Thursday, October 30, 2008

You are Not the Best Writer on the Planet

It may not sound like the most encouraging piece of advice, but sometimes, you need to get a really nasty reality check before you move forward.

When you know that you are not the best writer on the planet, you need to take steps to improve your craft. Not only that, you need to constantly learn more. You need to go to workshops, mingle with other writers, and edit your work. You need to turn your writing into an art and a profession, not into a job that you can do haphazardly. Instead of moping in despair about not being a great writer, you need to find ways to make yourself better.

Compete with your own standards, and do your best to avoid comparing yourself with other writers. Whenever you start comparing yourself to other writers, you can mislead yourself into believing that you are improving – when in fact, you are just being a better someone else.

Besides, how can you compare your craft to someone else who is writing from another perspective, from other experiences, and with another background culture? The best that you can do is to compare grammar. As for styles, they will differ from writer to writer, so there isn’t a better one or a worse one. There are just different styles, and different ways to say the many different things that make up our lives.

So what are you as a writer? You are you – be the best you, and be a better you every single day. And, when you find that you are disappointing yourself, don’t stay down in the dumps. Find ways to improve your craft and make your work much better than it ever will be.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Your Favorite Movie

You'd probably squeal while watching your favorite movie, or laugh so hard that you don't care how bad the jokes are, or even cry your eyes out even if you'd ignore the storyline in a heartbeat. There's a certain bias that you have for your favorite movie, whatever your favorite movie is. Could you possibly point out what's wrong in your favorite movie?

Try this exercise on for size. Watch your favorite movie and review it as though you were the Fault Finding Committee for your flick. Look at all the technicals and see where the costuming, make up, or even music went wrong. Examine the plot in great detail: are there loopholes that should never have been put on paper, or are there characters that can be done away with? Speaking of characters: who is acting their parts out well, and who is doing a splendid hack job?

There are many aspects of your favorite film that will be imperfect, but you shouldn't be discouraged. Just think of yourself as a balanced critic, not an avid moviegoer destined to be jaded when finding the slightest mistake.

This exercise should help you critique even yourself fairly. You need to know what makes your writing tick, and what makes it weak. If you can see both sides of the issue in any work of art, be it film, books, or your own work, then you can be a better writer – and you can take criticism better, too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Your Favorite Fairytale

One of my first formal book reviews wasn't for a novel. It was for a short story; in particular, it was for my favorite fairytale. I chose an obscure one by a French author. He who had penned Cinderella had also written in a character named Riquet of the Quiff (I hope I have the name right!) into Love and Be Wise, a story about going beyond outward appearances to find the beauty and brains of every individual. I enjoyed doing it, and I vowed that I would share the experience with the world.

Pick your favorite fairytale. You can look through your children's books if you already have a family, or you can go online and pick a fairytale that you've never ever heard about. The Brothers Grimm have a rather bloody collection, so try your hand at the real Cinderella instead of going for the sanitized version.

Treat your fairytale as a true blue story. Who are the characters? What are they like? Who is good? Who is bad? Is it easy to tell? Are there areas of gray, or is all black and white in the world of fairytales? You can even choose to write review on an adaptation of a fairytale. How did the author tell the story? How was it different, and was the adaptation well written?

These are only a few questions that you can ask yourself as you review a fairytale. This is a simple exercise, but it is meant to teach you how even the simplest stories contain entire universes of meaning and symbolism that you might have missed when you first came across them.

So pick up the tale, write the review, and welcome to fairyland! Happy reading and happy writing!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Orchestrated Search #3: What's In Your Name?

This week's orchestrated search is simple. All you need to do is type your name (it can be just your first name, just your family name, or the whole shebang) into your favorite search engine, and then click SEARCH.

You might find someone on the other side of the world who shares your first name, or someone who has long left this world actually holds the key to your knowing your ancestry better, or your name is an anagram for someone else's name! In any case, look at your search results.

Now, pucker up some courage. You are going to write a letter.

If someone shares your name, you will need to write that person, whether living or dead, about yourself. Write a 500-word email that introduces yourself in whatever tone you please. You don't even have to send it; you just need to write that email.

Are you ready for the real exercise? You need to put yourself in that other person's shoes and write a REPLY to your own letter.

This is an exercise in sympathy and empathy - it's also an exercise in imagination. What would your namesake's culture be like, and how would it affect his or her reply? Is he or she a gentle or strong person? Does he or she even share your gender? You will need to take account of all of these aspects of writing and personality (and more) in your 1000-word reply.

Now get to writing!

Ah, and dear writer, don't forget to post your letters in the comments section, or at least links to them, so that you can share your craft with the world.

And yes, this does sound like you're drawing out another personality from deep within you - but isn't that exciting?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Preparing your Novel: How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

Some novels are driven by a plot: such novels will often be fast-paced, and might feel out of control, especially if you want to know the people in them better, and if you aren't content with cardboard cutouts for characters. The biggest advantage to plot-driven novels is that they often make the top of the best-seller's list because they are easy to read, easy to follow, and go light on the emotions.

On the other hand, some novels are driven by characters: they may be slow-paced, but when well-crafted, they can feel real. Characters in such novels jump out of the pages, take control of your daily life, and make you feel like you are part of the book. In fact, many novels don't even feel like books! They feel like friends, like stories that can no longer be seen as unreal, like real situations that could actually be happening next door, around the corner, or even in your own house.

Whether you have a slam-bang plot or a host of unforgettable people in your work, you still need to know your characters better. If you already have a list of characters in your work, then you need to start getting to know them better. After all, if you, as their creator, know next to nothing of their personalities, then how will your readers ever appreciate them? By knowing your characters, you might also be able to write them better without constantly wondering, “What would do?”

Here are a few things that you can do with your characters if you already have them:

1. Draw up a list of your characters. Complete their names. If you can, provide some lineage or ancestral information. This way, they become real people to you, and you may be able to write them better because they feel real. Keep this list handy so that you don't forget who's-who in your work.

2. If you have the time, pretend that you are interviewing your characters. This is is a little bit tricky, but if done well, it might help you out better than just memorizing what your characters do. Of course, you have to do this in private, or you could risk getting scuttled off to the nearest Mental Institution even before your novel is finished.

First, pretend that you are facing your character. Take note of what he or she looks like. Describe your character by taking down notes, as though you were truly at a real interview. Next, ask questions that you know will provide insight into a character's background, motivations, and needs. What does your character need in life? What does he or she want? What does he or she value? What does he or she despise? Take note of the answers and write them down.

Don't knock outward appearances! What does your character look like? How does he or she talk? How your character appears can play into where your character came from and where the character is going.

If and when you hit a roadblock in answering your own questions, then you know that you are on to something. This might be a missing piece in your character, something that you should give dimension to, and something that may make your character more believable.

Lastly, make your interview a conversation. Share thoughts with your character, and see how your character reacts. This does sound insane, doesn't it? But if you do this well, you could turn your characters into your closest friends – and aren't those the most believable stories? The ones that we tell about those whom we know best?

3. When editing, keep your character notes handy. You'll never know if you come across ra flaw in your work that might contradict how your character talks, behaves, thinks, and acts.

If you still don't have characters, then you may want to start drawing up a list of potential players. However, if you are more comfortable starting with a plot, then go ahead. You can put your characters in later and check their nuances and unique points when you have finished polishing and fleshing out your story. In any case, never underestimate the power that your characters hold!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Last Sentence Exercise: Not Quite Stating the Obvious

There's nothing like a great last sentence to cap off a great piece of work. But you don't always have to write out “The End,” especially when you don't think that things are over yet. Can you think of an event that might turn your tale into the cliffhanger of the decade?

Plan out a quick story: tell it like you were telling a friend about something that you had just heard. Or, better yet, tell it like you were telling a friend about something that mattered to you, something that shook you up. In fact, you don't need to write a piece of fiction. You can simply write your story.

You need less than one thousand (1,000) words of prose, and you have to fit this in as the last sentence:

“I didn't think it was the end.”

Post your story in the comments section, or provide a link to it so that people can start reading your tale. Good luck, and happy writing!