“Help!” she cried. What Every Writer Needs

To grow a good writing life, you need more than a pencil and notepad at the ready. You need a team of helpers, including these five advisors:

1.  An editor, who can help you turn awkward phrasings into elegant prose, delete the redundant and superfluous, flag errors, and tell you when something essential is missing, should be at the top of your list. Take a look at this, a gubernatorial farewell speech by Sarah Palin edited by Vanity Fair professionals, and you’ll see how a good editor can improve a piece of writing.

Find someone whose editorial acumen you respect, and invite or pay that person to rip your work apart. And then go fix it.

2. A stranger who owes you nothing can be a useful reader. That person can tell you, in the broadest terms, how your work comes across. This is not the same as an editor. It’s a quick assessment. Did she like it or not? Did you hear the word “good” mentioned, and was it said with enthusiasm?

3. A friend who loves you and who is capable of the white lie, the bright side delivered convincingly—never mind the hard truth—when a pick-me-up is needed. If this friend is also knowledgeable on the written arts, or business, or both, even better.

4. A tech person, with marketing acumen, and who can help you create a website, a blog, and make the most of social media, is an asset. A nimble writer who knows enough to reach for the future stays upright in this rapidly evolving world. Your tech guy can take you to the frontier. Just go into it with no expectations and get ready to work hard.

5.  An agent. Yes, you can publish yourself in a variety of ways and very happily, or you can seek an agent whom you hire to find you a suitable publisher. A good agent is one who loves your work, has the contacts, thinks strategically, and is adaptable to the changing nature of the business. Shrewd is also good. Perky is a plus.

That’s it, the list of five who can help a writer get his work done, and done well. Call upon them, as you need them, in order to advance in your writing life.

Sometimes I think of it as a child’s game of tag: it’s up to me, the writer, who must manage all of it and also write, until I tag another, and then, for at least for a little while, he or she is IT, the helping hand, always timely, always welcome.

Who’s your favorite helper? Anyone you’d like to add to your team?

Photo credits: Playing Tag, by Jari Schroderus; Female mirrored – Cassiesteele

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How to Write a Winning Scene

What makes a great scene, anyway?

A great scene is one that fully engages your reader by triggering a powerful emotional response.

It doesn’t matter what the response is—fear, lust, envy, despair, pain, joy, shock, you name it—an emotionally engaged reader will continue to read. This is what you want.

Now, how to get there?  Here are nine tips to help you succeed:

1. Identify what you want the scene to accomplish. Every scene has to move the story forward, or it doesn’t belong.  It might be funny, or descriptive, or clever, but if it doesn’t move the story forward, it needs to go.

2. Identify who has to be in the scene and leave everyone else out.

3. The setting should add to the point of the scene. A love scene plays differently, for example, in a subway as compared to the opera.

4. Your character, whether a good guy or a bad guy, has to have a desired outcome going into the scene, and must work to achieve his goal. Passive characters aren’t very interesting. The goal should be hard. Struggle is good. Victory has to be earned or it’s boring. The big success, the final goal achieved, marks the end of your story, but you must build to this moment. Setbacks keep a reader interested.

5. Put the reader on your shoulder and have him discover what your character discovers. If your reader discovers things at roughly the same time as your character, he remains interested.

6. A character takes in his world on two levels: the external, objective fact of it, and the internal, subjective, how he feels about it. The character, in all his complexity, must be revealed by degrees. Like a helix, like the turn on a screw, every time the reader comes across that character, something has to deepen in the character’s external or internal understanding of himself and his world.

7.  Block the scene out in your head. Think it through. Thinking time is writing time. Then, sketch it out, so you don’t lose the thread of it while you work.

8. And now write it. Bring to it everything you have. Don’t save anything for later. Don’t bother with the rules. Don’t look for perfection. Forget the real world, go where your story is, and just write. I know one novelist who simply looks out the window, as if her characters are just there, performing for her, and types up what she sees and hears. I know another who works with his eyes closed (as in, a stocking cap pulled low). Do what works for you. And if you get stuck, a sure cure is to fall back on Stephen King’s advice: “Just tell the god damn story.”

9. Then, walk away. Sleep on it. Go play. And when you return, edit. Cut anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Superfluous characters should be cut. No matter how charming or clever, they’re just noise. Cut back-story to a bone. Cut the pretty, the silly, the clever, the irrelevant and redundant. Be ruthless. Cut the line that you hold most dear if it doesn’t belong. Reshape, regard from arm’s length, seek opinion, work it again, and maybe again, and yes, again, and now you’re done.

The scene is a beauty. Pat yourself on the back. Now, if you’ve written one, you can write another. Repeat, until your book is done.

Photo credit: street artist, Andre Solnik; National Mall painter, erin m

How to Experiment

Birdlife is abundant where I live, so I keep the feeder stocked.  It’s a busy place. Squirrels collect at the base of it to scavenge for fallen booty. Red ones and gray ones get on fine at the feast. My cat watches all this from the porch. Spread out in a patch of sun, he’s in a lazy heaven.

This is how it goes day after day. But introduce a new element—a squirrel cake, for example—and everything changes.

Crows show up, attracted by the corn. Big, dark birds with weapon-like beaks, they might as well be Hitler’s S. S. so far as the cat is concerned. He flinches and runs inside. The dog, on the other hand, slips out, intent on the suet that holds it all together.

The smaller birds are pleased to see the cat go and flock in ever-greater abundance, but they keep their distance from the crows.

The squirrels also multiply but with a cake in the picture, the big ones chase the little ones away. They sit on it. Square off against each other over it. Drag it to the trees. Rip it apart. Stuff their faces. But if pressed, and as a last resort or so it seems, they will come together again to gang up on the crows.  By nightfall, it’s grown quiet.  And in deep night, a possum comes around and mops up.

So, what does this mean to a writer?

If you’ve hit a wall, or you don’t like the direction of something, introduce a new element and watch things change. New dramas may unfold. Time may distort. A new character might appear. Tensions grow. Alliances shift. Outcomes are uncertain.

So, what would a squirrel cake look like to a writer?

1.  Take the one element of your project that you really like—a character, say, or a subplot, or a particular scene—and recast a few pages in terms of that. Pull it forward, make it your focus with full attention paid, and the whole dynamic changes.

2.  Consider your villain. Every god needs a devil, but no man is black and white. Find the shades of gray.  See him as a whole man with all his terrible conflicts and everything deepens in what you’re writing.

3.  Consider your structure. I’m a big one for staying in one’s chronology, which is to start at the beginning and move through to the end, your reader learning what’s what just as you do. But you might play around with time. Run it backwards, for example, unraveling to the moment it all began. Or tell it from the perspective of the dearly departed, or as a memory of what went down. Or start with a bang that happens way later in the story, and work your way back up to it.

4.  Consider telling the story from the standpoint of an inanimate object. The story of a musician, for example, as told by his violin.

5.  Identify an element, perhaps water, and weave it throughout to create a kind of rich continuity and set a tone—snow falling, rivers rushing, springs burbling, or something moody and unusual like “snow thunder.”

There’s no end to xxperimentation. The one rule is to loosen up and have some fun.

And the one caveat is that you must also be serious. This is work, not an excuse to procrastinate, which means that when you’ve finished, you must have something to show for it, even if you don’t like it. You’re bound to have learned something. Start there, in the morning, and try again.

Photo credit: Stephen Begin

Why you Need a Happy Ending

No one likes bad news. As a lawyer, I’ve delivered lots of it, and as best as I can tell, an undertaker at the door is more welcome.

So, when it comes to your work—the one place you get to choose your stories, the one place your reader also gets to choose whether to go beyond the first sentence—consider what you’re delivering.

You can still tell the truth—indeed you must; it’s your job—but it has to be in such a way that your reader will delight in making the journey. You must approach writing about difficult themes, terrible tragedies, and gross inequities with compassion, as much as you may also bring a ruthless eye. Turn that reader off, and off he goes.

Fortunately, that’s not his first impetus.

He comes of his own accord. He hopes that he will be entertained, or informed, or inspired. And though he may tolerate a difficult story, especially if it’s well told, he will still want something good from it, something he can take to his own experience, something life affirming. A happy ending, perhaps, or a silver lining, or an open door, or crack of light . . .

Your reader wants to believe in you. He hopes you will give him what he seeks.

Be the hero. Save the day. And he’ll be back for more.

Photo credit: Fonzie’s cousin, Travis Kraft as superman