Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Your Weekly Writing Exercise--Pick One Memory

A writer from Minneapolis emailed me: "I just came across an idea for your writing exercises. You may have heard of it already, but it's a new one to me and has me quite intriqued as to how I'll write about it. It was in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune under theatre performances."

Here's the exercise, from Workhouse Theatre Company: "You are passing through to eternity, and you must select one memory you can take with you--of everything you've ever done, felt or thought. You have one hour. Choose."

Cool idea. Use it for your writing this week. What memory--of everything--would you take with you? Write about it. Click here to learn more about Workhouse.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Does Your Writing Show or Tell? Learn from Robert Olen Butler

Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Showing is a demonstration of emotion through specific details. Telling can bring in an almost intellectual assessment of what happened. Showing, the opposite, requires very little intellectual language. It relies instead on sensory detail (smells, sights, sounds).   While telling backs away from the moment, summarizing feelings from a distance, showing places the reader squarely in it. 

The key to showing is to demonstrate. This means not interpreting the things you are placing in front of us.

Robert Olen Butler, author of many wonderful stories and novels and instructor at this writing at Florida State University’s MFA program, talks about this in his book From Where You Dream (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2005). To deliver emotion in its purest form, don’t dilute it with interpretation. Butler observed that emotion can be delivered to a reader (shown, versus told) generally in five ways. Here is my translation of his terms:

• what I am feeling inside my body (goosebumps on my arm, itchy foot, tight throat)

• what I am observing in your gestures and movements (tearing a small paper napkin into bits, jiggling foot)

• specific memory

• fear, anticipation, desire (projections into future)

• sense selectivity (during moments of extreme emotion, all but one sense goes away)

During the developing stage of book writing, whenever I need to change a scene to more “showing,” I will go through Butler’s list and ask myself how I can bring in one of these.

This week, translate a passage that "tells" into one that "shows," using one of the above techniques.  What happened?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Your Creative Vocal Chords--How to Warm Them Up

William Wordsworth said, "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart."  We're not all poets.  But all of us have these breathings of the heart, which some call voice.

Voice is your passion, your style, the things you must write, the way you must write them.  But voice can easily be squelched.  It can go through silent passages, coming out in a mere whisper.  The biggest problem in silent passages is that you don’t know they’re happening at first. They start innocently—a tiny bit of boredom with your characters, a chapter that feels rough with no inspiring fixes. These pile up and an overactive Inner Critic can make them seem worse. Slowly the silence inside the writer grows, until words trickle to a stop.

Educator Steve Peha from Teaching That Makes Sense http://www.ttms.org/ says voice is a combination of choices a writer makes. In other subjects, we all learn the same rules and theories.  Think:  math equations, history facts.  Creative writing is supposed to showcase the individual and how individual they can be and still communicate well.

“Everyone’s writing needs to be different from everyone else’s,” writes Peha. “The set of all the different choices a writer makes, and the collective effect they have on the reader, is what is often called ‘voice’ in a piece of writing.” Choices include your style of language, the words you use, the length of your sentences and paragraphs, tone.  Just like in conversation.

And conversation--with yourself--is the key.  Having a regular writing practice is the single most important way to gain and belief in yourself, and keep the writing voice warmed up.

This week, try writing every day for 5 minutes.  Just 5 minutes.  Observe the excuses and grumblings that might float (or thud) in during the first few days.  Then observe what happens once your voice gets warmed up. 

Check in here to let our book-writing community know how your 5 minutes/day went. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Pace Yourself: An Exercise to Create Rhythm in Your Writing

Like changing seasons that move elegantly into each other, a good book has an almost invisible rhythm called pacing.

Excellent pacing creates music a reader can resonate with. Pacing makes writing memorable.

An Important Tool for Your Writing
Pacing is one of the most complex and exciting tools in book writing. It’s the speed of the story, the balance of anecdotes and concepts, the ebb and flow of the writing. Pacing determines your paragraph and sentence lengths, where you put in a line of dialogue, where you muse, where you wax lyrical over a setting.

Two-Page Squint
To study how different writers deliver pacing to a reader—find a favorite book.  Open it, hold two pages up, squint at them, and see the balance of white space to text. Notice how conversation sections have more white space, description has less. So dialogue usually equals faster pace, and description (summary) equals slower pace.

Studying the Pacing in Your Own Writing
Now study the pacing in your own work.  For this week's exercise, find two favorite pages of your writing.  Read it aloud. 

Freewrite for 10 minutes on these questions:
What rhythm do you perceive?
Is the pacing fast or slow?
Where does it vary?