Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finding Your Voice

by Sarah Sullivan

Microphone on StandFinding your narrative voice is as fundamental to writing as breathing is to living. It is the element that imbues your work with personality and shapes the tone of your piece. A consistent voice weaves all the mechanics together and gives the reader an emotional connection to your story. Voice is the invisible and perhaps most important character in your work. 

Just like every other aspect of writing, there is no end to developing your voice. It is a constantly evolving process. As I continue to grow as a writer, I have collected some useful tools for helping me stay true to my own voice. 

1. Write down three adjectives that describe your personality and ask others to do the same. Are you witty, serious, diligent, shrewd, timid? Play with these aspects of your personality and see how they might inform your characters. 

2. Record yourself explaining a story idea.Does your writing sound like you or are you trying to fit into someone else's notion of what a character would say?

3. Be opinionated. When you feel yourself being tentative or politically correct, stop! Unless that’s who your character truly is. Readers are smart and ambiguity reads false. Be brave with your opinions. Whether readers agree or disagree with your point of view, passion is engaging. 

4. Write like no one will ever read it. It’s hard to write with an editor looking over your shoulder so don’t do it to yourself. There will be plenty of time for criticism and rejection later. If you feel tethered in your writing, you may have lost touch with your voice. 

5. Once in awhile, write something quickly and if you can (for instance on a blog) publish it! Sometimes our most authentic voice emerges when we don’t have time to overthink it. See if you get a different response from readers when you write this way. 

6. Write in first person. Even if your story is in third person, you can learn a lot about a character by climbing into their skin for awhile. Explore how it feels to be that character, what might they say? how might they feel? Then you can return to third person armed with more information and a greater understanding of your character. 

7. Finding a voice doesn't mean that your writing or characters must all be the same. Obviously if you are writing about a lady's maid in Victorian England she won't sound like Bridget Jones. We have as many voices as we have moods and you don't have to find one voice and stick with it. Sometimes it helps to copy other writers verbatim as an exercise in style. But in the end, you must have a sincere connection with and understanding of your characters motives, thoughts and feelings so they don't sound like a shallow shell or vague idea of a character. 

8. Get comfortable with the fact that you can’t please everyone. Not everyone will appreciate your particular narrative voice, but if it is unique and authentic you will find an audience. I, for instance, find Carl Hiaasen's characters egregiously annoying, but who am I to argue with wealth and success?

What tactics do you employ to get in touch with your narrative voice? 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Chain Reaction

By Rich

Life is strange. I know, this statement is so original and prolific that you want to print it on a poster or t-shirt. You can even combine it with another one of my original statements so it reads 'Stay Calm. Life is Strange." Hey, I'm always looking for that extra buck.

I digress. Life is strange because, no matter what you think your destined path may be, the universe has a way of twisting it in another direction. Sometimes causes a chain reaction that puts you at a disadvantage that you wouldn't wish on even Justin Bieber. Other times it fills an empty space in your life and propels you into many greater things.

Take me as an example. I decided to move to Northern Colorado back in 2010 in order to make a clean break with the East Coast and provide a better life for my family. In those first few months of settling down, I had no sense of what I wanted to do. Sure, I had my writing career, more like a after-work hobby, which I wanted to expand, but I didn't have a single clue as to how I wanted to move ahead.

Then Northern Colorado Writers came into my life through their annual conference, and the chain reaction ignited. You've read my story numerous times before or heard me tell it on a street corner while you rolled you eyes and dialed the police. For those who never heard the tale or wiped it from your memories, here's how it went down ...

The NCW conference led to an interview with one of their associated critique groups. The critique group led me to fine tune and finish Paradise Not Quite Lost as well as complete my first NaNoWriMo novel. The completion of PNQL gave me impetus to pitch it to an agent, who asked for the complete manuscript and sent me an encouraging rejection letter. This moved me to become more involved with NCW, which got me the job of administering the Facebook page.

The Facebook job got me closer to the many talented members of NCW, and that led to more responsibility in the group, eventually moving me into the Assistant Director position. This led to our presence on Twitter as well as a growing feeling of independence and strength that I could self-publish my own material. Hence, the creation of Wooden Pants Publishing, publication of Coffee Cup Tales, and signing of other authors who share my dream.

I have no idea when this chain reaction will halt. From my publication schedule and upcoming events, my feeling is it's going to continue for a bit, and I have NCW to thank for this. Without their spark I wouldn't have gotten to where I am today. And this is why, as we celebrate the 7th anniversary of the organization, I ask you to join in order to find your own spark and subsequent chain reaction.

How has NCW helped you?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Inspiration of The Unconscious Mind

By Sarah Reichert

“Dreams, they are who I am when I’m too tired to be me.” 
Jarod Kintz

They’re silly creatures, often devoid of reason, but dreams make up who we are and how we experience our world at a level no one else (not even ourselves) can see. 

Whether its unicorns with piles of rainbow ‘road apples’ trailing behind them (that one could’ve been the result of NyQuil), the old flight school buddy telling me the plane is perfectly safe despite its duct-taped wings, or the dark and evil hotel which appears at least once every few months, dreams prompt creativity.

Most nights I can’t recall the odd and whimsical stories that cycle through my head, but I love the mornings that I wake up at just the right instant to still see the echoes of them.  Even when the frightening ones jolt me out of bed in the middle of the dark, and I rush to peek in on my kids, check that the dogs are still alive (usually they are snoring so I can easily tell) and see that no fires have started, I’m still somewhat charmed by the power of my own mind.  It is always working, even long after I’ve given up the fight.

Dreams are excellent fodder, stepping stones of inspiration for new and fantastical stories and ideas.  Some have said that they are a cheap shortcut to the hard work of storytelling, but I say when push comes to shove, use all the material you have at your disposal.  (Unless you use the “it was all a dream” ploy in your final chapter—then we have to take away your writer’s card).  Maybe those characters and ideas wouldn’t have otherwise been made available to you.  Maybe you couldn’t capture the exact vividness of a scene until your mind unleashed its own potential without the limiting presence of consciousness.

Dreams make for good starting blocks, add illumination to details, and can even unbind the constraint of writers block.  A good practice is to keep a journal beside your bed to write down what you remember from your dreams.  Meditating on a question or plot problem in your writing before you nod off can sometimes point your brain in the right direction for sorting out solutions.  Even the daylight hours can be used to help writers unlock their potential.  Day dream in the available quiet times you have.  Letting your mind wander, even if far off of your plot line’s path, can lead you to new and wonderful solutions to problems that seemed insurmountable before.

Just don’t expect any coherent, whizz-bang ending from a shot of NyQuil.  Unless your novel is about a time traveling unicorn who eats chocolate kittens for lunch.

Have your dreams ever helped or hindered your work?  What are your favorite dreams to have?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Blessed are the Storytellers

by Shirley Drew

In my role as a college professor, I have often been frustrated that students don't read their assignments for classes. I am convinced that the problem is in the way that academics write textbooks. They are rarely (if ever) written in ways that engage students’ attention. Then, one day when I was having this discussion with some upper level students, I impulsively asked them what they enjoyed reading, if not the “boring” textbooks. Most admitted to me that they didn’t enjoy reading—and that they simply didn’t read—at all. I was completely stunned. I just assumed that everyone read something, at least sometimes.

I was thinking of this discussion a couple of weeks ago when the fall semester classes began. So out of curiosity I posted a question on Facebook. The question was:

“I have a question for my students, past and present. If you don't read books--meaning for pleasure, then why not? Just curious.”

I got some fascinating responses, but one in particular interested me. This response was from a former student. In effect, he said that he reads only non-fiction for pleasure because reading fiction is a waste of time. His reason? He reads non-fiction because he learns from it. Implication? You don’t learn much (if anything) from fiction, therefore it has no value to him. I was surprised. Fiction entertains, delights, inspires imagination—and teaches us many things. So for the remainder of this post, I want to thank some of my favorite storytellers for what I’ve learned from them:

Barbara Kingsolver: For giving us a new appreciation for our land, our food, and the reality of climate change, difficult though it may be to think about: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Flight Behavior.

J.K. Rowling: For reminding us that being young is not always easy, that it takes courage, and that it is sometimes a great adventure. The entire Harry Potter Series.

Dan Brown: For challenging our perceptions about what we believe and what is possible: The DaVinci Code and all the Robert Langdon adventures.

Stephen King: For taking on the subjects of childhood trauma, the courage to do the right thing, and the power of our connection to others: It, The Shining, and Bag of Bones.

Joseph Heller: For reminding us of the absurdity of war: Catch-22.

Gabriel GarcĂ­a: For telling us a story about colonialism, political unrest, and the human condition in such a magical way: One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Mark Twain: For telling us the truth about who we are, as human beings, every time he put pen to paper: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Letters from the Earth. Among so many others.

What have you learned from your favorite storytellers?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Happy Anniversary, NCW!

Post by Jenny 

Dear NCW,

I remember the day we met. It was a sultry Saturday in August. You had a booth at New West Fest, where you drew me in with a story-in-progress being written, line by line, by passers-by. After an inordinate amount of thought (strangers would read what I wrote!) I added my sentence and continued on with my patient family, the hot asphalt slightly gooey under our sandals.

I was intrigued by the idea of a writer’s organization in my hometown, but it wasn’t until January that our paths crossed again. Kerrie Flanagan, your esteemed director, held an open house. I went alone, feeling nervous. You see, although I’d been writing for years, I’d never really owned it. It was something I told only family and good friends. Not that I considered it to be an embarrassing secret, like an Elmer’s glue addiction or an inhumane number of housecats (neither of which I have, by the way…as far as you know). It was just that I felt a lot of pressure to succeed. Publish or perish is what they say in academia, and that about covered it for me, too. (With my ‘perish’ being, of course, death by chocolate.)

Anyway, I went to the open house and told Kerrie that you were my New Year’s resolution. She looked a bit nonplussed—I am the Queen of Awkward Encounters when I’m nervous—but welcomed me nonetheless. I talked to a few friendly members and then skedaddled before I turned into a pumpkin. I knew I’d be back, though, because you were the real deal. I needed you. The romantic notion of the solitary writer in the dusty garret (or in my case, the chilly basement) wasn’t cutting it anymore.

I don’t have to remind you that I’m not the most visible, active, or prolific person on your membership roster. In fact, I’m sure I have let you down many times with my general insouciance and vexing inability to remember which Tuesdays are the dang member coffees. But we work pretty well together, and we’ve had some good times. Holiday parties, Wine and Words, your fabulous conferences…

Thank you, NCW, for all you do. I hope it won’t embarrass you to know that you’re the reason I’m no longer afraid to tell people I’m a writer. I’m sticking around for the long haul because (cue the swelling music) you complete me.

Warmest regards,


Friday, September 5, 2014

When did I shower last?

By JC Lynne

I’m writing for the first time in a week. The act and energy of the process eludes me. The cardinal rule of writing, according to articles, is don’t quit your day job. My hubby, The Beard, and I discussed the pros and cons of quitting my teaching gig. We performed a cost benefit analysis considering mental/emotional state, the teenage state of our two boys, my newly published novel and our spending habits.

We discovered we could live on The Beard’s salary. I’d have to clean the house, ugh. We’d cut our wine clubs and reduce eating out. The conversations about my employment as a full-time writer scared me. I've been working since I was fifteen. I felt being dependent on The Beard would strain our relationship. He assured me my frustration with teaching was the bigger worry. We bucked convention, and I quit my job.

I haven't found my rhythm. Teaching offered its crazy routine. I woke at 4:30 am to hit the gym and was showered by 6. I made coffee, lunch and breakfast for offspring. I’d stumble home around 4:30 or 5 if I wasn't directing a play, sponsoring student council events or dealing with parents or staff meetings. Dinner would be around 6, and I’d collapse unconscious by 8 pm. That was my routine from mid-August to May 28th. Add driving three kids to and from basketball, school plays, soccer, volleyball, choir/band concerts, never mind getting doctors and dentists scheduled. Oh, and I wrote a novel.

The Beard declared me insane.  I agree. I barely get things done now. I've no idea how I managed for ten years.  I don’t have to be up at 4:30, but some days I’m not at the gym until noon, if I go at all. Driving a boy to school, cleaning the kitchen and making The Beard coffee in the morning doesn't generate much of a sweat. My laundry is frequently done. I've tackled some remodeling jobs. I’m starting a 365-day cull to remove excess melange. Writing, not so much.

The full time author’s dilemma is to build scheduled time to write without distractions. I still get “Mom, will you make breakfast, lunch, dinner?”  I balance my net present value against feelings I’m not contributing financially...yet. I post my daily accomplishments for validation. I’m working to lock down a weekly word count, after all that was one of the primary reasons to quit.

In the meantime, I did shower this morning.

JC Lynne's first novel, The Esau Emergence, was published July, 2013 by Ngano Press. The sequel, The Esau Convergence is coming soon. Her blog is at

Where Have You Been All My Life? (Part Two)

by Kelly Baugh

A couple months ago I wrote a blog that gushed about the screenwriting how-to book Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. I haven't just blogged about this either; I talk about it ALL THE TIME. I'm pretty sure my husband is sick of hearing the words, "Guess what Blake said about ..." (yes, we're on a first name basis). Much like Lennie from Of Mice and Men, I have loved on and obsessed about it until the poor thing is practically dead.

As an added bonus, I've actually done something about the information in the book, which is not my norm. Usually the roads to my manuscripts are paved with good intentions, but somehow Save the Cat! smacked me with a call to action I could not ignore. Not to show off or anything, but here's a picture of what proudly rests on the edge of my desk:

This is my book in it's all of its fifteen beats and I'm smitten, smitten like when I first fell in love with the Five Paragraph Essay my freshman year (oh Five Paragraph Essay with your thesis statement, topic sentences, transitions and concluding statement, you brought so much joy to my nerdy high school days). The reason for this deep and abiding love was the ironclad structure that guided my creative side as I wrote. For some reason, the rules of writing enabled me to express my thoughts better.

Flash forward to my leap into fiction as an adult. There's nothing like creative writing when I'm in the zone and working on my first draft, but when the dreaded second draft revisions roll around, it's a different story. Up until now I've felt like the editing process is a crap shoot. I try to make story line more cohesive, construct better sentences, refine my grammar, but inevitably I flounder. I get angry when people ask me if my book is finished. "What does that mean?" I want to shout back at them. "Can it ever be finished?"

As a big picture type of person the structural guidelines in Save the Cat! have given me the mile markers I need to wrap my creative writing around. I think this time around, I'll be about to tell when the book's done; my art just needed some rules to guide me along the way.

And I promise, this is the last time I'll talk about Save the Cat! ... in this blog post.

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