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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mozart, what's another word for ecstatic? How music helps the creative process.

As I type this, Hans Zimmer's Chevaliers de Sangreal is building to an epic crescendo. So don't be surprised if I forgo the witty banter, zany one-liners, and dexterous jokes in favor of serious and thought provoking instruction.

Just kidding. I just wanted to work dexterous into the post.

But the fact of the matter is, some of my best work is done while the composers of today and yesterday weave their classical magic around and in my ears. I cannot write in complete silence. I know a few folks that can, and I envy that ability, but when things are too quiet, my train of thought skips the next three stops and winds up in Tunica, Mississippi.

I also cannot write when there is too much noise. The appeal of Starbucks as a setting for writing will forever escape me. I'm sure that it is has more to do with being seen as a writer than actually being an environment that fosters great work, but nonetheless I simply cannot concentrate with that many people milling about while whomever the artist of the month is wails soulfully away on an acoustic guitar.

I do like their croissants, though.

The perfect setting for me is alone, at home, with soft music laying a foundation for my creativity to set up shop. Now, everyone's preferences are just that, and you may find another style of music that does the trick for you, but classical has always been my flavor. And believe me, it works.

I wrote Peretti, my screenplay, while listening to Chopin. Aaron's action scene where he runs from the police in I Will Follow was crafted to the score of The Amazing Spider-Man. When a string section is giving it their all, I can't help but to respond in kind. And film scores really do the trick as they run the gamut of tempo and emotion, which is a model all great novels should follow.

So the next time you sit down to write, try a little music.

Just please, no adult contemporary. Nothing great has ever been accomplished listening to Phil Collins.*

Until next time, keep those keyboards warm.


*Merely a joke. I love Phil Collins.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Delayed Gratification: How waiting until the end of the chapter to edit helps your story

And then, she walked out of the door and right into traffic.

And then, she strolled around the corner and was hit by a bus. 

And then, she jumped out of the window and sprouted wings. Yeah. That's it.

We've all done it. For the more OCD challenged of us, (and I use that term as an exaggeration, not to offend anyone who suffers from the condition,) editing on the fly has become such a dirty little habit that we'd sooner admit we chain-smoke three packs a day and floss with strips of bacon. It's nearly impossible not to go back and reread every sentence as soon as it's typed. It's what we do as writers.

Well, stick out your hand.


Stop that.

You see, the creative process is like a lumbering eighteen wheeler. It takes forever to get up to speed, but once it's there, it's very hard to stop. But if something like a small electric car, (read: constant editing,) jumps in front of it and cuts it off, the results are disastrous. Going back over every word as you write it will stifle your creativity to a slow, painful death. I write most of my best stuff on the fly, and often the first thing that comes off of the top of my head is what stays in my writing.

So my challenge to you, dear readers, is that you finish an entire chapter without going back and editing once. Then, once you hit the 'page break' button after completing, you are free to go back and edit to your heart's desire. And if you're having trouble finishing that chapter, I can help you with that too. Whether it's writer's block or tips for punching up your story, I've been there and done that. I lost the t-shirt, though.

Until next time, keep those keyboards hot.
Until next time, keep those keyboards cozy.
Until next time, keep those keyboards scalding.
Until next time, keep those keyboards warm. There!


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Where do you see yourself at by the end of this book? How interviewing your characters results in strong development

How interesting is the protagonist in your story? Does he/she inspire readers to jump up and seize life by the horns? Or maybe they are so generic and boring your audience chooses to jump out the window instead. Does your antagonist make people shake their fist at the sky and wonder how someone could be so evil and cold-hearted? Or have you met fluffy kittens eating marshmallows who are more threatening?

One of the things I've done is to interview my characters. I write about twelve questions ranging from, "What would you say is your most annoying habit?" to "What motivates you to get up in the morning?" There's really no template or requirements to the questions; the goal is to gain insight into just who your characters are as people. 

Once you've interviewed all of your major characters, go back and retread your interviews as if you were actually asking the questions to another person. Maybe have someone else read the answers you came up with. You'll be surprised how effective this is. 

Until next time, keep those keyboards warm. 


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Keep the momentum going: How stopping mid-paragraph will keep your writing pace steady

You're nearing the end of a chapter. After an hour of creative juices just pouring from your fingertips, you prepare to close out another moment in the lives of your characters. At this point the excitement has taken hold of you so much that you aren't even sitting down anymore. As you stand and peck away the last few sentences, you breathe a sigh of relief. Finished. Time to start the next chapter. 


Or, in a few days. 

Or maybe next week. 

For those of us that have the uncanny ability to procrastinate ourselves right into a river of laziness, finishing a chapter can push the pause button on our writing. Sometimes for days. 

Well, here's what I've started doing. And it's helped immensely. 

Instead of closing out the chapter and running the risk of experiencing "celebratory hiatus," stop your writing before you reach the end. Mid-sentence. 

This leaves your motivation to finish at an all new high. You know EXACTLY how you're going to finish, and you cannot wait until the opportunity to do so. But here's the catch:

Have your next few opening sentences of the following chapter already prepared before you close out the unfinished preceding chapter. That way, as you close out one chapter, your preparation carries you right into the next. Let Lady Inspiration take the wheel from there. 

Hope it helps, I've found that...


Monday, May 11, 2015

"All together now": Using friends and family to hear how your story sounds

Just how great is that sequence of dialogue that you just wrote? It's a frantic, dramatic scene in which two of your major characters reach their boiling points with one another. There's yelling, screaming, a bit of crying, and that was just you trying to get out the right words. But are they the right words?

Your friends and family are your biggest fans of your writing. If you're like me, your mother has no doubt said this to you on at least a few occasions, "You are so talented! I can't imagine why the whole world wouldn't want to read your writing!" After stopping yourself from chastising your mom for using a double negative, you sit and ponder her poorly constructed words of praise. "Mom's right," you say. "I should be a best-selling author."

There is, however, one small issue. You see, even though those closest to us love us unconditionally, they are not publishers. Or literary agents. Your sister in Des Moines and your bff in Vegas are not key holders to the mythical kingdom that is "Paid Writing." So, while their intentions are good, their compliments do nothing in the way of furthering your professional career as an author. It is nice to hear how awesome you are every once in a while, though.

But if words of praise do nothing for your story other than boost your self-esteem, there is a way that grandma and aunt Clotilda can still help you. They can be your voice actors!

You see, fictional dialogue has to flow naturally. It has to seem organic and realistic. When two lovers reconcile on a bridge under a starry sky, the words they say to each other need to sound like something two people would say in real life. If it's forced or cheesy, your readers will be able to tell.

In my novel, I Will Follow, the characters find themselves in several overwhelming situations where what they say to each other truly defines who they are as human beings. Remember, readers cannot see the facial expressions on the people who live in the world you've created. The only way they can gauge if the person speaking is genuine or not is by how they say what they say.


She leaned in as they danced slowly across the marble floor. Gazing up into his eyes, she let a coy smile play at the corners of her mouth. After five long years, she could finally reveal to him how she truly felt.

"I like you. I like you a whole lot. When I see you, I know how much I like you. Which is a lot."

Not exactly something publishers are going to be racing to print, is it? Granted, that's a humorous exaggeration (I hope), but the point is, you can paint the most exquisite setting for your characters and destroy the whole image with stilted dialogue.

So how do we find out if what the people who live in our head are saying is presentable or not? You have people read the words aloud. Invite your friends over for a reading of your novel, and assign everyone a character as you narrate the action. By doing so, you will hear where your interactions fall flat, and where it is really working. I have heard stories where writers had people read their work and the actors had to stop for a moment as they became so choked with emotion at what they were speaking.

That's how you know you've got a winner.

Until next time, keep your keyboards warm.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writing hands free: How my iPhone is helping create my novel

You come bounding out of the elevator as you race towards a meeting you were supposed to be present at 15 minutes ago. In one hand, you hold a Starbucks that is still roughly the same temperature as the molten core of the sun, and in the other you carefully juggle a briefcase, cell phone, tablet, car keys, a desk lamp, several small woodland creatures, and a bumper to a 1978 VW bug.

Ok. Maybe a that's a slight exaggeration. Bug bumpers are notoriously hard to come by. 

The point is, if you're anything like me, this is exactly the time when Lady Inspiration throws open the ornately decorated double doors and makes her grand entrance. Your book was the last thing on your mind not thirty seconds ago, and now you have the perfect ending where your protagonist has such an amazing revelation that future readers will be forever better for having been part of the journey. You even have the dialogue, verbatim, which creates such an eloquent and touching moment that you nearly tear up. It's absolutely perfect.

And there is no way of getting it out of your head.

If you stop and set down your sherpa's worth of gear, you're going to be even later for the meeting. If you make the mistake of telling yourself, "It's too great of an idea to forget. I'll remember it," then you've just committed the one tragic error we are all guilty of. You need to get your great idea secured now. 

Before I move on, I'd like to make it clear that in no way am I affiliated with Apple or any of its products. Ok? Ok. Moving on. 

What I have done throughout the entire writing of my novel, I Will Follow, is utilize the voice memo feature of my Iphone. I use it constantly. In my car, at work, in line at the grocery store (which results in no shortage of confused and concerned looks from onlookers and passers-by as I scream into my phone, "And finally, as he leaps out of the window, he lands on a fire hydrant and then flies away on a magical gravy boat!) Ok, so I haven't actually dictated those exact words, but you get the idea.

For the android users, I'd bet a weeks worth of macaroni and cheese that your phone has the same capability. Use it. When you absolutely cannot get to a laptop, PC, or even the ol' tried-and-true pen n' paper, take advantage of technology. You'll be glad you did.

'Til next time, keep those keyboards warm.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Do you have a story or a sedative? The one thing that will make yourwriting lull readers to sleep.

If you follow these instructions, your writing will improve. You will learn a great deal, and be a better writer for it. Your story will intrigue, and your readers will rejoice.

And if I'm putting you to sleep, there's a good reason for that.

The tempo of your writing is crucial to keeping readers interested. When you get in the groove and the fingers are flying away at the keyboard, you run the risk of repeating sentence variations that can be detrimental to the flow of the story. In essence, you begin writing a lullaby. 

"Rock-a-bye baby, in the tree top,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock."

The melodious tone is meant to "lull" the listener to sleep, in most cases an infant. The timing of the sentences is intentional. When you are trying to keep a reader engaged, however, you have to constantly change the pace. Take the following example:

"He was still holding the pipe above his head, but the poor girl didn't listen. He slammed it on the counter, sending shards of wood everywhere."

Now, the action is there, but the repetition distracts from the overall flow. Instead, let's break it up a bit. 

"He was still holding the pipe above his head and when the poor girl didn't heed his beckoning he slammed it against the counter. Shards of plastic and splinters of wood shot out in all directions. The cashiers screamed; even the guy."

(Shameless plug) that's actually an excerpt from my novel, I Will Follow

The point is, keep the pace exciting. It'll keep the readers hooked and guessing. 

Until next time, keep those keyboards warm. 


Thanks, random sales clerk. Beating writer's block using your minor characters.

We've all been there. For the last hour, you've brought your story to a rolling boil of nail-biting excitement and frantic conflict. Your characters are begging for a reprieve as you yank them along through plot twists and dramatic action. Right when you reach the apex and are ready to bring it all on home...

You realize you've got nothin'. Zilch. Zero. You've hit the brick wall of writer's block so fast that your keyboard flies off the desk and lands somewhere in the corner, propped neatly up against the ficus. (Do people still have ficus in their homes? Ficuses? Fici? I digress.)

As you stare at the monitor and silently mouth obscenities to yourself, your story has lost all its momentum and now bobs slowly about in the sea of uneventfulness that is writer's block.

The last time this happened to me, one of the major characters from my novel, I Will Follow, had just walked into a convenience store he was planning to rob. Aaron had the drive to do it, the will to do it, but once he entered the store, he and I both sort of forgot what the point was. I mean, I knew the reasoning, but I couldn't find the words to convey it. So I asked one of the clerks in the store. 

Aaron eventually approaches a female clerk and demands the money from her register, and as he does that, a male clerk at the end of the counter looks on. He doesn't even any dialogue, well, except for a scream that erupts when Aaron slams his pipe on the counter. But as I contemplated on how I could wrangle the rabid gang of squirrels that were my thoughts together to finish the chapter, it came to me:

Let the male clerk tell his version of what's happening. 

I went and rewrote the beginning of the chapter from his perspective, describing what it was like to work in a boring corner store with a bunch of women. His inner monologue about how one day his band would rise to the upper ranks in Austin's music scene segued into his uninterested observation of Aaron as he entered the store. And it was the clerk's cowardly behavior against Aaron's desperate crime that jump-started the chapter and enabled me to finish it. That version isn't in the novel, of course, but it was a very effective tool. 

So, if you're stuck, let someone else in your story drive for a while. You'll be surprised where they take you. And thanks, male clerk. I promise if I write a sequel, I'll promote you. 

Til next time, keep those keyboards warm.