Category Archives: Writing Craft

Tell All the truth, but Tell it Slant

Write what you know, ever heard that advice before? It helps to locate and ignite an author’s passion. Ona Russell, the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, February speaker, found a scrapbook of articles about her great-grandfather, a celebrated judge in Toledo, Ohio. Intrigued, Russell’s research unearthed family secrets and inconsistencies. Her own mother’s birth date was incorrect, the judge struggled with mental disorders, and a mysterious lady, Sarah Kaufman, legal assistant to the judge, appeared in many photos. Russell fell in love with these uncelebrated personalities from the past. Eventually, Sarah Kaufman became a sleuthing protagonist in Russell’s own historical mystery novels, a trilogy set in the 1920’s.

Part of her storytelling is true, based on the articles. Some of the storytelling is fact, based on research, but Russell worked hard to highlight the “slant,” the re-invented tensions and conflicts. Russell explained that excitement is created in the margins of the truth, in the details, in the spots where the story pauses and shifts gears. Generating a narrative from this blend of truth, fiction and fact is a tricky balance for writers, whether the works are memoir, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction because all the world-building elements have to be credible to the reader. For Russell, this credibility is key. She said the way to engage the reader is by establishing credibility with an authentic setting, with historical details, with nuances and a pace that is true to the era. This means eliminating everything that does not move the story forward, research, back story, even a favorite character. A writer should look for things to emphasize, create complexity, and sacrifice anything that is not relevant to the story.

This except is from the Fresh Ink March 2016 issue. The title “Tell all the truth..” is from a poem by Emily Dickenson.

How to Write when Life Bites, Like a Shark

Amber Victoria was a guest speaker at the California Writers Club in September. She introduced her topic about illustrating and publishing her children’s book, Twins European Adventure, by enumerating all the small towns she called home. This was followed by a lengthy resume of everything she loved about her education, interests, hobbies and life. Just as worried if, and when, she was ever going to talk about books, she veered into the oddest transition. She talked about her childhood fear of sharks, a fear so debilitating that she trained in competitive swimming to gain confidence.

And then it clicked. A swim race was like writing, she explained. How you talk to yourself is what gets you across the finish line. “Don’t negate yourself,” she warned, “or you will never finish.” Writing means you’re an independent entrepreneur and since it’s about learning, every step takes you towards an obstacle. You will find a way around it. Don’t be afraid of launching yourself in too many new directions, it may feel as if you are stalling, but, in reality, you are developing something new.

Victoria took a breath, and shared another obstacle, a very personal one. She is dyslexic. I was intrigued, dyslexia would be a significant obstacle when writing a book! It explained something else too. While coordinating the presentation schedule I noticed that the quality of her texts and email was uneven. At first I assumed she was a typical Millennial, perusing ebusiness on the fly. I even wondered if English were a second language. I did not catch a single error in her PowerPoint because her personal narrative was so compelling, but an English teacher spotted several distracting mistakes.

“Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”

Victoria shared a motivational quote from the Dalai Lama, “Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” Grammar issues would not be a surprise to her, and if a comment about grammatical imperfections were passed along, it would not have discouraged her. Belief and mindset was key to Victoria’s concept of success. She reminded the audience that bestselling authors received bad reviews. She mentioned a fellow writer who ranted about recommendations he disliked. She cautioned the audience, “You have to make sure you don’t absorb advice in a way that makes you the kind of negative person you hate.” Keep writing, she urged. Write what feels closest to your heart. Ask yourself, what is the outcome? What does my audience need to hear? What are the “what ifs”? Where are the morals and emotional growth issues? What are you teaching? And to whom?

She finished by giving specific examples of how her past influenced her present work, adding technical tips about the market for children’s literature. Her talk picked up speed and held together with verve and impact.

An audience member described Amber Victoria as an angel. “I embrace how she keeps inspired in her life, what an accomplished soul! What a blessing to have her on the planet and hear her speak about her love and putting it on pages.” Proving, once again, that when a storyteller effectively communicates his or her vulnerable moments, they leave their audience with the most memorable impressions.

How to find more time? It’s kinda like cleaning, and taking out the trash.

I read a recent post about decision making from marketing guru, Seth Godin. He calls his process to goScreenshot 2015-05-16 18.25.06 faster “decision hygiene.” It reminded me of principles I use for sorting mail and housework. My clean-up knowledge is based on hand-me-down wisdom like “touch things once” and “everything in its place” but in reality, anything that takes time is a decision making process.

Godin had five points to move things along faster: make decisions faster, do them in the right order, do it once, don’t look for help once you’ve started and triage the decisions.

So If I am going to write I’m going to:

  1. Decide what I am going to write about, and do it as quickly as possible.
  2. Do all organizational activities involving committees or other people’s permission first.
  3. Follow through with my idea, even if I start to hate it while I’m typing.
  4. Workshop the results only with people who will improve my writing.
  5. Decide what to write: a blog, novel scene, or schedule twitter feeds. If any of these items do not matter to the project at hand, I’ll choose not to focus on it.

Why write in the first place?

“Why write in the first place?” Paula Priamos, a professor at University California, San Bernardino, questioned her students, all intermediate level writers. The responses spun around the notion of self-expression, the importance of free expression without judgment and how writing is a calming, enjoyable way to articulate ideas. For a few people it was also tied to compulsive need, or to practical goal like developing a skill that they were “half-way good at”, or the opportunity of a portable job. Paula discovered that self-expression it is essential to all writers.

writing gives people a sense of empowerment because it gives voice to something that would not otherwise be heard.

In her keynote address at “Another Bloomin’ Writers Conference” in early May, Priamos argued that writing gives people a sense of empowerment because it gives voice to something that would not otherwise be heard. This was true for Priamos. Her memoir “The Shyster’s Daughter” exposed family secrets. Writing was not an easy process, sometimes she felt she ‘ripped out her heart and left it pulsing on paper.’ Her memoir was a very personal tribute to the “no-name” women who endure traumatic experiences. When the book was published and people (including family members) thanked her for sharing, Paula realized that her writing had given a voice to the weak.

When a published writer gives a presentation they invariably disclose an underlying theme, the “why” for their writing. I anticipate this moment like the makeover reveal at the end of a reality show. Readers connect to universal truths, to the greater worldview that writers expose as stories. Writers like Priamos have honed their voice, exposed their hearts, and are passionate about their truths. Successful writers capitalize on this sense of empowerment. Empowerment gives writers personality and fuels their works. It is something to build a social platform around because it attracts fans.

Inspiring an audience

A writer’s calling is driven by a need to create a legacy or testimony. There is hope that the words will inform, comfort or inspire others. At first, even if only one person is responds it feels like validation enough. However, if writers keep at it, they want to reach a broader audience. Then they need a platform, like publications and social media marketing.

But how does marketing feel like being a writer?

Honing an Inspired Voice

Inspiration is an expression of a writer’s discernment. Over time, with practice, (about 3-5 of years of daily writing) writing becomes distinctive and written words carry the writers “voice” to the reader’s ear. The writer might sound like a journalist, asking questions and probing for hidden agendas and clarifications. If there’s a lot of research, the writer’s voice becomes a trusted, learned professor presenting facts and a love of learning. Maybe the writer is trying to fix something with humor, or by sharing vulnerability and dissatisfactions. Perhaps the writer is a true creative, a poet or visual artist, exposing hidden beauty with an eye for things that most people miss.

Prompt: Write about “inspiration”

When I use the writing prompt “write about inspiration” it typically elicits a series of stories about a safe or interesting place, or a personal experience. However, what a writer calls inspiration, I believe is better defined as a calling. Writers have an inexplicable impulse to write that is accompanied by a feeling of divine influence. Inspiration is a trigger that unleashes a creative urge to share an observation or a story, an expression of the writer’s personality and personal preferences.

For some writers inspiration, or this calling, feels like a spiritual retreat, like a deep well of feelings, concepts and connections to people and events. For others, inspiration is a tangible location. It is a familiar place like a window with a view, or an old desk that relaxes and generates confident writing. Often, an unusual or unexpected place becomes the setting for a story or a scene, like the underground vegetable fields built under Tokyo, the ghost town of Calico, the forests of Olympic National Park.

Inspired by rituals

Where do you find inspiration to write?

In today’s world, writers no longer pray to goddesses for magical interventions and most prefer a healthy lifestyle to constant hangovers. Instead, they research practical guidelines to generate hours of blissful writing in the zone. A recommended technique to kick-start inspiration is the “manageable” approach. Beginning writers are advised to pen one or two paragraphs every day, or to target a consistent 500 word count every day. Other writers set aside a certain time of day to perform the rituals of writing. Some rise early to greet Inspiration at the crack of dawn, stealing time in the early morning before work, while other scribblers are habitual night owls. Many people never have a good time for anything, so they grab any opportunity, including hiding in cars during their kid’s soccer game.

Writers honor and seek inspiration with a mystical reverence. They experiment with ways to increase their artistic production. Modern writers set out elaborate traps for Inspiration with compulsive attention. They sit in a special chair, or write with purple ink. Some wear a fuzzy housecoat, or become superstitious about the placement of objects on their desk. Others must start the writing day with a hot beverage and an ample supply of celery sticks. Many need a deadline, or prefer the background hum of a café, or hours of uninterrupted silence.

What are your rituals and incantations?

AWP2015: Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art

AWP2015: Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.

The worst competition? Yourself.

New Year 2015With each New Years Resolution focused on writing, I step further out of the safe and dreamy world of wishful thinking and into the messy complications of action and imbalance. I am killing myself with writing activities. These activities sabotage the act of writing by keeping me away from the keyboard yet when I sit in front of the computer I’m not working on manuscripts but managing social media and organizational activities.

Last night I researched publishing trends for 2015 for a panel discussion I am moderating for the California Writers Club. Guess what the experts say? There’s gonna be more competition in the ebook universe.

Groan.

Today’s improved technology means there is a screen in every pocket, tablets and computers in every household, and an easy way to access digital content. eBooks have become an established in libraries, elementary schools, and are willingly adopted by seniors. The five traditional publishing houses are paying attention, but, while the IT world of content and distribution is growing, the ebook trend for 2015 is going to flatten out due to more competition.

To find readers, authors must be at the top of their craft, producing attractive books, and building marketing platforms. Time-management in the world of social media will be crucial for all.

Exactly how does that work? I work part time as an administrator but I want to maintain my writer’s lifestyle. Last year I cut out evening meetings unless they were about writing. This year I’ll stop relaxing in front of the television. Sad face. After work I’ll go to the gym to pump oxygen into my tired brain so I can read at night, and get up earlier to write at work. Some perks; I have an expansive desk, nice view, and the boss arrives late to work and doesn’t do social media…

Funny thing is, writing is like spending money on your kids. No matter how bad things get, you always find a way to fund those activities and needs. Daughter’s university education is paid by taking out a loan, ignoring home maintenance, my part-time work, eating at home, and shopping second hand or thrift. It gets done. Writing is like raising a kid, you muddle through the things that are important, and it happens.