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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.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Not Waiting for the Muse

The romantic approach to writing suggests that you need inspiration to do good work. Some ancient writers thought the gods inspired their work, and they picked a a name for the god of creative inspiration -- Muse. When the Muse visited, an artist’s creativity was unleashed and great works of art sprang forth almost unbidden. When the Muse refused to visit, creative efforts bore no fruit. These notions persist among some writers even today. If they do not feel inspired, they do not make an effort to create. They seem to think that there is no solution for the problem but to wait for the arrival of the Muse.

I'm not a believer in the Muse. True, some writers are more inspired than others, and many writer has unexplained bursts of creativity and productivity. However, a writer hoping to develop a career cannot wait for the arrival of a favorable mood to do the work that needs doing.

A professional is someone who performs well even when he or she doesn’t feel like working. The most prolific writers work under all kinds of conditions and in all kinds of moods. The quality or quantity of the work may not be universally high, but the output is there.

Set yourself a writing schedule or quota and to stick to it. You should schedule either a certain number of hours of work a day (or week) or a certain number of words. Goals increase output in almost every arena, and it certainly works with writing. Admittedly, this is a bootcamp approach to writing, but if you follow this advice, you will write more poems, articles and books than you would depending on the Muse.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Right to Write

You have a right to write. You need no one’s permission to put words on a page. You need no one’s permission to put print your words and bind them into a book between beautiful hard covers. If the read the first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, you can see that this is one of the rights guaranteed by the most powerful government on earth.

Yet many of us don’t feel worthy to write. This is a hangover from ancient times when the only writers were priests or government officials. Since writing was most often the work of priests, writing and books were sacred. Only the elite could read or write.

Later, the high cost of printing limited the ability of most people to see their words in print. Under these conditions, publishers printed only two types of writing: 1) government or church documents, and 2) books that that would sell a very large number of copies. Again, the elite - the economic elite in this case - controlled access to printing and publication.

In the 21st century, reading, writing and publishing are democratic freedoms. A person can use a computer with Internet access in a public library to publish a blog that may attract thousands upon thousands of readers. The cost of publishing such a blog is essentially zero.

So, feel free. Writing is your perfect right.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Knickerbocker Rule

I am endlessly curious about the work habits of other writers, and I suspect that you are as well. We hope to discover the magic of writing effortlessly and eloquently. Seeking the hidden key to writing success, we want to know when, where and how the renowned writer works. How many days a week or hours a day does she write?

Do the anointed ones write long-hand, use a typewriter or compose at a keyboard? Perhaps, just perhaps, we could forge our own success by emulating them. If Marcel Proust could get Remembrance of Things Past from the taste of madeleines, maybe we should have a nibble ourselves. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., claimed that he needed a "carton of Pall Malls and a fit of coughing" to undertake a significant writing project. I think I'll pass on that approach.

The truth, however, is that writers share little in common in terms of work habits. Well, maybe there is one: The Knickerbocker Rule. Richard Rhodes reported that his former boss, Conrad Knickerbocker, used to say, "Rhodes, you apply ass to chair."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Where the Profits Are

The more specialized and narrowly focused a book, the fewer readers it will attract. The small market for most books dismays writers. However, falling publishing costs create profit opportunities from ever smaller print runs. The emergence of digital books and print-on-demand books promises profits from every book sold. That’s a promise that will be hard to keep, but the trend line is not in doubt.

Mass marketing counts on hits. In the movie business, studios need to sell millions and millions of tickets to make a profit from a big-budget Hollywood movie. With high production and marketing costs, studios lose money on anything but the biggest box office hits.

Niche marketing works on a different logic. If you can keep production and marketing costs low, you can earn a profit from much lower sales volumes. It takes a smaller budget to reach a well-defined target market, and the Internet makes it less expensive to find your niche. If you reduce production costs proportionately, profits show up at a much lower sales volume.

Internet marketing gurus call this selling to the long tail of the distribution. Without getting into the statistics, let’s say that you can do very well by selling less of more. Each item produces relatively few sales, but you make up for this by offering your customers a very large number of different items for sale. Books, particularly digital books, fit this model very well. The inventory carrying cost for a digital book is minimal. Therefore, sales of a modest number of copies per year turn a profit.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Book Is a Conversation

Most book titles sell a few thousand copies. Publishers and writers regard the limited market for most books a bad thing. Their attitudes are understandable since selling a small number of copies reduces both profits and royalties. However, the worth of a book doesn’t depend solely on sales numbers.

According to Gabriel Zaid, author of So Many Books, a book is a conversation between a writer and readers. If the topic is broad and universal, the writer may engage hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of readers in the conversation. More likely, the book’s writer has more specialized interests and finds only thousands of reader interested in that particular conversation. The small audience doesn’t mean that the book is a poorly written, unsuccessful or unimportant.

If a book finds those who benefit the most from reading it, then the author and the book succeeded. The success of the book is independent how many copies it sells. Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers merited a printing of only 1,000 copies, of which fewer than 300 copies sold. Walden sold somewhat better, but any contemporary publisher would call it a commercial failure.

Enough said.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

So Many Books

Writers, publishers and bookstores are alarmed about the demise of the book. They worry that television, Internet surfing, online gaming and social networking will crowd out books and reading. Yet, the facts do not support such fears.

Neither reading nor publishing is in decline. In a book titled So Many Books, Gabriel Zaid provides some enlightening statistics. When the Gutenberg press appeared in 1450, publishers launched approximately 100 new titles that year. In 1500, about 250 new titles appeared. By 1950, 250,000 new titles appeared. By the year 2,000, the number of new book titles broke the 1,000,000 mark. Measured by the number of new titles per year, book publishing is thriving.

The dismay in the publishing world actually comes from uncertainty over profits. The profitability of the various forms of publishing – hardbacks, paperbacks, print-on-demand books, e-books –is in doubt. Similarly, there are questions about where we will buy books and how we will read them. Will we buy physical books in bookstores or download digital books to our cell phones? No one knows for sure, but in the long term, it doesn’t matter much.

Short term, chaos will dominate publishing. The market will test dozens of emerging publishing models, most of which will fail. A few of those models, however, will become wildly successful. Longer term, publishers, writers and booksellers will adapt to the new business models, and the number of book titles published each year will continue to grow.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Get Your Writing Session off to a Quick Start

Every writer fears the blank page. If you indulge that fear, it becomes writer’s block, and the blank page stays that way. The trick is to have a tactic that allows you to get started quickly.

My late friend, Jack Ivancevich, liked to end a writing session in the middle of a sentence. The unfinished sentence gave him an unambiguous place to start writing on a page that wasn’t blank. Today, I want to suggest an additional tactic to get you started quickly in your writing session.

On a blank screen or sheet of paper, make a list of three ideas that belong in your current writing project. Leave enough space between these ideas to write a few sentences. For each of these ideas write six sentences. Each sentence should explain one of the following: who, what, when, where, why and how. This advice comes from one of the best authorities, Rudyard Kipling, who opens one of his Just So Stories, "The Elephant's Child" with:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Following Kipling's lead, expand your six sentences into 12. Then, expand the 12 sentences into 24. Now you have gone from a blank page to a full page, and perhaps your words spilled over on to a second page. Soon you will need to turn your attention from generating more words to pruning excess words and shaping attractive sentences and paragraphs.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Additional Uses of Everyday Misery

It's almost impossible for me to get through a day without encountering someone who makes me miserable. It might be the woman who cuts me off in traffic or the guy who bumps into me and spills my Starbucks on my shirt. No doubt, you can offer plenty of your examples because there are as many jerks in your life as in mine.

These people are jerks because they interfered with my agenda, priorities or goals. They were rude enough to inconvenience me. They slowed me down or impeded my progress. How dare they!

Since you are a writer, you specialize in seeing situations from multiple points of view. How about this for another point of view: I was the jerk, not the other person. As a writer, I take a frustrating situation and rewrite it from the other person's point of view. The other person becomes the protagonist, and I become the obstacle to that person's agenda, priorities and goals. I write the scene from that person's motivational perspective, no longer giving myself the benefit of the doubt or assuming that I have the best of intentions.

This exercise stretches my imaginative muscles, allowing me to develop a stronger empathic sense. This exercise also reinforces the notion that people live through their perceptions of reality and that reality itself is unknowable. How's that for making good use of everyday misery?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Uses of Everyday Misery

For a writer, nothing has to go to waste. Any experience teaches you something useful for your writing. Even everyday misery has it uses.

A few days ago, I had to trade in my cable television box. I wanted one that had a built-in digital video recorder. Of course I had to stand in line to make the switch. A long line. For me, this qualifies as misery. Maybe that makes me a whiner, but standing in line is not pleasant.

However, you can learn a great deal standing in line. (Do you say "in line" or "on line?" I guess it depends on where you live.) My fellow line mates were an interesting conglomerate of individuals. We were young and old; black, white and brown; rich and poor. Well, maybe not rich. Some of us were hyper-fit, and some of us had let ourselves go.

I began to pay attention, looking at how people dressed and trying to understand their personal styles. Where had they bought their clothes? I tuned into the voices around me, paying attention to accents, vocabulary and personal twists of expression. Some people stood alone while others brought friends, lovers or kids.

Before long, I was itching to take out my index cards and begin making notes. However, we were all crowded in a little to close for me to get away with that. But I did begin to make up stories in my mind about some of the people in line. When I got home, I hurried to my writer's notebook and began to describe what I had observed and learned during my 20-minute wait to get a new cable TV box.

You are a writer. Everything is relevant to your calling. Waste nothing.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Writing from Inside Someone Else's Head

The first consciousness we understand is our own. This starts early; watch any two year old assert herself and demand to get her way. As we get older, we begin to understand that others see the world differently, have different needs and hold other opinions. Later still, we learn to understand others from inside their own head.

As a writer you need to create distinctive characters. You will need the empathy and insight to see the world through other people's eyes. You need to identify with a saint at one moment and a sinner the next. In today's writing session, you may need to see the world through the eyes of a young girl. Tomorrow's session may require you to get inside the head of con artist.

The more skilled you become as a writer, the easier it will be to change your perspective and see a given situation from different points of view. Really good writers can empathize with characters they do not like. One of the best ways to understand a character is to develop a full life for that person.

Write a biographical sketch for your character. Briefly describe her childhood, first love, educational background, accomplishments, disappointments and failures. Then, write her obituary. Now you are prepared to see the world from her point of view and with real understanding, even if you wouldn't want to invite her to dinner in your home.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Turn It Around, Upside Down and Inside Out

As a writer, you have to create characters that stand out, distinguishing themselves from other characters in your story. This is one of you major responsibilities. Here's an exercise that will help you with the task.

First, let's start with a thought experiment. Think of someone you greatly admire, someone you have put on a high pedestal. Make a list of this person's traits, personality and characteristics. Write a paragraph or two describing this person's behavior in situations that would challenge the composure, dignity and patience of the average person.

Second, take what you have just written and rewrite it to show your hero in a negative light. Put as negative slant on this person as possible. Since no person has a flawless character, look for those flaws. Even positive acts and good intentions can have negative, unintended consequences. Take your hero to task for failing to anticipate anything that may have gone wrong. Write you champion's obituary from the point of view of his worst enemy.

Third, change your hero's gender and name. Now you have a completely new character. Neat trick, huh?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Creating the Unseen Character

Creating an unseen character is a clever writer’s trick. The off-stage character comes to life through the reactions of other characters. With this device, the writer can slip in a variety of material without developing another full-blown character. For short stories or 30-minute sit-coms, the unseen character is a Godsend.

Serving as a funhouse mirror, the unseen character reflects distorted but telling images of the other characters. If the absent character is extremely messy, the story’s obsessively tidy character is spotlighted. If your absent character is tight-fisted, your main character’s generosity stands out.

In the Frasier television series, Niles Crane is married to Maris but lusts for Daphne. Although you’ve never seen Maris, but I’ll bet your image of her is as clear as your image of Daphne. And Maris doesn’t draw an actor’s salary.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Fiction, Non-Fiction or Verity

Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes doesn't like the word non-fiction. The term is not helpful, he argues, because too many types of writing are lumped together as non-fiction. In addition, "non-fiction" defines a category of writing by the negation of another category, fiction.

Rhodes suggests that we replace the word "non-fiction" with the word "verity." As you might suspect, verity is related to the word veracity, meaning truthfulness or factual.

Rhodes goes on to say: "[c]onsidered as a craft, technically, the writing of fiction and writing of verity are identical processes but for one significant difference: we expect the information conveyed in verity to conform to verifiable external references, while the information conveyed in fiction need be only internally consistent."

More than one kind of truth? I think so.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Make a List

It's raining here in North Carolina today. It's the kind of day that makes me want to read or watch TV instead of write. Oddly, bright sunny days have the same effect on me.

This kind of day calls for a writer's trick to get the job done quickly and easily. I recommend filling today's writing quota with lists. This trick works best for non-fiction writers, but it's a good enough trick that all writers should master it.

Ten reasons for a writer to make up a list:

1. Each item on the list is short and sweet.

2. The items on the list do not have to be closely related.

4. Most lists are composed of simple, declarative sentences.

5. Lists are easy for writers to write.

6. Lists are easy for readers to read.

7. A list looks authoritative when printed on a page.

8. Items on the list can serve as writing prompts for the paragraphs that follow.

9. A list allows a writer to fill a page with fewer words.

10. One good list deserves another.

Have you noticed how many titles are based on numbered lists (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or 9 Steps to Financial Freedom)? Now you know why.

Get busy writing lists.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What Is Your Writing Ritual?

Most writers have a routine they follow before getting down to the business of writing. That blank page is a fearsome thing, and most of us need some help to face it. Some of the tricks we use to get started are very sensible and practical. Others are bizarre.

One prolific friend of mine has to play computer solitaire before writing. She won’t start until she has won five games. Willie Morris, author of North Towards Home, needed to have at least ten freshly sharpened pencils and a stack of paper before starting. Jack Ivancevich, author of more than 150 academic articles and dozens of textbooks, always stopped writing in the middle of a sentence so that he would have something to start on immediately the next day.

Ritual is important because it helps you form the habit of writing. Habits let you do things automatically, even things you normally resist doing. So, create yourself a ritual that will help you get going when it is time to write. Try to pick one that is simple, cheap and doesn’t waste too much time. How long does it take to win five games of solitaire, anyway?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Real People and Believable Characters

As a writer, you may feel that basing a character on a real person is cheating. But you would be wrong. Studying real people is the primary research of a writer.

Understanding another person requires watchfulness, subtlety and reflection. The writer needs to observe, to talk and to listen. Most of all, listen. Later, when alone, the writer gains insight through reflection and rumination. The most basic work of any writer is to understand the uniqueness of a single person.

Many writers begin their careers obsessing about conflicts with parents, siblings, bosses or lovers. The emerging writer may replay old arguments or betrayals. Re-examining these memories, the writer looks for alternate ways that painful scenes could have played out. Reworking the original scenes, the writer creates new ones filled with believable characters, action and dialogue. And reworking scenes is the proper work of a writer.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Matter of Character

If it’s a story, it’s about people. In writer parlance, the people in your stories are characters. You've heard that your characters should be fresh, surprising and believable. That’s a pretty tall order.

Making up a character from scratch requires a fertile imagination, and few writers are good enough to do that regularly. However, you seldom need to create characters from scratch. Give yourself a head start by building your characters based on people your already know. This is the way most writers do it most of the time.

The more closely you observe someone, the better you understand their characteristics. Sometimes you get lucky, and life forces you to observe a potential character. For example, you have to put up with your relatives. Your parents, in-laws, brothers, sisters and cousins intrude on your life and force you to deal with them. The time you spend your dorm roommate, drill sergeant, cellmates, teachers, and bosses is involuntary as well.

If you don’t like the people you must deal with, you watch them closely, paying particular attention to their quirks and foibles. The things that stick in your mind will allow you to write about your your character with depth.

Here’s an exercise designed help you get a handle on a particular character. At the top of a fresh sheet of paper write the name of your character. Now make a list of your character's background and habits. To get you started, answer these questions about your character.

1. Where and when was your character born?
2. Where, when and how does she die? (It doesn’t matter if she meets her demise many years after this story ends.)
3. What does she do for a living?
4. Is she in love with anyone?
5. Does she drink coffee, tea or neither.
6. Do her shoes come from K-Mart or Prada?
7. Does she drive an SUV or a Prius?
8. Does Saturday night find her at the symphony or the monster truck rally?
9. Does Sunday morning find her hung over, at church or both?
10. Is breakfast bacon and eggs or a granola bar?

You should continue this process until you have a very clear picture of your character. Since you started with a real person to create your character, your character will likely be believable. With enough details you should be able to make the character fresh and surprising.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hypergraphia: Now There Is a Disorder to Have

I’m reading The Midnight Disease by Alice W. Flaherty. In her book she explores writing disorders, particularly writer’s block and its opposite: Hypergraphia. As writers most of us are intimately acquainted with writer’s block, but we haven’t been introduced to hypergraphia.

People suffering from hypergraphia feel compelled to write almost constantly. These individuals write at a furious pace and have little control over their desires to write. Sometimes it strikes brilliant writers, such as Dostoevsky, and sometimes it strike people without the slightest talent. At first blush, I asked, so what’s the problem? Can I get some of this hypergraphia for myself? However, hypergraphia is a serious disorder springing from physical maladies as serious as temporal lobe epilepsy.

Manic-depressives (bipolar) sometimes display hypergraphia, and writers are estimated to be 10 times more likely to be manic-depressive than people in general. Flaherty, a practicing neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, also teaches at the Harvard Medical School. Her book explores the physiology of compulsive writing and writer’s block. She shows us that complex neurological processes have more to do with our writing output than we ever imagined.
Flaherty doesn’t offer us a “how to” guide for overcoming writer’s block or preventing hypergraphia. Rather, she gives us a chance to appreciate the complexity being blocked as a writer.

When you are desperately looking for excuses not to write, you might give this book a read.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Trouble with Memories

Based on a memory, a person will shout, “I was there. That’s not the way it happened.” In extreme cases, eyewitness testimony can end a person’s life. Yet, careful research shows that memory is a slippery, inaccurate beast that cannot be trusted.

Law school professors delight in showing the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. To make the point, the instructor arranges for confederates to burst into the classroom, shouting, shoving and creating uproar. Just as quickly, the intruders depart. Then the professor begins to question the class. “How many people came into the room? How tall was each one? How many males? How many females? Was the man black or white? Was the woman Hispanic? What was each person wearing? Who said what? Who left the room first? Who left last?”

Invariably, the students can’t agree on what they saw. Some students thought there were three intruders. Other thought two. Still others thought four. There was no agreement about how people were dresses or who said what. Everybody remembered the event, but no two people remembered it in the same way. If you are about to have your fate decided by a jury, this information should scare you. If you are a fiction writer, on the other hand, you should be reassured. Since everyone remembers events differently, there are many “truthful” ways to tell a story, whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

Since memory will betray you, don’t pledge fidelity to it when you put words on paper. Rather, treat your memory as well-intentioned but unreliable guide to “what really happened.” Search your recollections, use them for your stories, but also do your legwork to double check your memories.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Writing about "What Really Happened"

New writers often tap autobiographical material, writing short stories, novels, poems or memoirs. Three of those forms claim to be fiction. Memoir holds itself out as non-fiction. Yet, the line between fiction and non-fiction blurs easily – a fact revealed painfully to Jonathan Frantzen, author of A Million Little Pieces. His “memoir” turned out to be a cleverly written novel. This sin cost him a tongue lashing from Oprah on national television. Ouch! The same sin in reverse, passing off memoir as fiction, usually draws only a knowing wink or a mild rebuke.

With a little care, however, you can safely exploit the blurriness of the line between fiction and non-fiction. In middle of that blurred line between fiction and non-fiction, you will find the natural habitat of great stories. If you bravely explore that territory, you will discover bizarre beasts easily captured for your story telling purposes. The trouble with “the truth” is that it doesn’t necessarily make for a shapely story. In real life, events don’t necessarily happen in the right order to create a good story. The timing of events doesn’t work. An argument on the telephone may have been more dramatic as a face-to-face encounter. Fiction gives the writer free range to fix the problems reality imposed on the story.

If you blur the line in favor of fiction, reality provides powerful scenes, situations and insights for storytelling. Unfettered by “what really happened,” you are free to invent characters, scenes and events to give your story shape and drama. Research and interviews can add local color, help you find a hook for your story and suggest characters that would advance the story.
If you blur the line in favor of memoir, “what really happened” provides you with some firm constraints. You can’t move your story Memphis to Milan, nor are you free to invent characters or events. If it was warm and the sun was shining, you can’t write in a blizzard.

You can, however, use the tools of a fiction writer to enhance your memoir while staying inside the constraints imposed by memoir. In both types of stories you can do research that adds context and realistic details to the story. For example, if your memoir concerns spending a week in San Francisco in 1990, a little reflection will remind you that you used a pay phone, not a cell phone, to make those pivotal calls.

Some research will tell you what movies were showing that week and which songs were on the radio. Photographs from that time period will refresh your memory of how the city looked and way people dressed at that time. A trip to the library will let you look at that week’s newspaper to verify the weather conditions and refresh your memory of the news of that week. A phone book from the era will remind you of the location of the restaurant where you had lunch that last day in the city.

You can mine your life experiences for both fiction and non-fiction stories. Just remember the guidelines that apply to each type of writing. And don’t let Oprah catch you trying to pass your fiction off as what really happened.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Narrative Therapy Is the Story

The work of a writer and a therapist is often the same. Both work to make sense of life by analyzing stories. When they finish their work, the client and the reader see life differently.

From one perspective, the job of a therapist is to help clients de-construct their personal stories. A person seeking out a therapist often feels stuck, depressed, anxious or unhappy. Frequently, those feelings come from the client’s reaction to their own personal stories. Together, the client and therapist work through the stories hour by hour, week after week. With luck, they begin to see the story’s structure, sorting out the players, motives and the sequence of events.

A good therapist helps the client take a story apart to see where it may not make sense. The therapist might ask, “Are you sure that’s the way it happened?” Or, “How did that make you feel?” "Why do you think he did that?" Working through the story repeatedly, the client begins to see different ways to tell the story. Slowly, the client interprets the story differently, seeing new motives and other meanings. Finally, the client tells her story in a way that allows her to move beyond the problems that brought her to therapy.

As a writer, you might consider using some of the therapist's techniques for your work. Take your story apart and put it back together again. Try shifting the focus, re-ordering the events or re-examining people's motives. See how things change when you switch the gender of a character. How does the story change if you set it in the mountains instead of at the beach? What happens when the story occurs in three days instead of four months? Improve your story by de-constructing and rebuilding it. Then do it again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tell Yourself a Story

Life happens. We were born into a noisy, bright, confusing world. We arrived without an instruction manual. Life left us to our own devices to fathom what was going on. Many of us still struggle to find meaning in life’s jumbled happenings.

That's where stories come in. As quick as we hit the ground, we love stories. First, we relish the nursery rhyme and lullaby. Soon we insist on hearing that one familiar story over and over. Parents tell stories as do others -- brothers, sisters and especially grandparents. Soon, television and the movies take over as the storyteller. Fortunate children discover stories in magazines and books. Increasingly, however, video games tell stories. Whatever the source, human beings can’t get enough of stories. We love our stories because they reveal meaningful shapes beneath everyday happenings.

The most important stories are those we tell to ourselves. As young children, we find story scripts running in our heads. And we immediately write ourselves into the scripts.

Our stories might involve adventure, triumph, tragedy, survival or hope. Whatever the story, it seeks to make sense of experience. Writing helps put anger, fear, pain, suffering and joy into a meaningful structure. The old cliché suggests that a terrible childhood is the good grounding for a fledging writer. Check the life stories of profound novelists and see if you don’t agree.

Developing greater skill, the young writer crafts better stories that need not spring from on genuine events. Collecting, combining and distilling life's confusions, the writer creates new stories -- the best of which tell more truth than any reporting of facts alone could.

So, go tell yourself a story.

DB Dewer

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who Creates a Book?

The author wrote the book. It is her book. See her name on the spine and the title page? As writers, we understand and glory in the contributions of the writer. Without the writer there is no book. Open and shut case.

But if you only have a writer, you still do not have a book. In a logic class, we might say that the writer is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation of a book. But that is much too formal for the point I want to make here.

Writers can't create books by themselves. They need the help from many people. Generally, someone else edits the manuscript, designs the book, picks the typeface and devises the dust jacket. In addition, others print the books, warehouse them, distribute them to book stores, sell them to customers and handle the returns. Still others tally the sales, bank the revenues, pay the bills and send royalty checks to the writer.

Even the writing is not solely the product of the writer's fertile mind. Most books – fiction and nonfiction alike – require research. To find the facts, ideas and insight required to fill our books, we search the Internet, prowl libraries and pester people to part with their expertise and reveal their secrets. The acknowledgements of any hefty nonfiction book overflows with grateful thanks to scores of people. The author's genuine appreciation comes from her awareness that she would have written a lesser book without their help.

The next time you complain about the size of your royalty check, take a moment to remember everyone else whose skilled work deserved payment for helping you turn your idea into a book.

DB Dewer

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What is Your Favorite Writing Form?

You probably have a favorite type of writing. Perhaps you like to write short stories or perhaps poetry is more intriguing for you. While many writers work in a variety of forms, most seem particularly comfortable in a particular form.

My passion for clay is second only to my passion for words. Those who love clay gravitate toward one or two favorite forms. Some ceramic artists work with tiles while other throw pots or build clay sculptures. The choice is personal, and some artists talk about the form having chosen them. I throw tall bottles and broad bowls. The bowls are easy for me, but my passion is for the tall closed forms. I find bottles more difficult to execute but more satisfying to complete.

So, is your passion the novel, the memoir, history or the essay? As in may arenas of life, “Do what you love” is excellent advice. If you are working on something you love, you will work harder and do a better job.

I know this is a cliché, but clichés exist because they contain more than a little truth.

DB Dewer

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Interested in Posting a Guest Blog Entry?

If you are reading or following this blog, you probably share my interests in writing and publishing.

I would like to get some more opinions expressed on the blog. You probably have advice that would benefits our readers. You may have a pet peeve that you would like to share. Perhaps you have found some ways to improve the quality of your writing or the quantity of your output. All of these are good topics for Writer's Delight.

If you would be interested in posting a guest blog, please let me know. You can contact me at We can discuss topics and the mechanics of being a Guest Blogger.

Hope to hear from you.

DB Dewer

Friday, January 1, 2010

SMART Writer's Resolutions

Goal setting works. If you set a goal, you are more likely to achieve something than if you merely have good intentions. How about some writing goals for 2010? How about some SMART writing goals?

See how you like the SMART acronym.

S -- Specific goals are better than general goals.
M -- Measurable goals are better than vague goals.
A -- Aspirational or inspiring goals are more motivational.
R -- Realistic goals are better than magical thinking or wishing.
T -- Timetables and deadlines are more likely to produce results.

Take a little time and see if you can come up with some SMART writing goals for 2010. Plaese take a moment to share your 2010 writing goals as a comment.

Happy New Year.

DB Dewer