Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writing Exercise

My boy came up with a delightful little writing exercise with which we had quite a lot of fun yesterday.  It would be particularly useful for genre fiction writers, say those interested in science fiction, fantasy, or superheroes, but it could also be used just to get the creative juices flowing.

1. Come up with the most useless power you can imagine.  Here are some of the examples we came up with: detect all guacamole within ten feet [and you can't look for it why?];  compel all hippos within a twenty-foot radius to do the Macarena [they could still attack, after they're done dancing]; transform actual goldfish into a cracker [soggy cracker]; ability to transform everything you touch into rats [that could then bite you]; telekinesis on small items usable by touch only [and you can't pick it up because ..?]; power to emit a mooing sound whenever you rub your hands together [say what?]; ability to tickle your own toes [scientists have done studies that show tickling is a social behavior, and you can only tickle someone else]; the ability to see halfway through a wall [so what about the other half?];  gift of telepathy, only useful on arachnids [you'd learn what from the mind of a spider?]; the ability to put food in your mouth without opening it [and that's so much easier than actually opening your mouth?]; ability to teleport one inch [really?]; ability to make chickens explode into glitter.  You get the idea.  We spent close to an hour coming up with these ideas, laughing the whole time.

2 Create a scenario in which this useless power is actually useful.  Say you are blind and have an enemy whose weakness is guacamole.  Then it may be useful to detect it.  Or let's pretend you need to pass through a field of killer hippos in order to steal a diamond.  If you can get them to dance the entire Macarena, you'd be able to slip through that field and get to the jewels without dying.  Imagine you are starving, and all you have on hand are goldfish.  You can take them out of the water and turn them into goldfish crackers.  Perhaps you have a lot of snakes and can't afford food for them.  Turning items into rats could really come in handy.  And so on.

3.  Write the story.  Expand on your exercise.  It could end up just being a writing exercise, but then again, you may be able to spin this into a children's story, short story, novel, etc.  Have fun!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Writing what You Know

It's been said that one should write what they know.  But if we only write what we know, how do we write anything but blogs, memoirs, and biographies?  How do we write that story that's trying to battle its way out of our soul and onto the page?

The easy answer, which may not be so easy in execution, is know more.  You may think, well, I know my life.  I can write about me.  But even that can get complicated.  That's where I started with the novel I'm still working on close to two years later.  About two years ago, I pondered the books I had recently read, the sub-par, poorly written books I had just read and thought, "I can do better than that.  What do I know?  I know what it is to be an overweight Mormon woman living in the Logan area who is dealing with loss.  How about I write about that?"  But I didn't want to write about me.  I wanted to write about some other overweight Mormon woman living in Logan dealing with loss.

So how could I write about this other woman?  I had to plan.  I had to decide who she was apart from me.  If I were to try to make her entirely me, I'd have such a hard time pulling us apart that the character would get mushy.  I'd assume everyone understood what I was writing because I understood.  I had to sit and figure out who she was, what her voice sounded like (if not mine then whose?)  I had to plan her relationships, her friendships, her past, her present, a bit about her future.  I had to come up with a story and research the pieces of that story I didn't know from memory.  I had to know more than just what it is to be me.  I had to know what it is to be her.  But what it is to be me informs my writing of what it is to be her.  And like I said, two years later, I'm still working out the kinks, figuring out what works and what doesn't about what I've written, so I can write her story believably and in an interesting way.

I could have put her in a fantasy or sci fi or western or any other genre.  I could have started with what I knew about fairy tales.  But I have tried my hand at much of that, and it has come out sounding cliched.  If you can start with what you know in one of these genres without becoming yet another in a long line of poor writers, good for you.  But I tried, and it didn't work for me. My me-as-a-fantasy-character stories fell flat because they had no meaning, no depth.  Maybe I'll go back one day.  But for now, it suits me to stay in the present with someone enough like me that I know her but not so much like me that knowing her, you understand my life.

Once I'm done knowing her story, I can  use that as a jumping off point to know more about other people, other lives.  Meanwhile, my knowledge base is growing.  As I research and explore more areas, I can write about more.  And all of this helps me become a better writer.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Names in Writing

In the best literature, names are meaningful.  Harry Potter character names are very well researched and profound.  Here is a link to what J.K. Rowling, herself, says about the names and what they mean.  According to the site, Harry Potter's name seems ordinary, but yet Harry is the name of kings.  The name of his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, means Dragon of bad faith.  Remus Lupin's name was based on the Roman myth of one of a set of twins raised by a wolf, last name a derivative of wolf.  The list goes on.  Other writers often use similarly symbolic and meaningful names.  Jane Eyre's name has multiple connotations, of plainness, of air spirits, of being an heir to a fortune.  Rochester's name means rocky crags, indicative of his hard and harsh manners.  Her favorite teacher is Ms. Temple, with obvious meanings.  Her best friend, Ms. Burns burns with a fever.  St. John, one of those who try to court her, is as self-righteous as his name may suggest.  Several other authors add significance through their naming, to varying degrees.  It may be something you want to consider.

Another thing to remember when choosing what to call the characters is that whatever the narrative calls the characters should be consistent.  To switch around from title to first name to last name can be very confusing.  It's almost as confusing to  use similar-sounding names.  If two to three of the main characters have the same first initial, the reader will start to get confused.  These are all things to consider as you name and title your characters.  

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Hook

I've heard that the first line buys you the editor's attention long enough to make it through your first paragraph.  The first paragraph buys you the first page.  And the first page may just buy you the chapter, which could very well buy you the book and get your book published.  And a good published book that really hooks a reader can lead to a lucrative career.  That's where to spend your time: on the hook.  It's always a good idea to read really good first pages from books that have done well.  How did J.K. Rowling draw the crowds with page one of Harry Potter?  How did J.R.R. Tolkien make his splash in the literary world with page one of his story?  Where do the greats start?

Then go look at your first line, first paragraph, first page.  Read it to people.  Does your first line snag your audience and not let them go?  Do you pose enough questions to intrigue or paint a setting that makes people curious or characterize in a way that helps people love your main character like you do?  Is it clear without being boring?  If you lose your reader with too many passive tenses, writing full of generic descriptions or cliches, too many adverbs,  description too dense or entirely lacking, or whatever, your reader is gone for good.  It does not matter if everyone would just love page seven.  If you can't get them past page one, seven can be fabulous.  46 can be prize-winning material.  None of that matters unless page one is awesome, awe-inspiring, intense, captivating, glorious, whatever.

Ask yourself a few critical questions.  Does it start at the right place, a place critical to the story?  If not, cut pages or add some.  Does it make your reader care?  If not, figure out how.  Does it make your reader want to know more?  Does it show more than tell?  Too much explanation in chapter one can end a story before it begins.  Read it to anyone who will listen and get feedback.  Read it aloud.  Take it to a professional editor.

Now go out and work on your hook.  Turn it from just a beginning to a real hook.  Do whatever you have to do to make a splash and make the reader thirsty for more.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Trying to Pin down what Makes a Story Work

I just watched the new "Ghostbusters" movie, and it really worked for me and for many of those I know for whom the older version isn't seen as the be all and end all.  I expected to like it.  I loved it.  It's rare that I walk into a movie with certain expectations, and it impresses rather than depresses me.  And I'm still trying to work out what worked so well for me.  Both versions have good humor.  Part of it is the newer version is so much cleaner and is something I don't hesitate to share with my kids.  But that's more of a personal reason.  It's not just the movie that works for me.  It's the STORY that works. How often does that happen, that a reboot is just as fresh if not fresher than the original?  Many reviewers thought it was a rehash.  Although I saw some resemblance and parallels, I wouldn't call it a rehash at all.

So what is it that made the story work for me?  I like theme of girl power without the need to hammer on the concept.  Women were allowed to be the center of a story without needing to lean on men for their power, initiative, or purpose.  I liked that Hollywood women were allowed to be frumpy, nerdy, to just be themselves.  My sister complained that it perpetuated the stereotype that intelligent women had to be frumpy.  I would argue these women looked precisely like they wanted to look.  And they were all beautiful.  They just didn't feel the need to flaunt that fact.  I also liked that the ditzy beautiful blond was a man for once.  He was charming, funny, and could be competent when possessed by a genius.  And he was played by Thor, who was clearly having the time of his life.

I think what worked so well for me was the very fact of its being a reversal.  It took all the stereotypes and expected themes for an adventure yarn and turned them on their ears.  It was all about female geniuses who used their entrepreneurial spirit to start a business and save the world.  And it was funny.  Not just mildly funny but very funny.   Every serious moment was counterbalanced by a wisecrack or a bit of straight-faced silliness.  Of the characters, the one I found most entertaining was Holtsman, the newer version of Egon.  She made every scene hilarious, and you never were quite sure if she was being snarky or meant it.  She was the life of the party.

So what can a writer learn about storytelling from this movie?  1. Balance humor with seriousness.  2. Be unexpected: turn stereotypes on their ears.  3.  Make sure your characters are convincingly human but also fresh and unexpected.  4. If you're going to retell an old story, make it your own.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A simple formula for writing

Someone asked me about writing this week, and I told her my formula for writing.  This won't work for everyone or for every genre, but it might work for you.  First, come up with a germ of a story, some concept or idea.  You can use my writer's net to brainstorm.  You can use a story starter.  You can look at your family history.  You can read a novel and get a germ of a story.  One way or another, you get the basic idea and write down a bit about your story and its characters.

The next step is prewriting.  If it's fantasy or sci fi, know the laws of the world you're writing in.  Invent them.  Know the map or the geography.  I then use a character theory like Meyers-Briggs or color theory or the enneagram to get to know my character.  Other people have done the heavy lifting on coming up with character theory.  You don't have to invent the wheel, just give your characters a sense of life and reality.  It helps if you know people like your character, so you can keep their voices in your head.  You may want to figure out the characters of all the major characters and their antagonists.  A story is only as good as its bad guys.  And most bad guys think of themselves as heroes of their own story.

Next, adapt the heroes' journey.  There are many versions of it, countless.  But most of the best stories, especially adventure stories, from Star Wars to modern Star Trek to Harry Potter to anything Pixar and modern Disney take a cue from the heroes' journey.  If you are an outliner, outline the whole think as far as it works for you.  If you're a pantser --a by the pants, write as you go kind of person--just keep the heroes' journey in the back of your brain and/or keep it standing buy to give you a rough roadmap.

Then revise, edit, and send it off to your writers' group.  You may need additional editorial services.

That's it.  The better, the more unique your description, the fresher the voice, the more successful your story will be.  If you're running into walls, try it.  See how it works.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Creativity Net

I once wrote about this, but it was about a year ago and bears repeating.  One good way to defeat the power of the blank page is through setting out your creativity net.  What does this mean, you say?  Listen to conversations and take notes on how people talk.  Look around for odd things people do or strange events.  Watch the news for curious happenings.  Then invent your own why.  Once, I had three random strangers come up to me and give me little things over the course of a few days.  They were totally unrelated events, but it all led to a short story.

Grab your notebook and look around you.  Become a people watcher.  Become a thing watcher.  And let your imagination fly.  Spin whatever you see into a story of fantasy, science fiction, romance, whatever.  Come up with a germ of an idea then don't stop until it's written down.  Then turn it into a story with meaning and life.