Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Do Some Great Research--On Your Characters!

Your book has a major and minor cast, whether you're writing fiction, memoir, or nonfiction. People move stories, illustrate theories and ideas, and rumble in the background of all great literature. It's up to you, the writer, to get to know them.

This week, interview your main players. Find out some important details about them. You can start with the questions below, which I use whenever I need to get deeper into my story and the motivation of my players.

1. What’s your height, weight, eye color, hair color?
2. What do you like or dislike about your looks?
3. How old are you really?
4. How do you feel about your age?
5. What three things are in your refrigerator?
6. What sort of work do you do?
7. What’s your favorite possession?

Just take good notes. Be a researcher for your own book. You might learn some new things!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Disguises and Masks: A Great Way to Understand and Uncover Your Book's Characters

What's behind the veil? If everyone in literature wears a disguise or mask that veils their true self, what are your book's major players hiding behind?

This week's writing exercise asks you to unmask these folks through a series of nitty-gritty questions. Spend about 20-30 minutes on this exercise, if you can. Be prepared to dig and learn!

Pick one of your characters and write an answer to one of these questions, as if you were interviewing them.

1. What broke your heart?
2. What do people who know you think of you?
3. Who would you eliminate from your life?
4. What do you wish never happened to you?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mixing Things Up--A Recipe to Break the Block

Alison McGhee, writing instructor and author of many wonderful novels including Shadow Baby, once taught a very effective exercise in a writing class I attended. She had three lists on the whiteboard: people, different ages (such as 13 year old, 2 year old), and different objects. She asked us to choose one from each list and write a scene.

I loved it. It led to the pivotal theme for my new novel, Qualities of Light, which will be published in 2009 by Spinsters Ink.

Here's an adaptation of Alison's idea. You can try it this week, if you want. It's very effective for getting out of a writing rut.

Set a timer for 20 minutes. Write a scene that takes place in one of these places:
in a bus stop shelter in downtown Minneapolis
at O'Hare's airport security
streetside cafe in Gordes, France
laundromat in Gillette, Wyoming
riverside picnic area

Where there's an argument about one of these objects:
silver coin
piece of sea glass
cell phone that doesn't work

Mix them up--one from each list--and see what happens!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Great Exercise from Listen to Me's Lynn Lauber

In her excellent book on writing craft, Listen to Me, memoirist Lynn Lauber writes: "If you find yourself telling the same story over and over, but in a way you don't find satisfying, try changing person or point of view."

I've used this technique to get a new viewpoint on my characters, especially when I feel the icy chill of writer's block.

Try it right now. Take a story you know well, from your life or your writing, and tell it from someone else's point of view. Tell it anew, seen from your dog's eyes. Or your grandfather's. Or, instead of the fictional character Jason's, try his partner Monique's. Write for 20 minutes or two pages' worth. See what happens when you break out of the known voice or view.

Can you catch a new image of where the writing could go from here?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Slowing Down--and Engaging the Creative Brain?

Sometimes the best writing comes when we're slow, dreamy, not thinking about accomplishing anything. Does this happen to you?

Maybe it's because the right brain engages, that non-linear side of our creative selves. This week, I spent many lovely hours immersed in a book that talks about this right-brain gift to creative folks: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Dr. Taylor is a brain scientist who wrote about having a left-brain stroke that changed her entire way of being in the world. Suddenly without any linear perception or abilities, she came to appreciate the "wholeness" of her right-brain self. Of course, we need both sides of ourselves to function, but in today's world, we tend to use one or the other predominantly.

Open a blank document right now, on your computer, or in your writer’s notebook—wherever you’re reading this post. Call it Random Right-Brain Ideas. Begin a list of ten things you think of, smell or hear, see as you look around your room or office.

Sometime later today—or right now, if you can—set a timer for 20 minutes and pick one of these to write about. Do a “freewrite” where you don’t edit, just let yourself go into slowness and see what’s hanging out there.

Later, look at the writing and ask yourself how it connects to anything important in your life, a question you’ve been wondering about. Or your writing project?