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Author Archive for Ron Seybold

Use NaNoWriMo to get your book to finished

Halloween will deliver more than costumes, debauched parties and tons of candy corn. On that day at midnight it’s also the start of National Novel Writing Month, a worldwide 30-day event where the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Those are aimed to be words for a novel — although you can hijack this event to fill the pages of your memoir, since that form uses so many techniques of fiction.

You can sign up for free, and register your book in progress, at the NaNoWriMo dashboard. The roots of this event are aimed at novel writers, but the collective creativity month serves any long project. You see, memoir, creative nonfiction and novel all share the same powerful elements. Characterization. Scene. Dialogue. Setting. Metaphor. Theme. Structure. Story. Plot. Dramatic arc. Transformation.

All of the above are tools to use in telling any story. It doesn’t matter if your book’s bones have elements of fact for memoir or the long-form essay, or stand up as a fabricated tale that is, like all great ones, “based upon a true story.” The point is that the community of NaNoWriMo is at your beck and call.

Your goal is to write 50,000 words. They’re unpolished, rough-draft words. You don’t edit during NaNo. That’s work for EdiMo — not really an official event, but there should be a National Novel Editing Month for December. Don’t look for EdiMo. Just look for the delicious experience of drafting all those words without making it perfect. Pat Conroy, who wrote The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, said “Write like you are a lover. Edit like you are in charge.”

November is a month for lovers, those lovers of storytelling. You will draft faster if you have a simple list of scenes that go into your story. Plan a little in the week to come.

Sign up at the NaNoWriMo website, so you can log your writing as you go. Once you’re at 50,000 words you’re done. You upload your file to the organizers who do a blind word count on it. It’s scrambled, so it makes no sense and is secure. All they require is 50,000 words. What you get out of the month is the experience of how it feels to write, on average, about 1,700 words a day.

Writing 50,000 words makes you a winner. But getting any big chunk of writing completed in even a rough draft in a month’s time is the real victory.

Search and replace barrier words for POV power

Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove barrier words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. (Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story.) Fiction has several key elements, and few of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even in first person.

Make a list of these barrier words and post it close at hand:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the barrier word cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using these barrier words.

The 12 Disciples of Creativity

Creativity requires faith, and sticking to your creative faith is easier with exemplary practices to follow. I’m a Catholic boy if you go back far enough. We learned our faith in part by studying the lives of the disciples. The root of the word disciple means to show a devotion, so these 12 practices are the devotional work to do as we create stories.

Simplicity: Focusing on the immediate action at hand. Breaking the mission into the smallest parts, and doing them one at a time. Making each creative act look obvious and inevitable. Because writing a sentence is not complex, when done one at a time. Because creating an outline card is not hard if you only do it one at a time.

Regularity: To make the act of creating as essential as waking from sleep each morning. To consider creating part of the day that can no more be skipped than the sunrise. To know you can’t leave the house without clothes, and to know that you can’t leave a morning without creating something, not in full. But a draft.

Solemnity: To light a candle, to close the door, to silence the phone, to feel as it you’re entering a church of a faith that propels you. To know and believe, in your soul, that what you’re about to do in creation is important, because it delivers meaning. To feel like a priest in prayer at a mass, or a minister in a sermon, or a pastor giving a benediction before an important event.

Honesty: To do, as Hemingway said, just write one true sentence. By true he doesn’t mean built of fact, but a sentence that delivers the essence of its intention. To be aware, always, that you’re an imperfect creation yourself and that only change and time will deliver your desires for your work. And to carry that awareness to your creations, imperfect always, full of the wabi sabi that makes them your signature. To be honest about your energy and your desire, know when it has flagged after good creative work.

Self-Direction: To understand and believe that you can master the course that you set out to complete the creations. Gifts of the sea come your way when you swim in a direction, and it’s always a direction you choose. Take actions. Know that it may not be the eventual course, but any movement you make toward the sometimes-distant light of your complete creation is an act of the self.

Intensity: To sit and write just a little longer. Go beyond where you are afraid. To allow nothing to break your dream state of conjuring. The practice characterization in performance, aloud, to see yourself as that person in the story, or as your genuine self standing before an audience, with your inner eyes locked on an immutable and immovable image, like Rushmore.

Presence: To be utterly in only one place, unreeling that spool of line into the water of creation, then to study the line while you wait for that fish of an idea to bite. To be in the very moment your fingers and your arms and your legs are dedicated to anything which is not the effort of the past, or the work in the future.

Ceremony: To embrace the act of creating with little talismans and icons and regular friends of habits. For example, “I always light this candle. I always play this music. I never allow my phone to ring. I always stand up to stretch after 25 minutes. I always bring a glass of water in with me. I always write one good sentence first, even though it has nothing to do with my creation. I always read the last thing I wrote, aloud, before I make my next passage. I always do toning with my voice, vocal exercises. I always stretch with a deep bend, then add my two favorite tai chi movements.

Joy: To love a life with less certainty than others because mine always holds unexpected pleasures. To revel in the persona that I create for myself as an artist, a creator, seeking meaning. To give thanks for an existence that can feed me and feed others’ hearts with one dedicated effort. To smile when I think of getting away with doing this as my life’s mission, because I play as my work.

Discipline: To love what I do, because discipline is getting what you want. To believe I am a disciple of my affection and devotion to my craft. To work with focus to make my mastery hours meaningful, not just ticks of the clock of life. To return to my creativity on a schedule and respect deadlines.

Self-trust: To make the doubtful moments a regular part of the life of creativity, and believe in their ability to make the work a thing I will craft to my intention. To know that I am making productive choices when I say no to an effort that I’m delivered, and to believe in the parts of my creations I adore because they’re essential to making meaning of life, especially mine. To trust in the future because no one knows what it will become, and so the confidence will carry me through times that look bleak or blurry.

Primacy: To make my life about creating, the thing that keeps me alive, the most vital and essential element of the human who is me. To make all other things serve my creation, even while I’m walking the dog or washing dishes or paying bills or changing a diaper. Everything is in my life like a handhold along a staircase or tread on tires — to deliver me to the moments and hours and days of creativity.

I do my creation early in the mornings, and I can pull from each of these 12 things, these essentials. I love the feeling of having created, because I’ve eliminated the dread of failing to create, erased it before I do anything else. Being a working creative person makes everything else, all the dreams of finding and sharing meaning, possible. Being fresh as a morning blossom encourages the bees of ideas, of scenes, of chapters, to pollinate me.

In the morning my strength of resolve and devotion is greatest. I ride my bike in the mornings with fresh legs. As a boy I served Mass in the mornings. My favorite meal is breakfast, breaking my fast. And morning is the place closest to the theatre of my dreams, the majestic stage of my unconscious.

Transportation as a story pace control

Over at Kristen Lamb’s website, a column by Cait Reynolds examines some aspects of distance to be travelled as a control of story pace. She mentions means of transit as well as physical distance. People go places in most stories, and if yours includes a trip longer than a jaunt to the bathroom, there’s a time element attached to transit. You can use it for story choices that lead to characterization, too.

For example, in my upcoming historical fiction novel, there’s a trip from Raisinville to Grand Rapids and back in the same day. Distances being what they are between a mythical place (Raisinville) and the well-known Grand Rapids, I had to calculate the average speed of passenger railroads in Michigan of 1899. How fast could a locomotive like the late 19th Century one above travel? How early in the day did their train have to leave to let them make it a day trip? Did Anna have to hurry Frank’s breakfast so she could make that trip with Joe?

Public transportation gives a wild card to plot and character introduction. Driving in a private vehicle, be it car or a carriage, limits the characters to those we know. Putting characters into a conveyance where anyone could show up adds opportunity.

Showing spunk about making sentences

Out on the Writer’s Digest Web site, Bonnie Trenga has posted an article on grammar that boils down the writing of a good sentence to four commandments. She starts with shall nots and shalls.

1. You shall not write passively.
2. You shall not overuse weak verbs like “to be” and “to have.”
3. You shall not fluff.
4. You shall make every word necessary.

They are so fundamental that we need to know them like our own faces in order to cast them off. See, breaking rules is part of writing, too. You’re working inside rules like these four to be polite, so readers don’t struggle to enjoy your writing.

An antidote to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

A list of rules, though, can become a rutted road for a reader. You might have this experience if you watch TV on the reality channels and see one episode after another of house flipping shows. The hopeful but innocent flipper introduced. The stern advice from the host. The headstrong ignoring of said advice. The cheerful praise of finished flip work from Realtors, followed by grim assessments from the buyers during the open house.

Read enough such formula and you begin to long for something that tastes different. Learning how to differ is the advice you can read more about in Spunk and Bite, a good antidote for the writer who’s lashed to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

Write something that follows these four commandments without fail. Then rewrite it so it bends, or even breaks one of the rules. See if you can create something unexpected but understandable. Know the rules, but break them when you can.

Oh, one more bit of advice: Set any intentions or guides like these in positive statements. The brain can only process affirmative statements. It throws away the word “not” or “don’t.” So,

1. Write in the active voice.
2. Select strong verbs to limit your use of “to be” and “to have.”
3. Choose the best word, the one understood easily and most accurate.
4. And yes, “You shall make every word necessary.”

Themes, power, and how they make queries easier

Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing crafts from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It bubbles up from the writing. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot. Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.

 

Give your characters agency to drive a story

Action-and-IntentionWhen I coach writers on their stories, I advocate the relentless use of agency for their characters. Agency is not a term that is common to writing instruction. I first heard about agency in a seminar taught by novelist Jim Shepard at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Shepard was dynamic in those classes, teaching from the balls of his feet, always moving and taking action.

Agency is the persistent taking of action or intervention. A rich and well-crafted character is always taking action to respond to challenges and improve their life. Things do not just happen to a good character. They make choices: tear down that fence, apply for the scholarship, take the ill-marked back road, give their coat away on the rainiest day of the month to a homeless person. Lie to win a job, and so on. As a reader I enjoy living with characters who take agency. Right choices or wrong, these are interesting people.

Things happen in a story where the characters have agency. They attempt to control their fates. The payoff is that as a writer, you get to create scenes. Building scenes is hard work, when it’s done well. Actions — even the fight that ends a relationship, or the interrogation of a suspect in a mystery — are the high-octane fuel of a story.

The alternative is a story that’s driven by feelings and musings. There’s a place for those stories, too. But maybe the most important part of good stories is that their heros and villains are acting. Not talking about what they once did, or remembering in a boozy stupor what someone said, or wishing for better fortune but doing nothing to gain it. Bad things should happen to the best of characters. But those things should flow from some choice or action that character makes.

Try it out with a character when you’re stuck in a story. You know what they want. Make them take an action to get it. They should be the person who acts to produce a particular result. Give them severe stakes if they make the wrong choice.

7 shopping tips to buy into a writing group

Would you like to workshop your book? People call these writing groups, too. The idea is to get some other authors, all working on their books diligently, to gather in person to review and respond to the book you’re writing. Published authors swear by them. Other authors can vouch for the help which a good workshop brings to a book, too. What’s the smart way to get started in one? If you haven’t met this challenge yet, there are shopping tips that lead to a good investment. Because no matter what you spend, you’re always investing your time.

Is there a size limit? Every writer who appears at the table will bring pages for you to review. A group of eight, of course, means seven sets of pages you must read. So you’ll then shift gears six times, into somebody’s story, out and then on to the next. It’s a rare thing to be able to mark with comments on more than 3,000 words an hour. Do the math. Figure that a big group means hours and hours of reviewing. Groups work best at four writers.

Is there vetting, or an introduction? Everybody wants to be in a writing group with an author who’s got more advanced skills. Or the same level, at least. Someone’s got to be judge and jury on this, though. Personal groups form between writers who know one another already. The first writing group I joined had no vetting for skills. Or courtesy, either. The next came from a Writers’ League of Texas Advanced Fiction class. The late, great novelist Karen Stolz told us, after our eight weeks of classes, “Form up groups, you guys.” The Square Table writers were off and running for the next seven years. We ran with four writers at first, then three.

I’ve got Austin’s only paid writing group. Since 2006 we’ve been open to any author who’s writing a book. No vetting, but there are limits and practices. Someone has to lead, and that means a lot more than watching a timer to be sure limits are enforced.

How much will your group read? Can you submit 15 pages, or even 20? It can be a challenge to say something useful in response to six pages of writing. You can critique a scene for the mechanics, or find a way to ask questions about what’s not on the page but intrigues you. A page count of 15-20 is 4,000-6,000 words. That’s a chapter, maybe two—the unit of the idea in a book.

Do you read before you meet? Very few authors can edit live, unless they’re only doing a line edit. It takes time to write comments, especially longhand. Legibility matters. A group with pre-submitted pages will give its members time to read closely and say what’s confusing, compelling, or dragging. A group which shares pages using email also gives members the means to look backward in a book to recall what a reader might have overlooked. Those prior chapters are right at hand, on your laptop.

Is it easy to connect personally with a member? Unless you’re entering a group linked via email, it’s so much harder to strike up a relationship with another member who really shows a connection to your work. Not everybody will “grok” your creation (the Stranger in a Strange Land verb from Robert Heinlein that means “to understand something’s soul.”) Writers might be shy in person but gregarious online. Email is essential. A group with a driving need for privacy makes such connect more work. Email is the means that professional writers use to share ideas and critique, query and trade editorial notes. A leader should make email available for every member.

How long do we meet, and where? Critique and response is careful work done best in a private space. A member’s home gets the job done, but only if there’s no distractions there. Meeting at a bookstore worked pretty well at first for us Square Table Writers. We were only four members big so we got a table well away from store cafes (Steaming milk! Lots of music!) or Saturday’s shoppers (I want that book!). Nobody had much more than three hours to meet, but each book got 45 minutes of airtime. We had time to talk about our book after critiques, too.

What’s the comfort and leadership level? Critiquing is real work with genuine payoffs. This isn’t a workout at the gym. Does you host do snacks or a demi-brunch, give breaks to stretch, encourage people to get to know one another? Such things make a space and a group personal and unique. Somebody’s going to have to ask for pages to distribute to a pre-reading group; otherwise someone forgets. A regular meeting schedule is important, too, so people can protect the time they will devote to making books better.

Yes, authors can bring their own water bottles or a venti Starbucks to a group. And whoever goes first can be determined by a lottery, tarot cards, or just whoever’s turned in pages first. Try to avoid your arrival time to the table as a way to choose who goes first. The Traffic Gods shouldn’t have a seat at your group.

There’s a lot to consider when finding a group to critique your book in progress. You do get what you invest in, though. Efficient and effective groups make good use of time in meetings. That means you have more time available for writing and revising your book. Think of how much sooner that will finish it. Finishing, after all, is at why we help one another in groups. Those outsider insights should save us time.

Writer’s Block Number 1: Who would read it, anyway?

A fledgling memoir writer asked me about the prospects for transforming his work into a book. Within a couple of messages on LinkedIn, he squelched his own efforts. His book idea, about a single year of biking 5,207 miles, seemed too dim to work on. “I just doubt many would read it, even if published on Amazon. If there’s no audience, what’s the point?”

It’s a great question, one we pose all the time while we create any work of art. Without a likely audience, why write for publication? The question often surfaces before the serious effort has a chance to get underway. I don’t see how this could be compelling for anyone but me. The question that should follow is, How do I make this story compelling?

We all work through doubts when we create. How well we do this is influenced by our imagination and our storyteller’s spark. You can imagine your book as a success, a vision you can populate with specific victories. The book opens with a great story right at the top, not just backstory. The book displays awareness and humor, even in the face of tragic events. The book has honesty, imagery, and passion.

What we’re afraid of, sometimes, is unrequited love. After going all-in to love a book they’re writing, authors can be afraid their writing won’t love them back. Imagine the story telling you, “What a godsend you have shared me. You have been honest. I brim with imagery and passion.” Give the relationship a chance, instead of a too-savvy squelch.

We’re often looking to the rest of the world to hear affirmation about our stories and our books. Contests can help deliver a small kudo, but only after some serious work in done. The writing of a book is a wonderful tonic as well as the haunting drink we fear to taste. “Just do it” has become a trite cheer. That command is the open door to experience creation, though.

There’s no way to determine how many people will read a book until you start to create it and share the work: with a group, a coach, or a trusty beta reader. If you doubt that many will read that unfinished book, what are you prepared to do to change that? The answer to that question becomes the point, one that compels you to finish and share your story.

Write Stuff news: Getting noticed, at a conference and elsewhere

More than 300 writers huddled at classic 8-person rounder tables at the start of the 2017 Agents & Editors Conference hosted by the Writers’ League of Texas. The sellout meeting was two afternoons and two mornings of hopeful pitches, two receptions where agents listened for new book concepts, amid hearty hugs and even a squelch of a skeptic on a panel. Writers learned things about the business, as well as more than a few tips about how to create a book that readers want and publishers might buy. Several of our writers from the Workshop were at the conference to take notes and take meetings. Every one of them got requests for samples of their books, so congratulations!

The Andy Ross squelch: At one panel, the speakers all nodded in agreement when the bromide “a good book will find a good home” got trotted out. “I have a different point of view,” said agent Andy Ross, to some laughter, which was followed by a retort: “Andy, we have medication for that.” Writers came away with the retort in their hopeful pockets when they relayed the exchange. Good books do find good homes, even when agents have to pass on them. Ross said in an interview with the League that for debut fiction, “publishing decisions usually get made based as much on marketing as on literary merit. The best I can do is find authors with talent, telling stories that grab me by the heart.” Indie presses, taking good books into the world, were on the minds of many writers who arrived to learn how their beloved stories might become books for sale.

Milo and his Dangerous numbers: A quick report from Publishers Weekly follows up on the claim that the memoir from Milo Yiannopoulos, Dangerous, sold 100,000 copies on Amazon at its launch. Not likely, PW notes. The story is another example of how publishing is unlike most other entertainment businesses. Nobody knows how much any book has sold. There’s no Boxoffice Mojo for books.

Structuring using a premise: A thorough article from The Writer about how a premise takes you beyond a situation and into a story. Larry Brooks’s craft book Story Engineering handles this well, too.

Print numbers continue to rise: Another Publishers Weekly article said that all categories of books were selling better in 2017 than in 2016. A Dr. Suess favorite continues to lead the pack.

Here’s five things Hemingway said we could all do to write better.

Hats off to Octotillo Review for its debut literary journal reading at Malvern Books. Poetry. Fiction. Truth. Great mantra for a journal that includes nonfiction. Kudos to Workshop writers Marilyn Duncan and Flor Salcedo for reading their contributions at Malvern.

Don’t tell the kids when they ask, but the concept of bedtime is a social construct. It’s also great for reading to them, to get ready to narrate your own audiobook. Or read at a Creation Night at the Workshop.