Saturday, January 30, 2010

Creative Collages--A Way to Get Deeper into Your Story and Your Life

I'm a huge fan of collage. Making a collage, from bits of magazine photos and words and sketches and pretty much anything that can be glued onto paper, is a way I lift myself out of what I already know into what's possible.

Two readers, Lynn and Carole, were inspired by a previous post on making a collage for your writing project. Collaging your writing goals, dreams, focus, or questions can help clarify and bring in new energy. Lynn and Carole said:

Before we got started, we contemplated and then we talked--about what we'd both like to understand about our characters in our stories, what our purpose for writing the story would be, things like that. Collages tend to take on a life of their own sometimes but it's always great fun and a nice reminder afterward to look at for inspiration.

They gave me permission to share their collages with you.

Here's Lynn's:

And here's Carole's:

See what variation there is, how free each collage is, how beautifully it speaks of individual creativity. Can you take on the assignment this week? Get together with a writing buddy. Bring some magazines, posterboard, glue or rubber cement, colored pencils, scissors.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Once you've created a collage, try the exercise below. It's great fun and oh-so-revealing about your writing project.

It comes from writer Sheila Asato of Monkey Bridge Arts, (her website is, who passed along some wonderful questions she uses to ask about collage.

I've taken Sheila's ideas and developed them specifically for book writers. When you've finished your collage, ask yourself:

1. Is there a pathway in my collage, a beginning point and ending point? If so, how do these relate to the beginning of my story and the possible ending?

2. Squint at the collage and find the place with most contrast, which jumps out at you. Ask yourself how it might reflect the highest moment of tension in your book, or the question that remains unanswered, or the unmet challenge your book speaks of.

3. Look at the types of pictures you chose. What are they, mostly--images of people, places, animals, landscapes, buildings, the ocean, the sky, abstracts? How does this predominant type of image tell you something about your book's main focus, the aspect you feel most comfortable with?

Send your writing collages, your questions, and I'll post the ones I can!

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to Survive Writing a Book--The Blessing of Short Assignments

Finding a pathway through your book project can seem impossible at times. You haven't a clue where you're going, and what seemed like a solid outline or storyboard can shift completely, right in the middle of writing.

Despair sets in. Sometimes writer's block. Often overwhelm. How does a book writer survive?

First, we accept that books are organic in nature. They must change as they evolve. The best books always surprise their writers. A teacher once said to me, If the writer isn't surprised, the reader won't be either.

But there's still the factor of overwhelm and how to deal with it. My answer comes from years as a syndicated columnist: short assignments.

The Beauty of Short Assignments
When I was a columnist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate, I produced 600 words each week. Writing became a job in those years, not a romance. I had a firm deadline, I got a paycheck for it, and no excuses were accepted by my boss. I couldn't blow my deadline off even once, or I'd lose my precious slot in the Times lineup. So I did it.

Back then, I wasn't used to short assignments. Six hundred words was really hard to work with. So much to say, so little space on the page.

Over the years, I learned to love the beauty of short assignments. Most times, they reduced any overwhelm. They cancelled out writer's block.

I use short assignments to survive writing books. I break my books into small sections, most often three acts. Since it's impossible to keep THE BOOK as a whole in my head, working on each act individually keeps overwhelm at bay.

Short Assignments Show the Pathway Through
My current novel-in-progress is called Breathing Room. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published in October. Breathing Room is a much more difficult story. It's much easier to get overwhelmed.

Three point-of-view main characters rotate by chapter. It's very easy for me to lose track of the individual stories, much less weave them together into a coherent whole.

So I broke the story into three acts.

Working with three acts is the perfect short assignment. You focus only on one third of the book, making that act like a complete book in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end, but you create a sudden new beginning again in the final chapter. In other words, act one seems to take us to a nice settled plateau, but it really ends up raising the stakes. That propels the reader into act two. Get it?

It works beautifully in playwriting. I'm finding it works equally well in novels, memoirs, and other genres of books. I'm also using it on a nonfiction book I'm writing about how to write a book. I use a series of key questions, to keep me within my short assignment of each act:

1. Is the storyline for each character tracking well just within this part of the book?
2. Is the triggering event, what starts each person on their individual journey, exciting and dramatic?
3. Does each person go to some new place during act one?
4. What dramatic event ups the stakes at the end of act one, for each person and the group as a whole?
5. What main threads hold the three stories together? How do they intersect via theme, objects that repeat, places that echo in all three stories?

But it's important to give it all you can. Not hoard the best for later.

To Make a Short Assignment Work, Give It All You Got
I was sitting in the library Sunday afternoon, stuck in the final chapter, when I noticed I was holding back. No wonder my character, Mel, was feeling moody and blah on the page. He wouldn't risk anything, and I didn't want to use my "really great" scenes to propel his story into act two.

Then I asked myself, why was I saving these for later in the book? Within this short assignment of act one, or chapter 18 in particular, I needed to give it all I had.

So I took an idea from later in the book, inserted it in the chapter, and let it up the stakes for Mel. From that, three other ideas came forward. They grew into surprising new scenes, right on the spot. The "saved" idea actually fit much more successfully into act one.

When you work in short assignments, don't hoard the best stuff for later. The present is much more important than the future.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise--Two Options
1. Practice short assignments this week. How can you break THE BOOK into manageable bites?

2. Divide your book project into three acts. Use the questions above to analyze whether each act has enough energy. Then, using your storyboard or outline, see what you can rearrange to up the stakes.