When to start writing

by d. pearse

If you are reading this, you know enough to know you want to write. You’ve been writing figuratively for a long time. You see things most people don’t. You feel things others ignore and things sound different to you. What you want to say can’t be said out-loud. You’ll never know the writer inside until you write something, and someone says, “I like what you wrote.” Or, they might say, “I hate what you wrote!” You’re allowed two days of mope for negative criticism, and essentially the rest of your life to savor the good stuff.

So, I would suggest, merely suggest, you start writing as soon as you want to either mope for a coupla days, or you want more of that good stuff. And the more you write, the better you get. While I enjoy the solitude of writing, I like the praise, too. I will attempt to appeal to the most logical edges of your brain and encourage you to a) read all you can about writing, at least for about the three months it’ll take to learn the nuts and bolts, and b) read a variety of work, especially that in your preferred genre and perhaps even more importantly, outside your comfort zone. But, first:

Find a small notebook which is easily transported. Mine is that tan piece above. This is your commonplace book, or your writer’s prompt. The more you use it, the more magic it attracts. Compile all manner of notes in it. Smart stuff, trivia, snippets of conversation, the description of a matron’s frock on the East Idlewood trolley. A recipe for apple sweets, or the chemical equation for Lanthanum’s valence. Start writing minutes before the bell rings, then stop abruptly…set those thoughts aside until the morrow. At Noon, not a minute before, turn to the page number that corresponds to your birth month. In my case, 12. If you are wearing shoes, count the odd-numbered lines down, if barefoot, the even ones, until the kettle weeps. Now, join your scribblings from yesterday, to the bit you just clipped from the papers. And finish the story any way you like.

Find about ten great writers and start collecting their books. Not too quick, one a month, two at most. Here’s part of my list; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Conan-Doyle, Tolstoy…get some modern chaps, too. The Paris Review is a great resource for the insight of many different writers and their various styles.

No one is going to test you on this set of literature, so read peripatetically, either thoroughly, or just around the edges. It doesn’t matter, you’re looking for style and craft. How do these writers cobble a sentence? Three other books I’ve found handy, a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a book on grammar. I recommend Websters Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and any one of these for grammar: The Elements of Style, by Strunk; The Chicago Manual of Style; and The Associated Press Handbook. Grammar books can be pricey. I’ve photocopied some pertinent pages on sentence construction at the Library. Eventually, you will find a style you like and fall into it. Then, an editor will change every thing. We move on, Buttercup. Take my papers, but I defy you to take mine knowledge.  Chicago and AP style will never be wrong, nor you for using it.

Now find a larger notebook. I like the three-ring binder model, maybe 1 – 2 inches. Easy to handle, easy to adapt. I can three-punch articles from magazines, put in sketch work (I love drawing maps and floor plans), and manner of scraps. These notebooks are great for the keeping of ideas in one place. I also put my drafts in one. I dry edit in them, that is with a pencil. I then use one for the final revision that goes to my printer for a Line Copy or Reader’s Copy, whatever. Good stuff.

Get in the habit of reading. Good, bad, who cares. You should. But that distinction is yours alone. When you think you’re ready to write, you are ready to write. And by all means, begin. I try to write early in the morning, before sunrise. I find it almost spiritual. It’s certainly the most serene writing time I’ve ever found. I will prompt, doodle, and read throughout the day. Not so much that I imperil my employment or so much that I become bored. If upon arrival at home I cannot write for the evening hour, I let it pass. Okay, maybe a tad of dialogue. I find it super important to be in the mood, but I find if I give it 15 minutes, I can get an hour or at least a page in. And don’t worry too much about word count until… right about…NOW!

You should strive to type quickly and accurately. Yet, there is no set figure to reach or vie for. On a good, clear day I can type close to 600 words in an hour if it’s being fed to me. I type a lot for my paycheck job. If it’s clearly written and I have no issues, 80-100 words per minute. I am also typing many words/phrases over and over. Yes, I have hot keys that put down, “Patient presents”. In prose, my goal is a solid, no typo’s at 400 per hour. So, if you are using a Word product, under Tools, you will find a drop-down for word count. I do keep a little tally that is more or less updated every week. Four hundred words is a page for my genre. I am looking at 130-150 pages for a book. This comprises about 150 hrs or typing without correction, editing, or revision.

Start writing, whether long-hand, in a processor, or on a manual. Hammer and chisel, if that’s what it takes. You should have a definite feeling to write. Write for at least fifteen minutes a day for five days, half an hour each day for a week, an hour daily day for a fortnight. If you need to miss a day for good reason, so be it. But don’t skip it because…well, for just about any other reason. Start writing and encourage yourself by whatever means to keep at it for a solid month, 30 days. At the end of thirty days, you will be ready to tell yourself the story you want to tell everyone else.

Next time, How to start…

 

 

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First Chapters, first words…

Recently, the question was posed How to Write a Short Story. Without detailing all the qualifying remarks, I will set about to answer this question in the most straight forward way possible –offering options. The general definition of a Short Story is prose of two thousand to maybe ten thousand words revolving around a singular incident, with minimal participation (characters), which has the most likely purpose to evoke a mood or feeling. This is understandable when you look at good short stories by authors who’ve also gone on to pen a novel.

A little more look-see found a few scraps of formula to get things started. Shorts aren’t big on plot, but that doesn’t mean the idea can’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or solution. They are huge on the interior aspects of writing. How and why do I (the reader or Lead) that way . So, as you craft your Short keep the How, and Why tightly in the cross-hairs of your story sights. These questions will become a crucial hinge in the writer’s promise.

Alice Munro is a Nobel laureate of literature and a prolific writer of the short story. By her own estimation, the compilations of work in the guise of Shorts are really just a novel laying about waiting to be called-up and put together maybe in just a different order. Nibble on a few of these, Alice Munro Short Stories for free. The David Foster Wallace piece is fairly intense, so read with caution.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/09/08/face

https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/books/a500/incarnations-burned-children-david-foster-wallace-0900/

The following is a fairly standard template for short stories. I didn’t create this, but I’ve looked into several explanations as to why these steps seem to work for the outlining.

The first three steps cover scene and structure; the remaining three, the How, or resolution.

  1. Create a character. Try to put the reader as deeply as possible into the Main Character. Then develop two to three more characters to populate the story. These characters can be rather flat, but try to have fun with them without over-powering the Main Lead.
  2. Describe your scene. Is it the Drawing Room in a drafty old Victorian Pile at the edge of town tettering into the hallows of an abandoned cemetery. Or, does the sstory take place in another galaxy, or in a fantastical realm of magic and mystery. Open all the stops in describing and creating your world… Then, stop! Leave it be and use only the most minimal description once the world is done.
  3. What is the problem? Is this an issue of moral dilemma? Is the Lead complaining of life’s inequities, or his/her shortcomings. Many novels “hook” the reader with just such a ploy. Use in the short. Make it grand or piffling, but make it urgent to the Lead.

A good rule to apply here is to get these three points into place in the first fifth or quarter of the story. Twenty, to twenty-five percent of the story is a comfortable set-up. Now use about ten percent of manuscript to tell us Why this issue/problem is such a big deal.

  • Why does the Main Character, and by extension the Reader, care about this problem? Is it pride, greed, lust, laziness… See what we did there. Grab some common themes. What’s more relatable than the “deadly” sins?

Now you want to plug-in some confict. Start small-ish and let it grow. We’re on a space station and someone has brought an alien bug aboard. Give someone a mild headache, then a monstrous one.

  • Conflict = equals about 2-3 obstacles confronting the Main Character. Let them build and stretch the tension a little bit more with each one. Start with a headache, then move on to a severe bout of stomach ailments.
  • The Reveal and Resolution to the dilemma will/should occur almost together. After each obstacle, reveal a small clue. However, don’t tie the clues together until the 90% mark. So, about 55-60% of the story is developing the obstacles and laying in a few clues.

Resolving the problem in an unexpected way is classic, but when practicing the writing craft, building the structure of a stroy is what’s key. Good stories have expected and well-resolved endings. Good stories end badly (for someone, sometimes). What makes a great story is in the elegance of the prose and the simplicity of form.

I’ve heard it described as “safe scandal”, or near catastrophe. Calories without guilt. A good short, and I believe almost every story and every book is a short someone’s been asked to explained, has a lurid crust but a soft, malleable center that makes us ask ourselves a question. Maybe we don’t utter it aloud, but have you every set a short story aside and thought, “were I there, what would I have done?” I have trouble with short stories, so I write a lot of first lines, I write a little flash I’d never show.

I should change the animal, so I’ll start here:

Old live oaks cloched the damp lane which led to the old Mahue place. 

Less than ten words, vaguely evocative, a little sing-song-y with a loose appositive swirling around the old place belonging to Mahue. Let me build it up a bit:

Hundred year old live oaks clutched the damp, loamy lane which wound down Tyrus Mahue’s old place.

alliteration and a motive verb, wound –as in winding, puts the reader more inside the narrative. Let me ramp it up some more. This will probably be over he top, but this is the opening a spooky story. I don’t want to scrimp.

Hundred year old oaks cloaked a damp, loamy road which led me back into the thicket where Tyrus Mahue’s place, both in life and in death, stood.

Or, raise the creep’yness some more and say, lay rather than stood. This is a work I’m using in a class with five other writers. We are opening our stories with a short of two to five thousand words that will transition into a full-length short, a novella or full-on novel.  

Once a month or so, I roam the bookstores and pick a few books at random. I like to look at well-known authors, they got the goods, right? New stuff, authors with no baggage, and titles behind up-to-date covers. You’ll understand what I’m talking about when you start to browse the shelves. These are the books with a very similar cover to half a dozen other books. On a recent trip, I noticed jarring graphics and bold coloring. Last, couple of months ago, it was black and white photos peeking out of solid jackets that had been “ripped” or “shredded” to reveal the photo.

I am a fan of mystery and suspense, but it seems anything short of a “cupcake” novel is sporting a -dangerous- cover these days. Now, read the liner, glance over the largely stock reviews. Very few “gripping” and can’t-stop-turning-pages books don’t make it to the shelf. Maybe. But that’s not what I want to see. I want to read that first line. Forget the iconic lines that have become famous mostly because of their staying power and their literary genius; whenever you’re the first, you often become the famous.

Maybe not in your lifetime, but who cares about that, right?

Here are well-known author’s first lines in a collection of short stories. I’ve redacted them a bit as to not favor your feelings, just in case I’ve included a favorite. These are all first lines, mind.

The __________ didn’t want to go to ________. – The rain stopped just as __________ turned into the road that went up into the orchard. – Across our two dishes of spaghetti, in a corner of Provenzano’s restaurant, Jeff ____ was explaining to me the three kinds of graft. – Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. – Monday is no different from any other weekday in ________ now. – One of the most disgraceful features of life in the country, _____ often declared, was the general inefficiency and slackness of small village tradesmen.

These openers are from the Greats, Pulitzer winners, Nobel laureates, and well-received authors, yet all these first lines are a little drab. Almost. Each accomplishes three things by using two specific devices. I hope I can explain this, because it took me awhile to see it. It’s hard to catch, because it’s not everywhere. Here’s what these accomplish right off the bat.

  • imply action, something is transitioning
  • the reader is there, if not in the [room], watching
  • someone, maybe something or some place, is introduced. If not by name, than by association

Eating spaghetti while Jeff tells you about graft and corruption may not jerk upright, nor have you reaching for your checkbook, but we, the reader is immediately involved. And, that brings me to the two devices, the two things these writers use to “hook” us. A question, implied or otherwise has been posed and we are ever so slightly invested. Orchards are nice places, but what’s someone doing there? I don’t know about you, but the rain seems ominous, what’s this cat driving?

Ghosts? Need I say more? Okay. Every hour? That seems a bit rich. Two things I’ve done since I started writing Shorts, 1) I’ve started picking up publications that have short stories. New, old –something in between and I buy anthologies. Recently, a friend suggested small books of poetry by various authors. Anything that helps differentiate my writing today, as opposed to yesterday or last week.

What, exactly, are the options, the how-to’s –or hacks to Write a Short Story? First, let’s stipulate. I love to stipulate. Especially when it is I stipulating. It is a good word. Go out there and use at least once today. Because more than once might too much. That’s my stipulation on the word.

  1. Free-write, whatever pops into ye’ noggin’
  2. Something has to be happening
  3. Say it so the reader is somehow part of the action
  4. Give it a couple of words that will prompt you, the writer/reader to have a certain feeling
  5. That feeling cannot have anything to do with food, sleep, or reading something

And finally,  6. The opening must beg a question

Write in any genre, however, I strenuously encourage writers to foment (when writing this little assignments) the exercise in a different genre. I’ll do my start in Sci-fi:

  •   Forty-four hours, twenty minutes to CasaNova which meant the ship’s bio’s would begin cycling for patho-viruses and anything else we might bring into spacedock, hence that odd stench of hair burning and vague feeling of breathless-ness.

This actually “popped” into my head years ago, when I thought I could write Science Fiction.

What’s happening: Port call, bio-hazard screenings

Bring in the reader: The pronoun “We”. Easy, right?

Couple of prompts for feeling: Burning hair and breathless

No food, sleep, or sneaky back-story with a read materiel. I’ve also set a ticking clock, suggested someone, -thing might be sick, and given some scale to the story. Big ships (presumably), and a spacedock. The quesion is why. Why is the ship docking and has there been a problem before?

I’d urge the serious contender to write two or three of these single sentence beginnings. Put some distance in there, maybe a day or two, and re-write not to change but for a little brighter clarity or a different feel. As always, when I write is a choice, that I write is a must.

I suppose if there were a 1, 2, 3 … progression to short stories, it might go something like this:

Start with a Character

Put them in a Setting

Give them a Problem

Set Obstacles in their Way

Half-twists Toward the Solution, and

Resolve the Problem, maybe not so obviously, and maybe at the last Minute

 

As Always, only the Best…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outlines, do they work?

by daniel pease

Whether you outline on paper with Roman numerals and Caps, indents sub-headings and whatnot, you probably have some sort of organised plan for writing. Writing, specifically prose, is in its essence organized thought. Some of it may be more so than other bits, but this is what a writer does. In one class I remember from Journalism 101, this was called a drill-down. The concept is valid for a number of applications. One being, the instructive or explanatory style of writing. When you want to get a reader from point A to somewhere else, the instruction is enumerated logically 1,2,3,4,5, & 6.

If you’ve ever looked at a screenplay, you’ve most likely seen an active type of outline. It’s almost an itinerary. This starts the action, (2) which leads to this (3) and, now we have another action… To follow all the action and actors in live drama, this includes film, directors rely on the “Script Beats”. It’s like an ‘X – Y’ axis which shows the relational aspects of actor, action, and the whole. It also makes sure each scene with the relevant cast, propping, lights, etc.

A popular myth in some writing circles, is some scribes don’t outline at all, but just write and write until there’s a mound of clay on their wheel which through the magic of revision, is formed into a fully plotted story. In all likelihood, this type of author is using a chess-mind outline and thinking many moves ahead of his expose’, or scene work. A bit like writing dialogue. The conversation has formed organically numerous times in our consciousness before the first quote mark is hits the page and words begin to flow again.

I’ve seen richly embellished grids that may very well have sapped all the artist’s creative vigor while plotting the various line and intersections. So, what’s the best way to start? I think in the end, we use a little of this and a little of that. But, I like to start with something like a beat, add to it my character profiles, then outline my chapters with setting, action, characterization, stop/end, and sequel. Rinse and repeat. This way, I can structure a writing to be 321 pages, 21 to 23 chapters, encompassing 70 000 words which amounts to an introduction of 1-3 chapters, 6 – 8 dynamic Acts = 16 chapters, with maybe two or 3 chapters for the resolution. Three if I want to include an epilogue, depending on genre.

When creating a ‘Beat Sheet’, what’s going to be important, is what’s important to you. Obviously. But, I think you need to have at least six elements, and not really more than 9 or ten. If you’re using a Word product, go to the little box makes a grid. When you touch it, it’ll highlight the number of rows, < > and columns, up/down. If you want to draw one, I suggest using a legal pad and turning it on its side in landscape mode.

Name the top row. I use seven, sometimes eight rows: # – this is not a chapter number, just a way to keep track; Characters – who(all) will be in this scene; Setting+action+time – this is usually the biggest box. Everything is noted here as to what is going on/to whom/when/where, etc; D/R – dialogue and/or review. A small box so I know to get my dialogue scratch and there might research or a definite second thought. If I’m including a sex/fight/otherwise jarring scene, do I want/need to keep it. It helps in the revision.

Next, and this is another substantial compartment, Outcome – how does this end?; Foreshadowing – if you don’t frame the foreshadowing well before the actual ‘Shadow, it will look contrived and clunky. Sometimes, it might just be yes or no; Sequel – somewhere in the Outcome, I’ve had the action’s disaster, now how am I processing the sequel? Long and thorough, or quick and right back into. {a suggestion: early on, go slow, speed it up half-way into the rise}; finally, an End – this is an author’s note box that lets me know if this is one of the scenes that will need additional attention with respect to the structure of the book. Not if it will be revised, but will it float, become an anchor, deleted???

I use a lot of matrix panels for organizational purposes. If it’s in you computer its easy to replace/add/change. If you want to use Post-its on a white board, index cards* or a tabletop. One big name author was on a morning chat show showing off his process(I was waiting for an oil change). He types up what he calls a rap sheet, essentially what’s all involved in the above. He, then, lays it out on a very long table. The kind you’d see a dozen or more monks dining at. I move it around, he says. I snatch this away, and replace with another. When all is done, I stack it up and basically, my book is done.

*A lot of people have commented on index cards: they’re available, cheap, and have endless versatility. May I suggest, if going with these, use the 5 x 7″ variety for ease of update or edit.

I’m sure there’s more to cheese-whiz than cheese, but I think a visual aid is crucial in some genres. I can’t imagine writing suspense or mystery, an historical bit or epic fantasy at any level without one. I’m told this can be down on a spreadsheet, ie excel. I’ve tried, and what I didn’t like was the immutability of input. Also, I couldn’t print or send sections without losing some element, discreet the screen(select only this section or that), in other words, I was spending more time fooling with the time-saving shortcut, than writing a mundane coffee chat with the MC and her ex.

Nothing will enhance the experience more than experience. Read what you can, attend seminars, by books on writing. Jack Bickham’s piece on scene and structure is phenomenal in its complex simplicity. I’ve read it several times, and I still find useful information on those pages. I think it’s important have a systematic approach, yet remain flexible, and follow your story wherever it takes you.

If you’d like to try formal instruction, follow this affiliated link to the Online Writing School. Daniel David Wallace is an amazing teacher in putting theory into practice, his newest class will run about 3 months so that you can… Write Your Book Now..

https://theonlinewritingschool.com/p/write-your-book-now/?affcode=141267_r7jhdhay

Hightlight the above link and click to get…

 

 

What if…?

Your mom’s a witch, your dad’s one, too. And so are you and your big sister, but little brother isn’t showing any signs of having any magic, and quite frankly, everyone’s a bit concerned.

a guest blog by Daniel J. Pease

In fifteen or twenty words a story is born. The premise is either the easiest couple of lines to write, or it becomes an agony stretching into days.

When I started writing, most of what I wrote was one long, drawn out premise. An extended idea. I could construct pages of “What if?’s”.  I thought I was accomplished in this skill or craft called writing. I know now, and if you’ve ever gotten to page 39 or one hundred and ten, stalled, and gotten frustrated with the lack of magic, then you, too, know the spiral of premise demise. So, why does this happen?

There could be many reasons, but one of which is not that the premise sucks or you are a bad writer. I have found that oftentimes the stall is the result of worrying that simple idea and trying to put it into an element of plot rather than accepting it as the start of something wonderful. Think of it this way. I love enumerations, so humor these lists…You want to take a trip. What do you do? Well, decide where you want to go or at least get a general plan, maybe a direction, north-south-east-west, is all you can muster. Get the tires checked, tank up the Dodge, pack…oh but what to pack? That might be important because I’d definitely pack differently if I were headed to the beach or going to the big city. In town, I might want something nice for the theater or dinner. I might want to make sure I had a brolly, if London was one itinerary.

I think you get the idea. The idea, or premise here is simply to take a trip…perhaps, in a car. That’s all I need to know with the premise, right? Yes, and no. Ideally, a premise should be simple but a little bit incongruous. Teenage vampires…stuck in High School for an eternity. Our whole family can knit like nobody’s business except…The plane is under attack by gremlins, what now?!  So, when we start the premise, we need to create a proposition that forms some sort of basis for a conclusion. Does that sound like the start of a story?

When I was a kid, younger, might be a better description, I was fascinated with how superheroes flew, or ambulated off the ground. Do capes really work. Ahem, no. What about umbrellas? Sadly, nope. Zip lines? Only with some very special equipment. Don’t even get me started on spider webs, I’m still seeing a therapist for that deception. What I’m getting at is this: There was some logic to my youthful zeal. It’s on TV, or in my favorite comics, so there must be a kernel of truth somewhere, if not, why? If so, how?

Back to our road trip. What if we took a trip in our trusty Dodge, but we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, or my little sister got sick, and we had to stop at this crazy motel which had a playground based on dinosaurs and cavemen (That one’s actually true!). We want to have a “What if…closely followed by the, And…or, How, Why, etc”

If we are writing thematically, our “What if…” might be a little more lofty. I know a blogger who has a form of MS that will eventually crush his body. He will essentially implode. But, guess what, his philosophy is we all have a finite time on this earth, I just happen to have a slightly better fix on the how’s and why’s of my [demise]. That why I try to make everyday count, and everything and everyone matter.

The logical foundation of a “What if, I’m a young woman who’s ready to graduate High School. I want to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a Navy SEAL? An astronaut? The first American president? What if and how does that happen, what happens, why…

I still start books, or stories and expand the premise into epic proportions. When the “story” flags, I grump about stupid this or that; start over and do it again. Then, I climb up on a bus, get on the subway or go out into the world and start to write, “What if… Once I have a nice long list, some of it preposterous, some of just plain silly, I have a good pot to stir and wait for something to surface. Ewww!

Close on the heels of the premise is the nascent plot, or just plot. That the “And… or How, or why? on this equation.

If you’d like to learn how to take your idea from a “What if ” to “The End”, join me and a bunch of other like-minded folk as Daniel David Wallace takes us through our stories and writing dreams with his amazing three month course, “Write Your Book, Now”, to a completed draft. Wallace is a PhD’d professor in writing and an author himself. I’ve had the unique pleasure of refining my skills under his tutelage. The course is starting soon and slots are limited, so don’t dither. As of this writing, space is still available.

The class will peer-gather in facebook, and Dr Wallace will have weekly office hours, one-on-one time for those interested, as well as crucial support from the group in the form of critique/confidence building/& idea mining. Below is the link:

The following contains affiliate links, which means, if you click on this site, I may receive a small commission or fee for the participation of others. Thanks for reading!      Highlight and click to go to;

https://theonlinewritingschool.com/p/write-your-book-now/?affcode=141267_r7jhdhay

Continue reading What if…?