Monday, July 27, 2009

Linkage--A Great Technique to Beat the (Writer's) Block

Like boards on a fence, sentences tie together thoughts. But too tied up, they lead to blocked creativity. Enter linkage, a technique that beats the block and keeps the gate open.
I learned about linkage years ago. Maybe in a writing class, maybe from a colleague. Since I heard this simple technique, I've read that it's used by many professional authors. Try it this week--it'll help you keep momentum between writing sessions. Here's how it works: Simply leave your last sentence of the day unfinished.

For example, instead of ending a writing session with a complete sentence, which leaves no "linkage" to the next day's work, I leave the sentence hanging.

Not "Molly looked out the window and saw the blue Ford Escort." But "Molly looked out the window and saw..."

Why does linkage work so well? Because the mind hates a vacuum. Overnight (or over several days, if you write less often) your creative mind will explore options for ending this sentence. It will drive you a little crazy--a good thing! You will itch to get back to the page to finish the thought.
Simple, huh? Harder than it looks. You'll want to finish the thought and wrap it up. Clean as you go. But repress the urge and leave it hanging.

Along with a little crazy, linkage will drive you back to your writing faster than anything I know.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Entering Your Story through the Smallest Detail--an Exercise with Buttons

I'm moving to a new home and office this month, so I'm cleaning out forgotten closets and cupboards and files. I found a large jar of buttons collected from friends who love to sew.

So when a writing colleague passed along this great exercise, I had to try it. It's by writer Roz Goddard, and it uses the tiniest of ojects--a button--to get deeper into a story. I tried it in my classes and many of the writers found it helpful for uncovering aspects of character that had eluded them.

Click here to try it out.

Imagine using it for one of your main players in your book. Let your limitations go, and see what comes. For memoir or nonfiction writers, use your imagination while trying the exercise, then ask: How is this person I've just written about similar or different to someone in my book? (This brings your freewrite back to factual truth, which is essential for these genres. But the imaginative qualities of fiction-writing will open doors you won't believe!)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Dilemma, Players, Container--Three Essentials for Chapter One

My summer session writing class is climbing mountains! They're working on chapter one of their books--perhaps the hardest chapter to write. It has to establish three essential elements that pull the reader into your story. These elements are key to successfully placing your manuscript with an agent. If you don't have them securely in place, you won't get a contract. They exist in any genre of book, if you know how to find them.

Three Steps to an Eye-Catching Chapter One
Chapter one is often the chapter agents request, if you're lucky enough to write an eye-catching query letter. So this initial chapter is a make-or-break experience. If an agent loves it, they'll ask for more. If not, "Sorry, it's not for us."

I've found most great books--in any genre--hint at these three elements in chapter one. Dilemma (the conflict, the question). Players (who's on stage, who should we care about). Container (the place everything happens, both outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment).

These elements create a kind of tension cord. It pulls the reader through your book to the last page. If they are not all in place, the cord is slack.

Entering Your Book via Your Natural Strength
Every writer has one of these as a natural, almost unconscious, strength. A mystery writer might think up plots--dilemma. She would enter her story from the question What happens? But she might overlook the place it happens, and the characters who are complicating things and getting deeper into trouble. So her story is interesting but the agent or editor might say, "Your prose needs tightening." Read: "Two elements are missing here; plug them in." Or, most important: "Make us care!"

A medical memoirist might also think of dilemma first--the accident that left him in a wheelchair, for instance. Event is what matters most to him, but the reader engages through first caring about his dilemma--or character. So the memoirist must begin to reveal himself on the page, more and more. Not always comfortable, but essential.

A psychologist writing a book on mental illness might think first of players--the people she counsels at the clinic or hospital, their personalities. She presents their background, their case histories (disguised or with permission), but she can't figure out how to place them in a setting that's believable. She begins to write the setting--a hospital--and suddenly we see the frailty of these people because we smell the antiseptic or hear the intercom paging doctors.

Your job is to think of all three, no matter which strength you build from. And they all must appear in chapter one.

How Does Chapter One Reveal Dilemma, Players, and Container?
I just read the opening chapter--only three pages long--of Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied. Blundell won the National Book Award for this novel. Her first chapter made me want to buy the book. Because it covers all three elements.

We learn of the main players first--a mother who smells of cigarette smoke and My Sin perfume, the young daughter who pretends to be sleeping beside her, the brother who may have died tragically, the father who left, the mysterious friend. We learn of the dilemma--a small reference to the beach town and how everyone knows the family's faces because they've been in the news recently. Blundell also creates an amazingly engaging container, both physically and emotionally, with lines like "The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast" or "I heard the seagulls crying, sadder than a funeral, and I knew it was almost morning."

This Week's Writing Exercise
Want to join my writing class--at least virtually--this week? Try focusing on chapter one. Can you draft it--or look it over if it's already written--and check it for these three elements. What's missing? What's already present?

Then find a favorite published book in your genre. Read it to learn how the writer presents dilemma, players, container in the first chapter. How were you hooked into reading on?

How can you change your chapter one to be as successful?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Keeping Your Book Project Alive--While Living a Normal Life

Michelle Goodman is the author of two really good books, helpful to writers and anyone seeking a creative life. First, she quit the 9 to 5 and wrote a guide on how to do it--The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Then she wrote another book on how to be a successful freelancer--My So-Called Freelance Life--that gives practical advice to anyone trying to earn their living by doing what they love.

I interviewed Michelle about her book-writing journey. Hopefully some of her ideas will be useful to you too--as they provide the idea for this week's writing exercise.

MCM: What do you do to keep your faith in your book projects during the tough times that hit every author?

Michelle Goodman: Enlist a couple of close writing friends to read my pages for major gaffes or holes and to talk me off of the ledge as necessary. Tape reminders of what I want to accomplish with the book to the wall behind my computer, along with any pep talks and publishing-related jokes friends have sent me along the way.

Get out of the house for some blood-pumping exercise to clear the creative mental cobwebs that seem to appear at least once a week.

Make sure the house is stocked with really tasty health food that requires little preparation, as well as several pounds of chocolate. When too spent to complete another sentence, hit the hay, even if just for an hour.

MCM: What's the funniest learning experience you've had while working on a book?

Michelle Goodman: I'm not sure how funny this will be to anyone other than me, but YouTube really saved me while writing the last book. I'd watch my favorite Buffalo Springfield, Woodstock-era CSNY, and early 70s Genesis videos as a reward after finishing each section of a chapter. Who knew Steven Stills and Peter Gabriel would play such an important role in the book-writing process?

MCM: When you are working on writing a book, how do you juggle your bread-and-butter work (regular job) around creative time?

Michelle Goodman: My regular job is being a full-time freelance writer (articles, columns, blogs, and sometimes, corporate copy). When I was working on my two books, I had to clear the decks of all other projects. It's too difficult for me--and most people--to write/edit a book 6-8 hours a day and think that I'm also going to have the time, energy, or brain juice to write something else that day.

For my first book (The Anti 9-to-5 Guide), the advance was so small that I just lived off savings during the six months or so I spent writing it. Fortunately, the advance for my second book (My So-Called Freelance Life) was a bit more substantial. Of course, things never go quite the way you plan: I landed both a regional and a national column while writing My So-Called Freelance Life and had to work on meeting weekly deadlines for both during the last couple months of writing the book.

I was working all the time, sometimes not even sleeping more than four hours a night. It was hell, but I'm glad I did it. Those columns now help sell both my books.

MCM: Thanks, Michelle, for this real-world advice. To learn more about Michelle's books click here (My So-Called Freelance Life) and here (The Anti 9-to-5 Guide). You can also read her great ideas on using a blog to boost a book proposal by clicking here.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Making your writing dream happen--what does it take? Magic, hard work, belief, all of these? From Michelle's comments, you saw how much a professional writer supports her dream--with music, chocolate, reminder notes that boost the spirit, good writing friends.

It takes a willingness to put into place this kind of good support. But it also takes a willingness to let go of something that might be blocking you, taking up too much time, or wearing down your energy.

This week, look at your life. Either chart one day, as one of my coaching clients does, to see where support is and where time is disappearing into stuff you really don't get much out of (her support list included a weekly writing group; her energy drainers were nightly evening news, long phone calls with her sister, and too many potato chips).

What are you willing to put into place for support?
What are you willing to let go of?

Stop the magical thinking about your creative dream with this book. You can do it. Just make room for it in your life.

What do you think of this? Do you agree with Michelle's suggestions--or have ideas to share with other readers about your own experiences with juggling your writing and your life?