50 “How To” Writing Posts on Craft

RamonaGravitarIn May of 2012, I announced a blog project for the coming month: I would post a How To craft post every day for the month, Sundays excepted. My month of blogging resulted in 27 posts about writing log lines, avoiding typo blindness, breaking the that habit, curing overpopulation, introducing characters, writing thematic statements, and so on.

Eventually, I put together all of those posts in a How To collection, which can be found under the FOR WRITERS tab. I continued to write How To posts in a more sporadic fashion, when the need or an idea arose.

Continue reading “50 “How To” Writing Posts on Craft”

How To Tame an Open Mic

What is an Open Mic?

An Open Mic is an invitation to artists to share their work. Open Mics may follow a reading or musical performance, when the floor is opened to the audience.

An Open Mic can be good or it can be cringe-worthy. For a politician or public figure, an open mic can be a “gotcha!” moment when their raw, honest whisperings are inadvertently captured by a live microphone. For a police station dispatcher, “Open mic!” is what patrol officers yell into their own mics when the dispatcher forgets to key off before discussing her love life with whoever is nearby.

For an author, an Open Mic is a chance to share work with a receptive audience. There are different types of Open Mic opportunities: Continue reading “How To Tame an Open Mic”

How To Sprint

What is a writing sprint?

A sprint is a set amount of brief, uninterrupted writing time.

 Fun Facts about Sprints

~ The purpose of a sprint is get words on paper–fast.

~ A sprint is announced via social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

~ Someone will announce a sprint for a certain time, i.e. “Who wants to sprint at 11:00 a.m.?” and invite others to participate.

~ 1 hr/1K is a common sprint, meaning the goal is to write 1,000 words in 1 hour.

~ Ironically, the key to a successful Sprint is turning off or away from social media during the sprint.

~ People who join in the sprint often report in after it’s over and announce their progress.

~  The value of a sprint is two-fold: to get words to paper, and to be inspired by a feeling of community.

~ Ironically, again, the community is usually a virtual (online) one.

~ Think Usain Bolt working on a WIP.  That’s a sprint.

Have you ever sprinted? Is/was it valuable?

Ramona

How To Cite Writing Credentials (when you have none)

What are writing credentials?

Writing credentials are a paragraph or blurb that accompany a submission and include education, professional memberships, writing community activities, and what you’ve had published.

This is contest season, and grant application season, and it’s always submission season, so what do you do if you get to the “where I’ve been published” part of a query and your answer is zilch?

You be honest–and say nothing.

There is no shame in being unpublished. It means you are a new writer, or new to submitting, or you have not yet matched the right story to the right publication. Yes, it may help move your submission to the top of the heap if you have some impressive credentials, but if you don’t, you don’t, and trying to write around that will not be helpful.

So tell the truth. Say nothing about prior publications. You can, if you need a segue, use a line like, “This is my first submission to Printer’s Ink Quarterly.” If I’m an editor or first reader, this tells me you’ve never submitted to us before, and nothing more.

What not to do? Try to mask or cover the publication hole with a cringe-worthy credential. Such as,

~ My grandson really loved this story. (Is your grandson an editor/agent? If not, who cares if he likes it your story. He’s your grandson; you probably gave him cookies while reading the story, so of course he loved it!)

~ I’ve been writing stories since I was five years old. (Okay. That’s nice. Except this is not the Welcome page of your blog.)

~ This is my first submission ever, and an acceptance from you will set me on the path of a  successful writing career. (Wait a minute. Your career path is based on this one submission that I hold in my hand? So if I reject it and you feel like a failure, it’s my fault?)

~ I have a stack of rejections so I hope this is the one to break my unlucky streak! (Please don’t tell this to anyone. You do not want to be Sad Sack, the Writer.)

A query or application is a business proposition. Consider it like a job application. Do you include on your job application “I’ve never held a job before”? No. You leave that part of it blank. The person reading it will figure it out.

This is what a paragraph with no writing credentials may look like:

~ I became interested in beekeeping while working on a honey farm. This story grew out of those experiences.

~ I am a member of Sisters in Crime and a monthly critique group.

~ This is my first submission to Printer’s Ink Quarterly. I appreciate your consideration.

Some things are simple. If you keep it so, you can’t mess it up.

Ramona

How to Tell–Flashback or Memory?

What is a flashback?

A flashback is an interruption in a narrative to present a scene that occurred at a previous time.

Flashbacks are used to move back in time and show an event relevant to the current moment in time. The difference between a flashback and a simple memory is, the flashback is presented as action–as a live scene. A memory is a recollection portrayed that way. Continue reading “How to Tell–Flashback or Memory?”

How To Use Transitions to Trim Word Count

RamonaGravitarWhat is a transition?

According to Merriam Webster Online, a transition is “a: passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another : change.”

In fiction writing, transition words connect and carry different parts of the story. Transition words act as bridges between moments and ideas.

This post will focus on time transitions.

Good plotting hinges on an ever-flowing stream of action. The action may be small and quiet, or big and exciting, but as long as the actions are connected, logical, and move forward, the reader can be pulled along. Transitions help that flow by jumping the character from one act to another.

Transitions can be via a single word: later, meanwhile, finally, next, during, afterward, before

Transitions can be in pairs of words: and then, after that, soon after

Transitions can be more specific phrases: an hour later, the next day, on Saturday, a month went by.

Single and short word transitions like those noted above are used in scenes to bridge movements and short passages of time. A specific phrase like “an hour later” takes a bigger hop in time, and perhaps to a new location.

Transitions can also be shown without using words. A new chapter can denote a transition, but what if the writer wants a significant change in the scene without starting a new chapter? This can be accomplished in two ways: using white space or centered marks such as an asterisk (***) or pound sign (###). The white space or marks are visual signals to the reader that there has been a significant change in time or place.

The above is all basic writing info. What does it have to do with trimming word count?

Transitions can replace details that are unnecessary to the story. As I  have quoted (many times) before, “Everybody sleeps, gets dressed, and goes to the bathroom, but that doesn’t mean I want to read about it.”

This applies to characters and getting someone from one place to another, either physically or in time. A manuscript gets bogged down, and the word count shoots up, when a writer records unnecessary movements.

Let me illustrate, using characters from my pretend novel Bad Sale.

Richard, the farmer, has just returned home from town. He walks into his house and tosses his keys on the kitchen table. His wife Jillian is on the phone. She hangs up and announces his friend Simon called, begging for Richard to meet him at a hunting cabin in the woods.

This is a fairly common development in a mystery. A friend in need calls. The protagonist, because he’s a good guy, answers the call. Trouble ensues.

What Richard would do is…

… run his hand through his hair to show irritation, pick up the keys to his truck, walk out to the truck, open the door, get inside, close the door, insert the keys in the ignition, strap on his seat belt…..stop at the light in town, change the radio station, stop at the next light in town, turn on four lane highway, adjust his hair in the rearview mirror, settle back for the long drive, punch the radio button because he hates this song…..turn into a 7-11, cut the engine, pull out the keys, unlatch his seatbelt,  get out of the truck, go inside, pour coffee into a go-cup, go to the counter, ask for cigarettes….turn down the cabin road, avoid the potholes, pull up to the cabin, turn off the engine, unlatch his seatbelt,  check his hair again, pull the keys from ignition, open the door, toss cigarette on the ground, stamp it out, walk to the cabin.

The ellipses indicate spots where I could have shown even more mundane, unimportant actions. What this paragraph says to the reader is one thing:

Richard drove to the cabin.

Unless something in there is important—such as, if Simon was killed at 7:22 and Richard is a suspect, will the store video showing him there at 7:19 be noteworthy? Of course. But if at 7:22 Simon is sitting safely on the cabin porch drinking a beer, we’re back to one thing:

Richard drove to the cabin.

What’s wrong with just writing Richard drove to the cabin? It’s abrupt. It needs a transition.

Here are examples, using transition words, specific phrases, and no words.

Richard walked into the kitchen and tossed his keys on the table. Jillian was on the phone. She looked irritated, or maybe worried. She hung up and said, ”That was Simon. He wants to meet you at the cabin. Now.”

Richard said, “Now? I’m bushed. Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so,” Jillian said. “He sounded desperate. I think you should go.”

Richard ran a hand through his hair, and then he picked up his keys from the table.

An hour later, he pulled up to the cabin.

OR:

Richard walked into the kitchen and tossed his keys on the table. Jillian was on the phone. She looked irritated, or maybe worried. She hung up and said, ”That was Simon. He wants to meet you at the cabin. Now?”

Richard said, “Now? I’m bushed. Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

“I don’t think so,” Jillian said. “He sounds desperate. I think you should go.”

#

Richard pulled up to the cabin. It had been in his family for three generations, and his worry over Simon was forgotten for a moment as Richard walked toward the porch. It drooped on the right side. When had that happened? One of the window shutters sagged off its top hinge. He felt a punch of guilt. This cabin had been his grandfather’s pride and joy, and  now it looked ramshackle. Family treasures should be treated with care and respect.

Simon stepped out onto the porch. Richard stumbled in shock.

The break skips the boring and unimportant drive and puts us at the cabin fast. A single transition or two–and then, an hour later, white space–cut out oodles of extra words.

As a writer, if you need to write how Richard got to the cabin because walking the characters step by step through the action is your process, fine! Use your process. But in the revision phase, go back through the draft and ask if the READER needs to be walked through step by step.

If you are sending your reader on long boring drives with a guy who checks his hair and buys cigarettes for excitement, use a transition to get to the cabin fast. That’s where the real action is, right?

Ramona

How To Kick the That Habit

What is a That Habit?

The overuse of the word that in a narrative.

Check out any article with a title like “Five and a Half Ways to TightenYour Writing” or “Sixteen Unnecessary Words You’re Sure to Regret” and I’ll lay bets the author will bring up the word that. Why? Because that packs the double whammy of being misused and overused. Continue reading “How To Kick the That Habit”

How To Scale the 100 Page Wall

What is the 100 Page Wall?

The 100 Page Wall is a barrier that hits a writer at or near the end of Act 1.

Has this ever happened to you? You are enthusiastically writing a new story, either free writing or working with a loose mental outline. The words flow out onto the screen or page in such a beautiful rush, you are convinced this book will write itself.

And then – bam! Your momentum slams to a halt. You reel back, your enthusiasm changed to exhaustion. The rush is gone, replaced by the realization that you’re not quite sure where to go next. Or maybe you’ve started to head down the wrong way. Or–gulp!–maybe there’s no way to head and your story just died.

Welcome to the 100 Page Wall.

That is my term and this is my theory, but it’s a theory based on working with a lot of writers and hearing repeatedly about this experience. It’s always the same: the author starts on a new idea with gusto. For about 100 pages, the author writes without a hitch, and then a hitch appears at 100 pages.

Why 100 pages? I think that’s how much new, free-floating story data the brain can keep before the need to organize and shape arises. This happens to planners and pansters both, so it’s not so much about method as a mental wake-up call.

The first 100 pages of a story is a busy lot. The conflict must be set up; the characters met; the setting presented; the story problem put forth; the hero/heroine journey laid ahead. These are the tasks of Act 1.

In a standard manuscript of 400 pages, Act 1 takes up about 1/4. When Act 1 ends, a protagonist makes a decision that will marry him/her to the conflict. There’s no turning back for the protagonist.

For an author, the end of Act 1 presents an equal commitment. Looming ahead is the vast Act 2, which will be a vast empty wasteland if you don’t have enough story to fill it.

The 100 Page Wall forces the author to take stock. And breathe. And realize, this book is not going to write itself. It’s like coming down to earth after being in the rapture of Easy Writing Land.

It’s fun to write 100 pages, but now the sticking-to-it begins. That middle is big. If you’re going to fill it up, you will need to work. If you don’t love the story as much on page 100 as you did on page 1, writing it may be turning into a chore that will only get harder.

Also, on page 1, you thought you had a great idea that would be a good novel. On page 100, maybe you’ve solved the story problem or you are close to doing so. This is where you may discover one of two things: you don’t have enough story to sustain a novel and/or you are really writing a short story.

How do you avoid hitting the 100 Page Wall? You can’t. You shouldn’t.

I think writers who hit the Wall do so because they need it. Whether it’s exhaustion, overload, commitment anxiety or running of out things to do next, the 100 Page Wall is a wake up call.

The challenge is not to panic. Because you hit the Wall doesn’t mean you need to stop. It means you need to pause, think about what to do next, maybe go for a walk, and do some planning before you move on.

If you can’t think of what to do next, or how to add enough to the conflict you’ve developed to make another 200-300 pages out of it, be grateful. You can put aside this story without investing more time on it–time that will be unproductive. Better to stop at 100 pages that didn’t go anywhere, than to write another 300 of a hot mess that wasted your time and effort. Moving on to a new story can be a positive act.

If/when you hit the 100 Page Wall, embrace the pause. Question why it happened, but in a productive way.

~ Should you stop and throw away this work in progress because an idea is not a story?

~ Should you acknowledge it’s the right size and shape for a terrific short story?

~ Should you soldier on because, after you think about it for a while, you know what’s ahead to enter the vast expanse of Act 2 and come out on the other side?

~ Should you stop free-writing and put down an outline or story board the middle so you can wrestle a plan out of it?

Have you ever made the brave decision to abandon a story that’s not working? Stuck with one because you knew it could be worked out but you had to wrestle with it a while? Or have you never hit the Wall and you are the rare and lucky author whose books just write themselves?

Ramona

This post is the copyrighted property of Ramona DeFelice Long. Distribute or reuse only with permission of the author.

How To Wrap Up a Month of How To Posts

Welcome to June and the start of summer!

This is also the end of my month of blogging every day (except Sunday) with a new How To post. It’s been a fun though rigorous adventure, and I’m grateful to all of you who read, followed, commented, re-posted, linked and tweeted.

Soon I will gather all of the posts and make them available in a new format. Stay tuned.

This is the end of May, but not the end of my love of writing How To posts. I can’t stop cold turkey, so beginning next week, I’ll continue to explore writerly topics and troubles on How To Thursday. Any suggestions? You have my ear and my email: ramonadef@yahoo.com

And maybe I’ll have a thing or two to say on Mondays, as I did in the old days….

Happy Summer!

Ramona

How To Stop Stalling

What is Stalling?

Stalling means to halt the motion or progress of; to bring to a standstill.

In writing, stalling occurs a few different ways:

~ a writer leads up to the point of a scene with back story and/or description;

~ a writer tosses in tasks, observations, distractions between a character and high action;

~ a writer becomes mired in revising/tweaking/editing a section of a story and can’t move forward.

The above instances of stalling happen for a few reasons:

~ the writer (not the story) needs to warm up before writing the active part of the scene;

~ the writer is reluctant to put a character in necessary danger, or is unsure how to get the character out of necessary danger;

~ the writer doesn’t know what comes next in the story so s/he piddles endlessly on what has been written so far.

Today’s post will focus on the first two types of stalling: warm-up and avoidance. To illustrate, I’m back to my pretend novel, Bad Sale, a thriller about a farmer whose life falls apart after he is tricked by a boyhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store. In this scene, the farmer Richard and his boyhood friend Simon, go to a hunting camp in the woods. Bad stuff ensues.

~ The camp was a log cabin, build by hand by Richard’s grandfather. Richard knew the tale well. His grandfather promised his wife he’d build her a romantic hideaway in the woods, far away from the open space and endless toil on the farm… [insert family history here] But the romantic hideaway in the woods didn’t have running water or electricity or a modern toilet, so it was only a matter of time before it became a place Richard’s grandfather and his brothers used to hide away from their wives…. [insert family disharmony here]

It was made of birch…[insert long description]. All around, the woods… [more description]. As Richard and Simon drove up for their weekend, Richard told him the story of his grandparents…[long narrative description of what we already know].  The first day, they bagged two deer and some other innocent woodland creatures…[add telling, and bragging]…and spent the evening drinking beer and reminiscing…[add telling plus male bonding and BS].

On the morning of the second day, while Simon still slept, Richard made coffee in the old tinware  coffeepot and took a cup outside. He wandered to the back of the cabin. The woods had crept close….[add dissertation about local flora and fauna] Too close. He wondered if there was a machete around to deal with some of these brambles. He seemed to remember one his dad kept hanging from the rafter on the porch….

His foot hit something and he stumbled. He peered down at a rusted ring on the ground and instantly remembered. The root cellar….[insert Richard removing brush with his bare hands]

From the cool darkness of the cellar, he heard the sound of a door slam. Not the cabin’s door–a car door. And another.

Paranoia hit in full force. Cops? Could the cops have followed them here?

Are you frustrated yet? Yes, someone followed Richard and Simon to the rustic hideaway in the woods, but by the time we get to that discovery, we could have added running water, electricity, and a boudoir.

This is all warm-up. The story of the cabin might be interesting, but even if we need to know it, we don’t need to know it twice.  If the author wants to slow down the pace of the story and set up the conflict, that’s fine–in small, relevant doses. Piling on the background of the cabin, the dirty laundry in Richard’s family, and a Nature Channel episode about blackberry bushes will undermine the pacing. It also begs the question: Is Richard’s family back story so important? Shouldn’t the focus here be on him and Simon, and whoever followed them?

Additionally, every time I add a […] the reader is pulled out of what is happening now.

Let’s get back to Richard and the second type of stalling: avoidance.

Richard crept around the side of the cabin. He heard someone say Simon’s name, followed by “You stupid asshole, did you think you could hide here? Everybody in three counties knows about this place.” ….[insert some inane story about the speaker’s granddaddy and Richard’s great aunt]

Richard pressed against the side of the cabin. Who could this be? From inside, he heard thuds, a chair scrape across the floor, the distinct sound of a slap. He winced. A voice said, “Where’s your friend?” and the wince changed to a full-body freeze.

“What friend?” Simon said. Another slap. “He’s not here. He doesn’t even know I’m here.”

Richard wondered if they would believe him. Would it look like two people had slept in the camp? He’d made up his bed and put away last night’s dishes…. [insert childhood reminisce about being raised to be neat by his mother]

Richard gripped the coffee cup. Dammit. If only he had a weapon. He glanced down at the cup. His wedding ring glistened in the sun. Jillian. She’d told him not to come here… [insert admonishment from his wife]

He crept along the side of the cabin, listening to the questions Simon refused to answer…. [insert questions that may be useful to story]

More slaps. A punch. Richard pulled up to the window and steeled himself to peek through it…. [insert pounding heart, sweaty palms, other physical reactions to indicate Richard’s trying to man up]

Finally, he raised his head, praying the top of it wouldn’t be shot off by whoever was inside. When he was able to see the scene, his worst nightmare came to life…. [insert some other leading sentence to add melodrama] Standing before Simon, in jeans and a plaid hunting shirt, his dark hair… [add description of man] was the county sheriff. Beside him, punching a fist into a palm… [or some other cliched form of menace] was Deputy Harlan Jones. Richard was shocked. He always thought Harlan was a good guy. In fact, when Richard’s dad had that tractor accident… [add ancient history to show Harlan’s one decent act as a human being]

Richard ducked down and ran as fast as he could to the front of the cabin. At the porch, he got on his hands and knees and crawled toward the door, careful not to put too much weight on his bad knee… [add description of high school football injury]. At the screen door, he stopped.  The slaps had changed to punches. Simon grunted with each one, but he refused to answer the question: “Where’s your friend?”

Richard hung his head, ready to cry. He and Simon had been friends for so long… [insert childhood story of how they met]. He glanced around frantically and then… [insert moment from long ago with his dad]

Richard looked up. There it was, hanging by a leather strap alongside the windowsill. A machete.

Poor Simon. He may be a bad guy and he may deserve some roughing up, but if he’s depending on Richard to save him, he’s got a big problem. Richard didn’t know how to save him from this situation–and neither did the author. That’s why it took Richard forever + two weeks to travel from the back of a tiny cabin to the front door. What he’s going to do now is anybody’s guess. He’ll probably grab the machete, and then digress into how the word is a derivative of the Spanish term for macho.

Simon’s not the only one to deserve pity. See how many times the story stops and starts, while the author hems and haws about how to move forward?

Poor reader.

Reading long chunks of back story or multiple interruptions in a scene that’s supposed to set up a conflict tells me a couple of things about the writer:

~ He’s not sure what’s going to happen next.

~ He’s not comfortable in putting his character in danger.

~ He’s not confident in his ability to write an action scene.

~ He’s too close to the story to strip away unnecessary story history.

How do you stop stalling?

First, know where your story is going. If you are waiting for Richard to come to the rescue of your story and figure out how to get through that door, guess what? Richard’s doing the same thing–waiting on you to tell him what to do.

Second, recognize warm up. Do you want to take it slow and tell everything about the cabin because you  have it all in your head and you need it to mentally see the scene? Go ahead. Write that in a draft. Then cut it out. Does the reader need to mentally prepare for the scene? No. The reader needs you to thrust them into it.

Third, stay in the story as it is happening now. Only tell what you absolutely must of what’s not in this moment. The machete? That’s a keeper. Harlan’s good act–maybe. Some background of the cabin–sure. The rendezvous between the sheriff’s granddaddy and great-aunt Pauline? Surely not.

If you are unsure about what to include or not include, consider this. While you write, someone is getting beaten up. Are you moving forward to rescue them as quickly as you can, or is your victim going to righteously demand, “Dude, thanks for saving me, but what took you so $%*#-ing long?”

Ramona

Tomorrow’s Topic – How to Wrap Up a Month of How To Posts