Sunday, February 28, 2016

Getting Around the Block

This is the year you’re going to write that novel that’s been calling to you for years. Your great idea has become a workable plot and you’re happy with the characters you’ve created. The words are flowing as your story unfolds… until suddenly… they aren’t. It seems you have lost your ability to write.

This breakdown in creativity, often called writer’s block, is so scary because every day that passes increased the fear that it won’t end. We fear that the writing sponge is dry and that this mental paralysis is permanent. I assure you that if you’re really a writer the block won’t last long. Still, when it strikes what do you do about it?

Maybe you’re staring at a blank screen because you just don’t know what you want to write about next.  This only looks and feels like a problem, because there are ideas everywhere. And if you did a good job creating your outline (described in previous blogs) you’ll always know what happens in the next chapter.

But what if that doesn’t feel right, or you just can’t figure out how to get into the scene? I suggest pulling back from the work in progress and do some writing exercises. Try imagining what it would be like if an important moment in your own life had happened differently. Or, try writing some fan fiction. Using existing characters lets you get right into the action. Write a scene in which someone dies, or someone falls in love, or write a totally made-up story about someone who really makes you angry. One of these will certainly get the words flowing again and you can get back to real story.

Sometimes writer’s block can come when you have lots of great ideas but can’t seem to commit to any of them. Maybe that novel idea looks like a short story in execution. Or you just lose interest in your idea a few paragraphs in.  In my experience, that’s the signal to put those ideas aside. If I can’t make something work I figure it means the idea is not letting me tell the story I really want to tell.   I may only know that subconsciously, but it surely means that my brain is picking through some phantom list searching for the right idea, and I’m getting close. I’ll bet it’s the same for you.

There are other issues that can drain your motivation or trap you with writer’s block. But keep writing and we’ll talk about some of these other issues next week.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Who Knows Where Or When?

You’ve decided to really become a writer this year. You have an idea and you’ve grown that idea into a plot. Now, whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, genre or literary, it’s time to get down to it. But every writer’s process is different and it’s time to find yours.

Where will you best tap into your muse? For some of us, the best place is a home office. I really like settling down at my desk in a small room that is used only for writing. The walls are lined with bookshelves that are full to overflowing. Being surrounded by my role models is inspiring, and seems to help the words flow.

Other writers crave the wide open spaces to create. You may find the sounds of backyard birds to be the perfect white noise. Sunshine and the gentle breeze on the deck or porch can be the perfect mental assists for some authors, and you don’t have to travel away from home. 

But I know some writers who can’t produce at home. for some writers peace and quiet dampens their creativity. They work better in the midst of chaos. So sitting in a nearby coffee shop or fast food restaurant may be your thing. None of the distractions of home can intrude: your kids, bills, favorite TV shows and too-comfortable favorite chair are all out of reach.

After settling on where you want to write you should figure out your perfect time of day. I believe each individual has a best time to write, based on their own bio rhythms. Whether or not I’m right, some writers I know say they are much more productive in the wee hours of the morning than any other time. Some only work in the middle of the night.  Others devote their mornings to other pursuits and get down to the writing in the afternoon. I do my best creative work during and around the lunch hour.

I’ve found unexpected advantages to writing at the same time every day. The mind is a creature of habit and responds to some stimuli just the way Pavlov’s dog did. If you write at the same time every day you may find, as I have, that your brain is warmed up and ready to create when you sit down at the keyboard. I can stop in the middle of a chapter, or sometimes even the middle of a sentence, and when I return the next day I can pick up exactly where I left off.

Spend the next week deciding where and when. Next week we’ll talk more about how you write, and how to stay motivated.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Short Story Success

Not all great writers are novelists!

Today's guest blogger, Nancy Sakaduski, is an award-winning writer and editor who owns Cat & Mouse Press and runs the Rehoboth Beach Short Story Contest. She helps writers perfect their short stories and prepare them for publication, and offers writing tips and advice through her blog and newsletters. Today she shares some tips from her new book, How to Write Winning Short Stories.

Some people assume that a short story is just a pared down novel, but that isn’t true any more than a single joke is a short version of a stand-up routine. Short stories contain many of the components of a novel, but those elements must be realized in a short format that forces discipline and economy.

Getting published establishes you as a professional and helps you build a bio. Short stories can be easier to get published because there are many outlets, including magazines, anthologies, and contests.

Contests force you to read guidelines and write to a deadline and word count, which is good practice. They are generally inexpensive to enter, and if you win, you may get cash, publication, or both. Even established writers can benefit from contests.
To get the judges’ attention, go beyond the expected. Read the tips for any contest and you will find phrases such as “stories that break the mold,” “that essential quality,” and “something new.” This means that to win a contest, you will need a memorable main character, a unique story that captivates, and a premise, situation, or setting that is unusual.
Where’s the twist? Look for a way to take your premise a step in another direction. A guy decides to rob a bank—okay, but what if when he arrives he finds a bank robbery already in process? A woman decides to break up with her boyfriend—okay, but what if he’s suddenly gone missing? Keep intensifying the conflicts and you’ll ramp up the appeal of your story.
Open with a bang. Spend the time to create a great title. Like the frame of a painting, the title should set your work off to its best advantage, not just package it. Next, craft a fantastic opening line and an attention-grabbing first paragraph. Hook readers as quickly as possible with action, dialogue, and intrigue.

Tap into a theme. Even a light, humorous story can touch on a deeper idea (“there’s no place like home,” “crime doesn’t pay,” “love is blind”), just don’t be too obvious. Let elements in the story take on greater meaning as the story progresses, so readers can discover their significance and recognize the message on their own. Theme is often revealed when characters come into conflict or when the protagonist faces the central challenge. It’s what the story “is about” at its core.

Take time with the ending. A good ending satisfies the reader, is in keeping with the genre and mood, is plausible for the characters and the story, and contains a bit of a surprise or revelation. It doesn’t have to answer every question, but it should satisfy the reader. Ideally, the ending arises naturally from the conflict in the story and often circles back to echo the beginning. The ending is where the publisher or contest judge pushes back in the chair and says “wow.”
Want more? Pick up the new book How to Write Winning Short Stories by Nancy Sakaduski - 
and learn more about Nancy at

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Conflicting Stories

We’ve been focused on building a strong plot which requires some sort of conflict in every scene. There should be a central conflict that runs through your whole story, but it’s pretty difficult to have that in every beat.    

So in addition to the central conflict, it’s good to have a chronic conflict.  This underlying conflict can provide the opportunity for beats that don’t grow from the central conflict… sort of a rest from the big picture.  In the movie Die Hard the central conflict is between McCain and a terrorist who has taken hostages. But to give us a break from all that action, there are scenes dedicated to his chronic conflict with his wife. And the cool thing about chronic or underlying conflicts is that they don’t necessarily have to be resolved at the end of the story.

You’re also going to want to add internal conflicts. These scenes can help characterization.  Internal conflicts grow from flaws in your protagonist – things we readers want to see the hero work on. In Star Wars the there is a chronic conflict between Luke and his family’s plans for him, and the internal conflict is Luke’s lack of confidence about his ability to live up to his destiny.

Other beats in your story can grow from transient conflicts.  In Star Wars those might be the arguments between Luke and Han Solo, and between Solo and Leia.  Even in scenes that require boring background exposition, those transient conflicts keep the scenes from being boring.

So in your plotting process you see all the conflicts you have to work with in your story.  Often this is when the theme begins to emerge.  It’s generally an organic thing, kind of mystical actually, growing out of the hero’s objective and his environment and his character flaws. 

So be aware of scene-to-scene conflict as you plan, in order, the actual events that will take place during your hero’s journey toward success.  It doesn’t need to be as obvious as the Odyssey, but that is still the basic pattern.

Each beat requires characters.  Whoever gets in the way, whoever helps out, whoever our hero has to talk to for information, becomes a character.  One of the pleasant unintended consequences of this approach is that you don’t end up with any characters who don’t promote the plot.

Now, when you have enough beats to take up 80,000 to 100,000words, you have a plot. Now it’s time to start writing. But before you do, you want to put the caps on. At one end you need a good strong hook that gets your reader’s attention and tells him what kind of book it is.  At the other end, you need to wrap up all the loose ends. 

Now that you’re ready to create some timeless prose, we will consider what kind of process suits you. Next week we get down to it!