Tag Archive | workshops

Are you a writer or a storyteller?

When I first started out with the idea of writing for money I though I wanted to be a great writer. I soon realized I was wrong about that. Great writing is lovely–I get sucked into it all the time. I can get drunk on words. Great writing usually is found in great literature, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I also quickly realized that great writers aren’t always the one making the money.

erbTake Edgar Rice Burroughs–not the world’s best writer. Or Dan Brown, who gets slammed for his writing all the time in various circles. Or even Twilight author Stephanie Meyer–she is not someone who usually gets “great” and “writer” in the same description, unless the word “not” is added. However, these folks all know how to tell a story. They’re more than good at that–and that’s what we all want. A great story.

With a great story a reader will often overlook a lot of things. Frankly, I’ll skip past typos, weak sentences, poor description, and even clunky dialogue if the story is pulling me along. I cannot read any book by Burroughs without thinking, “What happens next?” The characters can be cliche, the plot can have holes, but if the story sweeps me up I don’t think about those things until later–that’s when my brain engages and I think, “Wait a minute.”

So what is it about story that can be so utterly compelling? It’s not just the characters–although as Robert McKee says, “Story is character and character is story.” It’s also about pacing and action. It’s about the whole idea of spinning a good yarn. I’m doing my storytelling workshop this September for Outreach International Romance Writers. It’s a workshop I started doing when I realized other writers were getting sucked into the “good writing” vs. “great storytelling” trap. I kept reading a lot of really beautifully written contest entries that just didn’t keep me wanting to turn the page–a huge problem for any writer of fiction. So I figured let’s figure out what you need to be a good storyteller–what are the elements of that craft.

A good storyteller juggles:

Characters And Hooks: Act 1

•   Stage Presence — you have to have characters that the reader wants to spend time with

•   Letting The Reader Play Too: Non-Verbal Communication (what’s otherwise known as showing more)

Basic Structure: Act 2

•   Pulling the reader in: clear and engaging openings — hooks!

•   Pacing — sequence of events

•   Ending — a sense of closure to give the reader that happy glow from any good story

Craft And Voice: Act 3

•   Clarity, Clarity, Clarity (as in don’t lose your audience)

•   Story presentation — Keeping Listeners’ Interest

•   Voice: Choice Of Language — which is what makes your stories stand out from others

Emotion and Innovation: Endings

•   Unique or Creative Use Of language

•   Presenting The Sequence Of Events

•   The Meaning Of The Story Artfully Expressed Or Suggested (what’s otherwise known as theme)

All of these elements add up to a good story. And the art is putting them together in a way that doesn’t come across as being too cookie-cutter or too out-there, but somewhere in the happy middle ground.

Picking a Point of View

pietown1940When I first began writing fiction my viewpoint wandered all over the place. I was fine in first person, but the rest of it…omniscient on steroids. I’d throw in the viewpoint of the dog on just a whim. Thankfully, I had some other writers who would read my work and who pointed out a better path. I’m teaching an online workshop on Point of View starting this week. Getting control of viewpoint in a story gave my writing a huge jump in quality. But what is it about viewpoint control that really helps a story?

1-A connection to one character helps the reader into the story. When I learned how to write deep third person POV, and how to stick to a viewpoint and smooth any transitions, I discovered I could better hook readers into the story by connecting the reader to one character. Let’s face it, walking into a room of strangers is tough. If you connect with one person, now you have a reason to stay at the party. That’s the same with any book. A wandering viewpoint or a distant viewpoint can keep the reader from getting past the first couple of pages in your story.

2-Viewpoint control improves the emotion in a scene. I sort of knew this from writing first person, but it didn’t really sink in until I realized that picking the character with the most emotionally at stake in any scene gave me a stronger scene with more emotion. Changes in viewpoint changed the tension and the emotion in a scene–so a change at the wrong time drained my scenes of their impact. A lot of writers know instinctively to stay with the emotion. But I’ve also seen writers change viewpoint right when things are really cooking in a scene–the writer backs off from the best emotion and the reader is cheated. This is where viewpoint control can really improve your writing a lot (with very little effort).

3-Viewpoint control keeps the reader focused. This may sound obvious–too many jumps in viewpoint and the reader gets confused. A confused reader puts the book away and may never return. I’ve seen this in movies, too. I had to stop watching the Transformer movies–too many jump cuts and changes and viewpoints and I not only stopped following the action, I stopped caring. It just became noise. You want to learn how to handle any shift in viewpoint so the reader isn’t thrown out of your story.

4-Points of view tells the reader what’s important. I’ve seen–and I used to do this–stories where EVERYONE’S viewpoint gets shuffled into the story. The guy holding the door open in chapter ten, the second cousin of the heroine who appears only for a page in chapter twenty…on and on. A lot of this and the reader starts wondering who are the main characters and starts wanting a scorecard to keep track. I’ve only seen this handled really well once–in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the point of view shifts are to anything that’s funny (which is the point of the book, really). Can a lot of viewpoints be brilliantly handled? Sure–if you’ve got the talent to pull it off. But why stress yourself and the reader–stick with the viewpoints of the people who matter. One big lesson I learned–when in doubt keep it simple. Stick to one or two viewpoints.

5-Strong viewpoint control lets you increase the tension in your scenes and your stories. When I was jumping around with everyone’s viewpoint my story lost focus. The pacing suffered because I was sending the reader off on tangents. It’s a lot like that party I mentioned earlier–if you’re wandering around a party hearing snippets of conversations, you’re not really involved or caring about any of them. But if you stop and focus on one conversation or get involved in one argument, that pulls in your focus. Now you have something you care about, meaning things matter. That is key to having tension in a story. If the reader doesn’t care that the heroine may not ever really love the hero, or that the hero may not save the world, you can have all sorts of great action but the book is going to be a yawn. You want your viewpoint control focused and tight so the reader is also focused–and caring about what happens next.

6-Viewpoint control helps you write. I used to get stuck in stories. Somewhere between page fifty and one hundred the story would wander off a cliff. When I went back to look at these failures I saw I was not really attached to any one character–I hadn’t figured out whose viewpoint mattered, and so I didn’t really know whose story this was. It’s important to figure out the viewpoints you want to use because you want to tell those character’s stories–and you want to know who is at the center of any story. These days if I get stuck in a scene I always try two things: I change the viewpoint, or I go back to see if I have the conflict identified. That fixes just about every roadblock in my writing.

7-Smooth viewpoint shifts keep the reader in the story. Any transition–between viewpoints or in time or between scenes–is a place where the writer can lose the reader’s attention. It just seems a natural stopping point. Elizabeth Daly who wrote lovely mysteries in the late Forties and in the Fifties taught me a lot about how to smooth and handle transitions point. The key is to hint or introduce the start of the next scene before the last one ends. Nora Robert’s books also taught me a lot about handling viewpoint shifts. When you find writers who do something really well, take the work apart and see how they do things.

When in doubt, you can always stick to first person–but even first person has some tricks to it to keep it from becoming all about “I…I…I” But that’s something to cover in the workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you a writer or a story teller?

readerI’m doing a workshop on Storytelling this August — the idea for it came out of reading a lot of manuscripts where the writing was really good, but the story just didn’t work. Either the characters didn’t really make sense, or the story itself went off the rails about midway through and became a bunch of actions instead of a story arc that worked to really explore the characters and their relationships. This is something we all have to work on (constantly it seems). So what makes a good story compared with good writing?

1- Good writing can make you stop in awe. This is actually a problem in a story. A good story keeps you turning the pages, not stopping to admire the scenery. I find if the writing stops the reader for any reason, it’s a place the author needs to look at to see if the writing is just getting too “writerly” and getting in the way. Truman Capote said you want to be that voice by the fireside telling the story–invisible but compelling.

2- A good story sweeps you away. This means the reader doesn’t stumble over complicated sentences, or even more complicated plots–instead the reader is pulled into a fully developed world where the characters all make sense as people who work in that world. And the world all makes sense (things don’t just happen because the author thinks it would be cool or a great twist, but they happen within the rules of that world–and that takes a lot of development).

3- Good writing can be intellectually pleasing, but a good story catches your emotions. This is something I see a lot–the author has gotten carried away with a story that is just too much about the author being clever and not really enough about the author digging deep into both their own emotions and their characters’ emotions. This is where the story is just flat. You can overthink stories–and you can overwrite them, too.

4- Good writing is perfect; a good story may have flaws, but you just don’t care because it’s great as it is. This is where someone has edited out the emotion from the page–we all do this at times. We get so caught up in dotting every period and worrying over every comma that we forget that it’s the flawed characters and it’s the story that a reader wants. Ever come out of a movie and suddenly you realize there were a lot of plot holes, but you never noticed them during the movie? That’s a story that did it’s job–it engaged you on an emotional level. That’s a story teller’s job.

5- A good story needs great characters, and good enough writing that the writing comes second. This again is a place where I see less experienced writers struggling–their technical skills are weak enough that they have to focus too much attention on untangling sentences. The more I write, the more I tend to love simple, clean prose. The reason for this is that if I don’t have to fuss with craft, I can focus more on the characters and getting them on the page.

6- A good story has an arc–it goes somewhere. Good writing can wander–you can have beautiful prose that doesn’t really go anywhere. Story telling goes way, way back in the human psyche, and if when you break those rules we all love in stories (even without knowing what it is that makes a story work), the risk is that you’re creating a story that readers will put down.

7- A great story is one that must be told, but it’s rare that a writer really must produce great writing just for the sake of the writing. A great story is the one that burns in you, the one you can’t ignore, the one that you have to get on the page because the characters won’t leave you alone and you know that you’ll write this one even if only your mother reads it. You want to look for these stories.

You can be a good story teller and sell well–Edgar Rice Burroughs, to me, is a perfect example of this. Not a great writer, but it’s really hard to put down one of his books once you start reading. You just keep turning the page. There are other writers who are both great story tellers and really good writers–Stephen King is a good example of this (boy, can he write!). However, there really aren’t any great writers who are not great story tellers on any fiction best seller lists–and even the best non-fiction writers know how to spin a yarn.

So are you a great story teller–what stories are the ones you must tell?

Writing Regencies

writingdeskThe Regency romance is one of the most popular types of romance published–but what makes for a good Regency? What do you need to know to write one.

I’m teaching a workshop on Writing the Regency this July (22-Aug 18), but here are a few basics:

1-Voice. First things first, and the first thing any Regency novel needs is the right voice. Now the Regency voice can be funny or dramatic, but the feel has to be something that invites the reader into a world that doesn’t exist–yes, it’s the past, but it’s a past that no one’s been to, so it’s up to the writer to come up a “tone” or voice that feels right. It’s the sort of thing that readers know, and the writer has to find.

2-Research. This is the one that stops most folks. The odd thing is that contemporary novels can need research, too, particularly when you dip into fields that aren’t your own (medical, legal, cowboys, fire, etc. etc.). The trick to research is to know the right questions to ask–what do you need to know. And where do you go to find it? Too much time spent in research means too little time spent writing.

3-Plausibility. Readers have to buy into the world. You can actually have accurate details–but will readers believe them? The same goes for the characters. Do you have people who make sense within this world you’re creating? The reader has to believe not just in your characters, but that your characters could have existed within the Regency world.

4-Glamour. The Regency is an era of style–of wit. And clothes. And, also, titles. Lords and ladies, and getting this wrong can throw a reader right out of the story. Setting matters, as does the furniture, and the outfits. We all want to be swept away–that’s part of the attraction of the past.

5-History. Technically, you don’t need too much of this in a Regency (you can go for costume drama). But you do need some basics, otherwise why bother setting a book in this era. And if you’re writing a Regency mystery, or historical fiction, you need more than the basics. But part of this is why you pick the Regency to start with–it helps a lot if you’re more than a little in love with the era.

6-Details. The right details can make or break a story, and this is where you want to find fresh details (and not just repeat what other authors may have done in their stories). The search for these details can be like a treasure hunt–the one trick here is not to stuff every little detail you find into one story.

7-Adventure. We read about the past because it is past–nicely, safely so. But it’s also a time with a touch of adventure, with swords and duels, war and spies, candlelight and balls. It’s a place for the reader to move into and have a short adventure into that past. The adventure may be as simple as an elopement or as complex as an unsolved murder, but a touch of this always helps any Regency.

 

Getting More From Online Workshops

writingdeskI’ve been teaching (and taking) online workshops for a number of years now, and they’re always tricky beasts. The instructor can’t see the students’ eyes, so there’s no using glazed stares to realize the students aren’t getting it, and no seeing the spark of understanding. There’s also a slow down in communication–questions have to be written out and answers written out, and back-and-forth becomes a bit harder. And witting comments can sometimes come across as snide insults (from the instructor or the student). So how do you deal with this and still do an online workshop and get something out of it?

Here’s my recommendations. (And since I’m doing three back-to-back workshops this summer–Plotting from Character July 8 – Aug 4, Writing the Regency Set Novel July 22 –  Aug 18, and a Storytelling Workshop Aug 5 – Sept 1–I hope folks will take notes of what can improve your workshop experience.)

1-Interact–a lot! The more you put into the workshop, the more you’ll get out of it. I’ve “lurked” in some online workshops and I never found them as useful as when I participated. This can be with questions or assignments.

2-Offer feedback. This can be praise or suggestions for what might work for you better. Be polite, but do offer feedback (this is so helpful to me when someone suggests a new idea).

3-Ask your questions. Even if it seems dumb or basic, ask anyway. You might also help someone who is just too shy to ask.

4-Make mistakes. Forget the idea of “doing it right.” Every workshop someone will post the phrase, “I hope I did this right.” It drives me nuts. First because there is no “right” in writing–there’s what works, or doesn’t work. And second because if you were pro and slick at everything why would you need (or take) this workshop? Go in with the mind-set that you’re there to screw up and make mistakes–you’ll learn more from mistakes.

5-Use emoticons. Semi-colon, close parenthesis are great to add a smiley face :) to let folks know you intend to be funny here. For a long time I didn’t use them and I think I ended up with a lot of folks not understanding my humor to try and make a point.

6-Relax and have fun. Workshops should be a safe place. You don’t have to impress anyone there. It’s a place to take risks and try new things and see what works and what doesn’t work.

7-Remember you are getting one person’s point of view. Every writer has a different process. It’s great to find out what works for someone else–and often those tips can help your own process. But not everything that works for someone else will work for you. That doesn’t mean you’re a failure–or that you are not a writer. It means your process is different. Try new things out. But discard what doesn’t work for you. Run everything past the filter of your own writing process and style.

Above all, use the workshop as a reason to get yourself writing! Remind yourself you paid money for that class, so use that as your reason (excuse) to get up early or stay up late to read the lessons and do the writing assignments. Make your writing your first priority, at least for the duration of the workshop!

The Fear Factor

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. . . . Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.” – Stephen King

Up in a balloonFear shows up in a number of ways, and hits each of use differently. It shows up a lot in the only workshops I teach.

It shows up in excuses (I’m too old, I’m too busy, I won’t try this because I don’t understand).

It shows up in procrastination (I’ll catch up later, I’ll try the exercises after the class on my own).

It shows up in perfectionism (I’m awful because I didn’t do this right, I failed, I suck, I’m stupid).

It shows up in a refusal to try new things (I’ll post this old story bit instead of writing anything new).

And I can see it every single time. Then we have the brave souls who face their fears dive in and fall on their faces. I applaud that. Because they’re learning. Which is the point of a workshop. It’s supposed to be a safe place to try things, to experiment. Instead, I see so many writers who are afraid to spread their wings—as if one mistake is going to be a disaster.

Folks—we learn from our mistakes. Go out and make more of them.

I am amazed how many people resist this idea. They want to be praised. That’s not good. That’s not going to help you learn. What does help is the rewrite and the revision and the experiment. Try something new. Write a scene. Then rewrite it from a different viewpoint. Just because. Throw stuff out there. Try something in first person if you’ve never done first person. Or in present tense. Just try it out. Tell yourself that:

a) it doesn’t have to be perfect

b) it doesn’t have to be good

c) it can actually be really awful

Just let it be what it’s going to be. Then read (aloud so you catch what you’ve really done) what you’ve written and look at what you can learn from what you did. Look at what works. Look at what doesn’t work. Keep the good stuff.

This happens when I cook, too. I’ve made some awful things—I once put too much baking soda into my gingersnaps. They came out Alka-seltzer hockey pucks—hard and fizzy if you chewed on one. Great for your digestion (if you needed it), and not something anyone would eat (not even the horses would go for them, despite the sugar on the outside). Learned a great lesson on baking soda from that one.

Same applies to my writing. I’ve written awful scenes (and I expect I’ll keep doing that). Sometimes the dialogue clunks like a flat tire. I’ve tried first person, third, second, even. Present tense, past tense—it’s all about stretching those writing muscles and trying new things. You don’t know what really works until you’ve tried it.

I’ve written books that are not for everyone (go read the reviews)—sometimes folks hate my character (hey, it’s better than indifference). And I worry about all of it. I still get the nerves going and I still wonder if I’m any good at any this—no amount of praise ever takes that worry away.

The point of this is you’re never going to get over your fear.

Live with it. Know it’s there. Let it flow into you and out of you again and go write anyway. Use the fear—let it keep you sharp. Let go, too, of the affectations that King talks about—which means get out of the way of your characters. Let them tell you their story and stop pushing them into plots that don’t work. Stop being so damn writerly and just get clean words onto the page.

And if you need more good words from Stephen King buy his book On Writing: Memoirs of a Writing Career. Or read more at: http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/StephenKingWriting.htm

(First published at https://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com.)

Writing Workshops

I’m just starting up the Writing the Regency Workshop online for Outreach International Romance Writers, which works well since I just gave a talk on this at RWA National Conference, too. This had me thinking about what is it that folks need to get right, and I also asked the RWA Beau Monde Chapter about what they thought. Here’s the short form answer:

1 – Basic History. Even if you’re doing alternate history, you need to know some of the basics because this informs the characters–people live within the context of their world, and it helps to know what events formed their parents and grandparents and their family.

2 – —Titles & Class System.  Gossford Park is great to help us Yanks get an idea of a nuanced class system–Americans are used to rich/poor and something in between and that’s about it. Getting this right can be tricky since titles evolved over more than a thousand years, but it’s important–nothing can throw a reader out of a story faster than a title that makes no sense.
—3 – British Sensibilities.  BBC America is a big help here, so is being an anglophile.  This one is another tricky spot since you can end up with characters who don’t seem as if they’ve ever been near England.
—4. Legal Stuff.  If your story premise has anything to do with inheritance or marriage laws, it’s time to break out the research books and make sure the basic premise works. If that doesn’t work the whole story can fall apart on you.
5. —Society’s Attitudes. The 1800’s are similar to our world, but it’s also a different era–and while your characters may rebel against this, they should know what they’re up against. Folks back then knew about a woman’s place, and a man’s place, and that there were no teenagers, just adults and children. All of this can affect your characters.

6. Social/Personal Constraints. Honor mattered, so did duty–and while some folks might shrug those off, others did not and it said a lot about a character who did not take these to heart. This is also the stuff that makes for great conflict so it’s wonderful meat for a writer.

Now, of course, there’s lots more to know–but those are the big ones. We’ll get into the rest in the workshop.