thing is that the Antagonist must be in a position in the plot to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist. Since the drive of the Protagonist is measured by the size of the obstacle he or she must overcome, it is usually a good idea to pick the character who can bring to bear the greatest obstacles."

Every hero, as they say, needs a challenge. The antagonist provides that challenge by way of opposition, conflict, obstacles, hardship and trouble. He or she is a competitor, a rival, the antagonistes. The one who creates the tension that keeps a reader reading.

How do you define antagonist? How does a compelling antagonist hold your attention and keep you reading? What tips do you have for creating such an antagonist--and for keeping Eva N. Carnate from writing to us?!
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Thursday, February 9, 2017

A February Writing Tip

image (rotated) courtesy pixabay
"Here is a trick that painters know. They will often turn a picture upside-down to see if it works. Upside-down the painter cannot count on reading the actual figures, only the composition. Well, we can't read a story or poem upside down, but we can do the equivalent..." --Jane Yolen

My favorite writing tip of the month comes from the website of the amazing author and poet, Jane Yolen, on the subject of revisions. The above quote continues: 

"...Take a story or chapter and break it up into breath spaces (emphasis mine, I like this concept) as if it's a poem. Write it down that way. You will very quickly see where you have overwritten a piece, where your repetition is not helpful but just a mistake. When you see a cliche on a single line, it leaps out, grabs you by the throat, threatening to silence you. This is also true with poetry. Break the lines down into the smallest groupings possible. Suddenly the errors are appallingly clear. They wink at you like neon lights."

I'm tucking this piece of advice into my notebook of revision tips. How about you, any tips you turn to in order to see your manuscript through fresh eyes?
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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Under Construction: Stories and Writing Goals

January 2017
"If your work-in-progress is like a house under construction, you know the real strength lies in what you can't see: the foundation, the supports, the wiring..." --Heather Webb

New year, new writing goals and dreams. Where do we start? What gets our attention first? How do we build on whatever progress has already been made? Do we have a plan?

I gave this some thought as the new year unfolded, with consideration toward writing goals and projected progress for the months ahead. I also pulled together random notes and journal entries on my WIP, discovering along the way that quite a bit more groundwork has already been laid out for that WIP than I realized. Happy days.

Has this ever happened to you? You pull out journals. You open notebooks of research. You review character sketches you forgot you had and setting details that are like new all over again. You make a list then of where you are and where you'd like to be, and suddenly you see your story more clearly. Even if you're more of a panster than a plotter, you stumble upon a likely outline. Like a fresh wind blowing or a green shoot sprouting from a stone wall in the dead of winter (which I discovered coming in from a walk the other day), you feel a renewed sense of encouragement. Let the writing jump to life--your story under construction is in better shape than you thought.

Build on that.

Comparing the writing of a novel to that of building a house is not a new concept, but it is a helpful analogy. For example:

1. Draw up a blueprint. Heather Webb (quoted above) writes on this concept in Blueprints for a Better Book (February 2017 Writer's Digest). She suggests starting with a working pitch, a synopsis, scene outlines, character profiles, timelines, storyboards.

2. Frame your project. K.M. Weiland in 7 steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story addresses both the panster and the plotter by linking the power of the outline with a mindset of flexibility and discovery. Her steps to the story's framework consist of 1. crafting your premise; 2. sketching out scene ideas; 3. interviewing your characters; 4. exploring your settings; 5. writing your complete outline; 6. then condensing your outline and 7. putting your outline into action. "Remember," she concludes, "your outline is a map showing you the route to your destination, but that doesn't mean it is the only route." For our purposes can we say the outline is our frame but we can rearrange walls if we so choose. Happily I can say I've progressed already to #7.

3. Gather Tools. William Holland in his online article How to Write a Novel: A Blueprint for Success lists the basics: working title, working genre, working point of view, high impact summary, main characters, setting, character conflicts, character goals and motivation, plot conflicts. Again, nothing new to the writer already on the job site, but always a good review. You don't want to discover part way into the project that you're missing an important tool.

4. Build on the plan. Karen Wiesner in Your Novel Blueprint adds to the structure with her Story Plan Checklist. She writes, "The Story Plan Checklist can ensure cohesion between character, setting and plot." This list builds on Holland's tools above, adding such concepts as external and internal monologues, story sparks, and symbolic elements.

5. Show up for the job. This is what I'm all about in this new year. I was happy to see the progress I've made, but I want to make more. Jane Friedman helps us to stay the course when she writes about Do You Know What You're Capable Of? at WriterUnboxed. She references NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) but her words can apply to any of us. She says "...any...challenge that you might set for yourself...gives you the space to figure out how you'll develop the habit or discipline of showing up, day after day, to get the work done...You learn to just get on with the work, and put in the miles, regardless of what's happening around you, and before you know it, it's been two loops around the trail." Or another chapter. Or a finished book. My good friend and writing partner Connie has made it her goal to write at least one sentence a day this year--a worthy goal for a busy writer. All stories get written one sentence at a time!

The year is new, and promising. It's time to roll up the sleeves, gather tools, and see what words we will cement together, what stories we will build. Are you ready?

And guess what? You don't have to secure a builder's permit. You've had permission all along!
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Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Poem for the Season


pixabay
Only recently was I introduced to author and poet Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941). Although she lived before my time, I feel a kinship to her--native of neighboring state Kentucky and writer of historical fiction. Her titles are now on my to-read list. 

In the meantime, in this season of special times and special observances, I share one of her poems. Merry Christmas!

Christmas Morning

If Bethlehem were here today,
Or this were very long ago,
There wouldn't be a winter time
Nor any cold or snow.

I'd run out through the garden gate,
And down along the pasture walk;
And off beside the cattle barns
I'd hear a kind of gentle talk.

I'd move the heavy iron chain
And pull away the wooden pin;
I'd push the door a little bit
And tiptoe very softly in.

The pigeons and the yellow hens
And all the cows would stand away;
Their eyes would open wide to see
A lady in the manger hay,
If this were very long ago
And Bethlehem were here today.

And Mother held my hand and smiled--
I mean the lady would--and she
Would take the woolly blankets off
Her little boy so I could see.

His shut-up eyes would be asleep,
And he would look just like our John,
And he would be all crumpled too,
And have a pinkish color on.

I'd watch his breath go in and out.
His little clothes would all be white.
I'd slip my finger in his hand
To feel how he could hold it tight.

And she would smile and say, "Take care,"
The mother, Mary, would, "Take care;"
And I would kiss his little hand
And touch his hair.

While Mary put the blankets back,
The gentle talk would soon begin.
And when I'd tiptoe softly out
I'd meet the wise men going in.
                                                                            --Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1881-1941)
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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Emerging Stories and What It Takes

"A good story, just like a good sentence, does more than one job at once. That's what literature is: a story that does more than tell a story, that manages to reflect in some way the multilayered texture of life itself." --Karen Thompson Walker

The picture turned out to be more than I first thought it might be. I was coming home from a walk and paused by the creek at the small bridge near my house. Leaves floating on the water's surface caught my eye. I pulled out my phone and took a couple of snaps with the phone's camera. Only later when scrolling through those snaps did I note the reflection of the tree in the water. A little tweaking--and a polaroid frame thanks to Picmonkey--and the final product, above, emerged. I like Karen Thompson Walker's definition of literature and a good story. A good story, like a good sentence, she says, does more than one job at once.  Maybe the same can be said of a photo. All those layers and texture, discovering more than what was first expected. A reflection, a mood, and story all wrapped up in an image. It's fun to play around with that's for sure.

November past left me with a similar feeling. The time was filled with lots of life's layers and textures: Thanksgiving, family, shared stories--and that thing called NaNoWriMo that I used as a goal setter and prompt. Glad to say, as busy as the month was, that there were some breakthroughs and increased word count in my WIP--and unexpected surprises and discoveries along the way, those layers and textures we're talking about. Hard work is still ahead, but it was a very good month for seeing a clearer image emerge. All it took was a little more commitment :-)

How about you, are you seeing breakthroughs in your writing? Added layers to a story, more texture, unexpected discoveries? Struggling with a slowdown--or seeing a pickup? Any words of advice for making headway next year as this year draws to a close?
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