Thursday, November 29, 2012
I once listened to a sermon on the radio. It was a long drive in a rural area in Ghana and we couldn't pick up anything other station. It was an insightful sermon, quite practical in fact and it has stuck with me. The man was speaking about politics and warning people that they should not be fooled by politicians' last-ditch attempts to buy their votes with token gifts like a bag of flour or a bicycle. He said that they should review how the politician has impacted their lives; he cautioned the audience repeatedly that an official seeking reelection should be able to show how he has moved them from "your here to your there."
I believe that the sermon stuck with me in part because at the time I was reading Rust Hills' book, "Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular" and he was suggesting the same thing. Not about politicians, of course, but that in your short story, your main character must be moved, changed, affected somehow or the story is a failure.
I got into a discussion about this with a fourth grader last week when I did a presentation to his class on writing.
"Maybe it's just a story about the fact that the person doesn't change," he suggested.
"Maybe no one will read it," I replied.
Writing short stories presents unique challenges to the author. So much to convey and so little time. I love writing short stories and I am working to hone my skills in this area through practice, feedback and research. This is the first of a few tidbits that I will share over the next few posts. I'm not claiming to be an expert, feel free to counter my tidbits, I am always happy to learn!
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Friday, November 23, 2012
1.) I'm letting myself be too distracted by other things - social media, news, life's dramas. I fix this by disconnecting myself from the Internet and taking my Alpha Smart to some quiet place where I'm not temped to see what reply I've gotten to my latest FB posting about the Gaza Strip, for example. Or, if it's something going on live - I compartmentalize. I take note of it and file it away to be dealt with when my word count is near where it should be. (Of course, emergencies have to be dealt with on the spot but, thankfully, those are few and far between.)
2.) The other main problem is when I haven't done sufficient research into the background of the work at hand so I'm having problems envisioning the setting or my characters or reasonable plot developments. This is easily fixed by taking a day or two to immerse myself more deeply in the life of the characters - if the setting is somewhere other than where I live, for example, I may spend some time on Google Maps and Street View trying to see what my characters would see. I check out Wikipedia - not just the country itself or the city, but the things that have happened there recently, the foods, the language, the music, the flora and fauna. I watch YouTube videos. Usually, I emerge from this once again brimming with excitement and the will to write.
Other things I think would also help are taking a writing class, joining a writer's group, and reading or re-reading a book like Stephen King's On Writing. I was once a member of Romance Writers of America and I've kept a lot of the great motivational articles from writing workshops I attended online so I return to that folder every now and then and find them hugely helpful.
What do you do to get your mojo going?
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
- Never review a book you haven't read.
- Always give an honest review.
- Avoid spoilers! Giving away the plot spoils the reading experience for others.
- Don't insult the intelligence of shoppers. Most experienced shoppers can tell when reviews are less than authentic. I can. We have learned to read the signs, like the reams of 5 star reviews from people named 'A Customer' and reviewers who have reviewed nothing else on the site.
Monday, November 19, 2012
I'm willing to bet some of you had no idea there was an International Public Speaking Champion. The championship is sponsored by Toastmasters International. Every year up to thirty thousand people in 116 countries enter local Toastmaster competitions with at least some idea of making it to the international bout. Contenders are winnowed out through a series of local, division, district, regional, and national contests until there are only ten. These finalists go head to head at Toastmasters International's annual convention, which in 2012 was held during the second full week of August in Orlando, Florida.
At twenty-five Avery is the youngest person ever to win an International Championship. Not that he's all talk. At twenty-five he is also the Oregon state director of Special Olympics, has degrees in anthropology and journalism, and is beginning graduate work in strategic communication. (I suspect becoming International Public Speaking Champion of 2012 is just one cobblestone in the road he's building.)
This is a YouTube video Ryan Avery made when he set his sights on winning the international championship. Before he'd won his first local competition. Watching it is interesting, but you can learn a lot that's relevant to writing just by looking at the still.
First thing you notice is that the video exists. Avery made a firm public commitment to his objective. He told everyone he knew - and a lot more people he didn't know - exactly what he was doing. He didn't bore them with excerpts from, iterations of, or musings about his speech. He just made sure he was accountable to as many people as possible.
The second thing you'll notice is that his wife let him nail six whiteboards to their living room wall. This tells us his personal support team of one believed in his sincerity and determination; whether she thought he could actually pull it off is something she kept to herself.
Writing, serious writing, requires self-discipline and constancy – it's too easy to goof off or get distracted or do any of a hundred things besides work. Other people in our lives, those close to us, usually don't take our writing seriously until they've spent some weeks or months watching us take it seriously. Avery's wife took his objective seriously because she'd already seen him demonstrate the requisite commitment in earning his two degrees and working with Special Olympics.
Avery's objective is posted in the center of the whiteboards and over the next several weeks he filled the areas around his goal with things and ideas relevant to that objective. He studied videos of past finalists and read transcripts of their speeches. He studied the structure of the speeches and looked at the subject matter. He learned male contestants wore dark suits. More importantly, he learned that winning speeches had 600-650 words, were delivered in just under seven minutes, and shared a three-step structure; averaging fifteen to twenty 'laugh points' – moments of humor – each.
In other words, Avery discovered all he could about his target market, figured out their needs and preferences, and determined what he'd have to do to deliver a product they'd buy. Which is what a professional writer should be doing as a matter of course. Don't send a story to Analog or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine if you don't read either; submitting a story to a market you haven't researched is a waste of your time and theirs. If you have researched a market you want to break into, say the New Yorker, and discovered you don't write the sort of story they buy, you need to decide whether you want to write their way or set them aside and look for another market.
That last bit was the problem Avery faced. He freely admits he is not good with humor, at least not the kind used in the winning speeches. But changing markets wasn't an option; he would have to learn how to be funny.
Until you start looking for them, you don't realize how many Toastmasters clubs there are in the world, most towns of any size will have at least one and cities usually have several. Avery has a pretty good idea how many are in Oregon. He traveled the state, visiting as many as four Toastmasters clubs a week, trying out variations of his speech in front of as many strangers as he could find. His videoed each outing and asked his listeners to be brutally honest, and listened to what they had to say (he reports many said he'd never be funny). He didn't take everything his many audiences said as gospel – a lot of them contradicted each other – but he paid attention and made what adjustments he felt were valid.
Writers often undervalue practice; we want everything we write to sell, to reach as many readers as possible. We like to pretend we don't know we need to write new things, work to develop new skills, even if no one else will ever see our efforts. We need to pay attention to what trusted readers, colleagues, and especially editors say about our work. Don't rewrite – unless an editor makes it a condition of sale – but take note of things to think about and watch for in future projects.
I do want you to take seven minutes and look at the YouTube of Ryan Avery's winning speech. Note the structure of the story. Note how he uses all senses – even the taste of Cheetos – to give each scene impact. See how he employed imagery his audience – at a convention in central Florida during the hottest days of sumer – could identify with, sweating in a hot suit and the jarring sound of a hotel alarm clock. Also note that he recognized the tradition – not requirement – of wearing dark suit was a convention that didn't serve the story or his objective; he wore a green suit in order to stand out.
But also note something else, something that's apparent only in two moments toward the end. He told those of us listening to him in Hickory that the hardest line for him to deliver was "when her curls turn grey." He cried when he wrote it and he almost cries every time he says it. That's the first thing. The second is the last line. Whenever he speaks his wife always sits so they can see each other; he always makes eye contact and he always says the last line directly to her. We were in a small room in Hickory, and I could see both of them legitimately mist up at his last words. Because despite all his artifice, despite all his carefully calculated pauses and inflections, despite the comic mannerisms he forced himself to master, despite his green suit, what drives Ryan Avery's speech – what gives his words their power – is his heart.
Do I really need to explain what that has to do with good writing?
Saturday, November 17, 2012
Friday, November 16, 2012
Besides, I love to write sonnets.
The major misunderstanding of the sonnet is that it is a restrictive form of poetry with rules meant to inhibit the writer. Anyone who has worked with the form for any length of time has found the rules liberating. These are not rules that weigh the poet down but tools that help the writer find meaning. Because certain things must happen at certain moments in the sonnet, the poem writes itself.
What I love about the form of the sonnet is that it gives me the poem and the ideas. As long as I allow the tools of rhyme and meter to carry me along, I will always get a poem that is satisfying to me and the readers.
In fact, often the worst thing that I can do is to get in the way of those elements. It’s better to start without a clear idea of what I’m going to say in a sonnet and let the form write the poem. All I need is a word or two or a beginning idea and the form of the poem will help me find greater meaning. Wordsworth knew that. Shakespeare did too.
And Shakespeare would have loved to write a mystery novel.
The genre has built-in tools that help writers create meaning. When I write a mystery, I always come to that wonderful moment when the story takes over. I -- like the reader -- wonder what’s going to happen next.
That’s the form taking over as it does in the sonnet. If the form doesn’t take over, if I am forcing things to happen, then I know something is wrong. Perhaps, the characters have not been well drawn. Perhaps, there is not enough action to propel the story. Perhaps, the antagonist has no real complexity.
What the sonnet taught me to do was to lighten up and not be so controlling. It taught me to surrender to the process. If you like, it taught me to surrender to the muse. That’s served me well in writing mysteries.
I put the murder in chapter one and let the form pull me to the end.
Anyone who writes sonnets well appreciates mystery novels and appreciates mystery novelists. Sonneteers and mystery writers have the same love of form and have the same dedication to craft.
So here’s a question for everyone. Whoever answers first will win a copy of my poetry collection, East of Los Angeles. What important event happens in the last two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? It not much different than what happens at the end of many mystery novels.
John Brantingham's work has appeared on Garrison Keillor's daily show Writer's Almanac, and he has had more than 100 poems and stories published in the United States and England in magazines such as The Journal, Confrontation, Mobius, and Tears in the Fences. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a poem in his chapbook Putting in a Window, which was published by Finishing Line Press, and his second chapbook, Heroes for Today, was published by Pudding House Press. He is a full-time professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California and one of two fiction editors of The Chiron Review, a nationally distributed literary magazine.
John's website: http://johnbrantingham.webs.com/index.html
His blog: http://johnbrantingham.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
What most authors fail to realize is that they are expected to don the hat of promoter once the ink has dried on the paper. The job's not finished when THE END is typed on the last page of the novel. In fact, the hard work has just begun.
Anyone aspiring to a career in publishing cannot be blind to all the posts and forums talking about book marketing. It's the #1 topic discussed today. Yet, when the long-awaited novel is finally on the shelf, there it sits. Why? Because authors are unprepared or unwilling to dirty their hands in selling the book to the public. Isn't that someone else's responsibility?
Depending upon the contract, the average amount a publishing house gets is less than $2 profit per book sold. It takes the sale of approximately 200 books before a small outfit sees any profit on a title. That covers production cost, plus Amazon gets their cut and the author gets royalties. Industry stats say the average book will sell about 500 copies. Nobody is out to get rich, but in order to keep producing more books, money has to come from somewhere.
Independent houses exist only when authors and publishers work side by side to do book promotion. I would be more inclined to recommend to my publisher a well-written book backed by an enthusiastic marketer over a great novel written by a prima donna who has no interest or intention to sell.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Friday, November 9, 2012
Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Simple. Earlier this year I started turning over an idea for a new story, a mystery that deals with some of the issues of human smuggling and drug trafficking with which the Caribbean struggles. I collected articles, roved through countless reports put out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and suchlike but I couldn't figure out the angle I wanted to take, who my characters would be or how the plot would unfold so I turned to the other story, a women's fiction.
Then, for some reason, the crime story began to come together a couple weeks ago. In my free time I rifle through the articles I downloaded and watch YouTube clips of U.S. Customs intercepting traffickers. Slowly, slowly, the story has taken form. And, in the last few days, I've taken to waking up with it on my mind. I know the names of the characters. I know what they want. I can see them.
My instincts say I must drop the women's fiction, for now, at least, and work on the mystery instead. It's the one my muse clearly wants written and if I don't get it down now, maybe it will all go wrong and when I finally turn to it, my muse will have weakened, maybe died altogether and the story will be a husk. So far, I've resisted. I power up the computer and begin working on the other story because it's the one I've already started and I must be disciplined. But writing isn't like that, is it? What the muse wants, the muse gets. I think I'm going to have to try working on two manuscripts simultaneously. This will be new to me but we'll see how it goes. Any tips, anyone?
Monday, November 5, 2012
One month ago today, 10/5/12, our dear fellow author, Dee Stewart, a.k.a. Miranda Parker, passed away. Today, her family, friends, readers and author buddies are remembering her by going Red and changing our FB profile pics in honor of her life and her commitment to the American Heart Association. We are posting the association logo, the Go Red image, pictures of us wearing red, or any photo that each feels best reflects their best way to remind all of us to not forget Dee's struggle with heart disease, and also with lupus, and her beautiful spirit that touched so many lives, and the life of her young daughter. So today, my post on NovelSpaces is also in honor of Dee! R.I.P. gorgeous soul - heaven sent you and heaven called you home to God's comforting arms, no more pain!
Saturday, November 3, 2012
The PCJ on Racine has several small tables, a couple of sitting areas separated by a big sheet of glass with water running down it I think is supposed to be a fountain, and one long, narrow table that seats twelve for study groups from nearby UNCW (or any other groups for that matter). One end of this table butts up against the wall, and my spot for writing is the last seat, right against the wall, facing toward the windows (which I can't really see because of that sheet-of-glass-with-water thing). I don't really want to look out the windows, I face them to keep the glare off my screen. If someone else is in 'my' spot, I'll take up station on the same side of the long table but two seats over.
Before I get my coffee I set up my camp. Power cord in outlet; backup flash drive plugged into USB slot; big honking studio can headphones jacked in; wireless mouse turned on; notes, reference materials, pad with pen laid out; baseball cap on keyboard.
Then I get my coffee. Twelve ounces of the lightest brew they have in a house ceramic mug with two packs of raw sugar.
Back in my chair I fire up the laptop; confirm I turned the mouse on (I hate the touch pad); put on my cap with the brim pulled low so all I can see are my screen and keyboard; settle my really too large but they were a gift from my son headphones over my ears; launch Pandora; and consider what I'm going to write.
I can write without the mouse. I can write without the headphones, though with my ADD it's hard to filter out conversations around me. I can write without the baseball cap, though it's even harder to ignore the world when I can see it. I can certainly write without the coffee, which usually goes cold at my elbow. I can even write when I've forgotten my reference materials, using AAAAA and BBBBB as placeholders for names or factoids I'm not sure of. Without the power cord I can write for two hours and fifteen minutes. Heck, I can even write without the computer – wrote with pen and paper for years before I could afford one (all the baristas are students, I can always borrow a pen and paper). And I know I look like a fussy old man puttering around getting everything just so before I sit down. So why do it?
Because all that nerdy flutter is my tea ceremony, my centering ritual to focus my mind and settle myself so that I can write. The word ritual can conjure images of chanting monks, or priestesses carving the air with silver knives, or cups of blood, or ancient figures muttering over smoldering herbs and bubbling cauldrons. (No, wait; that last one's me cooking.) But the truth is many of us have little rituals; things we do as part of dealing with the world around us or the world inside our heads. Most of us never notice our rituals; but we do feel 'off' or annoyed when they're missing.
I write 20-30% more words per hour at Port City Java when I've performed the camping ritual. Annoying as I may be to everyone else in the coffee shop, I'm not going to stop anytime soon.
What about you? Do you have any rituals – any patterns of behavior you find yourself repeating before settling down to work?
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Two days ago my thirteen year old niece told me she was writing a book. She asked me to take a look at it, and of course I agreed. She’s writing it on one of those websites geared toward young writers like her. Miss Literati is a fun place for teens who love to read and want to write. So I went to read her story. I somehow skipped her profile, but today I read it and she mentioned me as one of her inspirations. I was touched, and so proud of her. She’s written five chapters of her vampire teenager story. Ahem, Stephanie Meyer is actually her biggest inspiration. I know this because a few weeks ago she held her breath after asking me, “Have you met Stephanie Meyer?” Sadly of course I to tell her that I hadn’t. She accepted the disappointment that I couldn’t provide an intro with grace.
I like to think I played a small part in her wonderful creativity and inspiration first; even though Stephanie Meyer has eclipsed Aunt Lynn. I bought her a beautiful poetry book when she was three. By age four her parents thought she could read. You see they read it to her at bedtime every night for months (she insisted because she loved it so). Then she began reading along, or so they thought. Actually she had memorized the poems, all of them. As they turned each page she recognize the pictures and recited the appropriate poem. I called her Baby Einstein from then on. Now she wants to be a writer, lawyer and chef (she cooks very well). My books have adult content, so Jasmine is still too young to read any of them. Yet she told me at age eight, “I hope to follow in your footsteps”.
Reading and books changes lives. What we do as authors matters more than we know. So if you have the chance to talk to kids about books and writing, take it. You may plant seeds that give them big dreams. If you give to charities, choose a literacy program for adults and one that puts books into the hands of kids. I’ll bet each of us can cite at least one instance in which someone said, “You inspired me!” If you haven’t, don’t assume you haven’t because sometimes we plant seeds but never see the mighty oaks that result.
Here is one wonderful effort to put books in the hands of African children: Worldreader