Thursday, January 28, 2010

Common Error - Shifting Verb Tense

Today in class, I discussed one of the most frequent errors I see, when grading student short stories: incorrect verb tense shifts. I think the problem is that people tend to write the way they talk. Thus, they aren't always consistent with verbs when telling a story verbally - so, it spills over into their writing quite easily.

Basically, it's all about consistency. If you start out a story in present tense, the entire story should REMAIN in present tense (except, of course, if you throw in a flashback, which would then shift to past tense verbs). The same is true for starting out a story in past tense. Everything would be past tense, not jumping back and forth between tenses. Here's a quick example (I've italicized the main verbs):

She sits at the window, looking out at the morning sky. Her decision is excruciating, and there's no way to make it less so. Feeling the weighty texture of the letter in her hands, she frowned. She remembered reading it the first time and wondered if she will have the strength to see it through.

Switching back and forth between present and past tense like that, for no apparent reason, is an error to avoid. It's funny - today, when I mentioned this frequent error in class, more than half the students nodded their heads in unison. They apparently struggle with this error, themselves.

If verb tenses are issues for you, I would suggest forgetting about them completely during the rough draft -- just let the creativity flow. The editing stage is the best time to look for these verbs, catch them, and correct them. Sentence-by-sentence, verb-by-verb. Sure, it's time-consuming and tedious. But it's also worth it. Because anything that distracts readers, that removes them from your story, should be avoided at all cost.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Advice From...Stephen King??

I admit it. I'm not a Stephen King fan. Sure, I liked the movie "Stand By Me" and watched "Shawshank Redemption" through my fingers. But I've never read a King novel or short story. It's not because he's too "commercial" or because he's not a good writer. It's merely because I'm too squeamish to stomach his content. There, I said it. I'm a wimp.

One book I have read, however, is his "how-to" book called On Writing. It's brilliant. It's blunt. It's downright funny. Most of all, it's absolutely spot on. I found myself nodding through the book, agreeing with the way he approaches the craft of writing, the technique itself, the attitude of writing, and the importance of reading. So, occasionally, I want to add a Stephen King quote to my blog entries. Here's one for today:

"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page." ~Stephen King

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Good Guys/Bad Guys

Today in class, I was talking to students about fleshing out characters - making them more than one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. Making the characters live and breathe, hope and fear, love and hate.

Then, we talked about good guys and bad guys. About how boring it is, to see a movie or read a book where the good guy is 100% good, and the bad guy is 100% bad. How predictable. How one-dimensional.

But what if you took that villain, that awful, evil, scumbag of a guy, and gave him a 6-year-old daughter, the only person in his life he's ever loved? That softens him, gives him a human texture. He becomes instantly more complex and a bit harder to hate.

And what if you took that hero, that perfect, strong, macho hero, and gave him some flaws? A character I love to use as an example for this is Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) on the t.v. show, "24." Yes, he's the hero. Yes, he dedicates his life to stopping terrorists and saving the world. But he also makes bad decisions sometimes. Really bad. Like in the first episode of the first series - we see him kiss his wife good-bye and find out that he's been having an affair with a co-worker. Wow. He's not so perfect anymore. But that's a good thing. Because now he's relatable. Now he has more human qualities. He's complex.

Sure, this all seems cut-and-dried for writers of action - having good guys/bad guys. But writers can use this idea for ANY type of characters, giving them realistic qualities and traits. And that always makes for a more interesting character, which in turn, makes for a more interesting story.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Taking Off My Teacher Hat

Sometimes in my Creative Writing class, I'll tell my students that I'll be switching back and forth between my "teacher" hat (when I'm concerned about grades or attendance or school policies), and my "writer's" hat (when I'm enjoying conversing with them about the joys/heartaches of writing, and I feel less like a "teacher" with them, and more like a writer). At that point, wearing the writer's hat, I can learn from them, too, writer-to-writer. I'm inspired by their stories and by their writing, and am able to share my personal writing experiences, too.

Well, for today's "What If" exercise, I was only wearing my writer's hat. I listened to the students read their work and was amazed at the depth of skill and writing they were producing. This is a still-new class (we've only had 3 sessions together), and this was the prompt I gave:

Choose a meaningful object (jewelry, clothing, heirloom, etc). Then, describe that object in vivid detail. Finally, tell the meaning behind the object - why is it significant to you?

Now, at this point in any semester, whenever I ask students if they'd like to share, I might get about 3 responses (if any). But today, SEVEN students wanted to share (out of 15). Four of them shared about objects that were directly related to loved ones they'd lost (grandfather, brother, father, friend). One of the students had to choke back tears as he read his aloud. Afterward, I thanked him for being brave by sharing something so personal, and for proving the point that writing is about LIFE. When writing is genuine and raw and real, it touches people.

The other three students shared extremely profound poetry about an object that "seems" meaningless on the surface (MP3 player, a half-dollar), but that, to them, meant something special.

I think today was a huge ice-breaker, and I'm expecting great things from this class!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"What If?" Exercise

Today was the second day of my new Creative Writing class. We're starting our "What If?" exercises. (At the beginning of each class, I give the students a creative a prompt, and they write for 15 min., then share with the class, if they want).

Today's prompt: What If you were a member of the opposite sex, getting ready for a blind date? (avoiding stereotypes as much as possible <---they giggled when I said this, because they know how difficult that is to do). Three students read theirs - 2 girls, 1 guy. Each was filled with wonderfully-descriptive detail. And yes, there were a few (minor) stereotypes. But, it was all in good fun, and the tone of each piece was light. The other students giggled in all the right places. I love to give that particular exercise early on in the semester because it breaks the ice, gets students to relax a little bit. And - most importantly - it helps them not to take themselves too seriously. Writing should be fun and a little bit silly, from time to time...

*By the way, I've listed the What If book over to the left, under "Favorite Books." Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Where Am I?

There's a bit of disagreement amongst writers, with the question of setting and its importance to a story. Some feel that setting, (or, place) is ALL-important. Others feel it's of minimal importance. Though I understand both ends of the spectrum, I actually fall somewhere in the middle.

To clarify - setting can include details such as weather, season, specific year (is it current, or 3 decades ago) -- all of which are important. But what I'm talking about is place. Where is the story/novel set? Is it in a tiny town? A bustling big city? A factory? A glitzy restaurant? A third-world country? It's the answer to the "Where Am I?" question readers need to have, in order to "place" the characters into a particular setting in their minds.

In the past, I've written a novel in which the city was sort of a fictional "Everytown." Where the characters/story superceded the city itself, in terms of importance. Though I gave the city a (made-up) name and added specific details about the surroundings, it hopefully felt like the story could take place in just about any average-sized city in America. I still feel comfortable with that decision, for that particular novel.

But the series I'm currently writing has a much heavier sense of "place." It's fictional, too, but it's very much based upon an actual town: Castle Combe, UK, a village in the Cotswolds, known as "the prettiest little village in England."

I admit it. I love England. I've been there only once, as a tourist, on a 3-week tour and I hope to go back someday. I love the accents, the music, the history, the literature. And I also admit, unabashedly, unapologetically, that in my series, the Cotswolds are extremely romanticized. My fictionalized village IS quaint. It DOES have little shops and cobblestone paths. It IS peaceful and serene. The villagers ARE mostly unified and are kind to each other (though they do love to gossip!). I understand fully that actual residents of Castle Combe would probably read my novel and roll their eyes at me or even chuckle. "That's not how things really are," they might say.

But the great thing is that, in a novel, using a fictionalized name, I can get away with it. I can be idealistic and make that village whatever I want it to be. And, in terms of "place," that particular village, in my head, is the perfect place to set my particular series. It just seems to work.

So, how important is place to you? It might vary, from story to story. But the beauty of it is that, as with any decisions you'll make as a writer, the choice is blissfully YOURS.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Writing Bug

I actually wasn't going to blog today - my brain is too exhausted from this first week back to school (looooong week).

But, I was inspired tonight by an email I just received from one of my good friends. She very recently caught the writing "bug" and wanted to tell me about it. She's been writing fan fiction (I've read it - it's very good!), and has gotten amazing feedback from people. Her email to me tonight was basically telling me about the "high" of writing she's experienced - the long nights she stays up crafting her story, the feeling she gets when someone (many someones!) compliments her work.

So, I wanted to devote this entry to my friend, and to all those "new" writers whose excitement is infectious. It's not that she couldn't write before - she absolutely could. But now, she's caught the bug. She's a goner, like the rest of us. And it wouldn't surprise me one bit if she never stopped writing.

Because there's really no cure for that "bug," once you catch it - once you experience the rush of emotions when you get lost in that world you've created. Or when the Muse keeps you up late at night, typing a million miles a minute. Or when people you don't know (who, are therefore unbiased), take time out of their day to write and tell you how amazing your story is - how it transports them and takes them to another place.

And - it takes a fellow writer to understand completely this feeling, this bug. So, Friend, welcome to the club. You're in good company. ;-)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Dreaded Synopsis

To wrap up this little series on courting agents/publishers, I thought I'd tackle something I find particularly challenging (as do most writers, probably). The dreaded synopsis.

Many agents ask to see a synopsis (overview of your entire novel). Some require it to be brief (2 or 3 pages), while others don't mind a longer version (5-8 pages). The reason a synopsis is so difficult to write is because you're whittling down a 400-page book (or thereabouts) to a couple of pages -- while still trying to make the book sound interesting. An enormous task.

As with the query letter, I suggest writing the synopsis EARLY. Start writing it, in fact, as soon as you start writing your novel. This will make the process much easier.

Also making it easier are these two GREAT online articles I've recently found. I couldn't say it any better than this, so I'll let them do the talking:

How I Write a Fiction Synopsis

Synopsis Writing This list of articles is particularly fascinating. What a great idea! Here's Chuck Sambuchino's clever way of looking at a synopsis:

I always tell people that if they're confused as to how a novel synopsis should look, simply go to Wikipedia. Search any movie made in the last five years and the first thing on the page is the long "Plot" section, which is essentially a front-to-back synopsis. A lot of them are too long; a lot of them are poorly written; but some are good - and you will get a sense of how they work.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Query Letters = First Impressions!!

If you've ever tried to get published, or if you've ever been to a writer's conference or taken a writing class, you probably already know something about a query letter (i.e., the letter that makes you or breaks you - just about every agent/publisher wants one, sometimes in lieu of the actual work you're trying to submit).

Today, I want to emphasize its importance and pass along some basic "don'ts" I've learned over the years. I'm not an official expert, but I've been to writer's conferences, read many books on the subject, and have had a couple of minor successes, myself (an article, a poem).

I actually assign a query letter in my Creative Writing class. I show the students an example of a good query letter, talk about its importance, and ask them to write one of their own. I think it's good practice for them. Because even if they don't want to get published now, they might change their minds in 10 years, and will already have one under their belts.

The most important thing to know about a query letter is that it is, primarily, a BUSINESS letter. Not that it can't contain creativity or originality or a "hook." But, ultimately, it should be professional, concise, and free of grammar errors and typos. Because, let's face it, this letter is the first (and perhaps last!) impression the agents/publishers have of you. Since you don't (usually) pitch your book in person, they won't see how spiffy your outfit is, or hear how sonorous your voice is, or see the sparkle in your eye as you talk about your characters. No, they'll just see words sitting on a page. So let those words BE your best impression. You're a writer, after all. Show the agent that you can write.

I actually begin writing my query letter while I write the first few chapters of my novel. By that point, the main plot is well-set in my mind, and I hopefully know the main "hook." So, I set about, crafting a query letter that I will return to and tweak over and over again as I'm writing the novel. Then, by the time the novel is finished, edited, and polished, I have my query letter.

Here are some small-but-imperative tips I learned at numerous conferences over the years: DON'T use fancy font or colored paper (light beige or gray are acceptable). DON'T tell the agent that you're the next John Grisham, or that your mother loved your story (the agent wants to find that out on his/her own). DON'T let your letter exceed one page (the agent doesn't have time for anything more). DON'T use gimmicks (this doesn't mean you shouldn't start with an intriguing "hook" for a first sentence - but if it's too showy or manipulative, it can turn an agent off). DON'T be arrogant in your tone (but also don't be too meek - you want to ride that line between confidence and humility). DON'T address the agent as "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir/Ma'am" (it shows you haven't done your research and didn't take the time to look up the person's name).

So, before you eagerly send out that query letter, be SURE it's ready. Be sure it's concise, effective, and polished. And yes, the cliche is true: you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. So, take advantage of the chance you do have, and get it right the first time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Write?

Though I haven't before devoted an entire entry to the "why write?" question, I've mentioned my own personal reasons here and there throughout the blog. So, instead of repeating myself, I thought I'd let the professionals give their own answers:

Why Write??

"If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad." ~Lord Byron

"How do I know what I think, until I see what I say." ~W.H. Auden

"Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else." ~Gloria Steinem

"Why do writers write? Because it isn't there." ~Thomas Berger

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." ~Rudyard Kipling

"There are three reasons for becoming a writer. The first is that you need the money; the second, that you have something to say that you think the world should know; and the third is that you can't think what to do with the long winter evenings. ~Quentin Crisp

"Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say." ~Sharon O'Brien

"When I'm writing, I know I'm doing the thing I was born to do." ~Anne Sexton

Friday, January 8, 2010

TO Get Published - Here is My Answer

Yesterday, I posed the question, "Why do you (or don't you) want to get published?" I thought I'd try and answer it for myself today...

There are many reasons I'd love to see my novels in print. I think the biggest reason is actually to SEE it in print. I've talked before about how much I love the tactile experience of holding a book, the olfactory experience of smelling that "new book smell." Well, the thought of having my own words, my own thoughts/ideas/characters grace the inside pages of a new book makes me giggly. It just does. To see the cover of a book with my title, yes, even my name, would be one of the most thrilling experiences I could think of. If that makes me a nerd, then so be it. :-)

Another reason I'd love to get published is - okay, I admit it - for validation. No, getting published doesn't make me a better writer. It doesn't magically take words I wrote maybe 2 years ago and transform them into "legitimate, acceptable" words. But what it does do is to, hopefully, show those people in my life who doubt me, who are completely disinterested, who even shake their heads and tell me with their silence that I'll never reach my goal - that I can do it. If that makes me sound petty or ridiculous, then so be it.

Finally, I'll give Alex's answer - I love the idea of other people reading words I wrote. I like the notion that someone, somewhere, maybe in Maryland or New York or California, will browse a bookstore, pause at seeing my cover (if they can find it amongst the other thousands of unknown authors), pick up my book and flip through it, and decide, for some reason, to spend their hard-earned dollars to purchase it. Even more, I like the idea of that person going home after a difficult work day, maybe even with personal burdens, and ESCAPING their lives, momentarily, through reading my book. Because that's partly the reason that I read. I would love for someone to experience what I experience through books - escapism, sheer joy over the written word, even a reflection of oneself through a character or situation. The thought that I, somehow, was a part of that process for someone else is an amazing concept.

By the way, notice I didn't mention money? That's because the likelihood of someone like me (an unknown) becoming a Maeve Benchy or Debbie Macomber is slim to none. Which means that - if I ever do get published - the advance will be small, and I'll probably struggle to publish a second one. That's just reality. But the bigger reason I didn't mention money on that list is that I don't write for money. I write for ME. I'm selfish, that way. I write because something in me wants to put words on the page. I get enormous satisfaction from brainstorming characters, plotting their life paths, making decisions for them. And, with each book, I (hopefully) get to grow as a writer, stretch my muscles, challenge myself.

I'll even take it this far: if someone had a crystal ball and told me, without question, that my novels would never be published, I'd be a little saddened (okay, more than a little). But it wouldn't stop me from writing. Publication would be a lovely by-product, but it is not the main goal. It is not why I write. God willing, I will write until I'm an old woman. Whether published or not.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

To Publish or Not to Publish...

In my Creative Writing class, I spend a small fraction of the semester talking about publication - the dos/don'ts, the ins/outs, the rewards/pitfalls. But the first thing I do is to ask the students a question: Why do you want to get published?

Sure, not everyone wants to get published. I acknowledge that and absolutely respect it. Publication is a personal choice. But, I guess I would offer the same question to those people, as well: Why do you NOT want to get published?

A former student of mine - let's call him Alex - approached me after class one day and said, respectfully but firmly, "I don't want to get published." This lead to a fascinating conversation. He was of the opinion that his writing (which was GOOD) would be instantly commercialized the moment it was transferred into print. That the purity of his art would be suddenly deemed impure, that he would be "selling out." I nodded, listened, and told him I completely understood. I respected his choice.

What's interesting is that 3 months later, at the end of the semester, Alex approached me after class and said, "You know, I've changed my mind. I do want to try and get published." I asked him why. He said, "Well, I've decided that what I write is personal, but important. I've decided that it deserves to be seen, to be put 'out there.' But most of all, I really want other people to read it."

Either way, to publish or not to publish, I think it's important that every writer searches himself/herself and asks that question every now and then. Because sometimes, over the course of time and our "life journey," we just might change our minds. ;-)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Movie Time!

I stumbled across this movie trailer yesterday - cast is great and the premise looks, well, familiar for almost any writer. LOL

Multiple Sarcasms

Synopsis (from It’s New York, 1979. Gabriel Richmond is a talented architect with a seemingly rich life as he has a caring wife, loving daughter and life long friends. Yet, he spends most days in the movie theater, hiding out from work, escaping into a fictional world where he can more readily relate to the made up characters. When fiction shines a mirror on his own life, an inspired Gabriel begins writing a play not-so-loosely based on his reality, examining all of the relationships that make his life what it is.

It reminds me of a T-shirt I bought ages ago, which says: "CAREFUL, OR YOU'LL END UP IN MY NOVEL." *giggle*

If this movie is half as good as I think it'll be, I can't wait to show it to my Creative Writing class someday...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Forgive Me...

I'm about to do something mean. Here it is, only days after the Christmas rush. People are paying off credit cards, pinching pennies, being frugal. So, here's the mean part. I'm about to make things more difficult for you writers by posting a link. You can't look at this site and not be tempted to spend, spend, spend. Trust me on this.

Shakespeare's Den

Is that a cool site, or what?!?!

Here's the thing. It's difficult to find gifts that are specifically tailored for writers. But the other day, I came across the above site -- a writer's dream, in terms of gifts. Pens, novelty items, journals, umbrellas, pillows, bookmarks, mugs, you name it. All ranging from serious to whimsical, all devoted to writers and writing (not just Shakespeare).

So, my apologies for making your lives (and my own!) more challenging. But, really - don't you deserve a little gift for yourself? Just a reward for perservering through the trials and tribulations of being a writer? My own reward will probably involve this (<---60% off!). Or this. Or maybe even this.

Decisions, decisions...

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Loves

Do you remember your first love? I'm talking books here, not people. I recall mine vividly. I had enjoyed books before this one, but not LOVED them. My first love was Emily of New Moon, by L. M. Montgomery (author of the Anne of Green Gables series).

Emily was a WRITER. She made notes in journals and observed nature and life and people. At about age 10, I immediately connected to that, without yet knowing I wanted to BE a writer someday. I also loved the descriptions. I remember reading the same sentence more than once, examining the individual words, picturing the imagery in my mind. From what I recall, Emily was serious-minded. Not silly and playful like many characters in children's books, but melancholy and thoughtful. Much like me, as a child.

Powerful stuff, children's books. In fact, I'm tempted to go back and read the New Moon series now, revisit those beloved books and see what they hold for me as an adult. *edit - Done. Just ordered the paperbacks. :-)

Questions: What book was your first love? What do you remember about it, and looking back as an adult, why do you think it affected you the way it did?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

I Am Jo March

I want to do something splendid...something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead...I think I shall write books. ~Louisa May Alcott (Little Women).

Two days ago, I watched a PBS documentary on Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Fascinating. I enjoyed how real a portrait the filmmakers painted - her dark periods, the financial woes, the doubts and insecurities, even the health problems later on. She was a real person, flesh and blood, and this documentary captured that extremely well.

Admittedly, Ms. Alcott "was" Jo March. She was fiesty, had an insatiable passion and hunger for writing, and didn't mind living along the edges of societal expectations (by not having her primary goal in life be marriage, children). She had a mind of her own and was unafraid to show it.

I enjoy watching the film of Little Women (Winona Ryder version) each Christmas. And each time, I find myself nodding. I'm a "Jo," too. Growing up, I felt like a bit of an oddball, preferring reading/writing to attending parties or buying the latest fashions, like my friends, like my sister. Like Jo, I hold a passion for writing that I can't quench - except by writing. That image of Jo, sitting at her writing desk, pen poised, hat perched on her head, is an image I identify with (well, replacing the pen with a keyboard and removing the hat altogether).

But, probably the most important way I relate to Jo, and therefore, Ms. Alcott, is that it took me awhile to find my voice as a writer, to be comfortable in my own "writer's skin," to be brave enough to write what was "true." Jo began by writing wild, melodramatic stories of murder and "gore." Fantastical plots and thin characters. But then, when she looked inside herself, she grew as a writer. She learned that, no matter what the subject matter, as long as you're being true, writing from a place you can genuinely feel, the writing will resonate.

I started out in 6th grade writing (terrible) little mysteries. Then, at age 20, I attempted my first novel. I call it my "experiment." It's some period piece I'm embarrassed to recall, with cardboard characters and ridiculous plots. But sometime shortly after that, I began to write from experience. I got an idea for a second novel, a modern-day story about a complex, platonic friendship between the opposite sexes - the nuances, the dangers, the heartaches of such a relationship. I was writing partly from what I knew, what I had experienced, myself. And the writing came alive. A small part of me was put on that page, and I knew I was "writing true." That's been my goal ever since. Not so much to write autobiographies, to borrow from my own life so directly. But to find at least a tiny part of myself within each plot, within the main characters. It's my way of connecting to what's being put on the page.

So, in this post, I wanted to pay tribute to Jo March and her creator. And to all the other Jo March's out there who aren't afraid to be exactly who they are.