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.
A pitch is your story compressed into 25 five words. Or less.
Lorna and Larry Collins have been practicing their pitches for assorted memoirs, short story anthologies, mystery and romance novels for quite some time. In their presentation at the California Writer’s Club they explained that the world of publishing has changed, but the need for a “perfect pitch” has not. Agents, readers and friends want to know what great novel is in the works, and the writer must grab attention in one sentence. While polite friends may enjoy a rambling explanation, today’s socially-media minded readers are too busy for niceties. Agents are even more impatient. They are looking for reasons to triage their monthly work pile from three hundred manuscripts to a single pertinent manuscript.
So, what is a pitch? A pitch is your story compressed into 25 five words. Or less. It is a description of the arc of the story, covering the beginning, middle and end. It should introduce an interesting character and that character should have a goal or a crisis. The setting, place or situation should intrigue your target audience. Examples follow, and note that more detailed information can be found on their website:
- What if four little guys go on a dangerous quest to destroy a stolen ring? (Lord of the Rings)
- What if a matchmaking young woman focuses on her friends but misses her own perfect match, who has been there all along. (Emma)
- A tornado blows Dorothy to Oz, incurring the wrath of a witch. A scarecrow, woodsman, and lion seek a powerful wizard to send her home. (Wizard of Oz)
Consider your pitch successful when it generates follow-up questions. Try it. When people ask for details, you’ll know it’s working. If the response is, “Oh, that’s nice. Wanna get coffee?” you should probably purchase something stronger than a coffee to drown your sorrows (my opinion, not the presenters.) Seriously, go back to the keyboard to make it perfect. The pitch is often an introductory line for the “back book” description which is then expanded. Even if your manuscript is unfinished, having a solid pitch keeps the writer focused on a powerful storyline.
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?
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.
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.
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?
When I think of floods, I think of the desert. It’s an odd juxtaposition, water flooding the desert. I’ve experienced floods here in California, along the San Bernardino mountains, but the most startling floods were in the Middle East, when I lived in Iran in the seventies.
On our holiday breaks my family would leave Teheran to explore ancient Persian landmarks and ruins, caravanning with other expatriate families. Road trip! The desert landscape of Iran looks like the stretch from Palm Springs to Phoenix, or the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. It’s rough and stony terrain with a slow variation in rock color and the height of the hills–not sand dunes with palm trees. On our way to Herat, Afghanistan, we saw a single cloud dumping rain over a distant hill. The earth surrounding us was scorched into a flat, salty glisten, and the ribbon of road blended into mirages of lake water, simmering in the distance. To our surprise, a mile up the road there was a real flood over the road. Run-off from the distant hill had pooled to the flatter land below it, miles away from the original deluge.
One spring trip, in the Alborz mountains, spring waters had destroyed house made from mud bricks, washing out the road too. The villagers stood, leaning on their shovels, looking grim. Our western Dads, all engineers working in the oil and gas industry, went to help but they soon returned, frustrated and angry. Instead of digging channels to divert the waters away, the Iranian men responded “insha’Allah.” It was God’s will. There was no way to change or struggle against God. The better way was submission and acceptance.
When I read Biblical stories, all set in the stark yet unpredictable desert, and populated by small, tenacious family tribes, I remember that scene. Our Western minds want action, justice and solutions. If we are hard-working and true we can re-direct the floodwaters. We have a harder time with the notion of surrender, accepting that sometimes, like a flash flood in the desert, things really are in God’s hands, or to be more secular, outside of our control.
This blog was written for www.yorocko.com as part of the Claremont Presbyterian Church Jesse Tree Advent Project. It posted there on December 3rd, 2014.
Debra Eve, always wanted to write but started her career as a technical engineer, training lawyers in technology. She tired of the corporate milieu and returned to school to become an archeologist only to discover that she didn’t have deep enough pockets to finance any digs. Disappointed, she attended writing workshops, martial arts classes, and traveled. She was learning, exploring, taking mental notes, but not writing. One day, when she was fifty, she asked herself when she’d get around to it. There was never a good time. She’d have to make the decision to write.
So she did. Not knowing where to start, she researched any other writers that got off to a late start. Contrary to the myth of gifted “born” writers, many successful authors “got around” to writing well after the age of forty. Eve wrote mini biographies about these well-known writers and posted their stories on her blog, laterbloomer.com. She had created one of the first repositories that listed “re-invented” writers. In 2012, she published these biographies as an anthology and it is still a high-ranking seller on Amazon.
What do these late blooming writers have in common? They are people with too many disparate interests. Often, they are unusually industrious and responsible people, working and slaving away even if they feel stuck in unsatisfying careers until there is a change in their jobs, routine or personal life. They take this opportunity to reflect and release themselves from their duties to explore new directions. Like writing.
Hmmm, I wonder what percentage of bloggers are later bloomers?
This article was compiled from a presentation Debra Eve gave at the California Writers Club – Inland Empire Branch in October 2014.
When you review your work, Zackheim, said, keep it organic. Look for a steady connection of thoughts, the easy movement of characters and the continuity of flow. Take a page of your writing and read it aloud, this is the best way to check for commas, if you read the comma, it should be there. Perry added that reading aloud helps find unintentional rhymes and rhythms, and set-ups where you inform the reader too much. Find what is broken, typically the where and when, and fix it. Circle adverbs and adjectives, 95% of them can be removed. Remember, the best description is that which keeps the flow of the story moving, not the description itself.
Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014 promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.