No matter how far afield I travel, I always return to the senses. This past week, my creative writing students explored writing about sensory detail by describing their hair. (As soon as I have parent consent forms signed, you will be able to read their amazing work.)
We spent time old school talking about the five senses and listing words a writer might use to evoke these senses. Next, we took a color walk to capture all we could find around campus of a specific color. Finally, we closed our eyes and listened to the sounds in the building and room. We even plugged our ears and closed our eyes to see what me might smell.
By the end of the week, students were ready to hone in on one idea and explore their senses. I read them "Hairs" from Sandra Cisneros' THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET to inspire them.
If you want to help your writing come alive, tap into the senses. Five easy ways to add detail to your writing.
1. Sight: select one visual piece of your story (a building, bench, street, tree; something minor). List ten qualities that describe it. Choose three and exaggerate them. Come up with a metaphor to add dimension. (EX: In winter, her neighbor's tree bent like an old woman, dragging its limbs along the tired sidewalk.)
2. Sound: as above, but this time you are finding something your character will hear. (EX: The wheels thumped along the pavement, a steady heartbeat in the night.)
3. Taste: as above, but maybe applying taste to something one wouldn't normally put in their mouth. (EX: I could taste the assignment. Its bitterness coated the tip of my tongue, and I wanted to spit it out onto the just waxed classroom floor.)
4. Smell: as the taste exercise. (EX: His angry words burned in my nostrils; their ashiness wafted inside me.)
5. Texture: this sense offers a variety of options. (EX: Her jagged words cut through me. The night air caressed my cheeks.)
If you are in the middle of a project, find a scene that's lacking life. Infuse it with sensory detail. If this is your first draft, go crazy. Go overboard. Write drunk, edit sober. (Thanks, Mr. Hemingway.) Have fun.
Share your thoughts on the senses below. What works for you?
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.
First, some exciting news: I had a full request from a lovely agent! Very exciting, and a long time coming. If you want to read the opening to ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, I'd love your feedback, too!
While I avoid stalking my inbox, I'm catching up on some great books. There are so many super YA novels out and a few I missed. For your interest, I've started a review page. Check it out! Share your opinions, too, please :)
Besides juicy stories, I've been re-reading some writing books that have me thinking about my habits. I wonder which of these are important to you and which one's I'm missing.
Here's my to do list top ten (in Late Night order) if I were starting out today:
10. Join Twitter. Set up an account that is public where you focus almost solely on writing topics. You can get personal, but consider it an extension of your workspace.
9. Participate in Twitter. That means, find chats, socialize with others in the industry. Don't stalk agents, but do follow them, so you can learn.
8. Join a professional group. You will connect with others in your genre, learn about workshops, and create lasting friendships. Try these: romance writers; children or young adult writers; sci-fi and fantasy writers; steampunk; mystery.
7. Write. We can't travel too far down this list without mentioning craft. It's so important to establish a routine. Whether it means writing for thirty minutes everyday on your lunch break or getting up an hour early while the house is quiet, you must write. Every. Day. Try these tips.
6. Read. Read like you write like you breathe. Read what you live, but most definitely read what you write. If you write picture books, read the best and worst of them, so you know what little readers like. And don't just read for fun, read with purpose. When I started studying other YA like they were textbooks, I learned so much about my audience. Join me on Goodreads where you can find lists of great books and insightful reviews.
5. Study. These books are not novels. These are books on craft. There are so many out there. I recommend three to start with: On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Read about them on Goodreads; start with one.
4. Find your voice. Anyone can write a story. No one can write it like you. What makes you stand out as a writer is voice. How do you find yours? Go back to #7 and #5. Write and study writing. You will find your voice. Listen to author Cory Putman Oakes.
3. Find your story. Anyone can write a story. No one can write yours. You've heard the adage--write what you know. Well, what do you know? Losing someone? Laughing until you pee your pants? Moving three times before puberty? Feeling incredible unrequited love? Listen to the master, Neil Gaiman, on this.
2. Support and connect with other writers. Join a writing group; find critique partners; nurture those relationships. We can learn so much from each other.
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What's on your writer's to do list? I'd love to know. Please share below and continue the conversation.
This week, I await agent responses to queries of my YA contemporary, ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, and fixes from my editor for my WIP, STARS IN MY POCKET. So, of course, I'm plotting a new YA series. Not only have I decided to tackle a series, but I'm jumping genres into Mysteries. I find this very exciting but extremely intimidating.
I won't say more about the premise or potential plots as I'm in the early planning stages. However, I have had tons of fun developing my characters. In a series, you need characters waiting in the wings for the next book. Think of popular YA series books like HARRY POTTER, PERCY JACKSON, THE HUNGER GAMES, or DIVERGENT. It's clear the authors planned longer plot lines out before the first novel sat on bookshelves.
Plots don't run on their own. You need characters. My writing style seeks character before plot. So I'm busy crafting these people who will soon walk and talk about the pages of my stories.
Making up a character is harder than it sounds. Making up a believable and relatable one is even trickier. Fortunately, there are many resources available to writers. I'd like to share my favorites with you.
THE POSITIVE and NEGATIVE TRAITS THESAURUSES by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
These books are invaluable as are the two authors. Angela and Becca run the WritersHelpingWriters website, which features numerous useful articles on the craft.
Each thesaurus features dozens of personality traits to mix and match, including detailed analyses of root causes, associated behaviors, ideas for overcoming the flaw or other traits that might cause conflict. Couple these books with THE EMOTIONAL THESAURUS, and you will have the necessary tools to create real characters.
SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
To me, the penultimate outliner for new writers. Snyder offers a simple set of "beats" to create a forward-moving plot. He does not ignore character, and that's why I include his book here. Some blame him for oversimplifying the storywriting process. To that, I say, "thank you!".
Read this "beatsheet" breakdown of the movie/book GONE GIRL for an idea of how character development and plot are intertwined.
Although Snyder died in 2009, his ideas continue to be shared. Peruse the site, buy his books, Google related articles. You will not be disappointed.
Here's one article on the site:
In "Character Pitfalls," Author Kristen Higgins reminds us "The story is the vehicle for the character."
I will share more another time on how "Save the Cat" saved my writing. What are your go-to resources for character development? What questions do you have? Let's talk. Share your comments or insights below.
How real are the characters you write?
This summer, I read a great story about a man trapped in a spiraling depression after learning that his teenage daughter had been killed in a car crash. He learns of her death while floating thousands of miles up in space. Back home, he struggles with guilt, loneliness and the will to move forward. He's a bit pitiful and annoying at first. He sleeps with his neighbor's wife. He doesn't take care of himself. He cuts his own adulteress wife off from their joint bank account. Then comes a moment in the story where he starts to show his true self, his possible self, and you really want him to be okay. This is the moment the character became real. ( I encourage you to read THIS book.)
People aren't one-dimensional. Possibly not even two-dimensional. We are multi-faceted. We are not equal parts good, bad and ugly. We are imperfect. Characters need to be the same.
This is not an easy task for the writer. Here are some starter tips to create real characters.
1. The Woody Allen Recipe. If your protagonist is insecure and lonely, add a likable quality. Sense of humor, compassion, trustworthiness.
2. The Martha Stewart Recipe. If your antagonist must be despised in the end, start her off being clever, kind and helpful. Then put her helpfulness to the test where she helps herself in spite of others. Let her get caught. Readers can pity her without rooting for her.
3. The OJ Simpson Recipe. If your antagonist must get what they deserve in the end, let it not be enough. Start them off as very popular and lovable. Put them in a situation where they hurt the protagonist (not physically, perhaps mentally or emotionally). They lose their popularity but maybe gain a sick notoriety. (This is a good recipe for a bully or mean girl.)
4. The Ebenezer Scrooge Recipe. If your protagonist is pretty despicable in the beginning but must transform into a lovable person in the end, reveal his Achilles heel early on. He's impatient and rude, but he has a niece he adores. He's cheap and critical, but he can't pass up a stray dog on the street.
You get the picture. Creating real characters is a lot like baking that delicious chocolate cake. Start with a good recipe then add some surprises. Not too much. And always find someone to take a small taste before you share it with a large group.
What are your real character recipes? Share them with us.
This week, I respond to Charli Mills' invitation to answer the question: Why do I write?
As the summer winds down and another new school year nears, I feel the shakes begin. My summer morning break of dawn habit is about to die out, hibernate for another 9 months, lurk and twist beneath my itching derma. My writing habit must quiet and slow.
It's not how I want it; it's how it must be. I will certainly try to wake a half hour earlier, in the predawn darkness of my warm bed, slither out onto the floor and feel in the blackness for my one-eyed blinking laptop. Some days will merit worth, others will succumb to the nurturing folds of that maternal duvet.
I write because it is my soul's path.
Back in the 70s when I was a school girl, I'd lay across my bedroom floor's pink shag carpet and scribble out verses and stories and diary entries. Any school assignment that required writing, I could do it in my sleep. (Math lessons left me in fits of tears at my father's feet.)
I write because it fills my being with joy.
As that same girl, I would also spend summers in the pool. When not in the pool, I'd be on my bike pedaling to the library. Reading filled my imagination, connected me to worlds I hadn't encountered, drew me into lives of wonder. Fueled by the ideas of Judy Blume, E.B.White, Roald Dahl, I soon found myself bursting with my own tales to pen. When my English teachers encouraged my work, there was no stopping me.
I write because it helps me make sense of a senseless world.
Navigating through adolescence is never easy. It's the theme of most of my books. Again, my path cleared with the help of writers: Austen, Salinger, Lee, and the Bronte sisters. I soon understood that writers had a greater purpose. Writers help us find connections to ourselves and others. They provide us with a foundation when the ground beneath us is cracking. Writers open us up to worlds unknown and offer personal portals to the very confusing world we live in.
I write for the same reasons that I breathe. Without it, I'd cease to be.
I'd like to introduce you to three other writers whose pen has touched my heart. Please visit them. I'd love to hear your comments, too. Why do you write?
Natalie Corbett Sampson Natalie Corbett Sampson lives in Hatchet Lake, Nova Scotia with her husband, four school-aged Munsters and a menagerie of pets. Her day job is a speech language pathologist where she loves helping children improve their ability to communicate with the world around them. When she’s not working, writing or sitting in a hockey rink Natalie loves reading, photography and drawing. You can learn more about Natalie and follow her publishing journey on her blog: www.NatalieCorbettSampson.com.
Ruben Castaneda is a Los Angeles native and former award-winning journalist for the Washington Post. His first book, "S Street Rising", chronicles his time covering the 1980s and 90s crack epidemic in our nation's capital while battling his own addiction with the drug. Ruben mentored me on the Los Angeles Herald Examiner where we covered the outbreak of gang violence and innocent victims caught in the crossfire.
Samantha Williams's first novel is due out later this year. She is the co-founder of PageCurl Publishing, a group of writers who publish and promote indie writers.
I love to write, so people think it comes easily. It does, and it doesn't. When it doesn't, I rely on the experts. I need guidance and some instructions.
Writing is hard work, but I know why I do it.
Writing fills my heart. Writing allows me to make sense of the voices in my head, the poetry in my soul, the chatter all around me. Still, it is a craft, and it requires instruction. Lucky me, I have two amazing teachers.
Lamott and King. I obsessively absorbing their advice and analyze their style, word choice, structure and rhythm. I have read Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life” over and over. Each time, I find new ideas; each time, something I’ve read becomes clearer.
Writing brings me joy. It’s hard work, but I love it.
If you love to write, then write. Everyday. Every chance you get. But don’t just write, read your writing, study it; read other writing and study that. Buy a book on writing. I suggest buying a live book as opposed to a digital download or library rental because you will want to write in it.
Both my books by King and Lamott have notes in all the margins, words circled, lines underlined, pages starred and dog-eared. They are my instructors, and I heed their words like notes on a treasure map.
Writing is not a 9 to 5 job. It’s 24/7. Make the most of it.
Here are some more recommended readings on writing:
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Page After Page by Heather Sellers
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Lisa Reiter is an amazing and brave woman. (You’ll need to visit her website to learn why I believe this to be true.). She is also a creative writer who is generous enough to invite us into her world and share our memories.
Friday, May 2, Lisa initiated a weekly writing invite on her site called, BITE SIZE MEMOIRS. Lisa wants us to spend a few moments reflecting on the past and recording those thoughts to share with the world. Telling your story is soul-cleansing.
Northern California Author Anne Lamott has spent nearly her whole life writing about her family and self. Kind of like running a marathon on a treadmill – you race hard but never reach a finish line. It can be exhausting, but it can also be exhilarating.
In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne says: “Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.” (Lisa asks us to be kind and leave out last names; she doesn’t want to deal with libel at all).
I’ve taken up this week’s challenge: Using the theme SCHOOL AT SEVEN, write 10 lines of “I remember” or 150 words. Check the website for the official unofficial rules. Whether you choose to share with the Lisa and us or not, you will enjoy remembering your childhood and all the crazy nonsense that comes along with growing up.
“School at Seven” by Ellen Plotkin Mulholland, b. 1963, California, USA
I remember my long blue flowered dress with the gathered bodice.
I remember swinging higher than my best friend.
I remember hearing the f-word from ginger-haired Tommy Something.
I remember creating Barbie towns and using our shoes as cars.
I remember recess and the large expanse of black asphalt, the kickball zone, the sandpit.
I remember sitting in rows, alphabetically.
I remember the green chalkboard and waiting for my turn to clap dusty black erasers on the pavement outside after school.
I remember waiting for my big brother and little sister at the chain-link fence.
I remember walking home and not taking candy from strangers and worrying about strangers and slow moving cars.
And I remember wanting to be 8 because that would be better than being 7.