The Right Writing Space by Bonnie Schroeder

 
 
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
 
 

THE RIGHT WRITING SPACE

Do you believe in magic? Do you have a special space where your creativity blossoms?
When I first started writing fiction, at age ten, I had a vision in mind: me, in a cozy office lit by Tiffany lamps, tapping away on a typewriter (remember, I said I was ten) and producing page after page of flawless prose, destined for publication and awards. Nowhere in my vision did reality intrude.
A few years later, my mom gave me that typewriter: a big black Remington. I thought I was really on my way to becoming A Writer then. Since no office was available, I put the Remington on a metal stand in a corner of my bedroom, taught myself touch typewriting from a book, and churned out story after story about misunderstood adolescents searching for . . . well, I’m not sure what they were seeking except my recycled versions of popular television shows.
Fast forward a few decades. The Remington gave way to a Smith Corona electric. More paper was sacrificed in my quest for publication. Still my writing didn’t catch fire—with me or anyone else. I plodded, and it showed.
In young adulthood, I bought myself a big old oak roll-top desk. Maybe that would help, I thought.
It didn’t. I still have the desk; it’s a lovely piece of furniture, and I sit at it to pay bills, make phone calls, and write shopping lists. But I don’t write stories there. The desk gives me claustrophobia, with its high sweeping sides and cubbyholes that block the light.
Besides, my computer won’t fit on that desk.
Yep, the Smith Corona is long-gone, replaced first by a Dell desktop and eventually by a sleek little laptop. I bought a cheap metal table at Office Depot and it barely holds the laptop, a tiny printer, and all the electric cords and connectors. There’s not much room for paper or anything else.
And I find it really, really hard to sit at that computer table and write fiction. Ideas refuse to come.
It’s not like I need perfect conditions in order to “create.” I wrote the first draft of Mending Dreams on a 14-passenger commuter van (on the days I wasn’t driving it.) And for a while I wrote at a local bookstore. That actually worked pretty well; the soft white noise around me drowned out the omnipresent Critic who lurked behind me at home.
Then the bookstore remodeled. They expanded and added a “café” to replace their tiny little coffee bar. The clientele expanded, too, and with it the white noise turned harsh and distracting.
Finally, I re-thought my work space. Years ago, I shared a fairly large house with a roommate. The house had three bedrooms plus an office: a wood-paneled room with a built-in desk and tons of cupboards and shelves. My roommate generously forfeited the office to me, and she put her metal office-surplus desk in the third bedroom. Ironically, in the luxury of that genuine office space, I had trouble writing. The wood paneling seemed to swallow light. I found myself gravitating to my roommate’s metal desk when she wasn’t around, because there I felt able to breathe.
Maybe I needed the space and the light because what I was doing—making up stories and creating characters, only to plunge them into emotional pain and despair before they could emerge changed for the better—was such a dark art that it had to be practiced in as much daylight as possible.
I finally found my magic spot in my current home: my dining table, a clunky slab of pine on skinny legs, from Ikea no less. But you know what? It works for me. I can see the street in front of my house, but not enough to distract me. I have room for my stacks of folders, my drafts and notes and thesaurus, and they’re all within arm’s reach. I have a couple of little good-luck tchotchkes there too, and the chair is uncomfortable enough to force stretch breaks now and then. The laptop comes and goes, depending on which phase of writing I’m in.
The downside is that, yes, it’s the dining table, and it actually gets used for dining a few times a year. Mostly we hang out at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, but on birthdays and holidays, I have to move all my paraphernalia somewhere else. But that only takes a few minutes, and the trade-off is worth it.
Light and space and breathing room. For me that’s the answer. But what about the rest of you? Do you have a special place that makes you feel safe and creative? Was it what you expected it to be at the beginning of this crazy journey? Please don’t tell me I’m the only one re-purposing my furniture!

 

Eats, Shoots and Leaves with Rosemary Lord

Rosemary Lord  wrote her first book when she was ten years old – for her little brother. She also illustrated it herself. It was later rejected by Random House! She has been writing ever since.

The author of Best Sellers Hollywood Then and Now and Los Angeles Then and Now,  English born Rosemary Lord has lived in Hollywood for over 25 years. An actress, a former journalist (interviewing Cary Grant, James Stewart, Tony Hopkins, John Huston amongst others) and a Senior Publicist at Columbia Pictures, she lectures on Hollywood history. Rosemary is currently writing the second in a series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s Jazz Age Hollywood featuring Lottie Topaz, an extra in silent movies.

EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES…                         

Eats, shoots and leaves” – sounds like a newspaper headline. But it was in fact the title of a witty book about sloppy punctuation. Written by Lynne Truss, it became a runaway success in the UK.  The headline at that time was, instead, “Grammar book tops the Bestseller List.” Who’d have thunk it? Truss, an ex-editor, bemoaned the fate of proper punctuation, claiming that it had become an endangered species due to the low standards on the internet, email communication and “txt msgs.”

The phrase, “Eats shoots and leaves” is from a joke about pandas – who eat (bamboo) shoots and leaves – and not, by the simple addition of an errant comma, a comment about a violent criminal act. (Although pandas can give a very nasty bite. No comma needed.)
Or there’s the Australian take on bad punctuation, taught at schools there, as a way of making the students remember the grammatical rules: “Lets eat Grandpa,” has sent many Aussia kids into helpless giggles with such a picture. But it’s not a cannibalistic suggestion, merely the absence of a comma in a sentence that should read:  “Let’s eat, Grandpa.” 
I also love Michael Caine’s interpretation of a line in a script that read,  “What’s that in the road ahead?” By adding a simple dash, Caine had his fellow actors and film crew in fits of laughter when he announced: “What’s that in the road – a head?”
So, no wonder Eats, Shoots and Leaves became so popular. It’s a witty reminder of the lessons we learned at school – but that seem to have vanished in today’s hurried world.
Lately, I find I question myself as I’m writing, because much of what I read today has a different use of grammar from that with which I was raised. And I write the way I was taught. Not that I’m such a grammarian – and I probably could not recite the rules I was taught as a child.  But I know that words and phrases with wrong grammar and punctuation just don’t soundright. Unless you are specifically writing dialogue with a dialect. Then the very miss-spoken words and incorrect grammar are what convey the character of that person. But, again, it’s the sound I listen for. It’s my instinct. Apart from intentional colloquial miss-spoken words, poor grammar and punctuation hurts. I love words and the ability to create something with them. So I don’t like it when people muck it up!
My mother was a writer – of newspaper articles and magazine and radio short stories. Amongst other homilies, she would repeat, “different from – not different than.” “Yes Mum,” I would obediently reply, not understanding what on earth she was talking about. But it stuck in my brain somewhere.
I was always impressed with my husband Rick’s easy recitation of prepositions: “About, above, across, after, below, beneath…” and so on. He was taught that by the nuns in kindergarten – along with all the mathematical tables that he could recite by rote! Unlike I, who dreamed my way through school, Rick appeared to have learned a lot from his excellent education at St. Ambrose, then Loyola High School, followed by years at UCLA. He said his  English teacher explained, “A dove is a bird –” clarifying the past tense of the verb ‘to dive’ is ‘dived” and not “dove” as is often used lately and has become accepted. Every time I hear that, I dutifully mutter, “a dove is a bird…”
As a child, I had no interest in learning about grammar and punctuation. How boring, I thought, as I immersed myself in another book. I could not get enough of reading and writing my ‘little stories.’ Foolishly, I could not see where grammar and punctuation came into it. I was going to live in Hollywood, meet all those Golden Era Movie stars, write and work in HollywoodMovies…. What was I thinking? Now I devour any learning opportunities and wish I had paid more attention. I find books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves, to learn more.
And so I write words as I hear them in my head – and follow my gut instinct, if something feels wrong.
For instance, I was taught never to start a sentence with ‘and’ – and that you never have a comma before the word ‘and.’ However today, ‘the American comma’ as us Colonials call it, (also known as the Serial Comma or even the Oxford Comma!) is rampant and therefore acceptable. Still feels odd to me. But I am willing to entertain these new-fangled ways of writing. I just don’t have to like them. I do, however, like to capitalize words for emphasis: I’m sure there’s a rule about this that I break all the time. And (there – I started a sentence with an ‘and’ – bad girl!) I confess I am addicted to ellipses and dashes….
But I think that if I stick to writing novels and articles about times long gone by, no one will notice – and I can do it my way…

From Screen To Page – Part 1 – by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.


FROM SCREEN TO PAGE

One of my NYU media professors once told me, “You write well.” I felt proud, assuming he meant I was a good writer. I was mistaken. What he meant was I could write sentences that were comprehensible and precise enough to get an A on an assignment, but not for a story worth reading. It took awhile for me to learn the difference.

If you’re unsure of how to tell a story, I can recommend an unusual source for guidance – a screenplay instructional.


Now I know what you’re thinking…screenplays are fast and cheap, like pulp fiction, too often empty-headed, driven by plot rather than character…and you’re right. But it’s a great way to learn how to tell a story succinctly. Although I no longer write screenplays, I’ve learned a great deal about storytelling techniques from the genre. There are basic rules in writing for film that will benefit all writers of fiction, which I’ll share with you in my next three posts.

Before you begin to write your story, see if you can answer these questions:

1.       Who is your protagonist?

2.      What does he want?

3.      Who, or what, is trying to stop him?

4.      What will happen if he fails?

Knowing the answers is critical for most fiction genres. The website ‘Screenwriting 101’ has set up a formula for this:

Story = (Character + Want) x Obstacles

The answer to question one, two and three fills in Character, Want, and Obstacles.

You could say Character is a ‘noun’, but add Want to Character and it becomes an ‘action verb’. Obstacles create tension and suspense. Each element must be in balance to work properly. 

For example, the character may have lived a colorful life, or experienced a unique, even dramatic situation. But without tension, the suspense of what will happen, these stories often fall flat. Knowing what the character wants and what obstacles stand in his way are the building blocks to creating suspense. The trick is in the building, because coming up with a tension-inducing scenario is not enough. 

Consider this plot: 

Your protagonist is a busy single mom and in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, a major earthquake hits. Plenty of potential drama there, right? Except if the shaking starts when she’s pulling into the driveway after a Costco run with a gallon of trail mix, a pallet of water, and a year’s supply of toilet paper in the trunk, it deflates a lot of the potential for tension. 

But put your character at her job fifty miles from home, where she lives with her two preteen kids and her disabled mother, and that raises the stakes because we’re dreading what will happen if she can’t get home ASAP.  Then put impediments in your protagonist’s path – the quake destroyed the roads so she can’t drive home.  She’ll have at least a two-day walk. Fires, looters, and aftershocks threaten her way. When real danger looms with every step, readers white-knuckle every paragraph, wondering what might happen. 

But telling us isn’t effective; you must get under her skin and make us feel her fear. The mom may die trying to get home, but if she doesn’t try, her family may not survive. Here, the mom is the Protagonist, she Wants to get home, the impediments caused by the quake is what’s Stopping her, and if she Fails it would mean the devastation of her family, and/or her.

That’s why the key to creating a story that will grab people’s attention is the fourth question – what are the stakes? In film, the answer is always the same: Death. If the hero doesn’t succeed, he will die. If you don’t believe it’s true, think of every successful movie ever made. 

Death – either actual or metaphorical – is what must be risked and overcome, except in tragedies where the hero actually does perish. If you still have doubts, see if you can name a book with a female protagonist written before the 20th century that doesn’t end with her marrying or dying. Death can be losing the basketball game, not destroying the Death Star before it obliterates the planet Alderaan, never getting back to Kansas and Auntie Em; in short, failing to achieve whatever task has been set out for the character.

Here’s my formula:

Engrossing story = [(Engaging Character + Want) x Obstacles] x Stakes

                                                                       

The more invested we are in the character, the more we want him to triumph. Therefore the greater the obstacles, and the higher the stakes, the more conflict you create. If character is the heart of a story, conflict is the lifeblood that drives both character and plot. In short, figure out what the hero wants and deny or delay it.

This is particularly useful in writing flash fiction, short stories, and novellas. Like a screenplay, short form fiction must maintain a word limit and therefore every word has to move the story forward, reveal character, or both. Here again, the combination of challenging obstacles and high stakes, coupled with a character we’ve come to like, creates a powerful arc.

A perfect lead-in to my next blog post, which will discuss story arcs.

A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

Jacqueline Vick is the author of over twenty published short stories, novelettes and mystery novels. Her April 2010 article for Fido Friendly Magazine, “Calling Canine Clairvoyants”, led to the first Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mystery, Barking Mad About Murder. To find out more, visit her website.  

A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. These are the characters who inhabit my head, along with a crime reporter, a mother and two daughters with a knack for stumbling into nefarious situations; and a few more who haven’t made it to print.

One of the difficulties with so many different characters is finding a common thread that runs through the various books that can be used to solidify an author brand. What is an author brand?

When you hear Joanna Fluke, you think mysteries and baking. And vise versa.

Is there a common thread among my characters? Well, Evan Miller is troubled, while Deanna Winder IS trouble. Frankie Chandler, Pet Psychic, considers the supernatural an intrusion in her life, while Father Gerald McAllister, exorcist, relies on it. And most of them would be left off the guest list of a dinner thrown by Edward Harlow, author of the Aunt Civility etiquette books.

An author, when coming up with a brand, also needs to consider his or her target market. I’ve never mastered that one. Most mystery readers are women, so I should try to determine who would like my books by age group and other demographics. Let see an example of how well that works.

I took a screenwriting class in Chicago. I wrote a scene that took place in a small town post office, and  a confused, elderly lady at the front of the line was driving the impatient protagonist mad. The person who laughed the loudest was a young, black man. I would have picked the suburban-looking white women as my target audience, but her slight smile seemed reluctant. So much for stereotyping your audience.

Another trick to finding your brand is to brainstorm words that come to mind when describing your books or characters. Unintentionally funny due to the circumstances and  people they are surrounded by. In other words, you and me. That doesn’t narrow it down very much.

Could this be the next
Agatha Christie?

You can always compare your books to others out there, but that’s too intimidating. When I put fingers to keyboard, I always hope to be the next Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, but the results fall far short. As for comparisons to current authors, each one seems so unique to me that I wouldn’t dream of holding my novel up next to theirs. I would feel like the gal on late-night television offering knock-offs for those who don’t care for the real thing.

JA Konrath has said that if you want to sell books, write more books. That I can do. I’ve slowly built up 4 novels, a traditionally published novella, and 4 short stories. Oh, yeah. And a children’s book.  If my timetable holds out, I’ll have Civility Rules, my Harlow Brothers mystery, and the third pet psychic mystery out before the end of the year, and the Father McAllister mystery out at the beginning of 2016.

So what should I do about my brand? I’d solicit feedback from other people on what words they thought best represented my books and characters, but if anyone used the word sassy to describe Frankie Chandler or Roxanne Wilder, I’d throw myself out the window. (It doesn’t matter that I live in a one-story. It’s the intent that counts.)