Monday, April 26, 2010

Looking for that great idea? Just relax

I haven't been blogging lately, so I apologize. But see, I've been thinking. I've been trying to come up with a great idea. And as we all know, nothing is as stifling as having to have a great idea.

See, I decided to enter a literary contest - something I've never done before. You know the ones, where you enter a short story by a certain date. Well, the date was looming. And tumbleweeds have been blowing through my brain.

Nothing. I was in an idea dead zone.

It was so strange. Usually, I consider myself an idea person. I don't freak on deadlines, I'm pretty good with word association, and if someone is stuck for a new plot line or twist, I can usually offer a cogent thought or two.

But this time, I think I just tried too hard. Coming up with a great story idea can sometimes be like trying to fall asleep - you just have to let it happen. If you think about it, concentrate on it, wonder and worry about it, you'll be left lying in bed with your eyes wide open, trying to figure out what went wrong.

And that's where I was in my story idea process. So I stopped. I just stopped trying so hard. If I didn't have an idea, if I couldn't enter this contest, would it really be the end of the world? It wouldn't, of course. I started to relax.

And sure enough, just before the weekend, the clouds literally parted while I was stuck in traffic. I looked up, toward the sun, and something clicked. Finally. An idea. Not a complete one, not a perfect one, but a pretty good one. I worked it out in my head all the way home, thinking of the logistics. And it just might work.

Sometimes, the best things happen when we simply let them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Imagination on vacation? Try these tips

So you've finally carved out some writing time for yourself, locked the door, placed your hands on the keyboard and ... nothing. Your imagination is on vacation, and you simply can't get inspired.

I think we've all been there, in that temporary rut that zaps our creativity and leaves us in a funk.

Here are a few time-honored methods to get yourself back on track.

1. Clean up your workspace. Even if you work on a tiny desk in the corner of the room, clearing out the clutter surrounding you can make an amazing difference. A clean, inviting writing area can be surprisingly inspiring.

2. Change your writing environment. Yes, most of us write on computers. But we don't have to. Take your notebook out hiking with you on the weekend and jot down a few ideas - you might be surprised at what you come up with. No hiking trails in sight? Go people-watching at the mall, or just take your laptop to the back deck. Sometimes, simply changing your point of view is all it takes to get that idea factory back in peak form.

3. Be a kid again. Pick up a one of those childhood favorites that made you fall in love with reading and writing in the first place. I have a battered old book titled Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield (first copyright 1917), that I absolutely love. It's the story of this little city girl who goes to live on a farm, and every time I read a few pages it lifts my mood. You probably have your own favorites. Ride with Black Beauty, fly with Harry Potter - curl up on the couch and indulge.

4. Enjoy another form of art. Yes, we love writing, but it isn't the only art form to enjoy. Watch someone make pottery, visit an art museum, see a play, learn to sew, listen to music. With all that creative energy flowing around you, surely some will rub off!

5. Buy fresh flowers. Yes, it seems simple, but I recently read a summary of a university study that showed fresh flowers in a room actually increased productivity. Now, in feng shui, purple is a color of creativity and prosperity - so find a few violet blooms, and you'll surely be set for success!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Does a main character have to be likable?

A friend shared with me recently her manuscript, and while I liked her story, I didn't find her main character particularly endearing. This bothered her - more than it bothered me.

What is likable, after all? Yes, I know that one of the first tenets a writer is taught in creative writing class is that the protagonist should be likable - lovable, even. But I think that's easier said than done. We're an extremely diverse society now, filled with a wide variety of lifestyles, opinions and social mores. While I might admire a heroine who is sweet and good and docile, you could find her an intolerable doormat.

My point? Likability is subjective. However, character development is not. And that, I think, is the key. No one's perfect - we shouldn't expect our characters to be. But if they're learning, changing and growing as the story progresses, readers can't help but relate. Will they be perfect - or at least more likable - in the end? That's for you to decide.

Prolific author M.C. Beaton has a series featuring a character named Agatha Raisin. Agatha is self-centered, short-tempered and somewhat foul-mouthed. I find her hilarious and quite likable, despite her flaws - Beaton gives you such insight into why she is the way she is that in my opinion, you can't help but relate. And she does learn from her missteps - kind of. She is clever, smart enough to solve a few murder mysteries. you find in the next novel, she can't stop bragging about it. And that makes me like her even more.

Consider Jennifer Weiner's best-seller, In Her Shoes. The younger sister, Maggie, is incredibly unlikable at the beginning of the novel. Not only does she seduce her sister's boyfriend, but she's selfish, manipulative and none too honest, to boot. But by the end of the novel, you're rooting for her to succeed. Why? Because she's grown, and we've been let in on the process.

Not every women in a damsel in distress; not every hero is a knight in shining armor. Some of my favorite people are quirky. And so are some of my most-loved characters.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An evening with author Scott Turow

Those of you who admire the writing of Scott Turow might be surprised to know that some of those key scenes in his blockbuster novel Presumed Innocent were actually scribbled in a notebook with Strawberry Shortcake on the cover.

It's true. It wasn't his, of course - as he ran for his commuter train into Chicago each morning, he would grab whatever notebook was handy, and sometimes it happened to be one that belonged to his daughter. But still, not what you'd expect, is it?

But Turow is full of surprises. I discovered that when I won tickets to his appearance in Michigan, one sponsored by the Canton Public Library. I jumped at the chance to go, of course, even though I'd be sitting alone - always kind of a weird feeling. However, at literary events, I've found, it doesn't matter. Everyone is so excited to be there, so jazzed to hear the speaker, you could pretty much show up naked with your hair on fire and few would notice.

Turow didn't bring any props, any backdrops, any sound clips. He just stood behind a podium, refreshingly low-key. He was funny, self-deprecating. He talked about his past, how he went from wanting to become a novelist to falling in love with the law to later blending the two. He became fascinated at the stories that unfolded in courtrooms,he said, at the motivation for crime and the faces of evil.

He talked about his 1987 breakout hit, Presumed Innocent, a legal thriller, later a movie starring Harrison Ford, that many say defined the legal genre. He talked about how he'd write it in bits and pieces, in 20-minute bursts of inspiration as he commuted to his job as an attorney in Chicago. He says the fame it brought him changed his life. It was a writer's dream, he admits openly, and says it was probably due more to luck than skill.

Since then, however, he's kept the best-sellers coming, from The Burden of Proof to Pleading Guilty to Ordinary Heroes. In May, Innocent, a long-awaited sequel to Presumed Innocent, will be released.

The thread that tied all his topics together? His passion. It was obvious all through his speech. "I'm blessed," he said. "I have such a full life - I get out of bed in the morning and I can't wait to get started on what's going on that day. I have a very blessed life, and I know it."

What he might not know is how devoted his fans are - at least in Michigan. When he finished speaking - and then read from his new book - the women in the rows behind me were absolutely giddy.

They whispered together like middle school co-conspirators. "I'm going to write him a letter," said one.

"Well, I just can't wait til May," said the other. "We'll stand in line - just like the kids did for Harry Potter."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Learning to paint a picture with words

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. But when we're writing, we have a challenge. That picture? It's just in our heads.

So how do we make sure the image in our head is translated to our readers? Sometimes, it's not easy. Usually, when we develop our main characters, we know how they look. We know how they talk, how they move, what motivates them.

Sometimes, we know them so well we forget that that the reader doesn't know them at all.

I remember once having a friend read an early draft of Death on Deadline. He smiled at me when he was done with the first few pages. "Cool," he said. "I like how you've made it sound so sharp, so 1940s."

Great. Except the novel was set in modern day. What happened? Had I watched "My Girl Friday" too many times? Had I used too much old-time slang? Apparently, my protagonist, who was supposed to be matter-of-fact and funny, was just coming across as dated. What I saw in my imagination was not coming through in my words. So it was back to the drawing board, so to speak.

But with the help of a few wise editors and a lot of benevolent writer friends, I've learned a few tricks to help translate those images in your head to the page:

1. Think in pictures. When you're starting a scene or a chapter, imagine you have five or six photos in front of you, showing what will happen in those pages. What do you see? That's what you need your reader to see. When you can see the scene clearly in your head, it's easier for you to translate it to the blank page.

2. Don't assume. Sometimes, we've been working on a book or a chapter or a project so long, we get to know our characters like friends. (I know, it sounds weird. But if you write fiction, you know what I'm talking about). So when we're halfway through, we start forgetting to tell the reader important tidbits they really need to know. Like Joe can read the map because he was a Boy Scout. Or Vivian knew the tea was poisoned was because she always drank that type of tea for breakfast. Don't forget to add those little character details. You know them. We don't.

3. Be specific. Not only will it make for more interesting reading, but it draws a better picture for the reader. Does your character love the beautiful flowers in the garden? Or is she entranced by the vivid painted daisies, the delicate snapdragons and the bold peonies?

Have a good time with your writing. And let the reader in on the fun.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Live in the moment; write the same way

Live in the moment - how many times have you heard that phrase? A lot, I'd wager. And it makes sense. Why waste time dwelling on the past or anticipating the future when you have the present right here, right now, right in front of you?

The phrase pertains to writing as well, and it took me quite awhile to learn that. I'm an overthinker - maybe some of you are, too. You can't just write a story or a chapter or a freelance piece. You anticipate who's reading it, and when. You think about who it might offend, or who it might please. You think about where it will go after you write it, and what will happen to it then.

In small doses, those thoughts are great. It's important to know your audience, and to anticipate their likes and dislikes. And you certainly aren't going to be a successful freelancer if you're a writer who is consistently offensive. That just makes sense. But too much? That's just paralyzing.

In Anne Lamott's witty, wonderful book, Bird by Bird, she tells about trying to describe to a class of novice writers the process of writing - about the sometimes miraculous process of writing - about how a blank page becomes a line and a line becomes a paragraph and a paragraph becomes dialogue in a story that actually starts to flow. And how before you know it, the page is filled, and you've done it - you've written something.

And then, she says, her students will raise their hands and ask, "How do you get an agent?" Because they're not concerned about the process. They're interested in the profits. They're not in the present; they're way in the future.

When I was writing "Death on Deadline," I created a character named Wayne Grubbs, and I made him up simply for comic relief. I knew I wanted him to be a bane for my protagonist. I wanted him to be an awful journalist. I wanted him to be stupid, but not so dumb he was a caricature. I liked what he added to the tale. But then, I lost my focus. I stopped thinking of the story. I kept rewriting him over and over - afraid of who he would offend, afraid his remarks might rub someone the wrong way.

I wasn't writing in the moment. I had became a marketer, not an author. And it wasn't good. Because it wasn't the right time.

Pretty soon he wasn't even funny. I took him out. And then I missed him. So one night, I put him back in, and just wrote what I felt. I created him the way I thought a major corporation would - as a semi-trained "para" journalist that they wouldn't have to pay as much. I made him funny - well, my version of funny, at least. And then I left him alone. I think we were both happier.

We live our lives a moment at a time. Let's write the same way.