Handwriting: Is it Part of Your Process?

I still like writing by hand. Normally I do a first draft using pen and paper, and then do my first edit when I type it onto my computer. For some reason, I much prefer writing with a black pen than a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use “narrow feint” writing paper. — J. K. Rowling 

Image credit: Petar Milošević

I prefer to take notes by hand because I’m actively listening when I write, in ways that I’m not when I’m typing. Sometimes I choose to handwrite because being able to write with paper and a pen or pencil and a convenient light source makes it possible to write in places where even a Chromebook or iPad are cumbersome.

The primary reason I choose to write by hand that my brain works differently with pen (or pencil) and paper. I’m less distracted by aesthetics (typography, for instance, is not an issue). I often turn to pen and paper (or pencil) when I get stuck, particularly on when I’m writing books, or lengthy research articles. Often, I’ll draft in long hand, then edit in longhand, then keyboard it and edit again before I submit.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of other writers also choosing to write in longhand, or print, even when they could use a keyboard. I was surprised by how many of my favorite novelists are prefer pens and paper for drafts.

When you’re writing with pen and paper, you’re working in the same direct mode you use to tell a story to children, and for a first draft, that’s maybe not a bad thing. — Joe Hill  

J. K. Rowling deliberately chooses to write by hand, though as she notes, she prefers narrow-ruled paper and black pens. Neal Stephenson, in a now defunct interview for Barnes and Noble (quoted here) notes that he started writing his novels with a fountain pen with Quicksilver, the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. Stephenson said

What I was noticing was that I’ve become such a fast typist that I could slam out great big blocks of text quite rapidly — anything that came into my head, it would just dribble out of my fingers onto the screen. That includes bad stuff as well as good stuff. Once it’s out there on the screen, of course, you can edit it and you can fix the bad stuff, but it’s far better not to ever write down the bad stuff at all. With the fountain pen, which is a slower output device, the material stays in the buffer of your head for a longer period. So during that amount of time, you can fix it, you can make it better, you can even decide not to write it down at all — you can think better of writing it.

I think that’s true. I noticed that the amount of time it takes for me to formulate a thought into a sentence, because it’s slower to read the paper than the screen, often means that I realize that it’s not something I want to write, that the idea or sentence isn’t ready for committing to paper. ItÆ’s less a matter of the internal editor interfering, than one of my “inner ear” noticing that those aren’t quite the words I want, In the time it takes to hesitate before committing the words to paper, my brain supplies other, better words. In other words, there’s less to edit or delete. Stephenson comments on that too, observing that the process of editing is often easier with pen and paper:

Editing, strangely enough, is quicker and easier with a pen. Because drawing a line through a word is just faster than any sequence of grabbing your mouse and highlighting the word and hitting the eject key. That act of editing leaves behind a visible trace of the word that you decided to change, and sometimes that’s useful; you may want to go back and change your mind about that. Finally, I find that writing with a pen is a physically healthier activity. There’s actually more range of movement involved with it than there is sitting with your fingers on the keys for hours at a time. So I just physically felt better when I was using the pen rather than typing.

Jonathan Carroll, famous for his contemporary fantasy and slipstream novels, notes that:

Handwriting anything makes me think hard about what I really want to keep or throw out. Because the process is generally slow, I’m thinking all the time while my hand moves across the page. While using any kind of keyboard device, my fingers are whizzing much faster than my mind can think and that is a dangerous thing if you want to write it right..

I find that the experiences of novelists in terms of their writing process, is true of my much less interesting process as well, when I’m writing scholarly or academic pieces or even when I’m writing pieces that I know are destined for Web publications; I think differently, and write differently with a pen in hand. As Joe Hill says:

Finally, in a notebook, you’re stuck with yourself. You’re cut off from your games, the internet, Twitter, Facebook. The only thing you have to entertain you is your own imagination.

What about you? Do you write by hand? Have you ever tried switching to pen-and-paper (or a pencil!) when you’re stuck? Is handwriting part of your process? If not, consider trying it.

Writing Challenges for 2017

Sometimes we all benefit from writing something other than our WIP, or writing with a goal other than Finish the Book, something that provides a bit of structure, and maybe, a supportive community of sufferers writers. A writing challenge is a great way to encourage yourself to write regularly, or as a warm up exercise before you hit the pages for your WIP. And this is a great time to start participating in one! Journaling is a habit that many writers have found useful. It can be a way to “break the ice” for the day before you begin work on your WIP. This site offers a list of 365 daily prompts. Ray Bradbury’s 52 week short story challenge to aspiring writers A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80)describes itself as “the writing challenge that knows you have a life.” There are four “rounds” every year; each round lasts 80 days. Your goal can be anything you like as long as it is measurable (e.g. number of words/pages, specified amount of time to spend on writing per day/week, number of pages edited, etc.). Once you have settled on a goal, you write it up on your blog and link to it on the Goals Post in the  ROW80 Facebook Grroup. Then you “check in” on the following Wednesday and Sunday via your blog and the Facebook group. 750 words a day is about writing 750 words a day, every day. It’s a great way to start your writing session. The Writing Cooperative has a flexible 52-week writing challenge with one rule: you commit to writing a thing (anything!) each week. It can be anything, but you’ll be part of a supportive community of other writers also writing a thing a week. If a weekly challenge is a bit much for you, consider a monthly writing challenge to write a short story in response to a prompt. If you’re a book reviewer, consider the 2017 Review Writing Challenge. Set a personal goal for how many reviews you want to write in 2017, post ’em on your blog or Good Reads or Amazon or wherever and track your progress. Or you can make up your own challenge; maybe you want to write a blog post a week, or send a postcard a week or write a journal entry, or 1000 words . . . what’s your writing challenge?

Alternatives to NaNoWriMo

Not everyone wants to write 50K words of fiction in November, the basic requirement for NaNoWriMo. That works out to 1,667 words a day, every day, for thirty days. Not all of us are writers of fiction, or have the time and space to write that much every day (more or less).

But there are alternatives.

NaNo Rebels is for people who are writing fiction, even in script form, but includes people who are starting mid-novel, or possibly writing 50K worth of short stories. NaNo Rebels are officially part of NaNoWriMo; you can read this thread to find out if you’re a NaNo Rebel or not.

National Non Fiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo) also known as Write Non Fiction in November (WNFIN) is an alternative for people who don’t write fiction. You can register here if you want to have a community of your own while you write non-fiction in November.

AcWriMo or Academic Writing Month was founded by academic Charlotte Frost of PdD2Published in 2011 as a way to encourage academics and scholars to produce a 20K word (or more) academic monograph during November. Currently the rules stipulate that you set your own goal (hours, words, or another milestone) and join. It’s a great opportunity for thesis and dissertation writers, people who want to draft a journal article or academic writers with a book idea. There’s an active AcWriMo Facebook Group and a Twitter hashtag #AcWriMo.

NaNoBloPo is a challenge to write a blog post for every day in November. The challenge actually runs for all twelve months of the year, but November is the biggest month in terms of  participation. There’s no length requirement, and that pictures count. While NaNoBloPo assigns a theme for each month, and also offers daily writing prompts, these are optional. You can write about anything you’d like. NaNoBloPo is now sponsored by BlogHer, and while there’s a Facebook Group, I’m not seeing anything recent; that said, there’s no reason you can’t do it yourself. You might find the WordPress.com daily post prompts helpful.

750 words a day runs all year, but they feature a special November challenge. The challenge is designed to motivate people to start a daily private journaling habit. The challenge starts at midnight on Nov 01, 2016 and ends at 11:59pm on Nov 30, 2016. Write (at least) 750 words every day for this month. The words can be anything, as long as they add up to 750 of them.

Are you engaging in an alternative writing challenge for November? Possibly a personal challenge? We’d love to hear about it the comments.

NaNoWriMo & the Power of Positive Peer Pressure

Guest Post by Eldon Hughes

P to the 4th power? P-Diddlying? Whatever.

It’s what doing NaNoWriMo successfully is all about, taking advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.

Every year since 1999 a growing horde of strangers and friends get together in groups, online and face to face, all over the world. At the end of the month, many of them will claim the prize — the title of Author of a book more than 50,000 words long.

NaNo crestYears ago I was the first Municipal Liaison for the (Southern) Illinois – Elsewhere group. Yeah, “Elsewhere.” That was my second NaNo. I ML’d a couple more years and then passed it on to others who lived closer to the neighborhood. I’ve won every year I’ve attempted NaNo (7-8? times.) If you’re interested, you can read one of my NaNo Novels, Willie & Frank, here. Even better, you can get Dust to Dust, Book Two of the Poison and Wine Series, here.  It was written over a NaNo. Some would suggest that that’s cheating, since it was written by two people.  I would point out that the first draft, written during NaNo, topped 100K.

Sometimes NaNoing involved being cheered on by and cheering on others. Sometimes it was challenging myself against people online. Sometimes it was sitting, face to face, in a room full of people just as enchanted by the magic of words as I am. People who share our particular brand of crazy.   I can tell you that about half of Willie & Frank came from dares or challenges that year’s local NaNo group gave me.

Rounding the numbers, last year 690,000 people announced their own start in the novel attempt. 310,000 of them reported crossing the 50,000 word mark. Less than half is about normal. My guess is, some of those who didn’t make it started the month more in love with the idea of being a writer than they were with words. (We’ve all met folks that.) My bet? Most of the rest, who didn’t finish, didn’t take advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.

You can find the nearest NaNo Groups to you, on the NaNo website. Not every group is right for every writer. If there are several, find the one that works for you. Some of them are more motivated by the word wars than the words themselves. Some are more interested in chatting and talking about the writing they are doing when they aren’t together than actually writing at the gatherings. Some are a smile, a wave and a “how many words have you got?” Then they are heads down over keyboards or paper and pen, back at the writing. — A quiet acknowledgement of the shared madness, if you will.

None of those are wrong, per se. But which one is right for you? Maybe you aren’t a face to face kind of person. I hope you will at least try it and find out first, but maybe your group is on Facebook? Or Twitter? Or the NaNo site?

If there’s not a group anywhere near you? Start your own.  NaNo prefers that their Municipal Liaisons be past NaNo Winners. They also prefer that they apply for this unpaid, volunteer position by July.  But they love to hear from motivated writers who want to volunteer.

For that matter, go rogue. Go wild.  If you’re writing in the middle of nowhere, like I am these days, slap up some “contact me” cards at any area coffee shop, library, craft shops or anywhere used books are sold. Basically, the kinds of places you like. You’re a writer, makes sense other writers like those places, too, yeah? Make a few like minded contacts and shazam, you’re in a group of writers.  Just remember, even if we all share the “writer crazy”– we still aren’t all the same.  What works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa.  Remember, NaNoWriMo is about writing, not editing. So, no critics allowed. Just muses and writers.  Find the group that motivates your writing. The group you feel good about encouraging.

Then go write.

One bit of repeat here — NO EDITING. Save editing until next year. Literally, next year. November is for writing. Write with abandon. Write hard. Write.

And, when you cross the 50K mark? Come back here, to the comments, and crow about it! Shout it from a rooftop. Tell strangers. A lovely writer friend of mine put the period to the sentence where she crossed 50K and then stood on her chair, waved her arms like wings and sang like an angel. The whole room cheered and applauded. We were in a Barnes & Noble at the time. It was hysterical, it was beautiful, it was glorious. She deserved glorious.  So will you. Because you will have earned it, and no one can ever take it away from you. Go. Write. I’ll meet you back here in November.

Eldon Hughes
“Williebee” (NaNo & AW)
@Williebee
www.ifoundaknife.com

 

Four Steps to Becoming a God(dess) of Literary Elements

Guest Post by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

The Art of Floating cover image
The Art of Floating

When I was in grad school working on my MFA degree, fellow writers and I hashed out the symbolic power of Janie’s hair in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, argued about whether or not Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” was a statement against the growing materialism of American culture, and bowed to the importance of hunger in Richard Wright’s Black Boyhunger for food, books, individuality, equality, voice, and more. We lauded Alice Walker’s use of opposites in The Color Purple to characterize Celie—most especially Shug’s mighty sexuality and Sofia’s sassy attitude. “Wow,” we repeated again and again, “it all seems so darn seamless.”

And it is…now. But I assure you that when Hurston, Melville, Wright, and Walker reread their first drafts, nothing was seamless—especially those literary elements that pop, zing, and grab your attention. Those brilliants icons of American literature groaned, moaned, and dropped heads to desks, just like you, when faced with the task of weaving metaphors, allusion, epithet, and other devices into their novels and short stories.

So rest easy in the knowledge that you’re not alone in this challenge, and follow these four steps to create the kind of story about which readers will wow, sigh, and say, “It’s all so darn seamless.”

Step #1 — Story First

As you write the first drafts of a novel or short story, don’t think about literary elements. Don’t think, what does this tree symbolize? Is this statement ironic? Does this scene need to be foreshadowed? Should I include an allusion here? Does this flashback work? Instead, just tell your story. Tell it fully. Create a compelling setting and characters. Figure out the plot. Get the dialogue moving. Establish tension. Follow the story through to an ending (even if the ending changes over time).

Step #2 — Read & Review

When you’ve got a solid draft with concrete characters, a strong sense of place, and, yes, a plot, read through that draft. As you do, you’ll notice that without consciously trying (because you adhered to Step #1), you’ve embedded a number of literary elements in your story. Good storytellers quite naturally incorporate this kind of stuff into their work; we use figurative language to describe a scene, hyperbole to make a point, and symbols to convey meaning. We do it even when giving directions to a bus stop or teaching our children to make chutney.

Step #3 — Heighten

Once you’ve noted the literary elements that quite naturally made their way into your story, decide which you’d like to sculpt and heighten. Then do so. If you need a bit of inspiration, think about Hurston

reading the first draft of Their Eyes Were Watching God in which Janie probably had a modest ponytail. Then consider Hurston scratching her head and thinking, “Hm, Janie’s hair. Yes, Janie’s hair seems to be saying something. Something about power and sexuality.” Then imagine her rewriting so that she ends up with this glittering gem:The men noticed her [Janie’s] firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.”

Step #4Back Off

Remember, first and foremost, your readers want a good story, not a litany of literary devices. So don’t overdo it. Don’t load up every paragraph with similes, motifs, irony, and whatnot. Tell your story. Use the elements that arise naturally. Heighten those. Then back off. Let the story do the work.

Write!

You’re now well on your way to becoming a god(dess) of literary elements. And if, along the journey, you find yourself tempted to overwork a metaphor, pop the reader in the face with a forced foil, or foreshadow nearly every event, stop, return to Step #1, and start again. You’ll be glad you did.

________________________

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, and Hypertext. She has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. Follow her on Twitter at @kbairokeeffe and visit www.kristinbairokeeffe.com.

Improv Writing

Welcome, AWers! Are you looking for a terrific way to inspire your imagination and make writing fresh and fun again? This week’s guest post by Eldon Hughes offers a creative approach that’s worked for him, maybe it’ll give you a fresh path to follow, as well! — Mac

Guest Post by Eldon Hughes

Improv writing.

Does it work?  I hope so.  C. H. Valentino and I have written two books, so far, this way.

The first one, Poison and Wine, came out in March and is available from the usual online places. Amazon – Nook (print and iBooks coming soon.)

It wasn’t planned that way. It was just a writing exercise that became a story and then grew a world of its own. But isn’t that how the best stories work?

“It’s like taking your imagination ice skating, or inviting someone else’s brain out on a playdate.”

Along the way we get exercise in active reading, active writing voice, scene setting and effective description from within the character’s points of view (because we want our partner to understand, without saying it out right, where we think the story might be going.)

So, here’s the premise. I’m going to ask you three questions, or maybe five, or maybe just one.  I’m going to pull the questions “out of thin air.”  They might be core character questions, or wild tangents:

  1. Good or Evil?
  2. Male or Female?
  3. What’s in your pocket?
  4. Painter or cook?
  5. Himalayas or Salton Sea?

You’re going to do the same thing for me.  The answers are a kick off point for our new characters.  There are NO wrong answers.  How we answer, and how we choose to interpret and act on those answers is up to us.

Then pick a place in the world. It helps if we both have at least a little bit of familiarity with it, or quick fingers and an understanding of how to use an internet search engine like Google.

It also helps if we can literally be on the same page.  And, we can. Google Drive (including Docs) is free for personal use, as well as for non-profits and schools.  Sign up for a free Gmail account and you have Google Docs. (Along with a lot of other really cool free tools.)

One of us creates a document, uses the blue “Share” button (you’ll see it) to share that document with the other, by email address.  We both open the document, and where ever we are online, we’re typing on the same page, at the same time.  The game, dear writer, is afoot.

You write your character. I’ll write mine.  Somewhere in the first couple of graphs they are going to meet, interact, conflict, compete, maybe even come together around a central theme.  It’s up to us and our skill as writers.

Most of the same basic rules apply as in acting improvs:

  • “Yes, and” — If you write, “Have you seen my elephant?” I accept the existence of an elephant, whether in view or not.  The response might be, “Yes, and he was quite tasty, thank you”  or a more complex version of the rule — the “no, but” — “No, have you seen my mouse?”  (I accept your elephant and imply there may be a fable happening just out of sight.)
  •  “Drive the scene toward the story” — I don’t remember who said it first, but every line either moves the story along or reveals something about the character.
  •  “You look better when both writers look good.” When we’re both writing well, the story gets better as well.
  •  “Don’t ask open ended (obvious) questions,” instead let the descriptions and the character’s words and actions reveal who they are and what they are up to.

One more thing? No quitting. Set a time limit or a word count as a goal and write until “the bell rings.”  “Writers write, right?”

Eldon Hughes is a writer, storyteller and education technologist.  His website is www.ifoundaknife.com.

From The Dishwasher Froths Success

By C.S. Paquin

Success as a freelance writer has come from the dishwasher— no, not via a lucrative commercial-copy gig bubbling with the attributes of a kitchen appliance, but from the old dishwasher installed in our new apartment.

The state of my kitchen defines my professional success and pre-dishwasher, chaos reigned! Last night’s dishes piled high don’t auger well for a productive morning, but once those counter tops sparkle, well, I’m free to tackle whatever chore is next. The only problem is, I hate dishpan hands, and in avoidance, it’s easy for me to waste an entire day—in fact, the task only takes on a sense of urgency when it’s time for dinner. This disorganization sounds the death knell for my writing career—haphazard working hours, staying up too late to make deadline after hours of procrastination, and working fitfully amidst the laundry, vacuuming, and errands—all impatiently demanding attention once I’m done in the kitchen.

But now, the delight of dealing with dirty dishes without delay, has sparked a catalyst. Each morning, after my daughter goes to school and the baby to the sitter, I tidy the apartment and throw in a load of laundry while the dishwasher sings its sloshy song. By 9 a.m., cappuccino time, I’m opening the mail, and with the rest of the place clutter-free, it’s prudent to keep my desk as pristine and file my papers and pay the bills. I’ve discovered, too, that if I balance the checkbook every few days, then it takes just a few minutes, and I even remember what I bought.

By 9.30 a.m., in disbelief at how early it still is, I switch on my computer and check for looming deadlines. I have regular editing jobs, a small column for a regional magazine, as well as sending out queries to new markets. The difference is, I’m really writing the queries and mailing them. Pre-dishwasher, I’d sit and dream about it, because with a brimming sink, I couldn’t possibly start the query process. So, with my attention not distracted by the chores, I set up and conduct interviews, write and edit what needs to be done, and send in work not only hours, but days before deadline. Ticking off the tasks on my list is addictive and the more I check off, the more inspired I am to find and complete new projects.

Within a few weeks, my flailing career takes new shape—more gigs appear, and checks trickle in. “Aha,” I think to myself, as I add regular banking to the task list: Self-discipline does pay!

This revelation chases away the nagging suspicion that haunted me—that I’m more in love with the idea of writing, than actually writing. These days, as I see my reflection in the shiny plates, I say to myself quite proudly: “I am a freelance writer!”

C.S. Paquin is a nationally published writer in a variety of genres—from news writing to humor. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Journalism, and dreams of being a best-selling author. Her first writing love, however, is creative nonfiction and personal essays.

Character-driven or Action-driven?

By Martha Alderson
Most writers have a preference for one style of writing over another. Some writers are more adept at developing complex, interesting, and quirky characters. Others excel at page-turning action. The lucky writers are good at creating both the character emotional development plotline and the dramatic action plotline. Become aware of your strength and learn to address your weakness, and you, too, can become one of the lucky ones.
Cover of Marthat Alderson The Plot Whisperer's Workbook

Action-Driven

Broadly speaking, writers who prefer writing action-driven stories focus on logical thinking, rational analysis, and accuracy. Action-driven writers tend to rely more on the left side of their brain. These writers approach writing as a linear function and see the story in its parts. Action-driven writers like structure. They usually pre-plot or create an outline before writing. Action-driven writers have little trouble expressing themselves in words.

Character-Driven

On the other hand, writers who write character-driven stories tend to focus on aesthetics and feelings, creativity and imagination. These writers access the right side of their brains and enjoy playing with the beauty of language. They are more intuitive, and like to work things out on the page. Character-driven writers are holistic and subjective. They can synthesize new information, but are somewhat (or more) disorganized and random. They see the story as the whole. Right brain writers may know what they mean, but often have trouble finding the right words.

The Test

Take the test below to see whether you are stronger at developing character emotional development plotlines or dramatic action plotlines.

Fill in the character emotional development plot profile below for your protagonist (the character who is most changed by the dramatic action), any other major viewpoint characters and, if there is one, the character who represents the major antagonist for the protagonist:

  1. Protagonist’s overall story goal:
  2. What stands in his/her way of achieving this goal:
  3. What does he/she stand to lose, if not successful:
  4. Flaw or greatest fault:
  5. Greatest strength:
  6. Hates:
  7. Loves:
  8. Fear:
  9. Secret:
  10. Dream

Results

  • Writers who filled out 1-3 with ease prefer writing dramatic action.
  • Writers who filled in 4- 10 with ease prefer character emotional development.
  • Writers who filled in everything with ease find both the dramatic action and the character emotional development plotlines come easy.

Analysis

Without a firm understanding of points 1-3, you have no front story. The dramatic action plotline is what gets the reader turning the pages. Without it there is no excitement on the page.

Without a firm understanding of points 4-10, you are more likely to line up the action pieces of your story, arrange them in a logical order and then draw conclusions. Yet, no matter how exciting the action, this presentation lacks the human element. Such an omission increases your chances of losing your audience’s interest; readers read 70% for character.

Plot Tips

For Dramatic Action Plot Writers

To Strengthen the Character Emotional Development Plotline

  1. Try using your own flaw, fear, and/or secret—we all have them. What you filled out for #4-10 of the character emotional development profile is a mere skimming of the surface, like the first draft of any story. Even so, tack it up next to your computer. Over time, as you continue writing and come to know your characters better, the information will deepen. The longer you work, the deeper you will dig, the more significant your story will become.
  2. Look for opportunities to incorporate more patterning, metaphors, and analogies into your writing.
  3. Look for opportunities to role-play and use visual aids.
  4. Stop writing periodically and move your body during your writing time.
  5. Reread the information above that covers the less dominant side of your writing.
  6. Writers with strength in creating dramatic action usually think in sequence and are list makers. Since you have no trouble processing symbols, you actually enjoy making an advanced plan on a linear form such as a plot planner.
  7. After plotting out the dramatic action, use a different color pen and plot out a character emotional development plotline. To create logical conclusions, look for clues as to how the dramatic action causes changes in the character emotional development.

For Character Emotional Development Plot Writers

To Strength the Dramatic Action Plotline

  1. Use goals of your own and insert them into the context of the story— to finish, what? To organize, what? To accomplish, what?
  2. Writers who write about character emotional development have a more random writing style and rebel at anything as structured as a scene tracker or plot planner. Yet, because you like things concrete and benefit from seeing, feeling, or touching the real object, you keep coming back to the idea of developing a plot planner. You know intuitively that a plan will keep you on track and help you survive to the end of a completed project
  3. Because the right side of the brain is color sensitive, use one color to plot out the character emotional development scenes and use a different color to show the dramatic action, and yet another to show the thematic significance.
  4. Schedule a walk during your writing time and set the timer. Imagine yourself plotting out your scenes in sequence. The act of seeing yourself plotting will help you actually do it.
  5. Start with the climax of your story, and work backwards. Using your intuition, pay attention to coherence and meaning. Link dramatic action to the changes in your characters emotional development.
  6. Since you like to back up everything visually, hang a plot planner and/or scene tracker on a wall near your computer. These will help you remember the sequence of your story as you rewrite and rewrite until your story shows the meaning you want it to convey.

cover of Martha Alderson's Writing DeepThese are just some of the differences that exist between character-driven writers and action-driven writers, but you can see the pattern. Writers who lean more toward creating the character emotional development plotline now know you can be flexible and adapt the plot planner to make such a structured approach work for you. Likewise, those of you who are predominantly left-brain know that it would be wise to use both sides of the brain and employ some right brain strategies.

We tend to process and use information from our dominant side. However, the writing process is enhanced when both sides of the brain participate in a balanced manner.

Martha Alderson, M.A. is the author of Blockbuster Plots: Pure & Simple. She is a teacher, a plot consultant, a speaker, and an award-winning writer of historical fiction. She has taught plot and scene development and historical novel writing at the University of California at Santa Cruz Extension, Learning Annex, writers’ conferences, and workshops in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and in Washington State. Martha is available workshops and plot consultations. You can find plot tips and tools at Martha Alderson’s Website blockbusterplots.com. Her books on writing and plotting fiction are available at Amazon and other booksellers.

Better Interview Questions

By Ben Baker

Writing the story is only part of the process. You have to get information first.

If you interview enough people, sooner or later you will come across someone who replies to everything in monosyllables, grunts, and short sentences that give you the very barest minimum of facts. No matter how good your initial questions are, in order to get into the subject and really bring out details, you will have to have great follow up questions to draw information out of the subject.

A few notes about the following list: Not all questions are suitable for all interviews. Some questions refer to jobs, some refer to activities like hobbies. Some questions can be used for either. In most cases the word “field” is used to represent profession, activity, hobby, etc. Some questions don’t have anything to do with an activity; they just seek personal information. This is not an unabridged list. A good interviewer will find launching points for questions which could not possibly be anticipated.

Without further ado, here is a list of common interview questions (Q) with some follow-up (F) questions that will help you get more if your subject doesn’t give you a lot of information.

Q – Who are your inspirations or heroes?

F – Why do they inspire you?

F – What makes them heroic in your eyes?

F – What effect do they have on you?

F – When did you first learn about them?

F – Who told you about them?

F – What have learned about them since first learning of them?

F – How have you applied what you learned from them?

F – How can other people see your heroes/inspirations in you?

F – What do you do to be more like your heroes/inspirations?

Q – Married?

If “yes,” then:

F – How did you and spouse meet?

F – How long married?

F – What first attracted you to your spouse?

F – Does your spouse help in your field? If yes, then how?

F – Do you help your spouse in spouse’ field? If yes, then how?

F – Children? Grandkids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do you want to see your children do the same thing? Why or why not?

If “no,” then:

F – Ever been married?

F – Ever been engaged?

F – Ever wanted to be married?

F – Kids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do/Would you want to see your children do the same thing? Why/Why not?

(Note – if the person is biologically incapable of having kids, ask about adoption.)

Q – Are you involved in your community where you live?

F – What do you do?

F – Anything you’d like to do in your community which you have not yet done? Why?

Q – Where would you most like to visit?

F – Have you been there? If yes, what was the best part of it? If no, then will you ever go?

F – If you go back, what would you do that you haven’t done?

F – What makes it a good place to visit?

F – If you recommended this place to someone who’s never been there, what should they do first?

F – What surprised you about this place?

Q – Have any hobbies?

F – How did you get started in the hobby?

F – Why do you keep doing it?

F – What have learned through your hobby?

F – Why would other people enjoy doing it?

F – What’s a good way to get started in the hobby?

(NOTE: If possible, ask to see the person’s hobby. This could be the picture you need for the article, the person and hobby)

Q – Where did you grow up?

F – Did you move around a lot? If yes, how did this affect you? If no, how did the stability of living in one place all your life affect you?

F – What did you enjoy most about where you grew up?

Q – Are there any political or social issues you feel passionately about? (If you can’t get a story’s worth of information out of this line of questioning, you have GOT to be interviewing a corpse!)

F – Why are these things important to you?

F – What do you for these causes?

F – How can someone else get involved in these issues?

F – How much of your time do these causes take up?

F – Have you ever considered taking on these causes as a full-time occupation?

F – What would you most like to do that could further these causes?

Q – Do you have a nickname?

F – How’d you get it?

F – Do you like it?

F – Ever given someone else a nickname?

F – Did they like it?

Q – What is your favorite (book, movie or play, quote, poem, website, type of food or individual dish, music genre, song, band or individual musician, perfume, clothing style or designer, etc.)?

F – Why?

F – What drew you to this?

F – Where can other people find this?

Q – Why do you do what you do? (e.g., Why do you write? Work on cars? Race horses? Fish? Run marathons? Annoy politicians?)

F – How did you get started?

F – Who helped you get started?

F – How did they help you?

F – If you couldn’t do this, what would you do?

F – Why?

F – Would you be as happy?

F – Would you recommend (what the person does) to someone else?

F – Why?

F – What do they need to do to be successful at (whatever the person does)?

With these next follow-ups, you made need to insert some detailed specifics.

F – What would you change about (whatever the person does)?

Here, if the person says nothing, you may need to dip deeper into the subject. Ask about particulars. Referring back to the main question which spawned these follow-ups, you’d as a writer if he enjoys editing, research, writer’s block, finding a market for the work, the pay for the work. With cars, you might ask if the person enjoys having to dispose of used oil, getting greasy, scraping knuckles in hard-to-get-at places. With horses you might ask about the work which goes into horses, shoveling manure, brushing hide, filing hooves, buying feed, vet bills. If the person fishes, ask about the cost of maintaining a boat, lures, other fishermen, cleaning and cooking fish, driving to places to fish. On marathons you could ask about entry fees, cost of running shoes, the kind of surfaces the person runs over, running in different kinds of weather, trying to break through a pack, the Wall. Annoying politicians is my personal hobby and the only thing I’d change about it is having more time to annoy them.

F – Why would you change it?

F – How would changing that affect what you do?

F – Does that change make sense and really need to be done?

F – Why or why not?

Q – Is there anyone in (whatever the person does) you admire? (NOTE: This series could have been addressed in the first set, but there’s no guarantee it was so addressed. A hero may not be the same as someone who is admired.)

F – Why?

F – What do you admire most about that person?

F – Do you know this person?

F – Has this person had any influence on you?

F – Has this person ever given you advice?

F – What was the advice?

F – Was it good advice?

F – If so did you take the advice? Why or why not?

F – How did you apply the advice?

F – Is it good advice for anyone interested in (whatever that person does)?

Q – How have things changed?

F – Have any of the changes surprised you?

F – Were there any changes you expected?

F – How have you incorporated the changes?

F – Were the changes good or bad?

F – Why?

F – If you could, would you change it back? Why or why not?

F – What does the future hold?

Q – What sets you apart from the competition?

F – Have you learned anything from the competition?

F – What do you think the competition has learned from you?

Q – What training do you have?

F – Have you ever taught classes/seminars in your field? If so, where?

F – How often do you go to seminars/classes?

F – Have you ever wanted to be a professional teacher in this field? Why or why not?

F – Where is the best place to go to learn about your field?

F – Did your training prepare you for everything you’ve had to deal with? If not, what didn’t it cover? How did you handle it?

F – Do you need formal training for the work?

F – If you could tell people entering this field about something school did not teach them, what would it be?

Q – What honors have you received?

F – How did you feel about receiving the award(s)?

F – Have you ever recommended someone else for honors?

F – Have you ever delivered honors to someone else?

F – Are honors important? Why?

F – If you didn’t have the chance to receive honors, would you continue to do what you do?

Q – Are you involved in any of the field’s groups and associations?

F – What are they?

F – Any you would like to join but haven’t? If so what are they? Why haven’t you joined?

F – What group(s) would you recommend to a beginner? Why?

F – Have the group(s) helped you? How?

F – Have you made significant contributions to the group(s)? What?

F – How has your contribution affected things?

F – If you could make a lasting contribution, what would it be

Ben Baker has been a writer for longer than he wants to think about. He’s interviewed people ranging from garbage truck drivers to world-famous celebrities and he still can’t remember every question he needs to ask. You can find Ben Baker’s books on Amazon, and he blogs at Pork Brains And Milk Gravy.

Breaking Out Of Writer’s Block

By Apryl Duncan

You stare at the blank page. The white of the page embeds itself in your brain, resulting in your mind going blank.

Breaking out of the block doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling challenge, though. Explore the causes and the cure and you’ll be writing again in no time.

Common Causes

  • Unrealistic GoalsIf you’ve decided that you’re going to write from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every single day – no matter what – then you’re probably pushing yourself too hard.Your writing will become dull and drab. The natural flow you once knew will temporarily escape to Writer’s Block Island with the rest of your writing talents.
  • Stress!We all know how stress can affect your mood. But stress can also affect your writing.For instance, say all you wanted to do was come home from work and write until bedtime. Your boss makes you stay late. Your supper was a half-cooked hamburger and cold fries from a local fast food restaurant. Your dog wants to go out. And all you want to do is crawl in bed and forget the entire day.

    As much as we try to carry a stiff upper lip, we’re still human. External factors can affect our mood and ultimately affect our writing. Our focus shifts to all the bad things that happened in our day and writing becomes the last thing we want to do.

  • Neglecting Our WritingSometimes Writer’s Block comes from not writing! Writing every day is essential to keeping those creative juices flowing.You don’t have to make an impossible deal with yourself to write 100 pages of your manuscript in one sitting. Taking as little as 10 minutes a day helps keep you writing and words will flow from your mind much easier.
  • PerfectionismThe perfect paragraph, word after word, is a carefully constructed piece of art. But hanging yourself up on creating that perfect paragraph will win you an all-expense paid trip to Writer’s Block Island.If you run into this problem, give yourself and your writing a cooling off period. After a couple of days, re-visit your work and see where or even if it needs improvement. Your mind will be fresh and clear, giving you a whole new perspective on your own writing.
  • Research-RelatedA lot of writers don’t realize how research can even be a hang-up. Maybe you can’t finish your crime novel because you don’t know how police would handle a certain situation in reality.Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious and we try to write our way around it. All we really need to do is a little more research.

The Cure!

After you’ve beaten your fists on the keyboard and taken two aspirin for that migraine, try these cures for writer’s block:

    • RevisitRe-read some of your previous works. Maybe it was a journal entry. Perhaps you wrote a poem once. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a novel. You can still gain insight and even inspiration from something else you’ve written.
    • Change of SceneryHow many times have you heard a song that reminds you of something? Perhaps you heard that song a dozen times a day when you were in college. So that particular song brings back memories. The same goes for scenery in your every day life.If you’re sitting in the same room, day after day, the scenery’s going to get old. That scenery starts to remind you that you’re not writing. That you’re stuck in what seems like a hopeless case of Writer’s Block.

      The solution is simple. Seek out a change of pace. Go for a walk. Take a drive.

    • Rewrite Another’s WorkCheck out a newspaper or magazine article. Now rewrite that story from a new angle. Maybe a young girl was kidnapped. Police are still looking for the suspect and the little girl.Your version of the story might portray the young girl as the daughter of a lawyer. Perhaps one of his clients wasn’t happy with the way his own daughter’s murder trial was handled. So he kidnapped the defending lawyer’s pride and joy.
    • Use Real PicturesFlip through a magazine. Cut out pictures, headlines, even certain blocks of text. Now write a short story based on your clippings.For example, you might cut out a picture of a man riding a bicycle on page 14 of your favorite magazine. On page 22 you cut out a quote that says, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

      Your story could turn into one man’s crusade. Perhaps this man’s riding his bicycle across country because he’s outraged by automobile pollution levels. His point is to raise people’s awareness about the effects of pollution.

      Meanwhile, police keep hindering his efforts because the man’s riding his bicycle on the freeway, a violation of the law. So you have a man on his bicycle and the police quote, “Anyone caught doing this will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

    • DoodleYes! You were scolded in elementary school for doodling on your paper. Now you have full permission.Free your mind while scribbling. No need to think about your character’s next move. No plot structures to consider. Just a sense of connecting your pen to paper.
    • Object FocusTake a look around you. Does something catch your eye? Even something as simple as a stapler. Describe an object in full detail. Start with its size, shape, color.
    • Building BlocksRomance. Mystery. Thrillers. All genres have their own keywords. Build keywords from your own genre.If you’re a romance writer, you could come up with words like love, marriage, betrayal, lust, happiness. Jot down as many words as you can think of.
    • Life EventsThe birth of a child. Holidays. Graduation. Weddings. We all have our favorite life events. Pick one of your own and write down all your thoughts and feelings about that day. Turn it into a story.
    • NetworkMany authors beat Writer’s Block or avoid it altogether by networking with their fellow writers. Bulletin boards, chats and writer’s Web sites all offer you the chance to meet other authors and work your way through the many facets of fiction writing.Think of talking with other writers as your own personal support group.

Writer’s Block may attack you at some point in your writing career but always remember:

WB isn’t fatal.

Overcoming WB is not impossible.

WB’s only temporary.

Apryl Duncan is the founder of www.FictionAddiction.NET, an award-winning site for fiction writers and readers. She is an author and professional freelance writer who enjoys writing everything from mystery novels to how-to articles on the writing craft.