With a Writer’s Eye

Wow, August zipped by in a flash so I had to remind myself how much I got done. More organizing, more planning for both career and business (including an itinerary to submit to a few contest and launch some ecourses), and more refilling of my creative well. I’ve blogged about some of these topics before and you can click the links to read more if you’re interested.

On way I refilled my creative well during August was through extensive reading and watching movies. Not only was I entertained and inspired with ideas for my writing, I had the chance to study how stories were pieced together to engage the reader (or the viewer). Reading with a writer’s eye is one of the best ways for a writer at any level to improve his or her craft. It’s what made the difference for me (more than 25 years ago, now) in moving forward to repeatedly selling manuscripts.

The idea is simple and on the first day of my writing workshops, I suggest all participants pursue it. In fact, at their request, I taught a course in June called Reading with a Writer’s Eye. Basically, after enjoying a piece of writing, go back and study how the author helped you so enjoy it. How did the author use sensory detail, metaphor, string words together into vivid and engaging sentences? In essence, dissect the piece and then ask how you might do the same in your own writing.

During the course, I joked that in the past year I hadn’t read as much as I did in the past though I did watch a lot of movies and TV series. In fact, I’d signed up for Amazon Prime and so I was able to do “marathons” of entire TV seasons. And in viewing episode after episode, I saw how and understood story arc as I never had before. I noted how the writers left the viewer hanging until the next episode (which I was luck enough to be able to immediately watch). As I joked about it, the entire group realized that this, too, could be an aid in improving plot and character development. The class sessions soon included sharing of the story elements we discussed for each short story we covered during the 6-week course, but each week people compared the stories to favorite TV programs as well as favorite authors. It was organic and thought provoking todiscuss story a different levels.

So, during August, when my body was exhausted but my mind was restless, I discovered that Amazon Prime also allows one free pre-release ebook per month and free borrowing. (If the author publishes using Kindle Select, he or she still receives a royalty.) Thus, my month of marathon reading and viewing to refill my creative well with stories and spark new ideas and motivation for my own writing. If you weren’t aware of this service, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial. It’s made a huge different in my life and writing.

Itching for Change

I have to confess a habit acquired from my mother. I get the itch to move about every 4 or 5 years. When I was growing up, if I came home from school to find furniture rearranged or I would now live in a new bedroom, it was a sign a move was in our future. It meant our large (and growing family) had, as Mom would say, “outgrown the neighborhood,” but it really meant we needed more space, or more space on a sprawling one-level (to save my mother’s bad legs from having to climb stairs).

It was also a convenient time to sort our toys and clothes and books and belongings to settle into our new home in a streamlined and organized manner. I recall finding games and toys that had been forgotten and choosing to keep those over frequently played items.

Ironically, we stayed in the same school district so I had the pleasure of attending 7 schools before heading off to college (instead of the 3-4 the average student attends). The good thing about this arrangement is that I knew so many more kids when I went to the district’s high school campus.

Once I headed out on my own, that “itch” followed me. I truly thought I would buy a home and stay put but I didn’t. And, like my family, I kept moving, first to larger apartments, then to more conveniently located homes. Like my family, I also used each move as an opportunity to thoroughly sort, toss, and reorganize. Then, as I settled into a new space, I created fresh routines in that different living environment.

Now I’ve been in this location for 5 years and am feeling that “itch.” But, having just cleared out my dad’s condo, the thought of packing up and moving my condo leaves me with sudden fatigue. Instead, I’m channeling that “itch” into reorganizing and creating new routines. (Okay, I’ll admit that I did rearrange my office.) It feels great to take action. It feels even better to clear out unused items (including new school and art supplies from children’s programs) and donate them so someone who can use them will benefit.

And while I’ve been busy doing all of this, I’ve been thinking about transition. Transitions in life are moments for growth. Taking action to create positive change in our lives. Most of us can’t grow without some change taking place. Of course, those changes we choose are certainly easier to navigate than those forced upon us.

Like real people, characters need to take action too. What is it your character needs to do? Readers also itch for change within characters. How do your characters grow? Or, at least your main character. How is he or she different at the end of the story than at the beginning? The growth part isn’t difficult since gained knowledge equates with growth but once the character takes action, real change is in store.

Think about yourself as a reader. Do you want to invest your time in a story only to discover at the end that there is no growth, no action taken, no realization on the part of the character? So, as a writer, think about all the times in your life that you’ve chosen to make a change (get married, buy a car or make a major purchase, attend college) or those times when you’ve been forced to make changes (find a new job, go through divorce, get transferred out of state). You survived, but whatever the source of the transition, you grew and changed and your characters can too. Hope you’re itching for change as much as I am!

For more on the story/character arc, see Veronica Sicoe’s blog  or Scriptlab on Character Arc.

Click the links for related posts on change and character:

Hello to Autumn’s Change

Out of Character

Summer Buzz

Distracted by Mother Nature

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Nature inspires me. It has since I was a child playing on dirt mounds surrounding the newly dug basements in my subdivision playground and exploring the fields and woods down the road. Last night I was inspired by the lunar eclipse.

They’re calling it the Blood Moon because this eclipse makes the moon appear reddish orange. (It’s also part of a tetrad–4 such events this year and next.) Reading about this phenomenon in the past few days has caused me to think about a YA fantasy WIP rather than complete revisions on an MG historical novel. (Again, Mother Nature distracting me.)

I’m glad I got to see this lunar eclipse though it wasn’t as “blood read” as I

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

expected. To me it looked more blush colored. But, I was fascinated by the up-wattage of the surrounding stars. I usually have a hard time seeing most of the constellations in the city, but not at 3:15 a.m. this morning. Good thing I got up to take a peek at Mother Nature’s nocturnal display.

That didn’t work out the way I’d planned, either. I originally set my alarm, based on a report I’d seen that this phenomena would be visible around 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. Then I fell asleep watching TV and woke around 3 a.m. Still half asleep, I noted that it seemed rather dark outside and that it was best to wait for the alarm to wake me — if I would even hear it. I powered off the TV and stumbled to bed but couldn’t settle. A nagging thought told me to get up and look out the picture window. I tried to ignore it, telling myself I still had 30 minutes to sleep.

I’m glad I listened. It was amazing and I fell asleep thinking, this is what Kaelyne sees one night on her quest — and this is how she knows she is close to a hidden magic only she can uncover.  I woke again around 4:20 a.m. and again that inner voice nagged at me until I got up to look again. The bright white moon was a crescent along the bottom of the eclipse but still the surrounding constellations where extra bright. They, along with the edge of visible moon, seemed to glow more intensely than ever.

This time I went back to bed thinking of a different project–Kaia on her SF world–and lapsed into vivid dreams about both settings. I’m glad I experienced this event, though it will frustrate my critique group. (They wish I’d stick to just one project at a time.) What can I say? “Please excuse the inconvenience. This round of revisions has been interrupted by a message from Mother Nature.” Based on what I’ve drafted, the distraction was worth it!

May you each find and draw inspiration from whatever source spurs on progress. Happy writing!

Insights on Aging from Charlie and Algernon

I’m plagued by thoughts of aging lately. Not so much in myself, though I’ll admit to moments of decrepit muscles and wormy memory. No, I’ve been shocked by changes in people around me. Perhaps it’s from having watched my father decline during the past year, but as neighbors return for “Season” I’m surprised that they seem much older and less spry. Because they are dressing younger and trying to act younger, my guess is they have aging on their minds too. It’s unsettling. I’ve always believed that you are truly as old as you feel and members of my family have been assumed much younger due to physical fitness and energy.

So where does this anxiety over aging come from? I’ve found clues in recently rereading Flowers for Algernon,  Daniel Keyes’ Nebula-winning novel. (Actually, the story has probably exacerbated my anxieties.) I had to read the novelette (which won the 1960 Hugo award) several times while in school. But I’ve finally read the novel, a goal ever since reading the book Algernon, Charlie, and I by Keyes about the writing of this award-winning story.

A writer's journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing "Flowers for Algernon."

A writer’s journey. Daniel Keyes shares insights about the writing “Flowers for Algernon.”

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the flowers are for the grave of a lab mouse named Algernon. Algernon was the successful subject of an experiment combining neurosurgery and a combination of enzyme and hormone injections to triple his intelligence. At least the researchers thought his results were successful. That’s when they decided to test it on Charlie Gordon, a young man with an IQ of 68. Within a few months his intelligence surpassed that of everyone involved in the research. Not until Charlie and Algernon are “displayed” at the annual psychological convention does Charlie realize a major flaw in the experiment.  By now his intelligence has peaked and Algernon is showing signs of decline. Charlie races against the time he has left to find a solution only to realize that the decline he will face is in direct correlation to the rapid increase in his intelligence. During the course of not quite eight months Charlie triples his intelligence and then returns to an IQ of around 70. The only problem is this time he holds a hazy understanding that the people around him whom he used to think of as mental giants are not as smart as he thinks they are. Unlike before the operation, he knows that when they joke with him they are really making fun of his low intelligence.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

Award-winning story by Daniel Keyes.

As I read this novel I considered what it must be like to go from docile acceptance and contentment in a simple life to super-intellect marred by an inability to relate socially or emotionally with others. One of several problems Charlie faces is finding no one to talk to since even the brightest could not sustain conversations with his font of knowledge. Yet, how is this different from aging? Not simply the mental decline which may show itself in senility, but even the slower response as an octogenarian gathers thoughts before responding during conversation. Or, the slower movements septuagenarians develop to maintain balance and avoid minor injuries.

Charlie begins to stumble and must “remember” to walk carefully to avoid tripping — “knowledge” he regains in order to survive again with a double-digit IQ. I also think of Charlie having a sense that he used to know things, such as remembering reading a particular book but not recalling what it was about and opening it to discover he recognizes only a few words. Do the elderly have such feelings? Do they also have a sense that they used to know about a topic but cannot articulate facts or add to a discussion about it? I believe I saw such realizations cloud the eyes of my father during the last year. Not that the elderly have below-average intelligence but those feelings of “knowing” they “used to have” sharper reflexes, better recall, something to add which is new and thought-provoking—those realities of aging must make them at times feel like Charlie with a sense that what he once had is lost and he knows it.

The most touching part of the story is watching Charlie try to retain his knowledge but watching it slip through his fingers. Like sand in an hour glass, youth slips away. We can do nothing about it, really, except perhaps slow it, try to make it move at a different rate than it does for others. In the end, aging is a natural part of the cycle of life. Whether we work hard, play hard, or both, we move through the process of growth and decline and are left with a “knowing” that we accomplished something, that we lived our life. For some, like Charlie, we can feel happiness despite not being unable to recall why.

It’s interesting that children want to age, be older. I recall trying to look and act older all during my teens. And then, when we finally have that wisdom and respect we seem to seek in our youth, we feel the need to try to reverse time’s influence by dressing and acting younger. This cycle of life is strange indeed. Thanks to both Charlie and Algernon, I think I have enough insight to alleviate my anxieties. Here’s to living in the present and enjoying the knowledge, wisdom, and physical abilities we have in this moment.

The Nature of Characters

Another season and semester of writing workshops is drawing to  a close. It’s been especially hectic during the past five months and my body is demanding a real break this summer. I’ve structured my schedule for more writing time and more time to wander and generate ideas.  I decided I need more time outside, enjoying nature, because that recharges my creativity. Of course,  I can’t wait to get started.

So, yesterday I wandered. I visited a local park to take a break from my writing and workshops. Today I’m wondering about what I saw when I wandered. It will filter into two stories I’m working on. I’ve come to accept that this is my writer’s brain at work.

Here’s what I saw. This park I visited has a fantastic nature center and fabulous pathways to wander. Few people realize that it’s a natural filtration system in the middle of a city. I wandered off the walkway to the nature trail that meanders through trees and other vegetation. Eventually I came upon a grouping of Ficus trees with I thought were incredible. Some looked like carved and woven “figures” but these were actually formed by the Strangler Figs wrapping the trees. Like cloud gazing, I let my imagination go and saw lizards, a tree nymph, alligators and other figures.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree.

Fingers grasping trunk, or a giant insect climbing the tree. This is what I see when the vine “strangles” the Ficus.

As my friend and I walked on, my relaxed mind began weaving what I’d just seen into a fantasy story I’m working on. This W-I-P is actually a book but I’m still in the planning stages. A scene came to me in which my main character (MC) will need to find magically dormant creatures that everyone assumes are somewhere in the Forbidden Forest (or some such place) and awaken them. No one realizes that these creatures are “hidden” in plain sight on the very paths they walk daily. But my MC will eventually figure this out.

Later, on another path we wandered, I was startled when a breeze caused a patch of plants and fish tale palms to move. I thought it was a giant preying mantas! It sort of looked like one. It was green with palm fronds moving up and down as the insect moves its pinchers. While my friend laughed, I realized I’d let my imagination soar. We did spend a little time looking at the patch and imagining shapes as we’d done with the strangler figs. Now ideas are forming for a plant-based species in my SF story I’m working on.

So, today I am wondering what it would be like to be a walking plant. How would I eat? What would I eat? How would I move? I’ve already figured out how my MC in that story will meet her first plant-based creature. It will be meditating (praying?) in a garden and my MC will try to pick a “flower” from its head thinking the poor creature is actually a flowering plant. A nice subplot to show my MC’s lack of experience and ineptitude in her multi-species environment. (She’s had a lot of mishaps that show how naive she is so this could build on it.)

I’m eager to put my wonderings to the test at the computer. First, I’m wondering where my wanderings will take me next. It’s going to be an inspiring summer!

Gatsby Fever

We have only a week left until Baz Luhrmann’s  adaption of The Great Gatsby opens in movie theaters. Have you been waiting patiently? If you’re really looking forward to seeing Leonardo DiCaprio star as Gatsby, you can view stills and nearly a dozen movie trailers here

There’s been a lot of hype and build-up. Even my favorite writing magazine, The Writer, features the upcoming film with just a hint at what writers can learn from Fitzgerald. So, as I lay in bed recovering from a serious virus a few weeks ago, I rented the 1974 version of the film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It was a quiet movie  but adequately captures the voice of Nick Carraway as he reflects on events of the summer of 1922. The pace of the movie mirrored the novel with the “ups” in the film being the exciting party and car scenes. I love the Roaring Twenties and the dancing, music, cars, and costume were accurate. This movie also did a good job covering the events from the novel, though little is explained about Jay Gatsby’s background. As in the early chapters of the novel, it is mostly speculation. Unlike the later chapters of the novel, in which details of Gatsby’s childhood are revealed, this movie version suggests  it  is not important. This version of the movie gives us a glimpse of the goodness that was still at the heart of Gatsby when his father arrives for his funeral and he spends some time with Nick.

I truly hope Baz Luhrmann will hold true to Fitzgerald’s work because what we learn about Jay Gatsby — and more importantly how cleverly Fitzgerald imparts this information — is very important to the story. In the novel, Fitzgerald delays character revelation for Gatsby which builds him up in the minds of the reader just as his reputation precedes him in the reality of the characters. The reader doesn’t see or hear from Gatsby until chapter 3. Throughout the first half of the novel, the characters speculate about this man and how he gained his wealth. The reader learns Gatsby’s background, finally, in chapters 6 and 7. (Actually, he reveals details about his childhood in chapter 6 and in chapter 7 his criminal dealings are finally confirmed.)

I recall discussing the “mysteriousness” of Gatsby’s character when I read the book first in high school, again in college, and yet again (at least twice) in writing classes and as a source to study in developing my own writing. Another detail covered during those school-related readings was the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the reader has information about the story situation that characters do not possess. I know that when I read this novel the first time (in high school) I remembered having little patience or empathy for Tom and later for Daisy. At the end of the book, I remember thinking, “They truly deserve each other!” I won’t spoil the story for those unfamiliar, but the 1974 version of the movie evoked that same response, so kudos to director Jack Clayton on that account.

After having watched the movie, and seeing the movie trailers for the upcoming Luhrmann film, I think I’ll read the book again. I’m curious about the pacing of events in the book, especially after a quick check to see when exactly the reader learns about Gatsby’s past (and watching a trailer that confirms his past will be explained/revealed in the 2013 movie).

I also realize, now that I am a writer and teach writing classes, that Fitzgerald  had choices in which character should be the narrator and his choice of Nick makes the book a standout. He couldn’t choose Gatsby, since that would pose difficulties in the final chapters. How do you wrap up a story after the death of the narrator or viewpoint character? And Daisy is too self-centered while Tom is too boorish to notice details or instill pertinent information to the reader. Nick is a great choice, and I like the way the story reads as a sort of memoir—the events took place long ago  and with the feel that Nick is looking through keepsakes as he recalls that summer and looks over the lists of party-goers he kept which are now yellowed and deteriorating at the creases.

Finally, I’m taken with the description of characters and places in the novel. Even the fictitious East and West Egg and the Valley of Ashes are so descriptive. I see the events and what they seem to represent. I look forward to seeing the latest version of the movie. I only hope (and from watching the movie trailers, I really hope I’m wrong) the music is true to the Roaring Twenties and not an updated hip-hop rendition of those fast-paced jazz tunes.

Should you “brand” your prose?

The topic of trademarks and using specific brands in stories came up in several different classes this week. Being specific when we describe what a character does, wears, drives, or eats is important, but does your character really need to use Puffs tissues or eat M&Ms candies or chew Orbit gum? If you’ve succumbed to the notion that you need a “big name brand” so Hollywood will option movie rights to your Great American Novel, think again.

If you must use specific brands in your writing, properly use the trademark and respect companies’ brand names as you write. Coke is a trademark of the Coca-Cola Company and Kleenex is a registered trademark of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Trademarks should be capitalized and followed by the generic equivalent. If possible (which doesn’t work well in fiction) use the TM or RM superscript after the word). Better yet, replace it with the generic term: cola, soda pop, soft drink, facial tissue.

The exception to the initial cap rule is iPhone, iPad, iPod, iTunes and any future projects from Apple, Inc. following the “i-product” branding. Note that the “I” is lowercase and the “P” is uppercase. This models the trademark and should be copied in print.

Trademarks are legal property (just as your writing is copyrighted the moment you put words to paper). Trademark owners work hard to keep their brand names from falling into “common use.” This is what happened to “escalator”—originally a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company for the moving stairs they produced. Misuse of the trademark led to the term escalator falling into common use and it now means any brand of moving stairs. In Canada, Aspirin is still a brand name for acetylsalicylic acid while in America, the word is part of our common language referring to a type of pain reliever.

Companies can take legal action against publications for misuse of trademarks, so editors appreciate writers who carefully use trademarks properly—or avoid “branding” their prose altogether.

Writer’s Basic Training

This week several new workshops started so it was an especially busy week yet also quite enjoyable. I love meeting new writers and guiding toward a writing goal. I also receive a lot of questions about journals. The topic causes anxiety for some people, especially when I encourage them to begin (or continue) journaling.

Keeping a journal is the best way to harness thoughts, memories, ideas and dreams. Those penned experiences will provide plenty of details to add realism to your stories. Journaling also serves as “training,” to help you find your writer’s voice, among many other writing skills. The more you write, the more developed your natural writing voice becomes. Because journals are private, we let our subconscious guard down and allow thoughts to flow and so our natural voice emerges.

You don’t need to write daily, and the entries you make may be of any length you desire. One page or ten? It’s up to you (and what you have to say about whatever you write about). Your journal entries do not need to make sense as far as transitions or sequence either. I often use // in the margin of my journal to indicate a change in thought or when I’ve returned later in the day to add new thoughts or ideas. I put an asterisk next to ideas or dreams that I think have story or article potential.

I usually reread entries every few weeks to add idea notes in the margins or highlight pieces I think may be useful in the near future. Sometimes entries during the course of several weeks or months show how an idea slowly developed and I’ll start a new entry commenting on this, which then reminds me where the idea sparked and where I see it is possibly leading. Usually a lack of time prevents me from outlining or drafting these ideas right away, so using the journal helps me document them for later development.

I also do writing exercises in my journals, practicing different story elements – dialogue, description, sensory details. I find it helpful to clear my mind by writing ideas down before bed-time. When I’m under deadline, journaling helps me clear my thoughts so I’m able to focus on the project at hand. It’s an essential tool for many writers and fun “basic training.”

Reading with a Writer’s Eye

The best way to learn to write well is to note how published authors have applied all the writing elements and then trying to do the same in your own writing. Dissect published stories and articles to see how the pros assemble the writing puzzle.

Select your favorite novel, article, or short story from an anthology or magazine, then read it critically. Consider the following:

• Whose perspective is the story from?
• How is the conflict introduced?
• How does the main character react to the conflict?
• Does the main character solve the problem? How?
• How many scenes are included?
• With each scene is a new obstacle presented? If so, how is it resolved?
• If only one scene is used, how is the conflict escalated? Or, how do new problems arise as the main character deals with a problem?
• What is the length (duration) of the story? (A few hours, a day, several days?)
• How is the final problem resolved?
How quickly does the story conclude?

Sometimes it’s easier to reverse outline — that’s creating an outline based on what is already written.How has the writer drawn you into the piece? Underline each main point made in the article or key events in a story. Mark the anecdotes or facts used to illustrate each point in an article or note description in a story.

Review the “notes” on each piece you’ve analyzed. What have you learned? Try to emulate what you’ve discovered in your own writing. For example, suppose you notice how the author includes sensory detail. Ask yourself, have I includes sounds and smells as well as visual detail? How can I incorporate sounds? How can I weave in scent or smell? You’ll notice your own prose improving as you learn to read with a writer’s eye.

All Things Writing

Looking for tips about writing? See my blog at the Word-Coach.com or click here.

Recent topics include: Recharging Stalled Writing, Breaking Writer’s Block, and  Setting Goals instead of New Year’s Resolutions.

If you want to know how  and what I read in my free time and how I incorporate that into my writing workshops, see my Goodreads page.