Saturday, December 8, 2018

Want to Write or Revise Your Story Opening? Class starting Jan 7

Hey, everyone! This is Alicia Rasley. I'm teaching an email class about "Story Openings" in January.
If one of your resolutions is to get going on that story, here's your chance to start with expert Alicia Rasley. Open Your Story Right! is an interactive workshop (that means I'll respond with helpful and SPECIFIC suggestions to your questions and exercises).

It will all be done in an email list, so participation will be simple and low-tech, very 1999. :) So you won't have to learn how to navigate a forum. We can just focus on learning to open your story in the most powerful and effective way.

Interested? This class is being sponsored by a writing group, which means that it's also very low-cost.
Just click on this link to sign up. It starts in a month, so don't delay! 

Openings–Starting Your Story Right with Alicia Rasley​

Jan. 7-25th-- Just $35 (I told you it was cheap, I mean, low-cost.)

It's time to get started on that story, don't you think? Just two weeks of class can help you get started the right way, setting up the rest of the story in the most compelling way. Let's have fun and get this story started!
And if you have a story already written, now's a great time to revise that opening to fit what you've developed.

Alicia Rasley

(Feel free to share this with friends and fellow writers.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Serial fiction site

I don't know anything about this site, except that a few writers I know say they have made $ posting their books in a serial fashion here: Radish Fiction.

Check it out and see what you think:

Can you write serially? I have in the past, and it was fun, but I've gotten so skittish about deadlines these days.  I think I'd have to have a story that "wrote itself" the way some blessedly do. Or I suppose write the whole book first, and then just release it chapter by chapter.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Voice suggestions?

I'm going to be doing a course on Voice in fiction writing.
Let's talk a bit about "voice".

  1. What does it mean to you?
  2. What would you say are the elements of voice in fiction? (that is... like sentences, word choice, attitude, distance, viewpoint, whatever).
  3. Have you read manuscripts and book and stories that didn't have much voice? What was the effect? (Examples from big bestsellers who won't be harmed by our using it as example.:)
  4. How would you characterize your voice-- three adjectives maybe? (Ex. Spare, stark, precise./ Lush, over-the-top, poetic./ Subversive, ironic, clever.)
  5. Do you work on your voice as you draft, or do you go with what comes naturally?
  6. Can you "revise in" your voice, or do you stay with what your voice comes out as in your first draft?
  7.  Have you written passages or scenes where you thought you didn't have a voice?
  8. Now let's say I want to ask people to characterize their voice using some kind of metaphor or analogy, like "if your voice was a food, what would it be?" "Is there a song or musician who sounds like your voice?"
  9. Any great thoughts about voice I can steal (with attribution)?

This is really hard to teach-- it's kind of vague, and yet deeply individual.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I'm going to work through some items which were lost in comment moderation limbo:

From Adrian:
Recently, I've been noticing how much of television drama starts with the effects and most of the story involves the revelations of the (often surprising) causes of those effects. The easiest example of this is the police procedural. We open with a dead body (the effect), and the story centers on the detective figuring out who killed them and way (the cause of the death). Of course, there's a framing story with a more traditional cause-then-effect structure: The detective finds a clue (cause) which leads to a witness (effect). And the witness provides a bit of information (cause) that leads another clue . Et cetera. But it's not just mysteries that start with effects and work backwards to the causes. I just watched a new ensemble TV drama that started with an inciting incident that caused the rest of the cast to wonder why it happened, which leads them to wondering about their own situations and relationships (effects). Most of on Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

I just saw a film-- Bad Times at El Royale-- which made me think of what you mentioned about effect first, then cause. In the late 1960s, four people show up at a derelict Lake Tahoe hotel (literally half in Nevada, half in California-- I've been at the model for this... it's been closed for a long time, but used to be a Hollywood and mob hangout).

There's just one person working there, a young shy man who handles all the jobs of the hotel.
There's a vacuum cleaner salesman with a fake southern accent and a lot of casual racism and bonhomie.
There's a Catholic priest who is really slow at answering questions like "where is your parish?" and "what is your name?"
There's an African-American singer (the great Cynthia Erivo, who is actually British) who arrives with two big bedrolls with those egg-shell foam rubber mattress. (She's going to use them to soundproof her room so that she can rehearse.)
There's a foulmouthed hippie chick in fringed leather jacket, who let's just say is not into hippie peace and love. Very soon she is seen to carry a girl into her room and tie her to a chair-- kidnapping.

Each one immediately seems suspicious-- why are they here? 

And the film unfolds with slow revelation, with each contradiction in character being explained-- why they're here, what they want, where they came from.
So even as the film moves forward and they interact, it also moves from the "effect" (each of them arriving at the hotel) back to the cause (what event caused them to come here).

The only one who has a really straightforward reason is Darlene, the singer (she's got a singing gig in Reno, and so wants to prepare),

The back and forth and backforth again kind of slows down the pacing,  but this is a "noir film", so that slower pace does build suspense.
Anyway, as I was watching, i thought-- this is what Adrian meant!


Monday, October 15, 2018

Moody Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen The Street. Click to hear the song.

Leonard Cohen died November 7, 2016.

Here's a lyric that sticks in my mind--
I know the burden’s heavy 
As you wheel it through the night 
Some people say it’s empty 
But that don’t mean it’s light


Friday, October 12, 2018

Tackling the questions-- Ellen

I'm going through the old comments I missed and trying to answer the questions-

I recall your article on 'Stone's Fall' by Iain Pears. One of those 'hard to put down' books. I must admit I found myself absent-mindedly copying his style in some, not all, of my chapters. I'm not a fan of a writer who babbles on about other character's past, but he didn't babble, he entertained. His writing, however, in the third person was awful, but maybe it was an author of the same name.
Have you ever found yourself subconsciously copying another author's style?
Ellen Dudley. 

I didn't think so! But then I re-read the Narnia series (to which I'd been addicted in childhood), and thought,  good grief, I copied CS Lewis's style! (At least, you know, I steal from the best.)

I think just like some people can do vocal impressions, some writers can really soak up another writer's style and unconsciously ape it. I don't mean plagiarism-- not the copying of sentences or ideas. With me and old CS, it's things like parenthetical asides (like this!), and ending a sentence on a lilting syllable that makes it sound ironic.

What about you? What do you "hear" in your own style that "sounds like" someone else?


Lost comments

Sorry, I had the comment settings set wrong, so any real comments got lost in the viagra spam!

It's really hard to believe that anyone would buy viagra because of some spammy comment on a blog. I think though that the bots or whoever post those comments get paid by the link, whether or not anyone clicks on them.

Anyway, I'll fore-ground the comments and questions when I get back from my WALK. (New resolution. Walk every morning. Please ignore the fact that it is not currently morning anymore.)
Adrian, I'll answer those questions you had!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Either/or== Must we choose between proper mechanics and creativity?

I'm asking this because this is a question that comes up a lot: "So someone submits a perfectly clean manuscript, every comma in the right place, but it's boring. And someone submits a manuscript with a lot of grammar mistakes, but it's a great story. Which would you take?"

Hmm. That's a toughie. It's especially tough because in my experience, good creativity and good mechanics are NOT mutually exclusive. Far from it. Language is the way we present our stories, and the presentation is important for getting the story right.

To tell you the truth, I seldom see a "great story with terrible mechanics." (I have seen a few perfect manuscripts with boring stories, a few fairly good stories with terrible mechanics... mostly I've see okay stories with okay mechanics, alas.)

First, I guess I'd like to say-- no editor is looking for a perfect manuscript. Editors assume that there will be a few typos, a few infelicitous phrasings, some small format problems. No editor starts hyperventilating at the prospect of working with a writer who is a little less than perfect on every page. Got to justify existence, don't we? Perfect writers don't need editors!

So never worry that the editor is going to read 200 pages and on page 201 discover that misspelling and decide to reject. That won't happen. But what if there are four misspellings on the first page? What should the editor do then? (When encountering a lot of mechanical problems right away, I started sending back the submission without reading further, and saying, politely I hope, "I know you would like another chance to edit so that this is easier for me to consider." Generally, the writers have all thanked me for the chance, though who knows what they're really thinking. :)

One thing I do have to point out is that there really isn't an either/or here. Creativity might be messy at the creation stage, but I know very well there is no need for a good story to be messy at the submission stage. Most good stories go along with at least adequate mechanics, because the writer cares enough about presentation and narration to work hard at things like sentences and paragraphing. Most good writers don't assume that "story" is just "idea," but understand that ideas are developed in scenes which are made up of causally linked passages which are made up of paragraphs and sentences.

A mechanically inept manuscript is, in my experience, more correlated to inept development of the central idea or plot. I might see, in a mess of a manuscript, a good plot idea, or a glimmer of brilliant characterization. But that's usually all there is-- an idea, a glimmer. The execution and development aren't done well, particularly at the scene level. Why, well, interestingly, I think, there is "story grammar" and "scene syntax." Just as in a sentence or paragraph, stories and scenes have relationships that are shown in the structure or design. If the writer doesn't get that this pair of sentences shows a causal relationship:
He lurched forward, his mouth open.
I got out of the way.
Then probably the same writer isn't going to design a scene developing the cause/effect relationship between bigger events, although those events might be terrific.

Have I ever seen a great story with lousy mechanics? Yes, but mostly with my college students. If they come from a storytelling family or culture, often they get the story grammar talent with mother's milk. They've been surrounded by great stories all their lives. But usually this is oral storytelling, and often their ability to write it down is limited. We see this a whole lot with non-native speakers, especially those who left their home culture before high school, so that they aren't "writingly fluent" in their native language either.
We also see this in native speakers who didn't have adequate educational experiences (or who weren't paying attention... the class clown comes to mind-- usually he's a great storyteller.) The issues are usually spelling and punctuation, not sentences-- that is, it's really the -writing- stuff, the letters and punctuation marks which aren't clear in spoken English that cause the problem. Sometimes word choice is lacking too, especially in non-native speakers-- they just don't yet have the vocabulary. But they do have the ability to describe setting and people, to design scenes for maximum drama, to select the telling detail.

I had two students like this in one semester. They both would have gotten an A if I taught speech. As it was, one got an A, the woman who wrote very affectingly about her grandmother being diagnosed with Alzheimers the same week the writer found out she was pregnant, and how that baby ended up helping the grandmother keep her speech long into the illness. She worked closely with me and a tutor to find the mechanical problems that got in the way of the story presentation.

The other was a young man who wrote (this was a kind of emotionally wrenching semester) about getting to the hospital just a few moments after his mother died, so he couldn't say goodbye. The urgency of the journey across town -- wow. Beautifully structured with great suspense. But he didn't have the time to transform this great story into a great paper, and didn't get as good a grade (though I made sure he knew that he had all the right stuff and just needed to go this additional step, and I hope he did in the future).

So I know it's possible to have great story/bad mechanics-- but I have to point out that these were students in freshman composition, each coming out of an oral tradition that rewarded great story design and impressive vocal performance (which they had-- as I said, they both would have gotten As in a speech class). Transferring that to written language is a separate process.

But if you're submitting a written manuscript to a book publisher, well, it's expected that you are as adept at the tools of the craft. Those students might not know so much about punctuation and other elements of written language, but they did know how to use vocal expression and pauses and body language as they told their story. (They weren't so great at first at transferring that to writing, but they really did have the vocal tools for storytelling.) If you choose to write this story, it's kind of expected that you would use the written-language tools adequately.

Now, as I said, minor errors are not the issue here, and I think writers who get upset when I say I want a mechanically adept manuscript might think I mean no typos. But what I mean is-- well, truth is, most of you would be shocked to see a story with dialogue like this:

He said "Joni Im sorry about your cat's.
She said don't worry about it. There probably hiding in the garage"

That's not actually the sort of "messiness" that goes with creativity and great ideas. But that is what we see a lot. And that sort of leaden presentation means the voice is usually leaden too. Voice isn't just about word choice-- it's developed through sentencing and punctuating too.

So... let's say you are like my students, trained by tradition and upbringing and talent to be a great storyteller but not a great practitioner of the written discourse? You know what I'd suggest you do? I'd suggest you dictate your story into your phone recorder, and hire a good secretary or transcriber to type it. (If anyone knows of a speech-to-text app which does a good job, let me know. My "twalking" -- talk-walking- recordings always end up as gibberish as text.)

Many transcribers have been, uh, quietly editing their clients' prose for years, and know how to turn your dictation into an fairly adequate manuscript. (When I worked at the late lamented Grammar Hotline, most of our callers were secretaries who were interested in getting the grammar right, or in proving to their boss they were right, and they usually were.:) If the problem is getting it from oral language to written language, it's probably easier and cheaper to hire someone to make the transfer yourself.

Now that I think of it, the corollary -- the perfect manuscript and boring story-- happens more often. That's because you can hire someone to turn oral language into written language -- same words, after all, and it will still be YOUR story, not the transcriber's. But if you hire someone to design your scenes, deepen the characterization, create a suspenseful tone, structure the events-- it's not really your story, is it? All those things ARE story. (And that is why people hire ghostwriters, I guess.)

Thinking back on perfectpunctators/lousystorytellers... I have seen that too. I used to write Regency novels, a subgenre that attracted a lot of English teachers and librarians (it's set in the time of Austen, see). And when I'd judge a Regency contest, I'd frequently get an entry that was well-written on the basic word level, but lacking in story grammar. They knew how to write a sentence, but couldn't flesh out a character. They knew how to punctuate dialogue, but not how to make it sound authentic. The story would never be insane (that's much more likely with the messy manuscript, and yeah, I've seen that a lot too), but it would be "by the numbers," often using conventional situations (ballroom scenes, mistaken identity) with nothing fresh added.

In a contest, this would often score sort of on the high end of mediocre, but never win. And really, I don't have a quick solution ("hire someone to type it") here. The problem is more global, more personal-- that is, the writer probably doesn't have a great imagination and/or an innate or learned sense of story grammar, and you just can't hire that. (But I do think these would be great transcribers for the oral storytellers out there! :)

So... which of the two (messy but good story, clean but boring story) would be more likely to be published? Hmm. Well, of course, when we pick up a published book, we're seeing an edited version, not the original submission. So there might be plenty of previously-messy books that have been wrestled into rightness by a pair of editors and a proofreader, and we'll never know unless we get the editor drunk. ("You know that writer of mine who made the NYTimes list last week. Boy, you should have seen the manuscript when it came to me. One long sentence, the whole first chapter. I kid you not. You're buying the next round, right?") Notice that this requires a lot of time and energy from the editors and money commitment from the publisher, so a damn good story is required, not just a good story, to elicit that much effort.

But we certainly all read boring but well-written books. They're well-written enough that we don't take them back to the bookstore and demand our money back, or post nasty reviews on Amazon. We don't feel passionate enough about them for that level of response. Meh... we sort of wonder why this book was chosen out of the many the editor must have read that month. (Probably the original book for that slot didn't come in on time, so they needed a book to fill the gap, a book that didn't require much work to make presentable, and this one landed very cleanly on the desk at just the right moment. See why it's a good idea always to send in a clean manuscript? "Doesn't need much editing" is maybe not the fulsome compliment you were hoping for, but there are times when that's exactly what the publisher wants in a book.)

Well, anyway, we should all strive for great story/great mechanics. Figure out our weakness and what to work on to overcome it, but maintain our strengths too.

I'm remembering a query I got from one of those meticulous types, the one that made me really WANT to buy out of pity-- "I always make deadlines. I always deliver a clean manuscript. I have worked as a proofreader for a decade"-- it was sort of sad. Imagine an epitaph: "She always made her deadlines, including this one."

Writing articles

Saturday, September 22, 2018

How to Write a Great Sentence  , The Guardian

Every writer, of school age and older, is in the sentences game. The sentence is our writing commons, the shared ground where all writers walk. A poet writes in sentences, and so does the unsung author who came up with “Items trapped in doors cause delays”. The sentence is the Ur-unit, the core material, the granular element that must be got right or nothing will be right. For James Baldwin, the only goal was “to write a sentence as clean as a bone”.

An Edited Page from Flaubert's manuscript for Madame Bovary

Friday, September 21, 2018

Three Acts: Three "Things' That Can Increase the Coherence of Your Conflict

 Try this exercise if you're afraid your conflict is lagging!

This uses the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy-nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.

Three Acts:
Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.

Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk: Examples-
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies
3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it-- ascending risk, remember!
Then consider: What are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk?
What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.
Let's think of ascending risk --
Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town. So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent.
There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding information that could get Junior in trouble.

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.
(The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)

Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."
Remember the film Casablanca? Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him.
This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help." (Tip: To determine “ascending risk,” you want to ask after each of the 3 things: What is the risk? What does this cause?)

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses this time).

What is the risk? There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.

What does this cause? It's very important externally because with Ugarte dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is ended only because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."

Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier, and he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.

What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying?
(She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)
What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)

What does this cause? Rick’s refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)
The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.

Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, so that its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.
1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?
For each occurrence, ask:
    a. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?
    b. What does this thing cause to happen?

3. How can this thing near the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?

Try that. It might mean a bit of re-arranging or intensifying events you already have.

Any examples?  Questions? Ideas?

Alicia  Writing articles

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Wait! You mean a smaller plate WON'T make me eat fewer calories? Picking and choosing information (we fiction-writers get to do that).

Interesting article here about a researcher in "food psychology" who has several of his studies withdrawn. (This was the result of an injudicious blog post he made where he accidentally mentioned that he was getting his grad students to massage data or something. Blogging is DANGEROUS!)

His studies were widely popularized ("Don't shop hungry, you'll spend more!" Remember that? You know, it's common sense!).

The application to writing is different for academic non-fiction and fiction.
If you are writing up a research report, do not pick and choose data!

But if you are writing fiction, figure out what among an array of details and options will most impress your reader. Be selective. Pick and choose!

With fiction, it's usually good for the creator to have some vision of the end effect-- you know, "I want the readers to be mystified and annoyed when they finish the book." (Have you ever read one of those books where you can't figure out what happens in the end? Or which ends abruptly without resolving the conflicts? I suspect those authors wanted to annoy us. :)
or "My ending is going to show the precariousness of life when you depend too much on other people."

So as story-writers draft or revise their scenes, it can be effective to select details and events and options that will guide the readers towards that end effect. If "precariousness" is important, I might emphasize unpredicted dangers, like broken glass on the floor, or a co-worker going home with a headache and then getting taken to the hospital with meningitis.  None of these details might be all that important to the plot, but they would work subliminally on the readers to create a tone of menace and risk.

Fiction-writers get to make things up, and they also get to pick and choose.
This is probably the only profession that encourages such sins!


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Starting this up again!

New resolution! I want to blog more about writing and editing. So here I go...

Well, today I got nothing. Bad start!

I have been listening to the John McWhorter podcast Lexicon Valley.  He's got a new episode up about "habitual past" (I used to blog a lot). He points out that we also now use "would" to indicate a past action that recurred habitually- I would blog a lot.

His podcast is always fun. He has a thing for Broadway musicals, so he will have clips from Ethel Merman and Shirley Booth singing some long-forgotten ditty that explicates something about language.

So... any writing questions or topics I can address? I respond well to requests. :)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Can’t Start a Fire without a Spark…. Creating that Spark when You Think You're Burnt Out

Can’t Start a Fire without a Spark…. Creating that Spark when You Think You're Burnt Out
by Alicia Rasley

You can decide what to love. You can spark the fire.
Enthusiasm doesn’t always arrive fully blown. Sometimes you have to take a little spark and turn it into a flame.
For example, Sam was hauling the Christmas tree off to the mulch pile in the city park when he heard a bird warbling. Its insistent song- weeuh weeuh weeuh—really stood out in the snowy winter day, when most of what Sam could hear was traffic and the cracking of iced-up tree branches above him. He stopped in the middle of the park, forgetting his errand, forgetting the little dead tree in his hands, and wondered, “What sort of bird hangs out all winter in the city?”

He’d never been interested in birds before, and to tell the truth, he wasn’t all that interested now. He was just momentarily intrigued, and made a mental note of it, and – he’s a software guy, so he’s always thinking of things like this—wondered if anyone had ever designed a phone app to record and identify bird songs. (Duh, of course.) But when he’d tossed the tree on the pile and got his phone set to record, the bird was gone, or at least, the song had changed to a long intricate trill of different notes. It was as if the shower-singer had given way to the opera singer.

When he got home, he sat down at the computer and (natch) googled to identify the birds. What he found really intrigued him. He hadn’t heard two birds, each singing their songs, but one bird singing two songs. He started reading about the northern mockingbird, which somehow can imitate other birds’ songs and repeat them back note-perfect.

Now Sam wasn’t any kind of actor or con-man (he was in software development), but he’d always had a secret envy for people who could do impressions of famous voices. So he started reading more about the mockingbird, and the next morning, same time, he went back to the park. This time it wasn’t on a Christmas-shutdown errand, but just to pursue this momentary interest. When he caught sight of the chubby gray-and-white bird, he had his phone handy and was able to snap a picture.

He’d never been into birding, and he’d always thought of it as a pursuit for less-macho people. But he was at loose ends since the divorce and the kids leaving home, and work wasn’t challenging anymore. And he’d been at his company so long, he was up to five weeks vacation a year.  So after a few weeks of going to the park and trying to find the mockingbird and its fellows, he thought he might as well take a few days’ birding trip to somewhere warm.

By the time he got back, well, he wasn’t precisely obsessed with birding. But he realized he’d had fun on the trip. The other birders were interesting people, rather like software developers in their temperament (focused and thoughtful) if not their conversation. There were even a couple women he thought could become friends. He decided to emulate the mockingbird a bit and “act as if”—act as if birding was interesting. And what do you know— just sticking with it, and fanning that tiny flame, Sam found himself a new hobby. He never got as passionate about birds as some of his new friends, but he enjoyed being outdoors, and enjoyed the quiet during the hikes and the lively conversation afterwards. Most of all, he liked his new community. A year later, he marvels at how the accident of hearing that little bird in the park led to – well, not a life-change, but a life-opening.

You might remember that great time in your childhood, when you skipped from one fleeting interest to another, and your poor parents shelled out for a drumkit and then a skateboard and then all those watercolors and…. You had all the time in the world to sample potential obsessions, and if you were lucky, one stuck, and you ended up in the city symphony or at least playing Auld Lang Sine on the piano late at night on New Year’s Eve.

But you know what? We don’t have time to skip around anymore. We don’t have time to sample. And we know whatever we do isn’t likely to end up as the route to a PhD or fame and fortune. There’s no purpose to new hobbies in the last-chance decade—except to have fun and meet people and maybe do a little good and join or start a community.

Trouble is, without the energy and openness of youth, and with all the usual distractions of everyday, it’s hard to get excited about anything new. It might not be worth all the fuss.
Well, make it worth it. You have more discipline and focus than you did when you were young. You can actually make yourself more interested, now that you know how to move beyond the mere activity into creating a whole situation: That is, you won’t just DO this, you can research it and converse about it and join a group and take trips. You have resources now to make this minor interest into a major part of your life. (And you know if it starts to bore, you can quit it without regret, as it’s only your own money that bought that drumkit or invested in that birding app!)

Some tips to fan a flicker into a flame:

  1. Consider what, overall, you ought to do, that you’re already thinking you should get going on.
“I really need to get out from behind the computer.”
“I need to get more fit.”
“I need some new friends.”
“I should get more involved with the community again now that the kids are gone.”
“I’ve been so self-absorbed since the break-up.”
“I’m bored. I need to do something fun.”
“I have to exercise my brain more.”
“If I’m going to take that trip to Italy, maybe I should learn some Italian.”
If you can link this existing need to a new hobby, you’ll feel more motivated. Birding will get you outdoors and away from the computer. Volunteering at the city music festival will get you involved with the community. Hiking in the woods will help you get more fit.

  1. Think beyond broad categories of activities you used to enjoy, like “nature” and “socializing” and “music.” Try to pinpoint what you really liked about that, like, “I didn’t care much about all those nature walks, but I sure liked camping in a tent,” or “I thought I was going to be a movie star, but that never worked out. Looking back, what I really liked about acting was the cast parties after first night,” or “I wasn’t much good at the flute, but I still remember how my teacher would accompany us on the piano. I kind of liked the piano, but my parents could only afford a flute.” Once you get into what was the really fun part (camping, cast parties), you can more effectively design a new hobby to create that experience without all the more boring stuff.
  1. Look for existing interest groups where you can join at low cost and low commitment. “Meetup” groups are great for this. You can just show up at the assigned place and play a few games of Scrabble or go to a film or take a hike in the woods with the group. No one will bug you to buy a year’s subscription or run for group president. You can just do the activity in the company of other people who enjoy it.
  1. Stick with it for awhile. Of course, if you have a rotten experience—you break your ankle hiking, or the Scrabble players are all PhD linguists who scoff at your words—you might try another group or a related but less intense activity. But if the experience is okay or better, try it again on the next possible occasion. This doesn’t have to end up as a lifelong, life-changing obsession. You just want to have some fun. So don’t require a huge conflagration of passion the first experience. Just remember, a flicker can become a flame if you don’t douse it too quickly.
  1. When you find some hobby you like, ritualize it. To make it a hobby, it has to be more than a habit. Alas, one of the lessons we learn as we get older is—a good habit is easy to break. These days, there are just too many distractions, too many other things to do. If it’s not the TV in every room, it’s the web on your computer and phone that can give you momentary if empty entertainment. Nothing becomes really meaningful, however, unless you repeat it—make a date of it, make an occasion. “Thursday night is film noir Meetup night!” “Every March, I’m going to London!”
  1. Make it more. Enhance the experience. Make it your own. Add something to it. If you meet up every Thursday at a friend’s home to watch the film noir, start bringing popcorn (or, if you’re also trying to get fit, some crunchy veggies and hummus). Make it more fun—a different type of popcorn every week, or a new kind of punch.
Make it more. If you’re in a book group, maybe do a half hour of research beforehand and give a mini-report on the author or the early (and misinformed) reviews of the book. Before the Italian lesson, go out to an Italian restaurant, or experiment with making a new kind of pasta. If you’ve started birding, buy a bird book or borrow a new pair of binoculars.
And let’s face it. Nothing makes an occasion more memorable than taking a couple photos and posting them on Facebook or Instagram. You’ll have the pleasure of other people commenting, “Oh, I always wanted to do that!” And in a year, Facebook will repost the photo so you can remember it.

  1. If this turns out to be more than just fun—if you find yourself getting passionate—ride that wave! Expand your experience. If you’ve been teaching yourself guitar chords by watching Youtube videos, maybe now you might spend a little money and employ some impoverished music student or old grunge bandmember to tutor you. If you’ve been volunteering at your old school, consider joining a committee or even running for school board.
Remember your limitations, however. You don’t want to overload your life and start fretting about what used to be fun. For example, I wanted to help more with kids in my sons’ old school, but when I talked to a tutoring organization, I realized that while I was still working and traveling so much, I really couldn’t commit to weekly sessions. So I put that desire aside for later, for when I’m retired. I’ve done enough of the tutoring to know I really want to do it, and I can keep that flame alive until I can really make it more of a passion.

  1. Most important, stick with it long enough to know if it will be meaningful in your life. Many of us have gotten so competent at our jobs, we might get impatient at being beginners again. But if we can get past the awkwardness of being around much younger but more knowledgeable film fans, and if we can persist with the Italian lessons even if we can tell our accent is horrendous, then we will get past that uncomfortable newbie experience and be ready for more easy enjoyment. We really do know how to learn and grow efficiently and effectively, and we’ll probably get better at this pretty fast, if we just… you know… stick with it.

  1. But… but really, if it’s not right, if it’s getting less not more fun, try something else. We don’t have endless time to devote ourselves to a pursuit that agonizes us rather than interests us. We know we have a limited store of patience, so why waste it on a group of people who make us anxious and unhappy? If after a few months, it’s still no fun, let it go and try something else. It might help to analyze what you liked and didn’t like (“I liked going on the ski trips, but I didn’t like whole competitive vibe of the group, like you were a loser if you didn’t want to risk your life”) so that you can find a better experience without the negatives.

  1. Most of all, open yourself to enjoyment. Put away that hard-earned cynicism (“Everyone can tell we’re amateurs”) and skepticism (“Kids like this will never learn”). Give into the experience. Don’t be self-conscious about your age or the sound of your laugh. Don’t obsess about others’ possible perception of you (“Everyone thinks I’m stupid that I never learned to read music”).  You’re grown now. You know that “everyone” isn’t thinking about you, and even if they are, and they’re not thinking positively, their thoughts aren’t worth your time.
You might even have to force it a little, to “act as if.” You don’t want to do that for long—if the “as if” doesn’t become real in a few weeks, this probably isn’t right for you. But sometimes, yeah, you have to fake it till you make it.  
Remind yourself—this is just for fun. You’ve been working all your life. You deserve some fun. Audition the experience.
 It doesn’t have to be life-changing as long as it’s life-opening… but you won’t get either if you don’t try it out for awhile.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Here's an article based on an exercise I led in Active vs. Passive Writing course

Inhabiting the Prose

author prose tipsby Patricia Bradley, @PTBradley1
Do writers ever stop learning the craft of writing? I don’t think so. Or maybe I’m just a professional student. But at any rate, this month I took a class from Outreach International RWA ( with Alicia Rasley on Active VS Passive Writing. It’s been a fascinating class, and as always she gives her students little nuggets beyond the scope of the lessons.
On the very day I was stuck in a scene, Alicia talked about inhabiting the prose, and how to make your prose sound like your character rather than just flat, unemotional words. She gave us a free-writing exercise to do, and the exercise (adapted from Les Edgerton’s Finding Your Voice) helped me to connect the emotion of the character and scene to the physical action I wanted that character to perform.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When You Have Too Many Words....

I was just asked for a few tips on cutting big bunches of words. You know, you were aiming for a nice 75K novel, only this ended up at 95K words.  And from your perspective, it works! But it's too long for the line or the editor or the type of story, right? So how can you trim words without deleting meaning? 

It's hard. It can be done. I had to cut 35K from one of my books once, and it was hard, but I don't think afterwards the reader could tell what was missing. (Okay, okay. Theresa did most of the cutting. I did most of the whining and whimpering.)

While the plan here is not to go back, it can really help to think that nothing you're doing is permanent, that if you realize you cut something important, you can restore it. So be sure to 
 save the original version first, then save the version-to-be-cut under another filename. Just in case you want to UNcut later!
But here are some tips if you want to cut 20K words:

1) The first option is to cut a whole scene. That's a broadsword rather than a scalpel approach, but let's say you wrote this book in a white heat during Nanowrimo. There are probably scenes you wrote or started to write which ended up as unimportant or irrelevant, or you later did a better version and both versions are still in there. 

A whole scene might well be 5,000 words. That's a pretty good cut! And cutting it might make for a stronger, tighter plot. Then again, you might accidentally cut out something essential like a clue, or an important step on your character's journey, or the satisfying "reunion" scene the reader has been waiting for. 

To do this, however, you have to look at scenes not as groups of words but as part of the action of the plot. So try this: Outline the book as you have it. Yep, a scene outline. List -- in order they occur, every chapter, and every scene or scenelet or passage (complete or not) within each chapter. 

Then you can evaluate if there are scenes that can be deleted without causing plot/emotion problems.  

2. Look also for adjacent scenes that can be combined.  That will let you delete some of the set up and transition between scenes. Be watching for "single-purpose" scenes, especially several in a row-- a scene where he argues with his brother, and then a scene were he discovers a clue to the mystery, and then a scene where he travels to where the robbery took place. You could combine those into one scene where he argues with his brother, leaves and discovers the clue, and ends with him deciding to go to the robbery site. Really, once you start looking at what happens from scene to scene, you might find several which can be combined.

3.  If you can't cut a whole scene, look for passages (especially at the beginning) which are mostly set-up. That's where I found the most opportunities to trim, at the start of scenes, where I might have spent a couple pages describing the setting and establishing what the characters are doing there. 
Here are some other "cutting" options:
4) Look for mini-scenes (I call them "scenelets"-- 1-2 page bridges usually from one important event to the next) that don't much matter. Often these involve a main character interacting with a minor character or a "walk-ons" like a waiter who will never be seen again in the book. An example might be a cab ride to the convention hotel. There might be good character interplay with the cabdriver and give a good sense of the main character's mood, but if you want to cut, that's an example of a good 'non-essential' scenelet. Usually these aren't full scenes but intros to more important scene passages. You can always argue how this bit is important or clever or enlightening, but you know, you have to trim something, and a scene without an event to change the plot is usually trimmable.
5) Try the Jane Austen tactic-- in dialogue, if there's no conflict, do narrative summary. (They reminisced for a few minutes, then she remembered, and said insultingly, " ". :) There are going to be parts of scenes the reader needs that might have no conflict (like a moment of grace where two characters share a cigarette), but those are best kept fairly short and fairly rare. 

6) Look for those passages where there's nothing-dialogue-- often when there's some movement from one setting to another. ("Let's go into the den and watch TV/What do you want to watch?/ I thought this season of The Voice was starting. Did you record that?/No, the last one was so annoying, I didn't bother. But we can probably get it on-demand." :) No, I never actually wrote that passage, but that's the sort of "transition conversation" that's usually easy to cut away.
7) Also look for long passages of introspection where a character is thinking. Sometimes these are important, and the way they think is important to show, but the deeper we get into the story, the less long introspection is needed. (The reader knows more about the character by the middle of the book, and probably just needs a hint of what they're thinking, or only introspection when something unexpected is felt and needs explanation.)
8) Try my ruthless technique: Decide on a page goal, like "cut 50 words out of this page". This takes awhile, but it's usually easy to find at least 20 words to cut. Or "cut one sentence or sentence part out of each paragraph". Or "trim two sentences and combine them into one shorter sentence". This is actually my favorite thing. :)
9) Even more ruthless: If you know there are words you over-use (for me, it's "then" and "just"), do a "find" for them and for each one, decide whether it's needed. Delete if not. A friend of mine cut two pages out just by getting rid of justs. :)
Because all this is so "voice-centric," it's probably best to do it yourself first and see how much you can cut. That way you'll still have control of the scenes and the interactions between characters and how that's presented. 
Then again, an outsider might be able to be more objective, as Theresa was with my over-long book.

I can tell you from experience, trimming is hard to get started, and painful, but after awhile, it's easier to see where something can be discarded, or  how scenes or sentences can be combined.

Broadsword/scalpel experiences you can share?