Wednesday, November 25, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015-Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #25)

Yesterday I wrote about approaching the end of writing the first draft of your novel and the various emotions that will inevitably be stirred up inside of you.

In a previous post I wrote about the fact that the fears that arise around writing your book must, in their deepest nature, be connected to the fears of your primary characters. This is simply so.

So, now, as you near the end of this draft, do remember to find the way from your fears--their deepest, most primal nature--to the fears of your protagonist. They will be heightened by the approach of the climax. This is the way through your story.

Together we share our stories~

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #24)

Five days to go for 2015's National Novel Writing Month!

I was conversing with a writer today about what it means to finish a first draft. We went over the nuts and bolts of what happens after you write the last line of the first draft of your story. I told him I always put aside my manuscript for several weeks or more.

When I am ready to pick up my manuscript and read from cover to cover over the course of a day or two or three, I know that my goal is to read like a reader. I want to see with "fresh eyes"--and that means I don't slow down to make edits. I keep a note pad by my side and I try to take notes sparingly, focusing on the big picture. Always my goal is to keep "inside" the story. I make note when something in the story or the writing pops me out and I become conscious that I'm reading (in contrast to experiencing the story the way I experience a good film). When I'm finished with my read, I jot down notes, thoughts, impressions over the next days. Still I give myself space before I set out a serious revision plan.

But there is another part of finishing a first draft and I imagine it as a "psychic ocean" where all the deep, internal currents swirl as they are stirred up by committing to flow and reaching a creative goal. I believe all writers experience conflicting emotions around "finishing" a full-length narrative, even when it is a first draft finish. Excitement, exhilaration, fear, anxiety, anger, joy, resistance, grief, depression, anticipation--any and or all of these might live between "I can't wait to finish!" and "I never want to let go!"

So, today, I reminded my writer friend that he is finishing his first draft. He can and must revise if he is committed to writing his best book. (There is no such thing as a one-draft-wonder.) He will have time to take care of his baby, his book. He will protect it and hone it and dream it and polish it--until it can live in the world.

And my last thought tonight, before I head for bed: I love the company of writers.

Happy flow~Sarah

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #23)

If you are a fan of the classic 1983 coming of age/holiday film, A CHRISTMAS STORY, scenes come vividly to mind when I cue you: pink bunny suit; Scut Farkus; Santa and his elves; soap bar; leg lamp; Red Ryder; the dogs and the turkey.

Today's post is a day late and my only excuse is that a version of the 'dogs and turkey' scene unfolded in my home yesterday. This morning, I am still carrying around three different brands of carpet cleaner, still sweeping up broken glass and scrubbing butter from the oddest places, still highly miffed at certain four-legged friends who now occupy the metaphorical and actual dog house. But enough excuses--

If you haven't seen the film, try to catch it this year. It runs on TV repeatedly during the holiday season so don't panic if you've missed it already.

It is funny and wacky and touching. The showdown between Ralphie and Scut is a classic, and the voiceover narration is a perfect example of how VO can effectively be used: to provide a unique facet of the story that contrasts what we are seeing on screen. (Bad VO simply mimics what we are seeing,  worse than ho hum.)

BTW, the movie was inspired by Jean Shepherd's book, IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH; Shepherd's book is a collection of personal short stories published in "Playboy" magazine in the 1960s.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015-Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #22)

If you started writing your novel on November 1st, you are fast approaching your final week!  Kudos for those of you who pushed the edge of the envelope (and filled the pages) this month.

If fear kept you from beginning, continuing, completing your first draft, acknowledge your fear and sit with the feelings.

Take a few minutes to free write to see if you can focus in on the nature of your fears: Are you afraid of failure? Afraid of writing total crap? Afraid of actually finishing? Afraid of success? Afraid of attention? Afraid of being seen? Afraid of not using your voice?  Afraid of envy? Afraid of having to commit to revision?  Afraid of dying if you finish your draft? Afraid of others around you dying if you finish your draft? Afraid of going crazy? Afraid of inviting darkness? Afraid of not living up to the "hype"? Afraid of those around you who are envious and toxic? Afraid of ridicule?

Afraid that if you finish your book in the forest, and scribble 'the end of draft one' no one will hear your pencil drop?

But don't stop there, sense what else is going on inside you? Is there shame mixed with fear? Is there rage? Is there overwhelm? Desperation? Anxiety? Obsession? Depression? Dread. Anticipation of any and all of these?

Welcome to the club. These are common fears (emotions) for writers. Please feel free to add your special fears to the list.

If we didn't feel these fears, these emotions, we would be in trouble. We write to figure out the answers to our questions. We write to try to work our way through our human dilemmas. We write to come out the other side with new vision, new insight.

These fears/emotions also connect us to our characters--whether we are writing fiction or memoir. So don't try to quash your fears--that never works. Stay curious and stay with the emotional experience and see how the deepest nature of each emotion lives inside your characters.

Your hero may not be writing a book, but he may well be training for Iron Man, or she may be auditioning for The Lion King, or going into combat for the first time, or working three jobs and attending night school and raising her child as a single mom. She wants desperately to succeed, to prove herself, to give her children more than she was given, to dig deep for courage, to make her life matter. He wants to prove he's not too old to make it to the top of the mountain one more time, he wants to lead bravely under fire and keep the men and women in his unit safe.

We writers (actors, dancers, painters, singers, sculptors) work with our emotions, and we must have compassion and courage to stay with our stories, whatever form they take. We can't afford to bury the complexity of our human spirits, our humanity, beneath thick skins or armor--the aching desire to understand what makes us human, our hearts, our emotions, our brains, our cognitions, our resiliency and our vulnerability, our darkness and our light, our capacity for incredible kindness, humor, and generosity and our capacity for terrible cruelty...we need to be strong to tell the stories of our world.

PS If you didn't reach your goal this month, never fear, you can begin now, tomorrow, next month, just don't wait too long.

In creative solidarity~Sarah

Saturday, November 21, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #21)

When I teach "Get to the Heart of Your Story" workshops I always love using the "snapshot" exercise. This exercise is useful whether a writer has written a full draft or is just beginning to understand her story.

I ask writers to imagine their protagonist at the beginning of the story, just as it opens. And I tell them to take a virtual photo (no selfies!) of her/him--and then to carefully observe and study the details: expression, posture, clothing, surroundings. I ask writers to absorb what they are seeing and sensing in a right-brain way. This is not the time to pull back and analyze from a distance. This is the time to pull in and experience and use all the senses.

Next I ask writers to imagine a virtual photo of their protagonist at the end of the story. Again, pay close attention to the details.

And then I ask them to notice very carefully all the changes. Some may be dramatic but many will be subtle.

Is she/he smiling in one and not in the other? Are her eyes more open in the second photo or is she looking away from the camera? If so, what is she seeing?  What is she hearing? What has changed in the way she holds her body or in the way she moves? Is she holding something new in her hand? Has she cut her hair? Taken off makeup she wore before? There are endless clues in these two virtual snapshots.

Finally, I ask writers to imagine--on an emotional, visceral, sensory level--what happened in between the two images?  How did the changes occur? Because there will be change on the deepest, most profound level.

This is a time when new ideas, new scenes may come to the writer--this is a time for new insights.

Remember, a story has an arc and that arc is shaped by the "want" and "need" of the hero.

Wishing you flow~

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #20)

I spoke with a client today who is moving from first to second draft on her historical fiction. She is reading one of my novels and she commented on the quick pace and the fact she enjoys reading my scenes. Her question of the day: How do I make my scenes sharp, whole, and compelling.

Here are a few quick tips:

1) When possible keep the scenes to 2 or 3 primary characters.

2) Know what each character wants going into the scene. If you've ever taken an acting class, you know that each actor has a scene goal -- and usually a secret the she keeps from her co-actor.

3) Know each character's secret, what each is withholding.

4) Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end--but just as you do with the story as a whole, start the scene as late into the action as possible.

5) Know who drives the scene and understand the difference in status between the characters. (Make use of status and power, it's fun!)

6) Read, reread, or watch "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and see Maggie and Brick want, need, and fight for control. Watch who drives each scene.

7) Know what is at stake in each of your scenes.

8) Keep characters in action and working emotionally (charming, ignoring, seducing, threatening, bribing, demeaning, bullying, etc.) for what they want; passive aggressive action is action, too.

9) End every scene (with one exception) with the tension UNresolved! Note, tension is what you need in every story and tension = unmet  need.  Once you write a scene where the characters' primary needs are met, the story is over, Finis.

Happy writing~

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #19)

Okay, for today's tip, here I go again, talking about staying curious about what your protagonist wants. And, remember, our fictional heroes are extreme--they go after what they want with an intensity that can be frightening and invigorating and freeing. They are bigger than life and we can watch them slip and slide and struggle and push and yearn and obsess to the extreme, whether their story is a tragedy or a comedy.

So back to the want. I wrote a very personal blog post a few years ago about going through the death of my marriage and how the experience changed my whole conception of what "family" means because I had to surrender what I thought was the meaning of family and I had to accept a new vision in order to heal and begin to move forward again in life. In fact my ex and I are doing a good job of co-parenting our daughter.

But I was reminded today of the fact that a part of me will always long for that original vision of family. Even though I know accepting what I needed--what we all needed--was the beginning of our healing. Even though I understand that achieving my want was impossible.

Still I ache sometimes when I remember for a moment the old dream I had of family. I will always have those moments that trigger the old yearning. I know that my yearning connects back to a very early wound. That's okay, we grow, we move on.

But remember, your protagonist is like you in the respect that if her want is love and connection because she feels she will finally be whole if only she can find that love from someone in the world--and when she ultimately realizes that she must learn to love and accept herself before she can truly open to love from another...well, she will be wiser and more whole...and she will still have a part of her that longs, maybe aches, for that perfect love.

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #18)

Seven inspiring quotes from the masters:

#1) "Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words." Mark Twain

#2) "The first draft of anything is shit." Earnest Hemingway

#3)  "Literature--creative literature--unconcerned with sex, is inconceivable." Gertrude Stein

#4) "James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could. I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can." Samuel Beckett

#5) "Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn't it such a relief to have somebody say that?" Kurt Vonnegut

#6) "We live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Words without experience are meaningless." Vladimir Nabokov

#7) "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." Douglas Adams

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #17)

I listened to a lecture last night by one of my favorite writing teachers, Al Watt. One of his exercises is for each writer to free write about his/her fears when it comes to writing a particular novel or screenplay. Common fears include fear of failing, fear of writing dreck, fear of forcing the story instead of letting the characters guide the writing, fear of dying, fear of hurting others.

Then Al asks writers to think about the protagonist of the story and to connect the primal essence of the writer's fears to the character's fears. At deep core, they are the same fears: fear of failure, fear of disappointing (self or others), fear of not measuring up, fear of facing a deep challenge, and on and on.

When you, the writer, can connect your fears to the fears of your character--emotions at their most primal, at their essence--then you have a lifeline into the story you are writing. Try it, it's powerful and freeing.

Happy writing, Sarah

Monday, November 16, 2015

#NaNoWriMo2015--Get to the Heart of Your Story (writing tip #16)

My daughter and I are fans of Cressida Cowell, the author and illustrator of the fantastic HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON series. We are currently reading the 12th and final book. (Oh, how it hurts to write final!)


'There were dragons when I was a boy." Those were the first words of the beginning of this story. Once there was a boy named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, who lived on the little isle of Berk with a hunting-dragon called Toothless, and a riding-dragon called the Windwalker, wild and happy, in a world full of dragons."

Chapter 1. However Bad Things Seem to Be, They Can Always Get Worse
Chapter 2. You See, it Just Got Worse Again Less Than Five Minutes into the Story"

Those are the titles of chapters 1 & 2 and I can't think of better story advice: raise the stakes!

And one more bit of wisdom from Cowell: "THE WORLD NEEDS A HERO"

What could be more true?

Thank you Cressida for making us laugh and cry for 12 books and almost as many years!

Happy writing things getting worse, worser, worst!

PS This dragon illustration is used with my daughter's permission