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You're a Writer!

Ideas and encouragement for writers.

Story Synopsis

Some people like to work with structure in their fiction; others prefer to have a general idea and enjoy writing to find out just where this story goes.

Neither is ‘right’  but at some point – even if that point comes after your first draft is finished – you need to collect all your thoughts into a brief synopsis. you need it for three reasons:

  • To keep you on track with your editing. Once you clearly understand your story line you can see what bits are missing and where you have wandered off track into some irrelevant (but beautiful) tangent. You need this clarity to guide your editing.
  • As a basis for your back cover blurb.
  • This is the heart of your marketing pitch. It’s what agents and editors want to see. Again, it gives clarity to the project.

Whether you write your synopsis before you start to write your story or novel, or whether it comes afterwards you need a synopsis statement, probably one sentence covering each of the following:

  • Your main character – the type of person he/she is and the setting they are in
  • The over-riding goal of this character
  • The inciting event that starts the story and how the character decides to deal with it
  • The conflicts the character encounters and his/her means of dealing with it
  • The concluding event and the major discovery made by the character.

You don’t necessarily need to follow that sequence, but an agent or editor is going to want to know you are clear on these points. No amount of verbiage is going to cover up if you lack this clarity.

I myself have only recently become a convert to this type of synopsis. Previously I saw a synopsis written ahead of the story to be like putting on a very tight Victorian corset – not something that was comfortable or helpful. Now I find that it points me in one direction and keeps me true to the essence of my story.

Give the  synopsis a try – think of it as an elevator speech for your novel or story. Then, when someone asks “What is it about?” you’ll have an answer.

 

 

 

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Creativity

Creativity is a form of energy. It has much in common with other forms of energy, and much that is unique.

One aspect that is common is that creative energy needs to be grounded. It has to be based in something that is honest and true – the human condition, in human feelings and interactions.

If you write fiction you understand that there are a small number of basic plots. What we feed into our computer is merely our own take on one of them. No matter how avant-garde we think we are, how we have built our own fully furnished unique twenty-fifth century world, how we have twisted steam punk to our own designs – we still are building on one of the basic plots.

Creativity is what allows us to spin our own web over the age-old plot. Take the old basic, dress it up fancy and take it to the ball. Uncover facets that we think are new, or at least new for this generation, and strut them down the catwalk.

I used to find it rather depressing that all the basic plots had been stated and used a gazillion times. Then I realized that this is the grounding, the launch pad, the firm ground from which we take off. We have an infinite number of directions in which to go and many modes of transportation to carry our imaginings.

But we are grounded in the human reality of those basic plots. We bring to them that creative energy that is so unique to each individual writer. We were born with this, rather like an extra chromosome. Our own creative imagination is a special gift that can take the ordinary and make it sublime.

But we also mold this imagination through our own life experiences, beliefs and outlook on life. Our reality and our integrity are the basis for the new worlds we create, the creatures from unknown planets, the emotions of a historical figure a thousand years ago. They are all grounded in our personal reality.

We have molded them from our own personal clay. Yes, we have researched and edited and done all the practical stuff – that’s just the mechanics. Our creativity comes from a special layer of energy that asks inquisitive questions that no-one else seems to ask and builds a beautiful tower or garden from an ordinary response.

You’re a writer. You have that creative energy. You have grounded it in the classic plot ideas and in your own individual strength and integrity. This sets you free to discover and share fictional truths that are uniquely yours.

Another Pair of Eyes

Some writers love the support and friendship of a writer’s group. Others avoid them for what seem like good reasons.

“I don’t have the confidence.”

“What if they don’t like my work?”

“I’m sure they’re all so much better writers than I am.”

However they say it, it reveals a lack of confidence in themselves and their work. Perhaps they don’t send their work to editors for the same reasons.

I plead guilty to lack of confidence in my work but – big BUT – I know I need at least one other pair of eyes to notice my mistakes and – big AND – to tell me what I did well and could do more of.

Some people can afford to pay – and to trust – a freelance editor. Better than that are the several pairs of eyes in a writers group. Different people notice different things. Added together you get significant input.

Will that input dent your fragile confidence? If that’s a concern test the waters in a new group. Let them go over a piece of work you like, but don’t expose your finest and best-loved piece right away. Chances that they’ll rip it to shreds are very remote, but hey, if they do, you didn’t care much for the piece anyway. Move on to another group.

Most groups will offer the support you are looking for and point out aspects of your work that are better than you thought. Yes, they will mention parts that could be improved, probably with ideas of how to do it. They might even have fresh  ideas for places to market it.

If you are planning to market your work you need to accept that other eyes are going to look it over. These editorial eyes will be experienced, focused and looking for the piece that best fits their specific market. An easy first step before you give it to the professionals is to let less stressed, less critical eyes take a look.

Take time to find a writers group you feel comfortable with. Then you will know that their eyes are gentler more caring of you as a writer than a newspaper, magazine or book editor can ever be. They will not ‘reject’ your work, they will help you improve it.

The writer’s group is a stepping stone into the real world with your writing. You’ve read it yourself in your isolation. You may have read it to a friend who told you it was lovely/awesome/great. The writers group is graduation into a more objective world.

Yes, it takes a leap of faith. Do you have that much faith in your writing?

Character: Likably unlikable

Or, to put it another way; unlikably likable.

Do you want your readers to be sure and confident about exactly who your characters are?

In some ways that can be a good thing. Whenever Mary Jane enters the story your reader can be confident that she is the reliable good friend and helper. You need some of those.  You can give them a few negative characteristics – say, being chronically late or untidy and disorganized but the reader knows she can rely on them being an ally.

One of the main purposes of some of the main characters is to keep the reader on the edge of their seat because they just don’t know.

It’s your job as a writer to create characters that are complex and not ho-hum. Complicating this are the many stereotypes – the bad guy feeding a stray dog for instance. You want someone to appear tense? Have them bite their fingernails. You know all the clichés to be avoided.

But what do you replace them with? Replace them with your own observation. Someone came into the coffee shop yesterday, sat down with friends and cut right into their conversation with a monologue of his own. Brilliant, I thought. File it under insensitive.

It isn’t a terrible sin, but think how you could use it. You could exaggerate it – you could make it the prime characteristic of a person who is much disliked until they….

You could show it distorting their life until the spouse threatens to leave them unless…

You could downplay it and use it as the one weakness of an otherwise positive character. Where will it take him, how can it be used, eventually?

A friend of mine hates to see people with dirty fingernails. First, what does this say about her? If I was to use her as a basis for a character how would her fastidious nature play out? Would it be a major driver of the plot or would it be an annoying aspect of an otherwise intelligent and charming woman?

And what about dirty fingernails? Do they offend you? Do you even notice? Are they OK if a person has just come inside from working in the garden but not OK when sitting down to dinner at a friend’s house? People (readers) see different things, feel things differently. Writers groups will show you that. The way you feel about a characteristic may not be at all the same for other people.

We all know  that no character can be totally likeable or totally unlikable. Building in layers and dimensions takes you further and further away from totally anything. Think of the genius who is socially inept. A cliché. But not if you wrap it up in so many layers and brilliantly observed characteristics that those absolutes become almost invisible.

Characters and characteristics are your business as a fiction writer. Observation is the basis, along with practicing and experimenting. You enrich your own life in the process.

Artist-with-Words

I had a letter last week from an old friend back home in England. She lives in a farmhouse tucked into a hollow with higher land behind it. In her letter she enclosed a greeting card printed from an artist’s impression of her home.

Her house, to me, had always been warm and welcoming inside but perhaps not very impressive outside – a plain working farmhouse, and nothing wrong with that.

But the artist had seen it differently. She had seen the coziness of a house tucked into a hollow of land. If my friend ever wanted to sell her house this picture would be a major asset.

Now, true, perhaps the trees looked a little bushier than they actually are, and  one tree looked taller. Maybe the curve of the lane is a little wider than reality, and the soft summer colors will not be seen year-round.

But it is recognizably her farmhouse. She was amazed when she saw it. Imagine her, she wrote, living in a house an artist wanted to paint!

The artist was just that – an artist in paint, able to see with a creative eye what the rest of us had missed.

Your writing is like that. (You knew where this was going, didn’t you?) You see an incident or a person and your artist-with-words eye sees it deeper, richer and more vivid than anyone else.

Your artist’s eye gives it a context and meaning that reveals the incident or the person in a new light. I had never noticed that the farmhouse nestled under the slope like that. I just saw a farmhouse with fields and some barns, plain and unremarkable.

But the artist showed me that whoever built that house a couple of hundred years ago knew what they were doing. They built to give the house the benefit of maximum shelter from the winter winds and rain of Yorkshire.

They may not have realized what a bonny picture it would make once that front field became a garden, but they took care to give the house – and everyone who would live there – all the warmth and security the site allowed.

I never noticed that careful positioning of the farmhouse before. It took an artist of last year to show me the mind of the builder back in history.

Can we do that with our writing? Can we even aim for that kind of revelation? I think one of the finest compliments a writer can get is, “Oh! I never thought of it that way before.”

You changed, ever so slightly, someone’s thinking. You might even have changed their perspective. That’s not easy to do, but that’s the value of being an artist with words.

You’re a Writer: The World You Create

One of the pleasures of writing is creating a world that is, for now, all yours. It’s a place you escape to where no one can follow unless you invite them.

Your husband wants to know where supper is? Kids need attention? You cope with it using the small part of your brain that’s left over. The part you left behind on your expedition to your inward world, to what feels like your real self and the place and people you have invented.

In this world the people fill their prescribed roles, with needs appropriate to their situation and outbursts conveniently located at plot points. Not when you’re busy with something else (like writing).

And you can produce the kind of weather you’d like. Snow and frost? Cool!   You can make one day become surprisingly warm and sunny just to keep the variation going. Not like real life where the weather persists on doing its own thing – one hot day or wet day after another without a break. The writer can mitigate such inconveniences.

It feels strangely uncomfortable when you have to yank yourself back from some future or past world. There’s a sense  of unreality as you peel yourself away from the frosty day with Isabella in 16th-century Venice. Oh! Oops! Frost is unlikely in Venice… from a sultry day in Venice  because you have  to deal with the dog throwing up on a West coast foggy day.

It’s annoying to drag yourself back from Isabella’s devastatingly broken heart to deal with road rash on Jason’s knee.

And yet, dealing with the fog and the road rash – minor irritations, definitely not on a literary scale – are what builds us. They build our focus – that focus muscle that lets us mop up the blood, say soothing things, hug gently and get right back to Isabella. She is waiting, poised in her grief, gazing heartsick across the canal.

And while you were looking for the ointment you thought of a terrific twist to pull her out of her despair. No time to waste.

The happenings of our everyday life build our bank of experiences. How will we express fog? After a few days we can clearly articulate the feelings it gives us – the mystery or the dreariness. We remember fine details of sensations and feelings for use later in our writing.

We hold Jason’s tumble in our mind as part of our experience as parents; as part of the integral structure of our life and its emotional fullness. Without it, irritation and all, we are less rich. And less rich emotionally means poorer as a writer.

It’s all inter-connected. No part is wasted. You create a world. The world creates you.

Prepare to Write: Stock the Pond

Inland fishermen who need fish for survival and for protein in their diet know that if they stock their pond with tiny young fish they will, later, have a good supply of larger fish for food.

This approach works for writers too. You have to stock the pond. You stock it with ideas, characters, plots, setting. You collect these while they are small and unrelated – they’re just the baby fish, they’re not mature and solid  yet.

They might not seem  like much and you are a busy person. Like me, you may feel that you don’t have time to be noting every little thing down. So those little fish get away and are forgotten. That’s too bad because they could have added richness to some later story.

Let’s say your teenager slams the door as he leaves the house angry.  How would you describe the sound of the slam? Did you feel the house shake? What were your feelings? Did the dog run and hide? How did the teen look – were his shoulders stiff, fists clenched? How did he feel?

Maybe there is a detail you could easily forget – perhaps he doesn’t put his jacket on , even though it is cold outside, maybe he kicks the garden rake on the way past and it falls down.

Part of the usefulness of this is training your observation, making a habit of stocking your pond. It’s part of the process of being a writer that you are astute enough to notice and internalize people’s actions and reactions.

It’s part of stocking the pond that you “What if” it a few times. What if he angrily takes your car and drives too fast and slams into a bus, or hits a pedestrian? What if he meets the neighborhood drug connection and is offered a free sample, just to calm his nerves?

It’s part of stocking the pond that you take a long hard look at your own reactions and feelings and that you observe the different ways other members of the household react.

Being a writer doesn’t just mean firing up your word processor or sitting down, pen in hand at the kitchen table. It means having a fully stocked pond imagination.

Answer their Questions

When you write non-fiction – for a magazine, newspaper or newsletter you are usually giving information. The question is – are you giving people the information they are looking for?

I’m not talking here about copywriters who know all too well how to suck us in with 10 surefire ways to… or the 7 secrets of…. They know deep in  their bones what information we’re looking for. I’m talking about the rest of us who see ourselves as writers, not copywriters.

If you have a degree in horticulture, how do you know what a new gardener needs to know about growing spinach? Because of your qualifications you’ve been asked to write this. Where do you start? If you write something simple enough for the true beginner are you going to bore the reader who has grown spinach a couple of times before and wants ideas for improving the crop?

If you spend half the article length on preparing the soil – because you believe this is most important – will you turn off those who take the soil for granted and just want to get down to the business of choosing seeds and planting?

Or maybe it’s the church newsletter and the minister asks for an article on the importance of attending the early service and bringing friends and family with you.

As a writer you are torn between what people ought to want to read and what they actually do want. If you write about what they ought to want, will they read it? Or will they glance over the first paragraph and decide that it’s time to take the dog for a walk?

Thing is: If what you write is not read there is very little value in it. Only if someone reads it is there a chance that they will take a few of your ideas to heart and change their behavior.

But the editor said…the minister asked…. Yes, you’re stuck in the middle. They may flatter you with “You’re so good with words. I’m sure you can come up with something.”

The question to ask them (and to ask yourself) is “What do these readers want to know?” What you or the editor or the minister want to tell them pales before what they want to know. And if you don’t know what that is, ask them.

Spend time asking your readers – “What are you looking for in this publication?” “What questions do you have about this topic?” Get as much feedback from as wide an assortment of readers as possible. Then figure out ways to give them what they want to read while at the same time incorporating a little of what you or the editor wants.

Reading is about the readers. Writing is about the readers too.

Writer on a roll

Sometimes the writing goes well, sometimes not. When it isn’t going well we call it ‘writer’s block’ and a lot has been written about that.

But what about when it is going well? Do we just give silent thanks as our fingers fly over the keyboard, and keep going as fast as we can before the spirit leaves us? Some of us are lucky enough to do just that. Others have kids who need to be fed NOW or a job that they need to leave for in half an hour.

Do you leave it at a logical stopping point, or in mid-scene so the momentum is there to be picked up next time? Or do you just leave it at whatever moment you are dragged away from it?

Where does writing stand in your list of priorities? What will you sacrifice to keep this wonderful creative burst going? Do you have the luxury of saying, “Go away, world. I’m writing up a storm here. Get out of my way.”

Is there a little voice nagging at the back of your mind – “If you’re writing this much it can’t be good quality. It’s probably all drivel. You ought to stop right now.” It’s a nasty little voice. If you listen to it, it will kill the pleasure you have in this unexpected outpouring of your creative mind.

I try to scare it away with a resounding positive – if my subconscious mind is sending me this wealth of words there must be value in it. Then I back it up with practical reassurance – there may be a few errors, I might have gone off track a couple of times but it’s all fixable. Don’t worry, nagging voice, I will edit it carefully. Later.

Meanwhile enjoy it. Go with the flow. Let the ideas or the characters or the scene find the print and the paper. You are just the channel. You are unblocked and functioning as a channel really well just now.

Being on a roll as a writer is a pleasure that mixes dynamic energy with a sense of achievement. However, it can be a tough one to share.

If you tell someone who is not a writer “I wrote 2500 words today!” they may reply “Is that a lot?”. You want to grab them by the throat and yell, “Do you have any idea…”

If you say it to a writer they may reply, “Yes, but is it salable?” or “Yes, but who’s going to publish it?”

To me these people are first cousins of the nagging voice that already told you that it was probably no good. You need to avoid their negativity or shut it down.

Then there’s the writer friend who isn’t doing so well just now. How can you proudly announce “I wrote 2500 words today!” to someone you know is in the writing doldrums? Or to someone who tries but who has never really got going as a writer?

How can you use it to encourage and not to belittle? How can you share this creative joy and affirmation of all that is unique about being a writer? How can you expand it so it helps and supports others?

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