Friday, December 19, 2014

Today, I'm participating in DL Hammmons's Deja Vu Blogfest, in which we share a post from the previous year that we feel got less attention than we'd like. My recycled post is from January.

----

Anxiety of Influence


As a writer, should you be especially careful about what you read?

It's a question that's been plaguing me during a reading binge. My current read isn't an identical scenario to the one I'm currently writing, but there are numerous points of intersection. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will continuing to read help me work out my own story, or will it derail me?

Photo credit: dave from morguefile.com
In her nonfiction book on writing, Escaping into the Open, Elizabeth Berg makes an interesting assertion about influence I've never seen anywhere else:

"While drafting, avoid reading books on the same topic as yours." 

Her reasoning? "...no matter how aware or sophisticated or experienced you are, no matter how determined to write your own story, there's a very real danger that you will start to copy. It may be unconscious, but it can happen. And if that happens, it's a shame...because it denies the reading public the pleasure of your originality."

Part of me disagrees. If I don't know how others have tackled this topic, how do I know if my ideas are original? How do I avoid just repeating what has been said before if I'm ignorant of it? How do I not end up leaning on tired clichés? Berg seems to argue here that clichés crop up because you read others' takes on your topic. You can't help but copy.

The funny thing is, I could argue the opposite.  Knowing how others have treated a topic might constrain me to try too hard to take a new direction in order to seem original. In so doing, I risk creating an inauthentic experience with inauthentic emotion.

But either way, the conclusion would be stop reading that similar book.

But other possible good lessons could come from continuing. I can have distance from another's story I can't yet have from my own. I can more easily sense the kinds of details I might include as a writer that as a reader I find superfluous or boring.

Similarly, this other author could open my eyes to dramatic possibilities I'm not yet exploring in my work: places where conflict might erupt or alliances could form; ways of delivering, delaying, or withholding information. Berg would likely say I should learn these latter lessons from books on topics quite different from mine.

What do you think? Is it a help or a danger to read books on a similar topic?
Friday, December 19, 2014 Laurel Garver
Today, I'm participating in DL Hammmons's Deja Vu Blogfest, in which we share a post from the previous year that we feel got less attention than we'd like. My recycled post is from January.

----

Anxiety of Influence


As a writer, should you be especially careful about what you read?

It's a question that's been plaguing me during a reading binge. My current read isn't an identical scenario to the one I'm currently writing, but there are numerous points of intersection. This puts me in a bit of a quandary. Will continuing to read help me work out my own story, or will it derail me?

Photo credit: dave from morguefile.com
In her nonfiction book on writing, Escaping into the Open, Elizabeth Berg makes an interesting assertion about influence I've never seen anywhere else:

"While drafting, avoid reading books on the same topic as yours." 

Her reasoning? "...no matter how aware or sophisticated or experienced you are, no matter how determined to write your own story, there's a very real danger that you will start to copy. It may be unconscious, but it can happen. And if that happens, it's a shame...because it denies the reading public the pleasure of your originality."

Part of me disagrees. If I don't know how others have tackled this topic, how do I know if my ideas are original? How do I avoid just repeating what has been said before if I'm ignorant of it? How do I not end up leaning on tired clichés? Berg seems to argue here that clichés crop up because you read others' takes on your topic. You can't help but copy.

The funny thing is, I could argue the opposite.  Knowing how others have treated a topic might constrain me to try too hard to take a new direction in order to seem original. In so doing, I risk creating an inauthentic experience with inauthentic emotion.

But either way, the conclusion would be stop reading that similar book.

But other possible good lessons could come from continuing. I can have distance from another's story I can't yet have from my own. I can more easily sense the kinds of details I might include as a writer that as a reader I find superfluous or boring.

Similarly, this other author could open my eyes to dramatic possibilities I'm not yet exploring in my work: places where conflict might erupt or alliances could form; ways of delivering, delaying, or withholding information. Berg would likely say I should learn these latter lessons from books on topics quite different from mine.

What do you think? Is it a help or a danger to read books on a similar topic?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Writer-friends, Christmas will soon be upon us, and if you're a procrastinator like me, you may have remembered at the last minute some special people you'd like to give a gift--your critique partner, writing group president, book club host, beta reader, editor or other support folks who have made your journey sweeter, like your book tour coordinator. Here are some fun ideas likely to appeal to any literature lover. (Click on each subtitle for more information or to purchase).

Tequilla Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist

Wondering what to get your book club host? Look no further--this fun blend of literary anecdotes and cocktail recipes is sure to hit the spot. With hilarious recipe  names like Brave New Swirled, A Cocktail of Two Cities, and Romeo and Julep, it will amuse as much as wet your whistle.


Drink with Great Drinkers gift set

Help your writing group loosen up a little by tossing back a few using these literary shot glasses. Glasses feature Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill, W. B. Yeats, and Charles Baudelaire, with a quote about drinking by each.

For the Love of Reading Gourmet Gift Set

A book-lover's delight--a book design chest packed with coffee and sweet treats to enjoy with a favorite book. Perfect for your book club host, critique partner or family bibliophile.




Personal Library Kit

Perfect for your favorite book bloggers and beta readers: a kit to help them manage all the favorite titles they share with friends and family.



Editor gift set

What better way to thank your favorite superheroes with a red pen--your editor and proofreader--than to keep them well caffeinated and smiling? This nifty set includes several flavors of coffee, a fun mug and coaster set with the reminder "Keep Clam and Proofread."


Hyperbole Tee

What do you get for the critique partner with razor-sharp wit who always knows how to fix plot holes, talk you off ledges and pull your story's essence out of overwritten muck? How about this cheeky tee--Hyperbole: The Greatest Thing on Earth. Lots of fun colors to choose from, too.


Which of these gifts appeals most to  you? 

Sunday, December 14, 2014 Laurel Garver
Writer-friends, Christmas will soon be upon us, and if you're a procrastinator like me, you may have remembered at the last minute some special people you'd like to give a gift--your critique partner, writing group president, book club host, beta reader, editor or other support folks who have made your journey sweeter, like your book tour coordinator. Here are some fun ideas likely to appeal to any literature lover. (Click on each subtitle for more information or to purchase).

Tequilla Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist

Wondering what to get your book club host? Look no further--this fun blend of literary anecdotes and cocktail recipes is sure to hit the spot. With hilarious recipe  names like Brave New Swirled, A Cocktail of Two Cities, and Romeo and Julep, it will amuse as much as wet your whistle.


Drink with Great Drinkers gift set

Help your writing group loosen up a little by tossing back a few using these literary shot glasses. Glasses feature Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Winston Churchill, W. B. Yeats, and Charles Baudelaire, with a quote about drinking by each.

For the Love of Reading Gourmet Gift Set

A book-lover's delight--a book design chest packed with coffee and sweet treats to enjoy with a favorite book. Perfect for your book club host, critique partner or family bibliophile.




Personal Library Kit

Perfect for your favorite book bloggers and beta readers: a kit to help them manage all the favorite titles they share with friends and family.



Editor gift set

What better way to thank your favorite superheroes with a red pen--your editor and proofreader--than to keep them well caffeinated and smiling? This nifty set includes several flavors of coffee, a fun mug and coaster set with the reminder "Keep Clam and Proofread."


Hyperbole Tee

What do you get for the critique partner with razor-sharp wit who always knows how to fix plot holes, talk you off ledges and pull your story's essence out of overwritten muck? How about this cheeky tee--Hyperbole: The Greatest Thing on Earth. Lots of fun colors to choose from, too.


Which of these gifts appeals most to  you? 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Looking for the perfect gift for your critique partner, book club president, writing-obsessed family member, or your own wish list? Look no further--I've got  you covered. I'll be doing a series of writing-related gift lists over the next several days, just in time to complete your shopping.

Since it's Friday, our first focus will be FUN! Check out these great toys and games for writers (click each heading for more info. and to purchase):

Great Writers Finger Puppets

Imagine all the great entertainment you could create with four fabulous writerly minds ready to act out your silly or serious pantomime plays. Set includes William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy.




Gather around the table for this fun family project--a 1,000 piece puzzle featuring famous writers. In my family, jigsaw puzzles were always part of our Christmas-day fun. This puzzle just might be the one to get your family to adopt this tradition, too.



Writers and Poets Playing Cards

Make your rounds of solitaire or weekly poker game a lot more literary with these playing cards featuring famous novelists and poets.



Notable Novelists

"Go Fish" for the well-read, this card game is sure to delight your literary friends.


Storymatic Classic

Beat writer's block with this creativity tool: "Six billion stories in one little box." Simply draw some prompts and let your imagination do the rest. Great not only for generating stories on your own--it's also fun for parties and road trips.



Smaller and more portable than Storymatic, this dice set can be a handy tool for generating ideas.  Roll and create from the story prompts.



Never again be at a loss for words! This set of magnetic words is great for generating poems or awesome first lines on your fridge or filing cabinet.



Beyond the basics, check out THESE awesomely fun theme sets:


Music  /  Art  /  Nature

Cat   /  Bacon  /   Mustache

Vampire  / Zombie  /  Pirate



Which of these toys and games appeal to you?




Friday, December 12, 2014 Laurel Garver
Looking for the perfect gift for your critique partner, book club president, writing-obsessed family member, or your own wish list? Look no further--I've got  you covered. I'll be doing a series of writing-related gift lists over the next several days, just in time to complete your shopping.

Since it's Friday, our first focus will be FUN! Check out these great toys and games for writers (click each heading for more info. and to purchase):

Great Writers Finger Puppets

Imagine all the great entertainment you could create with four fabulous writerly minds ready to act out your silly or serious pantomime plays. Set includes William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy.




Gather around the table for this fun family project--a 1,000 piece puzzle featuring famous writers. In my family, jigsaw puzzles were always part of our Christmas-day fun. This puzzle just might be the one to get your family to adopt this tradition, too.



Writers and Poets Playing Cards

Make your rounds of solitaire or weekly poker game a lot more literary with these playing cards featuring famous novelists and poets.



Notable Novelists

"Go Fish" for the well-read, this card game is sure to delight your literary friends.


Storymatic Classic

Beat writer's block with this creativity tool: "Six billion stories in one little box." Simply draw some prompts and let your imagination do the rest. Great not only for generating stories on your own--it's also fun for parties and road trips.



Smaller and more portable than Storymatic, this dice set can be a handy tool for generating ideas.  Roll and create from the story prompts.



Never again be at a loss for words! This set of magnetic words is great for generating poems or awesome first lines on your fridge or filing cabinet.



Beyond the basics, check out THESE awesomely fun theme sets:


Music  /  Art  /  Nature

Cat   /  Bacon  /   Mustache

Vampire  / Zombie  /  Pirate



Which of these toys and games appeal to you?




Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Photo credit: chamomile from morguefile.com

When the advent wreath comes out, my writing can often go off the burners entirely, which tends to make me a bit cranky and resentful inside. In a season in which special events and preparations for them can eat up most of one's waking hours, it can be really tough to carve out space for your creative life. But for my mental and emotional health, it's essential.

Finding writing time in December can be a bit like searching for loose change in pockets, under the couch cushions, in the washing machine, and under the car mats. Bit by bit you bank a little here, a little there, and your story continues to grow, like a bank account would,

The usual wisdom is to simply sleep less or decline invitations. That might be necessary if you're under an actual hard-and-fast deadline. But if you aren't, take advantage of the seasonal change to recharge and to stimulate your thinking.

Here are some ideas to try in various venues.

Shopping


Imagine how  your character would approach gift giving. How budget-conscious or extravagant is she? How much does he enjoy or dread selecting gifts? Which secondary character would it be most difficult to shop for?

Imagine what it's like to be an employee or shop owner at one the businesses you visit.

Gather sensory details about holiday shopping. How does it look, smell, feel?

Observe how other shoppers embody emotions like frustration, anxiety, impatience, excitement, worry.

Buy yourself a few knickknacks that draw you more deeply into your characters' world. (For an example, see my post, 'Take Me There' Objects.)

Parties


Observe how party-goers interact with one another. Whose relationships seem shaky? How can you tell? How do family similarities express themselves? How do people flirt or try to blend with the wallpaper? How do listeners show speakers they are engaged, bored, or offended?

Try to discover connections between people you meet and your characters, whether profession, hobbies, life experiences, family structure, or temperament. Once the connection is established, ask things you wish you knew about your character. For instance, "What is the most difficult/annoying aspect of your job?" "What was it like to gain step-siblings?"

Seek out experts in areas you are researching for your story and bravely ask questions. (For more on impromptu research interviews, see my post Expertise is Everywhere.)

Try out your elevator pitch.

Travel


Gather sensory details about the airport. How does it look, feel, smell? How is it different now than in, say, July or August? Observe how fellow passengers express excitement, dread, impatience.

Research setting while on the road, everything from sensory details to the unique features of local culture as seen in architecture, speech patterns, clothing, food, music and art. (For more detailed ideas, see my post, Writer on the Road)

Listen to audio books in your genre.

Read books on the craft of writing or on topics you need to research.

Engage in an art or craft hobby that stimulates your creativity and helps your mind relax.

----

These are just a handful of ways you can stay connected to your story world during a busy season.

What new things might you try this holiday season?
Tuesday, December 09, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: chamomile from morguefile.com

When the advent wreath comes out, my writing can often go off the burners entirely, which tends to make me a bit cranky and resentful inside. In a season in which special events and preparations for them can eat up most of one's waking hours, it can be really tough to carve out space for your creative life. But for my mental and emotional health, it's essential.

Finding writing time in December can be a bit like searching for loose change in pockets, under the couch cushions, in the washing machine, and under the car mats. Bit by bit you bank a little here, a little there, and your story continues to grow, like a bank account would,

The usual wisdom is to simply sleep less or decline invitations. That might be necessary if you're under an actual hard-and-fast deadline. But if you aren't, take advantage of the seasonal change to recharge and to stimulate your thinking.

Here are some ideas to try in various venues.

Shopping


Imagine how  your character would approach gift giving. How budget-conscious or extravagant is she? How much does he enjoy or dread selecting gifts? Which secondary character would it be most difficult to shop for?

Imagine what it's like to be an employee or shop owner at one the businesses you visit.

Gather sensory details about holiday shopping. How does it look, smell, feel?

Observe how other shoppers embody emotions like frustration, anxiety, impatience, excitement, worry.

Buy yourself a few knickknacks that draw you more deeply into your characters' world. (For an example, see my post, 'Take Me There' Objects.)

Parties


Observe how party-goers interact with one another. Whose relationships seem shaky? How can you tell? How do family similarities express themselves? How do people flirt or try to blend with the wallpaper? How do listeners show speakers they are engaged, bored, or offended?

Try to discover connections between people you meet and your characters, whether profession, hobbies, life experiences, family structure, or temperament. Once the connection is established, ask things you wish you knew about your character. For instance, "What is the most difficult/annoying aspect of your job?" "What was it like to gain step-siblings?"

Seek out experts in areas you are researching for your story and bravely ask questions. (For more on impromptu research interviews, see my post Expertise is Everywhere.)

Try out your elevator pitch.

Travel


Gather sensory details about the airport. How does it look, feel, smell? How is it different now than in, say, July or August? Observe how fellow passengers express excitement, dread, impatience.

Research setting while on the road, everything from sensory details to the unique features of local culture as seen in architecture, speech patterns, clothing, food, music and art. (For more detailed ideas, see my post, Writer on the Road)

Listen to audio books in your genre.

Read books on the craft of writing or on topics you need to research.

Engage in an art or craft hobby that stimulates your creativity and helps your mind relax.

----

These are just a handful of ways you can stay connected to your story world during a busy season.

What new things might you try this holiday season?

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

I'm at the stage with my current project where all forces collide in the big finale, which means, weirdly enough, this is where I stop to do a big re-assessment. Those of you who outline from the get-go may find this strange. But those who don't, whose process is organic,* have probably found themselves doing the same thing.
Photo credit: bjwebbiz from morguefile.com 


Organic writing is seldom a linear process. The writing itself is always discovery, so new revelations will need to be woven back through the piece. This will involve wrong turns sometimes. You might have to let yourself follow interesting tangents because they will help you understand the characters better. But those peripheral events might not prove worthy of inclusion in the final cut, or they could be reduced from full scenes to a few sentences or paragraphs of narrative summary. Discovery might mean traversing many dull miles until you reach the good stuff. Then it's simply a matter of moving the "beginning" later, and ditching the less interesting "prequel" material.

This re-assessment can't really be bypassed, in my experience. Your intuition will nag at you, will sabotage your efforts to move forward until you stop, figure out where you are being drawn (and why), then make the path behind smoother, as if this plot were as linear as a marked trail.  Only then, when you have a clear picture of what your story is "about"--what its focal theme is--can the best ending emerge.

Here are some key questions to ask when you reach the brink and your gut says "don't move forward yet."

  • What patterns seem to be emerging that are parallel among my story lines? If none, how could I develop more parallelism among my main plot and subplots?
  • How might I express these parallel patterns as a theme? (For example, characters all struggling to be honest with each other might reveal themes like "be careful who you trust," or "the truth will set you free.")
  • What themes have I discovered that could be more strongly developed from page 1?
  • Which threads can I reasonably weave through the conclusion? Which should simply be removed? Which need to be downplayed--the scenes radically trimmed? Where can I reassign actions to more important characters? 
  • What subplots emerged in the middle that needed to be seeded earlier? 
  • What have characters revealed late in the story that could be better foreshadowed?


At what points do you re-assess your story? What questions do you ask yourself?


*this term is emerging to replace the somewhat derogatory "seat-of-your-pants writer" or "pantser." It acknowledges the power of intuition as more important than formulas for creating powerful stories.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014 Laurel Garver
I'm at the stage with my current project where all forces collide in the big finale, which means, weirdly enough, this is where I stop to do a big re-assessment. Those of you who outline from the get-go may find this strange. But those who don't, whose process is organic,* have probably found themselves doing the same thing.
Photo credit: bjwebbiz from morguefile.com 


Organic writing is seldom a linear process. The writing itself is always discovery, so new revelations will need to be woven back through the piece. This will involve wrong turns sometimes. You might have to let yourself follow interesting tangents because they will help you understand the characters better. But those peripheral events might not prove worthy of inclusion in the final cut, or they could be reduced from full scenes to a few sentences or paragraphs of narrative summary. Discovery might mean traversing many dull miles until you reach the good stuff. Then it's simply a matter of moving the "beginning" later, and ditching the less interesting "prequel" material.

This re-assessment can't really be bypassed, in my experience. Your intuition will nag at you, will sabotage your efforts to move forward until you stop, figure out where you are being drawn (and why), then make the path behind smoother, as if this plot were as linear as a marked trail.  Only then, when you have a clear picture of what your story is "about"--what its focal theme is--can the best ending emerge.

Here are some key questions to ask when you reach the brink and your gut says "don't move forward yet."

  • What patterns seem to be emerging that are parallel among my story lines? If none, how could I develop more parallelism among my main plot and subplots?
  • How might I express these parallel patterns as a theme? (For example, characters all struggling to be honest with each other might reveal themes like "be careful who you trust," or "the truth will set you free.")
  • What themes have I discovered that could be more strongly developed from page 1?
  • Which threads can I reasonably weave through the conclusion? Which should simply be removed? Which need to be downplayed--the scenes radically trimmed? Where can I reassign actions to more important characters? 
  • What subplots emerged in the middle that needed to be seeded earlier? 
  • What have characters revealed late in the story that could be better foreshadowed?


At what points do you re-assess your story? What questions do you ask yourself?


*this term is emerging to replace the somewhat derogatory "seat-of-your-pants writer" or "pantser." It acknowledges the power of intuition as more important than formulas for creating powerful stories.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a snippet from my work in progress. It's a YA contemporary that picks up roughly 18 months after my debut, Never Gone. My protagonist, Danielle, is spending a few weeks in central Pennsylvania when her grandfather is hospitalized after a bad fall. She hopes to enlist her uncle's help to get away quickly to take a planned trip to Paris. But her reason is far from selfish.

===

Photo credit: psarahtonen from morguefile.com 

EXCERPT REMOVED

Today's rough and tumble independent publishing world made it necessary to remove all snippets and previous versions of my work from the blog. The existence of such a "publishing trail" can be used to file false DMCA notices about my novels.

What are you working on these days?
Tuesday, November 18, 2014 Laurel Garver
For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a snippet from my work in progress. It's a YA contemporary that picks up roughly 18 months after my debut, Never Gone. My protagonist, Danielle, is spending a few weeks in central Pennsylvania when her grandfather is hospitalized after a bad fall. She hopes to enlist her uncle's help to get away quickly to take a planned trip to Paris. But her reason is far from selfish.

===

Photo credit: psarahtonen from morguefile.com 

EXCERPT REMOVED

Today's rough and tumble independent publishing world made it necessary to remove all snippets and previous versions of my work from the blog. The existence of such a "publishing trail" can be used to file false DMCA notices about my novels.

What are you working on these days?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Compulsion is a deep-seated need to do something, a belief that a particular action will make one's anxiety evaporate. More serious compulsions we label "OCD"--obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD sufferers need to wash their hands frequently to dispel their anxiety about germs, or flick light switches a certain number of times to keep the universe in harmony.

Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com
Most of us have less dramatic compulsions that surface in times of stress. "I'll be okay if I can just go for a run," says the exercise-compulsive. One of my good friends cooks and freezes huge portions of food when she's anxious. I tend to clean, organize, and rearrange the furniture. Having a neat environment makes me feel like life is under control.


There's a wonderful indie film that got me thinking more deeply about this: Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters Rose and Nora. These women are both struggling financially and learn that they could be making good money starting up their own business--cleaning up crime scenes.

What sort of person would be drawn to this work? It's grisly and just really, really gross. But as you learn Rose and Nora's backstory, it becomes clear that this is therapeutic work for them. They lost a loved one in a grisly manner when they were both quite young and have had difficulty moving on. Clearing away the evidence of painful loss for their clients cleans their own damaged souls.

If a different set of characters had been set in this scenario, I don't know that it would have worked as well. A socialite scrubbing gore off the walls would have been funnier--but less believable. What kept me gripped by the film was a desire to understand the underlying compulsion--the psychological need being met in this particular set of circumstances.

At one point, Rose is at a baby shower and has to explain her new business to a group of well-off young women who were high school friends. You couldn't ask for a more ironic juxtaposition, so I was bracing myself for things to go horribly, hilariously wrong. But the writer took a light touch, and in that moment we expect to writhe for Rose, she gives a wonderfully layered response to her friends' questions that's simultaneously sappy and deep.

"We're helping people," Rose says, "at a time when they are going through something profound. And we make things better."

When you can link an old wound with a new challenge, well, friends, you have the makings of deep, compelling drama. The trick is to match your protagonist and plot well.

Does your story's plot force your character to grapple with an old wound? If not, how might you better match protagonist and plot?
Tuesday, November 11, 2014 Laurel Garver
Compulsion is a deep-seated need to do something, a belief that a particular action will make one's anxiety evaporate. More serious compulsions we label "OCD"--obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD sufferers need to wash their hands frequently to dispel their anxiety about germs, or flick light switches a certain number of times to keep the universe in harmony.

Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com
Most of us have less dramatic compulsions that surface in times of stress. "I'll be okay if I can just go for a run," says the exercise-compulsive. One of my good friends cooks and freezes huge portions of food when she's anxious. I tend to clean, organize, and rearrange the furniture. Having a neat environment makes me feel like life is under control.


There's a wonderful indie film that got me thinking more deeply about this: Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters Rose and Nora. These women are both struggling financially and learn that they could be making good money starting up their own business--cleaning up crime scenes.

What sort of person would be drawn to this work? It's grisly and just really, really gross. But as you learn Rose and Nora's backstory, it becomes clear that this is therapeutic work for them. They lost a loved one in a grisly manner when they were both quite young and have had difficulty moving on. Clearing away the evidence of painful loss for their clients cleans their own damaged souls.

If a different set of characters had been set in this scenario, I don't know that it would have worked as well. A socialite scrubbing gore off the walls would have been funnier--but less believable. What kept me gripped by the film was a desire to understand the underlying compulsion--the psychological need being met in this particular set of circumstances.

At one point, Rose is at a baby shower and has to explain her new business to a group of well-off young women who were high school friends. You couldn't ask for a more ironic juxtaposition, so I was bracing myself for things to go horribly, hilariously wrong. But the writer took a light touch, and in that moment we expect to writhe for Rose, she gives a wonderfully layered response to her friends' questions that's simultaneously sappy and deep.

"We're helping people," Rose says, "at a time when they are going through something profound. And we make things better."

When you can link an old wound with a new challenge, well, friends, you have the makings of deep, compelling drama. The trick is to match your protagonist and plot well.

Does your story's plot force your character to grapple with an old wound? If not, how might you better match protagonist and plot?

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Too much of a good thing.... (photo by jycleaver, morguefile)
Dear Editor-on-Call,

I was just asked to beta read a piece from a very good writer friend and lo and behold, she is an overwriter. I am, too, to some extent, but this is excessive. Of course, I want to be gentle when I send this back, but if I was completely honest, I would be bleeding all over the page. Personally, I relish crits that I get back covered in red, because I see it as an awesome learning experience, but others are quite a bit more sensitive than I am. I'm worried that she is one of the sensitive ones. Egads, I don't know what to do here. Do you have any advice?

Sincerely,
Wannabe Gracious

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dear Gracious,

I've faced this issue before, too. And I'm a recovering overwriter myself. I'd suggest refraining from line editing the whole piece at this stage. General comments and especially questions will be more helpful to your friend, and less likely to wound. Something along the lines of "you have some very vivid descriptions here, and some that I think would feel stronger if you pared them back," then line edit a sentence to show what you mean. In areas where she describes the same thing six ways, try a margin question: which of these best captures your idea here? You can also recommend that she take a look at Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Manuscript Makeover, which will provide great guidance for the revision process.

Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity. Be sure to sandwich the idea of "you need to trim and simplify" with encouragement about what she does right: her characters are likeable, her emotions real, her humor funny, her plot attention-grabbing and the like. Overwriting is so often a sign of lack of confidence. Build her up in the right way, and she'll find the courage to trim.

Any other sage words for this advice-seeker? How do you typically approach critiquing an overwriter? 

Have an editing or revision question? Ask away. I'll tackle it in a future post.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014 Laurel Garver
Too much of a good thing.... (photo by jycleaver, morguefile)
Dear Editor-on-Call,

I was just asked to beta read a piece from a very good writer friend and lo and behold, she is an overwriter. I am, too, to some extent, but this is excessive. Of course, I want to be gentle when I send this back, but if I was completely honest, I would be bleeding all over the page. Personally, I relish crits that I get back covered in red, because I see it as an awesome learning experience, but others are quite a bit more sensitive than I am. I'm worried that she is one of the sensitive ones. Egads, I don't know what to do here. Do you have any advice?

Sincerely,
Wannabe Gracious

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dear Gracious,

I've faced this issue before, too. And I'm a recovering overwriter myself. I'd suggest refraining from line editing the whole piece at this stage. General comments and especially questions will be more helpful to your friend, and less likely to wound. Something along the lines of "you have some very vivid descriptions here, and some that I think would feel stronger if you pared them back," then line edit a sentence to show what you mean. In areas where she describes the same thing six ways, try a margin question: which of these best captures your idea here? You can also recommend that she take a look at Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Manuscript Makeover, which will provide great guidance for the revision process.

Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity. Be sure to sandwich the idea of "you need to trim and simplify" with encouragement about what she does right: her characters are likeable, her emotions real, her humor funny, her plot attention-grabbing and the like. Overwriting is so often a sign of lack of confidence. Build her up in the right way, and she'll find the courage to trim.

Any other sage words for this advice-seeker? How do you typically approach critiquing an overwriter? 

Have an editing or revision question? Ask away. I'll tackle it in a future post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I'm a last born, which means I have a bit of a rebellious streak. I always like ideas best if I feel they aren't being forced on me by some authority figure. Who wants some bossy person breathing down your neck all the time?

Well, anyone who wants to get things accomplished. Having a rebellious streak not only gets you into scrapes with teachers, directors, managers, or other authorities, it also can keep you stuck in unproductive patterns.

Photo credit: vahiju from morguefile.com
Accountability to another party--not necessarily a bossy person, mind you--can keep you on track far more than going it alone. Why else would NaNoWriMo be such a popular program? Nothing is stopping you from picking any month you like, say January or July, to generate 50,000 words. What NaNo offers is a vast web of accountability, a mob of positive peer pressure to show up and do what you promised to show up and do.

Sadly, NaNo is only a month long. Some writers are able to maintain the relationships they develop then, others, shamed by failing to meet their goals, disengage.

I don't necessarily think we need more rigid programs to help with accountability, but I do believe all of us can benefit from having a someone or some group/team to whom we report about what we're up to.

Here are some ways to build an accountability structure.

Journal your progress

Sometimes you most need some visual reminder that you are showing up to write. When you hit a moment of self-loathing, you have a document you can hold in your hands to that proves you aren't actually a lazy slob. On days when you feel like you're spinning your wheels, you can see how far you've come and draw strength from it.

Roseanne Bane's Around the Writer's Block has some great advice about making commitments with yourself regarding process time (creative play) and product time (working on some aspect of research, drafting, revision, or marketing). As you mark your daily progress and see success with building a habit, she notes, the pleasure chemicals in your brain give you added reinforcement. You want to keep meeting goals and recording it. It feels great to succeed.

Seek social media accountability

I've found it helpful in distracted periods to declare my daily goal on Twitter, then check in again later in the day to report on my progress. Nothing like having your intentions exposed so publicly to make you eager to follow through.

Others use participate in "What's Up Wednesday" on their blogs to be accountable for progressing with projects (and to help them generate blog content and stay connected).


Have an accountability partner

A friend helped me get back into writing after years away by simply asking that I bring her pages each month when we met for coffee. She didn't care what I wrote, so long as I appeared with pages in hand. After a few meetings, I had the beginnings of a novel.

Participate in a writing group

A face-to-face group can be a great place to build accountability, either for you to produce work or to be developing your craft in some way. I participate in a group to which I bring up to two chapters per month for critique. Others in the group prefer to distribute whole drafts outside of meeting times, using meetings to simply report how they are progressing, and offer fellow writers critiques. The group meetings are often boisterous as we get excited about each other's works in progress and toss around creative ideas to overcome plot holes or other snags in the process.

Perhaps a looser group, such a "Write in" session at a local cafe or library might be all you need. Once again, NaNoWriMo has a forum to join or create such a group.


Find a mentor

Mentoring is like a more intimate teacher/student relationship, in which a less experienced person seeks the guidance of a more experience person. No matter where you are in the journey, you can benefit from this sort of relationship either as a mentor or a protege (this is the once widely-used term from someone who is mentored, before consultants invented the goofy word "mentee" that sounds like someone who belongs in an asylum).

A mentor might function more like an accountability partner with some wisdom for you, or more like a teacher/coach who doles out assignments, cheers you on, and gives you constructive feedback about what you're doing well and where you need to improve.

Professional associations like SCBWI for children's writers offer formal mentoring programs. Or you could seek out connections at places like Query Tracker forums, WANA Tribe (the acronym stands for "we are not alone"), Nathan Bransford's forums, or as I mentioned earlier, NaNoWriMo forums.

You might even have some potential mentor material in your own back yard. Connect with a local chapter of your genre's professional association, take a continuing education class, visit book signings. The perfect person to guide you might be closer than you realize.

Do you have accountability in your writing life? What avenues might you try to get it?
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 Laurel Garver
I'm a last born, which means I have a bit of a rebellious streak. I always like ideas best if I feel they aren't being forced on me by some authority figure. Who wants some bossy person breathing down your neck all the time?

Well, anyone who wants to get things accomplished. Having a rebellious streak not only gets you into scrapes with teachers, directors, managers, or other authorities, it also can keep you stuck in unproductive patterns.

Photo credit: vahiju from morguefile.com
Accountability to another party--not necessarily a bossy person, mind you--can keep you on track far more than going it alone. Why else would NaNoWriMo be such a popular program? Nothing is stopping you from picking any month you like, say January or July, to generate 50,000 words. What NaNo offers is a vast web of accountability, a mob of positive peer pressure to show up and do what you promised to show up and do.

Sadly, NaNo is only a month long. Some writers are able to maintain the relationships they develop then, others, shamed by failing to meet their goals, disengage.

I don't necessarily think we need more rigid programs to help with accountability, but I do believe all of us can benefit from having a someone or some group/team to whom we report about what we're up to.

Here are some ways to build an accountability structure.

Journal your progress

Sometimes you most need some visual reminder that you are showing up to write. When you hit a moment of self-loathing, you have a document you can hold in your hands to that proves you aren't actually a lazy slob. On days when you feel like you're spinning your wheels, you can see how far you've come and draw strength from it.

Roseanne Bane's Around the Writer's Block has some great advice about making commitments with yourself regarding process time (creative play) and product time (working on some aspect of research, drafting, revision, or marketing). As you mark your daily progress and see success with building a habit, she notes, the pleasure chemicals in your brain give you added reinforcement. You want to keep meeting goals and recording it. It feels great to succeed.

Seek social media accountability

I've found it helpful in distracted periods to declare my daily goal on Twitter, then check in again later in the day to report on my progress. Nothing like having your intentions exposed so publicly to make you eager to follow through.

Others use participate in "What's Up Wednesday" on their blogs to be accountable for progressing with projects (and to help them generate blog content and stay connected).


Have an accountability partner

A friend helped me get back into writing after years away by simply asking that I bring her pages each month when we met for coffee. She didn't care what I wrote, so long as I appeared with pages in hand. After a few meetings, I had the beginnings of a novel.

Participate in a writing group

A face-to-face group can be a great place to build accountability, either for you to produce work or to be developing your craft in some way. I participate in a group to which I bring up to two chapters per month for critique. Others in the group prefer to distribute whole drafts outside of meeting times, using meetings to simply report how they are progressing, and offer fellow writers critiques. The group meetings are often boisterous as we get excited about each other's works in progress and toss around creative ideas to overcome plot holes or other snags in the process.

Perhaps a looser group, such a "Write in" session at a local cafe or library might be all you need. Once again, NaNoWriMo has a forum to join or create such a group.


Find a mentor

Mentoring is like a more intimate teacher/student relationship, in which a less experienced person seeks the guidance of a more experience person. No matter where you are in the journey, you can benefit from this sort of relationship either as a mentor or a protege (this is the once widely-used term from someone who is mentored, before consultants invented the goofy word "mentee" that sounds like someone who belongs in an asylum).

A mentor might function more like an accountability partner with some wisdom for you, or more like a teacher/coach who doles out assignments, cheers you on, and gives you constructive feedback about what you're doing well and where you need to improve.

Professional associations like SCBWI for children's writers offer formal mentoring programs. Or you could seek out connections at places like Query Tracker forums, WANA Tribe (the acronym stands for "we are not alone"), Nathan Bransford's forums, or as I mentioned earlier, NaNoWriMo forums.

You might even have some potential mentor material in your own back yard. Connect with a local chapter of your genre's professional association, take a continuing education class, visit book signings. The perfect person to guide you might be closer than you realize.

Do you have accountability in your writing life? What avenues might you try to get it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Photo credit: infinitetrix from morguefile.com 
In a previous post, I shared some of my favorite resources for copy editing (line editing, sentence-level revision, call it what you will). Today I'd like to share two favorite resources for revision--the big-picture changes one makes once you have some material drafted.

Despite the order in which I'm talking about resources, revision should happen before copy editing, otherwise you'll waste a lot of effort on material you don't ultimately keep. Most of you are pretty savvy in these matters, but for any beginners, some clarity on that point seemed necessary.

Revision is what truly separates the amateurs from the pros. Even a middle schooler can do a quick edit and correct the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But it takes tremendous skill and indeed wisdom to evaluate what isn't working in a scene, chapter, section or character arc, then actually fix it. Here are two books that offer some great training.

Fiction First Aid


Raymond Obstfeld's gem Fiction First Aid is one I first discovered in my local library and quickly realized I needed to own. Using medical metaphors of  symptoms, ailments and treatments, he examines typical writing problems and their causes, then suggests a number of approaches to revise the problem away. Most sections have an application exercise he calls "physical therapy."

The first two chapters, on plot and characterization, take up nearly half the book. He covers everything from developing great plot structure and suspense to remedying predictable, cardboard, and unlikable characters. His examples are drawn from both books and film across many genres, which I found particularly helpful.

The middle chapters on setting and style can help you build a more compelling fictional world from the outside in. He helps you determine how much setting detail you need and how to better ground scenes without bogging down the story. The style section has great advice on finding a balance between bland or monotonous writing and overwritten purple prose.

I found  the theme chapter especially useful. Because so many English teachers theme us to death in high school, it can be tempting to tell yourself that theme is for dull classics of yesteryear. Obstfeld argues quite convincingly that ignoring theme can lead to pale, thin stories that don't stick with readers. To have a theme is to write a story that means something, that puts forward a sort of emotional and intellectual thesis, then proves it. His case study of the film Groundhog Day illustrates well what a theme is and how one operates in fiction.

Manuscript Makeover


Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover is a book I turn to again and again. Her approach is a rare mix of methodical and somewhat freewheeling creative. Every section ends with a checklist for revision that alone is totally worth the price of the book, it's so well organized and thorough.


Lyon opens with giant-picture items--the overall style and presentation of your story. How do feel when you read aloud? Is it captivating? Is it full of your deeper truth? She suggests a number of really helpful exercises to write more deeply in revision. Her concept of "riff writing" is revolutionary, because it challenges you to go broader and deeper, not simply cut, cut, cut when you revise.

Rather than simply clumping together disparate plot concerns, she divides plot issues over several chapters: whole-book structure (2 chapters), Movement and Suspense, and Time and Pace. Her concept of developing "mattering moments" is incredibly helpful for building well-paced plots.

Roughly a third of the book covers characterization concerns: Viewpoint, Character Dimension and Theme, Character-Driven Beginnings, Character-Driven Scenes and Suspense, and finally Character Personality and Voice. I found her information on voice--especially how to make characters sound unique from one another--quite revolutionary and paradigm-shifting.

The book wraps up with chapters on copy editing and querying manuscripts, with those fabulously helpful checklists I mentioned earlier.

Do you enjoy revision or dread it? Why?
Tuesday, October 21, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: infinitetrix from morguefile.com 
In a previous post, I shared some of my favorite resources for copy editing (line editing, sentence-level revision, call it what you will). Today I'd like to share two favorite resources for revision--the big-picture changes one makes once you have some material drafted.

Despite the order in which I'm talking about resources, revision should happen before copy editing, otherwise you'll waste a lot of effort on material you don't ultimately keep. Most of you are pretty savvy in these matters, but for any beginners, some clarity on that point seemed necessary.

Revision is what truly separates the amateurs from the pros. Even a middle schooler can do a quick edit and correct the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But it takes tremendous skill and indeed wisdom to evaluate what isn't working in a scene, chapter, section or character arc, then actually fix it. Here are two books that offer some great training.

Fiction First Aid


Raymond Obstfeld's gem Fiction First Aid is one I first discovered in my local library and quickly realized I needed to own. Using medical metaphors of  symptoms, ailments and treatments, he examines typical writing problems and their causes, then suggests a number of approaches to revise the problem away. Most sections have an application exercise he calls "physical therapy."

The first two chapters, on plot and characterization, take up nearly half the book. He covers everything from developing great plot structure and suspense to remedying predictable, cardboard, and unlikable characters. His examples are drawn from both books and film across many genres, which I found particularly helpful.

The middle chapters on setting and style can help you build a more compelling fictional world from the outside in. He helps you determine how much setting detail you need and how to better ground scenes without bogging down the story. The style section has great advice on finding a balance between bland or monotonous writing and overwritten purple prose.

I found  the theme chapter especially useful. Because so many English teachers theme us to death in high school, it can be tempting to tell yourself that theme is for dull classics of yesteryear. Obstfeld argues quite convincingly that ignoring theme can lead to pale, thin stories that don't stick with readers. To have a theme is to write a story that means something, that puts forward a sort of emotional and intellectual thesis, then proves it. His case study of the film Groundhog Day illustrates well what a theme is and how one operates in fiction.

Manuscript Makeover


Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover is a book I turn to again and again. Her approach is a rare mix of methodical and somewhat freewheeling creative. Every section ends with a checklist for revision that alone is totally worth the price of the book, it's so well organized and thorough.


Lyon opens with giant-picture items--the overall style and presentation of your story. How do feel when you read aloud? Is it captivating? Is it full of your deeper truth? She suggests a number of really helpful exercises to write more deeply in revision. Her concept of "riff writing" is revolutionary, because it challenges you to go broader and deeper, not simply cut, cut, cut when you revise.

Rather than simply clumping together disparate plot concerns, she divides plot issues over several chapters: whole-book structure (2 chapters), Movement and Suspense, and Time and Pace. Her concept of developing "mattering moments" is incredibly helpful for building well-paced plots.

Roughly a third of the book covers characterization concerns: Viewpoint, Character Dimension and Theme, Character-Driven Beginnings, Character-Driven Scenes and Suspense, and finally Character Personality and Voice. I found her information on voice--especially how to make characters sound unique from one another--quite revolutionary and paradigm-shifting.

The book wraps up with chapters on copy editing and querying manuscripts, with those fabulously helpful checklists I mentioned earlier.

Do you enjoy revision or dread it? Why?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I've read far more books and blog posts about how to be productive than I can accurately count. So much of the advice sounds exactly the same: have a routine, commit to it, don't stop until you meet your goal, treat it like a job. These little tidbits sound great for just about anything other than creative work. Some people can approach writing like it's laundry or at worst, doing your taxes. It might be a bit tough at times, but any momentary qualms can be powered through.

Well, that's not how I'm wired. I set aside time to write, commit to it and...freeze at the keyboard. Or think of twenty other things I'd rather be doing. Or simply beat myself up for not being Shakespeare yesterday. And trying to dedicate more time? Well, it often only makes me more anxious.

Steven Pressfield came along and gave my affliction a label. He called it "resistance," and made it seem pretty normal. Anything you care about, he argues, will bring with it a certain level of fear. His book The War of Art goes into great detail about what resistance feels like and what causes it. His solutions to it, however, haven't borne much fruit for me. Yes, routine can help; silly rituals can help; taking yourself seriously as an artist can help.

But none of these things remove the anxiety factor for me. So when I stumbled across Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, I had to take a look. The author Rosanne Bane goes into a lot of detail about the brain science behind how anxiety derails creative control. To summarize, what writers need most is to develop habits that create a state of mental relaxation so that the fight-or-flight instinct doesn't make you want to leave your desk before you even type one word. And because of neuroplasticity (the brain's inherent capacity for change), new habits can actually cause lasting brain changes.

Photo credit: Maena from morguefile.com
The most powerfully different habit she advocates to be a productive writer?

Play.

You're probably thinking, "Whoa, what? If I want to be more productive, I need to play more? What is this, Opposite Day?"

Bane says writers need to build in a habit of doing something fun and nonproductive 3-5 days a week for any period you can easily commit to. Ten, fifteen or twenty minutes is fine. The point of this play commitment (what she calls "process time") is to retrain your brain toward a relaxed state. The neural pathways you are building will become stronger than the ones that link creative work with fear.

Frankly, I'm tired enough of tangling with my inner resistance to give it a try. Bane recommended coming up with a list for yourself of things you find relaxing and writing down what you are committing to.

My brain balked at this at first. It was surprisingly hard to actually remember what activities I once did for fun, years ago before I started focusing on novel-length writing. Digging through some boxes in storage refreshed my memory about the many hobbies and enthusiasms I once regularly enjoyed.

Here's my list:
play with my cats
play tin whistle
improvise on the piano
sing
do calligraphy
sketch
bake
scrapbook
do scherenschnitte, quilling, and other paper crafts
garden
take photos
make collages
play with magnetic poetry
play Wii

I've committed to fifteen minutes three times a week. Today I unearthed my Irish tin whistle and played a handful of tunes by ear, then worked in the garden. I can attest that my mood improved.

As I think back to the days when I wrote most prolifically (middle and high school), I also made space in my life for hobbies. Maybe hobbies are what enabled me to be on honor roll, work part time and be in band, choir, art club, and school newspaper while writing lots.

It's a theory worth experimenting with. Hey, at least I'll be having fun regularly.

Do you include play in your routine? What favorite activities might you give 45 minutes a week?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014 Laurel Garver
I've read far more books and blog posts about how to be productive than I can accurately count. So much of the advice sounds exactly the same: have a routine, commit to it, don't stop until you meet your goal, treat it like a job. These little tidbits sound great for just about anything other than creative work. Some people can approach writing like it's laundry or at worst, doing your taxes. It might be a bit tough at times, but any momentary qualms can be powered through.

Well, that's not how I'm wired. I set aside time to write, commit to it and...freeze at the keyboard. Or think of twenty other things I'd rather be doing. Or simply beat myself up for not being Shakespeare yesterday. And trying to dedicate more time? Well, it often only makes me more anxious.

Steven Pressfield came along and gave my affliction a label. He called it "resistance," and made it seem pretty normal. Anything you care about, he argues, will bring with it a certain level of fear. His book The War of Art goes into great detail about what resistance feels like and what causes it. His solutions to it, however, haven't borne much fruit for me. Yes, routine can help; silly rituals can help; taking yourself seriously as an artist can help.

But none of these things remove the anxiety factor for me. So when I stumbled across Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, I had to take a look. The author Rosanne Bane goes into a lot of detail about the brain science behind how anxiety derails creative control. To summarize, what writers need most is to develop habits that create a state of mental relaxation so that the fight-or-flight instinct doesn't make you want to leave your desk before you even type one word. And because of neuroplasticity (the brain's inherent capacity for change), new habits can actually cause lasting brain changes.

Photo credit: Maena from morguefile.com
The most powerfully different habit she advocates to be a productive writer?

Play.

You're probably thinking, "Whoa, what? If I want to be more productive, I need to play more? What is this, Opposite Day?"

Bane says writers need to build in a habit of doing something fun and nonproductive 3-5 days a week for any period you can easily commit to. Ten, fifteen or twenty minutes is fine. The point of this play commitment (what she calls "process time") is to retrain your brain toward a relaxed state. The neural pathways you are building will become stronger than the ones that link creative work with fear.

Frankly, I'm tired enough of tangling with my inner resistance to give it a try. Bane recommended coming up with a list for yourself of things you find relaxing and writing down what you are committing to.

My brain balked at this at first. It was surprisingly hard to actually remember what activities I once did for fun, years ago before I started focusing on novel-length writing. Digging through some boxes in storage refreshed my memory about the many hobbies and enthusiasms I once regularly enjoyed.

Here's my list:
play with my cats
play tin whistle
improvise on the piano
sing
do calligraphy
sketch
bake
scrapbook
do scherenschnitte, quilling, and other paper crafts
garden
take photos
make collages
play with magnetic poetry
play Wii

I've committed to fifteen minutes three times a week. Today I unearthed my Irish tin whistle and played a handful of tunes by ear, then worked in the garden. I can attest that my mood improved.

As I think back to the days when I wrote most prolifically (middle and high school), I also made space in my life for hobbies. Maybe hobbies are what enabled me to be on honor roll, work part time and be in band, choir, art club, and school newspaper while writing lots.

It's a theory worth experimenting with. Hey, at least I'll be having fun regularly.

Do you include play in your routine? What favorite activities might you give 45 minutes a week?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Because I'm an editor who writes, people frequently ask whether I edit my own work and if so, how.

Like most of you, I believe every writer should do some self-editing to ensure a piece is the best you can make it before seeking feedback from others. (I also believe that other eyes are essential, and that self-editing alone will generally not result in a manuscript that it is the best it can be. But that's a topic for another post.)

And like most of you, I also lean on expertise when I'm unsure of a rule: "when in doubt, look it up" is a core motto for editors everywhere. Below are a few favorite resources that I regularly turn to for help with micro issues--sentence-level editing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers


I sometimes call this book by Renni Browne and Dave King "a portable MFA." It offers some of the best insights I've come across to make your work not simply clean, but also polished and sophisticated. In fact, one of the most helpful chapters is titled "Sophistication." In it, Browne and King identify a handful of small changes that can make passages sound far more professional: avoiding "as" and "-ing" constructions (which place action at a remove from your reader), ferreting out weak verbs, paring back exclamation points and italics for emphasis, placing literary devices appropriately, and removing unnecessary repetition.

Their insights on proportion--giving actions, characters, devices, scenes only as much page time as is justified--are extremely helpful, especially when you're approaching revision and not sure where to start. When it comes to honing your narrative voice, the authors not only show how to improve, but also explain why some techniques are so effective. If you've always wanted to do deeper point-of-view writing but aren't quite sure how to pull it off, Browne and King's chapters on "Point of View," "Interior Monologue," "See How It Sounds," and "Characterization and Exposition" will guide you expertly.

Browne and King also cover some core revision concerns including show/tell balance, consistent point of view, and well paced dialogue.


Woe Is I


Subtitled "A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English," Patricia O'Conner's guide to basic grammar rules is, well, a lot more fun than you ever dreamed grammar could be. Her pun-filled chapter titles, like "Plurals Before Swine" and "Comma Sutra," lead chapters of no-nonsense advice full of funny examples and witty word play. Her special section called "mixed doubles" on homophones and other commonly switched pairings inspired my "Phonics Friday" series on homophone helps (which I hope are even a fraction as funny as O'Conner's chapter).

The material is grouped topically, though there's an excellent index if you need to find guidance on a particular grammar bugaboo. In addition to covering all the basics, from pronoun use, plurals, and possessives to verb tenses, modifiers, and punctuation, the book has several helpful chapters on frequently misused words and outdated grammar rules that need to be buried with that persnickety snob John Dryden and his ilk. And she clearly knows the sources of every outdated rule and why it needs to die--evidence aplenty to silence your uptight uncle who refuses to watch Star Trek because each episode opens with  Capt. Kirk saying "to boldly go" rather than "boldly to go" (the bogus split infinitive rule).

If you are a grammarphobe, this is one grammar book that will leave you giggling, not whimpering.



What resources have you found helpful for sentence-level editing?
Tuesday, September 30, 2014 Laurel Garver
Because I'm an editor who writes, people frequently ask whether I edit my own work and if so, how.

Like most of you, I believe every writer should do some self-editing to ensure a piece is the best you can make it before seeking feedback from others. (I also believe that other eyes are essential, and that self-editing alone will generally not result in a manuscript that it is the best it can be. But that's a topic for another post.)

And like most of you, I also lean on expertise when I'm unsure of a rule: "when in doubt, look it up" is a core motto for editors everywhere. Below are a few favorite resources that I regularly turn to for help with micro issues--sentence-level editing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers


I sometimes call this book by Renni Browne and Dave King "a portable MFA." It offers some of the best insights I've come across to make your work not simply clean, but also polished and sophisticated. In fact, one of the most helpful chapters is titled "Sophistication." In it, Browne and King identify a handful of small changes that can make passages sound far more professional: avoiding "as" and "-ing" constructions (which place action at a remove from your reader), ferreting out weak verbs, paring back exclamation points and italics for emphasis, placing literary devices appropriately, and removing unnecessary repetition.

Their insights on proportion--giving actions, characters, devices, scenes only as much page time as is justified--are extremely helpful, especially when you're approaching revision and not sure where to start. When it comes to honing your narrative voice, the authors not only show how to improve, but also explain why some techniques are so effective. If you've always wanted to do deeper point-of-view writing but aren't quite sure how to pull it off, Browne and King's chapters on "Point of View," "Interior Monologue," "See How It Sounds," and "Characterization and Exposition" will guide you expertly.

Browne and King also cover some core revision concerns including show/tell balance, consistent point of view, and well paced dialogue.


Woe Is I


Subtitled "A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English," Patricia O'Conner's guide to basic grammar rules is, well, a lot more fun than you ever dreamed grammar could be. Her pun-filled chapter titles, like "Plurals Before Swine" and "Comma Sutra," lead chapters of no-nonsense advice full of funny examples and witty word play. Her special section called "mixed doubles" on homophones and other commonly switched pairings inspired my "Phonics Friday" series on homophone helps (which I hope are even a fraction as funny as O'Conner's chapter).

The material is grouped topically, though there's an excellent index if you need to find guidance on a particular grammar bugaboo. In addition to covering all the basics, from pronoun use, plurals, and possessives to verb tenses, modifiers, and punctuation, the book has several helpful chapters on frequently misused words and outdated grammar rules that need to be buried with that persnickety snob John Dryden and his ilk. And she clearly knows the sources of every outdated rule and why it needs to die--evidence aplenty to silence your uptight uncle who refuses to watch Star Trek because each episode opens with  Capt. Kirk saying "to boldly go" rather than "boldly to go" (the bogus split infinitive rule).

If you are a grammarphobe, this is one grammar book that will leave you giggling, not whimpering.



What resources have you found helpful for sentence-level editing?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Today I'm taking part in the week-long Follow Fest, hosted by Melissa Maygrove. It's not too late to join the fun! Swing on by Melissa's blog to sign up. Melissa gave us a handful of questions to help us get to know one another, so without further ado, here's all about me:

Name: Laurel Garver


Fiction or nonfiction? 

Mostly fiction, but I'm branching out into nonfiction (writing resources)


What genres do you write?

I write young adult (YA) literary fiction with Christian themes: stories about the places where life and beliefs collide. I also write poetry and, as I already mentioned, writing resources.

Are you published?

Yes: Never Gone, a novel, and Muddy-Fingered Midnights, a poetry collection. Descriptions and links are  HERE. I also have a free, romantic flash-fiction story on Wattpad, "Sketchbook Rapunzel," a prequel to Never Gone.

Do you do anything in addition to writing?

I'm a professional editor with 20+ years experience, and I'm taking new clients. My specialty is line editing: ensuring everything is correct at the sentence level, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and idiomatic usage. I also can help non-US writers who write American characters to Americanize not only spelling and punctuation but also vocabulary and usage.

Contact me at laurels (dot) leaves (at) gmail (dot) com to discuss your project.

Tell us a little about yourself

This is how I look on Twitter. 

I grew up rural, but have lived my whole adult life in a city and love it. I’ve had a weird love affair with magazines since I was quite young and pursed magazine editing as a career. I currently work on a scholarly journal--a magazine for academics with literary criticism of modernist era literature by Beckett, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, and Woolf (and lots of others you might not have read unless you were an English major). 

I met my husband, a philosophy professor, through a book club at our church, so I have C.S. Lewis to thank for meeting the love of my life. We’ve raised our twelve-year-old daughter in our geeky image of loving Dr. Who, Middle Earth, and Hogwarts. 

Last summer we spent 16 days in the UK, 11 of them in a cottage on a sheep farm in Gloucestershire, taking day trips to castles, museums, ancient barrows and stone circles, Roman ruins, and a coal mine. Our favorite sites were Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, The Dr. Who Experience in Cardiff and the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. This summer we stayed closer to home, traveling to the Hudson Valley and Catskills, in part for my daughter to compete in an Irish dance feis. 


What are you reading right now?

As part of my 2014 "read outside my genre" challenge, I recently picked up a short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. It's literary fiction that explores the Dominican immigrant experience. 

Which authors influenced you the most?

Madeleine L'Engle's books most made me want to write, and I fell hard for funny narrators from Paula Danzinger's early works for teens like The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? But my biggest influence is Susan Howatch, especially her Starbridge series. She writes deeply psychological, edgy stories with spiritual themes that feature complex, flawed characters. She does redemptive fiction better than anyone I know—fast paced, intriguing, never predictable or cloying. Her stories don’t shy away from the darker aspects of life, and because of that, the faith expressed is more profound because of its willingness to get dirty. I emulate Howatch most, though with a heart for the teen experience with touches of humor.

Where can people connect with you?

Blog
Twitter
Facebook
Google+
LinkedIn

Author pages:
Goodreads
Amazon
BN.com
Smashwords

Do you have a newsletter? 

Not currently. Social media keeps me busy enough

Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

I welcome guest posts here, especially those on writing / publishing tips (tie-ins with new releases are fine). I'll happily host giveaways for contemporary fiction (MG through adult) that would earn a film rating of PG-13 or below (moderately edgy and emotionally hard-hitting is okay).

Welcome, new friends! Tell me a little about yourself...
Tuesday, September 23, 2014 Laurel Garver
Today I'm taking part in the week-long Follow Fest, hosted by Melissa Maygrove. It's not too late to join the fun! Swing on by Melissa's blog to sign up. Melissa gave us a handful of questions to help us get to know one another, so without further ado, here's all about me:

Name: Laurel Garver


Fiction or nonfiction? 

Mostly fiction, but I'm branching out into nonfiction (writing resources)


What genres do you write?

I write young adult (YA) literary fiction with Christian themes: stories about the places where life and beliefs collide. I also write poetry and, as I already mentioned, writing resources.

Are you published?

Yes: Never Gone, a novel, and Muddy-Fingered Midnights, a poetry collection. Descriptions and links are  HERE. I also have a free, romantic flash-fiction story on Wattpad, "Sketchbook Rapunzel," a prequel to Never Gone.

Do you do anything in addition to writing?

I'm a professional editor with 20+ years experience, and I'm taking new clients. My specialty is line editing: ensuring everything is correct at the sentence level, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, and idiomatic usage. I also can help non-US writers who write American characters to Americanize not only spelling and punctuation but also vocabulary and usage.

Contact me at laurels (dot) leaves (at) gmail (dot) com to discuss your project.

Tell us a little about yourself

This is how I look on Twitter. 

I grew up rural, but have lived my whole adult life in a city and love it. I’ve had a weird love affair with magazines since I was quite young and pursed magazine editing as a career. I currently work on a scholarly journal--a magazine for academics with literary criticism of modernist era literature by Beckett, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Pound, and Woolf (and lots of others you might not have read unless you were an English major). 

I met my husband, a philosophy professor, through a book club at our church, so I have C.S. Lewis to thank for meeting the love of my life. We’ve raised our twelve-year-old daughter in our geeky image of loving Dr. Who, Middle Earth, and Hogwarts. 

Last summer we spent 16 days in the UK, 11 of them in a cottage on a sheep farm in Gloucestershire, taking day trips to castles, museums, ancient barrows and stone circles, Roman ruins, and a coal mine. Our favorite sites were Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean, The Dr. Who Experience in Cardiff and the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. This summer we stayed closer to home, traveling to the Hudson Valley and Catskills, in part for my daughter to compete in an Irish dance feis. 


What are you reading right now?

As part of my 2014 "read outside my genre" challenge, I recently picked up a short story collection, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. It's literary fiction that explores the Dominican immigrant experience. 

Which authors influenced you the most?

Madeleine L'Engle's books most made me want to write, and I fell hard for funny narrators from Paula Danzinger's early works for teens like The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? But my biggest influence is Susan Howatch, especially her Starbridge series. She writes deeply psychological, edgy stories with spiritual themes that feature complex, flawed characters. She does redemptive fiction better than anyone I know—fast paced, intriguing, never predictable or cloying. Her stories don’t shy away from the darker aspects of life, and because of that, the faith expressed is more profound because of its willingness to get dirty. I emulate Howatch most, though with a heart for the teen experience with touches of humor.

Where can people connect with you?

Blog
Twitter
Facebook
Google+
LinkedIn

Author pages:
Goodreads
Amazon
BN.com
Smashwords

Do you have a newsletter? 

Not currently. Social media keeps me busy enough

Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

I welcome guest posts here, especially those on writing / publishing tips (tie-ins with new releases are fine). I'll happily host giveaways for contemporary fiction (MG through adult) that would earn a film rating of PG-13 or below (moderately edgy and emotionally hard-hitting is okay).

Welcome, new friends! Tell me a little about yourself...

Monday, September 22, 2014

Thanks to our host Alex Cavanaugh for coming up with this fun fest theme, "Underrated Treasure," in which we share a favorite movie, band/artist, TV show, or book (any or all categories). As my bio blurb over to the right says, I'm an indie film enthusiast, so I thought I'd talk about my very favorite indie film that I suspect many of you haven't heard of.

Film - Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Available for streaming or on DVD

A young man purchases a life-sized, anatomically-correct doll off the Internet and is convinced she is real.

Sounds like a set up for a hilarious romp involving sexual deviancy, right? Prepare to be surprised, because from this bizarre premise comes one of the most touching, insightful, profound films about love and community I've ever seen. More accurately, I'd blurb it as "A small-town community rallies to help a man suffering from a delusion." But I guess that's not as sexy.

What I love most about this film is the psychological puzzle at its core. WHY does Lars suddenly develop a delusion? How have his past and present circumstances conspired to make him need this kind of extreme coping mechanism? Little by little we're given clues, beginning from the very first scene when Lars's pregnant sister-in-law invites him to breakfast, and he answers the door wearing a baby blanket like a scarf. The visual motif of the color pink is tied to the psychological puzzle. In true indie film fashion, we get all the information we need, bit by bit, until the cause of Lars's psychological issues becomes abundantly clear without the screenwriter ever resorting to a Hollywood-style bash-you-over-the-head pronouncement.

I also love what this film teaches about how communities could (and should) act when someone is hurting--by taking the humble path of getting down into the ditch with that hurting person. The local Lutheran church, full of very ordinary, no-frills Midwestern folk are at the center, asking, "how can we help?" and, with absolutely no irony, "what would Jesus do?"

Here's the trailer:




Have you seen this underrated treasure? Have I convinced you to give it a try?
Monday, September 22, 2014 Laurel Garver
Thanks to our host Alex Cavanaugh for coming up with this fun fest theme, "Underrated Treasure," in which we share a favorite movie, band/artist, TV show, or book (any or all categories). As my bio blurb over to the right says, I'm an indie film enthusiast, so I thought I'd talk about my very favorite indie film that I suspect many of you haven't heard of.

Film - Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Available for streaming or on DVD

A young man purchases a life-sized, anatomically-correct doll off the Internet and is convinced she is real.

Sounds like a set up for a hilarious romp involving sexual deviancy, right? Prepare to be surprised, because from this bizarre premise comes one of the most touching, insightful, profound films about love and community I've ever seen. More accurately, I'd blurb it as "A small-town community rallies to help a man suffering from a delusion." But I guess that's not as sexy.

What I love most about this film is the psychological puzzle at its core. WHY does Lars suddenly develop a delusion? How have his past and present circumstances conspired to make him need this kind of extreme coping mechanism? Little by little we're given clues, beginning from the very first scene when Lars's pregnant sister-in-law invites him to breakfast, and he answers the door wearing a baby blanket like a scarf. The visual motif of the color pink is tied to the psychological puzzle. In true indie film fashion, we get all the information we need, bit by bit, until the cause of Lars's psychological issues becomes abundantly clear without the screenwriter ever resorting to a Hollywood-style bash-you-over-the-head pronouncement.

I also love what this film teaches about how communities could (and should) act when someone is hurting--by taking the humble path of getting down into the ditch with that hurting person. The local Lutheran church, full of very ordinary, no-frills Midwestern folk are at the center, asking, "how can we help?" and, with absolutely no irony, "what would Jesus do?"

Here's the trailer:




Have you seen this underrated treasure? Have I convinced you to give it a try?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a snippet from my work in progress. It's a YA contemporary that picks up roughly 18 months after my debut, Never Gone.

My protagonist, Danielle, is a lifetime New Yorker who is spending a few weeks in central Pennsylvania (or so she hopes) when her grandfather is hospitalized after a bad fall.

Photo credit: arien from morguefile.com 
===

EXCERPT REMOVED

Today's rough and tumble independent publishing world made it necessary to remove all snippets and previous versions of my work from the blog. The existence of such a "publishing trail" can be used to file false DMCA notices about my novels.

===

What are you working on these days?
Tuesday, September 16, 2014 Laurel Garver
For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a snippet from my work in progress. It's a YA contemporary that picks up roughly 18 months after my debut, Never Gone.

My protagonist, Danielle, is a lifetime New Yorker who is spending a few weeks in central Pennsylvania (or so she hopes) when her grandfather is hospitalized after a bad fall.

Photo credit: arien from morguefile.com 
===

EXCERPT REMOVED

Today's rough and tumble independent publishing world made it necessary to remove all snippets and previous versions of my work from the blog. The existence of such a "publishing trail" can be used to file false DMCA notices about my novels.

===

What are you working on these days?

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey says many plots lack integrity because the author doesn't have her characters acting at their maximum capacity.

Photo credit: ManicMorFF from morguefile.com 
What does he mean exactly? When a character hits a problem, some roadblock keeping him from his goal, he should do everything in his power to reach the goal. Characters who become easily stymied by their problems lose readers' sympathies and their desires and drives won't seem particularly compelling.

The Harvard-educated investigator, for example, won't just sit around wringing her hands when she doesn't immediately understand something--she'll make use of all the intellectual tools at her disposal to research and probe. Likewise, even the "cannon fodder" expendable characters should go to a lot of trouble to avoid dying, unless the author has characterized them as suicidal or deeply stupid or proven some motivation for a death wish. "Maximum capacity" will, of course, vary from character to character. A ten-year-old protagonist in a middle grade adventure will have fewer resources than the Navy SEAL/brain surgeon in a techno-thriller. The trick is to know one's characters thoroughly.

In every scene, Frey says your character's actions and reactions have to pass the "would s/he really ____ ?" test. Does the action/reaction fit her personality? Is he making full use of his personal resources, know-how, experiences? These lines of questioning can open up plot to intriguing new possibilities.

How might "maximum capacity" make your plots more compelling? In what circumstances do you think Frey's "rule" might not be the best way to go?
Tuesday, September 09, 2014 Laurel Garver
In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey says many plots lack integrity because the author doesn't have her characters acting at their maximum capacity.

Photo credit: ManicMorFF from morguefile.com 
What does he mean exactly? When a character hits a problem, some roadblock keeping him from his goal, he should do everything in his power to reach the goal. Characters who become easily stymied by their problems lose readers' sympathies and their desires and drives won't seem particularly compelling.

The Harvard-educated investigator, for example, won't just sit around wringing her hands when she doesn't immediately understand something--she'll make use of all the intellectual tools at her disposal to research and probe. Likewise, even the "cannon fodder" expendable characters should go to a lot of trouble to avoid dying, unless the author has characterized them as suicidal or deeply stupid or proven some motivation for a death wish. "Maximum capacity" will, of course, vary from character to character. A ten-year-old protagonist in a middle grade adventure will have fewer resources than the Navy SEAL/brain surgeon in a techno-thriller. The trick is to know one's characters thoroughly.

In every scene, Frey says your character's actions and reactions have to pass the "would s/he really ____ ?" test. Does the action/reaction fit her personality? Is he making full use of his personal resources, know-how, experiences? These lines of questioning can open up plot to intriguing new possibilities.

How might "maximum capacity" make your plots more compelling? In what circumstances do you think Frey's "rule" might not be the best way to go?

Friday, September 05, 2014

In the lead up to a new school year beginning, I've gotten out of the blogging habit, sadly. Today I thought I'd "get back in the saddle" so to speak with a quick review of a book everyone's been talking about this summer.

Fan art from Tumblr
What surprised me most about John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is the light touch gallows humor and wry narrative voice. This book had me laughing far more often than I'd expected for an ostensibly weepy kind of story. That was a big plus.

I also loved that Green shows how living with a life threatening illness influences personality in a way that struck me as wise and insightful: the ever-present threat of death would quite reasonably make a kid into an "old soul" who tries to think big thoughts and be someone special in a very condensed lifetime. He even does a good job of showing the tremendous tedium of watching someone die.

Where I wasn't as deeply gripped was the romance part of the story. There's an extent to which Hazel is trying to protect her own heart and Gus's. But when she does decide to love, I didn't quite feel the shift as much as I'd hoped. It remained still a very intellectual kind of love.

The story's most fascinating character was, to my mind, the antagonist Peter Van Houten, a misanthropic alcoholic author whose first novel is a favorite of the teen characters. This once eloquent, wise soul has become wonderfully horrid in a way only truly broken people can be. His response to personal loss is what Hazel most fears her illness will incite in others (she once refers to herself as a grenade that will explode, leaving casualties).  Van Houten's bad behavior has surprising consequences; it incites Hazel to at last show she has developed a backbone and a strong voice in the midst of loss.

Whether Van Houten ultimately leaves behind his wallowing and changes for the better remains an open question, like the unwritten sequel to An Imperial Affliction. Van Houten either is or isn't redeemable. Hazel and Gus ignite change in him or don't. It's the kind of ending that, like suffering, exposes rather than changes one's views of human brokenness.

As a window into a very, very underrepresented minority in literature--disability and illness are pushed to the margins even more than race or poverty--I'd recommend this book. I finished with a tremendous appreciation for my health and a renewed sense that we need to do more as a culture to love those with physical differences, whether chronic or acute.

What are your thoughts about this best-seller? If you haven't picked it up, would you? What have you been reading lately?
Friday, September 05, 2014 Laurel Garver
In the lead up to a new school year beginning, I've gotten out of the blogging habit, sadly. Today I thought I'd "get back in the saddle" so to speak with a quick review of a book everyone's been talking about this summer.

Fan art from Tumblr
What surprised me most about John Green's The Fault in Our Stars is the light touch gallows humor and wry narrative voice. This book had me laughing far more often than I'd expected for an ostensibly weepy kind of story. That was a big plus.

I also loved that Green shows how living with a life threatening illness influences personality in a way that struck me as wise and insightful: the ever-present threat of death would quite reasonably make a kid into an "old soul" who tries to think big thoughts and be someone special in a very condensed lifetime. He even does a good job of showing the tremendous tedium of watching someone die.

Where I wasn't as deeply gripped was the romance part of the story. There's an extent to which Hazel is trying to protect her own heart and Gus's. But when she does decide to love, I didn't quite feel the shift as much as I'd hoped. It remained still a very intellectual kind of love.

The story's most fascinating character was, to my mind, the antagonist Peter Van Houten, a misanthropic alcoholic author whose first novel is a favorite of the teen characters. This once eloquent, wise soul has become wonderfully horrid in a way only truly broken people can be. His response to personal loss is what Hazel most fears her illness will incite in others (she once refers to herself as a grenade that will explode, leaving casualties).  Van Houten's bad behavior has surprising consequences; it incites Hazel to at last show she has developed a backbone and a strong voice in the midst of loss.

Whether Van Houten ultimately leaves behind his wallowing and changes for the better remains an open question, like the unwritten sequel to An Imperial Affliction. Van Houten either is or isn't redeemable. Hazel and Gus ignite change in him or don't. It's the kind of ending that, like suffering, exposes rather than changes one's views of human brokenness.

As a window into a very, very underrepresented minority in literature--disability and illness are pushed to the margins even more than race or poverty--I'd recommend this book. I finished with a tremendous appreciation for my health and a renewed sense that we need to do more as a culture to love those with physical differences, whether chronic or acute.

What are your thoughts about this best-seller? If you haven't picked it up, would you? What have you been reading lately?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Photo credit: RoganJosh from morguefile.com 
How often are you going happily along in your routines when—BAM!—some misfortune or difficulty derails you? One's natural instinct is to get through, get out, get away from the hardship as soon as possible, looking neither to the left or the right.

But there’s another way to think about life’s rough patches—as opportunity.  This perspective is something I’ve been raised with, but didn’t always appreciate. A mishap with the plumbing in our hundred-year-old urban rowhouse was a poignant refresher course.

In early August 2009, I had a harrowing night when our third floor toilet’s water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor through a light fixture and continued downward into the first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. The next morning, as I stumbled around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I couldn’t help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: “it will make a good story later.”

If my life is a story, then it’s the messes, mishaps, and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. “It will make a good story later” makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband’s shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I’ve also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry—a valuable skill in any writer’s toolbox.

As you come to grips with the possibilities of  “it will make a good story later,” you can begin to develop both a habit of attentiveness and a new perspective on what makes you truly the writer you are, with stories only you can tell.

Life’s interruptions to routine can be a creative gift to you. They put you in new places with access to new relationships and experiences. They force you to understand suffering, fear, frustration, anger, sorrow, and all other shades of negative emotion necessary to create deeply real characters that readers connect with.

Don’t panic when life interrupts your writing routine. Pay attention. It will make a good story later.

What hardships have made you the writer you are? What storytelling mentor has shaped your approach and how?
Tuesday, August 19, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: RoganJosh from morguefile.com 
How often are you going happily along in your routines when—BAM!—some misfortune or difficulty derails you? One's natural instinct is to get through, get out, get away from the hardship as soon as possible, looking neither to the left or the right.

But there’s another way to think about life’s rough patches—as opportunity.  This perspective is something I’ve been raised with, but didn’t always appreciate. A mishap with the plumbing in our hundred-year-old urban rowhouse was a poignant refresher course.

In early August 2009, I had a harrowing night when our third floor toilet’s water line broke. The problem went unnoticed for about 20 minutes, until the water started raining into the second floor through a light fixture and continued downward into the first floor and basement. The next few hours were eaten up with bailing, mopping, tamping down towels, laundering towels, running fans. The next morning, as I stumbled around, fatigued and worried a ceiling might still collapse, I couldn’t help but remember what my mother always says about these sorts of disasters: “it will make a good story later.”

If my life is a story, then it’s the messes, mishaps, and failures that actually make it interesting. Not that I seek these things out, but when disaster does occur, it carries with it the promise of bringing something ultimately transformative, maybe even redemptive. “It will make a good story later” makes me notice things I otherwise wouldn’t, from the shape of stains on the ceiling to the way my husband’s shoulders slump as he contemplates them.

Watching Mom over the years ferret away details in the midst of turmoil then transform them into captivating comic stories has been quite an education. Not only have I learned to see the humor potential in all things (and to never take myself too seriously), I’ve also gained a habit of attentiveness when life goes awry—a valuable skill in any writer’s toolbox.

As you come to grips with the possibilities of  “it will make a good story later,” you can begin to develop both a habit of attentiveness and a new perspective on what makes you truly the writer you are, with stories only you can tell.

Life’s interruptions to routine can be a creative gift to you. They put you in new places with access to new relationships and experiences. They force you to understand suffering, fear, frustration, anger, sorrow, and all other shades of negative emotion necessary to create deeply real characters that readers connect with.

Don’t panic when life interrupts your writing routine. Pay attention. It will make a good story later.

What hardships have made you the writer you are? What storytelling mentor has shaped your approach and how?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I don't know about the rest of you, but August can be a very chaotic month for me, with vacations and back-to-school preparations and a total lack of routine in far too many areas. My daughter's dance lessons are "drop ins" and her guitar teacher shifts days around, some church activities don't meet, while others are more frequent.

But even when I feel this scattered, I have a couple of routines that help me not lose all track of my writing.

Walk

Image by jorgeyu, morguefile.com
A fifteen to thirty minute walk first thing in the morning makes me more alert and helps me gather my thoughts. I bring no gadgets, no music, no companions. This is distraction-free time when I can just think.

An April 2014 study from Stanford University found "Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter." They also noted "Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting."

The good news? It's the act of walking and not the environment that matters. So when the weather's horrid, stepping onto a treadmill can give you similar benefits.

Of course, there are also health benefits to a daily walk, including reduced cancer, diabetes and heart disease risk. And if you're struggling with low energy, short walks are the ticket to breaking the vicious cycle of lethargy (lethargy tends to breed more lethargy). A bit of sun exposure during an outdoor walk will increase your levels of vitamin D, an important nutrient that improves not only bone health but also mood (why that is hasn't yet been studied in depth, but depression can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency).

A walk can also be a great afternoon pick-me-up, especially when you've hit a crossroads in a story and can't decide how to proceed. Let your mind roam as your feet do, and your creative mind will offer ideas and solutions.

Write longhand

While I have no desire to return to the days of all longhand composition, I do find it extremely helpful to do some longhand writing every day, whether note jotting, brainstorming, or free-writing. I've tried all kinds of warm ups over the years and longhand is the one that never fails to "prime the pump" for me.

Apparently educators and cognitive scientists have been looking into why longhand writing is so beneficial to our brains. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, used brain scans in her research on the benefits of longhand. She found that "as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and 'working memory' regions than typing." Keyword there? The language portion of the brain is more actively engaged.

Another study of elementary aged children found "writing by hand improves students’ creative writing skills, and elementary students actually write more quickly by hand than when typing. Compositions are also longer when written by hand...."  My experience bears that out--when writing longhand I'm more apt to write more ideas and edit less. There's something about the flow of the physical act of moving a pen across paper that keeps ideas flowing. (For more on this line of research, see "How Handwriting Trains the Brain.")

If you want to get out of the vicious cycle of having nothing to say, try journaling about it with a pen and paper. Chances are pretty good that you'll have more to say about having nothing to say than you might believe. Then voila, you've taken the first baby steps away from wordlessness and toward expression.

What routines do you try to maintain in chaotic times? What benefits have you found from walking and/or writing longhand?
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 Laurel Garver
I don't know about the rest of you, but August can be a very chaotic month for me, with vacations and back-to-school preparations and a total lack of routine in far too many areas. My daughter's dance lessons are "drop ins" and her guitar teacher shifts days around, some church activities don't meet, while others are more frequent.

But even when I feel this scattered, I have a couple of routines that help me not lose all track of my writing.

Walk

Image by jorgeyu, morguefile.com
A fifteen to thirty minute walk first thing in the morning makes me more alert and helps me gather my thoughts. I bring no gadgets, no music, no companions. This is distraction-free time when I can just think.

An April 2014 study from Stanford University found "Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter." They also noted "Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting."

The good news? It's the act of walking and not the environment that matters. So when the weather's horrid, stepping onto a treadmill can give you similar benefits.

Of course, there are also health benefits to a daily walk, including reduced cancer, diabetes and heart disease risk. And if you're struggling with low energy, short walks are the ticket to breaking the vicious cycle of lethargy (lethargy tends to breed more lethargy). A bit of sun exposure during an outdoor walk will increase your levels of vitamin D, an important nutrient that improves not only bone health but also mood (why that is hasn't yet been studied in depth, but depression can be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency).

A walk can also be a great afternoon pick-me-up, especially when you've hit a crossroads in a story and can't decide how to proceed. Let your mind roam as your feet do, and your creative mind will offer ideas and solutions.

Write longhand

While I have no desire to return to the days of all longhand composition, I do find it extremely helpful to do some longhand writing every day, whether note jotting, brainstorming, or free-writing. I've tried all kinds of warm ups over the years and longhand is the one that never fails to "prime the pump" for me.

Apparently educators and cognitive scientists have been looking into why longhand writing is so beneficial to our brains. Virginia Berninger, professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, used brain scans in her research on the benefits of longhand. She found that "as your hand executes each stroke of each letter, it activates a much larger portion of the brain’s thinking, language, and 'working memory' regions than typing." Keyword there? The language portion of the brain is more actively engaged.

Another study of elementary aged children found "writing by hand improves students’ creative writing skills, and elementary students actually write more quickly by hand than when typing. Compositions are also longer when written by hand...."  My experience bears that out--when writing longhand I'm more apt to write more ideas and edit less. There's something about the flow of the physical act of moving a pen across paper that keeps ideas flowing. (For more on this line of research, see "How Handwriting Trains the Brain.")

If you want to get out of the vicious cycle of having nothing to say, try journaling about it with a pen and paper. Chances are pretty good that you'll have more to say about having nothing to say than you might believe. Then voila, you've taken the first baby steps away from wordlessness and toward expression.

What routines do you try to maintain in chaotic times? What benefits have you found from walking and/or writing longhand?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Photo credit: xololounge from morguefile.com 

Instead of dispensing advice this week, I'm seeking feedback from you, dear readers. This will be short but sweet because I'm heading to the Catskills with the family later this week, in part for my daughter to compete in an Irish Dance Feis. We figured we'd make a mini-getaway out of it.

I've been busily working on a productivity writing resource I hope to wrap up in the coming months. Among other topics covered will be brainstorming techniques. One that I haven't used much myself is listmaking, so I thought I'd ask you to share your experiences.

Answer any or all of these in the comments:

Do you use listmaking as a brainstorming tool when working on a new story? 

At what phase(s) of writing do you make lists? 

What kinds of lists do you make?

All thoughts/feedback helpful! Thanks!
Tuesday, July 29, 2014 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: xololounge from morguefile.com 

Instead of dispensing advice this week, I'm seeking feedback from you, dear readers. This will be short but sweet because I'm heading to the Catskills with the family later this week, in part for my daughter to compete in an Irish Dance Feis. We figured we'd make a mini-getaway out of it.

I've been busily working on a productivity writing resource I hope to wrap up in the coming months. Among other topics covered will be brainstorming techniques. One that I haven't used much myself is listmaking, so I thought I'd ask you to share your experiences.

Answer any or all of these in the comments:

Do you use listmaking as a brainstorming tool when working on a new story? 

At what phase(s) of writing do you make lists? 

What kinds of lists do you make?

All thoughts/feedback helpful! Thanks!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

“Epistle” is a fancy word for letter or correspondence; coming from the Greek, it means “send news.”

Epistle brainstorming is a method in which you write imagined correspondence by a character or even between characters. Since it’s imagined, you can conceive of exchanges happening slowly, as with postal-service mail or rapid-fire, as with texting or instant messaging.

Photo: SRCHEN from morguefile.com
The goal is to get characters speaking in their own voices. It’s a great warm up for dialogue. It can also help you figure out how your protagonist would think through and interpret an event so you can narrate it in your protagonist’s voice.

Epistolary exercises might also help you brainstorm back stories. Sometimes the act of telling a story to someone else can help clarify which details are most important.

You can also use epistolary brainstorming to interact directly with your characters to develop plots that feel organic and emerge from who the characters are. Imagine you, the author, are instant messaging with your character in order to ask deeper questions.


Epistolary exercises

  • Write a letter describing a pivotal experience that changed a character’s life.
  • Write a text exchange between the protagonist and best friend explaining a major plot turn.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to pump information from another.
  • Write a love letter that lists the beloved’s most loved characteristics and describes the time s/he knew that affection and admiration had become something more.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to hide information.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes his/her entire childhood.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes the events that led him/her to make an important decision or life change.
  • Write a letter in which a character describes his/her family to another character who has never met them.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask your character his/her reasons for taking a particular action or his/her feelings about events or other characters.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask the protagonist what s/he thinks should happen in the story—how s/he would prefer to tackle the story problem.
  • Write a text exchange in which you discuss your revision ideas with the protagonist.
How might you use epistles to explore your characters and their opinions, attitudes, beliefs and voices?
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 Laurel Garver
“Epistle” is a fancy word for letter or correspondence; coming from the Greek, it means “send news.”

Epistle brainstorming is a method in which you write imagined correspondence by a character or even between characters. Since it’s imagined, you can conceive of exchanges happening slowly, as with postal-service mail or rapid-fire, as with texting or instant messaging.

Photo: SRCHEN from morguefile.com
The goal is to get characters speaking in their own voices. It’s a great warm up for dialogue. It can also help you figure out how your protagonist would think through and interpret an event so you can narrate it in your protagonist’s voice.

Epistolary exercises might also help you brainstorm back stories. Sometimes the act of telling a story to someone else can help clarify which details are most important.

You can also use epistolary brainstorming to interact directly with your characters to develop plots that feel organic and emerge from who the characters are. Imagine you, the author, are instant messaging with your character in order to ask deeper questions.


Epistolary exercises

  • Write a letter describing a pivotal experience that changed a character’s life.
  • Write a text exchange between the protagonist and best friend explaining a major plot turn.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to pump information from another.
  • Write a love letter that lists the beloved’s most loved characteristics and describes the time s/he knew that affection and admiration had become something more.
  • Write a text exchange in which one character tries to hide information.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes his/her entire childhood.
  • Write a letter in which a character summarizes the events that led him/her to make an important decision or life change.
  • Write a letter in which a character describes his/her family to another character who has never met them.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask your character his/her reasons for taking a particular action or his/her feelings about events or other characters.
  • Write a text exchange in which you ask the protagonist what s/he thinks should happen in the story—how s/he would prefer to tackle the story problem.
  • Write a text exchange in which you discuss your revision ideas with the protagonist.
How might you use epistles to explore your characters and their opinions, attitudes, beliefs and voices?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book and Internet research can provide you will all kinds of wonderful facts and details, as well as stimulate your thinking about possible story events, locations, and people to inhabit your fictional world.

But this sort of research isn’t interactive. It also typically isn’t customized to your specific needs. Thus, you can spend a great deal of time wading through reams of information to get to the facts and details you truly need.

Many times you’ll get the very best information most quickly by speaking with an expert. A ten minute phone conversation might just save you from hours of trawling through page after page of useless information. And more often than not, an actual human being will have insider knowledge that will keep you from making embarrassing mistakes.

For example, a medical book might give you the correct terminology for a hospital procedure, for example, but that term is likely not the one bandied about among the hospital staff. Using the more formal term will make your information seem stilted and naive and could cause readers to lose confidence in your authority over your story world.

Finding experts

You need the right kind of expert who can speak to your story’s particular situation. Your family doctor might know the standard procedure for treating a broken leg, but his knowledge is likely limited to treatment best practices under ideal conditions. You know, in a clean, shiny hospital. But what about injuries in non-ideal conditions, when X-rays and surgery are not readily available? Your family doctor isn’t going to be much help—partly because he will fear opening himself to legal liability by dispensing advice that isn’t clinically defensible. Your better bet would be to find a military field medic, or a mountain climber trained in first aid—someone who has experience with non-ideal conditions.

A golden truth I learned in journalism school is that people love to be considered experts (well, eight out of ten; take into account a certain percentage of natural jerkiness in the general population). Start by approaching people you already know, and be as specific as possible with the kind of information you’re seeking.

Look! A plethora of experts! (Photo DMedina from morguefile.com)
Your friends and family just might surprise you in having a hidden expertise or life experience that would make them excellent resources to provide you authentic details. Staying curious when in social situations can yield amazing opportunities. The cousin seated beside you at your nephew’s wedding reception just might be a law enforcement officer, a Civil War re-enacter, a cancer survivor or oenophile. Even the charming flower girl might help you write a child character by getting you up to speed on youth culture today.

When you meet people, keep your radar attuned to where their interests, experiences, and training intersects with your story world and bravely ask questions. A simple request like “tell me about yourself” can turn a dull party into a research extravaganza.

I once got some amazing research done while at a church luncheon. I was seated by a friend who is a speech-language pathologist, and realized she might know something about speech problems in stroke patients, an element in my story. So I said, “I’m working on a story in which a grandparent has a stroke. What kind of speech problems might he possibly have?” That short chat was more focused and helpful than hours of reading. She knew in practice, not just theory, how patients behave and what the stages of recovery look like. That kind of information is pure gold.

This technique is great for those socially-demanding seasons when you shuttle from wedding to graduation to baby shower. Think about how your story might connect to every person you meet. Tap their knowledge and expertise as a professional, volunteer, hobbyist, or representative of an age group, family role, ethnicity or religion. And if the setting isn’t appropriate or convenient to have a useful chat, arrange for another time to interview them.

Your personal contacts might also lead you to other experts in their extended networks. The idea that every person on earth is “six degrees of separation” from any other person is actually pretty amazing when you think about it. Anyone you regularly cross paths with, from your mother to your plumber, likely knows someone who knows someone.

But don’t be afraid to take a leap and call or e-mail a stranger whose name you uncover while researching. The worst they can do is ignore you or say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”

What kind of expertise would help you write your story?
Tuesday, July 15, 2014 Laurel Garver
Book and Internet research can provide you will all kinds of wonderful facts and details, as well as stimulate your thinking about possible story events, locations, and people to inhabit your fictional world.

But this sort of research isn’t interactive. It also typically isn’t customized to your specific needs. Thus, you can spend a great deal of time wading through reams of information to get to the facts and details you truly need.

Many times you’ll get the very best information most quickly by speaking with an expert. A ten minute phone conversation might just save you from hours of trawling through page after page of useless information. And more often than not, an actual human being will have insider knowledge that will keep you from making embarrassing mistakes.

For example, a medical book might give you the correct terminology for a hospital procedure, for example, but that term is likely not the one bandied about among the hospital staff. Using the more formal term will make your information seem stilted and naive and could cause readers to lose confidence in your authority over your story world.

Finding experts

You need the right kind of expert who can speak to your story’s particular situation. Your family doctor might know the standard procedure for treating a broken leg, but his knowledge is likely limited to treatment best practices under ideal conditions. You know, in a clean, shiny hospital. But what about injuries in non-ideal conditions, when X-rays and surgery are not readily available? Your family doctor isn’t going to be much help—partly because he will fear opening himself to legal liability by dispensing advice that isn’t clinically defensible. Your better bet would be to find a military field medic, or a mountain climber trained in first aid—someone who has experience with non-ideal conditions.

A golden truth I learned in journalism school is that people love to be considered experts (well, eight out of ten; take into account a certain percentage of natural jerkiness in the general population). Start by approaching people you already know, and be as specific as possible with the kind of information you’re seeking.

Look! A plethora of experts! (Photo DMedina from morguefile.com)
Your friends and family just might surprise you in having a hidden expertise or life experience that would make them excellent resources to provide you authentic details. Staying curious when in social situations can yield amazing opportunities. The cousin seated beside you at your nephew’s wedding reception just might be a law enforcement officer, a Civil War re-enacter, a cancer survivor or oenophile. Even the charming flower girl might help you write a child character by getting you up to speed on youth culture today.

When you meet people, keep your radar attuned to where their interests, experiences, and training intersects with your story world and bravely ask questions. A simple request like “tell me about yourself” can turn a dull party into a research extravaganza.

I once got some amazing research done while at a church luncheon. I was seated by a friend who is a speech-language pathologist, and realized she might know something about speech problems in stroke patients, an element in my story. So I said, “I’m working on a story in which a grandparent has a stroke. What kind of speech problems might he possibly have?” That short chat was more focused and helpful than hours of reading. She knew in practice, not just theory, how patients behave and what the stages of recovery look like. That kind of information is pure gold.

This technique is great for those socially-demanding seasons when you shuttle from wedding to graduation to baby shower. Think about how your story might connect to every person you meet. Tap their knowledge and expertise as a professional, volunteer, hobbyist, or representative of an age group, family role, ethnicity or religion. And if the setting isn’t appropriate or convenient to have a useful chat, arrange for another time to interview them.

Your personal contacts might also lead you to other experts in their extended networks. The idea that every person on earth is “six degrees of separation” from any other person is actually pretty amazing when you think about it. Anyone you regularly cross paths with, from your mother to your plumber, likely knows someone who knows someone.

But don’t be afraid to take a leap and call or e-mail a stranger whose name you uncover while researching. The worst they can do is ignore you or say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”

What kind of expertise would help you write your story?