The Bad Stuff Is Good

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This week, I read an excerpt from a YA novel, which was offered for peer critiquing on a writer’s blog I often visit. After reading the excerpt, readers are invited to leave any thoughts, comments or criticism (constructive of course), for the author to consider.

I make it a practice to compose my comments on the author’s piece, before reading those already posted because I wouldn’t want my perception of the work to be influenced by others. My goal is to give the author my honest opinion. However, once I write my response and send it, I take the time to see what others have said.

I have always felt that the visitors to this blog are fair and genuinely helpful in their critiquing. They, on the whole, make intelligent and practical suggestions, which generally come from experience. And aside from the occasional difference in viewpoints I usually agree with the overall themes that bond the individual critiques… until this week that is.

This week I found myself with very little to offer the guest author in way of criticism. I loved the excerpt and wanted to read more.  I had some trouble with the language she was using with the main character, not feeling it was true to the teenage girl she was introducing us to. I felt a heightened sensitivity to this issue because it is an important part of the novel I am working on, Lost and Found: The Souls of Rosewood. My main character Lucy is an American teenager as well as many of her friends therefore, I work hard to be sure the language they use is authentic and current without dating the story.  Other than that, this author’s writing was a read right up my alley.  So, as I always do, I wrote my comments, posted them and began reading the opinions of my fellow readers.

Didn’t like the first one…hated the second one…began feeling angry by the third one…by the time I was finished with all the posts I had a knot in my stomach and I was fighting mad! What was their problem??? Why were they being so critical??? Why were they being so nitpicky?

I hit reply and prepared to fiercely defend this author’s work.  As I was thinking through my rebuttal, I began to wonder why I was so angry. The first though that came to mind was that this was the first time a YA novel was spotlighted for critiquing. Hmmm maybe it’s the wrong audience for a piece like this.

Ok so let’s see…issue one: everyone seemed to think there was way too much description-too many adjectives.  Well, to be honest I get that a lot from the writer’s in my writing group, Somerset Ink. But you know, writing is about words, so how can there be too many?

Issue two: the reviewers seemed to think the author had some trouble with tense. Well, once again, I admit that is a problem I have myself, identified with my novel’s plot. It’s subtle but there and I know I need a professional to help me with it before I begin submitting to agents.  I’m sure lots of writers have that trouble.

Hmm… you know this reminds me of my husband’s favorite button to push when we are arguing. If he makes an accusation that gets me fired up, he smirks and says that it must be true or I wouldn’t be so mad.

Is it possible that I got so angry with the peer reviews because I projected their critiques for the guest author’s piece onto my own work? Gee what would Freud say? He would probably tell me to blame my mom. Or maybe he would say, suck it up and learn something.

I have.  It’s good to know that others may struggle with the same writing pitfalls as you do. It’s more important to recognize the mistakes you make and fix them.

Reading critiques or reviews of your peer’s work can be a valuable tool in helping you to identify and weed out the week spots in your own writing.

What might you take away from reviews and critiques of your peer’s work?

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Write Now…Edit Later

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Please enjoy the following guest post from author Marie Catalfamo.

Marie is a fiction writer with interests in mysteries and exploring the myths and lore of her Italian heritage.  A native of the North East, Marie is a contributing author of First Thursdays, a collection of short stories by member of the writer’s group Somerset Ink.

 

Write Now…Edit Later

I began talking at nine months (or so I’ve been told) and haven’t stopped since. When I began writing my thoughts came out unedited and with no target in mind. I took some writing classes and began to inhale the various “rules” – find your voice, who’s your target audience, what’s the theme, plot, premise, etc. I began experimenting with various methods: make a pyramid (intro, conflict, resolution), work out an outline, give characters a background, research time period, speech, etc.

The one echo that kept running through my mind from these classes was write, write, write! Did I listen? Of course not; I began analyzing every paragraph, sentence, word. I asked everyone in my writer’s group what worked for them. I became a tree killer with endless repeat first starts. Finally I hit the plateau that gave me an excuse – writer’s block. Anytime someone asked me what I was working on I could proudly answer, “right now I have writer’s block”.

 I finally realized that for someone who must communicate in person (no Facebook, Tweets; emails satisfy my addiction for physical contact) I needed to write as I speak – just let it out. In real life, as a result, I sometimes have to go back and apologize for my words or actions. The beauty of writing is I can let my words simmer and then go back and edit.

Well, the above may not give anyone much insight into writing, but I feel a heck of a lot better.

I hope you enjoyed Marie’s contribution and find it fosters the flow of some fresh creativity.  Please feel free to comment on what Marie had to share and ask her any questions you may have.

Look for future guest posts from Marie and more of my favorite writers here at Writer’s Block.

What’s In a Name

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I wonder if when William Shakespeare wrote his now infamous quote- “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet- Act II, Scene II), he knew how profound a thought he was creating?

So what is in a name?

One part of my writing process I enjoy the most is creating, for my stories, titles, character names, location names, anything with a designation or appellation.

Sometimes names just come to me as I begin to develop a character, as if they are telling me themselves who they want to be. I then use that name to craft dimensions for the character I had not yet planned. For example, when I began to create the main character for the novel I am currently working on,

Lost and Found: The Souls of Rosewood, I knew it would be a girl around the age of 13-14. I knew she would be smart, independent and mature for her age. I knew she would be a gutsy problem-solver who had strong family ties and loved animals especially horses. But I didn’t know yet what she looked like or what her family background would be. Then one morning I woke up with her name on my lips- Lucy…Lucy Reardon. That was it…now a face filled the creative spot in my brain – red hair, light trace of freckles across the bridge of her nose, blue eyes with green flakes, fair complexion. Now I began to know who her family was, what they looked like and what cultural qualities they may have, i.e. traditions, customs etc.

Other times I take great pains to create names, names that not only fit my character’s personality but are authentic to their time in history, family background and station in life. I work hard at making sure the names and titles I create are not only memorable but serve a purpose as well.

My favorite stories are those which are character driven. Unforgettable characters deserve unforgettable names… Call me Ishmael, Ichabod Crane, Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Sam Spade, Holden Caulfield, The Grinch to name a few.

What are your favorite character names?

How do your characters get their names?

Speaking of Dialogue

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Dialogue is a very important part of telling a good story. It’s ok for the narrator to take us through the happenings and mis-happenings of our characters and plot, but if no part of the story is related to the reader straight from the characters themselves, then an important component of connecting with the reader on an emotional and personal level may be lost.

Dialogue is also a way of showing the reader what is happening rather than telling them.

There is a lot of work that goes into creating a good marriage between your narration and dialogue and entire posts could be dedicated to these trappings, but today I would like to concentrate on one of my pet peeves when it comes to dialogue…authenticity.

I know…there it goes again…that word…authenticity. It’s in just about every one of my posts. That’s because it’s such an important part of good writing and a part that in so many ways, big and small, can be compromised without knowing it. I would bet, if you polled a population of both agents and editors, you would find authenticity is at the top of their lists too, because it is a smoking shotgun when it comes to why your audience may use your book as a paperweight rather than a treasured story they read again and again.

Poorly written dialogue is one of those things that can break the spell your writing puts your reader under and takes them out of the world you created and puts them back on the bus, at their desk, on their couch…with a book in their hand.

So, how do you create an authentic piece of dialogue between your characters? Speak it don’t write it. This is no place for proper language- this is the place where your characters have a voice.

Your character’s voice is not your narrator’s voice. Even when you are writing in the first person, your main character would speak very differently in a conversation with another character than they would when they were telling their story to the reader.

My process- I don’t write my dialogue-I record it. I don’t think about what my characters would say, I say it out loud for them, then I type it; that way I can hear what they would say and how they would say it and see if it rings true.  

The main character in the novel I am working on is a thirteen year old girl named Lucy. I don’t speak thirteen- I speak…well, let’s just say older. So, I have to make a conscious effort when I am speaking for her to speak the way she would.  Lucy would never say, “Yes,” she would say, “Yeah”. She would never say, “My, how curious,” she would say “Wow-that’s weird”. She would never say, “Have a good afternoon,” she would say “See ya”.

How do your characters speak?

Do they have an accent?

Do they sound educated when they speak?

Are they sarcastic, always rattling off a wisecrack?

What do you do to make sure your dialogue is authentic and true to the characters you have created?

 

 

 

Break Out Those Characters

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Isn’t if fun when something you never intended to do becomes something wonderful? Like that old commercial where the guy eating a chocolate bar bumps into the guy eating peanut butter and they exchange those infamous words, “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter. You got your peanut butter in my chocolate.”  Then the narrator says, “Two great tastes that taste great together.”

The happy accident that became a sensation.

It’s a phenomenon that takes place often. And one of my favorite examples of it is the Break-Out Character.

Break-out characters are never created on purpose. They are born from characters written into the story for a specific purpose that are not meant to stand out but somehow take on a life of their own. They come in the forms of next door neighbors, co-workers, sidekicks, barista at your main character’s favorite coffee shop and such. They usually have very small pieces of dialogue allotted them and are given quirky attributes. Yet somehow they become some of our favorite characters and many times are more favored by the audience than your main characters.

Lately, I have noticed that every time I sit to work on the Middle Grade/ YA novel I am currently working on, I look for excuses to involve certain characters who I never intended to be a big part of my plot.

I love writing about them. Why? Because the fact that they are involved with my main characters but not as emotionally invested in the outcome of my plot as my protagonist and antagonist, they are free to focus on non-critical plot issues and entertain me in a way other characters can’t.

Break-out characters are a wonderful tool that can be used to give your readers a fresh breath or emotional break from your plot when it gets too intense. They are a way to add a spot of humor to or momentarily shift your reader’s focus from the plot.

Break-out characters often bring a catch phrase to your dialogue or a memorable physical action your readers begin to anticipate.  Before you know it they pilfer away bigger and bigger chunks of plot. They are the characters your readers quote back to you.

In the world of television, they are the characters that wind up spinning off into their own series, or have the most merchandise marketed to them. Think George Jefferson, Cosmo Kramer, Dr. Frasier Crane, Robert Barone.  

Now that some have developed for me within my novel, I use them to help me get unstuck when things slow down. I ask myself, “Hmm I wonder what so and so is up to?” Suddenly I find myself smiling and laughing and writing up a storm.

Who is waiting to break out of your plot?

 

Audience, Audience…Who Art Thou Audience?

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The great Jimmy Stewart once said, “Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.”

Now that’s something to think about.

Recently, I have been corresponding with a cousin of mine who is an aspiring writer. In his latest email, he confessed that he has been having trouble defining his target audience. He thinks it is one group but then thinks his work would appeal to another.

In my writing courses I devote a big chunk of time to understanding and defining one’s target audience. After all knowing who you are writing for is very important. Right? Right. However, unless you are querying an agent or publisher never consider it written in stone.

First and foremost -you must be your most important target. If you are not enjoying what you are writing and don’t relish the time you spend with your characters, then your writing will become a chore and believe me your audience will know.

Second- while it’s important to define your ideal reader and know your audience intimately in order to create authentic and relatable characters remember that when playing darts, you still get points for hitting the outer rings.

Some of the most successful artists ever, be they authors, playwrights, musicians, actors, poets or painters, have managed to capture the attention of the most coveted audience of all…the crossover audience (use your imagination here to insert rays of light, with cherubs flying around playing harps surrounding the words crossover audience,).

Think about Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga, or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter dynasty. The adult population of readers for both these authors is not what they set out to capture but something in their stories did and it propelled them into the stratosphere.

I will never forget…never forget the day I was across the street at a neighbor’s house for a baby shower. I floated around from room to room mingling with small pockets of gossip until I heard this, “I just had to see why my teenage daughter was so interested in a book about Vampires. Oh my God, now I have to fight her every night for my turn with it.” Then from across the circle another middle aged woman responded, “My husband thinks I’m crazy and I had to remind him about the collection of Harry Potter books in the bottom drawer of his night stand.” Then another neighbor chimed in, “I know; we got hooked on Harry Potter after helping Nathan with the names and potion words in the book. So… show of hands, who is Team Edward and who is Team Jacob?” With that the group erupted into a frenzy of “Yeah but Jacob is this… and Bella that…and Edward…

At that moment, I suddenly understood the power of broad appeal and my relationship with my personal target audience changed forever. I stopped writing for them and started writing to them. They became my ghost writers or as Jimmy put it so perfectly-my partners. Suddenly my plot opened up and my protagonist and antagonist became stronger, richer and better connected to a more varied cast of characters. And if that wasn’t rewarding enough, my plot suddenly gave birth to sub-plots where some of my favorite and most memorable scenes unfold.

Since that epiphany I have re-tooled my writing process to include the following considerations:
1) I create a theme that is appropriate for and appealing to a specific genre of readers.
2) I create a plot that is much bigger than that population.
3) I make sure my audience is not my client for whom I wish to merely sell my story to but rather my partner helping me create the best story ever.

The next time you sit down to create, try and answer this…If my ideal reader was sitting in a public place enjoying my book what unexpected somebody might be reading over their shoulder enjoying it just the same?

Method Writing

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In a recent post on one of my favorite writing blogs, Write it Sideways by Suzannah Windsor Freeman, contributing writer Susan Bearman offered a post called Finding Extraordinary Writing in an Ordinary Life.

Susan wrote, “I thought you had to lead an extraordinary life to have important stories to tell, and my life seemed completely ordinary: two loving parents who stayed married to each other; no major illness or tragedy; four loving grandparents, and even four great grandparents who lived long enough for me to get to know them. I lived in the Midwest; I went to college, got a job, got married, had children. What stories did I have to tell leading such an ordinary life?”

For several days now, I have wanted to write a post in response to a comment left here at Writer’s Block by one of my favorite authors, Arlene Banfield. Arlene shared with us one of the most complimentary and profound comments a writer could ever receive, “Today, my husband paid me the highest compliment after reading one of my stories. “You haven’t lived this life, how can you write about it with so much clarity?”

I think both Arlene and Susan are writing about the same thing. And it is a question I get asked all the time. How do you come up with this stuff? How do you write about things that don’t exist or things you have never experienced?

When done correctly, I believe it is accomplished in the same way an actor uses Lee Strasberg’s “Method Acting” to convince an audience that they are someone else living through an extraordinary experience, which their real life would never put them in.

“What is “Method Acting”? It is a form of acting where the actor mystically “becomes” the character or tries to somehow literally live the character in life. Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself and the actor is capable of doing this by bringing to mind “visions” (sensory images) of experiences in life which are no longer present. In his way, Aristotle was stating the core principle of The Method – the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination as the foundation for (re)experiencing in acting.” (www.strasburg.com)

When we create worlds, characters and situations foreign to our own life experiences it is our past experiences that are at the core of what we are writing about. Our story’s theme is driven by our familiarity with emotions and responses to our past. The plot is driven by the memories of our actions to those experiences.

I have never been surfing off the coast of Australia, standing steadily on a rocketing surf board, tasting the salt in the air as the spray of sea water whips through my hair. My heart pounding with exhilaration in my chest, when suddenly, I am slammed onto the concrete surface of the surf and find myself nose to nose with a face full of teeth attached to a dorsal fin.

So, how could I write a story about a near death experience with a Great White? How do I do it well? How do I do it authentically for my readers? By borrowing from my past.

I can recall times when I was rocketing through the ocean on a boat or Jet Ski. I can open those files in the recesses of my brain and write about how the air smelled, how the sea spray felt on my face, how exciting and reckless it felt to be going so fast.

Then I can access another group of memories. I can “re-experience” how it felt riding my horse, galloping in an opened field enjoying the wind in my face and the power of his body beneath me when suddenly, without warning, the scenery around me begins to turn over and all the air is forced out of my lungs as my body slams on the hard ground.

I can recall the panic that washes over me, the heat that flushes my cheeks and the trembling of my legs after someone cuts me off and I have a near death experience driving down the highway.

By pooling all these experiences together with what facts I know about sharks and surfing form documentaries and movies and school trips to aquariums, pressing my nose up against the thick glass of the shark tank, coming face to face with these chilling predators, I can create a believable scene that my readers could get lost in. And just as importantly, one that is uniquely mine.

We are in the business of telling stories, of turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Every time we sit at our computer or stare down at a blank piece of paper we are on the precipice of doing just that. It’s in all of us. It’s in the fibers of the experiences that make up who we are.

What experiences can you tap into?