Tag Archives: Writing

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.

To self-publish or not to self-publish, that is the question

At a recent book-selling event that was a topic of conversation among many of the local authors.  We had time to talk because a snow storm put a damper on sales.

Given the opportunity to self-publish thanks to companies like Create Space, Book Baby, Lulu and more, authors can put their books into print, at least print on demand. This route is the alternative to the more traditional one of seeking an agent who will negotiate a sale of your work to a larger publisher.

As a writer who has gone both ways, there are pros and cons to each.

Make no mistake; the largest obstacle to the more traditional route is getting an agent because most of the very big publishing houses won’t look at you without one. Your writing and/or subject matter (hopefully both) must be compelling to get their attention. Once you land an agent, they will do the work to present your book to a publisher. Publishers will provide editors to make sure your work is the best it can be, as well as cover designers. Once published, they roll out their formidable marketing machine.

With a publisher you will get a percentage of the profits from book sales, and don’t forget the cut to your agent. But hello, an established publisher had enough faith in you to publish your work. I felt very, very proud of that when a New York house picked up my children’s book, “Red Ridin’ in the Hood and Other Cuentos.”

More and more writers, even ones who have been published by traditional publishers, are looking at self-publishing. In this route you will have to take care of the things publishers do from editing to cover design to marketing to distinguish your book from the many, many more books there are out there because of self-publishing. That is a downside because the time you spend doing this takes away from your writing time.

If you take this route, my best advice is to spend money on an editor. Readers usually don’t care who publishes a book, but they will care if it’s poorly written and full of grammatical errors that bump them out of the story. Then they’ll ask, “Who the hell published this book?” On the plus side, there are lots of editing services and cover designers available and plenty of advice online about how to market. All the profits from the sales of your book go to you.

The end product is also a published book.

So when asking the question to publish or not to publish, remember both ways mean work. Ultimately, you will never get paid for the hours upon hours you put into writing and rewriting your book unless it makes the bestseller list and you sell the rights for a movie starring Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock.

In the end, no matter what route you pursue — love the writing.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Taking those extra steps will make you crazy, but they’re worth it.

I have neared the mouth of madness. I have sat on the tongue of crazy.

And it’s all because I’m working on getting it right. Taking those extra steps to make sure my writing is the best it can be to quote the Army slogan.

This work entails printing out the manuscript, not once, but twice, sometimes three times because reading the print version helps me catch stuff I can’t always see staring into a computer.  This also helps me find when I have used a phrase or word over and over.

This means going through and getting rid of adverbs, and declaring war on passive and vague words like there, was, am, it, must, could, and try, among others.

Reading the story for content problems, such as closing gaping holes in plot and that your characters stay in character. Making sure the theme is consistent and your symbolism isn’t overt. Ramping up the conflict in each scene, be it emotional or action. Searching for clichés.  Being on the lookout for the times I have changed the name of my characters in midstream (Come on, haven’t you done that?)

Let your critique partners have a go at your work to suggest improvements and what you did right.

One other thing I do is beat back the impetuous urge to send out my first and second draft because I think the work is done.  It isn’t. Maybe geniuses will have the perfect novel after two passes. I can’t.

Despite the craziness of rewrites, the more you work on your piece the better it becomes.  That makes the madness worth it.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Prompt your writing

It never does get any easier. Writing, that is.

Sometimes, your writer’s brain feels like last week’s laundry. Sometimes, your fingers just refuse to move. Sometimes, you wonder what the heck you’re doing trying to tell a story.

What to do?

Try a writing prompt.  I’ve been writing longer than I like to admit and these are valuable to stir me up. I like to call prompts another word—exercises. You exercise your body, so why not your craft?

My critique group and I have yearly retreats and use writing prompts for fun, for challenge, and for practice. Each year, I flesh out at least two short stories from the prompts, which basically give you something to write about. Sometimes you might have to write a scene with no dialogue, or all dialogue. To put yourself in someone’s shoes, or emphasize a specific emotion.  They’re good when you need a kick in the pants.

Where do you find such prompts? They’re all over the place. Writer’s Digest.Com usually posts several for you to use.  Recently they posted a column that you’ll find at http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-creative-writing-prompts-to-spark-your-writing?et_mid=612162&rid=22058720

Here is an example of one of the prompts. “You and your three closest friends decide to go camping. You arrive and set up camp nearly three miles away from where you left your car. Late that evening, as you sit around the campfire roasting marshmallows, one of your friends reveals a deep dark secret that turns what was to be a fun weekend into one of the scariest weekends of your life.” This one already has me intrigued.

Any good writing book will also contain prompts. One of the best I’ve found is “The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop” by Danell Jones. I love this book because it offers writing “sparks” on everything from character development to the senses. Glimmer Train also has several books to prompt your pen or computer, as the case may be.

So flex those gray cells and stretch that imagination with a prompt.

Hastings Book Signing

Book signing at Hastings -- October 30 th.

Sherri George, Kathy Wilson, Giselle Jefferies, Dixie Reale, Bonnie Dodge, Sherry McAllister, Lloyd Bakewell and Pat Marcantonio enjoyed an evening of conversation concerning writing at our book signing at Hastings in Twin Falls on October 30th. We will have to schedule some more writing conversations in the future.

Hauntings from the Snake River Plain book trailer and book signing

A book signing will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at Hastings Books, Music and Video on Blue Lakes Blvd. No. in Twin Falls.

Come meet some of the authors.

Weekend writers’ retreat

Once a year we try to have a writers’ retreat to rejuvenate. This year we were blessed to have a quiet weekend near Featherville to recharge. Thanks, Dixie and Pat for a great weekend.

QUESTION OF THE MONTH.

How do I get my writing published?

So, your story is finally finished. Each phrase is a polished gem that contributes toward the final climax. No word is wasted. Now, you need a home to showcase your masterpiece.
First, study the market place. Focus on subject matter, length of stories preferred and whether or not the intended market accepts unsolicited and/or unagented submissions. Follow the rules. Send your story only to publishers or agents who deal in your particular genre or subject matter.
Include a one page query letter with your manuscript . This is your sales pitch for both the story and you. The query should contain a brief synopsis of the story and a short biography with publishing credits and experience. If you do not have writing credits, be sure to include your background that relates to the story. Remember every published author started somewhere.
Double check. Do not send negative or self defeating messages in the correspondence. For example — “This is my first attempt to publish.” “I am not an expert.” “I am a really a poet but wanted to try my hand at fiction.” You get the idea. Include some facts about the story — “The title of your story is a 95,000 word mystery novel.”
Polish the query as you perfected your manuscript. If you belong to a critique group, critique the letter. Remember the query is the potential editor’s or agent’s first impression of you. If it is a bad impression you will probably not get a second chance.
Also, many beginning writers use the copyright symbol on their correspondence with potential publishers, editors and/or agents. They do this in an effort to protect their work.
Unfortunately using © in letters and cover sheets of a manuscript sends a negative message. You are telling the person reading the letter that you suspect he wants to steal your story. When writing to an agent or potential market, writers need to make a good impression. Put yourself in the editor or agent’s place. If someone told me even indirectly they suspected I was a thief, I would not want to deal with that person and would probably reject their story without even reading it. And, if an editor or agent is dishonest, all the ©s in the world will not stop him/her from stealing.
Remember, you can’t copyright an idea, only the telling of it — the arrangement of words on the page. All stories are old ideas recycled through a new author’s mind. There is no new idea. Writers steal ideas all the time.
If you are really concerned about theft of your story, print out a copy. Put it into a large manila envelope, take it to the U.S. Post Office and mail it to yourself via registered mail. When the envelope arrives in your mail box, do not open it, but put it away in a safe place. If anyone ever does steal your version of the telling of the story, you have dated legal evidence of ownership. You can then take them to court. But do not insult a potential business ally.
Good luck!

Dixie Thomas Reale

QUESTION OF THE MONTH

What can I do with my fickle muse?

Over the years I have developed a number of activities to get writing again when inspiration has fled. Automatic writing — writing down anything and everything that comes into my thoughts — sometimes works. Listening to classical music or jazz while reading inspirational poetry often sparks my imagination. I’ve watched a fire burn, a stream flow, taken a walk in the desert or forest, laid down on the grass and studied shapes of clouds on a warm summer afternoon, and stargazed at night. I’ve left a story completely and came back later. All of these strategies helped get pen to paper once again.

However, I recently experienced a twist of the capricious nature of my muse. I was working on a novel that has been rattling around in my intentions for many many years but the plot never wanted to come together, was never quite right. The story line kept changing. I’d started on it several times over the years only to abandon it after many pages when the idea turned stupid. This past fall my muse insisted that I start writing on the novel again. She reminded me “You are not getting any younger and you need to tell this story.” So I got busy on the plot and chapter outline. I had three great characters in mind and was introducing and developing their personalities one at a time while introducing symbolic threads I could later pull through the events I had planned for my story. I was in the middle of chapter three, maybe on page thirty-five or forty of the novel, when the muse turned perverse. She changed her mind. Another story started tumbling out of my imagination.

The second story is related to the novel in a round-about way but is more personal, a memoir. The main focus of the memoir makes the novel seem trivial, almost ridiculous by comparison and demands to be written first. So I set the novel aside and started working on the memoir. It has been building steadily since. I’m averaging about a page a day, which is great for me, I don’t normally produce that much. I have nearly one hundred pages of memoir and haven’t even gotten to developing an outline or chapter breakdown yet. The story is raw material running steadily from my mind to my fingertips to my word processor.

Some writers say, “I am going to write a story and A, B, and C is going to happen.” I can’t do that. I don’t know what is going to occur in a story until I write it. At this point I’m not sure if, when I finish the memoir, I will return to the novel or not. Maybe I had to write that novel outline and three chapters to reach the point where I need to be mentally to write the memoir. Or maybe the memoir will turn out to be personal baggage related to the subject of the novel that I have to work through in order to write the novel with a clear focus. Maybe the memoir is going to integrate itself into the novel, somehow. I do not know. I’ll figure that out when I get to the other end of these narratives.

Right now I have two stories in progress. And although my muse is fickle, as long as she is talking to me I am taking dictation.

Dixie Thomas Reale

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