A couple of new translations of my writing books. The figure with the pipe reminds me of Bertrand Russell or Sherlock Holmes...
A couple of new translations of my writing books. The figure with the pipe reminds me of Bertrand Russell or Sherlock Holmes...
What's the word to leave out of your fiction most of the time?
Almost everything happens suddenly.
A shot rings out.
She realizes there's a man behind her.
The waiter arrives to take your order. OK, I guess he could amble over to your table...
You don't have to ban the word totally, but it is over-used, especially by newer writers.
Ryan DeJonghe did an analysis and found that in his early fiction, Stephen King used one "suddenly" every ten pages; in his later fiction, only half as often.
A good way to convey the impact of something is to use short sentences, each a new paragraph:
They were laughing and re-telling the story of how Jason got so drunk one night that he passed out on his front lawn. Even twenty years later that one made Jason blush. The sound of the passing car didn't catch their attention. They did hear what sounded like the car backfiring.
A blossom of red appeared on Jason's forehead.
He blinked and fell over backward.
That's a case where "suddenly" wouldn't have helped; if anything, it would have detracted from the power of the sentence.
Suddenly the blog post ended.
99U had a post today critical of the many articles that are headlined something like "How to Innovate the Steve Jobs Way" or "How to Think Like Warren Buffet."
It brought to mind how often writers see similar articles: "How to write like J. K. Rowling" (or another classic or currently popular writer).
Sometimes they focus on the particular and quirky habits of the writer in question--that they can only write between the hours of six and nine in the morning, or only in hotel rooms, or that they drink only green tea while writing.
I do think we can learn from successful writers; that's why I wrote a book called Your Creative Writing Masterclass, in which I gathered the writing advice of more than 100 successful authors, classic and current.
However, using any one writer as your model is rather silly because the things that shape a writer include many that nobody else will ever duplicate. Certainly, go ahead and learn from Chekhov's lean but vivid descriptive style. But unless you can figure out a way to be born in 1860 in Russia, have a physically abusive father, become a doctor and match the thousand other events that shaped the man and his writing, you'll never master "How to Write Like Chekhov."
The most important thing we bring to what we write is our own perspective. My gripe with a lot of recent mainstream films is that whatever personality might have been reflected in the screenplay was eliminated by the time the movie reached the screen.
Fortunately, there are still independent films and off-network TV series that value that personality. One example is a series I missed when it was first on, but am currently enjoying, True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto. I can detect the influence of a number of crime writers in that series, but the result is Pizzolatto's.
First and foremost, write like yourself.
A fascinating article by Robin Cembulest at ArtNews.com reveals how Edward Hopper created his most famous painting, "Nighthawks"--the one that shows the interior of a diner as seen through its large window, revealing a couple, a man by himself, and a server.
A show of Hopper's drawings at the Whitney includes 19 studies for the painting, including sketches of the people and even the tableware that featured in the iconic picture.
It's interesting how much this resembles what writers do when creating a novel or screenplay. The studies show that Hopper considered having the scene revealed from inside the diner until moving the point of view to the outside. He sketched men sitting at a diner, and ultimately used himself and his wife as the models for the couple.
The result was a painting that looks like a still from a movie and invites you to imagine the personal stories of the people in it.
One way writers can apply this is to think of a still image that conveys the emotion of the story they want to tell. What would be the setting, which characters would be in it, what would they be doing?
I know I do.
One strategy that helps is at the end of every work session jotting down what is the next logical step, the thing you'll do first when you resume.
It's a good idea to do this even when the next step is obvious. I believe your brain keeps working on a project when you think you've stopped. By pointing it in the direction of your next move you'll find when you resume you feel less resistance.
Try this for a week and notice to what extend you're getting more into the flow--to share your experience, please use the comments section.
(You'll find a wealth of useful and innovative approaches to getting more done in my book, Focus: Use the Power of Targeted Thinking to Get More Done, available via any bookseller.)
Author-illustrator Tomie dePaola said, "“Sometimes I still get up in the morning, I face the blank piece of paper and my brushes are clean and ready to go, and I panic. I know I’m going to make a mistake. So I get that over with, rip it up, and then get on with it.”
There's tip number one: Start by writing an intentionally bad sentence. Make it the worst sentence you can think of to express the thought. Then throw that one away and get to work.
World-famous author Judy Blume said, "“Tomie talked about courage. I was far from a courageous or brave child. I was timid, shy, quiet – except inside my head. Inside my head I was this other person. I was Madeline! I was brave! When it came to my writing, I never thought twice about it: I was brave in my writing in a way that I wasn’t in my life.”
She added tip number two: “Do not let anyone discourage you. If they try, get angry, not depressed.” (To which I would add, be sure you get angry at them, not at yourself.)
August 13, 2014 in Getting Ideas to Flow, Productivity, Screenwriting, The Writer's Life, time management, Writer's block, Writers to Admire, Writing a Novel, Writing for Children, Writing for Young Adults (YA), Writing methods, Writing Motivation | Permalink | Comments (0)
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"If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story." - Ernest Hemingway
I think this is useful at two points.
First, it underscores the importance of getting to know our characters, including many things we will not end up including in the script or manuscript.
Second, when revising the first draft cut the bits where you've pictured the entire iceberg for the reader. Leave the one-eighth that allows the reader to know or at least sense the other seven-eighths.
A series on how to improve your life, 5 minutes at a time.
Today: Stop and ask yourself one question
Several times a day, stop what you're doing and ask yourself: "Is this the best use of my time right now?"
If it is, congratulations!
If not, figure out what IS the best use of your time at that moment and do it instead.
This is important because it's so easy to get distracted or to pay attention to the urgent rather than the important. Of course the urgent must be done, but is this the best moment to do it? It's not that we don't know what we should be doing, but that it's so easy to forget.
Of course it's also easy to forget to ask yourself this question, so I recommend setting an alarm on your phone or tablet or watch for three times during your work day. When the alarm rings, ask yourself the question and, if necessary, adjust what you're doing. If the alarm would annoy others, set it to vibrate.
Probably you already know the times of the day you tend to get distracted, so schedule the alarms accordingly.
TIP: If what you're doing is enjoyable but not the right thing at that moment, schedule it as a reward for finishing the thing that IS the best use of your time.
(If you're looking for additional innovative ways to be more productive, get a copy of my book, "Focus: use the power of targeted thinking to get more done." It's published by Pearson and available from your favorite bookseller.)
The publisher warned her that boys might be reluctant to read a novel written by a woman, thinking it was intended for girl readers, and advised her to use her initials.
Did it help? We will never know, but we can be pretty certain it didn't hurt.
That got me thinking about pen names. I'm just about to submit my first YA novel to agents and/or publishers and thinking about doing so under a pen name, instead of Jurgen Wolff, for a couple of reasons.
NAMES AND PERCEPTION
Multiple studies show that someone's name influences how they are perceived by others. Dictionary.com references one such study conducted in the US:
"Participants of the study were asked to guess the success of students with various names on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most successful.
The highest scoring names turned out to be Katherine, scoring a 7.42, and Samuel, scoring a 7.20. With a score of 5.74,
Amber ranked lowest among female names while Travis ranked overall lowest with a score of 5.55.
As John Waggoner, a researcher from Bloomberg University, points out: “Katherine goes to the private school, statistically; Lauren goes to a public university, and Briana goes to community college. Sierra and Dakota, they don’t go to college.”
In the UK, Richard Wiseman conducted a study, asking 6000 people about their perceptions of names. The most successful sounding ones were Elizabeth and James, the most attractive ones Ryan and Sophie.
Writers often take this into account when deciding on names for their characters, especially for their protagonist and, if applicable, their villain. They don't usually think of it in terms of their own names.
Research suggests that people decide alarmingly quickly whether or not to pick up a book (or in the case of online listings, whether to click the thumbnail image). They base this on the title of the book, the image on the cover, and the author's name.
I wasn't able to find any studies specifically on the extent to which the name of an author who is not famous impacts sales.
This kind of test has certainly been done on possible titles for a book. Timothy Ferriss tried out several names for his first book. He put ads online that described the book in exactly the same way, varying only the title. The clear winner was The Four Hour Work Week. Since the book wasn't actually available yet, the people who responded where told they'd be notified when it was.
It would be interesting to do the same thing, but varying only the name of the author...If I give that a try, I'll report the results here.
The factor that seems most obvious to me is that it helps if the author's name is congruent with the genre of the book. I'm guessing if one thriller cover featured an exciting image and the author name Mortimer Feeney and another version was exactly the same except that the author's name was Jack Chase, the latter would outsell the former (apologies to any Mortimer Feeneys reading this).
There may also be cultural factors. My first name, Jurgen, is German, and although the recent World Cup win seems to have created a blip of goodwill toward Germans, overall I think there's some negativity associated with German names in the UK, if only subconsciously.
One additional factor based on your surname is that in book stores novels usually are shelved alphabeticalliy by the last name of the author. If your surname starts with W, your books tend to end up on the bottom shelves, where it's less likely to catch the eyes of browsers.
ON THE OTHER HAND...
Of course there are lots of exceptions--authors who have unusual, unpopular, or foreign-sounding names whose books became best-sellers. In fact, it can help to have a somewhat unusual name because it will be more memorable.
IF YOU USE A PEN NAME
Based on a bit of quick research I've done, it seems that the etiquette of submitting material to agents and publishers suggests using your real name in your query letters unless you've already had something published under the pen name.
In a way this is too bad because probably agents and publishers are just as much influenced by names as anybody else. Some sources do say that it's OK to add your pen name on the title page of your manuscript, like this:
written by Mortimer Feeney
(writing as Jack Chase)
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ultimately it's a very personal decision--some authors feel that it's a betrayal to thei family name to use a different one--but compromising paid off for J K--I mean, for Joanne.
Did you know that a third of Americans have been implanted with RFID chips during dental treatment and most are not aware of it?
Did you know that Facebook has a new feature on its smartphone app that will allow them to record all your conversations?
No? That's because these stories are bogus. However, they are making the rounds of the internet, two of many hoaxes, scams, and myths that a lot of people pass along to everybody on their email list, believing them to be true.
I used to consider these kinds of stories junk littering the internet but they could have another use: as the basis of a novel or screenplay.
The notion that people are unwittingly getting RFID implants during dental work at clinics set up for welfare recipients, or at a high-end clinic used by members of Congress or Parliament, for instance, could be the basis of a good conspiracy thriller. So could the idea of a social site recording all the conversations of government decision-makers (or the daughters of the President, perhaps?) in order to blackmail politicians into supporting legislation that gives the company a monopoly.
The fact that these stories have already gained an audience, albeit among people who think they are non-fiction, suggests that they might work well as fiction as well.
PS: A good source of such stories is the Hoax-Slayer newsletter, from which I took the two examples above. The site is http://www.hoax-slayer.com.
(Once you have a good idea you need to translate it into a good book. That's where Your Writing Coach comes in. It's published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing and available from your favorite bookseller.)
How much of the plot of his novels does Stephen King know before he starts writing? This is what he told Goodreads:
"I start a book like Doctor Sleep [his most recent book] knowing just two things: the basic situation and that the story will create its own patterns naturally and organically if I follow it fairly...and by fairly I mean never forcing characters to do things they wouldn't do in real life...For me, the first draft is all about story. I trust that some other part of me—an undermind—will create certain patterns."
He adds, "The basic pattern of a story or novel should be there in the first draft. Story creates theme; theme suggests certain events; the events become part of the story. Around and around it goes."
What about rewriting?
"When I read it over (after letting it rest and rise, like a good yeast bread dough), I usually see the patterns and can mend the places where they go off on the wrong track or disappear completely."
As proved by the many examples in my book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, this is only one way of approaching crafting a story. Other authors won't start writing until they've worked out an outline in detail.
To find out what works for you, sometimes first you have to find out what doesn't. Eventually you'll discover the most effective and efficient way for you to write.
I think the crucial thing in the quote above is "never forcing characters to do things they wouldn't do in real life." Of course we're talking about their real life, which doesn't exist but has to seem that it does in your mind before it can exist in the minds of your readers.
In the recent BAFTA awards there was a category called "Constructed Reality." It's good to see an acknowledgment that reality show reality isn't reality. In order to capture viewers, the producers of such shows fall back on traditional storytelling.
A case in point: the MTV show called Catfish.
The Zen Habits blog listed ten questions that can help you take action. In this series of posts I suggest how to apply those specifically to writing more. You can easily adapt them to drawing or whatever other creative activity you'd like to increase.
2. Will you commit to doing this for a month?
If you make the actions small enough you will be able to advance your writing every day. On days that you have more time you can do more but the point is to do something every day for one month.
Not only may you be surprised at how much work you've done at the end of the month but you will feel positive about yourself and your determination to be a writer (that is, a person who writes, not just one who dreams and talks about it).
Even if you are already pretty productive, this can give you e a big boost.
Remember, the point is not that you shouldn't take time off to relax and restore your energy; on days off you can do five minutes and stop but it helps you keep up the momentum and sense of dedication. After the month you'll know whether you want to keep going...I'm betting you will.
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What should you look for (and avoid) in getting feedback on your writing or other project?
Max Brooks, author of World War Z, said this in an short collection of tips on Publisher's Weekly:
"I’m very careful who I let proofread my unfinished work. Too often people will want to rewrite the entire story or take it in a direction I never intended. Vetting proofreaders over time allows me to find eyes and brains that want to help me get where I originally intended to go."
He calls it proofreading, which I associate with looking only for typos and spelling errors, but what he describes is more typical of people giving feedback on whether or not what you've written works. The danger he points to is that they, with all good intentions, start pointing you toward the way they would have written the story or scene, rather than givng you feedback that helps you write it better the way you intended to.
My advice is to ask them to stick to identifying the problem--maybe the scene feels like it goes on too long, or something isn't clear, or the dialogue doesn't come alive--and leave the solution to you.
When you think back to your favorite novel or film, what moments in the story stick in your mind? Often there is one scene that reveals something new or even something very familiar about life and stays with us.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, novelist Courtney Maum (I Am Having So Much Fun With You) talked about the mix of heartache and humor that often occur together. She gave a wonderful example from her life:
“For instance, last summer I was eight months pregnant and we had to put our cat down. I mean, we really loved this cat. While we were burying him in the backyard, two men were painting our nursery. And the painters were singing along to ‘Love Shack’ on this awful radio with terrible sound while we were outside crying.”
I think if you can find this kind of moment when your character experiences something that illuminates the tragi-comedy that is his or her life (and ours) it enriches the story.
What moments like this did your characters experience?
Did they notice them at the time?
Were they changed by it?
Even if you don’t use those moments in your manuscript, being aware of them will help you get to know your characters more intimately.
As an exercise try looking at a photo and brainstorm what else might be happening or about to happen that would make it a dramatic moment (example below).
(Get tips on writing from Anton Chekhov and the other greatest writers of all time, collected in Your Creative Writing Masterclass, now available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)