Tempt Failure

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If you want to succeed, tempt failure. It sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. What it really means is that chucking it all, and trying something different may end up being your key ingredient to success.

How to Tempt Failure

Tempt failure by doing what you are terrified of doing. Take a risk. It may not pay off … but it just might.

It reminds me so much of all the people who stay in safe jobs, and absolutely hate what they do. I started my adult life as a secretary – not because that’s what I wanted to do. I actually wanted to go to University, but since there wasn’t enough money for that, my parents signed me up for secretarial school. I loved the people – I hated the job. But when we immigrated to Canada it got me a job that helped pay the bills. During those office years, I met so many people who complained endlessly about how they hated their jobs, but never took any steps to do something about it.

I did. I chucked it all up one day thanks to a very good school friend of mine who made me cry. She told me  – “what are you doing in such a dead-end job? You had so much potential. Go and find yourself.” When I got back home to Montreal, I marched in to my boss’ office and quit. I said I was going back to school to get a degree in journalism. The problem was I hadn’t actually applied! Thank god, I got in!

Years later, I decided to start my new life as a creative writing coach. I was terrified. What would happen if no one signed up? I’m in my fourth year now, and I can truthfully say I have a great gang of writers, and love what I do.

Tempt failure? You betcha.

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Point of View

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The correct point of view (pov) can make or break your novel. The reader wants to be drawn in and feel like they’re part of the story, and this happens through point of view.

New writers often believe that the omniscient point of view is the one they should write in. That way, the reader can know everything that is happening in the story. Makes sense, doesn’t it? At first glance, it does. Omniscient point of view does have its place, and works very well for certain types of story, but it takes a seasoned writer to do a masterful job of this pov.

Party Stories

When you’re at a party, or meeting a friend, and you tell a story – think about what you do and say. Chances are you’re going to be using first person (I) and, if you’re like me, gesturing a lot and getting extremely animated. Using first person, allows you to bring in this personal aspect into the storytelling. It does force you to tell the story only from that person’s viewpoint, but there are ways around that too.

Chances also are that the person who’s telling the story is also the most important person in the story – otherwise, why is he telling the story? He’s the only one who knows the story intimately and that’s the beauty of this pov – that intimacy will shine through. We are in that person’s world, feeling what he feels, doing what he does, and being crushed when he is. It’s probably the easiest pov to write as well, since we can immerse ourselves into the character’s emotions and thoughts.

Third person point of view works too. Although it does not have the immediacy of first person, it is the pov that works for most novels. It also allows you to use other characters’ voices in the story. Definitely not as limiting as first person, but it’s a good idea to limit your pov’s to two or three people or you’ll end up getting as confused as your reader will be.

What pov do you like to write in?

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Breaking Down a Scene

Your story is made up of multiple scenes. It’s what moves your plot along and takes your character to his/her goal.

Every scene can be broken down into five parts:

1) Point of View Character

If you are writing from a first-person POV – then you have no problem figuring out who your POV character for the scene is. If not, think of which person has the most at stake, emotionally – and bingo, that’s the person whose POV you should write the scene in.

2) Goal

What is the goal that the POV character is pursuing in this scene? It can’t be something vague like ‘oh, he’s going to rescue the girl’. He needs to be more concrete like ‘he’s going to choke her whereabouts out of the villain, after which he will pound them to a pulp’, then go rescue the damsel in distress.

Your goal must be clear, possible and important to the character

3) Conflict

Every scene must have conflict. That doesn’t mean there has to be a fight between characters. All it means is that the other person must have specific goals as well, and they should be at odds with the pov character. We don’t need to know what the other person’s goals are at that time. They just need to be pursuing another agenda.

One of the characters in the scene will achieve his/her objective or goal, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the protagonist’s.

4) Setback/Disaster

As I said above, one of the conflict characters will achieve their goal (hopefully not the protoganist because then your story is limited). The protagonist can have some questions answered, some small goal achieved, but always foiled in some way until the end.

5) Scene End

End your scene on a bit of a cliff hanger. Hopefully, not only has your heroine not achieved her goal, but has made her life worse – and your story more interesting.

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How to Fail as a Writer

Here are a few ways to ensure you fail as a writer. Let me know if you can think of a few more.

1. Start your novel off with plenty of back story. After all, your readers will want to know all that before they actually get to the exciting stuff. Under no circumstances, jump right into the inciting incident so that you can grab the reader’s attention immediately, and keep them flipping pages and salivating to find out more.

2. Don’t bother to write more than your first draft. You find it interesting, so of course everyone else will. There may be logistical problems with your story, but hey! the reader can figure it out. Why bother with having someone critique it, and why bother writing a second, third, or fifth draft so that the story is compelling, thrilling and exciting.

3. Spelling mistakes, typos, grammatical errors – who cares about them. Of course, it’s quite easy to use spellcheck – but really, why bother?  What’s important is the actual story, so readers won’t care.

4. Writing is an art form, so working on your novel should only be done when the muse smacks you over the head. There is no hard work involved, no craft to learn. It’s easy peasy, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. All those great writers like John Steinbeck and Hemingway – well, the prose just flowed out of them. It was a gift. They didn’t do any work, why should you?

5. Reading is for chumps. If you read the type of stories you like to write, it will hinder your ability to be original. Just write what you know, and others will read it when it is published – because of course your novels will be published – you’re that good, and everyone will know it immediately.

6. Make sure your ending fizzles out. After all, the ending isn’t that important. Readers don’t care. They don’t want to close a book feeling satisfied, do they?

7. You’ve written your manuscript – it’s your first draft, not proofed, not critiqued, but you know it’s good and every literary agent is waiting with bated breath to sell it to the highest bidder. Don’t bother researching agents to find out who represents your genre; don’t bother writing a proper query and don’t bother finding out how to spell the agent’s name. You’re a shoo-in.

Writers – what do you think?

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Scene Sequels

Credit: helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

Scene sequels are what happens after a particular scene ends.  If you’ve done your scene right and ended on a cliff-hanger, then you need sort of take a breather and forge some kind of emotional connection. In other words, make your reader care about what’s happening to your character right after you leave him hanging on the ledge.

A scene sequel does three things:

1) Gives your POV character a chance to react emotionally to whatever has happened

2) Gives him/her the opportunity to figure out how to proceed as he/she is (if you’ve done your scene correctly) in a bit of a bind – which is good. It makes your reader worry whether he/she will make the right choice

3) Sets up the next scene by making a decision one way or another

In order to write a scene sequel correctly, you have to also make sure it unfolds in the right order, because that’s the way a normal person reacts. We think emotionally, then stop to reason, consider all our options, and then carry out whatever we decide. Your character is human too (well, if he’s not, then you may be able to change this sequence of events).

1) Your character must react emotionally i.e. cry, beat his breast, chop someone’s head off!

2) Stop and review the facts – this doesn’t mean logically like Spock. It just means he tries to figure out what’s going on

3) Figure out different scenarios as in – ‘what if I did this’ or ‘what if I did that’

4) Make a decision

Think about your character discussing some terrible ordeal she’s just been through with a best friend, or perhaps praying out loud in church – going through the steps of what happened, and then coming to some kind of decision as to how to proceed. That, my friend, is a scene sequel.

Each of these steps don’t need to have the same weight each time. Maybe some times, the character is heavy on emotion, other times it’s trying to anticipate what sort of action she has to take. The only thing to remember is that these steps need to be covered.

Time Traps and the Productive Writer

Time trap

Time traps is one of the biggest problems a writer today faces. I know this from experience. Once upon a time I called it procrastination, and as a journalist and then a freelancer I knew it well. I’d spend tons of time doing the laundry, twiddling my thumbs, walking the dog – anything to prevent me from starting my piece. Because I knew that I worked better under pressure, that my thoughts unfurled when my deadline approached.

As a novelist, however, I only have a self-imposed deadline. Now, unfortunately, procrastination has turned into time traps – time traps such as trolling Facebook, getting side-tracked on my daily dose of Trump nonsense, falling down the sinkhole of Google, and playing Words with Friends.

How to Sidestep Time Traps

Yes, it is possible. Going cold turkey and saying you won’t ever go on Facebook is the same as saying you’ll never touch another carb again. It’s just not sustainable. Instead, set aside a half hour to catch up on Facebook. Let’s face it – you don’t really have to ‘like’ and comment on every post you read, and if you’re like me – you don’t actually post a whole lot.

CNN and Trumpian Nonsense

Give yourself fifteen minutes to catch up on Trump’s latest nonsense. He’s not worth much more.

Google

Here, you need some self-restraint. It’s hard not to get distracted from the valid research you are doing. I find the best way to stop myself from going crazy on  links within links is to just not click on anything. Stay focused on the article you are reading and exercise control. You can do it.

Words with Friends

No words of advice here. As those of you I play with know, I have absolutely no self-control whatsoever. The physical game of Scrabble was a family favorite growing up, and Words with Friends is my comfort game. So – time trap or not – I don’t care.

What are your time traps, and how do you deal with them?

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Amazing Bookstores

Literary pilgrims – look for these amazing bookstores while you travel the globe. Thanks to the New York Times Dec. 7, 2016 travel issue for this post. I’ve cut and edited it for space.

Livraria Lello, Porto Portugal

The 110-year-old structure could easily be mistaken for a church. Topped with spires, the finely wrought Gothic-style facade opens onto a soaring space with columns, ornate medieval motifs and a dazzling stained-glass ceiling that hovers over the marquee attraction: a sinewy blood-red double staircase that coils like a strand of DNA.

According to bookshop lore, J. K. Rowling drew inspiration for her young-adult novels from the shop’s creaky interiors while teaching English in Porto in the early 1990s.  

— SETH SHERWOOD


 Credit: Zhongshuge Bookstore

Zhongshuge Bookstore

When you walk into the shop in Hangzhou, China, the books appear to reach impossible heights and stretch clear into the distance, an effect created by the perfect symmetry of the dark wooden shelves and the clever use of mirrors on the ceilings and walls. In an amphitheater-like room for readings and lectures, the impression is amplified by the reflection of the curved wall in the mirrored ceiling; it feels as if you are completely surrounded by a rainbow of book spines. In yet another room, the books are arranged on thin columns placed randomly around the room like trees in a forest, with benches interspersed for reading. Again, a mirrored ceiling makes the shelves appear as if they are not just trees, but towering redwoods.

— JUSTIN BERGMAN


Credit: Horacio Paone for The New York Times

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is one of Buenos Aires’ most remarkable landmarks, a sprawling space whose history mirrors the cultural development of Argentina. The grandeur of the former theater belies the rather prosaic merchandise provided by the bookshop chain that owns the current incarnation: The open interior is surrounded by tiers of balconies that, especially when lit in the evenings, make it easy to imagine the ballet and opera and tango performances of a century ago.

On the ground floor at the very back of the store is the stage, still bedecked with red curtains, and now supporting tables and chairs: This has become a cafe and a good place for foot-weary tourists to down an espresso. The books include works carried by chain bookstores (there’s a small English language section) but the music selection is excellent, a small reminder of the heritage of the Grand Splendid.

— NELL McSHANE WULFHART

Story Craft

Is there such a thing as story craft? You betcha. Doctors learn to diagnose and treat patients, lawyers master the rules of law, plumbers plumb and scientists tap the secrets of the universe. So why is it so difficult for aspiring writers to believe they should learn how to craft a story?

Writing is Writing is Writing

No, it’s not. There are many different kinds of writing forms, and just because you can write an essay or a technical document does not mean you know how to craft a story. When I was a reporter/journalist/freelance writer, my world revolved around making sure I had the facts down correctly. One of the first things we learned was the upside down pyramid where you cram in all the most interesting information about the subject you are reporting on. That’s because chances are the reader may never get beyond the headline and the first paragraph.

While you do use a similar technique in crafting a story, you only give away enough to hook the reader and reel them in.

Crafting a story means exposing yourself by allowing your imagination to run free. And that can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and open yourself up to ridicule. But it can also allow you to create an incredible world with characters that are so interesting, they fly off the page and become real. As Jim Butcher of The Dresden Files says “Writing is the original virtual reality.”

The Novelist’s Toolbox for Story Craft

1. It all begins with a workable idea. Ideas are cheap, and are everywhere. But your idea is just an extremely flimsy skeleton. The hard work is figuring out whether you have enough meat in that idea to cover those bones.

2. Structure and technique are necessary constructs that a novel must possess in order for the reader to not be confused about what’s happening. This includes choosing a point of view and deciding where to begin your novel. In media res which means ‘in the middle of action’ is the best way to begin. Capture and hook your reader.

3. Creating a plot (and sub-plots) that is cohesive, exciting and full of conflict for the protagonist. Throwing in a few red herrings helps, if you can carry it off. But most importantly, learning how to manipulate your reader’s emotions so he/she cares about the protagonist is one of the tenets of story craft. If you can get the reader to care, he/she will have no choice but to continue reading

4. Learn how to write engaging dialogue that furthers the plot, and has a specific purpose. Story dialogue, as I’m sure we all know by now, is not conversation. It should sound like a well-honed conversation, but devoid of all the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and inane bits that conversation usually is jammed with. Dialogue is always there for a reason. Read it out loud so that you can ensure that it sounds realistic.

5. Think about a baseball player. They make it seem so easy to catch a flyball, or wham a home run. But that comes after hours upon hours of practice. Write, write and re-write until your story reads like it was so easy to write.

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What Motivates You to Write?

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What motivates you to write is such a fundamental question, but so many of us don’t know the answer. Or the answer is mixed up in a whole bunch of other ones so that the motivation gets diluted.

What Motivates You?

There are a heap of answers to this question, but I’ll list a few:

1) You want to make money, or make a living on your books. I’ve got news for you. You probably won’t, certainly not the oodles that Stephen King and J.K. Rowling make. A first contract is very humbling. So, if your plan is to make money – you really ought to think again. Your best bet is to retain your day job, and write when you have time. If you make it the best-seller list, you get your big chance to march into your boss’ office and tell him/her where to stuff it. And good for you.

2) Fame – again, I’ve got news for you. Same as above. Your chances of fame are possible, but not probable. Of course, you can always become a Stephanie Meyer or a Cassandra Clare, but sadly, the odds are against you. Yes, I know, I don’t sound very positive, but the truth is the truth.

3) Writing because you love it – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all, and that’s because you’ll be doing something you enjoy doing, and it will show. Jumping on to some successful genres or plot-type will not get you published, because the trend will probably be over by the time you actually get your novel ready to be submitted. Better to stick with what you know and love.

4) Writing because you’re addicted – Hooray, that’s probably the best reason of all. That’s because that ‘genre’ comes with ‘stick-to-it-iveness.’ You will discover a whole new world of critique partners and writer friends who enjoy the same things you do. And that camaraderie is hard to come by. I know I cherish it.

Motivation is important because it is so difficult to actually get published. There are so many gatekeepers to get through that it can be a disheartening procedure. I’m talking about traditional publishing of course. If you self-publish, then you bypass many of these hurdles. There are other hurdles, but that’s the subject of another post.

Why do you write? What motivates you?

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Honesty or Whitewash

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Honesty or whitewash – what’s your drug? My gang of writers know that I seem to be totally incapable of whitewashing anything. I really do feel whitewash is best left for picket fences and buildings in Greece. Knowing the truth about your writing can only help to get you closer to your goal of being published.

My Online Group Experience

Recently, I met up with a couple of writers I had met. Our loose plan was to begin an online critiquing group since I wanted some input for my new story. I had taken a risk, and started a high fantasy story. It’s not my forte, but I thought I’d try something different. My usual style is contemporary fantasy. The online group started out well. They both hacked my story to bits … and they were absolutely right. It was a very early first draft, jammed full of cliches and completely pretentious. In other words – crap. And they were right.

I looked at my work, and realized that the essential bits were good, but everything else had to go. The upshot – I think my new version is working because now I’m writing my own story, not a cliched, watered down version of something else.

But the problem came with reciprocation. One writer accepted her critiques and moved on. The other tried to convince me that since she had worked in a children’s setting before, she knew better. Maybe she did. But having written for one age group does not mean you automatically know how to write for another age group. The bottom line is that if you ask for a critique, you should know how to accept honesty. If you want whitewash, well then – you should go to your mother or some other family member. Needless to say, that online group crumbled.

As writers, it behooves us to take into account what others we trust say about our work. Getting upset initially is natural. But once you get over it, honest comments can become a gift.

What do you prefer – honesty or whitewash?

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