Tag: writing craft

Inside a Writer’s Brain

I thought the Professional Author’s Brain (PAB) would be different. Back when I started down this road to become a published author, I accepted that disparate ideas and motivation would war against my love of story writing. I was an amateur after all, and that creative writing/professional writing degree didn’t really prepare me for reality.
Four years into the real deal, I’m not sure anything could have given me a heads-up about being a professional author. Or what really went on behind the forehead inside a PAB.
True, continual writing and seeking feedback from more skilled writers could equip me with the TOOLS I needed. But there isn’t a book or course that can tame the beast inside my brain.
I know this because I’ve read an endless stream of writing craft and career books from successful authors, and I’m still scratching my head over some aspects of the whole “author gig.” I’ve also taken multiple courses offered online and at conferences from published authors who are also competent teachers (and as an educator, I can tell the difference).
What did I get? More knowledge. More tools.

Nothing to discipline the genius inside my heart, soul and mind.

The part some people call “The Muse,” but I’m inclined to agree with Elizabeth Gilbert’s assessment that we all have a genius at our disposal, and it isn’t subject to the spurious whims of the gods.


What? You didn’t know Muse is actually a Greek goddess, patron of artists everywhere.

Now you do. And that explains her fickle game plans and unpredictable work schedule.

What I’ve learned as a professional author is that you can NOT wait for the Muse to show up before you work. You have to sit your rear in the chair and do the work.
But, the truth is: Muse work reads like poetry and my work affects me like a C-level college essay. So why write the words are going to sound so…average?
Why didn’t my brain shift into a different gear once I decided to go “pro”? Surely professional authors with a string of best sellers and a backlist that fills five Amazon screens don’t have problems tricking their brains into work mode. And their Muse must show up for eighty percent of their writing sessions.
You’d be surprised what best-selling authors do to trick their brain to do its best work. But, I can’t rely on the bag of tricks they share as “writer’s gold” in their blogs, memoirs and books on writing best sellers.
Because most of it is nothing more than fool’s gold to my brain.

My Creative Brain

I come up with ideas for stories quite easily. Too bad that’s NOT the hard part.

I might be standing in the grocery line and here are some things that would grab my creative genius:

  • The cover of a gossip rag in the magazine stand
  • A snippet of overheard conversation
  • The set of the cashier’s shoulders
  • The look a stranger gives as he passes by
  • The contents scrolling across the belt about to be purchased by the person in front of me

There’s no shortage of ideas in the world. Anyone with a spark of imagination can come up with hundreds of ideas during a one-hour brainstorming session.
In fact, I never need to brainstorm story ideas. What I need to learn is how to multiply plot points that will compel readers to turn the pages.
Because while the idea pool is deeper than the Mariana Trench and wider than the Pacific Ocean, the number of ideas which will generate an entire, interesting story or novella (forget the gargantuan required for a novel) fit in an espresso cup.


The Other Half of my Brain

And that little puddle is where the other half of my brain refuses to play. It likes the splash of plenty in the ocean of ideas.

Why narrow things down? Won’t it be more fun to play with all the interesting water puppies?
No, Brain, it only leads to frustration.

Except for when it causes plot holes. Or there’s an off chance it will peter out in the dreaded middle of the story. Maybe it locks itself in a tower and conveniently misplaces the key.

The left brain has lots of fun, but at some point the right brain (PAB) must approve all the fantasy-babble. It has to contain enough truth to suspend the reader’s disbelief. And this half of the brain is like a wet blanket on the fiery creative half.
So why can’t I convince this half of my brain to “create” like a professional author?
Because it doesn’t tends to cage the fluttering explosion of ideas and the Muse doesn’t survive behind bars.
In other words, professional authors learn to write IN SPITE of the flibbertigibbet whiff of inspiration and genius.
Me? I’m still trying to escape the beast with all my limbs intact.
What sort of things do you imagine go through a PAB? Any questions for this full-time author that might light a fire beneath the Muse?

Newbie Author Seeks Publishing Contract

In the world of authorial experience, I’m still a newbie. One published short story, an independently published novella and a contract for another short story: those are my publishing credits.

As for writing, though, I’ve had a long and arduous journey. And I’ve written close to a half-million words since doing this “writing thing” full-time. Some people say once I’ve written a million words, I’ll finally be through my apprenticeship.

Hopefully, I’ll have a few readers who love me by then, too.

I spent my first year polishing and perfecting the first novel in a young adult fantasy series. I wrote the entire trilogy at the suggestion of a writing teacher I regard highly. It helped to disgorge the full story.

DOW CoverIf you’ve written one novel, you know the exhilaration (or maybe utter exhaustion) of typing the final sentence. Since I started writing full-time in July of 2013, I’ve written four 70,000+ word novels (all young adult fantasies) and a 40,000-word historical fiction novella. Every time I finished the first draft, I wanted to sing and dance (and take a LONG nap).

My first novel made the rounds:

  • It attended a first ten pages workshop. The beginning got rewritten.
  • It went to another class about hooking a reader. Another new beginning.
  • The first twenty pages and a synopsis were submitted for critique by a published author of the fantasy genre. More work was needed.
  • After pitching the idea at a writer’s conference, I sent the first fifty pages to an agent.

Even before I heard back from her (“The story has potential but isn’t right for her needs”), I knew the story needed a complete overhaul. Why? I had been learning about structure, conflict, and character motivation.

The first novel was a novelty, but it wasn’t marketable. It needed to be rewritten.

doomsday1Meanwhile, I had birthed a new, exciting idea. There were dragons and volcanoes and a snarky teenage girl. Who could ask for more? So I wrote that novel.

The first third of this novel found its way to a professional editor for a developmental edit. Guess what I found out? The story was strong. The characters? Not so much.

I’m climbing the learning curve, but it’s a steep one. Writing a novel is no easy task. It’s complex. A brain surgeon probably needs fewer hours to learn how to remove a tumor than an author needs to perfect a novel-length story.

That novel is still in the process of being revised. My beta readers enjoyed it, but they found flaws. Namely: everything happens too easily. That’s right. I like these characters and I want something to go smoothly in their otherwise crappy lives. But smooth sailing doesn’t make a good story.

“We learn the world is at stake too early in the story.” When a volcano erupts in glorious splendor in the first scene and the seer envisions a dragon in the second scene, things are moving along. But not doomsday in the fourth chapter. Even if it’s in the title of the book.

And the characters don’t grow much. What? They save the world but seem unchanged? More. Development. Needed.

So, that’s what I’m working on this summer. The Willamette Writer’s Conference nears, and I’ll be pitching this new project to an agent and an editor.

Have I moved from the apprentice stage of writing? Will this novel be deemed “saleable”?

I hope so. But, if it gets rejected, I’ll send it to another group of critiquers, get more feedback, make more changes, and NEVER SURRENDER.

Can I Learn from someone I Don’t Like?

 

In the world of writing, I’m a newbie. As far as expertise in the genre which I’m writing, I have none. For these reasons, I sought instruction from someone considered an authority in the genre of science fiction and fantasy: Orson Scott Card.

I purchased the book How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy over a year ago, shortly after I decided to write a young adult fantasy novel. Rave reviews and recommendations from writers I trusted spurred me to make the investment in this slim volume.

At that point, I hadn’t read a single book written my Mr. Card. It didn’t matter. As an instructor, he came highly recommended. As a writer, his long list of published novels, many of which were best sellers, and his numerous awards seemed like firm second opinions.

Then I read Pathfinder. It’s an interesting blend of science fiction and fantasy (since the main character, Rigg, has a special ability). I enjoyed the story – right up until the end.

More recently, I read Ender’s Game. I noticed that Card used the same style of prefacing each chapter with a scene happening outside the main action as he had used in Pathfinder. They divulged information and motivation for the benefit of the reader. In that book, these scenes were actually things that happened in eons past that would eventually help the reader understand the conclusion of the book.

I surmise the purpose for these additions is three-fold: build tension, exposit backstory and offer information the protagonist doesn’t have.

I don’t care for this style of writing, especially not for young adults. I’ve worked with reluctant and struggling readers for the past seven years and this sort of writing confuses and frustrates them.

Okay, but Shari, isn’t that just a small percentage of the young adult population? You might be surprised to learn that according to findings presented by Scholastic only 50% of young adults claimed to read for pleasure. Percentages decline for 16-18 year olds (school work and extracurricular activities are peaking then).

Back from the statistical tangent: Orson Scott Card is surely an accomplished writer and an authority in his field. I haven’t been impressed with his fiction writing.

The How to Write book netted a slightly different response. Card freely shared his methods for finding ideas and nurturing them to the point where they can support a story. His insight into world building – essential for fantasy writers – helped me outline rules for the magic used in my current novels.

In short, Card taught me important things. If I had decided not to read his writing instructional manual because I didn’t care for a couple fiction stories he’d written, my writing would have suffered.

We can all think of experts we aren’t impressed with in one way or another. Why would the field of writing be any different? Any expert with the inclination to share their wealth of knowledge deserves our attention.

What are your experiences with this phenomenon? Have you ever been surprised to learn from someone who your preconceived notions tempted you to disregard?

Story Engineering

At the behest of my Jedi Master, Kristen Lamb, I’ve begun dog-earring a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. It’s a masterful guide for creating a strong, complex story.

If you’re thinking, “I’ve got story structure down,” I thought similarly after highlighting James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure into rainbow-like proportions. Brooks subtitled his book “Mastering the 6 core competencies of successful writing.” Structure is only one of the six.

Two hours on the phone with Kristen reiterated for me the fact that I’m still a noob in the writing arena. Sure, I’ve been writing stories since I was nine. Does that mean they were well-written stories?

My first attempt at young adult fantasy flopped because I didn’t understand my antagonist’s motivation before I started writing. In the past, I had an idea and I sat down and wrote it. That might work for a short story, but all it provides in the novel-writing world is 60,000 words of warming up to the real story.

Trust me. I was halfway through the revision process when Master Lamb tapped the major plot points with her force push. The resulting pile of rubble buried my heart. A novel shouldn’t be a wobbly house of cards. It needs to have bones of steel beneath its thin skin (or maybe it’s the writer who has thin skin?).

Most of us right-brained artistic types see the word “engineering” and lose our appetite. Isn’t engineering all about calculus and equations with 18 variables and figuring out how to use all the buttons on a $200 calculator? So not interested.

The point behind Brooks’ use of “engineering” in his title is that writing a great story doesn’t just happen. We all know that only a fool would run out to build a tower without having blueprints and expertise. Brooks presents a logical (yes, very left-brained) argument for planning the major plot points and character arc before you attempt to build your novel.

The six core competencies of writing according to Brooks are:

  • Concept
  • Character
  • Theme
  • Story Structure
  • Scene Execution
  • Writing Voice

I was directed to this stellar directory for story-planning for the lesson in story structure. I started with Part Five of the book so I could take my medicine and “do” rather than “try” to plan a successful novel.

In reading the entire book, I see that Brooks marries character arc to story structure in a way that simplifies the planning process. He offers sage advice for weaving theme between these major elements, as well, and erases the gray area between concept and theme.

In short, this book should be required reading for newbie writers. Using a conversational tone, Brooks invites the panster to do a little planning and gives the outlining mavens a blueprint to follow. He never talks above our heads or down his nose and he uses examples from fiction and film to illustrate every point.

Is your work in progress a mess of Bondo? I highly recommend Brooks’ book. It works better than an air sander at smoothing out the rough spots.