Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Some ideas need to be coaxed out of your brain.
Every once in a while when I'm drafting a brand new scene, whether it's in the rough drafting process or in revision, to replace material or fill in an obvious hole, I hit a spot where I know roughly what needs to happen, but I don't yet know HOW to present it.

I typically leave a note to myself that's something like this:

[She overhears David and Sarah discussing their relationship]

Side note: Square brackets are useful for these notes-to-self, because they're characters you don't typically use in fiction (unlike parentheses), so the "find" command will help you ferret them out during revision to ensure you address all of your holes.

In my example, I know there will need to be a conversation, and that something will need to be revealed to my eavesdropper that causes CHANGE, because without change, I won't have a scene worthy of being dramatized.

But what? What will be revealed? What kind of change do I need?

It's easy to get very stuck at points like this. So how do you coax your brain to give you the answers? I've found that pounding at the doorway of my mind, demanding my brain to "Tell me!!" tends to have my brain call security to make the annoying writer go away.

Answers to perplexing "how do I present this scene?" problems require a very odd thing: to get out of an anxious fight-or-flight mindset and into one of relaxation. Because the relaxed brain is where good ideas hang out. It's comfy and chill there. No one screams "RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" there.

Here are some ways to tap into your relaxed mind and then seek the answers to your writing dilemma du jour:

Pursue wordless creativity

Engaging in other creative pursuits that are not related to your language center (the speaking, reading, writing part of  your brain) can, surprisingly, help your words flow better when you return to writing. Some things to try:

  • Visual art: color, doodle, draw, paint, make collages with magazine cut-outs, scrapbook, shoot photos, retouch photos, record videos 
  • Tactile/visual craft: knit, crochet, sew, bead, embroider, whittle, carve stone or ice, do woodworking, throw pottery, sculpt with clay, play with PlayDoh
  • Auditory: play an instrument, whistle, hum, sing, drum on household objects ala Stomp.
  • Tactile/scent/taste: cook, bake, decorate baked goods, make candy, can preserves or produce

Get moving

As I mentioned in my post Two Habits That Will Cultivate Creativity, the act of walking has been shown to improve creativity, while one is on the move and for a period shortly afterward. It's the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other that matters, far more than the environment, so when it's frigid and icy outside, hop on a treadmill or roam an indoor shopping center to get the same benefit.

Do something boring and mentally roam

There's a reason all your best ideas come while you're weeding the garden or washing dishes or folding laundry: your full concentration isn't needed. Thus your brain is free to roam around. And because our minds love stories, well, that's the kind of jaunt your mind will want to take. Somewhere more interesting than this weedy plot, bubble-filled sink, or heaping basket.

Draw out and converse with your characters

Once you've gotten to a relaxed state doing one or more of the activities above, invite the characters from the problem scene to hang out with you. If they get chatting among themselves, listen in.

If they're a bit reticent to open up, ask them leading questions, like "how are you feeling in this moment? What are you upset or worried about? What are you desiring or hoping for?" Listen and record. Journal for your character. Pretend you're instant messaging or texting with him or her. Write a letter from your character to the person you need them to interact with (for more "epistle brainstorming" ideas, see THIS post). Be open to hearing the characters' attitudes and emotions especially. Don't press the scene into a particular shape, but simply gather ideas and freewrite, quick and messy.

Do you regularly take time to let your mind relax? Which activities sound like they'd help you most when you need to coax a solution from your subconscious?

Photo credit: pippalou from morguefile.com
11:50 AM Laurel Garver
Some ideas need to be coaxed out of your brain.
Every once in a while when I'm drafting a brand new scene, whether it's in the rough drafting process or in revision, to replace material or fill in an obvious hole, I hit a spot where I know roughly what needs to happen, but I don't yet know HOW to present it.

I typically leave a note to myself that's something like this:

[She overhears David and Sarah discussing their relationship]

Side note: Square brackets are useful for these notes-to-self, because they're characters you don't typically use in fiction (unlike parentheses), so the "find" command will help you ferret them out during revision to ensure you address all of your holes.

In my example, I know there will need to be a conversation, and that something will need to be revealed to my eavesdropper that causes CHANGE, because without change, I won't have a scene worthy of being dramatized.

But what? What will be revealed? What kind of change do I need?

It's easy to get very stuck at points like this. So how do you coax your brain to give you the answers? I've found that pounding at the doorway of my mind, demanding my brain to "Tell me!!" tends to have my brain call security to make the annoying writer go away.

Answers to perplexing "how do I present this scene?" problems require a very odd thing: to get out of an anxious fight-or-flight mindset and into one of relaxation. Because the relaxed brain is where good ideas hang out. It's comfy and chill there. No one screams "RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" there.

Here are some ways to tap into your relaxed mind and then seek the answers to your writing dilemma du jour:

Pursue wordless creativity

Engaging in other creative pursuits that are not related to your language center (the speaking, reading, writing part of  your brain) can, surprisingly, help your words flow better when you return to writing. Some things to try:

  • Visual art: color, doodle, draw, paint, make collages with magazine cut-outs, scrapbook, shoot photos, retouch photos, record videos 
  • Tactile/visual craft: knit, crochet, sew, bead, embroider, whittle, carve stone or ice, do woodworking, throw pottery, sculpt with clay, play with PlayDoh
  • Auditory: play an instrument, whistle, hum, sing, drum on household objects ala Stomp.
  • Tactile/scent/taste: cook, bake, decorate baked goods, make candy, can preserves or produce

Get moving

As I mentioned in my post Two Habits That Will Cultivate Creativity, the act of walking has been shown to improve creativity, while one is on the move and for a period shortly afterward. It's the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other that matters, far more than the environment, so when it's frigid and icy outside, hop on a treadmill or roam an indoor shopping center to get the same benefit.

Do something boring and mentally roam

There's a reason all your best ideas come while you're weeding the garden or washing dishes or folding laundry: your full concentration isn't needed. Thus your brain is free to roam around. And because our minds love stories, well, that's the kind of jaunt your mind will want to take. Somewhere more interesting than this weedy plot, bubble-filled sink, or heaping basket.

Draw out and converse with your characters

Once you've gotten to a relaxed state doing one or more of the activities above, invite the characters from the problem scene to hang out with you. If they get chatting among themselves, listen in.

If they're a bit reticent to open up, ask them leading questions, like "how are you feeling in this moment? What are you upset or worried about? What are you desiring or hoping for?" Listen and record. Journal for your character. Pretend you're instant messaging or texting with him or her. Write a letter from your character to the person you need them to interact with (for more "epistle brainstorming" ideas, see THIS post). Be open to hearing the characters' attitudes and emotions especially. Don't press the scene into a particular shape, but simply gather ideas and freewrite, quick and messy.

Do you regularly take time to let your mind relax? Which activities sound like they'd help you most when you need to coax a solution from your subconscious?

Photo credit: pippalou from morguefile.com

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I admit I shamelessly stole this post title from YA author Sara Zarr. (Though, to be fair, she used the year 2006.) In a recent post, she discussed the gradual shift in her blogging style away from personal posts to podcasts, largely interviews with other authors about creative life.

That's astonishingly brilliant! I'd tell her so if  I had hands.
What struck me about her post was this: "I’m leaving comments off because I really do think that part of blogging is dead (or nearly dead, or at worst gets resurrected as a terrifying zombie made out spam and hate)." I've definitely noticed a trend of diminishing blog commenting, not only here, but on very high-traffic blogs like Janice Hardy's Fiction University. I haven't yet had the displeasure of having to wade through piles of spammy or hateful comments. Mostly, it's just very, very quiet.

You'd think no one cared about blogs anymore.

Except the stats say otherwise. My posts these days average 200 views. Back in 2010, my peak blogging year, a really popular post might garner 80 views and about 40 comments. The ratio of reads to comments could be as high as 50%. Levels of engagement were generally higher. But it came at a cost: you had to keep reaching new readers and comment on their blogs, or the comments would dry up quickly.

I went through a period last year that I burned myself out trying to keep reaching, reaching, reaching like I'd done in 2009 and 2010 and 2011. But engagement would be reciprocated only on a tit-for-tat basis, if at all. I'd have to comment on twenty blogs to get five comments. Talk about discouraging.

And time wasting! I'd meant to finish a book or two last year. I didn't. I think I wasted entirely too much time trying to get 2010 results in a 2014 reality.

Direct engagement on blogs has been on the wane since 2012. I think it's because walking into someone else's space and making remarks is a weird thing to do, when you think about it. You don't typically wander into your neighbors' homes and offer your opinion of their decor, after all. Blogs are really more effective, I've found, for information sharing and educating, rather than building ties.

Other forums are proving more apt for interactions. Facebook is where I'm more likely to have quality back-and-forth,and where most of my former "blogging buddies" now gather (you can friend me HERE if you wish). I haven't entirely hit my stride on Twitter (having to be so pithy feels like writing haiku; I'd rather clean toilets). I use it mostly to share useful things I come across, to make an occasional snarky comment, and to generate traffic for my best blog posts.

I've appreciated Anne R. Allen bringing to my attention the idea of "slow blogging," Write higher quality posts less often and you'll have built something people will be drawn to.

Even if  they don't comment.

I'm becoming more and more okay with that. Are  you?

Dare I ask...What do  you think? Is blog commenting genuinely on the wane? Or is there some deep secret I've been missing?

Photo credit: Mlphoto from morguefile.com
7:30 AM Laurel Garver
I admit I shamelessly stole this post title from YA author Sara Zarr. (Though, to be fair, she used the year 2006.) In a recent post, she discussed the gradual shift in her blogging style away from personal posts to podcasts, largely interviews with other authors about creative life.

That's astonishingly brilliant! I'd tell her so if  I had hands.
What struck me about her post was this: "I’m leaving comments off because I really do think that part of blogging is dead (or nearly dead, or at worst gets resurrected as a terrifying zombie made out spam and hate)." I've definitely noticed a trend of diminishing blog commenting, not only here, but on very high-traffic blogs like Janice Hardy's Fiction University. I haven't yet had the displeasure of having to wade through piles of spammy or hateful comments. Mostly, it's just very, very quiet.

You'd think no one cared about blogs anymore.

Except the stats say otherwise. My posts these days average 200 views. Back in 2010, my peak blogging year, a really popular post might garner 80 views and about 40 comments. The ratio of reads to comments could be as high as 50%. Levels of engagement were generally higher. But it came at a cost: you had to keep reaching new readers and comment on their blogs, or the comments would dry up quickly.

I went through a period last year that I burned myself out trying to keep reaching, reaching, reaching like I'd done in 2009 and 2010 and 2011. But engagement would be reciprocated only on a tit-for-tat basis, if at all. I'd have to comment on twenty blogs to get five comments. Talk about discouraging.

And time wasting! I'd meant to finish a book or two last year. I didn't. I think I wasted entirely too much time trying to get 2010 results in a 2014 reality.

Direct engagement on blogs has been on the wane since 2012. I think it's because walking into someone else's space and making remarks is a weird thing to do, when you think about it. You don't typically wander into your neighbors' homes and offer your opinion of their decor, after all. Blogs are really more effective, I've found, for information sharing and educating, rather than building ties.

Other forums are proving more apt for interactions. Facebook is where I'm more likely to have quality back-and-forth,and where most of my former "blogging buddies" now gather (you can friend me HERE if you wish). I haven't entirely hit my stride on Twitter (having to be so pithy feels like writing haiku; I'd rather clean toilets). I use it mostly to share useful things I come across, to make an occasional snarky comment, and to generate traffic for my best blog posts.

I've appreciated Anne R. Allen bringing to my attention the idea of "slow blogging," Write higher quality posts less often and you'll have built something people will be drawn to.

Even if  they don't comment.

I'm becoming more and more okay with that. Are  you?

Dare I ask...What do  you think? Is blog commenting genuinely on the wane? Or is there some deep secret I've been missing?

Photo credit: Mlphoto from morguefile.com

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Journalists are trained to always ask six core questions when developing a news story: Who? What? Where? When? Why?  How? The corporate world has a clever way of visualizing them: on a six-pointed star. For corporations, the center of the star would list a new product or service, and executives would use the “starburst” to develop key questions to help them think through the practicalities of creating it: Who needs it? What do they want from it? Where do customers ask for this kind of thing? Why might they want it? When can we develop it? How would we manufacture it? The point of the exercise isn’t to develop answers, but merely to generate as many quality questions as possible.

How might starbursting help you generate ideas for your fiction? One of the most effective ways of developing tension in a story is to continually raise questions. Starbursting can help you figure out the kinds of questions to raise for readers, as well as sort out which are the most compelling. From there, you can begin to shape your material around raising those questions and artfully and parsimoniously providing answers.


Here are some examples of questions you might generate:

Who questions

Who has the most to lose in this situation?
Who might be secret allies?
Who would have the most trouble keeping this secret?
Who should the protagonist trust?
Who should the protagonist suspect?
Who would be the best eyewitness?
Who might sabotage the protagonist?

What questions

What does my protagonist most want in this scene?
What outcome does s/he most fear?
What usual coping mechanisms will s/he draw upon?
What emotions will s/he hide?
What skills does s/he need to achieve his/her goal?
What tools does s/he need?
What connections will s/he need to make to achieve his/her goal?
What traits could bring him/her into conflict in this scene?
What traits, good or bad, could hinder the protagonist in his/her quest?

Where questions

Where could I set this scene to maximize the tension?
Where would readers least expect this kind of scene to take place?
Where does the protagonist feel most comfortable and confident?
Where does the protagonist feel most uneasy or incompetent?
Where might my protagonist hide something valuable?
Where would s/he most naturally seek for the lost thing or person?
Where would s/he go for advice?
Where would s/he most stick out as an oddball?

Why questions

Why would the protagonist choose this course of action?
Why does s/he feels so passionately about this cause?
Why does s/he fear this person, place or situation?
Why would s/he trust or distrust this character?
Why might s/he choose to keep this information secret?
Why might s/he let this character get away with wrongdoing?

When questions

When might this argument happen?
When could this scene be set to add the most potential for change and growth?
When does the character’s normal world change?
When is this character apt to be most stubborn? Most pliable?
When might this character most naturally first meet my protagonist?
When should I place the “ticking clock” deadline?
When would my character reach a decision?
When would forces in the story most fittingly come to a head?

How questions

How does this situation follow what came before?
How could I best set up the next plot action?
How might these characters hinder each other?
How will characters obtain the skills and tools they need?
How will the protagonist escape?
How will s/he win back another’s trust?
How will s/he attempt to hinder the antagonist?
How will the antagonist react to this event or action?

If your critique partners frequently point out lack of tension in your stories, it might be due to a failure to keep curiosity piqued. Stop and think like a journalist (or detective). Starburst any big plot point you have planned. You’ll have suddenly have questions to raise as you build up to that moment.

Does raising questions come naturally to you? How might starbursting help you enhance a scene you need to revise? 
12:51 PM Laurel Garver
Journalists are trained to always ask six core questions when developing a news story: Who? What? Where? When? Why?  How? The corporate world has a clever way of visualizing them: on a six-pointed star. For corporations, the center of the star would list a new product or service, and executives would use the “starburst” to develop key questions to help them think through the practicalities of creating it: Who needs it? What do they want from it? Where do customers ask for this kind of thing? Why might they want it? When can we develop it? How would we manufacture it? The point of the exercise isn’t to develop answers, but merely to generate as many quality questions as possible.

How might starbursting help you generate ideas for your fiction? One of the most effective ways of developing tension in a story is to continually raise questions. Starbursting can help you figure out the kinds of questions to raise for readers, as well as sort out which are the most compelling. From there, you can begin to shape your material around raising those questions and artfully and parsimoniously providing answers.


Here are some examples of questions you might generate:

Who questions

Who has the most to lose in this situation?
Who might be secret allies?
Who would have the most trouble keeping this secret?
Who should the protagonist trust?
Who should the protagonist suspect?
Who would be the best eyewitness?
Who might sabotage the protagonist?

What questions

What does my protagonist most want in this scene?
What outcome does s/he most fear?
What usual coping mechanisms will s/he draw upon?
What emotions will s/he hide?
What skills does s/he need to achieve his/her goal?
What tools does s/he need?
What connections will s/he need to make to achieve his/her goal?
What traits could bring him/her into conflict in this scene?
What traits, good or bad, could hinder the protagonist in his/her quest?

Where questions

Where could I set this scene to maximize the tension?
Where would readers least expect this kind of scene to take place?
Where does the protagonist feel most comfortable and confident?
Where does the protagonist feel most uneasy or incompetent?
Where might my protagonist hide something valuable?
Where would s/he most naturally seek for the lost thing or person?
Where would s/he go for advice?
Where would s/he most stick out as an oddball?

Why questions

Why would the protagonist choose this course of action?
Why does s/he feels so passionately about this cause?
Why does s/he fear this person, place or situation?
Why would s/he trust or distrust this character?
Why might s/he choose to keep this information secret?
Why might s/he let this character get away with wrongdoing?

When questions

When might this argument happen?
When could this scene be set to add the most potential for change and growth?
When does the character’s normal world change?
When is this character apt to be most stubborn? Most pliable?
When might this character most naturally first meet my protagonist?
When should I place the “ticking clock” deadline?
When would my character reach a decision?
When would forces in the story most fittingly come to a head?

How questions

How does this situation follow what came before?
How could I best set up the next plot action?
How might these characters hinder each other?
How will characters obtain the skills and tools they need?
How will the protagonist escape?
How will s/he win back another’s trust?
How will s/he attempt to hinder the antagonist?
How will the antagonist react to this event or action?

If your critique partners frequently point out lack of tension in your stories, it might be due to a failure to keep curiosity piqued. Stop and think like a journalist (or detective). Starburst any big plot point you have planned. You’ll have suddenly have questions to raise as you build up to that moment.

Does raising questions come naturally to you? How might starbursting help you enhance a scene you need to revise? 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Kimberly Joy Peters, 2010; School Library Journal
Titles are tricky, no doubt about it. Your title, like your cover art, is an important marketing tool. A good title should communicate in such a way that it appeals to your core audience.

Here are a few things I've gleaned, largely from my experience as a reader.

Intrigue by raising questions

Titles that spark curiosity because they raise a question are often very effective. Consider these examples

Chaim Potok's The Chosen: Why is this person chosen? For what purpose?
Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall: What is beyond it? Something good? Something scary?
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Who are they? Why are they carrying things? What sort of things?
Terry Pratchett's Shall I Wear Midnight: How could someone wear a time of day? What could that mean?

Juxtapose unexpected things

As a reader, I'm quick to click through to a description if the title intriguingly pairs things I don't expect to see together. Some examples:

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Use loaded terms 

Words with a heavy history--whether negative or positive--or an ominous double meaning can similarly intrigue

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Water's Edge by Robert Whitlow

Juxtapose the title's tone with your content

This technique will require some finesse with choosing cover art to bring the dissonance to full force. Consider these examples:

Empress of the Splendid Season  by Oscar Hijuelos: a once-prosperous Cuban woman must rebuild her life in the US working as a cleaning lady.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: The church pageant goes hilariously wrong in every possible way when a family of tough, bad kids are cast in some of the roles.

Allude to other works

Some titles effectively compress an important theme by calling to mind another book, poem, song, etc. in which that same theme is explored.

Sins of the Fathers by Susan Howatch calls to mind a Bible/Torah passage from Exodus 20 about generational patterns of bad behavior
Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard references an R.E.M. song about suicide ideation
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner references a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing," indicating some of the unusual narration experiments that will be part of the experience.

Highlight an evocative line, image or concept used in the story

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore highlights protective measures that fail
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery highlights a line by the precocious tween narrator about self protection
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson highlights a moment when the protagonist's conception of her place in the universe is altered and enlarged

This can sometimes fall flat, if the pet phrase doesn't reflect well the content of the story. Sarah Dessen's Keeping the Moon is an example. Neither of the key words in the title appear much, and it gives the impression that the book will heavily feature stargazing or some nocturnal adventures, or alternately that the story is SciFi/Fantasy when it is in fact realistic fiction about a teen girl's summer gone wrong.

Be cautious about using names

Titles like Julie's Song or Josh's Journey or Eloise don't really tell me anything about the genre or content because I don't know who these people are. In fact, these titles are so vanilla, I expect the book to be similarly bland.

Names can work if they're unusual, like My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok,  Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, or Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, because they hint at another time or culture that will be explored in the story.

Famous people's names will always be a draw, because they anchor your work in a specific set of referents (time, place, area of expertise), giving some sense of what the story is about. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet are some examples.

Including an unusual element with a name will make it stand out. For example, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.

Remember that copying has risks and rewards

If you discover your perfect title has already been used, can you go ahead? Well, yes and no. There are a number of things to consider before taking the plunge.

As far as I know, it's fairly unusual for a title to be trademarked, but it pays to check so you don't get sued. If there are a dozen other works with the same title, you will have trouble standing out. If you copy an unusual title of a well-known work, say The Thorn Birds, expect lots of hate from fans of the original. If the only other work with the same title is by a bestselling author, you can get a boost in visibility in searches BUT (big caveat) if people pick up your work by mistake, they may leave scathing reviews and engage in other trollish behavior because they'll feel duped.

That doesn't mean that mix-ups can't happen that aren't your fault at all. Author Emily Schultz published a book about a decade ago called Joyland. Then Stephen King released a book years later with the same title. Schultz got a big bump in royalties because of reader confusion, but also some big headaches. You can read her story here.

What are some book titles you consider "standouts"? Why do they appeal to you?
1:30 PM Laurel Garver
Kimberly Joy Peters, 2010; School Library Journal
Titles are tricky, no doubt about it. Your title, like your cover art, is an important marketing tool. A good title should communicate in such a way that it appeals to your core audience.

Here are a few things I've gleaned, largely from my experience as a reader.

Intrigue by raising questions

Titles that spark curiosity because they raise a question are often very effective. Consider these examples

Chaim Potok's The Chosen: Why is this person chosen? For what purpose?
Larry Woiwode's Beyond the Bedroom Wall: What is beyond it? Something good? Something scary?
Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried: Who are they? Why are they carrying things? What sort of things?
Terry Pratchett's Shall I Wear Midnight: How could someone wear a time of day? What could that mean?

Juxtapose unexpected things

As a reader, I'm quick to click through to a description if the title intriguingly pairs things I don't expect to see together. Some examples:

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

Use loaded terms 

Words with a heavy history--whether negative or positive--or an ominous double meaning can similarly intrigue

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Water's Edge by Robert Whitlow

Juxtapose the title's tone with your content

This technique will require some finesse with choosing cover art to bring the dissonance to full force. Consider these examples:

Empress of the Splendid Season  by Oscar Hijuelos: a once-prosperous Cuban woman must rebuild her life in the US working as a cleaning lady.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: The church pageant goes hilariously wrong in every possible way when a family of tough, bad kids are cast in some of the roles.

Allude to other works

Some titles effectively compress an important theme by calling to mind another book, poem, song, etc. in which that same theme is explored.

Sins of the Fathers by Susan Howatch calls to mind a Bible/Torah passage from Exodus 20 about generational patterns of bad behavior
Try Not to Breathe by Jennifer R. Hubbard references an R.E.M. song about suicide ideation
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner references a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, "a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing," indicating some of the unusual narration experiments that will be part of the experience.

Highlight an evocative line, image or concept used in the story

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore highlights protective measures that fail
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery highlights a line by the precocious tween narrator about self protection
The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson highlights a moment when the protagonist's conception of her place in the universe is altered and enlarged

This can sometimes fall flat, if the pet phrase doesn't reflect well the content of the story. Sarah Dessen's Keeping the Moon is an example. Neither of the key words in the title appear much, and it gives the impression that the book will heavily feature stargazing or some nocturnal adventures, or alternately that the story is SciFi/Fantasy when it is in fact realistic fiction about a teen girl's summer gone wrong.

Be cautious about using names

Titles like Julie's Song or Josh's Journey or Eloise don't really tell me anything about the genre or content because I don't know who these people are. In fact, these titles are so vanilla, I expect the book to be similarly bland.

Names can work if they're unusual, like My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok,  Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, or Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, because they hint at another time or culture that will be explored in the story.

Famous people's names will always be a draw, because they anchor your work in a specific set of referents (time, place, area of expertise), giving some sense of what the story is about. Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet are some examples.

Including an unusual element with a name will make it stand out. For example, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.

Remember that copying has risks and rewards

If you discover your perfect title has already been used, can you go ahead? Well, yes and no. There are a number of things to consider before taking the plunge.

As far as I know, it's fairly unusual for a title to be trademarked, but it pays to check so you don't get sued. If there are a dozen other works with the same title, you will have trouble standing out. If you copy an unusual title of a well-known work, say The Thorn Birds, expect lots of hate from fans of the original. If the only other work with the same title is by a bestselling author, you can get a boost in visibility in searches BUT (big caveat) if people pick up your work by mistake, they may leave scathing reviews and engage in other trollish behavior because they'll feel duped.

That doesn't mean that mix-ups can't happen that aren't your fault at all. Author Emily Schultz published a book about a decade ago called Joyland. Then Stephen King released a book years later with the same title. Schultz got a big bump in royalties because of reader confusion, but also some big headaches. You can read her story here.

What are some book titles you consider "standouts"? Why do they appeal to you?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com
Characters ought to be more than a name and job title, like Joan Bunderson, special operative or Kyle Kowalski, hockey star. To breathe on the page, your characters need to have an outer life that's relational beyond work and an inner life of passions, drives, attitudes, memories, wounds, and fears.

Below is a fairly exhaustive list of questions to brainstorm when developing a new character, especially the protagonist. Obviously you don't need to know all these things about him or her to proceed with a story. However, wrestling with some of these questions might open up new avenues for inner and outer conflict to arise, or suggest interesting plot or setting elements you hadn't before considered. So choose a few from each menu or tackle them all, your choice.

If interviewing is your favorite research method, you might find it beneficial to find real people with similarities to your character and ask them a few of the questions. Even if your character is quite different personality-wise, a peer of your characters could give you helpful insights.

I suspect some of these questions might be useful for getting to know just about anyone if you're ever at a loss for conversation ideas.

Likes

1. What are your longtime interests or passions?

2. What do you like to do to relax? Have fun?

3. What are your favorite foods?

4. What scents do you love most? Which ones draw up specific memories for you?

5. What textures appeal to you most? What feels nice on your skin?

6. What kinds of music appeal to you? Why?

7. What sounds do you find soothing? Irritating?

8. What shows, movies, or books do you watch and reference over and over?

9. What words of phrases do you find yourself saying all the time?

10. What was your most precious childhood possession?

11. Are you a collector? What do you collect and why?

Experiences

1. What is the coolest place you’ve ever visited?

2. What is your favorite holiday memory?

3. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever observed?

4. What is the funniest thing you’ve ever done?

5. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

6. What accomplishments are you most proud of?

7. What’s the worst illness or injury you’ve ever had?

8. What is the kindest thing anyone has done for you?

9. What is the most memorable gift you ever received?

10. What’s the meanest thing someone has done to you?

11. Have you ever posted, emailed, or texted something you wish you could take back?

12. What’s your most memorable moment with eavesdropping?

13. What is the weirdest secret you ever discovered?

14. What pranks, jokes, hoaxes or tricks have you ever fallen for or perpetrated?

Relationships

1. Do you find it easy or hard to get to know people?

2. What do you love most about your family? Dislike most?

3. How are you like your parents? How are you different?

4. What unique traditions have been passed down in your family?

5. What qualities do you value most in a friend?

6. What makes someone attractive/dating material to you?

7. Who are your role models? Who do you admire and look up to?

8. Who do you fight with most? What do you fight about?

9. What kinds of people do you feel awkward around? Why?

10. How do you feel about people in authority?

Inner life

1. What do you worry about most?

2. Do you have any phobias? What kinds of things scare you?

3. What makes you feel most at peace?

4. How do you calm yourself when you are upset or anxious?

5. What bad habit do you most wish you could give up?

6. What injustices make you most upset?

7. How do you react when you are provoked?

8. How do you relate to money and possessions? How important is wealth to you? Why? Are you carefree or worried about gains and losses?

Dreams

1. What crazy adventure do you dream of taking?

2. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

3. If you could magically acquire a new talent, what would you choose?

4. What would your dream home be like?

5. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?

6. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?

7. If you could time travel, what time period would you like to visit?

8. If you could have a superpower (or two), what would you choose?

9. If someone could magically cure one of your deepest fears, which would you choose?

Which of these questions strike you as most helpful? What other favorite character development questions do you use? 
12:10 PM Laurel Garver
Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com
Characters ought to be more than a name and job title, like Joan Bunderson, special operative or Kyle Kowalski, hockey star. To breathe on the page, your characters need to have an outer life that's relational beyond work and an inner life of passions, drives, attitudes, memories, wounds, and fears.

Below is a fairly exhaustive list of questions to brainstorm when developing a new character, especially the protagonist. Obviously you don't need to know all these things about him or her to proceed with a story. However, wrestling with some of these questions might open up new avenues for inner and outer conflict to arise, or suggest interesting plot or setting elements you hadn't before considered. So choose a few from each menu or tackle them all, your choice.

If interviewing is your favorite research method, you might find it beneficial to find real people with similarities to your character and ask them a few of the questions. Even if your character is quite different personality-wise, a peer of your characters could give you helpful insights.

I suspect some of these questions might be useful for getting to know just about anyone if you're ever at a loss for conversation ideas.

Likes

1. What are your longtime interests or passions?

2. What do you like to do to relax? Have fun?

3. What are your favorite foods?

4. What scents do you love most? Which ones draw up specific memories for you?

5. What textures appeal to you most? What feels nice on your skin?

6. What kinds of music appeal to you? Why?

7. What sounds do you find soothing? Irritating?

8. What shows, movies, or books do you watch and reference over and over?

9. What words of phrases do you find yourself saying all the time?

10. What was your most precious childhood possession?

11. Are you a collector? What do you collect and why?

Experiences

1. What is the coolest place you’ve ever visited?

2. What is your favorite holiday memory?

3. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever observed?

4. What is the funniest thing you’ve ever done?

5. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

6. What accomplishments are you most proud of?

7. What’s the worst illness or injury you’ve ever had?

8. What is the kindest thing anyone has done for you?

9. What is the most memorable gift you ever received?

10. What’s the meanest thing someone has done to you?

11. Have you ever posted, emailed, or texted something you wish you could take back?

12. What’s your most memorable moment with eavesdropping?

13. What is the weirdest secret you ever discovered?

14. What pranks, jokes, hoaxes or tricks have you ever fallen for or perpetrated?

Relationships

1. Do you find it easy or hard to get to know people?

2. What do you love most about your family? Dislike most?

3. How are you like your parents? How are you different?

4. What unique traditions have been passed down in your family?

5. What qualities do you value most in a friend?

6. What makes someone attractive/dating material to you?

7. Who are your role models? Who do you admire and look up to?

8. Who do you fight with most? What do you fight about?

9. What kinds of people do you feel awkward around? Why?

10. How do you feel about people in authority?

Inner life

1. What do you worry about most?

2. Do you have any phobias? What kinds of things scare you?

3. What makes you feel most at peace?

4. How do you calm yourself when you are upset or anxious?

5. What bad habit do you most wish you could give up?

6. What injustices make you most upset?

7. How do you react when you are provoked?

8. How do you relate to money and possessions? How important is wealth to you? Why? Are you carefree or worried about gains and losses?

Dreams

1. What crazy adventure do you dream of taking?

2. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

3. If you could magically acquire a new talent, what would you choose?

4. What would your dream home be like?

5. If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?

6. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?

7. If you could time travel, what time period would you like to visit?

8. If you could have a superpower (or two), what would you choose?

9. If someone could magically cure one of your deepest fears, which would you choose?

Which of these questions strike you as most helpful? What other favorite character development questions do you use? 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I'm a big advocate of talking to real people as part of your routine research for novel writing. Internet research and books can be a good starting place, but these sources can't provide the rich details you need to make certain careers or time periods or phenomenon come alive on the page. You need to tap into eyewitness sources and draw on the experiences and expertise of real people who are intimately familiar with these things.
By George Armstrong, FEMA Library, via Wikimedia Commons

I talk in THIS post about making connections with experts (hint: they are often closer than you think). Today, I'd like to share some very basic tips about how to conduct an interview. These skills are sadly not taught much outside of journalism programs these days.

How to conduct a fiction research interview


  • Begin by breaking the ice. Explain the kind of fiction you write and why you sought out this person’s help. A little flattery can warm up your subject, as can mentioning a mutual friend or acquaintance. 
  • Get the person’s permission to record the conversation, and clarify how you plan to use the information—as background or to lend authenticity to characters, setting, and plot. Many subjects are far more relaxed if they know they aren’t going to be directly cited and/or quoted like in a news story. 
  • Move on to an open-ended inquiry that gets the source talking about his or her favorite subject. 
  • Be sure to ask your most important question early on. If your interviewee is time pressed, they might end up cutting the interview short.
  • Get in the habit of asking basic follow up questions to garner more detailed responses. “Why is that?” or “What do you mean?” can keep the person talking. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask what might feel like naive questions. Even if you’ve done your homework, there are bound to be new ideas and terms that come up that you’re unfamiliar with. No one person can know know everything. Usually your source will be glad to fill in your knowledge gaps.
  • You might need to keep circling back to a topic if the interviewee hasn’t adequately addressed it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person is being evasive. Some people need to warm up when discussing a topic, or they’ll respond better if you reword a question. “I’m having trouble understanding what you meant by ____” or “could we go back to ____?” are gentle segues that won’t feel like a police interrogation.
  • Endure awkward silences; they can be beneficial, as counterintuitive as that might sound. When a subject gives you a generic or rehearsed answer, don’t rush to keep the flow going by chattering away and zipping on to the next question. Instead, simply sit quietly and wait. Most of the time, your interviewee will sense you are anticipating more response and will oblige by volunteering more information.
  • Give the subject an opportunity to sum up, or do a final fill-in. Ask, “Is there anything else you think I should know that I didn’t ask about?” 
  • Get permission to e-mail follow-up questions to them, or to a colleague or subordinate. Don’t assume this person can give you all the time in the world. 
  • Express your gratitude for their time and expertise. Follow up with written thanks, even if by e-mail or text message.

Helpful Resource: Garrett, Annette. Interviewing: Its Principles and Methods. New York: Family Association of America, 1982.

Does interviewing as part of your research excite or intimidate you? Why?

8:59 AM Laurel Garver
I'm a big advocate of talking to real people as part of your routine research for novel writing. Internet research and books can be a good starting place, but these sources can't provide the rich details you need to make certain careers or time periods or phenomenon come alive on the page. You need to tap into eyewitness sources and draw on the experiences and expertise of real people who are intimately familiar with these things.
By George Armstrong, FEMA Library, via Wikimedia Commons

I talk in THIS post about making connections with experts (hint: they are often closer than you think). Today, I'd like to share some very basic tips about how to conduct an interview. These skills are sadly not taught much outside of journalism programs these days.

How to conduct a fiction research interview


  • Begin by breaking the ice. Explain the kind of fiction you write and why you sought out this person’s help. A little flattery can warm up your subject, as can mentioning a mutual friend or acquaintance. 
  • Get the person’s permission to record the conversation, and clarify how you plan to use the information—as background or to lend authenticity to characters, setting, and plot. Many subjects are far more relaxed if they know they aren’t going to be directly cited and/or quoted like in a news story. 
  • Move on to an open-ended inquiry that gets the source talking about his or her favorite subject. 
  • Be sure to ask your most important question early on. If your interviewee is time pressed, they might end up cutting the interview short.
  • Get in the habit of asking basic follow up questions to garner more detailed responses. “Why is that?” or “What do you mean?” can keep the person talking. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask what might feel like naive questions. Even if you’ve done your homework, there are bound to be new ideas and terms that come up that you’re unfamiliar with. No one person can know know everything. Usually your source will be glad to fill in your knowledge gaps.
  • You might need to keep circling back to a topic if the interviewee hasn’t adequately addressed it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person is being evasive. Some people need to warm up when discussing a topic, or they’ll respond better if you reword a question. “I’m having trouble understanding what you meant by ____” or “could we go back to ____?” are gentle segues that won’t feel like a police interrogation.
  • Endure awkward silences; they can be beneficial, as counterintuitive as that might sound. When a subject gives you a generic or rehearsed answer, don’t rush to keep the flow going by chattering away and zipping on to the next question. Instead, simply sit quietly and wait. Most of the time, your interviewee will sense you are anticipating more response and will oblige by volunteering more information.
  • Give the subject an opportunity to sum up, or do a final fill-in. Ask, “Is there anything else you think I should know that I didn’t ask about?” 
  • Get permission to e-mail follow-up questions to them, or to a colleague or subordinate. Don’t assume this person can give you all the time in the world. 
  • Express your gratitude for their time and expertise. Follow up with written thanks, even if by e-mail or text message.

Helpful Resource: Garrett, Annette. Interviewing: Its Principles and Methods. New York: Family Association of America, 1982.

Does interviewing as part of your research excite or intimidate you? Why?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I've decided to move my regular weekly posting day to Wednesdays. See you tomorrow!
8:24 AM Laurel Garver
I've decided to move my regular weekly posting day to Wednesdays. See you tomorrow!