Category Archives: How to

Want to be a better writer? Read good books, watch good movies, TV and plays

You hear the advice a lot at writing conferences and in writing books. Read. Read. Read. As a lover of movies and writer of screenplays, to that advice I will add watch good movies, TV and plays.
Why? Because you learn so damn much about everything. Pacing. Voice. Conflict. Dialogue. Description. Character. In other words, what makes a good story. What makes good writing.
When I started writing a psychological thriller, I read Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” about four times. I saw how effective it was to tell both the stories of the antagonist and protagonist. For example, in the case of the killer Francis Dolarhyde we learned how he became a monster and at first feel for the abuse that turned him into one. It also ramped up the conflict when the hero and villain meet. In my book, “The Weeping Woman” (Sunbury Press) I also presented the story through the eyes of villain and the detective hunting her down to show their contrast and similarities.
For a great script taut as a drum, I read Brian Helgeland’s script, “L.A. Confidential” many times.
The power of voice I found in “Funeral for Horses” and “Fight Club.”
How profound point of view can be in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Most any Quentin Tarantino script shows off unique and fantastic dialogue.
In “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” I discovered what makes a great character, namely Walter White and Tony Soprano.
For great writing pure and simple, any Tennessee Williams play.
Grace of language, damn great characters and heart wrenching plot was all found in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.”
You get the picture.
As writers, we don’t want to imitate those other writers, but we should analyze what makes them so good. And hopefully, somewhere find our own voices.
As a bonus, we also get to read great books and watch great movies, TV and plays, which is okay with me.

Advertisements

How to write a compelling story.

Shortly after seeing the musical, Les Misérables, I ran across this post by Joe Bunting: How to Write a Story Like Les Miserables
http://thewritepractice.com/les-miserables/

It started me thinking. Why do some stories like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, and Moby Dick have such staying power? They were written over a hundred years ago. What makes them so compelling artists find new ways to retell them, over and over again?

Bunting believes five elements make a story compelling.

1. Your character has to change. He calls this test transformation. We want to see how characters change, how they struggle to become a better people.
2. Write about something with historic significance like the revolutionary war, or some other life-changing event for a country, not just one person.
3. Have a big cast, many characters people can relate to. Instead of a story about one man’s journey, create a story about many character’s journeys.
4. Show what your characters want. Give every character an arc. This gives us more characters to root for. To use Bunting’s example: Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous. (man against self) Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean. (man against man) Cosette wants to be loved by a family. Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution. (man against society) Éponine wants Marius, and The Thénardiers want money.
5. Sacrifice Everything. In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls this rebirth. A character who risks everything for a virtuous goal, including his life, returns a hero and someone worthy of our respect.

In school we’re taught there are three story types: man against man, man against society, and man against self. If a writer can incorporate all three, his story has a better chance of being compelling, one others will want to relate over and over again.

The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself, why is this story important? What can I add to make it more compelling? Then pick up your pen and begin to write.
-Bonnie Dodge

What does a room of my own mean to you?

When asked what one needs in order to write, Virginia Wolf said she needed “500 pounds and a room of my own.”

What do you think she meant? Was she saying that she needed exactly “500 pounds” as money in her day was measured? I do not think so. I think she was saying that she needed an income comfortable enough that the basic necessities of life were covered. Enough money that she did not have to worry where her next meal was coming from, or wonder if she could pay the rent. After all if I am always hungry and worried that I may be thrown out into the street and be homeless at anytime, I’m not going to be able to focus on similes and metaphors.

I believe “A room of my own” could mean a whole house or just a small corner of a room. It doesn’t matter. Many years ago I was sorting boxes of old magazines I wanted to keep for reference, into order by date of issue. I had so many magazines that I had to spread them out on the living room floor. It was the only space large enough. I’d spent an entire afternoon lining them up into rows and moving them from one area of a row to another as I worked through many years and months of dates. I was about halfway through when I had to stop to get dinner for my family.

When the evening dishes were finally done and the kitchen back in order I returned to the living room to resume my sorting. My magazines had been gathered up and thrown into a huge heap in the corner of the room. Nobody would admit to the deed, but I knew then the living room was not “my room.”

In my room or my own space I can spread out my projects and nobody will bother them. I can lay my papers and books on a table or on the floor if I wish and leave them there all strung out and in disarray. If this is truly “my own room” when I come back my papers will be exactly where I left them. Nothing will be touched. That I believe is what she means by “A room of my own.”

I recently staked out a room of my own from vacated rental space that the tenant no longer wanted. It is 20 feet by 22 feet with a huge storage area. It is in an area where I do not think I will be able to re-rent it easily, So, it is mine.

In my room I will put my favorite books, a library table, a music maker of some sort, my computer and printer, plenty of reference books, a big easy chair or recliner, reading lamp, coffee table, inspirational pictures on the wall, and enough shelves in my storage area to hold paper, ink supplies, glue, staples, paper clips, pencils, notebooks, paper cutters, laminating machines. I want plenty of daylight and maybe even a dorm sized refrigerator and microwave for snacks. The room will be comfortable enough that I will want to spend time there.

Who knows I may even store some folding chairs in the closet for friends or students, in case I decide to invite someone over or host a seminar in my space.

Right now I am measuring for carpet and plan to put a curse on any who disturbs my space. There will be an amulet above the door.

Dixie Thomas Reale

How to get through that dreaded book signing.

You’ve written a book. You actually have it published and just committed to a book signing, which is still a week away. Already your knees are shaking. Your head hurts. You’re sure you’re coming down with a cold. You’d rather wait tables or clean toilets. Welcome to the wonderful world of being an author.

Book signings can be intimidating. Under pressure, our insecurities bubble to the surface. No one will buy my book. No one will show up. No one will like me. This is a natural reaction for most writers. But book signings don’t have to be painful. Here are some ways to help you have a good time, even if you don’t sell a single book.

Organization goes a long way in making your book signing successful. Once you set up your signing, keep calling back and checking in to make sure everything’s on track. They have you on the calendar. Books have been ordered and will be there in time. If you are bringing your own books, make sure you have them with you and remember to bring them to the store.

Several weeks before the event, promote your signing. Send out press releases and do radio spots if possible. Post on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to get and keep a buzz going. We’re all busy. It’s easy to forget.

The day of the signing, arrive early. Bring signs promoting your event. Dress professionally and try to arrive fresh and relaxed. Make sure you have

books
business cards
plenty of pens
water
tablecloth just in case
bookmarks/promotional material
a smile and positive attitude

Remember to smile and talk. Don’t hide behind books or look away when a customer approaches. Look them in the eye. Extend your hand and say, “Hi, I’m having a book signing today.” Put the book in their hand and ask a question that relates to your book. “Do you like xxxx stories? Did you know xxxxx?” Even a genuine comment, “I like your scarf,” is enough to begin a conversation. People buy books from people they like, so find a way to make these strangers feel comfortable and interested in what you have to say. Forget about selling books and sell yourself instead.

Have realistic expectations. Everyone who walks into the store is a potential customer, but they may not like the kind of book you write. Hand them one of your bookmarks and ask them to recommend you to their friends.

Rather than dread the signing, take advantage of this opportunity to meet people and make new friends. Hope for the best and expect the worst. The result will fall somewhere in between. But mostly, try to relax and have fun. And don’t forget to thank the store for hosting your event.
-Bonnie Dodge

Bonnie Dodge and Patricia Santos Marcantonio Speak at Idaho Writer’s League State Conference this weekend

Bonnie Dodge and Patricia Santos Marcantonio will present a workshop, Riding the Storm of Self-publishing at the Idaho Writer’s State conference Writing up a Storm this weekend in Boise, Idaho.

Rewriting made easy, well easier

My writing friend and I whined the other day about rewriting, which is not unusual. We both agreed that writing the first draft is a joy because it all pours out and we don’t have to answer to anyone, not even ourselves.

But then comes the rewriting. Making sure the piece makes sense to someone else besides ourselves. Making action words out of the passive. Killing off those nasty words that make editors cringe. One way to start a rewrite is to read your writing out loud to catch the rough spots and make sure your dialogue sizzles like fajitas. I do that with most of my drafts and my dogs and cat love it because they think I am talking to them. I know the process is faster without reading out loud, but you will be glad in the end.

A few years ago I attended a great workshop on rewriting that made the chore easier. This includes terminating the “tell” words that slow down our writing, and replace them with showing. So after I finish with a major rewrite I do a find and replace these words when I can. It makes me work harder but the writing is better. Try it on these words:

thought

remembered

imagined

felt

saw

smelled

knew

decided

realized

understand

reminded

it

was

You’ll find this challenging because it requires you to work harder. Yeah, I whine about rewrite because it is work. In the end, the effort pays off.

-Patricia Santos Marcantonio

QUESTION OF THE MONTH

How much detail should I include when writing a story?

This can be a tricky balance.

Generally obscurity in writing is deadly for the average writer. Sure I remember in literature classes in college — I often had to look up obscure references to places, people and even customs of the past. I did the research so I could talk about the authors intelligently in class discussions, or on examinations given by sadistic professors. Understanding the minutiae of authors lives added another level of understanding to an already thick tapestry of meaning in stories written by giants like Joyce, Shakespeare, Twain or Faulkner.

College students may grumble about the research but they do it because they know the effort will add to their understanding and should even improve their grade.

However, the average reader is not going to bother looking up many, if any, unexplained references in a story by an acquaintance from Small Town, Idaho. Nothing personal, that is just the way it is. Remember time and distance have made many details in stories by the greats unclear or ambiguous. If the reader is going to fully understand the story he needs to be aware of the particulars.

At the same time, including too much detail is just as fatal. Imagine reading ten single spaced pages of minute detail enumerating every step in a search through archives located in the basement of a library for specifics of life events of a historical figure. Who cares? Only a fellow researcher, certainly not the average reader of fiction. If you have to include details of the fictitious search cut it down to a paragraph or two.

You have to find the right balance in your stories. It lies somewhere between writing simply the name “George” and writing “George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Va., on Feb. 22, 1732, signer of the Declaration of Independence, commander in chief of the Continental army during the American Revolution, first president of the United States, father of the nation, husband of Martha, step father to” . . . You get the idea. But remember only you can decide which details to include. After all, it is your story.

Dixie Thomas Reale