Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tips from David L. Robbins

Hemingway said of writing, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”   A writer who understands the craft and understands the process will tell you that there will always be more to learn, I just didn’t realize HOW much there was to learn!  I’ve been writing for many a moon and though I wouldn’t call myself a seasoned writer, I thought myself fluent in the basics.  Wrong!  I learned so much about my own writing in one of the Backspace seminars I attended.  It was given by writer David L. Robbins.  You may know him as the author behind the book the movie Enemy at the Gates was based on.
I wanted to share some of my notes for those Literati who are writers or are pondering the idea.
According to Robbins, there are four very important parts of a story: Setting, Research, Point of View, and Tension.  I won’t be able to go over everything in one blog post; my notes total at least twenty pages!  So I’ll list some of the stronger points from the presentation. 
  • Do not write what you know; write what you learn.  Robbins gave this as an example: You’re in a classroom where a presentation is interrupted by sirens outside.  The teacher tells a student to go see what has happened.  The guy is going to come back, out of breath, and tell you something like, “Oh my gosh!  There are four cars piled on top of each other, there’s smoke and fire, debris litters the streets, the firemen are pulling people out of crushed cars with the Jaws of Life, and there are people arguing in the streets!” You’ve got the emotion and the detail in his voice.  But if you ask him a year later, “Hey, what did you see that day of the accident?”  He’d probably reply, “There was an accident with four cars and it was pretty bad.”  You lose the excitement and the detail.   So write what you LEARN, retain that excitement and detail in your writing.
  • Don’t use tricks to excite readers – “accidental” surprises and convenient revelations are transparent and are used when there is a weak story or weak writing.
  • Readers want to connect to the protagonist, but writers tend to “foil the link” with weak writing.  Don’t write what your character can’t see, don’t hesitate, don’t muddle your sentences with unnecessary words.  Example: “He shrugged his shoulders.” No – “He shrugged.”  “He looked up to the sky.”  No – “He looked to the sky.”
  • Have distinct characters.  We are storytellers; do not write about normal people.  Don’t make your protagonist a victim.  Strong characters drive the story and can’t be taken out.  Characters are not the WHAT in your story, the plot is the what.  Characters are the WHY.
  • See the world through the character’s eyes.  Imagine a castle being looked upon by two brothers on a far off hill.  One brother has just returned from fighting in a war, he is to be king, and he loves his home.  The other brother is jealous, he has bottled anger, and he hates his home.  Both brothers will be looking to this castle with different feelings, different thoughts; tell your story through your protagonist’s POV.
  • Stakes.  Establish the stakes on page one.  Don’t sacrifice stakes.  Have an imbalance and make it clear to the reader that there will be this imbalance, this struggle.  What is at risk?  Manipulate who knows what.  Engage the reader.  Your character is about to open a door the reader knows is the closet the killer is hiding in.  You want your reader to be saying, “No!  No!  Don’t open the door!!”  You have to make the reader care.
  • Precision is concision.  Never let two words do the job of one.  Watch out for those weed words (see previous blog post, Weed Words?  I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Weed Words!).  Don’t waste a page in a kitchen (unless it’s an integral part of the story).
  • Integrate place into your story.  Embrace opportunities to describe the setting. 
  • Strong writing.  Don’t use expressions or clichés.  Stay away from mundane expressions.  Be careful with prepositions, the obvious, extra words, and redundancies.  Examine each sentence.  Each sentence has to move the story forward.
  • No info dumps.  Never have anything on the page that the character isn’t thinking.  Do not engage backstory until the character is thinking about it.  No flashbacks. 
  • Show, don’t tell.  Create scenes and describe what is happening to your character, do not tell the reader how the character feels.  (Again, see the previous post, Weed Words?  I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Weed Words!).
And most of all, know that rejection does not mean stop.  Happy Writing!

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Real Story: The Little Mermaid

As most of you know, Disney Studios doesn’t always come up with their blockbusters from scratch. They borrow from some of the most well-known creators of fairytale lore: Hans Christian Anderson and The Brothers Grimm. They pepper the plot with a little pixie dust (for the kiddies) and out pops a smash hit, along with a love ballad.


But what some of you may not know are the REAL stories. On that note, I introduce to you The Real Story series. We’ll focus on the original stories of Disney’s most coveted; down to the sordid details.

To kick the series off, I bring you The Little Mermaid (or The Little Sea Woman, as it was originally titled).

The story takes place in the deepest of the deep ocean, a place no human could ever travel. The Little Mermaid was a princess who lived in this bottomless abyss with her father (the Sea King), her grandmother, and her five older sisters. Each princess had a plot of land in which to grow a garden, and days were filled with play and laughter. Only, the Little Mermaid spent most of her time tending to her garden. She wasn’t like her sisters, who delighted in swimming around the castle. The Little Mermaid had once come upon a shipwreck where she found a human statue. She placed this statue in her garden alongside her favorite flowers.

The Little Mermaid was always asking her grandmother to tell her stories about life outside the ocean; she learned of humans and other animals. The mermaids had beautiful voices, and none were so beautiful as the six princesses. Now, the mermaids’ lives spanned for 300 years and at the age of 15, they were allowed to swim to the surface of the water to see the earth. When the Little Mermaid turned 15, she swam up with vigor and excitement.

As she breaks the water, she rises upon a ship and looks through its windows. She sees the prince and instantly falls in love with him (side note: the prince has just turned the manly age of 16). A massive storm hits that night and the ship is smashed into bits by mighty waves. At first, the Little Mermaid is happy to see the prince sinking into the depths, until she remembers that her grandmother said that humans can’t live in water. So she saves the guy.

She works very hard to keep him alive and drops him off at a temple built off the sea’s coast. The Little Mermaid hides behind a large rock to make sure the prince recovers, before he does; a young woman approaches him and then calls for help. He soon awakens and is shaking hands and smiling with everyone...everyone, except the Little Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid was devastated and broken hearted. She longed to be with the prince. In her sorrow she neglected her garden, stopped talking, and refused to tell her sisters what she had seen at the surface. She finally broke down and told one sister, who told the others. Together, they found the palace and took their little sister to the prince. The Little Mermaid spent her days and nights watching the young prince from the sea, falling deeper in love with him.

She asks her grandmother if humans live as long as mermaids and her grandmother tells her that humans have shorter life spans. However, she explains, humans are given eternal life after they die, unlike mermaids, who after their 300 years basically become sea foam. The only way a mermaid can have eternal life is to get a human to love her more than anything in the world and part of the human’s soul will transfer to the mermaid. She also reminds her granddaughter that humans have legs and find fishtails quite repulsive.

The Little Mermaid decides to see the Sea Witch for help, crossing over to her part of the sea wrought with death and decay and mutant animal/plant hybrids. The Sea Witch lives inside a house built from human bones, she allows a toad to eat from her mouth, and sea snakes to “crawl all over her bosom.” The sorceress knows what the foolish princess wants. She tells her that she will give her legs, make her the finest dancer, and that every human will see her as the most beautiful girl they’ve ever seen, but warns that each step she takes with her human legs will be like stepping on the blades of the sharpest of knives.

The Little Mermaid agrees, but there’s more fine print. The Sea Witch also tells her she can never return to the sea, never see her family again, will never be able to speak again, and that if the prince marries someone else, then she’ll die from a broken heart. Still, the princess accepts the terms. The witch makes up a pot of magic potion, finally pricking her breast with a needle and allowing her black blood to drip into the pot. She bottles the concoction and hands it to the Little Mermaid before cutting out her tongue.

The mermaid swims to the shore and drinks from the twinkling bottle, waking up naked and with two long legs and small feet. The prince finds her and she covers her body with her long hair. He takes her back to his castle, fits her in the finest robes, and she tags along wherever he goes. She dances for him and he is so enchanted by her gracefulness, he tells her she shall be with him always. So the princess is allowed to sleep outside his door on a red cushion (sweet!). She follows the prince everywhere he goes like a willing and happy little lovesick puppy. Her sisters find her and they cry for their loss.

One day the prince tells the Little Mermaid about his love for her, you know, the kind of love he would have for a small child. He tells her how he’s in love with a woman that saved his life when his ship wrecked in a storm. He says this is the only woman he could ever love. When his parents arrange his marriage to a neighboring princess, he tells the Little Mermaid he will not marry the princess and, “I would rather choose you, my dumb foundling, with those expressive eyes.” (What a sweet talker.)

But of course, when he goes to meet the princess, he finds that she was the woman in the temple who he thinks saved his life. The pair are married immediately.

The Little Mermaid waits for death to come, but instead, her sisters appear before her on the ship on which the wedding was held. Their long beautiful hair has been chopped off and they tell her they gave their hair to the Sea Witch in exchange for the Little Mermaid’s life. The witch has given the sisters a knife that the Little Mermaid must use to kill the prince, allowing his blood to touch her feet. His blood will transform her legs back into a fish tail and she can return to the sea. But the Little Mermaid cannot kill the prince. She tosses the knife into the sea and throws herself into the ocean, dying upon impact.

But this isn’t the end for the Little Mermaid. She is met by the “daughters of the air” – pretty much ghosts. These ghosts tell her that she has earned immortal life, but before she can reach Heaven, she has to serve out a 300 year sentence, wandering the earth as a ghost.

However, if she finds good boys and girls who love and listen to their moms and dads, then she gets a year taken from her sentence. For every naughty kid, she gets a day added to her sentence.

And that’s it, Literati, the true story of the Little Mermaid. No happily ever after for the sea princess. That’s actually one of the more tame stories I’ll be sharing with you during this series.

As always, happy reading and writing!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Weed Words? I Don't Need No Stinkin' Weed Words!

As a writer you are constantly hearing the professionals talk about “tight writing.”  I thought I knew what this meant: have a good story with no loose ends.  Wrong!  I didn't understand what the term meant, until Backspace entered my life.
Tight writing keeps the reader in the story; the tighter the writing, the tighter your hold.  Okay, but what does it mean?  It means stay far, far, far, away from words that clutter your sentence.   Writers tend to like these words, they make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.  But beware; these words are evil little infiltrators that love sneaking into your sentences and muddling them.  Muddled sentences are bad.
Here’s a little exercise for you.  Take a page from whatever project you’re currently working on and see how many of these words you find:
About
All
Almost
As
Very
Only
Just
That 
These, Literati, are referred to as “weed words.”  Don’t Google the term though, you’ll be assaulted by pages and pages of links about marijuana.  True story.  A side note: Janet Reid, literary agent extraordinaire, refers to removing these words as a “that-ectomy,” essentially removing the word “that” from your writing.  But wait!  There are more evil infiltrators!  Adverbs and adjectives and infinitives...oh my!

What are the first ten rules of creative writing?  Anyone?  Anyone? Bueller?  Rules one through ten are the same: Show, don’t tell.   But what does it mean????  Allow me to drop some knowledge (thank you David L. Robbins!). 
She waited anxiously.
She sat waiting, biting her nails and shaking her leg. 

In the first example, the writer is telling the reader the character is anxious; in the second example, the writer is showing the reader that the character is anxious. 
 
Bottom line, we are storytellers and our readers want a good story, they long for one!  You’re a reader, you know this.  Our goal is to capture the reader and pull him/her into our story.  Make the story believable, create strong characters, and kill those weed words.  Weed words take a reader out of the story. 

Stay tuned for the first installation of the Fairytale Series (tomorrow) as well as more notes from Backspace, including details from David L. Robbins’ seminar.   If you are a writer, this is a MUST READ.

As always, happy reading and writing!

 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Summer Reading Conundrum

Having trouble figuring out what to read this summer?  I found this cool flowchart through Shelf Awareness, courtesy of teach.com.  Check it out:
My summer reading began with Swamplandia!.  But I have to be honest, I cannot get into it.  I’m a little less than halfway through it and am so tempted to stop and move on to another novel.  I make it a rule to not give up on a book, even if doing so is torture, I always finish a book.  Now, as a super busy mom with a full-time job and a strict writing schedule, it may be time to nix that rule.  I don’t have time to waste on a book I don’t enjoy.   
Do you finish a book, even if you aren’t enjoying it?  How many chances do you give a novel before you give it the boot?  Or are you a reading soldier, trudging along each agonizing sentence until the last word, never giving up? 
I look forward to reading your personal philosophy on finishing novels!  Happy reading and writing!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Most Beautiful Words

Think fast: What is your favorite word? 

What makes that word, out of the three quarters of a million English words, your absolute favorite?  Is it the definition or the sound or perhaps a memory? 
I have a plethora of most desired and quintessential words, but I think my all time favorite word is “cake”! 
“Cake?” You ask.  Sure, and let me tell you why.  First, say it aloud, now, don’t rush through it!  Take a deep breath and when you exhale, say, “cake.”   For me, it’s the hard c and k sounds frosted with the soft and romantic “a” in the middle.  I love the sound of it.  But, there’s more.  Cake is a good word; nothing bad can come from cake.  Cake brings memories of parties, celebrations, and sweet aromas wafting in the kitchen.  Not to mention that they’re topped with a delicious light and fluffy icing that seduces your tongue and washes away any lingering feelings of remorse or sadness.  Cake is the embodiment of happiness.
I found this list of the 100 Most Beautiful Words in English, unfortunately, “cake” is not on the list, and neither are addled, malarky, or muse.  However, some of my other favorites are, including (and who doesn’t like this one?): onomatopoeia.  One of the best words ever!  (In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve used some of my favorite words above and painted them in red font.)
Take a look at the list and let me know what you think!  Also, I’d love to hear what your favorite word is and why!  Happy reading and writing!
(The following list was created by Dr. Robert Beard, a connoisseur of dictionaries and word lists.)
1.       Ailurophile
2.       Assemblage
3.       Becoming
4.       Beleaguer
5.       Brood
6.       Bucolic
7.       Bungalow
8.       Chatoyant
9.       Comely
10.   Conflate
11.   Cynosure
12.   Dalliance
13.   Demesne
14.   Demure
15.   Denouement
16.   Desuetude
17.   Desultory
18.   Dissemble
19.   Dulcet
20.   Ebullience
21.   Effervescent
22.   Efflorescence
23.   Elision
24.   Elixir
25.   Eloquence
26.   Embrocation
27.   Emollient
28.   Ephemeral
29.   Epiphany
30.   Erstwhile
31.   Ethereal
32.   Evanescent
33.   Evocative
34.   Fethching
35.   Felicity
36.   Forbearance
37.   Fugacious
38.   Furtive
39.   Gambol
40.   Glamour
41.   Halcyon
42.   Harbinger
43.   Imbrication
44.   Imbroglio
45.   Imbue
46.   Incipient
47.   Ineffable
48.   Ingénue
49.   Inglenook
50.   Insouciance
51.   Inure
52.   Labyrinthine
53.   Lagniappe
54.   Lagoon
55.   Languor
56.   Lassitude
57.   Leisure
58.   Lilt
59.   Lissome
60. f  Lithe
61.   Love
62.   Mellifluous
63.   Moiety
64.   Mondegreen
65.   Mumurous
66.   Nemesis
67.   Offing
68.   Onomatopoeia
69.   Opulent
70.   Palimpsest
71.   Panacea
72.   Panoply
73.   Pastiche
74.   Penumbra
75.   Petrichor
76.   Plethora
77.   Propinquity
78.   Pyrrhic
79.   Quintessential
80.   Ratatouille (I don’t know how this one counts, since it’s a French dish...)
81.   Ravel
82.   Redolent
83.   Riparian
84.   Ripple
85.   Scintilla
86.   Sempiternal
87.   Seraglio
88.   Serendipity
89.   Summery
90.   Sumptuous
91.   Surreptitious
92.   Susquehanna
93.   Susurrous
94.   Talisman
95.   Tintinnabulation
96.   Umbrella
97.   Untoward
98.   Vestigial
99.   Wherewithal
100.      Woebegone

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Conference and Publishing...and Contests?

Due to Literati request/demand, I am starting a new series about what I learned at the Backspace Writer’s Conference.  In this series I will discuss publication, querying, and the craft of writing.  So if you are an aspiring author or just looking to improve your writing, keep an eye out for these posts.  For your entertainment, I will wrap the series up with the horrible experience I had on the Super Shuttle back to JFK, trust me, it’s a good one.
The agents at the Backspace Writing Conference offered a great tip on getting published, a sort of lesser known road to publication.  What is this little shortcut, you ask?  Enter contests!  We all know that writing contests can offer a few hundred, or in some cases, thousand dollars to the winner.  We also know that winning a writing contest looks really pretty on a résumé or in a query letter!  What I didn’t know, is that agents tend to keep an eye on these contests so that they can snatch the writer as a client before said writer becomes more popular.
Whatever your reason for entering a writing contest (prize money, publication, prestige), I think you’ll find the below list of contests helpful.  If you do choose to give it a shot, leave a comment telling us what contest you entered and why!  Happy writing and good luck!
(Visit the contest’s website for more specific details.  Also note, I’m not endorsing any of these competitions, so read the fine print before entering any contest!)
Check out this site with helpful information on the Dos and Don’ts of writing contests.
81st Annual Writer's Digest Competition
Sponsor: Writer's Digest 
Deadline: 6/11/2012
Submission Type: Completed manuscript in one of 10 categories, including Screenplay!
Entry Fee: $30
First Prize: $3000  Consultation with 4 editors/agents   Paid trip to NYC + more

Books of Hope
Sponsor: Write Integrity Press 
Deadline: 6/15/12
Submission Type: Fiction and Non-Fiction three book series.  The books must carry a message of hope. Entry Fee: $25
First Prize: Three Book publication deal   2nd and 3rd: One book publication deal that may lead to three.

Short Shorts Contest
Sponsor: Literal Latte
Deadline: 6/30/12
Submission Type: Unpublished shorts 2,000 words or less
Entry Fee: $10 (for 3!)
First Prize: $1,000

Query Letter
Sponsor: Stacey O'Neale
Deadline: 6/30/12
Submission Type: Query Letter, see website for details
Entry Fee: None
First Prize: Literary Agent Representation

Goldenberg Prize for Fiction
Sponsor: BLR
Deadline: 7/1/12
Submission Type: Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry 5,000 words or less related to themes of health, healing, illness, mind, and body.
Entry Fee: $15
First Prize: $1000 and Publication in the BLR Lit magazine

The Story Prize
Sponsor: Story Prize
Deadline: 7/15/12
Submission Type: Collection of Short Fiction (at least 2 stories or novellas)
Entry Fee: $75
First Prize: $20,000

Serena McDonald Kennedy Award
Sponsor: Snake Nation Press
Deadline: 7/20/12
Submission Type: MS of 50k or 200 pages or less
Entry Fee: $25
First Prize: $1000 and Publication

Very Short Fiction
Sponsor: Glimmer Train Magazine
Deadline: 7/31/12
Submission Type: Open to all writers (children's stories); stories must be 3,000 words or less.
 Entry Fee: $15
First Prize: $1500, Publication in GT Lit Mag, 20 copies of that issue

Nano Fiction Award
Sponsor: NANO Fiction
Deadline: 8/30/12
Submission Type: Collection of Short Fiction (at least 2 stories or novellas)
Entry Fee: $15 (for three entries)
First Prize: $500

Writer’s Digest (Individual contests for Sci-Fi, Romance, Crime, YA, Thriller, and Horror)
Sponsor: Writer’s Digest
Deadline: 9/14/12
Submission Type: Genre ms 4,000 words or less.
Entry Fee: $20
First Prize: $500, Spotlight in WD Magazine + more

The John Steinbeck Award
Sponsor: Reed Magazine & San Jose University
Deadline: 11/1/12
Submission Type: Unpublished story up to 6,000 words
Entry Fee: $15
First Prize: $1,000 and publication in Reed Magazine
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