Tag Archives | tips for writing

Why a Writer Needs a Cat

CaptainandLieutenant

Cats are good at crossword puzzles, too!

I have decided that there's one VERY IMPORTANT piece of writing advice that often goes unmentioned.  It is sort of a secret writer thing, but I am dedicated to bringing such things out in the open, because I'm dedicated to helping you find success as a writer.  (You can thank me from your yacht in the Riviera, where you are celebrating your most recent bestseller.)  Here goes:

Get a cat.

Why?  I shall tell you why.

1.  Because a cat anchors a room.  There's something so grounding about walking into a room with a cat sleeping in it.  Writers need to be grounded.  We need to be in our bodies as we work.  Otherwise we'll be wafting about the room with no sense of where we are–and so will our characters.  If you don't have a cat to help you with this, try some other ways, like meditation, yoga, or Qi Gong, my current favorite.  Or take a walk.

2. Because you can talk about plot points with your cat.   One of my cats, Captain, is in training to be a human in his next life.  As such, he listens carefully to everything humans talk about and pays close attention to what we do.  This makes him the perfect writer's companion.  He listens to every word I say about my WIP.  Writers need to brainstorm.  Maybe you don't, but I do.  I do a lot of brainstorming, with my clients, other writers, my agent.  And I do a ton of it on the page, in my journal.  If you're stuck, find a cat (or human, or piece of paper) to brainstorm with.

3. Because cats are cozy, soft and warm to cuddle up next to.   And they often purr when they sleep on you.  Few things are better in this world than taking a nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a cat snoozing away on top of you.  But my larger point is: writers need rest.  Throw that old image of writers burning the midnight oil, and creating for long stretches of time without food, water or drink out the window.  That kind of schedule does not foster creativity.  More and more science is coming out to support the idea that we need a consistent amount of sleep–like eight hours a night–to perform our best.  This means you, too.  And if part of that sleep comes through curling up next to your cat for a nap, so be it.  

4. Because they will get hungry and wake you up at the crack of dawn or earlier.  Chop chop.  Rise and shine.  You've got words to get on the page!  If your cats are anything like ours, they will meow at their first sign of hunger, which will likely be early.  Very early.  My two felines have my husband well trained to rise and feed them, but I follow soon thereafter, grab coffee and hit the page.  You will make yourself very happy if you get the most important thing in your life–your writing–done first.  There's nothing better than the satisfying feeling you'll have all day if you've accomplished your most important goal first.

5.  Because a cat will keep you humble.  Cats are the original and best arrogant pets. Sometimes the afore-mentioned Captain stares at me while I'm discussing my novel with him, and then shakes his head as if I've said the stupidest thing ever.  Other times, he breaks out in a giant yawn.  I'm telling you, its humbling. And don't even get me started on the antics of his goofy brother, Lieutenant.  (For the record, they were rescues from our local Humane Society and we did not name them.) Writers need a dash of humility.  This is a topic not often discussed, but I've seen good writers ruined by their ego.  I've seen them get all puffed up and ruin book deals. I've seen them let their ego convince them a manuscript is ready when it isn't, and thus ruin a good potential contact by sending too soon.  Enough said.  Get a cat.

What's that you say?  You don't like cats? Excuse me while I cover the ears of my two tubwads.  Such shocking words coming out of your mouth.  Heavy sigh.  I suppose if you absolutely cannot see your way to get a cat, you could pay attention to the writing tips that are highlighted in bold above.  

But I still think there's nothing like a cat to keep you company throughout the day.  Unless its a pug. But that's a story for another day.

Which do you prefer–dog or cat?

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The Writing Process According to Novelist Gabrielle Kraft

 

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I've been hiding from the world because of my new hair color cleaning my office and going through old files and I found a sheaf of notes from a long-ago writing class that I took.  (It was in 1991, to be exact, because I dated it.)  What happened was that my writing group at the time hired a local mystery writer to teach us the ins and outs of writing novels.  That mystery writer's name was Gabrielle Kraft.*

 

Kraft taught me the writing process I follow today, with a few adaptations.  She was convinced that every process needed a structure, and if one simply followed that structure, one would end up with a finished project.  This idea appealed to me then, and it appeals to me now.  Here are those steps:

1.  Idea

2.  Synopsis

3.  Rough draft

4.  Rewrite of rough draft

5.  Edit your rewrite

6.  Polish your rewrite

7. Professionalize yourself as a writer

Here's a bit more on each stage.

1. Idea

"Your imagination is a muscle–use it or lost it."  Direct quote from my notes.  Think about ideas all the time.  You'll learn by setting problems and goals for yourself.  You can also glean ideas from pictures (I love to do this in workshops)  Ask, who is this person?  Where did she buy her coat?  What is she doing in this photo?  Who does she love? Remember, what's important is what you do with the idea. 

2. Synopsis

Kraft thought this was vital.  I rarely write one, preferring a loose outline to being boxed in to a synopsis, which I find painful to write.  But I concede there is value to writing a synopsis.  "Accept that is it useful to do it," I have in my notes. Take one month to write it. Many agents and editors ask for them when you're querying them.  (As an alternative or addition to a synopsis, I'd suggest a vision board for your book.)

3. Rough Draft

"Be impractical."  I love this advice!  Kraft further advised us just to get it out on the page, and to be emotional.  Write extra and leave room for slashing. (Contrary to popular opinion, what I see most often in student work is that more needs to be added in rather than cut.  So this is good advice.)

4. Rewriting

To Kraft, this was "chiseling away the extra pages."  Cut away everything that isn't a novel.

5. Editing

One line might well do.

6. Polishing

The ultra-fine tuning.  Be obsessive about it.  Change commas, periods, words.  This is "putting the sparkle on it."

7. Professionalize

Alas, the notes for this step of the structure are lost to the recycling Gods.  But from what I recall, this referred to understanding your chosen profession.  Learn about the publishing world and what it requires of you.  I also fancy that if Kraft were giving this class today, she'd be talking up the need to master social media.

I've followed a variation on this structural theme for every writing project I do ever since I first learned it from Kraft.   I know that in general there are two kinds of writers–the process writers and the perfection writers.  Process writers write a rough draft from start to finish, and follow something similar to what I've outlined here.  Perfection writers insist that every word and sentence is polished before they move on.  Don't know about you, but that sounds like living in the depths of hell to me.

So, what's your take on this?  Do you write a synopsis?  Follow a structure in your writing?  Or, do you have a teacher who influenced you the way Kraft influenced me?

 Create a successful, inspired writing life: Commit to following this process or a similar one (I won't holler if you leave out the synopsis step.)

And don't forget, there's still one more day to enter my Valentine's Day giveaway!

*I've lost touch with Gabrielle, and an internet search brings up only links to Amazon and Abe, which are selling her books second-hand.  I believe she worked in Hollywood before turning to mysteries.  I'd love to find out what she's doing now, if anybody knows of her.

Photo by cogdogblog.

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Tips on Writing: Quick Fixes for Passive Voice

In order to be a good writer, you must avoid passive voice whenever possible.

Yawn.  Lion_yawn_namibia_13413_h

This topic has all the excitement of a rainy day in January. 

But, the thing is, it's true.  Passive voice can sink a sentence faster than the Titanic.  Okay, okay, I'll quit with the metaphors that are as dumb as a rock.  Sorry, I'll stop now.  Really.  Back to passive voice.

Because, if your writing is laden with passive sentences and phrases it will be boring.  Dull.  Flat.  Lifeless.  And you don't want that, now, do you?

Many, many, many, many, many years ago I wanted to apply to journalism school at the University of Oregon and in order to do that one had to take an infamous class called J250.  It was infamous because it was hard, purposely so, in order to weed out those who might not be completely, totally, one hundred per cent devoted to the journalistic ideal.    One of the best things I got from that class was a book called The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne.  Lucile absolutely rails on passive voice, and ever since reading her chapter on it, I've been a demon about it, too. (For the record, Lucile has her own, slightly perplexing Facebook page.)

Here's Lucile on passive voice: 

The English language has two voices–active voice and passive voice.  These terms refer to the use of verbs.  Most verbs can be active or passive, depending upon how you use them.  Active voice is direct, vigorous, strong; passive voice is indirect, limp, weak–and sneaky.  It can creep unnoticed into your writing unless you are on guard against it constantly and consciously.

As Lucile goes on to point out, the difference between passive and active is essentially the difference between your subject acting, and the subject having something done to it.  So,

Active: Peter mowed the lawn.

Passive: The lawn was mowed by Peter.

Passive voice tends to creep into business and technical and other official type language, but it can easily appear in your writing, too.  So here is my handy-dandy quick guide to ditching it:

1. Make the subject perform, rather than have something performed upon him.  That sounds vaguely kinky, but its an important point.  If you fear you've constructed a passive sentence, ask yourself if the subject of said sentence is doing something, or having something done to him.

2. Choose strong and interesting verbs.  As you can see in the above example, passive voice often arises when you use variants of the verb to be.  As in, Mary was at the store.  Or, Tom was reading a book.  When you force yourself to work a bit harder and push for stronger verbs you just about always sidestep passive voice.  So, Mary trudged to the store.  Or, Tom devoured a book.  It is impossible to eradicate all forms of the to be verb, but do your best to minimize how much you use it.

3. Avoid the gerund verb form.   This is, of course, the "ing" usage of a verb.  I could not find any good explanation of the "ing" form which wasn't hopelessly complicated.  The way I think of it is that it tends to denote action occurring over time, such as, I was eating the cake.  This is less direct and snappy than I ate the cake. 

(Note to purists: yes, I know that sometimes gerunds are not gerunds but past participles or some damn thing, but trying to figure out the nuances of all that is about to make my head explode and the point here is to provide quick, let me repeat, quick fixes for passive voice.)

If you keep those three tips in mind as you write, you'll conquer passive voice.  But, I hear you ask, is there ever a time when passive voice is appropriate?  Why, yes.  Once in a great while you may want to use it for an artful reason, such as to denote that the character about whom you are writing is a passive type.  Or, as our friend Lucile says, "Sometimes only passive voice can provide a neccessary tone or connotation.  It is possible for a verb to be too brisk, too energetic, to express accurately an exact shade of meaning."

So there you have it, writing tips for the scourge of passive voice.  Now, tell me.  Do you struggle with passive writing? Or is it something you've learned to master?

 **For tips on writing, creativity, motivation and inspiration, subscribe to my free bi-weekly newsletter.  You'll also receive a free copy of my Ebook, Jumpstart Your Book With a Vision Board.  The sign-up form is to the right!

Photo by yaaaay, from Everystockphoto.

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Promptitude: Photo Edition

It's been awhile since I've given you a prompt in my ongoing Promptitude series, and earlier this weekend I had a brainstorm.  (That said brainstorm was on Saturday morning and i'ts now Sunday evening and I'm finally getting around to posting gives you some idea of how busy this weekend has been.)

So here's the brain flash:

use a photo for a prompt.  Ta da!

There's alot to be said for this approach.  You can take any element of the photo, or the entire thing.  Write about one person,  a relationship between two of the people in the photo, or what you think is going on in it.  Use one person from the photo and create a whole life for them.  What's their ordinary day like?  Is what's going on in the photo a usual part of their ordinary day, or is this an unusual event?  What will they do when this happening (to use a phrase from the swingin' sixties) is over?  Go eat lunch?  Drink in a bar?  Meet their lover for an assignation at a ritzy hotel?

Okay, I'm getting carried away.  Now its your turn.  Have at it.  Oh, one last thing.  With the help of Jessica Baverstock, we are cooking up something really cool around the idea of prompts for the new year.  You're going to love it!

Here's your photo.  Go write. 

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(Photo form Everystockphoto.com)

When you're done with your writing session and still hungry for more, here are some of the other Promptitude posts:

Saturday Prompitude (the one that started it all)

Promptitude: LA

Promptitude: New Moon

Promptitude: Wide Open Spaces

Promptitude: What Makes a Good Prompt?

The Return of Promptitude (complete with juicy medical prompts)

There's more prompt posts, but I'm too lazy to list them I've got to go get ready for dinner at my sister's.  And wine.  It's been awhile since I've had me some wine.

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Tips For Writing: Overcoming Resistance

I’m taking a quick break from my current ghostwriting project to give you a tip for writing, specifically, overcoming resistance.

But first, I want to remind you to enter my writing contest.  Its easy–all you have to do is answer a few simple questions in the comment area and you’ll be entered in a drawing for the prize of a free coaching session.  The post is called  Another Writing Contest: What Are Your Writing Problems? and you can read it here.

Thank you to everyone who has commented so far–I’ll be responding to comments soon and I so appreciate y’all taking the time to look at the survey.

Now, onto writing resistance.  This is a tip that I learned from my wonderful coach, Tess Daniel, and like everything that she teaches me, it applies to every aspect of life.   But, like pretty much everything that comes my way, I look at it through the lens of writing.

If you are stuck and can’t seem do move yourself forward in your writing project, ask yourself one simple question:

Do I know what the next step is?

Do you know what scene comes next in the novel?  Or what character you need to introduce?  Do you need to rewrite the current chapter before you move forward?  Or do you just need to keep writing and get words on paper? 

The good news is, if you know what the next step is, odds are that you aren’t blocked.  You know what to do, you just aren’t doing it.  At least you have something to work with!  And one way to get yourself to work again is take pen in hand, number a piece of paper from one to ten, and quickly, write all the reasons you are not taking this next step.

One of two things will happen:  you’ll either realize there is a very practical reason that you aren’t taking that step, or you’ll realize that in truth, you were wrong. 

The practical reason is the easy one.  You don’t have a fact you need, or you need to print out the chapter to edit it and you don’t have enough ink in the printer.  That kind of thing.  Once it is committed to paper, its easy to see what you need to do and remedy it.  Sometimes we just get so overwhelmed we go into brain fog and we can’t see the forest for the trees, or the tree for the forest.

If you uncover reason number two, that you were wrong, that’s really not so bad either, because at least now you know.  You might have been laboring under the delusion that your characters needed to go to a funeral, for instance, when in reality that character isn’t dead.

Putting things down on paper has a way of uncovering what you need to know.  But what if you asked yourself the above question,  do I know what the next step is?  and the answer was no?

Well, sorry, you’re out of luck.  No, I’m just kidding.  The wonderful thing about being creative is that there is always an answer.  While not knowing is the wee-est bit more complicated than knowing, it is also in some ways more freeing.  If you don’t know what the answer is, after all, you can make anything up.

And that is what I recommend for not knowing–make it up.    Just pretend you know the answer and write it down.  If you knew what was supposed to happen next in your novel, what would happen?  If that feels like too much pressure, ask yourself what the silliest thing that could possibly happen be?  Write it down.  Go to the thesaurus or dictionary, open it randomly and write down a word.  Now do that two more times and make it into a sentence.  Set your timer for 15 minutes and write.  The idea here is to start writing, in case you hadn’t guessed.  Start putting words on paper and see what happens.

This is a gentle way to trick the brain.  No pressure, no worries about figuring what is supposed to happen next in the novel (or your life, for that matter).  All you are doing is playing with words, putting them down on paper.

It may take several of these brain-tricking Not Really Writing Sessions in order for the old brain to start feeling comfortable enough to engage with the novel or short story or article you are trying to write, but eventually it will.

And now that I have given my brain a bit of a break, I’m off to work on the ghosting project again. 

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