As a teacher and mother of grown children (23 and 19), I love summer. Lots of time to catch up on writing projects, but most importantly: tons of lazing in the sunshine reading.
This summer, I managed to devour five delicious stories. Because I write contemporary young adult, I read books from that genre. However, I also gobble up my favorite adult fiction.
If you want to follow my reading rants, check out my Goodreads page, or click this link to reviews I post here.
Now, check out these five writing tips I learned from the books I read this summer.
High Fidelity: find a line or phrase that ties into your story’s theme. Repeat it throughout your novel. Nick Hornby makes lists. He has a Top Five for almost everything in his life. This works really well for the character (a lonely and serial boyfriend record shop owner) and the theme (finding happiness with one thing).
Al Capone Does My Shirts: make your setting do extra work. In this middle grade read, author Gennifer Choldenko uses 1950s Alcatraz as a backdrop to seventh grader Moose’s caged life looking after his autistic older sister. If she had set this story in the city of San Francisco—where some scenes take place—it wouldn’t have worked as well. The island prison says so much metaphorically for Moose and his family.
Misery: every summer needs at least one creepy Stephen King read. Since I never read the book—just saw the film—I decided I could handle the suspense while reading in the bright sunlight on a California beach. There is so much to learn from this man, but in the case of Misery, it’s all about characters. King knows how to make the most repulsive people likable. Annie Wilkes is a monster, but she’s also a tormented woman with a troubled past, a town against her, and a compulsion for sweets after she’s been BAD. If you write mean characters in your stories, give them a quality that makes readers say, “oh, well, yeah she chopped his leg off, but come one, she’s got those cute porcelain statues.”
That Time I Joined the Circus: like High Fidelity, this story has great recurring hooks and phrases that help us feel safe in an unfamiliar world. JJ Howard introduces us to a young girl who meets tragedy and must leave home to find home. She takes her quirks with her, though. Of course. One thing the girl likes is music. She’s always comparing an event to a song she heard. Howard uses the song title and a lyric in her chapter headings. As we journey from circus land to circus land, from New York to Miami, we always feel at home because of the music.
It Should Have Been a #GoodDay: if you are working on a story with multiple POVs, you might check this quick read by Natalie Corbett Sampson. There are four narrators, each taking us through the same day. As the story heats up, we use the varying perspectives to figure out how things might pan out. One of the narrators is an autistic teenager. His voice is stellar. Because we hear the other characters’ thoughts and feelings, we learn a lot about how other kids see those with differences. This is a perfect format to showcase autism and the fears and prejudices we can carry.
What are you reading? If you picked up a great idea for your writing, please share it in the comments below.
That’s my story, what’s yours?
You've heard the terms plotter and pantser. Which one are you?
I'll give you a hint about me: I'm a Virgo.
In my own regular life, I plan my day, leave myself sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, set alarms to remind me about appointments or what to pick up at the store. I don't leave things to chance. Certainly not my memory.
I plot my day, so of course I plot my books.
Why? For me, it sends events in motion. If I know what's coming, I can lay the groundwork with intention. Instead of taking the fun out of writing, planing keeps me on point and my stories tighter. That makes me happy.
Here are my five plotter must have's:
1. Alarm Clock: you can't write if you're still in bed. I teach, so for most of the year, I'm working during my favorite time to write. What to do? I set my alarm clock thirty minutes or more before I need to get up. Since getting up is usually at 6:30, I try to get up at 6 or 5:30. Otherwise, I will write at night. It all depends on my day. You can't schedule creative, so I need to write when time avails me.
2. Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT: I discovered Snyder's easy to follow beats two years ago at a SCBWI conference. Three authors attested to it, gave us all a quick how-to and why-to, and I was sold. I outline my plot to the beats of Snyder's three-act outline, tweak what I need to, and follow this when I set up my chapters and map my character arcs. This saves time and frees me up to focus on the story and creative process.
3. Scrivener: Oh, how I love my Scrivener! This writing app puts everything I need at my fingertips (my keyboard fingertips). I have written many blog posts about this tool's awesome features; check them out if you want. The best part of Scrivener? I can't choose one thing, but I do love the character and setting templates and the ability to upload pictures for both. Right now, I'm editing my new YA mystery. The revision mode lets you write in a different color, which makes it easy to find your new ideas after hours of editing.
4. Critique partners: Of course you can have critique partners if you pants your way through stories, but I can't let a blog post like this go by without a shout-out to my dear crits Gwynne Jackson and Jessica Gruner. Critique partners are vital at each stage of your writing. Whether you are planning, writing, editing, or revising, these smart people will give you the feedback you need to make your story better. I brainstorm plots, pluck their brains when a plot point goes awry, and take in their suggestions when I finished my story and am preparing to edit.
5. A good kind of pressure: This can come from anyone and anywhere. Your family, friends, Twitter buddies, neighbors, or colleagues. But no one can apply that necessary pressure to get you writing and thinking about your story if you don't tell them what you are up to. Let the world know you are writing the next bestseller. Locate beta readers for feedback, too. Their feedback and suggestions or whoops and wows will motivate you to keep going.
Whether you plan your story scene-to-scene before you write or sit down in front of a blank page and let it flow, you need support. I love to connect with other writers. Please find me on Twitter or Facebook. Let's connect and support each other.
That's my story; what's yours?
To my fellow Americans, Happy Independence Day!
To my fellow planetary citizens, Happy Fourth of July (& fifth, sixth, ...)!
In honor of this country's independence, I'm setting my break-away from prepositional phrases at the forefront. (How many did you count in that sentence?)
Hi, my name is Ellen, and I am a prep-phrase-aholic.
Don't get me wrong, these adorable word compositions have their place in your writing. They also take up your word count.
First, a definition.
The trick--as with all writing techniques--is to know when to use them and when to not. What works for me might not work for you, but here's what I do.
First, I write. With abandon. Don't look back. Kick that inner grammar critic in the family jewels until you've finished. Then, when you are editing, call her back and make friends.
That's when you search out filter words, overused phrases, extra adverbs and adjectives, and all the other flowery stuff that gets in the way of your story. It's my experience that once I bring such grammatical situations to my attention, I can hunt them down. They sort of pop up like metal ducks at a shooting range. Some I catch, some I don't. But practice makes perfect, right?
I'll work on weeding out overused prepositional phrases in my writing, will you?
That's my story, what's yours?
So you are working on your novel, and you think it's pretty good. Then you start querying it, and agents tell you they aren't "feeling it." You open up your manuscript and look for the holes, find where to add the spice, pluck out the bad bits.
It's kind of hit or miss at this point. You've been working on this baby for more than a year, so what do you do now?
Put it away for a week at least.
Take it back out, and read the whole thing like a book. That's what it is, right?
Whatever you do, you do not give up.
Cue, LOCKER ROOM SPEECH:
You write this book like it's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Sure you were down 3-1, but you came back, baby. You stormed onto the home-team's court and played like a boss. Even after many had villified you for changing teams, they loved you when you returned.
You don't know the word NO, and you are not a loser.
You have coaches and trainers who guide and mold you, but at the end of the day, it's all up to you. You have to write like you mean it, edit like there is no tomorrow, polish and revise to make room for that trophy. This is it.
I write because I have stories in my head. I write because I love it. Never do I sit down and think, damn, I guess I have to write today. There is no place I'd rather be than in front of a story I am creating. I love my characters, and I want them to find readers who will love them, too.
Writing can be a solitary game, but you must remember there are people out there to help: critique partners, beta readers, editors, and agents, Listen to all of the advice and feedback. Then use what feels right. Just because the story came out of your head doesn't mean it doesn't need a little massaging. Flowers grow because we feed them, give them sunlight and water.
Feed your story. It's Game 7, and the heat is on. (Sure, go ahead and mix metaphors.) Do not give up. That is not an option.
You got this!
That's my story, what's yours?
No matter where you are in writing your story, weather can play a part in moving the action forward, defining a character, or throwing a wrench in the path of good or evil.
Great writers from Shakespeare to Steinbeck have successfully used weather in their stories. If it weren't for the drought, the Joads might never have set out to California. In The Tempest, we can't forget how Prospero used weather for his own good.
Here's how you can hurl lightning bolts at your villains or paint rainbows for your protagonists and get away with it.
PLOT. If you are stuck moving the action forward, change the weather. When your MC steps outside without an umbrella and is caught in a sudden downpour, does he slip into a cafe for a fortuitous encounter with someone? Does he hop on a bus to avoid the weather? Does that bus crash? Is it the wrong bus, and he ends up late for (work, a date, picking up a child)? Insurance companies don't take responsibility for acts of God. Neither must writers. Use storms, landslides, earthquakes. These things happen without notice.
CHARACTER. How do your characters respond to different weather events? Use them to reveal moods, fears, hopes, or long-lost dreams. Maybe every time it rains, your character is reminded of the day his dog died. Or whenever she sees a rainbow, she makes a wish. Don't go overboard. No one likes a cliche. Subtlety is your best move.
SETTING. Last but not least, we must talk about the obvious. Depending on where your story is set, some weather events just won't come up. It's unlikely an earthquake will hit in Iowa or that a monsoon will flood Arizona. If you are writing realistic fiction, study the weather in the area where your story is set. You might discover some freak storm that hit years back. You could use that for a tragic backstory, or it could be the reason for your character's behavior or motivation.
That's my story. What's yours?
Please share your ideas in the comment section below! Happy writing :)
This week, my creative writing students listened to the accordion. Many had never heard an accordion before. They didn't know what it would sound like, and they had no idea what it looked like.
It was a new sensory experience.
To my surprise, several students enjoyed the chaotic old world hum and breath of this most unusual style of music. Of course, there were a few who shot daggers at me with their eyes. So I did what any writing teacher might, I told them to use what they were feeling and experiencing and put it in their story.
It's one thing to try to bring anger into a scene; it's quite another to feel it as you are writing it.
Music allows us to tap into our emotions on many levels.
Try this experiment. As you listen to each musical clip below, pause to write about what you are feeling, seeing, hearing, and imagining. See where the music takes you, your story, or your characters.
Polka Dots remix
Masego x Medasin
The Ballet Edition
Please share your experience with these tracks. I'd love to hear how they impacted your writing.
That's my story. What's yours?
When I think about my boring day, I wonder why I can't bump into John Cusack at the glove counter or come across an injured famous writer in a snowbank (not that I'd take him home and torture him). My life is neither a romantic comedy nor a suspense novel. My life is.
Yet that is where great story nuggets begin--in the mundane moments of our lives.
In my current agent-seeking YA manuscript, IN BLOOM, the story begins with an obssessive-compulsive teenager straightening her rug while her brother tries to share some strange news. That news plays out later in the story, but it's a fun way to introduce the two siblings and show their idiosyncrasies.
Consider three recent great tales and their openings:
- A boy suspended from school spends the day at the museum with his mom. (THE GOLDFINCH)
-A woman takes an interest in events outside her window on her daily train ride. (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN).
-A boy and a girl spend mundane mornings riding the bus to school. (ELEANOR AND PARK)
-A boy's attempt to kill himself is stalled when he spots a girl toying with the same fate. (ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES)
Each of these moments present a great way to open your story. Let's explore.
1. Transportation exploration. Putting your main character on a bus, train, plane, car trip, bike, or whatever is a great one to have her accidentally witness something, unexpectedly run into someone, or serendipitously find something.
2. Field trip. Whether your character is school-age or adult, a school field trip provides numerous opportunities such as those mentioned above. On a field trip, your MC can get lost, meet a stranger, find a strange item (in a bathroom, on the ground, in a gift shop), or learn something useful that might save her life later (i.e., how the ancient Egyptians stopped poisoning).
3. Beginning with an Ending. Start your story with your MC either trying to end his life or getting into an accident. Here, you have opportunity for another important character to enter. This character could be someone he later saves or who has another meaning to him (long lost... sister... brother... etc.).
Clearly, that last one is no ordinary life moment, but tragedy happens all the time. As a writer, you have the opportunity to turn those ordinary moments into something extraordinary.
Spend the day chronicling your life moments--the grocery store, bank line, work, lunch, phone calls--and find that catalyst that could turn dramatic.
That's my story, what's yours?
These past weeks, my writing students are exploring the sci-fi genre. At first, they were skeptical. Why sci-fi? Why not fantasy or romance or horror?
Because I'm the teacher, and I want to learn more about writing science fiction. I've never written anything in this genre. While my list of favorite movies includes more sci-fi than not, I don't read the genre nor do I right it.
Time for a change.
This has been my game plan so far:
1. Learn about the Moon. We spent a few weeks looking at images, reading poems, watching historical footage, and writing about our lunar satellite. We kept watch of the moon in the sky, and we reported back on what we were doing when we saw it, or what we thought it looked like up there. We created a list of facts and myths.
2. We watched Pixar's La Luna. This animated short helped students understand the basic elements needed to tell a story. Plus, the Moon.
2. We practiced writing sprints. Students wrote for five to eight minutes on Asteroids hitting earth, something coming around the corner, and what it would be like to be on the moon.
3. We remembered stuff. Students made a list of ten things they remember. For these writers, that's about one item a year since age two or three. Next, we chose one memory and wrote as much about it as we could remember.
4. We watched a montage of great sci-fi flicks and recorded the science-y piece in each. Movies included: Terminator, Jurassic Park, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. From these films, we created weird things found in sci-fi.
Here's a few on our list:
-humans acting like machines
-machines acting like humans
-humans with animal qualities
-animals with human qualities
-robots, computers, and cyborgs, oh my
-altered retellings of historical events
5. Now we are taking our memory and adding something from this list.
I write with my students, so I am also developing a sci-fi short story. Hopefully, when we finish--in about six weeks--I will post their stories here.
I am having a blast developing my story, and it's easier than I thought. After all, science fiction is simply a real story with a little bit of science to take it in a whole new direction. Like I tell my students, tell your story about when you fell off your bike, then ask yourself, "what if..."
What if ... the bike started talking because it was an alien ... your wounds healed automatically because of the bike grease ... your bike could take you through a time portal ...
Once you start with the what if's, there's no telling where your story will go.
Do you write science fiction? How do you get started?
That's my story.