Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

*          *          *

Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

*          *          *

Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

Using Idioms, or Not

by Jill amadio

When we write “stabbed in the back” we may not necessarily be referring to murder. How about “I stubbed my nose yesterday, enjoyed a drop in the teacup, and beat around the flowers while protesters were a penny a dozen.”

Clock flyingOf course, the correct common usage idioms are “stubbed my toe, a drop in the bucket, beat around the bush, and a dime a dozen.” The last two are alliterative, yes, but why, I wonder, are toes the only part of our anatomy ever stubbed? And why drops only drip into a bucket instead of any other container? My favorite, though, is “a short/long week – or year, or hour.” What do they actually mean? Six days instead of seven? 11 months instead of 12? Sure, it’s easy to explain that an hour can drag on seemingly forever and a short week can mean time flies by, so why don’t we write that?

Happily, most writers are imaginative enough to come up with their own original phrases rather than rely on the over-used, and yet “stubbed my toe” is so perfect you can almost feel the pain.

rule-of-thumb-idiomI have a book, “The Describer’s Dictionary” that contains oodles of such hackneyed idioms but they do inspire me to create my own if possible. The book is tremendously helpful when trying to find a way to describe, for example, low-elevation clouds. One description offered is “a cloud mass like a formless gray horizontal sheet.”  Would you honestly use that? However, I have found the book invaluable for character physiques, architecture, locales, settings, and surfaces and textures. There is an entire chapter on Necks. Granted, it’s only half a page but it encourages the mind to explore other possibilities.

Chandler’s description of a building in ‘The Long Goodbye” was “The entrance had double stone pillars on each side but the cream of the joint…”Can’t mistake his signature style.

How about Edith Wharton’s “…its front [of the house was] so veiled in the showering  gold-green foliage…” in her novel, “Hudson River Bracketed.”

In Wallace Stegner’s “All the Little Things” he writes about an old house with its sides and roof “weathered silvery as an old rock…” and “…the way three big live oaks twisted like seaweed above the roof…”

What’s your pet peeve when it comes to using idioms?

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JillAmadioHeadJill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport http://www.jillamadio.com

 

 

This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

 

Kitchen Art and Edible Legacies

by Jackie Houchin

I’m so thankful that both my mom and my dad put pen to paper while they were alive to draw and write out lasting legacies for me to cherish now that they are gone.

Our Thanksgiving Dinner

Mom cooked the whole feast, all the fixings and desserts, until way after she had great-grandchildren. When she was no longer able, I took over the task for a few years before handing it down to my daughter-in law who excels in the kitchen.

IMG_4917Now, the week before Thanksgiving I thumb through the 3×5 cards in Mom’s old plastic recipe box, looking for the Cranberry Salad, the Holiday Mincemeat Cake, and the Chiffon Pumpkin Pie recipes. The writing is faint and blurred; the cards are stained. And my heart gives a twist as I picture Mom taking each one out and assembling the ingredients on the counter.  (This “treasured” box came to me 20 months ago when, at 94, she died.)

Six weeks ago my Dad joined her in Heaven. Now they are giving thanks to God continually, not just on our annual holiday.

In cleaning out my dad’s file drawers I found a stack of napkins about five inches high. I thought they were dust cloths for his crafting projects, until I took them out of the plastic bag. Instead of throwaways, I found ‘priceless’ pieces of art that I will treasure alongside my mom’s recipe box.

IMG_4915Daily for a year or so in 1999, Dad sat at their kitchen table and drew stick figure sketches of Mom in various situations, from housecleaning and cooking, to relaxing with a morning coffee on the patio, working a jigsaw puzzle, gardening,  and packing/traveling to Solvang on their anniversary.  Each filmy paper illustration has her comment in a balloon above her head. I can hear her saying them all! I admit, I cried as I looked at each one in the stack.

I’ll share a few of his sketches here, along with two of her “famous” Thanksgiving recipes.

Mom, baking her Chiffon Pumpkin Pies (Thin crusts; never soggy!)

IMG_4898 (Edited)    IMG_4900 (Edited)

Mom’s pie recipe:

  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup canned pumpkin (not pie mix)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 eggs (separated)
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 TBS. plain gelatin
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 2 TBS. granulated sugar
  • 1 baked pie shell

Soak Gelatin in water. Combine brown sugar, pumpkin, milk, egg yolks (lightly beaten), spices and salt.  Cook in top of double boiler until mixture begins to thicken (about 5 minutes)  Add gelatin to hot mixture. Chill until partially congealed. Beat egg whites stiff, but not dry. Beat granulated sugar into egg  whites. Fold into pumpkin mixture.  Pour into baked pie shell. Chill for 1-2 hours or until stiff enough to cut and hold its shape.  Garnish with whipped cream if desired.

Mom’s Cranberry Salad recipe:

  • 1 pound fresh or frozen whole cranberries
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup drained crushed pineapple
  • 1 cup mini marshmallows
  • 1 large package of strawberry Jell-O
  • 1 cup boiling water

Grind (or process) the cranberries roughly. Add sugar. Let set 3 hours.  Add pecans,  pineapple, and marshmallows.  Dissolve Jell-O thoroughly in boiling water. Add to the above mixture and set aside to mold. (When slightly thickened, stir down the marshmallows.)

Gratitude

How glad I am that my parents took time to write out and draw “every day” things.  They may never be published (other than on this blog), but they are as enduring and endearing to me as any literary classic or masterpiece painting.  They are the hearts of my Mom and Dad.

Creativity in any form is a gift from God and destined to bless (or change) someone.  Keep on creating from your heart. You’ll never know who will pick up a piece of “you” and smile (or cry).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving snoopy

“Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good.” Psalm 136.1

#WriteMotivation    !    #Creativity

A Boost Up!

By Jackie Houchin

Boost up2“A boost up”….when someone holds their clasped hands together next to a horse, and you put your foot in like a stirrup, and they propel you upward into the saddle.

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Sometimes a beginner (or lazy) writer needs a boost up into the writing saddle.  That’s where The Write Practice came into the picture for me. (I’m one of those lazy ones!)

The Write Practice

”If you want to become a better writer, you need to practice,” says Joe Bunting, creator of The Write Practice organization and blog. What’s involved? Fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, practicing with fresh writing prompts, unique lessons on technique, and getting feedback from a supportive community.

There are over 1000 practice exercises and lessons on the blog in such categories as; better writing, genre & format, characterization, grammar, journalism, plot & story, writers block, inspirational writing, publishing, and blogging. And it’s free.  http://thewritepractice.com/about/

I’ve attempted two lessons so far in the Short Story category. The first lesson was to read at least six short stories from the many magazine links supplied. The second lesson was to free-write for at least 15 minutes, post what you wrote in the comments section, read three of what other people wrote, and give them brief feedback.  Simple as that; practice writing and give feedback. It’s really the basis for everything Bunting does.

I wrote a short ditty on ‘Pig, Porcupine & Pineapple.’  It was totally fun!  Now to see with my fellow writers say about it

The Becoming Writer Community & Challenge

 If you are ready to go to the next level and start writing finished pieces (and get published), then the Becoming Writer community is the next step. Bunting compares this with what the “Inklings were for Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the expats in Paris were for Hemingway, and the Bloomsbury group was for Woolf.”

I discovered Becoming Writer because membership in it (yes, it does cost a little) was a requirement to submit to The Write Practice’s quarterly short story writing contest. But what you get with membership is a lot more than the contest.

Like the free practice lessons above, you share your writing with a community of writers to get and give feedback.  Actually giving feedback on another’s work helps you when it comes time to edit your own piece.

The Challenge is to write ONE piece EACH WEEK, submitted on Fridays.  It can be a short story, blog post, poem, essay, or a chapter in a book.  This is what us “lazy” writers call accountability.

And finally, besides actually finishing your pieces (Yay!), you get opportunities to submit to magazines like Short Fiction Break, Wordhaus and others.

The feedback on my first piece, an essay I wrote about Africa, brought a suggestion for submission to a specific online magazine. I submitted it and am waiting to hear.  http://thewritepractice.com/members/join

The Fall Contest

This is what caught my attention at first, a writing contest that promised cash prizes, free books, and publication. The theme was “Let’s Fall in Love.” Stories had to contain the two elements FALL and LOVE and be no longer than 1,500 words.  I told myself, “I can do that.”

The name “Autumn Gold” sprang to my mind and I quizzed my writer friends on Facebook as to how a girl with that name might look. The first answer – a stripper – caused me to cringe because that’s not what I had in mind. But when another person confirmed what he said, it left no doubt.

The story I eventually wrote keeps the title “Autumn Gold,” but the girl’s name is Audrey Gould.  I wrote an outline of sorts, showed it to a friend for her opinion, and then pounded out a story about LOVE that takes place in AUTUMN. It was 1,948 words. Lots of cuts and edits later, I submitted it to the Becoming Writer Contest community.

For the contest (548 entrants) the community is divided into ten groups, A–J, with about 40-50 writers in each. I landed in Group D. There are 46 of us, and we’ve become a close-knit group.

I’ve gotten about nine feedbacks on “Autumn Gold,” and I’ve given at least many more on other stories.  Some are VERY good! Others will need some work.  Reading my story’s feedback and the feedback on the other stories has opened my eyes to what works and what doesn’t, and what readers “get” from what you write, even if it’s not what you intended.

Invaluable!

I’m considering rewriting the ending and running it past them one more time. The final deadline to submit the story to the judges is September 4.

Other Programs

The Write Practice offers other programs for writers and authors on building a platform, publishing & marketing, Twitter, and the 100 Day Book challenge.  http://thewritepractice.com/products

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Now I’m up in the saddle. I’m trotting around and loving it. I can’t wait to press my calves against my steed’s sides and rise into a canter.  I needed that boost up.  Do you?  Perhaps you should consider a writing community.

I suggest The Writing Practice. Take advantage of the discipline and the getting and giving of feedback.  Pick the lessons you are interested in and go for it. They are free! You might also consider Becoming Writer.

Or join a critique group and begin giving your work over to new eyes and opinions.

Get up there and get galloping!

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Currently the Becoming Writer and the 100 Day Book programs are closed until next semester.  Future contests in Becoming Writer will be on Flash Fiction, Essay writing, Novels, and Poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free WRITING For Free

WinR profile picJackie Houchin is a Christian writer, book reviewer, and retired photojournalist. She writes articles and reviews on a variety of topics, and occasionally edits manuscripts. She also dabbles in short fiction. “I’m a wife (52 years in Feb/2016), a mom, and a grandma (of adults, sigh!). I enjoy creating Bible craft projects for kids; growing fruits, flowers, and veggies; and traveling to other countries. I also adore cats and kittens and mysteries.”    Follow Jackie on Morning Meditations and Here’s How it Happened

What comes to your mind when you think of free writing?

Do you think of finding a word, idea, scene or photo, and putting your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and… writing whatever comes to mind? (I did that once about salt from a photo of a vintage restaurant saltshaker, giving the condiment a personality. It turned out pretty cool, I thought!)

Or does free writing mean penning something “on spec” which is a fancy way of saying that no money is involved. Or, if you are a newbie writer, maybe you volunteer your services for articles, blog posts, interviews, fillers, etc., for experience and to accumulate “clips.”

Freeing Willie

“Free Writing” – that mind-over-matter, staring-into-space writing that begins with a prompt – is often used by writers and novelists who experience writer’s block, as a way to prime the pump. However it happens, once you get your creative juices or muses moving, your other WIP seems to suddenly take on new life. (And no, my muse’s name is not Willie!)

FREE writing3This kind of free writing invigorates your thought process, sparks ideas that catch fire and burn down forests of paper!! (Sorry, I got a little carried away.)

You don’t have to be “stuck” to make use of free writing. Some writers write from a prompt daily in a journal designated for that purpose. Not only does it kick start their writing, but they archive a huge number of ideas in the process to use later. (See a list of websites at the end that feature prompts for writers.)

Don’t write right

Another method of free writing (I love this one and have recommended it often, but no one ever tries it… or at least has told me they’ve tried it) is to use a left/right brain strategy.  (You have to use a pen or pencil for this one.)

Choose a photo, or even an advertisement from a magazine with at least two people in it, and some background. With your dominant hand, write a brief account of what is happening in the scene (other than the obvious ad line). Include background, clothes, colors, expressions, relationship possibilities, etc.

NEXT, switch hands and write about the same scene with your non-dominant hand.  I was told that your brain will notice different details and story possibilities from the “other” hand’s POV. I didn’t believe it, but I tried it. I was amazed! I did it again using a painting of a village scene this time and the same thing happened!

Try it.  Do.  Then email me (or comment below) the results.

Money Ain’t Everything

FREE writing5The other type of free writing that most wordsmiths don’t like to consider, is writing FOR FREE; not charging a fee, gratis, a lot of work for no pay. Some do it for the experience and to get a name and byline which they can later barter. They think of it as a rite of passage, paying their dues, a necessary evil. (Hey, I love clichés.)

But I bet you’ve done free writing and didn’t even realize it. How about that guest blog? (Okay, you pumped your book.) What about being so wowed by a book you just read, you ran to Amazon or Goodreads and posted a glorious review?

Unless your own blog has a commercial aspect, every post there is virtually free.

FREE editing1How about volunteering to critique or edit a friend’s manuscript? (I edit papers by seminary students in Africa and it is very gratifying.) Or mentoring a newbie writer? (I’m doing that for a friend who’s attempting her first memoir.) How about writing a note of encouragement to an author who’s just lost her editor or publisher, or gotten a stinky review?

These kind of projects are definitely in the “feel good” category but they are still writing. They are lucrative in a non-monetary way, and sometimes the payoff is astounding.

The Bottom Line

Writers write… however and whenever, for whomever, and for whatever pay. They write. WE write.

So WRITE FREE and see what happens.

 

Websites with writing prompts: scene setups, situations, words, and photos:

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts – scenes

http://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/ – brief suggestions

https://dailypost.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/365-days-of-writing-prompts-1387477491.pdf – each day

http://www.writingforward.com/writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts/25-creative-writing-prompts –  brief ideas

http://writeshop.com/creative-writing-photo-prompts-imagination/  – photos

http://writingexercises.co.uk/random-image-generator.php – very cool! a new photo prompt with each click of your mouse.

 

Another Kind of Journalism by Bonnie Schroeder

Bonnie Schroeder is the author of Mending Dreams as well as published short fiction. Find out more about Bonnie at her website.

 

 

 

 

ANOTHER KIND OF JOURNALISM

I came of age in the 1960’s, the era of Hippies and anti-war protests, the Summer of Love and psychedelia. Dropped out of college to marry an art student. Lived in a loft in Downtown Los Angeles before it became the fashionable Arts District.
A lot of good writing material there—if only I’d taken better notes.
I didn’t start keeping a journal, however, until 1974. Here’s the first entry, from January of that year, scribbled in a blue-vinyl-covered spiral-bound notebook: “This journal was a gift from John, who will soon be my ex-husband.”
I didn’t consciously craft that sentence as a story opening; it just came out that way, from my brain to my fingers to the pen on the page. And at least I was able to write authentically about the ups and downs of a no-fault divorce in California.
I’ve become a devoted journal-writer since then and have lost track of the number of notebooks I’ve filled. It’s become a need, a way to preserve and (maybe) make sense of what goes on in my life.
Those lost years in the 60’s? I can research in libraries and online until the cows come home, but it won’t reveal what I personally was thinking and feeling and experiencing in those days. My journal is a repository for all life’s oddball experiences, good and bad, beautiful and ugly—all waiting to spring to life again.
But journal-writing has another, even more valuable application: it’s great writing practice.
For years I worried that I wasn’t doing my journal writing the “right way,” not filling pages with long, elaborate, lyrical descriptions and all that. Then I realized, that’s not necessarily what it’s all about. Journaling is simply practice in putting words on the page and building up those writing muscles.
Whether you intend to or not, once you keep a journal, you do start to notice the world around you more carefully as you strive to record and interpret your experiences, in as much interesting detail as possible. The challenge presents itself without your even trying.
And remember this: nobody’s looking (unless you want them to) so you free yourself to experiment with phrasing and structure, to invent whatever and whoever you want, to create fiction as well as re-create fact.

There are a ton of how-to books on journaling out there. I have two favorites that are especially relevant to me. When I’m feeling stuck or just need a break from my current project, I sometimes turn to them to jump-start my writing in unexpected directions.

·       The CreativeJournal by Lucia Capacchione
·      The NewDiary by Tristine Rainer
As for all those notebooks stashed away in my garage? I finally wised up and started keeping my journals on the computer, using MS Word (and a password protected file.) This has several advantages: my handwriting is horrid (the only D I ever got in school was in penmanship), I don’t have to make room in the file cabinet for yet another notebook, and the entries are searchable in case I want to look something up quickly. I confess, however, that sometimes only the scratch of the pen on paper will quell the writing itch, so I succumb and then in my OCD fashion retype the entry into the digital file “for future reference.”
I didn’t inventjournaling, of course. A lot of writers, better and more well-known than I (hello, Anaïs Nin) have even published their journals. Some have written novels in journal format (one of my personal favorites is Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.) It seems a fairly common trait among writers, this deep-rooted urge to put words on paper, to capture and describe (or invent) their experiences, even if/when their words aren’t meant to be read by anyone else.
So let me ask: do YOU keep a journal? Does it add value to your writing life? If you haven’t been journaling, did this post make you want to consider it?