Wednesday, March 17, 2010

WRITE ON!

Trust us here at the Spacefreighters Lounge to put ideas in your head. All kinds of crazy ideas. About starships and black holes. Spiral galaxies and spinning emotions. The evolution of an alien with two hearts and the story of how he gave both those hearts to a girl with a big brain and a bigger smile.

Not that we’d leave you all alone with those ideas. When it comes to writing it all down, don’t worry that it’s just you and the little blinking curser. Just as there are many resources out there to help you design your starship or your solar system, there are plenty to keep you inspired and on track with your writing.

First, inspiration. These books are legion. Undoubtedly your favorite author has written something on the subject of why he or she writes. My personal favorites in this category are Anne Lamott’s classic BIRD BY BIRD and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.

Lamott is a novelist of the literary kind, an essayist and critic, and a writing teacher. All of which is to say I haven’t read anything else of hers. But this little book is a gem of encouragement and insight. Everything she says is useful in some way, and her style is so quiet, so intimate, that you feel you know her as a friend from the very first word. On those dark days when the words don’t come, I’m reminded of her father’s advice to her younger brother, distraught over the impossible task of writing a report on birds. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

King’s book is a bit of a mish-mash, which he himself admits. He started out to write one kind of book, imparting what he had learned about the art over the years, and ended up with something quite different—a book about how he approaches his craft and his life. It’s a little like sitting around with him while he muses about things. What comes out can be mundane—every writer should own a copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE--or quite startling. He relates that the check for his first significant sale came just as he and wife Tabitha were flat broke and unable to afford medicine for a sick child. And none of King’s novels compares in horror to his account in this book of being struck by a van as he walked on a road near his house. The accident nearly killed him. He took months to recover. Then, slowly, he began to write again. That, my friends, is inspiration.

Part inspiration, part practical manual is a book I recently found with the intriguing title THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS, by James Scott Bell. Based on the classic battle aphorisms of Chinese general Sun Tzu (400-320 B.C.), Bell’s book is a light-hearted but pithy collection of wisdom for aspiring writers. With advice such as “A foundation in discipline is always the first step toward victory,” Bell moves his readers along toward their goals, prodding them with little exercises along the way. Later chapters are devoted to the actual writing process (“Remember that love means never having to say ‘I love you’”) and promotion and sales (“Network according to the law of reciprocity”; “Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is a rejection of you as a person . . . unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose.”) Bell is a novelist and an author of several other books on writing. He also teaches writing at workshops throughout the country.

Okay, so we’re fired up and rarin’ to go! Uh . . . there’s that durn blinkin’ curser again! How exactly do we do this? Well, every science fiction romance has two sides, which deserve equal treatment. Of the many resources on writing SF, my favorite is an oldie, but goodie, HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY, by Orson Scott Card. Card, of course, is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of ENDER’S GAME and numerous other SF novels, as well as the author of a number of books on writing. Card tackles such thorny subjects as the differences between fantasy and SF (alas, even the latest edition of his book was written before SFR was recognized as a subgenre), world creation, story construction, POV and characterization, and setting limits on exposition and jargon. Many of the lessons Card gives on writing are not unique to SF, but he recognizes the problems that are ours alone and offers some solutions. A final chapter on the life and business of writing is likely to be dated, even in the most recent (2001) edition, but the general information is still useful.

I’ve saved the best for last, because this is my favorite writing book of all: ON WRITING ROMANCE, by Leigh Michaels. All readers have expectations when they pick up a book, based on what that book is and the type of readers they are. Readers of Stephen King, for example, expect great characters, a Maine locale (usually), a chilling plot and a lot of weirdness. Readers of romance are no different. If we are writing a romance, even one set in outer space, we need to meet their expectations.

Michaels does a great job of laying out exactly what those expectations are with regard to the heroine, the hero, the development of the plot, the emotions involved and such details as “the black moment” and “the happy ending”. She explains that no matter what other story line a romance may have—contemporary, suspense, SF, paranormal, historical, Western—the romance itself exists as a separate-but-equal story line that is interwoven with the other plot. Why are your lovers attracted to each other in the first place? What’s keeping them from being together? Is he the best man for her? Is she the best woman for him? All good questions, which Michaels helps you examine in detail in exercises throughout the book.

She also addresses basic questions of POV, plotting, characterization and dialogue in a way that makes doing the right thing seem effortless. I’ve given a few copies of this book to friends who are beginning writers, even though they are not romance writers, simply because the sections on writing fundamentals are so good.

Two more recommendations from my fellow Lounger Laurie Green:
I've found THE PLOT THICKENS: 8 WAYS TO BRING FICTION TO LIFE by Noah Lukeman to be a great tool for using the fundamentals to improve storytelling skills. The first three chapters are devoted to building characters through “The Inner Life”, “The Outer Life” and “Applied Characterizations”. These are followed by a focus on “Journey”, “Suspense” and “Conflict”--those things that motivate, challenge and help define your characters. Then “Context”--what should stay and why, and what should go and why. It offers exercises and examples throughout to get you thinking about how the concepts apply to your own work. The author is a New York literary agent who also wrote another reference gem, THE FIRST FIVE PAGES.

I'm a pantser, and as a member of that particular species I often write myself into corners and dead-ends. FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS, by Karen S. Wiesner, came highly recommended by a member of my local writers' group as a system to help me write faster and with more organization and a bigger picture of the story concepts. It's touted as a sure-fire method to write a first draft (actually a very detailed outline) in a one-month timeframe that can then be painlessly expanded into a full-length novel. Of particular help to some writers is an entire chapter devoted to “Creating an Outline for a Project Already in Development or Re-Outlining a Stalled Project”. Karen Weisner is an award-winning author of over 20 novels.

Me, again. So, there you are, bookshelf stocked and ready to go! Now I just have two more recommendations for you. If you haven’t done it already, scoot over to http://www.rwanational.org/ to become a member of Romance Writers of America. The RWA is the only professional writers organization in the U.S. that opens its membership to unpublished writers, and the benefits of membership are too numerous to mention. Secondly, if you have finished that manuscript and are looking for an agent, don’t bother spending money on a copy of GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS, or any of its like publications. Click on http://www.agentquery.com/ and get an up-to-date listing for free. Be sure to check those agents’ websites and blogs for further information before you query them. Dontcha just lurrve da ‘Net?

Cheers, Donna

4 comments:

  1. Thank you, Donna! My hope when I wrote ON WRITING ROMANCE was that it would be helpful to writers of all genres. I'm thrilled that you agree!

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  2. Thanks for stopping by, Leigh. I hadn't seen On Writing Romance yet, so I'll be sure to check it out.

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  3. BTW, I forgot to mention that Leigh is the featured speaker at the FF&P events tomorrow, March 23.

    http://www.romance-ffp.com/events.cfm

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  4. As you can tell, I'm a huge fan, Leigh! I'm happy to put in a plug for ON WRITING ROMANCE and hope others get as much out of it as I did.

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