Monday, July 26, 2021

Setting the Scene

Not long ago I ran across an old email from a writer who suggested using the “writer's eye" to view the world as one way to improve writing skills. The suggestion got me to thinking and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn't enough to simply use your eyes as a writer. A better way to phrase that idea would be to view the world through all of a writer's senses.

As a journalist, I often stood back and viewed a situation as simply facts to gather as a way of writing how an event or situation might impact people. Now, as a fiction writer, I may step into that world of being a removed viewer, but now I tend to see things from a much different angle. Instead of impartially viewing events and writing about them, I must step in to bring my characters emotionally into them. My training as a journalist has made the writer in me much stronger because it has honed my ability to absorb and dissect what I’m seeing, hearing and sensing. Before I had to remain impartial. As a writer I also have to remain impartial – but my characters aren’t. They must step into that world and react to it.

I look at the journalist’s role in me as being that of a tape recorder--taking things in and recording

them as they occur. Then later, the fiction writer plays them back, but in a much more rich and embellished way. The fiction writer in me gets to call in emotions and look at how scenery, an event, even a conversation affects the characters personally and emotionally.

That means looking at everything around me, feeling the energy of the moment almost every day and taking in as much as possible, recording it as a journalist, but then playing it back as a fiction writer, using all my senses at my own leisure. As such, I am making time to pause for a few minutes at various moments during normal days to reflect on the world around me and how a character might see it..

I find myself watching the distinctive gray of a winter day, but I don't simply see the murky gray dawn, I make myself feel it—record it through my senses for use later in a book or short story—the chilliness that nips at the nose as I step outside on a frosty morning, the hint of rose tinged clouds that I see on the eastern horizon. I let myself absorb the cold, feel it in my fingertips, let the wind bite my cheeks. It might be just an ordinary day, but if I can take the time, just a few minutes to record everything about that moment in time, I can use it later from memory, just when I need it. What are my emotions? Do I feel more alive because of the biting chill, or do I want to just go back inside and hunker down in front of a fireplace?

What about the recalling the feel of the cool ocean air on a walk on a cloudy day? I often look at my old pictures to bring back some of those old memories to make a scene come alive in my mind as I write.

I find myself doing the same thing in a busy coffee shop—mentally recording everything around me using as many of my senses as possible to be used later: the hum of conversation, the scent of coffee or cinnamon rolls; the strong taste of the coffee, the cold blast of winter every time the outer door opens, the sting on my hand when I spill my hot coffee. I watch the people around me too, in case I need to describe a gesture later or think about how to put life into an otherwise dull scene by describing the antics of a two year old rushing from one end of the coffee shop to another, making a number of people nearly spill their lattes before her mother grasps her hand and locks her into a stroller. There’s the student in the corner in a knit hat and bulky sweater, tapping frantically at a keyboard, while taking sips from their tall cup of coffee. I catch snatches of the conversation of a businessman on his cell phone, setting up his day with someone already at work.

At a business meeting that is growing boring, I don’t simply tune out and think about what I should be doing. Instead, I begin thinking about how I would characterize the carefully dressed woman with the out-of-date hairdo in the third row or looking out through the windows and thinking about how to visually express the scene outside. I even think about how to correctly describe the droning tone of the speaker. I listen for the cadence of the speaker’s voice, or the screechy voice of that person behind me when she asks a question. All these things can be pulled into a story later, from the bored look on someone’s face to the flush on the face of a late arrival. 

These are small examples of a normal day, but that’s part of the point. If you can apply your senses to wherever you are, even for a few moments, and if you either write up the scene later or recall as much as you can as an exercise, it’s going to sharpen your skills as a writer. When I was writing my romantic suspense, Deadly Messages, I often called up thoughts of the days I spent in Vancouver, BC, where my opening scene takes place. Even when I was working on a sequel, I would often look at pictures of my days spent in the city and its famed Stanley Park, recalling the feel of the cool, moist air or the cry of the seagulls while sitting outside on my deck in sunny Colorado.

Absorbing the world around you on a regular basis can enliven your writing. I like to think of it as soaking up the ambience of wherever I am, and I’ve always made a practice of doing that any time I visit a new place or find myself in an unusual location or situation. But now I am working on doing it as part of my daily routine. Soaking up or sucking in the ambience I call it.

If you’ve worked at sharpening your senses on a regular basis, then when you visit that mansion you want to use in your historical, or when you are personally caught in the middle of a scene you want to use later in book, your senses will be sharper and you’ll be ready later when you want to put  all the information into your book or short story. Soak up your surroundings. You never know when they might come in handy!

Monday, July 19, 2021

Getting Past the First Page

Beginning writers are always asking me about getting started on the first draft of their book. Starting to write can be such an overwhelming process, and that first draft can seem like a very high mountain to climb. Thirty thousand words? Sixty thousand? How about writing a hundred thousand? At times like this, that first draft can appear to be an insurmountable problem. Even with the most detailed outline, a writer might worry or obsess with that first line of a book.

 To me that opening line can become a real issue. Staring at that blank sheet of paper or empty page on your computer can be overwhelming. When I first began writing news stories many years ago, that first page problem was really problematic. I can still remember being so frightened of writing that first news story. It was a simple story – a college spring graduation. I can’t remember what I wrote that day, but I do remember it seemed an overwhelming task because I knew thousands of people were going to hear that story as read by the anchorman. Even worse, I knew I didn’t have endless hours to get it just right.

 Over time I got over that fear, and now, sitting down at the keyboard and getting started with just a few ideas has become so much easier. I realized that the best way to get started is to … well… get started. Get those first words on the page and the next will come, and the next and the next. In these days of computers, it is easy to fix those first lines later. Back in that story about my first story, if we were writing directly onto a script page, fixing that page was not that easy. It usually meant starting over on a fresh page of script… which in those days was five pages with carbons…  

 Now the advice I give to beginning writers is to just type up those first lines.  Now they can be fixed and often times I find myself doing just that. But the story is never going to be written if you spend too much time trying to get that first line just right. You might even find that the perfect line will come to you once you get the entire first chapter written.

The perfect first line might also come as you are plotting the book and be ready to write it down if it comes to you. I always recommend that writers keep a pen and paper hand to write down ideas, and these days, getting that first line can be as easy as tapping the words into the notes section of your phone or recording them.

If they don’t  come immediately, look to your characters. What are they going to be doing on the day that changes their lives and thrusts them into your story? What is happening around them/

Keep that first line in mind as you are plotting or as you develop your characters. What is the beginning action point that begins the story. Also keep in mind that the words you write down for that first page can be changed later. You’re not going directly to air, as some of my stories often did. Having that happen day after day resolved my fear that the first line might not be perfect.

Get down what you think is good and then if you need to fix it, know that you have the luxury of fixing it later. The point is to get started writing!! Right now I have just started writing the second book in what I call my "Blues" series, featuring a television anchorwoman who had to solve a crime to save her life and her career in the first book. Now she is coming back and having to save a friend who goes missing. Part of the fun of writing this book has been just letting go and that is the fun part of writing the first draft where you can do just about whatever you want.

The first draft can be as detailed or as sparse as you want it. Ask around and authors will give you a variety of different ideas on how they write their first draft. Some will want it as detailed as possible. As I’ve written in previous classes, some authors like Suzanne Brockman consider their detailed outline as their first draft.

Others turn in their first draft as the finished product. Again, look for what works best for you and then write it that way.

Here are some things you do want to set up in your first draft:

1. Characters -- give as much detail as you can. Keep in mind you can always remove things or move them around and place them later in the story.  I always name all my characters, even the minor ones with the idea that I can change their names later if I don’t like them. If you’ve done your story charts you should have a good idea of who your characters are by now and  they might surprise you as they begin to take shape in story form.

2. Setting -- provide a good idea of where and when your story is taking place. Again you can go back later and use that to give you an idea of what you want to include in your story. This is especially true if you are writing fantasy. You will need to provide a good picture of the world your characters inhabit. If you include some of that detail in your first draft you can always look for ways later to spread out the description over pages so that it doesn’t all come at once in one big information dump.

3. Premise -- you do want to get the story problem introduced early in the story so look for ways to do that in your first draft. Again, you can fix details or move things around later as long as you begin to define what your story is about. If you have written up your plot with plot points, an outline or story board, or even have a general idea of where you’re going, you should be able to bring it into play to get the story going.

If you do have a detailed outline, you might even want to begin with that and then just expand it, just as Suzanne Brockman does. As I’m mentioned before, you might also start with your plot points and then write the scenes around each of them and start stringing them together or do the same with chapters.

Those are the things you need to look to include in your first draft. What don’t you need to worry about:

1. Don’t worry if your first draft is not complete or if you don’t include things. If you get toward the middle and you realize there were story plot lines or elements you should have placed up higher, you can always make notes to include those things or scenes in editing. Sometimes I keep a separate word file where I’ll make a point of things to fix in the re-write or second draft. 

2. Don’t even worry about your spelling on that first draft. Again, you can always run spell check later.

3. Don’t worry about coming up with just the right phrase or perfect metaphor. That is what editing is for. Again, you can spend time thinking things through during the re-write or edit. Sometimes I find myself surprised at how well written some of the sentences are in my first draft. Other times I cringe -- did I really say that?

4. Don’t worry about showing this first draft to anyone--whether it be a critique group, your husband/wife, mother or sister/brother. You can, of course, but keep in mind, it is a rough draft, meant to be fixed. Don’t take their criticism as a death knell to your work.

5. Don’t worry about how long it takes you. Some writers can churn out ten to 20 pages a day. Others struggle to get one done. Again, keep writing. It’s the only way you will get the story on paper.

6. Don’t worry that it sounds just like that last story you wrote, or if you’re re-using phrases that you loved so much last time. Again, this is what editing is for.

7. Don’t obsess on page or word counts. As I noted before, some writers are faster than others. The point is to keep going. You may also find that some days you too can turn out huge amounts. On other days you might have to pull the words out of your pocket!

8. Don’t keep revising and revising. Yes, sometimes it pays to go back through the last five pages when you start out the next day, but read them over and make minimal changes. Use that read over to re-acquaint yourself with where you are going. What you don’t want to do is get fixated on “fixing” those pages. It can cost you your spontaneity and you’ll find yourself constantly re-writing instead of moving forward.

And while we’re discussing writing and re-writing, let me bring up another trap many beginning writers fall into in writing the first draft -- don't get hung up on word counts!

Also, don't get fall into the trap of writing only to win contests. One of my writing friends had a thing about entering contests. As a result she had her book outlined and a synopsis written, but she didn’t go much beyond writing the first three chapters. She kept rewriting them to get them perfect in order to win or final in a contest. Then when she would get feedback from the judges, she would rewrite those chapters again and re-submit to more contests. In the end, she finally gave up trying to write a novel because she could never finish the book. However she did final in numerous contests. She even won a few.

Another friend (who did eventually get published) kept rewriting her first three chapters to submit to agents and editors. She did the same process as the above friend who was entering the contests. She would receive feedback and then try to re-write to the agent or editor recommendations (when she got them -- most of the time she simply got rejections). Luckily she did keep improving her writing and in the end she didn’t complete her novel until someone asked for the full manuscript. Then she wrote that first draft in two months. Of course it was rejected, but she had a finished product and then she was able to edit and eventually sell it.

Don’t let yourself get caught in that situation. It’s wonderful to polish those first three chapters for contests or to submit, but don’t get fixated on them. The morale of both these stories is that contests and submissions are great, but you won’t get published until you have a full book to offer and that is where first drafts come in. A first draft is still a full book and a starting point. 

In the long run, the goal is to keep working and get the job done. You'll reach your final goal of finishing the book and be ready to begin submitting or sent to an editor if you are going to publish yourself. No matter what, keep going!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Getting the Job Done!

 This week's blog is short, but it is one of the most critical parts of writing.  

Getting the story done!

If you don't ever finish anything, why are you writing? Don't you want to know how your story ends? How will you ever get it out into the published world for readers if you don't ever get the story finished. I am writing this blog today because I have just put the finishing touches on a book I have been working on with a co-author. This past week we finally reached that wonder, final chapter and solved the mystery and set set up what may be the next book in the series. 

What a liberating feeling that is for a writer. We were both pleased to see those final steps in the climax. As in a good mystery, even a cozy, everything was on the line in those final pages and I'm happy to say our heroines came through in fine style! Time to break out my fancy hat and celebrate!

The fun part of finishing the book is that feeling of accomplishment. Yes, we can still write finish a story. The next steps will not be nearly as pleasurable. We must go through and edit our work, and then make certain that all the elements of the plot actually work and that the story reaches its final logical conclusion in fine style.

Yes, getting to the end is not an easy task, but it's also only the beginning. I always tell writers that finishing is only half the job. We can have fun with our characters and enjoy working on the plot, but now comes the hard part. 

We need to finish the editing process.  Yes, we have been editing each chapter as we've gone along, but the final edits are still ahead and can make all the difference in the world.

Are all the loose ends really tied up? 

Do the characters need more development?

Are all the grammar mistakes fixed?

Does the ending make sense?

Did we set it up so that readers see its logical conclusion?

Those are all things we will need to recognize and complete in the next stage -- the first edits.

First?  You mean there are more?

I always recommend writers do more that one edit of any book. Because we are writing a mystery, all the loose ends need to be tied up and that ending has to make logical sense. But it also has to be a good read for mystery readers, and that means planning and executing on those little dead end clues we tried to plant along the way. We want some readers to figure out the ending, sure, but we also want those who didn't be able to go back and see where those little clues were-- those places the readers may have caught on to the ending.

In a romance, the reader usually knows how the story will end, that the hero and heroine will end up together, but those endings need to be satisfying too. Did the main characters change enough to achieve the happy ending they deserve? Did they grow into the person who will continue to earn that other character's love forever?  

In science fiction, we also need that satisfying end. Whether writing a series or a stand alone, like with romance or mystery, the ending needs to make sense. Was the problem solved? Was the bad guy vanquished, or if not, was the world saved? 

Leaving a few doubts in any of these genres can work if you are writing a series. Readers will want to move on and see what happens in the next episode, but even that won't work if you don't provide characters readers want to follow. The characters make the book and making certain those characters count is always the way to go. Whether you are writing a happy ending or a cliffhanger that pulls the reader into the next book, it's important to get those endings right and to let the reader put down the book with the final thought of Wow, I can hardly wait until the next book!

Happy writing and happy edits!

Monday, July 5, 2021

Don't Wait to Write

 How many writers have trouble getting started with writing a book?  A good many! Beginning a book can seem overwhelming or it can also seem very simple when the first page presents itself, but then the next words won't come.  Why can't YOU get a book started?

Before you say you can’t start that first draft until you have the perfect first line and first few paragraphs, my advice is don’t worry about that. You will never get your book written if you worry about making everything perfect as you go along. No, the purpose of the first draft is to get the story on the written page. I can’t say it enough--the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. Once you have started writing, you may go back later and find that the perfect line was contained in your first paragraph. You just didn’t put it in the right place. But at least you wrote it, and now you have it for the future.

 The point is getting started writing. You can do it.

 First let me begin with the simple statement that there is no right or wrong way to write a book. What I try to give you are ideas and options and even if some of what I offer are the so called “rules,” when it comes to writing, each author is different and must choose the best course for him/her to get the book written.

For me, each book I write is different and I often end up writing different books different ways. Like my characters all my books have individual, unique personalities. In some cases I was able to turn out a book in three months, at other times it took several years as I went back and changed and perfected things. In one case, I kept the characters and put them in different circumstances. The second version of that book was the first book I sold.  In another case, I kept the premise but totally re-wrote the book. I first wrote it twenty years ago around a certain idea. When I looked at it later I still loved the idea, but the writing was horrible. I tossed out the entire manuscript but it eventually did get written and published.

 Look for what works best for you and use that. There are no magic formulas. But I will repeat the statement that unless you get something down on the page, you will never finish the book, and that is where the first draft comes in.

Thriller writer Bob Mayer says don’t worry about how awful that first draft might be, anything can be edited or fixed. Nora Roberts says you can’t edit what isn’t written. Janet Evanovich says the great things about first drafts is that this is the one time in your life you don’t have to be perfect.

 So let’s consider what you do need to be aware of in writing that first draft. What should you keep in mind as you write it--terrible or not.

The first draft can be as detailed or as sparse as you want it. Ask around and authors will give you a variety of different ideas on how they write their first draft. Some will want it as detailed as possible. As I’ve written in previous classes, some authors like Suzanne Brockman consider their detailed outline as their first draft.

Others turn in their first draft as the finished product. Again, look for what works best for you and then write it that way.

Some things you do want to set up in your first draft:

1. Characters -- give as much detail as you can. Keep in mind you can always remove things or move them around and place them later in the story.  I always name all my characters, even the minor ones with the idea that I can change their names later if I don’t like them. If you’ve done your story charts you should have a good idea of who your characters are by now and  they might surprise you as they begin to take shape in story form.

2. Setting -- provide a good idea of where and when your story is taking place. Again you can go back later and use that to give you an idea of what you want to include in your story. This is especially true if you are writing fantasy. You will need to provide a good picture of the world your characters inhabit. If you include some of that detail in your first draft you can always look for ways later to spread out the description over pages so that it doesn’t all come at once in one big information dump.

3. Premise -- you do want to get the story problem introduced early in the story so look for ways to do that in your first draft. Again, you can fix details or move things around later as long as you begin to define what your story is about. If you have written up your plot with plot points, an outline or story board, or even have a general idea of where you’re going, you should be able to bring it into play to get the story going.

If you do have a detailed outline, you might even want to begin with that and then just expand it, just as Suzanne Brockman does. As I’m mentioned before, you might also start with your plot points and then write the scenes around each of them and start stringing them together or do the same with chapters.

Those are the things you need to look to include in your first draft. What don’t you need to worry about:

1. Don’t worry if your first draft is not complete or if you don’t include things. If you get toward the middle and you realize there were story plot lines or elements you should have placed up higher, you can always make notes to include those things or scenes in editing. Sometimes I keep a separate word file where I’ll make a point of things to fix in the re-write or second draft. 

2. Don’t even worry about your spelling on that first draft. Again, you can always run spell check later.

3. Don’t worry about coming up with just the right phrase or perfect metaphor. That is what editing is for. Again, you can spend time thinking things through during the re-write or edit. Sometimes I find myself surprised at how well written some of the sentences are in my first draft. Other times I cringe -- did I really say that?

4. Don’t worry about showing this first draft to anyone--whether it be a critique group, your husband/wife, mother or sister/brother. You can, of course, but keep in mind, it is a rough draft, meant to be fixed. Don’t take their criticism as a death knell to your work.

5. Don’t worry about how long it takes you. Some writers can churn out ten to 20 pages a day. Others struggle to get one done. Again, keep writing. It’s the only way you will get the story on paper.

6. Forget the past. Don’t start to panic if you feel that your new book sounds just like that last story you wrote, or if you’re re-using phrases that you loved so much last time. Again, this is what editing is for.

7. Don’t obsess on page counts. As I noted before, some writers are faster than others. The point is to keep going. You may also find that some days you too can turn out huge amounts. On other days you might have to pull the words out of your pocket!

8. Don’t keep revising and revising. Yes, sometimes it pays to go back through the last five pages when you start out the next day, but read them over and make minimal changes. Use that read over to re-acquaint yourself with where you are going. What you don’t want to do is get fixated on “fixing” those pages. It can cost you your spontaneity and you’ll find yourself constantly re-writing instead of moving forward.

And while we’re discussing writing and re-writing, let me bring up another trap many beginning writers fall into.

The Three Chapter Fixation

One of my writing friends had a thing about entering contests. As a result she had her book outlined and a synopsis written, but she didn’t go much beyond writing the first three chapters. She kept rewriting them to get them perfect in order to win or final in a contest. Then when she would get feedback from the judges, she would rewrite those chapters again and re-submit to more contests. In the end, she finally gave up trying to write a novel because she could never finish the book. However she did final in numerous contests. She even won a few.

Another friend (who did eventually get published) kept rewriting her first three chapters to submit to agents and editors. She did the same process as the above friend who was entering the contests. She would receive feedback and then try to re-write to the agent or editor recommendations (when she got them -- most of the time she simply got rejections). Luckily she did keep improving her writing and in the end she didn’t complete her novel until someone asked for the full manuscript. Then she wrote that first draft in two months. Of course it was rejected, but she had a finished product and then she was able to edit and eventually sell it.

Don’t get caught in that situation. It’s wonderful to polish those first three chapters for contests or to submit, but don’t get fixated on them. The morale of both these stories is that contests and submissions are great, but you won’t get published until you have a full book to offer and that is where first drafts come in. A first draft is still a full book and a starting point. 

The bottom line of writing your book is you can't finish it if you don't start writing the story. Enjoy the summer and let's get some writing done! Any comments or questions? Please visit my websites at Rebecca.Grace.com or for more writing tips, visit Writethatnovel.net 

Different Styles Can Work Together

Writing has been my way of life since I turned twenty and began studying   journalism – I started writing for my college newspaper and never...