Monday, September 29, 2014

Monday Rerun: Failing With Style

By Rich

The following column ran back in March of 2013. Seeing I'm on a whirlwind tour of the East Coast that included a weekend Improv performance, I figured this one was apt.

In improvisational acting, particularly short-form comedy seen in shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway, there are a few guidelines actors are asked to follow in order to keep a scene smooth, funny, and interesting to an audience hopped up on stale beer and Skittles. For instance, performers try not to ask questions in a scene -- it slows the action down as the other characters need to come up with a viable answer. Same thing goes for telling someone you're acting with that you won't take their suggestion but instead will be a nuclear physicists who is also a celebrity chef. The third guideline provided to students in Improv 101, and the most important one, is -- cue the dramatic pause -- if you fail, do so magnificently.

Improv is a disposable form of theater. Should a character not get the reaction they want, or a joke falls flat, or everyone on stage stares blankly at each other for three minutes, it's all moot when someone ends the scene. As soon as it occurs, the actors need to throw the failed scene in the virtual trash, wipe their hands of it, and focus on the next one. That, or do something at the end of the previous scene which, even though it may totally bomb, gives you a feeling something was done to save it. No dwelling, blaming others, or angrily slapping your head at a line you should have said. It's done...move on.

The same practice needs to be utilized for authors, because we fear failure more than death, taxes, and zombies combined. At the merest hint of someone not liking what we wrote, many of us crawl under our beds and sob while devising evil plans to dispose of our critics. Instead of fearing failure, we need to embrace it while moving it to the time out corner. After notifying the failure of what it did wrong, we can move on to the next thing in our writing cadre.

In other words, don't think of the rejection letter from the big publishing house as a sign your writing career is over. Think of it as a magnificent failure, since they actually sent you a letter. Hang it above your desk and, in the very near future, show it to everyone as you describe how your global success resulted due to this glorious example of your failure.

Have you ever taken a failure and turned it into a success?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Forging Your Path

By Sarah Reichert

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” 
― Winston Churchill

Hey, you.  Yeah, you.  The one banging your head against the keyboard, wondering why you quit your day job.  I hear the click of your forehead on the keys.  Or you, over there, organizing your sock drawer, avoiding the words all together.  Or you, yeah I see you… the guy in the back, crumpling up page after page of half-written thoughts.  I’ve been you.  Some days, I still am you.

We writers cling to the ideal, don’t we?  We fight for the archetype of vast inspiration that carries us through the dark to the place where words flow easily, proper punctuation falls into place and spelling-checks are unnecessary.  We fight for the occasion when our words rip guts and heal wounds.  When our words build worlds and tear down walls.  Or at least they would… if they were discovered by the right people, in the way we expect them to.
When our writing stalls or goes unrecognized, it’s like watching a beautiful garden withering away.  It’s watching a childhood tree house, the adventure and salvation of youth, weathered by storm and time, sitting empty in the branches that we cannot climb anymore.  When it stalls so do we.

I say, to you writers, you artists, you dreamers and idea-makers, that your craft does not always travel farthest on the path you set.  Your craft is in you, and you are a spectacular source, boundless and endless.  All that you really may need is a new outlet.  Throw your wild joy and pain into every facet you can find.  The world needs your elation, and sorrow.  The world needs your words.

I write novels, and they will always be the genre I'm most comfortable with.  But until those six-figure offers start to roll in (insert weak laugh here), I will try and stay open to new opportunities for my writing.  I will purposefully seek out new ways to expand my writing.

Say it with me, you hopeless-head-to-keyboard-banging writer: 

I will pave new ways (blogs, newspapers, magazines, forums, reviews and editorials) for my words to find the light of the reader.  I will invest in myself.  I will dig my hands into the earthy damp of my potential.  I will climb the lofty branches, fearlessly, and build a new tree house. 

What will you do this week…this day, to invest in your writing?  Which different venues will you try to gift your words to the world?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Good Kind of Tired

by Shirley Drew

For the last couple of weekends, my husband and I have been dismantling a walkway that I completed 14 years ago. When I “built” the walkway, I used a small concrete mixer, adding three parts gravel, three parts sand, and one part cement. Next, I added enough water to make a paste. Then I poured this mixture it into a patio stone mold of approximately two feet by two feet. I had to do this many times in order to create a sidewalk 40 feet long and four feet wide. After it cured for a week or so, I stained each individual stone. When I finally finished it, I was satisfied that it was a job well done. Then I crawled into bed very sore and very tired. But a good kind of tired. And nothing a couple of Aleve wouldn’t cure.

But this year it was time to take it apart. It was old and weathered, cracked and uneven. I hated to let it go, but it was no longer functional—or aesthetically pleasing. When we finished dismantling it, I was satisfied that it was a job well done. Then I crawled into bed—very sore and very tired. But a good kind of tired. And nothing a couple of Aleve wouldn’t cure.

During those hours we spent taking it apart, I started thinking about how this task reminded me of the editing process for a writing project. Like a personal essay, for example. Once I complete the first draft, it is time for the edit—a kind of dismantling. So, I take it apart, piece by piece, deleting what is not functional or aesthetically pleasing. Then I re-write, refine, and edit again. At some point I’m satisfied that it is a job well done. When I’m finished, I crawl into bed. I am not sore, but I am most definitely tired. But a good kind of tired. No Aleve needed.

Monday, September 22, 2014

He Said, She Said

Post by Jenny

Take a look at this list of words and see if you can identify what they have in common:


Or these:

If you’re picking up that both lists might have at least a hint of gender bias, you’re correct. Ghent University conducted an online vocabulary test wherein participants were asked to identify which of 100 letter sequences that flashed across the screen were real English words. They didn’t have to know the meanings, just whether they thought a particular group of letters was a word. Mark Brysbaert, Director of the Center for Reading Research, analyzed the first 500,000 results, focusing on differences in gender. (I found this on Slate, via Business Insider.)

The lists also include the percentages of men and women to correctly identify the words. Ninety percent of men, for example, knew, or correctly guessed, that dreadnought was a word, compared to only sixty-six percent of women. Considering that a dreadnought is a battleship, a type of acoustic guitar, and a video game, that covers a lot of territory for hobbies and interests.

Similarly, ninety-three percent of women recognized taupe, while only sixty-six percent of men did. (C’mon guys. You’ve got to buy more stockings. I think taupe might even be the color Joe Namath wore in that legendary advertisement.)

In general, the ‘male’ words were associated with transportation, science, and weapons. The ‘female’ words had more to do with fashion, art, and flowers. And, yes, I realize that lists like this should be taken with a grain of salt. Different people know different words for a variety of reasons: education, socioeconomics, culture, profession. You can bet that police officers and chefs make it their business to know Kevlar and mascarpone, regardless of gender.

It’s our job as writers to understand that, while men and women can and should be equal, they’re not the same. It’s okay for characters of different genders to use different words. And even, occasionally, leave the toilet seat up. Because that's how it is in real life.

Do you think word choice is an effective way to show gender differences?

Friday, September 19, 2014

You Saved Me

by Kelly

After my last few blogs about the wonders of Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder and how much it's helped me with my writing, I decided to make this installment about someone other than me.

But first I have to talk about me for a second:

I fell in love with books, with good writing when I was a kid. They were my escape. Severe asthma and the side effects of my terrible medications tainted almost everything in my life: playing, participating in nearly anything at school, outdoor activities, even sleeping. The only thing asthma and drugs couldn't touch were my books. In them, I could do everything; no physical limitations held me back from adventure. Lost in the pages of a riveting novel, I found freedom and hope.

The first book I went completely AWOL over was Jane Eyre. Jane had a hard childhood, wasn't physically healthy or impressive (like me) and yet somehow she ended up in a mysterious mansion with a fascinating, tormented rich guy; a secret, lunatic wife; and a French love child. How could I not get sucked in?

The much loved and now dilapidated book still sits on the top shelf of my bookcase and every time I look at it, I have to smile. I think of the many hours of relief it gave me from my physical suffering. Like Jane, I've moved past my sickly childhood and have lived an exciting life (minus the lunatic wife, love child, and tormented rich guy). Books still have the power to take me away from the depressing or mundane. They transport me to exciting, dangerous or challenging places and I can't imagine my life without them.

Here comes the part that's not about me:

I put out a Facebook invitation for friends and family to tell me their first favorite book and why it meant so much to them. I was overwhelmed by how passionate people were about their first bookish loves. Here's a few (I wish I could have included them all!) of the many replies I received:

"I have been trying to narrow this down, but if I had to pick just one book I would choose Little Women or Indian Captive (I can't pick just one!!). Those were probably the first ones that showed me that you could go to a whole new world and time and place while snuggled up in bed."

"It started in childhood: fairytale - Cinderella; mysteries of Nancy Drew; adventure on the Kon-Tiki; historic tale of young Johnny Tremain ... and SOOO many more. Over the years the written word transported me through a life journey of knowledge, wonder and imagination.

"In 4th grade I started in the fiction section with authors starting with A. I systematically went through the books alphabetically reading all that looked slightly interesting. Bobsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew slowed down my progress for a while. In 6th grade I started reading more advanced books, the ones that got me hooked were by the author of Jaws. I found my love for non-fiction in WWII books like The Children Were Sent Away and The Hiding Place. That love continues."

A good book can guide us through life, especially one that came into our hands at a fortuitous moment in our childhood. Which one(s) grabbed you?

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?

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