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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Put on Your Coat, Get Something to Eat

Yes, your story is about character development and plot. If you write literary fiction, you will emphasize character more than plot. If you write genre fiction, plot wins out over character development. In both cases, you have to create the world in which your characters live and your plot unfolds.

You can make your story more authentic and believable by showing your characters doing everyday activities. When it's cold, you need to arrange for them to put on coats. When it rains, they need umbrellas or need to get wet. Your characters need to get hungry and find something to eat.

Stories seldom turn on the daily activities of the characters, the weather, street layout or architecture. However, these things add to the verisimilitude of your stories. Your characters and their worlds become more palpable to your readers.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Don't Forget the Seasons

Your story is set in time, even if the place is a galaxy far, far away. As the writer, your attention goes first to developing characters and plot. And that is the correct priority. However, you should not forget when your story takes place.

Does your story happen in the spring? Does it span several years? Spring in Bangor, Maine, is not the same as spring in Managua, Guatemala. If your story starts in London and ends a week later in Sydney, you will need to adjust your seasons because you changed hemispheres. Did your Thailand story take the monsoon season into account? It should have. Did you remember how humid New Orleans is in August (or any other month for that matter)?

You can avoid these mistakes by creating a timeline for your story. The longer the time horizon in your story, the more useful your timeline becomes. You may need to chart the days of the week, important holidays, major weather events and natural disasters.

Your characters cannot be in Haiti in February 2010 and ignore the earthquake. Similarly, you cannot set a story in New York City in September 2001 and fail to deal with the 9/11 attack. These details may seem trivial but paying attention to them adds credibility to your storytelling.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Creating the World for Your Story

Characters inhabit stories, but those stories make their homes in worlds of their own. The job of the writer is to create those worlds. Sometimes, the writer outlines that world sparsely, but at other times, the author creates a world of rich detail and complexity.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald captured America and Europe in the first half of the 20th century. In the science fiction and fantasy genres, Frank Herbert’s Dune and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings featured complete worlds peopled with intelligent beings who were not humans. In imagining the desert planet of Dune, Herbert made certain that the ecology was scientifically defensible. Cormac McCarthy created a believable dying Earth for his novel The Road.

As a writer, you do not need to create an entirely new world for your story. However, you will need to create a place for your characters live, move and breathe. This means that you will have to know something about terrain, climate, seasons and weather. Your towns and cities will have to have stores, houses, apartments, streets, water mains, electrical grids and fire departments. The reader needs to feel that these things exist, particularly when you do not mention them directly in the story.

Your job as a writer is to sketch in the world so that it does not detract from the story. The descriptions of the world need to be subtle and to advance the story whenever possible. Balancing the story's setting against the plot line is a delicate task that will take practice.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Research on the Street

Solid writing requires research. Don’t groan. Research doesn’t have to sterile and boring. It can be interesting, adventurous and even a little dangerous.

I admit that surfing the Internet or digging stuff out of old books and documents in the library may bore you. However, what I like to call street-level research is exciting.

Interview the leader of a street gang, and see if you are bored. Interview someone who has just lost their job or been disgraced, and I'll bet you won't be bored.

Change the rules of the game and you create a natural experiment. Experiments provide some of the most powerful research results a writer could hope for. If the government taxes factory emissions, what will happen? Will you get fewer emissions? Or fewer factories?

If you lower the drinking age, what happens to the traffic accident rate? If you take drivers older than 80-years-old off the road, what happens to the accident rate? If the unemployment rate goes up, what happens to number of people volunteering for military service. Does a recession cause more people to sign up for Social Security at age 62?

The 2010 Yellow Pages just arrived, and I discovered that it is 88 pages shorter than last year’s directory. What happened? A little investigation suggested that a severe recession was the culprit.

I checked a few directory categories to see how they had changed. Fewer building contractors and real estate agents bought display ads for 2010, and many of the ads bought were smaller. The directory listed fewer specialty retailers and restaurants than in 2009. The ads for bankruptcy attorneys, on the other hand, were more numerous and larger.

Opportunities abound to improve your writing through research. Just don’t rely on the formal research methods alone. Get your hands dirty with street-level investigation as well.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Capture the Moment

I'm on a road trip and covered more than 600 miles yesterday. New images presented themselves moment by moment, but most of them escaped me. They were lost because I generalized their uniqueness away. This roadside rest is just like the last one; all McDonalds are alike. No big deal. Closer observation, however, reveals the truth: each situation is filled with the potential for fresh, odd or unusual insights or images.

About 200 miles into my trip, I made a Starbucks/bathroom break. When I came out of the restroom and headed to the counter, I saw a woman bent over to pick up newspaper from a low shelf.

“Wow, look at the size of her ass,” I thought. As she stood up, I read the message on the back of her T-shirt: “I finished the 32-ounce steak challenge at the Two-Notch Steak House.” Now there is truth in advertising.

I delight in tucking away such moments in my writer's journal. I don’t know when or how I will use that image, but trust me, I will.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Are You Going to Finish That?

Frederick Pohl, the 90-year-old science fiction writer and editor, wrote under a dozen pen names in addition to his own name. He authored more than 30 science fiction novels, five non-fiction books, and countless short stories, articles and essays. He was Isaac Asimov's literary agent and lifelong friend.

He won both the Hugo and Nebula awards (the major, annual awards for the science fiction genre) and edited both Galaxy and If magazines. Obviously, Pohl knows a few things about writing and publishing.

Pohl offers three rules for anyone who wishes to write.

1. Write every day. Yes, that means that you must write 365 days a year. No excuses.

2. Write 600 words a day. If it takes you 45 minutes, fine. You are done for the day. If it takes you 18 hours, fine. That's how long your writing required that day.

3. Finish every piece you start. That way, you never fail as a writer since a writer's only real failure is the abandoned piece.

A finished story, book or article may or may not find a publisher. As such, it may become a disappointment, but it can never be a failure. You completed the piece, and that is its own success.

Friday, February 5, 2010

To Publish or Not to Publish

As a writer your options are endless. Too often, we fixate on the goal of finding a commercial publisher for our work. Your goals may dovetail nicely with those of a commercial publisher. When that’s true, traditional publishing is an ideal way to get your work out into the world. In other situations, different approaches will serve your interests and goals better.

Some writers write for themselves only. A person who keeps a journal or diary may not want to share their work with anyone else. A journal is a good place to solve problems privately. If you keep a work diary, you may use it to figure out how to improve your performance. This is not something you would want to publish. As a potter, I keep an artist’s notebook overflowing with sketches, drawings, glaze formulas and reminders about firing particular kilns. As valuable as this notebook is to me, there is no reason I would want to publish it.

Some writers have a small personal audience for their work. A family history or a collection of personal essays fits this category. This kind of writing benefits your family and friends but may not have a larger audience. A private printing of 100 or fewer copies using a print-on-demand service or a short-run book printer makes sense in such cases. Personally, I find this type of writing and publishing very satisfying.

If you work as a teacher, workshop leader or consultant, you may write materials to support your work. It may make sense to print and market these materials yourself. If your professional activities bring you into contact with a large number of people who could benefit from you writings, you may want publish your work on a larger scale.

If you sell a large number of books on your own, you may attract the attention of a commercial publisher. Alternatively, you may wish to become of commercial publisher yourself. In either case, you have increased the visibility and profitability of your writing.