Every so often, I write this post. Why? I am constantly discovering great new books and sites that support, motivate, and improve my writing.
I want to share them with you.
Here are four of my current favorites:
1. The best punctuation book, period by June Casagrande. Every writer needs a great little book at their side where they can double check where to place a comma, capitalize a noun, understand how to use hyphens and en dashes. My copy editor recommended this book to me, and I am in love with it. It's easy to use, is written simply, and is less than 250 pages.
2. Writers Helping Writers with Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These ladies are fabulous, and their website is filled with amazing resources for your writing. Soon, they will merge into a new site with incredible support for using Scrivener along with their books on Negative and Positive Traits. I've written previously about how I use these books.
3. The Enneagram Test. If you are building characters, this is a great place to help understand and craft their personalities. You might first take the online test to explore your own personality. Then try it as your protagonist and antagonist. The test takes less than three minutes. The results point you toward any of nine specific personality types (similar to Jung). It's a quick, fun, and scientific way to hone in on your characters' true selves. (Couple the results with Writers Helping Writers, and you have a fully developed character.)
4. Goodreads. A great writer is constantly reading other great writing. We learn from each other. If you want to write authentic and appealing middle grade fantasy, you need to read some. Read those getting good reviews and those getting panned. It's important to see what works and what doesn't. Goodreads publishes numerous lists where you can sift through books of all genres and authors. This is my go-to for locating the best (and worst) books because reviews are written by real readers.
What are your current favorite writing resources?
Share them in the comments below.
My copy editor noticed something about my stories: I like lists.
There's the list a character keeps in her phone on the Do's and Don't's of Shoplifting.
There's the list a grandmother keeps on her fridge for what not to feed the dog.
When my editor pointed out my habit, at first I thought: Oops, better stop that. Then I reconsidered. This could be a "thing" in my stories. Every writer needs some kind of trademark, why not lists?
Lists are practical, easy to read, and they can offer clues to the character or plot.
I also post numerous blogs here that are lists.
I like lists. In honor of their awesomeness, let me offer three ideas for using lists in your story.
1. Grocery lists. If I don't write down what I need, I will leave the store with things I'm hungry for now. When I get home, I will have to eat chocolate and mini peppers for dinner. This is not good. Lists help us remember the important stuff. What if your character had to go to the grocery store and forgot something on his list? He'd have to go back. Who might he run into?
2. Birthday lists. Thanks to Google, all my friends' birthdays show up on my calendar. A calendar is a great place for lists because it's all organized by a need to know. How might your character use a calendar in your story?
3. To Do lists. I don't know about you, but my "to do" lists are a mish-mash of so many things. "Make dentist appt; research Vitamin D; send my son a fan... I love "to do" lists because they have no category. It is merely a collection of all the random things that come to mind that must be done. What if your character found someone else's "To Do" list? What might be on it?
These are a few ideas for using lists in your writing. How do you employ a list in your stories? Please share your ideas with us.
Every writer has a different routine or ritual that motivates her or keeps her in the zone. I didn't think I had one, but after closer scrutiny, I realized I do. Of course, I do. You do, too.
The question remains: is your routine working?
If you consider the following six categories, you will discover your routines. You might notice an area that needs help.
After I completed this blog, I realized that I'm not as consistent about taking breaks. Now, I set a timer to go off hourly. If it goes off, I haven't taken a break.
Here are my routines.
1. Quiet--I need minimal activity going on around me. That means I get up early and write before the household awakes.
2. Light--I've noticed that I work best near a window. Natural light activates my creative brain cells.
3. Background--I need music playing while I write. The music or sounds that sit in the background vary. It depends on what I'm doing: planning, writing, editing, re-working a scene, etc. The music must be instrumental
4. Tools--I know many writers prefer longhand; if the pen doesn't touch paper, they can't access their creative juices. For me, I need my Mac, Scrivener, and access to Internet for quick research. When I'm not seated at my desk, I write ideas and research in a variety of notebooks or tap them into Notes in my cell phone.
5. Nourishment--Water, coffee, fruit, nuts, chocolate. I keep all of this nearby. I don't eat while I'm writing, but when I need a brain break, I get up for a nibble. I don't drink too much coffee because it makes my mind work too fast. I need a slow methodic mind to write.
6. Scheduled breaks--Besides walking to the kitchen for snacks, I might walk around the block or stand on the porch for some sun. I get up at least once an hour. The outdoor breaks do wonders when I'm stuck or feeling lethargic.
I would love to hear your creative routines that help produce juicy good work. Please share them below.
My apologies for being a day late with this week's blog of writing tips. We returned yesterday from a beautiful stay in New York. A week of family fun, the laptop tucked safely away. Today, back on the West Coast, I'm wide awake at 6AM and ready to write!
While scrolling through emails, ads, junkmail and trolling favorite Twitter accounts, I discovered something I'd forgotten about - the Scrivener Scratch Pad. If you use the writing app, you may or may not know all about this awesome feature. If you don't have Scrivener yet, but you're considering it, this may help you make that decision.
As you know, I'm a huge Scrivener fan. The app has organized my writing life, leaving me more time and energy to create.
What you need to know about the Scrivener Scratch Pad (on a Mac):
1. The pad is a great place to make lists of websites or links to articles and research that will help you with your story. Keeping the pad open means you can easily add a link or idea even when you aren't working on your project. You can keep the pad open at all times - no matter if you are working on Scrivener or not. Simply right click the Scriv icon on your dock.
2. You must open your projects then hide them so they can be available for the Scratch Pad feature.
3. The Scratch Pad will float in front of all other open windows. This enables you to type notes on the pad while viewing those sites in the background.
4. You can add multiple notes in the pad. Simply click the + sign to add a new note. If you are working on several projects, you can choose which one this note belongs to. Click SEND TO, and a variety of pathways will lead you to the location you want to drop in your note.
5. Click the x or OK to HIDE your pad when you're done. When you return to your project, you can open Scratch Pad in Window. This opens all your notes on the pad, so you can easily see what you've added. No need to remember, Scriv does that for you!
Scrivener won't write your story, but its organizational and time-saving features will enable you to devote your creative energies to what you do best.
What are your favorite Scrivener features? Share them in the comments below.
If you are a new or seasoned writer who seeks honest and constructive feedback, you might consider finding a critique partner. This writer will help you with your finished or developing manuscript. If you were ever to win an award for your story, this is one of the people you would thank.
Previously, you've heard me rave about my editor, Jane MacKay. While Jane provides constructive and detailed feedback on manuscripts and queries, I do pay her because she's a professional. And, even though I use critique partners and beta readers, I still hire Jane after they are through.
First of all, you need to know this: a critique partner is not a beta reader.
Beta Reader: someone who loves to read and can provide you with valuable feedback about your characters' authenticity, your plot's plausibility, your setting's inconsistencies, etc.
Critique Partner: a writer who wants to trade manuscripts for feedback on grammatical technicalities, style, flow, and all the beta reader stuff.
Mom: the person who loves you no matter how crappy your writing is or how many times you drop an Oxford comma.
Ryan Gosling: the guy who motivates you (or is it just me?) to get it done.
If you read between the lines, you might notice that you qualify as a critique partner for most other writers and maybe a beta reader for someone outside your genre. For instance, I write YA, but I love a good mystery. I'd be a good beta reader for mystery writers (but please don't send me a ms to read or my critique partners will hunt you down. Time is valuable.)
Currently, I'm partnering with several writers. I recently started working with aspiring YA author Brook Ellis. We met through Miss Snark's Critique Partner Dating Service (love that name!). Since three-thousand miles separates us, Brook and I exchange manuscripts via Google Docs and email. So far, it works. I'm also part of a local writer's group who met at a SCBWI event. Adult fiction writer Gwynne Jackson, picture writer and illustrator Evangeline, and I also exchange work via Google Docs. In addition, because we live within a five-mile radius, we meet monthly at someone's house.
I feel extremely fortunate to have these amazing writers in my life. Previously, I was unsure about working with a critique partner. I was embarrassed my work might not measure up; I was afraid I wouldn't have the time. Wrong. Wrong. Love, love them. When you want to, you can accomplish quite a lot.
So here are my top five reasons why you need a critique partner (CP).
A critique partner will:
1. Provide honest feedback. You are not paying them. They are not your mom. If something isn't working, or if something's truly amazing, they will let you know.
2. Have the skill to help you. Since your CPs are writers, they will not only be able to tell you where something's gone awry, they will be able to offer some pretty great suggestions on how to fix it.
3. Help you grow as a writer. Over the course of time, your CPs will become great teachers. Once they've learned your writing style, they will recognize your weaknesses and help you accentuate your strengths.
4. Not waste your time. They want what you want: good, constructive, honest feedback. If they can't provide this, they understand you might find a new partner. If you're good and helpful (because you're doing 1-3), they will make your time worth it.
5. Make you laugh. Make you cry. Mostly because of No. 1, your CP will sometimes tell you things about your writing that will make you feel so good, you'll laugh. However, every rose has its thorns. Because of No.1, your CP will also tell you some brutally honest facts about where your writing or story is falling down. The hope is that, because of No. 2, you will understand that the crying will help with No. 3.
If your relationship with your CPs look different, maybe it's not working. Remember, it's a partnership. As in any relationship, know when to get out and know when you're not doing your part.
I would love to hear your thoughts on finding and working with critique partners. Please share them in the comments below.
I'm always open to finding more CPs in order to create the best stories.
We've visited this topic before, but it's worth another look.
The school day ended as it had begun with the tin rattle of an ancient bell system designed to wake the dead or anyone within a football field of the boxy building.
True story. It’s how I spend my workday sixteen times over, five days a week.
Only once, do you make the mistake to stand directly beneath one of the clattering devils.
However, the jolting rattles own your attention, and there’s no doubt it’s time to get to class.
Oh for the clang of a great story opening. Previously, I’ve shared my favorite YA openers.
This week, my last group of creative writing students for the year works on story beginnings. In a few weeks, we’ll tackle endings.
How do you start your stories? With action? Mystery? Deep thoughts? Humor? Here are our favorites.
Reflect on life. No one does this better than YA it boy, John Green.
“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.” –Paper Towns by John Green
Reveal theme. For my students, Walter Dean Meyers has a knack for setting up his stories' themes right at the start.
“The best time to cry is at night, when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help. That way even if you sniffle a little they won’t hear you. If anybody knows that you are crying, they’ll start talking about it and soon it’ll be your turn to get beat up when the lights go out.” –Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Meet our hero/heroine. My favorite adult and young adult author, Neil Gaiman, is a master at opening his stories. One of my favorites:
“There once was a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.” –Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Meet someone important/close to our hero/heroine. The people we love to hate from the delightful imagination of J.K. Rowling.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” -Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Begin with trouble. Many of today's dystopians begin this way, reminiscent of war stories detailing actual history.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. - The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Begin with a mystery. Make your readers want to know why right from the very first line.
"All this happened. More or less." -Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
"You better not tell nobody but God." - The Color Purple by Alice Walker
What's your favorite way to open a story? Share them in the comments below.
Let's start May with a writing contest!
What do you know about beginnings and endings? A great story might begin with a brilliant thought, random line, or quirky character, but at some point you'll need to get organized. In the meantime, just write. Regurgitate those ideas swimming about your head. Splatter every thought on the page. When you're ready, when the well's dry, step back and begin that plan. Mold the pieces together into a beautiful tale.
Writing challenges are a great way to practice your writing skills. This week, we take an opening and closing and craft a short tale. Call it flash fiction, mini tale, bitesize story, or whatever.
Below, you'll find three beginnings and three endings. You mix and match. Fill in the middle with a compelling story (as compelling as a few hundred words can be). Have fun!
Rules: choose one beginning and one ending, fill in the rest; keep it to 300 words or less.
1. (Landscape) The summer sun faded and night set in...
2. (Dialogue) "Stop it, Josh! You never listen."
3. (Meet the hero/heroine) She never loved winter, but it was different now since the events of the past summer.
1. "I know. It's not really what I expected at all, but I sure am glad you're here."
2. A single apple tree stood on the burnt hillside.
3. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and walked out the door.
Open to all ages!
This site is filled with many ideas. Feel free to search through my Blog for tips. Try these ones about sensory writing.
You have until May 15 to submit your entry. Paste it in the comments below or add a link with the entry on your own site.
The winner will be featured on this site and receive acclaim on Twitter and Facebook.
Starting a story is easy, you've got an idea, and you start to tell it. In the middle, you begin to have some real fun, unveiling new characters, butting up against obstacles, adding twists and turns to your character's journey. Then comes time to finish.
Sccrrrcchhh! Hit the brakes, Alice, we're coming in for a landing.
The end is where the trouble begins.
For the last two weeks, I've been at the end of my current manuscript. I've two chapters and one half to go. I've written less than five hundred words in the last seven days.
Part of me is stalling - How should it end? What will the readers expect? Shall I surprise them?
My daughter recently read (struggled through?) Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It wasn't until the very last line that she shouted with glee, "I get it! I get it!" You don't want your reader to struggle to the end.
Which brings me to the other 'part of me', the writer who's struggling, who doesn't want it all to end. After all, the main character (MC) and I have been head buddies for months. I'm gonna miss him when he goes. I know, I know, it's time to end it all.
In Blake Snyder's book on the writing craft, Save the Cat, he suggests that the final image match the opening image - as an opposite. If you opened with your MC in a pile of garbage after his girlfriend threw out him and the trash, your final image should showcase him clean and engaging in a scene that reflects he's learned his lesson. Nice and tidy, that's how Blake liked his scripts.
But life isn't a script, so you'll need to uncover other ways to end your story. Blake's is good and plausible, but readers enjoy variety. You don't want every book to end 'happily ever after'.
Here are other ways to close out your MC's tale.
1. Surprise! Life is full of surprises. You scrimp and save for college, study hard, receive several acceptance letters then your grandfather dies and you need to take over the family business. It puts a twist in your original plans, but it might work out for the better. You may save the restaurant that old granddad had run into the ground. Try a surprise ending, but lay out a few breadcrumbs before you draw back the curtain.
2. End Sooner than Later. Readers sometimes appreciate knowing twenty pages before the book finishes exactly why Aunt Betty set fire to the family letters. Now you have several dozen pages to tie up loose ends and explain several of the confusions you carefully plotted along the way. Click here for ideas to create loose ends?
3. Goal! The most logical ending occurs when your MC has solved his initial problem. If the conflict revolved around locating a missing child thought abducted by a crazy relative or the neighbor, once the child's been located, you can bring your story to a close. Catch the bad guy, and all is well.
or is it?
4. Gotcha! Taking #3 and twist it. The kid's home, but it wasn't either the neighbor or whacky Uncle Lew. The kid knows this, but he can only identify a few traits of his napper. This might take another thirty or more pages, or it might be the opening to a sequel.
Don't forget, once you've finished your story, it's time to revise. Let the fun begin again! (Besides, no matter how you end your fabulous story, someone will tell you how you should have ended it. Even if your Stephen King.)
What's your favorite story ending? What do you avoid at all costs? Share your thoughts with us.
How many times have you backed into the front door? It's not a trick question. I will take a wild guess, however, and say - never. Okay, maybe that one time when you carted in grandma's lacquered dining table. Other than that, though, most people walk in the front door faced forward. Eyes forward.
Remember that when penning the opening of your next story.
Expositions set the foundation for what's to come, but they also invite the reader in. So open that door and invite!
This past week, I've been furiously and back-achingly editing and revising my latest manuscript. (What do you think of my new opening?)
Here's a down and dirty list of what I think you need in the first five pages.
Exposition Must Haves:
*click the headings for great YA examples of each trait
1. A world - immediately drop readers into your characters' world. Where are we? Let us smell, taste and live it. Not too much. Just enough so we feel included and safe. (Remember: show, don't tell. Not: It was April 3, 2016, and the San Francisco Chronicle sat on the kitchen table. Try: I trolled the Internet for last night's A's results. Can't Billy Beane keep any player for more than two seasons?)
2. A Hero/Heroine - who are we going to root for? What's that MC have that I don't? Can I relate? Don't make him too perfect. (Not: Lilly Lane studied her third A paper of the day while she waited for Skip Target, the Tigers' star pitcher and a sure bet for Prom King. Try: Lilly Lane shoved the history test in her backpack. One C wouldn't kill her. If she scored an A on the next exam, maybe she could convince Skip Target she'd make a great tutor.)
3. A Catalyst - drop that shoe! We need to know what's at stake for our hero pronto! If you're not going to tell us until the end of the first or second chapter, you better leave us a trail of juicy clues. (Your catalyst is the event that sparks the plot. Something happens that propels the hero on his quest. If she's the school bully's favorite victim, maybe she gets suspended for a food fight that she didn't start. If he's depressed to the point of suicide, maybe he's sent to the school counselor who suggests he join their support group. The catalyst can be subtle or mind-blowing.)
4. A Problem - this we need to learn on the first page or three. I mean, what's going on that we care if there's another page to this story? If the problem is multi-layered, just give us one layer. In the "Wizard of Oz", Dorothy runs away and needs to get home. That's the main problem. Of course, she has several other adolescent troubles that lead to her leaving in the first place. (Problems can unfold, disappear or appear solved, reemerge with a vengeance, multiply or simplify - any or all of that happens as your story progresses, not in the first three pages.)
Inclusive in all is VOICE. Must have voice. That's not an exposition kind of thing, though. Voice carries your story from start to finish, so I don't include it in my Exposition Must Haves (but it most certainly is a MUST HAVE).
Share your WIP's first 100 words below. What are your Exposition Must Haves?
If you are like most writers, you read everything about writing that falls into your field of vision. Perhaps not everything you read makes sense. Or is that just me? When I first started out, I trolled the net for blogs and columns and articles and theses about what makes a good story. I quickly schooled myself in elements of the modern novel - something I didn't learn from my few college level creative writing classes.
Everything made sense. Focus on plot or character. Paint a vivid world. Speak like normal people speak (whatever that is). Write what you know - sibling rivalry, demonic perfectionistic zombies, love, broken hearts, etc.
Everything made sense except for one thing. The character arc. The character arc meeting another character's arc. Matching or paralleling or crossing your character's arc to or with your plot's rise, fall and resolution.
During my studies, I've narrowed character arcs into three categories. Let's take a look at them.
1. Transformative Journey. Called many things, namely The Hero's Journey, this character arc sees your MC move from a bit of a mess at the start to pretty much on her feet at the end. Think of Julia Robert's character in "Pretty Woman". At the start, she's selling herself on the street, lacking social graces, living in a rundown apartment. At the end, she's cleaned up, thinking of moving out and changing her profession (of course, handsome Richard Gere "saves" her - that was too obvious), but more importantly she's transformed from street girl to sophisticate. In this arc, your character needs to learn something about herself or the world that rocks her so much, she's forced to embody a whole new persona by story's end. This is more of a straight up arrow - the arc is in the middle where your character must examine her flaws that keep her from moving forward in life. (Of course, one can argue that it's Gere's character that truly transforms from self-important loveless power chaser to empathetic love chaser.)
2. Imperfect or Flawed Journey. When I read Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Goldfinch", I kept thinking that Theo, the MC, wasn't so much on that traditional Hero's Journey. He had many bumps on his road to redemption. In fact, he travelled much further down in his person than up. His was an imperfect journey. Your character can learn much more about himself if he's forced to confront deeper issues in his life (envy, hatred, self-hate).
3. Spiral to Darkness. Sometimes, you read a story and think, "Wow, I really don't like this character. He's more of a jerk now than at the start." Hopefully (usually) that was the author's intention. Think of Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl". We don't much have anyone to root for when the story shifts in the middle. By the end, we feel cheated out of that arc. Who transformed? Who's learned the most about themselves and used it for the better good of the world? Uh, no one? This is a difficult arc to pull off because you want the reader to feel something has changed, that perhaps the world has shifted for them. In "Gone Girl", most readers come away thinking "you can't trust anyone" or "some people are nuts" or "be careful who you get into a relationship with". What happened was they went on a somewhat inverted arc journey - essentially, they transformed into more negative shadows of themselves. However you see it, taking a character deeper into their own darkness can be an amazing story.
Where is your current protagonist headed in your work in progress? Is it a transformative arc, imperfect or a spiral into darkness? Share your thoughts below.