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?

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 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!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Poem for the Season

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)

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?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving

image: pixabay
"Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse." --Henry Van Dyke

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Tale of Tables, Twists, and Thanksgiving

source: google images
"The fabric of history is often woven of surprising threads: the chance meeting, the extravagant whimsey of fate. No better illustration of this can be found than the string of events surrounding the table in Wilmer McLean's parlor upon which Ulysses S. Grant drew up the terms that brought the Civil War to a close." --Mary A. Benjamin

November is the month of tables--dinner tables, Thanksgiving tables, tables spread with a feast, baking project tables, maybe craft or gift-wrapping tables. Certainly this month of the ongoing NaNoWriMo challenge, computer tables (or desks) could be included.

Continuing the quest for more word count in honor of this month's NaNoWriMo, I've been reviewing old files in order to jump start ideas. A story in American Heritage magazine, dated April 1965, caught my attention. It's a story about how a special little table that would otherwise have been slated for obscurity now holds a place in American history all because of a chance meeting. Mary A. Benjamin wrote about it the issue's article, "Tale of a Table."

The main story revolves around the events of Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 when General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army, met General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate forces, to compose and sign the terms of surrender ending the Civil War.

terms of surrender drawn up in McLean parlor
courtesy google images
The man who owned the house where the historic meeting took place there in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, was Wilmer McLean. Wilmer was no stranger to the war. At the war's onset he lived close to where the first major battle was fought--Bull Run, July 21, 1861. His house at the time was used as a hospital for the injured. He subsequently moved his family to Appomattox, seeking a quiet place "where the sound of battle would never reach them." By a twist of history four years later, it would be his house, his parlor, in which the meeting which ended the war would be held. That in itself is an amazing fact. But there's more.

McLean table given to Ord
Following the historic meeting, some wished to acquire mementos of the event and began offering McLean money for some of his furniture. One man, however, did not participate: General E.O.C. Ord. This man had a large family back home and didn't have any money to spare. Imagine his surprise then when McLean offered him one of the small tables as a gift. Why? McLean was described as a pacifist with Southern sympathies; Ord was on the Union side.

Ms. Benjamin digs into the back story by sharing from an Ord family biographical sketch. Written by Ord's granddaughter Lucy Ord Dunlop, a story is told of a young Confederate soldier, desperate with hunger and homesickness, who was said to have bolted for home and ended up stumbling into a Union army camp. "...He was grabbed by a sentinal," the granddaughter wrote, "and taken for questioning to the General. Shivering in rags, hungry and shaking from fatigue, the boy told the General that he did not know anything and did not want to find out anything...he was sick and just wanted to get home...The fierce looking General wanted so badly to get home! They were talking the same language. 'Get him a blanket, there!' he roared. 'Give him some food. See him through our lines and put him on his road home... (Oh) what a war to ruin boys like this! Good night, son, and don't come back.'"

The general? Edward Otho Cresap Ord. The boy? Wilmer McLean's son.

And so Wilmer McLean gave the table to Ord as a symbol of his gratitude. His thanksgiving. At a time when the nation and its families needed to start the long road to healing, one man forgave an offense, another reached out in a spirit of reconciliation and appreciation.

General Ord did insist on paying McLean for the table, giving him all that he had in his wallet, $40. In his lifetime, the table stood in the general's parlor, eventually being passed on by family to the Chicago Historical Society where it can be found today.

The image of a table is often used as a symbol for family. For home and shelter and place. But the table also represents a place of setting aside differences in order to grow closer to one another, to share, connect, forgive, appreciate. And to offer thanksgiving.

The humble table is surely underrated.

Hope the gatherings around your table this Thanksgiving season are blessed in many ways!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Revisiting the Basics: Scene

courtesy google images
"The lack of a scene goal is the number-one reason plots stall. There's nothing for the protagonist to do to drive the plot forward. She doesn't want anything, isn't trying to stop anything, she's just living her day or performing random tasks that aren't leading to anything." --Janice Hardy, featured at

Well, it's that time again--National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, in which participants work to write a novel in the month of November to the tune of 50,000 words. While I'm not that ambitious this year, I do see it as an incentive to get back to a WIP that's been languishing for awhile. I'm determined to add word count this month as a personal tip of the hat to this month's challenge. We'll see how it goes!

As part of the process, I'm brushing up on novel-writing basics, starting with thoughts on scene:

1. "Scenes are the stepping stones and the chapter is the river, with the opposing shores being two different phases of your plot." --Deborah Halverson, Dear Editor

2. "Each scene has a structure, beginning, middle, end. This implies that something is happening." --Darcy Pattison, Scene 2: Elements of a Scene (Darcy ran an awesome 30-day series on scene a few years back. You can catch the entire series here.)

3. "Scenes are small time capsules. They are potent because they contain more than is openly revealed." --Mary Carroll Moore, "How Chapters Are Built"

4. "The shape of an effective scene is this: First, it orients us in time and place...(it) introduces a question we want answered... (it) finishes on some sort of slightly rising note: another question or a heightened emotion or a new complication or a change of situation--something to keep us reading into the next scene."--Nancy Kress, science fiction and fantasy author

5. "Think of a memorable scene as an inner tube designed to keep the larger work afloat." --Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scene

6. "Understand scene and you begin to understand the essence of plot." --Martha Alderson, Blockbuster Plots

Time to rev up the motors and get this story moving, starting with the scene I got bogged down on in the first place. It will take more than luck; it will require getting serious. Don't want to be like the protagonist described above by Ms. Hardy--or the lady in the picture sitting on the sidelines...

Where are you in your writing--moving at a fast clip or in a stall? Will NaNoWriMo give you an incentive to move forward? What are some of your best tips for writing scenes?

p.s. Want some great links for National Novel Writing Month? Check out these links:
Tips for Surviving the Agony and Ecstasy of NaNoWriMo, by Jenny Hansen
4 Visual Tricks for Writers Who Want to Rock NaNoWriMo, by Robin Rivera
15 Story Beats to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel on Track, by Heather Jackson
How Word Sprints Will Help You Win NaNoWriMo This Year,