Writing · Writing Guide

Finding Theme.

About two and a half years ago I went to a writer’s workshop taught by Kelly Sue DeConnick.  I talk about that workshop a lot, because it pretty much changed my life.  I had been writing for as long as I could remember, but that workshop was the first time I really started to see how stories are made.  She also said she often starts with characters, which leads to plot, which leads to theme.  

Not everyone writes this way of course. In both novels and comics, there are great writers out there that start with plot, or theme, and work at it from another angle.

Do what works for you.  If you are not sure what that is, play with with different ways of approaching a story.

This is what works for me, most of the time:

I start with character, sometimes I have a plot or backstory in mind for them.  That’s when I start to think about theme.  What do I want this story to say?  What do I want to say?  I may have a draft started or even finished at this point, or I might be half way through and not sure where the story is going.  Theme helps me focus those ideas.

I’ve been working on a lot of shorter stories lately (along with revisions on my first novel and the first draft of my second) so theme has been on my mind often lately.  For me, theme definitely does spring from character.  For short stories especially, you want that theme to run throughout the story, but not be so obvious that the reader feels like they are being hit over the head with it.

Theme can often be a way for the author to share their voice in a more subtle way.  In my story Teeth, Nails and Pain the theme was about overcoming an abusive relationship.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t write that story with a theme in mind.  That story sort of wrote itself, but the ones that followed were not quite so easy.

Once the story is written, the theme maybe clearly stated or just implied.  It is up to you as the author the approach you take.  In one of my more recent stories, the first words we read the characters saying are actually the theme.  I felt that it set the tone for the story and let the reader clearly know what I was about to write about.  Your story may start out with something like “The world is a wild place.” and follow with a plot about living in the wild, or maybe it’s about how humans live in cities, but we’re still savage animals deep down.  Either way, you’ve mentioned your theme, and in that story, your reader will know what to expect.

In  Teeth, Nails and Pain, I did the opposite.  The theme isn’t completely revealed until the twist ending.  Though my theme may have been less intentional in that story, the twist was not, and that is what ties my theme and plot together.

If you have written a story but you’re not sure what the theme is, go back through it and look at what the characters are fighting for or against.  What do they want?  What have they done to get it?  Why is it important?  Did they fail?

What does that all say?  What do you want it say?

 

Writing Guide

Short Story Elements: Themes

I’ve been studying up on what makes a good short story lately, as I work on my own short fiction and submit it for publication.  During this time I’ve learned a few things along the way that I wanted to share with you.  I have listened to several podcasts, watch youtube videos and read articles about what makes a good short story and there was one thing that came up in most of them:

Your beginning needs to match your end.

What does this mean exactly?  It means that if you read your beginning and your ending one after the other, that some of the same elements should flow through each of them.  For example, if your beginning is all about saving the planet from aliens, your ending should not be about how your hero has decided to be a chicken farmer.  They don’t match thematically.  Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be fully triumphant, she can fail, but it still needs to match your beginning in terms of theme.

In this video about short stories, David M. Harris discusses how to get ideas for short stories, but he also discusses how the protagonist can fail.  You simply need to make sure the failure is still a satisfying end for the story.  Going back to my previous example, maybe our protagonist fails at saving the planet from aliens, but she manages to steal a ship, save a portion of the human population, and plot a course for a different planet where the human race can start over.

She failed, but it’s a satisfying end for your reader, if you do it right.  It can leave them thinking of what the planet is like, what the possibilities are for this new version of the human race.

All parts of the story must contribute to the story as a whole.

“Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action”
– Kurt Vonnegut.

Because short fiction is condensed, you cannot have fluff or parts that are not doing the work of moving the plot forward in some way.  Kurt Vonnegut has great advice about this (As well as some great guidelines to short fiction, here), “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”

If a sentence or paragraph is not showing us something about the characters or moving the plot forward, that you may want to consider either revising or cutting that section of the story.

The way I write characters drive the plot.  Plot drives the theme.  This is why both of these elements are things you should carefully consider as you craft your story.  If your theme does not match the story you’ve written, it may be time to reconsider the theme and do revisions with your new theme in mind.

Look to what the characters do and the plot to determine what themes would work for you.  As for the alien story, the themes we could play with could be something like “Woman faces her fear of her alien overlords and rebels.”  If we boil that down a bit more, it might look like “Woman rebels against corrupt system.”

What are your favorite tips about writing short stories?  What are you favorite short stories? I would love to hear them.

 

Productivity · Time Management

Productively Tools: RescueTime, Momentum, and Strict Workflow

If you are anything like me, you probably hop on the computer and at first you’re totally ready to write, but only after you check facebook.  And tumblr.  And several other sites that suck your time into the void, never to return.

I won’t lie, I still do this, but I’ve found a few handy tools that help me cut into that time and ensure I stay productive with my writing time.  Here they are:

Rescue Time

Rescue time can be install via the link above and I also have the Chrome extension on my browser.  With the Chrome browser extension, I can check my productivity for the day at the top of my browser.  You can also go to their website and sign-in for more detailed information.

REscuetime
My weekly dashboard at Rescue Time’s website

My favorite feature?  The weekly productivity email I get on Sunday.  Each week it shows me how productive I was, what I spent most of my time on and how my productivity compares with the week before.  It’s an easy way to see how much time I’ve spent on facebook, or other sites, and how much time I spent in Scrivener writing.

You can categorize your activities however you like, which is great!  If you actually use facebook for business on a regular basis, you can change its category to reflect that.

Momentum

Momentum is one of those awesome little extensions/apps you use so often you forget how helpful it is.  Momentum is replaces the new tab page with a dashboard you can personalize.  It includes: A place where you can put your focus for the day, a to do list, a place for your favorite links, the weather in your area, a beautiful background image and inspirational quotes.  

momentum

I don’t use the to do list as much, since I have my bullet journal for that, but the reminder of what my focus is helps me stay on track for the day.  The background images tend to be very breath-taking and inspirational for me as a writer.  It also helps you remember that you should be working, when you open that tab to check out what’s happening on Twitter.

Strict Workflow

I’ve written about the Pomodoro Technique before, where you work in 25 minute on/5 minute off productivity units.  Strict Workflow extension works with that template, except it works for your browser.  When you press the little red tomato at the top of your screen, it blocks distracting sites for 25 minutes, so you can work uninterrupted by your need to see what that friend from high school is doing.

What the 25 minutes is up you’ll hear an alarm go off, and you can then click the now green tomato for a 5 minute break.  You can surface facebook, tumblr and any of your other blocked sites for 5 minutes, then the alarm will ring again and you can again click the tomato to start another 25 minute work session.

STrictworkflow

Be aware, once you install this extension the only way to see the sites you have blocked during that 25 minute work session is to uninstall the app.  You can also change which sites you have blocked and what amount of time you want to work/have a break.

 

Hopefully these help you!  Let me know what you’ve used to be more productive!  I’m always up for new tools.

Writing

Fail Better: Part 2

The first post I wrote about this subject was mostly about what writers hear as they journey through their path to becoming published.  This post will be about how you can actually fail upward.  I’m not sure we can actually call it a failure, as long as you learn something.

Over the past two years I’ve sent out short stories, worked on novels, sent out comic scripts, all in hopes of getting my work published.  A few times those things have worked out beautifully, but more often than not I’ve either gotten “This wasn’t quite what we were looking for.” or no response at all.  But most of the time?  I learned something about submitting, something about writing, or just something about myself in the process.

Don’t get me wrong.  I did not receive those rejects with a spring in my step and a smile on my face.  Rejection always hurts, but if I don’t keep trying and working at it, I’ll never reach my goals.

Speaking of goals, my dear friend Yen wrote an really great post about goals and resolutions over on Virtuosity11.11.  She specifically talks about how to break goals down so that they are easier to accomplish and she’s actually the person who helped me figure out how to make some of my resolutions measurable.

Once you have a goal in mind, failure doesn’t quite sting as strongly, because you can remind yourself that everything you do is in service of that goal.  Goals help you plan for the future and figure out steps toward what you want.

For example, one of my goals this year is to submit at least two short stories for publication each month.  I’ve had this goal in the past, but now, I approach goals on a yearly, monthly, weekly basis.  I look at my month, at my deadlines and figure out when I need the first drafts, second drafts and final versions done of my stories.

Now, even after all this work and all the revisions, there’s still a rather good chance I won’t get every story published.  The only way to get better at writing, is to continue to do it.  So even if each story does not work out, I’m still practicing my craft, studying more about the art I love so dearly.  There’s something to be said for sticking with it, even when it seems like nothing is going right.

None of the authors, screen writers or comic writers got where they are today because they took rejection to heart and never wrote again.

So fail.  Fail a lot.  But always try again.

 

 

Uncategorized · Writing

And we begin again.

I spent a lot of 2015 figuring out the direction I wanted for my life.  I actually started this blog about two years ago, but for the first year or so it  laid dormant, until a friend of mine asked if I would write a guest blog for his website’s blog (Which has some amazing/inspirational posts).  At that point, I blew the dust off this blog and started to try post regularly.

I plan to do a lot of things in 2016.  Finish a novel, including all the revisions of it, so I can start publishing.  Submit short stories, hope they get published as well.  Make comics.  And blog a lot more.

I started this blog to highlight my writing, but as it has gone on, I’ve used it to share what I’ve learned about writing along the way.  I also wanted to hear from others and find out what they’ve learned along the way.  Our greatest resource is always the people around us.  I want to share things I love, and perhaps don’t love so much, over the next year.

One thing I’ve learned in the last year that I want to share with you is this:

If you don’t make a goal, a real and measurable goal, you aren’t going to get anywhere.

Let’s break that down for a second here.  The goal has to be real.  I want to write professionally and write comics professionally someday.  That is a real goal, but it would not be real if I put that I wanted to work for Marvel in 2 months.  That’s not achievable for me, yet.

How do I make a real goal that reflects that dream?  I could say that I’ll make my own comics, reach out to artists to collaborate, learn more about writing  comics over the next year.

Next, it has to be measurable.  I learned a lot about measurable goals when I taught special education.  Each student has to have individual goals that you can show real progress on.  If you can’t measure a goal, you can’t show progress.

One of my goals this year was to revise the novel I made last year.  At first I just wrote down “Revise VF novel” which is vague and not really measurable.  With encouragement from my best friend I wrote down deadlines for the completed first revision, when I wanted to send it to beta readers, when I wanted to start draft two, and finally, when I wanted to start publishing it.  That’s measurable progress.  If I miss deadlines, I’m not making the progress I need to complete that goal.

So make some goals.  Make them measurable and real.  Make sure they are something you can achieve in the time frame you plan to finish them in.

What are your goals for the year?  How are you going to work towards them?  Tell me how you do it, I’d love to hear your feedback!

Writing · Writing Guide

Writing about Mental Illness

Last spring I had the pleasure of working on a fan comic project that was intended to give the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) a bit of well-deserved redemption.  Based on her portrayal over the last few decades, it is very likely that Wanda suffers from some form of mental illness, which directly effects her life, the use of her powers and those around her.  Last week I got to see the final version of the project and if you would like to read the comic, the CBR download is here and the PDF is here.  I wrote the script for the first two pages of the comic and helped develop the plot of the story, along with an amazing team of other writers and artists.

I can’t remember a time when mental illness, in one form or another, was not a part of my daily life.  Around the age of 7 or 8 my parents pulled me aside to have a talk about my father’s diagnosis.  He had Bipolar type I, but at the young age I was, I didn’t understand that technical term and took to calling it “Polar bear disease” because that was what I could remember.  My father actually went on to do a medical residency a few years later to become a psychiatrist and my mother later got her masters degree and additional certifications to become a licensed clinical social worker.

For this and many other reasons, mental illness was often a part of my life.  I grew up with a better understanding of it because of my exposure both to my father’s struggles and to his medical knowledge, as well as my mother’s knowledge of different sorts of therapy and different sorts of treatment.  This is also why when I see negative or horribly inaccurate portrayals of mental illness, I find myself quite bothered.  Many writers see things like Dissociate Identity Disorder (Formerly know as multiple personality disorder) or Bipolar in the media and then go on to repeat the mistakes of those portrayals.

There are many ways to avoid these pitfalls.  Here are a few I suggest as you consider writing a character with a mental illness.

Mental Illness can (and often does) effect daily functioning.

Even when a someone is medicate and in therapy, they may still struggle with small symptoms of their illness.  Where someone who is mentally healthy can make a phone call, go to the grocery store, have a conversation without thinking about it, someone with a mental illness may not have such an easy time with any of these tasks.  They may be too depressed to call a friend to go for lunch, or anxious about leaving their house to get groceries.

Mental illness is not a quirky personality attribute.  

I have seen character worksheets where a mental illness is mentioned but never addressed in the story.  It is treated like a character attribute, something to make the character unique and interesting, rather than treated with realism.  It’s disrespectful to treat mental illness like it’s just flavor text to make your character more eccentric.  If you write a character with mental illness, it should be an intentional, researched choice.  Not something you think will make them seem quirky.

Speak with mental health professionals about mental illness.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers spend years in school studying mental illness and the treatment of these illnesses.  Once they complete their schooling, they put that knowledge into practice.  They are a great resource to learn more about both the technical side of mental health and how treatment is put into practice.  There were times while developing the Scarlet Witch comic that I relied on professional knowledge to help shape my script.

Also, it is important to be aware of different roles that these professionals play.  I’ve often heard people complain that their psychiatrist did not provide therapy, which is actually to be expected.  Psychiatrists are medical doctors who tend to deal more with the medical side of treatment, including but not limited to things like medication management.  Psychologists and social workers tend to be the better contact if you are seeking therapy or writing about someone seeking therapy.

Speak with those that suffer from the illness you intend to write about, speak with their family and friends if you are able.

Though mental illness diagnoses carry similar symptoms, people can experience them in different ways.  If you intend to write a specific illness, you will want to reach out to those with that illness and get a realistic take on how they live and function with their illness.  Being the child of someone with Bipolar disorder, I am able to bring my knowledge of that disease and it’s symptoms to my writing.  I have also had many conversations with family and friends, including my father, about their experiences with mental illness.  If I did not have that knowledge base, I might feel very lost when approaching this sort of subject matter.

Remember that the character is a person first, that their illness is not the only trait they possess.

Unless the story is specifically about their illness (and even then) it is important to remember that a person is not just reduced to their mental illness.  I think a good example of this is movies like “A Beautiful Mind” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”  Both films have a protagonist that struggle greatly with mental illness, but there is so much more to them than their mental illness.  A personal with mental illness still has wants, dreams and aspirations, often which they must work doubly hard towards.  It is important to approach these characters as a whole person, so they do not become a trope or stereotypical portrayal.

Writing · Writing Guide

Writing Better Dialogue

We’ve all seen it at one time or another.  The writing could be amazing, great descriptions, good plot, but then the characters start to talk….

And they are either wooden or awkward or they all sound alike.  I believe even writers with a talent for dialogue would do well to go back and look at what their character say now and then. The problem with bad dialogue is that is can take your reader out of the story very quickly.  I have few tricks I’ve developed over the years to help my dialogue sound and read better.

If you’re worried about wooden dialogue, stop, and read the words out loud.  Do the voices if you need to and change your tone, but read it out loud and see how the dialogue flows when spoken.  It’s a simple solution for a complex problem.  You’ll find as you speak the words, you will be able to tell if they dialogue is perhaps a little bit off.

Listen to the conversations around you and try to figure out how they flow.  Conversations tend to have rules, even if they are informal.  Listen to the back and forth of verbal turn taking, you could also watch the body language of people as they interact, but that’s more description than dialogue.  This could also help you figure out characters.  Do you have a friend that constantly talks over everyone?  Do you have a friend that seems to speak in as few words as they possibly can?  My husband is taciturn, and tends to only speak in groups when spoken to.  If the dialogue is true to character, it will be more likely to be good dialogue.

Try to make the voices distinct.  As I mentioned before, different people speak in different ways.  If I were a character in a book, it might be my habit of sayings things like “Ugh, no.” or “Totes my goats” that might set me apart.  I don’t say them all the time, but they pepper my speech along with similar phrases.  My husband on the other hand, would be more likely to speak in short phrases with the occasional bad pun.  Each of your characters should have a slightly distinct quality to the way they speak.  Watching real people can help you get a grasp of some of the more subtle nuances in the language patterns people use.

Read books with good dialogue.  Some of my personal favorites are books from Jim Butcher.  He makes his characters very distinct and his conversations, especially in the Dresden Files series, have really excellent flow.

Do you have any tips for better dialogue?  Please feel free to share them in the comments!  I’m always looking for other ways to improve.

Also, three days and counting until NaNoWriMo?  Are you ready?  I’m not.  But I’ll get there!

Writing · Writing Guide

Being Concise vs. Being Descriptive

I actually don’t think that concise writing needs to be at odds with descriptive writing, but I often see writers who will add a lot of fluff to their writing.  Usually this is for one or two reasons.  They either want their writing to come off as poetic and full of flow, or they want to sound smart.

There is a careful line to walk when you write descriptive passages.  Metaphors and similes can be used to communicate meaning and put your reader deeper into your story.  Good descriptions help the reader imagine the scene, but when the prose becomes overly poetic, it can actually work against what the writer is trying to achieve.  I have a rule of thumb when I read writing from friends.  If I have to read a sentence more than twice to understand it, it needs to be edited.  Realistically the goal should be that a reader only has to read any given sentence in your writing once to understand it.

The goal of writing is to communicate.  If your prose is too flowery or over written, it can get in the way of that communication.  Poetry is a bit different than prose, as it is often more focused on interpretation and art.  The goal of writing fiction or non-fiction is to tell a story.  If the reader has to dig through fluff to get to the story, then the writer is not doing their job correctly.  This is where the need to be concise and clear becomes important.  You want to tell a story that captivates the reader, one that they effortless fall into without realizing it.  If your descriptions are understandable, it removes one more obstacle for the reader, and they then can get lost in your story.  

Another trend I’ve seen among some writing groups I’ve been involved in, is the need to sound intelligent by using big and seldom seen words.  I’m going to rely on the wisdom of the R&B group TLC to help explain my point.  “Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”   This adage can also be applied to words.  In day and age where a good thesaurus is just a click away, it may be tempting to find a word that looks cool and replace the mundane word you had originally.

Do not do this!  Stick to words that you both know and understand.  Not all words that a thesaurus provides are completely interchangeable and really, if your goal is to make your writing sound edgy or smart, you will have defeated the purpose.  There will be readers out there who know what that word means and they will realize you’ve used it incorrectly.  So stick to words you know and try to expand your vocabulary. 

If you do have a big word and you know how to use it, make sure there are contextual cues for those that may not know the word.  This means that the sentence and prose surrounding the word give the reader enough information that they can infer what the word means.

Flowery and big words does not a good story make.  Many people argue that books like the Twilight series are full of bad writing.  Maybe, but it is writing you can understand and a story that is compelling enough that the books sold alarmingly well.  You want to assume your reader is intelligent, so do not talk down to them, but also do not make them pick up a dictionary every other minute while reading your work.  It’s the quickest way to get them to put down your story.

NaNoWrimo · Writing · Writing Guide

Quieting your Inner Editor

In preparation for National Novel Writing Month, I wanted to write about something that serves as a struggle for most writers.  The goal of NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words in a month and if you’re constantly rewriting words, it becomes quite difficult to make that count of 1,667 words a day.

The problem most writers I know face, is that they end up in a never-ending loop of editing.  They write two sentences or a paragraph and go back and fix it over and over again.  This is one of the fastest ways I know to halt your NaNoWriMo progress.  Many of the friends I mentioned have fallen into this trap and only managed to get a thousand or two thousand words out before they gave up altogether.

So here are some tips and tricks to help you get to the finish line this November.

Try ilys.com.  ilys.com is an online word processing program that only allows you to see the letter you type as you type it.  You can’t hit backspace or go back and rewrite any of what you’ve written, until you’ve hit the word count you are aiming for. It forces you to keep writing without editing until you have hit your word count goal.

The sign up process is easy and they give you 10,000 words to as a trial.  Once you’ve hit the trial word count, if you like ilys.com, you have the option of buying the an account for about $10 a month.  I have had friends who have had great success with this program.  The only drawback I find is that it often requires a lot of editing for minor mistakes and typos.

Turn off your monitor.  If you can’t stop yourself from editing and just want to get a bit of writing done, this is another alternative similar to ilys.com.  Set up your preferred word processor and turn off the monitor or cover it if you are on a laptop.  You may even want to step up a timer, so that you have a certain amount of time that you are committed to not looking at what you’ve written.

Practice.  Practice.  Practice.  This technique may sound overly simple, but one of the best ways to quiet your inner editor is to be aware of it and to ignore it when it comes up.  Remind yourself that you will edit the book when it is finished and make notes in a separate notebook or document if you need to.  If you’re writing in Google drive, you can even make comments to remind yourself what to fix later.  I can tell you that getting in the habit of not doing any major edits until after the writing is done, even if it’s just getting that 1,667 words done for the day, will get you closer to your goals as a writer.

I’ve even know friends who just free write constantly and never hit the backspace button.  This isn’t exactly my style, but if you find yourself over editing, it’s a technique that might help.

How about you?  What do you do to keep your inner editor quiet?  Feel free to share in the comments.

Writing · Writing Guide

Show vs Tell: The oldest and most confusing advice in the book.

The first time I heard the words “Show don’t tell” I was in my first college creative writing class.  The professor, a well meaning man with a masters degree in English, did not really elaborate beyond that.  He did provide us with excellent reading and advice throughout the semester that I knew improved my writing by the end of it.  Sadly, it was not until years later that I started to understand the different between showing a scene and just telling the reader about it.

I find it’s easier to learn through examples, so I’ll start with one that “Tells.”

It was night time.  John walked through the woods toward his grandfather’s cabin.  It was cold outside and dark, but he kept walking.  He could see the cabin up ahead of him.  The trees sort of hid it, but he would be there soon.

Now let’s try that again, and this time I’ll “Show.”

Stars twinkled in the sky above him, much more bright above him in here in the woods then they would have been back home in the city.  The moon was absent though, so he did not have the benefit of its light above him, but he knew the path in front of him well enough.  Fallen leaves crunched beneath his boots with every step he took, he would not have been able to get to the cabin quietly, even if he wished too.  In the distance, he could see light dance against the windows of the small cabin, someone had started a fire.  He looked forward to feeling the warmth of its glow once he arrived.  John brought his hands up to rub his arms and gain some heat from the friction of the action.  His breath came out in billowy clouds against the cool night air.

This is still something I am working on, but hopefully you get the idea of what Show Vs. Tell means from my example.  Telling someone the story is just giving them basic facts, without giving them the parts of the story that really set the scene and make it feel real to the reader.

Showing gives them an idea of the scene, a feel for what is going on and what it looks like.  It’s much more engaging for the reader because they can picture the scene and it will more clearly communicate to your reader what you want them to see.

You also want to create a more emotional connection for the reader to make with your writing.  Maybe they remember what it was like to walk in dark woods.  If they connect with the scene or the character, it’s more likely they’ll connect with your story as whole.  Showing your story to them is a way to invite the reader in and make them part of the story. If you only tell them, you’re not giving them enough to make that connection and be a part of your story.

I’m still not perfect at showing rather than telling, but it is something I know actively think about when I’m writing, and that has helped me change the way I write a lot.  What about you?  Any tips for teaching yourself to show rather than tell?