Chrysalis: Emerging Women Writers

January 12, 2010

The First Step of a Novel: Get ‘Er Down

Filed under: Technique,Uncategorized,Writing — Barb @ 11:50 pm
Tags: , , ,

Welcome to the new writers who have joined our group.

A frequent question that has come up is: How should I start writing a novel? We’ll answer that question, but first, raise your hand and repeat after me:

My basic goal is to get the story down on paper.

Now for the different approaches:

Let ‘er Rip:

Sit down, tell the editor in your brain to shut up and write. Now is not the time to fuss over the intro hook, a cliff hanger for every scene, and punctuation. Simply tell your story. Yes, it probably isn’t Pulitzer worthy. Then edit it.  Go through it a couple of times, at least. You’ll find the beginning is usually weaker than the ending because you’ve become a better writer by the time you reached the end.  Edit the beginning several times.

You’ll want to make it the best you can before bringing it to critique. Why would you want folks to tell you things you already know how to do? Use the critique time to gain new insights and info into technique.

Let ‘er Flow(chart)

A story proceeds across my wall in sticky notes.  Different characters’ storylines are in colors, while the main story flows down the center. So, I know the plot, character development, and pacing before I start.  I also know how it begins, ends and where the turning point falls in between. Armed with this information, I’ll follow the Let-er-Rip technique and get the story on paper.  Miss editor-in-my-mind will come by later and make snarky comments.

Let ‘er Be Plotted

This includes not only a visual chart of the characters’ development and story events, but notecards.

*Character notecards (color coded) Contain description, fears, relationships, history, family, nicknames, etc.

*Chapter notecards: Goals for each chapter, Action within chapter; notes about foreshadowing;

YOu may even break chapters into scene notecards.

*Pacing Chart. The action of each chapter or scene can be graphed to give you  visual evidence that your story is not flat-lining.

This technique requires a lot more prep, but the benefit is that you’ll have developed your characters so throughly and the story so deeply that writing will go much more quickly (and usually the editing will too.)

When I first started, I just wanted to write. Phooey on all that planning stuff. There are some very accomplished writers who use this technique successfully.  For me, I  ended up editing the manuscript at least 15 times.  It could probably STILL use some work.

That’s okay. I’ve accomplished my basic goal. Little steps.

Get ‘er Down on Paper.


June 11, 2009

Sweating the Details Before You Get to An Agent.

Filed under: Critiques,Technique,Writing — Barb @ 10:26 am
Tags: , , ,

For Anagram Bookshop in Prague (by Kaspen)

For Anagram Bookshop in Prague (by Kaspen)

When I first started presenting my work for critiques, I slapped it on paper any way I could. Through the years, I’ve noticed the better writers seem to take great pains not only in their words, but also in their presentation for informal discussion.

Even for a critique group their documents are  double-spaced, formatted with 1 inch margins, and have appropriate head space above the chapters.  Of course, their headers contain page numbers, but the name of the novel and writer  is also ever present. In other words,  each week’ these writers present a reading in  ready-for-publication style.

When I asked why, they smiled and said it was easier to  do it right in the first place, rather than try to catch every formatting detail later.

Noah Lukeman, a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts, gives great advice about details in his slim but weighty book, The First Five Pages. He notes that agents draw conclusion about entire manuscripts from the presentation of the first 1500 words.  Inattention to detail:

“may signal carelessness, sloppiness, ignorance or defiance of the industry’s standards; that the writer doesn’t care enough to do the minimum amount of research to make a manuscript industry presentable. Often when a writer’s presentation is careless, his writing is too.”

Critique groups tend to be informal gatherings. We often print on the backside of used copies, in order to save trees and paper.  However, it’s worth kicking ourselves a couple of times to make sure the formatting on the front side is complete. It will allows our fellow readers to concentrate solely on the words and story line.

Now…if I’ll just follow this advice every week, I’ll get more than the  first 5 pages whipped into shape.

May 20, 2009

Slouchers Who Can’t Sing or Write

By Del Ray Artisians

By Del Ray Artisians

What does a choir director say to someone who truly can’t sing?

  • “I’m sorry, we’ve run out of robes.”
  • “We need strong singers like you in the congregation to help them sing the hymns.”
  • “I wouldn’t want you to strain your voice.”
  • “Did you know singing can aggravate sinus problems?
  • “We still need good people for the handbell choir.”
  • “It’s a shame composers don’t write more songs in your style.”
  • “You have a unique range – you hit both notes well”
  • “Did you know there is a new Bible study starting the same night as choir practice, I think you’d get a lot from it.”
  • “You have excellent posture.”

Of all the choirs I’ve participated in, I’ve never heard any of the above statements. NOT BECAUSE I’M A GOOD SINGER.  No, I can’t read music and I tend to follow the voice of whoever I’m standing next to (usually, I’m about a quarter-beat behind them.) I know I’ve thrown folks off the tune.  One gal used to cover her ear when I stood next to her. She kindly said it was to hear the note in her head, but I’m pretty sure it was to block out the rest of us—especially me. That’s okay. She had this vibrato-thing going on and her high notes sounded like one of those ululating women in India.

So why do I sing? Because I enjoy it. It’s a wonderful oral release of spirit and soul. The more I do it, I improve.

I believe it’s the same with writing. Within our group, I’ve never heard a suggestion to stop straining fingers or brain cells and give up writing.In a critique group we share our thoughts about what will make each other’s work stronger.

Like opera stars, the words roll off some folk’s papers like music. For others, the work may be closer to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Why do we write? Because it’s a wonderful written release of the spirit and soul. We are explorers. Why do we evaluate each other? To improve; and the more we do it, the more we improve.

There are layers and goals for our writing.  Sometimes we write only to please ourselves.

Sometimes we consider being represented, so we must grow our skills and write to please an agent.

For those who want to sell their words, then we polish our abilities until they please an editor and publisher.

The higher the stakes, the greater the possibility of rejection. That sends us back down the road to improve some more.

The Can’t Sing Choir at Morely College in East London is a community choir. It’s made up of people who don’t have the confidence to sing or have been begged not to. Participants begin with making a noise and learning rhythm. Some are quite challenged.  They progress through crazy exercises like hitting your left knee with your right, and  then hitting your right knee with your left hand. “It frees the body.” says singing tutor, Andrea  Brown. “You’re so concentrating on d0ing the exercise that the body is less rigid and the vocal mechanism is freer.”  If participants hang in there and take level 3 of The Can’t Sing Choir, they get so good they admit: “Well, yes, we actually can sing.”

With work, we can learn to sing. With concentrated passion, we can learn to write.

Now about that posture……

April 8, 2009

Writing That Jumps off the Page

Of course, we’ve all heard “Show don’t tell” so many times our eyes have begun to goggle. So we use “devices.”

Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.

Anagram Bookshop in Prague, by Kaspen.I wish I could tell you that I've use all these devices with ultimate skill, Which of the following devices do you love to use in your writing to keep your reader riveted?

I’ve probably messed up every one of these techniques at some point in a manuscript. When I’ve overdone the mood,   some honest person in the critique group will write a note in the margin: This seems a bit melodramatic.

They write: Needs more punch”, when I’ve  marginalized the device. Thank heavens for good critique groups. Hopefully, you can learn something from my mistakes.

Thrusters.  I believe that most readers try to figure out what’s going to happen before it happens.  These tiny bits of the puzzle lure them to the next page to collect more information. JK Rowling’s books are riddled with them:

“Harry looked up and saw his own shock reflected in Ron’s and Hermione’s faces. The scars on the back of his right hand seemed to be tingling again.”

Perfect. We need to keep reading to discover the evil that’s making Harry’s hand give an alarm. But I tend to tell the reader a bit too much–just to make myself clear, you know? Often, if I go to the end of one of my chapters and lop off a couple of paragraphs, I’ll find I have a great thruster.

And then there are  Cliffhangers. This device makes me crazy. The last time I used it, I had a guy running across a field naked in sub-zero weather. I went to another scene…and another…and another. The next time the readers saw the naked guy, he was clothed, sitting in a bar, having a beer. I assumed that the reader would intuit that the guy didn’t freeze his begonias off since he was now languishing in a bar.  Oh, they figured it out all right, and they were irritated that I didn’t show them. NOPE. I learned that if you start something that causes tension, you better finish it in front of the reader.

I’ve laid Traps and botched them because everyone knew. I’ve learned it works so much better if the reader knows about a possible trip-up, but the protagonist is about to blindly stumble into it. I wanted to show how cleaver my hero was at avoiding traps; but I got double bang for my words by showing how the protagonist was clever at getting OUT of traps (Think about it. If James Bond never fell for any tricks, he’d just be drinking martinis and using corny lines on women.)

I love the Ticking Clock technique. (Never mind that I once wrote a scene where the hero had to battle a group of savages before he could save a boy hanging from a cliff. I got so carried away with the fight scene that no one believed the kid could have held on that long. ) (P.S. It was a good fight scene…okay….it was too long). I think of it as the Jack Bauer Syndrome: Jack saves the entire world every hour…it seems impossible.

Perhaps you’re a fan of Imagery to make your writing leap off the page. I went through several stages in learning this technique.

  • Color: She sipped green tea from a pink china cup while curled up on blue fluffy comforter. (Thank goodness that phase didn’t last past the first edit.)
  • Metaphors or similes: Done well, these are artforms. Done poorly, they make the reader cringe. “It rained hard, like BBs dropping from the sky.  (GAAK…take cover from the BBs and the poor comparison.)

That’s the great thing about critique groups. We don’t have to make every mistake. We can learn from others, and hopefully save ourselves some edits. I’ve learned other things, but…now it’s your turn.

What’s your favorite technique to make words jump off the page?

April 1, 2009

Writing: It’s All About ME. ME. ME.

Thanks to I Haz A Cheeseburger

Thanks to I Haz A Cheeseburger

If You’re Not Writing, Why Do you Come to Chrysalis?

  • “Because I’m thinking about writing.”
  • “I enjoy the creative company of writers.”
  • “My parole officer says it would be good for me.” Okay maybe this one isn’t true (but it I’d like to read this memoir, wouldn’t you?)

Truth is…

there are more reasons to attend a great critique group, than simply getting input about your writing. Educational articles are emphatic in  underlining that the real benefit of attending a critique group is the learning/sharing process.

From poets, to essayest, to autobiographies to fiction, each writer carries a different voice, style and perspective.

True. True.

But let me tell you a little secret that I’ve discovered while doing some personal mining during this Lenten Season.  I’ve discovered that the thing that lights my fire  is: opportunities for ME! ME! ME!!

Each person exposes me to different research. Cultures. Lifestyles. The latest slang.

I’m learning something every second I’m sitting with all of you.

And here’s another confession. While you’re reading your piece, I’m over there, snagging your great lines, making notes about how you painted a character so I like them at their very first appearance. I’m studying you’re dialogue and wondering if I can work in “tags” like you do.

I’m borrowing your ideas so I can dissect them and stitch them back together like a Coraline doll. Do I feel guilty about that? NOPE!

I listened to an in-depth interview between John Mellencamp and Terry Gross last night on FRESH AIR (NPR).  He laughed at a question about the encyclopedia of songs he’d written. “I only have 4 songs,” he said. “I just write ’em different ways.”

And that’s why I come to Chrysalis. So you can teach me a new song.

Nancilee said it best in one of her comments about receiving/giving critiques.

“I firmly believe that in the end the words are mine, they may be influenced by your comments, but ultimately they were birthed by the author’s experience.

“So, now that I am stronger in who I am and what I want my words to express, I say, critique to the best of your experience. And I will write to the best of my “imagination and feeling.”

The hope is together we have co-created something moving, tender and alive with the humor,joy, sorrow and grief that life throws our way day in and day out.”

Yeah…that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Why Do You Come To Chrysalis???

March 19, 2009

Rough and Ready Critiques

Filed under: Critiques,Writing — Barb @ 12:34 am
Tags: , , ,
Thanks to I has a Dog

Thanks to I has a Dog

! Wow!

What an interesting discussion we had today at Chrysalis about giving a critique.  I’ll see if I can’t incite as much ranting with this week’s topic:

How to Receive information Without Throttling Someone.

Okay, this is Soooooo  simple. Books about critique groups: How to Survive a Critique Group; How to Start a Critique Group, etc. Give different advice about most topics, but the one thing that almost all “experts” agree on is:

After you finish reading and while others are commenting on your words, then it’s your turn to SHUT UP.

That’s it. It’s simple, yes? Just read and nod.  You can ask a question if you don’t understand what the critiquer is trying to say, but mostly you nod and thank folks for their perspectives.

Here’s why. It doesn’t really matter if someone thinks your beginning paragraph should be moved to the 3rd page.  Or your main character should wear a pork-pie hat instead of a Bowler. Or if the reader prefers that you use the word “faded” instead of “rolled out of sight”.  they are telling you what they would like to see, or perhaps giving you a clue into something that is taking they away from the action or confusing them.  It doesn’t mean that they are right and your’re wrong.  Ultimately, you, the writer, have the final say in how it will appear on paper.  So why argue?

Sounds simple.

So I ask myself:  Why do I want to defend what I’ve written if I disagree with critique?  Why say anything unless I’m trying to clarify what I hear someone saying about my writing.

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally learning that many of the suggestions that I’ve rejected, have at least a skosh of merit after I smooth my hackles and let some time pass.

One time I was gardening and thinking about someone’s storyline. I realized that my suggestions wouldn’t work. (They were actually STOOOPID). I wished I could edit my critique. I called the person to apologize. “Don’t worry,” she said. I ignored them.

Bravo!  It’s your story to write.

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