I tend to crave isolation until I get it. Suddenly, I find myself wondering what the rest of the world is doing out there, how are people fairing during quarantine, ruptured routines, and in some cases, significant upheavals. Some folks work from home. Others hope to have a job on the other side of all this. Still, others have already lost businesses or positions, all within the space of a week or more.
In the classic hero’s journey, there is a stage called The Belly of the Beast. This is the hero’s rock bottom, the place from which it seems impossible to escape. In this dark cavern of the soul, heroes face truths about themselves; they have always been able to ignore. What kind of a person am I really? When the pressure is on, how do I respond?
At the far end of this quarantine, I believe many people will look into a mirror and have new insights, welcome or otherwise, into their own character and integrity.
A different take on the Game of Thrones.
Some people may not like what they see. Did they look out for number one? Did they buy up food and hygiene items such that other people wouldn’t have enough? I recently saw some folks in my apartment complex carrying up bottles of laundry detergent in large tubs into their apartment. It was enough to do laundry for two lifetimes! For a family of ten!
My guess is they were looking for bartering items in the wasteland of Post-COVID-19 America. There they would set themselves up as laundry lords and establish their spring-fresh kingdom. Perhaps some soul-searching waits in their future.
Together, but separate. Twelve feet separate.
But it’s not all bad. Some folks are shining like stars in a dark night. People have put up Christmas decorations to spread cheer. In my neighborhood, several have written encouraging messages with sidewalk chalk.
Children’s author Mo Willems began hosting daily lunch doodles in which he leads children in drawing exercises to help them stave off the boredom for a while. People are sharing items with other people in need. Though they are separate, they are paradoxically growing closer to the people around them.
The tribulations of life draw out the inner person. This is why authors, terrible people that we are, cause no end of trouble to our beloved characters. We have to bring them to the end of themselves because that’s the only way we can pull out the truth of them.
They must face the ugliness in their souls as well as discover the beauty they hadn’t known was there.
I hope you are weathering your own storms well. And I look forward to gathering with my fellow writers after this one has passed. It won’t last forever. Until then, I wish you good writing and inspiration. And if your clothes are getting a little smelly, you can always pay homage to the laundry lords. Perhaps they will favor you with a bottle of Tide.
Coping with Quarantine
It's Okay If You're Not Okay
Don't Let Guilt Get You Down
There has been some confusion lately about the mission of the Northern Colorado Writers. Despite our motto, “helping writers navigate their way to success,” there are some who have taken to social media promoting NCW as a politically conservative organization.
The confusion seems to stem from the third word in our name, Writers. Spelled with a W, it refers to those who write. Righters, a quaint nickname for conservative citizens, is a homophone of Writers. IT ISN’T THE SAME THING!
These are politically charged times. Trying to make sense of an ever-changing socio-political landscape has many looking wherever they can for validation, even in places they ought not to trust.
It cannot be stated often or loudly enough that NCW is not, never has been, and never will be about politics. There is room in NCW for everyone, whether they support the current administration, or they have decided to back one of the other candidates who seek the highest office. Put another way, Blue, Red, Green, or Purple, there is room for everyone in NCW.
Once again, for the record, NCW will not get involved in politics, no matter how many times we have been begged to endorse one candidate over another. We’re simply not going to do it, even if the promise of “sugar on top” is added. Please stop asking.
Having grown weary of the hundreds of emails we receive each week, either protesting or praising us for our perceived political bias, we have decided to change our name. Henceforth, NCW will stand for Northern Colorado Worders. Have no fear, NCW will offer the same top-notch value to members as it always has. New name, no new game.
For more information, you can go to NCW/Special Reports.
The beauty of this decision is that our initials, NCW, remain the same. Having to change the gold letters on top of our corporate offices would have proven far too expensive, given the uncertainty of the times. We applaud our PR team, headed by Miranda Birt, for coming in under budget.
Change of this magnitude takes time, we know. Still, please try to update your contact lists, your vernaculars, and, most importantly, your hearts as we go forward with our new moniker.
Change, see what I did there?
For more information on how to handle this change of name, check out these websites:
Coping with Organizational Name Change
The Name Has Changed, But the Game is the Same
What’s in a name?
I attended Colorado State University at the turn of the century (sounds so long ago when I phrase it that way), studying English Literature and Creative Writing. I had already published poetry, but wanted to hone my skills, so I took a senior workshop course under the state’s poet laureate, Mary Crow.
The class was excellent. I submitted poetry and the class workshopped each piece. Later, Ms. Crow went over my work, praising some and making spot-on suggestions for many. One poem caused her to pause. She handed me the poem—no comments on the page—and said, “This subject isn’t worthy of you.” I’d written the poem to be funny (and I had a strange sense of humor). She was right. The poem wasn’t worthy.
So, what makes for a worthwhile poem? Craft matters, of course. What about subject matter?
I’ve given this a lot of thought. What prompted my answer to the question I just posed was a piece of advice that got me thinking. My writer’s group had been discussing a member’s difficulty with a novel. The subject was autobiographical, and the writer in question kept restarting the project. “Maybe you’re too close to the subject. Maybe you need a little distance.”
Being a contrary sort, I set about thinking of reasons to ignore that advice. And I remembered Mary Crow’s assessment of my poem.
I think my writer’s group’s advice was wrong. I think that if a subject makes you uncomfortable, touches a raw nerve, leaves you conflicted, then that subject is worth exploring. If you the act of writing becomes painful (more so than usual), then the emotion may well find its way to the page. If you finish your poem (or story), it will be important because it’s important to you.
In short, poke a wound.
How to Choose a Story to Write
Writing the Hard Stuff: Seven Things You Need to Know
I’m sitting at the airport waiting to board my first of four work trips this month. As I look around, so many people are sniffling, coughing, and blowing their noses. I wonder how many people have coronavirus. Probably all of them. I know for sure the coworkers who will be sitting next to me have it because she’s coughing and feverish. I’m going to try very hard not to breathe.
But let’s say that coronavirus does decimate the population (which it won’t), all-digital operations cease, and only Bear Grylls and others with strong survival skills remain. What will be the most venerated aspect of humanity? Storytelling.
In Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, she describes how humans are hard-wired for storytelling. Our ancestors used it to learn from others what to do, what not to do to survive.
At the beginning of civilization, stories were an essential part of daily life. At the end of civilization (coming no time soon), storytelling will be the last part of humanity to fade away. In a Time Magazine article from December 5, 2017, storytelling is what makes us human. It’s what teaches us empathy, friendship, cooperation, explains the culture, customs, and social norms.
If you were an excellent storyteller back in our hunter-gatherer days, you were the caveman version of a rock star. You would likely attract the healthiest partner to produce superlative children.
Stories are the basis for most religions. Paul, the Apostle, may have been one of the best storytellers in recorded history. The stock market soars or tanks on stories, and there have been flood myths for many thousands of years. Like the game, telephone, the event gets more intricate in each retelling.
From the Epic of Gilgamesh, written 4000 years ago, to comic book superheroes of today, stories bind humanity and even give us an evolutionary advantage.
So, if good storytellers attracted the fittest partners, then it seems to follow that if you are a good storyteller, you might have the most robust DNA. If we continue down that path, good storytellers will likely be able to withstand the coronavirus.
If this virus continues unchecked…due to evolution, we may be the last ones standing. Indeed, storytelling is a superpower.
The Art of Immersion
Storytelling Makes Us Human
The annual NCW conference looms on the horizon. Many of us are sprucing up those manuscripts to impress professionals of the literary world, not least of which are agents you hope to woo.
You've got 50,000 words to show off, but you'll only have a page or two to make a solid impression. Story elements are in place. Taking steps to make sure it is as strong as it can be. One of the keys to good writing is strong external critique. The good news is many common shortcomings are avoidable.
It doesn't serve to waste professional feedback on something you could have spotted and repaired on your own.
I have a strong opening line.
Opening stories with Once upon a time was only acceptable once upon a time. It would help if you had an enticing lead to summarize the essence of your piece in a concise way that will frame the final act. The opening statement may or may not double as the hook.
Seven Ways to Create a Killer Opening Line for Your Novel
My hook is in place, and it is enticing.
The hook should happen immediately. Don't give readers an excuse to put your book down. This the initial statement in which you invite your reader's curiosity enough to draw them into the story.
I build to my inciting incident and execute it with a flourish.
The inciting incident is the early episode that launches the character into the story. It is the critical moment when your protagonist, willing or not, embarks upon the journey of your novel. It need not occur as early as the hook but don't keep readers waiting for long. Their bags are packed, and they're ready for this ship to launch!
Write an Awesome Inciting Incident - Three Things to Do
I have avoided the clichés.
Don't fall into the common pitfalls. Learn to recognize them, and you may save yourself a lot of time and effort. No dark and stormy nights, please! The trick here, however, is knowing the clichés and recognizing them. Here is a fantastic resource from Nelson Literary Agency's Pub Rants blog to help you out.
Nine Story Openings to Avoid
I have streamlined my prose until it hurt. Then I simplified it some more!
Be concise. Don't load your readers up on backstory, inner dialogue, or flowery prose. Your first pages are premium real estate, and every word should pull its weight. James Scott Bell, in his book Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, asks writers to consider whether chapter two could open your book. If it can, perhaps it should.
Seven Common Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Chapter
It's perfectly okay if you haven't checked off all of the boxes. The thing to remember is if your writing is strong, your voice compelling, and your work polished it won't kill you to have crafted one of these scenes. The better question is does chapter one serve the story and the reader. If so, you may be ready for your literary rendezvous. If not, it's never too late to polish things up.
Either way, an excellent first chapter will set your book up for success, so take your time to make it great!
Don't miss out on NCW's conference!
I liked poetry in high school. Loved it, even. In that time and place, the only people who got enthusiastic about poetry were the English teachers, and even some of them weren’t keen. These were the days before being a nerd was cool. Kids my age were into popular music, popular culture, and football. I learned to keep my poetic inclinations to myself, none of my friends would have understood.
Except for one, Gretchen, who gave me A Treasury of the World’s Best-Loved Poems one year for Christmas. She wrote on the title page that I should read The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes first, which I did. Such a tragic and beautiful poem. The first lines of this poem about a haunted New England roadhouse pulled me in:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Bess, the landlord’s black-eyed daughter, shot herself to warn her rogue lover that an ambush of Red Coats awaited him. How wonderfully romantic! It broke my 15-year-old heart.
I’ve taken that volume of poetry everywhere I have lived in the world. It has always had pride of place on my bookshelf. Still, I never thought I could write poetry myself beyond the usually terrible limerick:
There once was a guy from the Rockies
Who liked to parade in his Jockeys.
He got quite a scare
From a wandering bear
Who was strutting around in his khakis.
Don’t give up my day job, I know, but that won’t stop me from reading poetry, and writing some, and using what I learn to improve my prose. In poetry, every word is essential. Learning how to use language effectively is part of how you can draw your reader in and train their attention on the things you want them to notice. It can influence their emotions as they read. It can make your writing so much better.
So even if you aren’t a poet, I encourage you to study poems. Take a class or attend a poetry session at the next writing conference. (Here’s a good one: https://northerncoloradowriters.com/Conference ). Fall in love with words again, your writing will improve. Poetry can make that happen.
How to Write a Poem: 8 Fundamentals for Writing Poetry That’s Meaningful
Poetry 101: Getting Started
36 Poetry Writing Tips
You are likely familiar with narrative arc (the path that characters take within a story's plot) and character arc (the changes characters undergo throughout the story). But you may not be familiar with symbolic arc—the evolving use of a recurring symbol in fiction.
I first encountered this important concept while reading Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry, a collection of short stories depicting the author's experiences during the Polish-Soviet war (1919-1921). Simple images like a burning candle are introduced in brightly lit night scenes with romantic fervor. By the book's end, candles are grimy, dim, and spent.
Brontë's Jane Eyre uses the changing meaning of symbolism to reflect relationship ambivalence. Birds are a metaphoric symbol of both captivity and freedom.
In my Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort (shameless plug: coming in July from Five Star), a Bowie knife takes on multiple meanings. Decker Brown introduces the blade as his father's prized possession, as evidenced by a ritual of sharpening, even when the knife goes unused. Though estranged from his father at the start of the war, Decker finds the weapon wrapped in his bundle after heading off to fight. As such, the blade becomes a symbol of unconditional love.
After the war, Decker (now running a business in Richmond) gives a Bowie knife to his foreman. It's not the same Bowie (his father's knife was lost at Shiloh). And Decker does nothing so evident as to think back to his father's knife (which would be a mild insult to the reader).
Though only five years have passed, the war has radically altered Decker—he now plays the father's role. The knife underscores the contentious relationship he has with the man to whom he gifts the blade. This echoes his relationship with his own father. And tells the reader what Decker could never bring himself to say out loud.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn't a master of subtlety on this one.
We all have our rituals. The first cup of coffee in the morning. And we have our icons. I have a dead bat in formaldehyde on my desk, gifted to me by a daughter with a shared sense of humor.
What are your character's rituals and icons? And how do those very human elements change as the story arc progresses? One more layer of resonance for your work in progress.
Connecting Themes with Symbolism
Symbolism And Subtlety
I'm about to jump into the querying trenches again. This time with a new novel and hundreds of writing hours under my belt on this recent work of magnificence. My last magnificent opus inched up the ladder of success until the ladder was unceremoniously yanked from under my feet. I'm second burn shy. Is it going to be easier this time around? It's possible, but unlikely.
At least my skin is thicker, and I know what to expect.
― Oscar Wilde
I had a plan, a schedule that my writing life would take:
William Shakespeare wrote 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and several works by collaboration, and was deemed "The Bard" of England. He was 52 when he died. I am 52.
[Note to self: consider deleting this section, so fewer readers think you are comparing yourself to Shakespeare, which you are definitely not!]
I may envy his word count, but not that hairline.
Of course, the average lifespan in the 16th century was 40. So that puts things into perspective.
[Note to self: maybe change the subhead, so fewer readers think I'm being cheesy and using a worn-out cliché from a Disney movie]
After all, much of what I wanted is out of my hands:
The one thing I absolutely control is writing, writing, writing, which I do. Am I a better writer since I was 30? You betcha.
Last year, in Forbes Magazine, Pia Silva made a gut-wrenching point. In today's world of self-publishing, too many people are focused on the fact they can publish a book rather than if they should.
That's not saying independently published books aren't worth the ink. Given the volatility of the publishing industry right now, I don't blame writers. But, there is no denying a market flooded with self-published books makes it hard to find those quality gems. And we all know of a self-published book or two that was wanton murder of a few trees.
While I'm working on the traditional route, the same question is valid. Just because I want to get my story published, doesn't necessarily mean that it will happen. Waaaaah!
But then I came across mention of eighty-year-old Roberta George, who took twenty years to finish her manuscript and find a publisher. I'm a spring chicken when you think about reaching eighty years old.
Eighty is the new forty. Robert George.
[Note to self: perhaps you should limit your glee, so you don't inadvertently insult those readers in their eighties because that is not the intent! Some of the most amazing people are in their eighties, like my father who is a talented writer]
This tidbit reminds me not to put too much credence in my schedule. And his prolific word count wasn't the only thing Shakespeare had going for him.
It is easier said than done when I reach each birthday. Will I let go of the things I can't control? Only if someone pries my fingers off the keyboard as I write query letter after query letter. Will I continue to try even if I'm in my 80s still striving to get my stories published?
Late Blooming Authors
Writers Who Started Later in Life
Debut Author at 64 Years Old
Character voices are one of a writer's greatest tools when trying to create lively and interesting characters. While an author's voice is about individual style of writing, characterization is the arrangement of a variety of trappings. These effects not only help distinguish a character's voice from the author's voice, but ideally create genuine personalities.
Careful composition of these voices can give characters authenticity saving a writer from cheese and trope.
Your character may have a dialect, but don’t force one by writing it phonetically. Your readers won’t delight at your vocal versatility so much as grumble at you for taking them out of the flow of your narrative. An occasional drop of enunciation or of the last syllable works for a reader.
Maybe a bit of Spanglish or the sporadic outburst in their native language can help a reader nail the sound of a characters voice without pounding them over the head.
Language is how our characters present themselves to the world. It’s a combination of the character’s nature, experience, values and drive erupting right out of a single imaginary larynx. Characters can be polite, abrupt, determined, or confused. All of these behaviors can be revealed by word choice or phrasing.
Shall we head out?
Come with me.
Yeah, let's stay here where we could be killed.
Maybe we should get moving.
We all do it. Those first drafts are full of information dumps. It is tempting to reformat all of that precious data into dialogue. We must consider if it feels natural as a conversation. If in doubt, read it aloud. Language that seems too flowery or formal is a flow killer.
Billy and Suzie have just darted into an abandoned alleyway clutching at their stomachs and gasping for breath. “Those mysterious agents in black suits and dark glasses nearly got us,” says Billy. “Who do you think they were?”
“I don’t know,” says Suzie, “If we hadn’t rushed into traffic, weaving around rushing cars at great risk to our personal health and then raced up a fire-escape, I am quite sure they would have caught us. I’ve never been so afraid since our parents died tragically in that roadrunner stampede exactly six years ago.”
“Ah, yes,” says Billy, “I remember the day. Let’s stop escaping certain danger for a moment and relive our tragic past for no particular reason. It was a sunny day. Beautiful and temperate in wild roadrunner country…”
Just as in the real world, characters must respond to events in the world you've built. Readers may or may not have access to the unfiltered inner voice depending on how you structure your story.
Writers are responsible for the silent thoughts that can provide characterization for readers. Dialogue is a single channel medium. Nonverbal communication travels across multiple channels. Not only the actions your character takes, but decisions and reactions play an important role in character development as well.
Billy and Suzie darted into the abandoned alleyway clutching at their stomachs and gasping for breath. “Who? Who were they?” asked Billy, leaning with wobbly legs against the stained brick wall.
Suzie braced herself against a dumpster. “I don’t know.”
“But why would they?” Billy asked. “Why?”
“I said I don’t know, Billy! Do you understand I don’t know!” Suzie turned to face him. “All I can say is we better not let them find us.”
Billy held back sobs and wiped the wetness from his eyes. “I’m just so scared, Suzie. I wish Mom and Dad were here.”
Suzie sat down next to him and cradled his head into her shoulder with one hand. “Yeah,” she said, “I know.”
The point of view we write from can also help us manifest our characters for our readers. This is narrative voice and using the different formats can influence a reader's feeling about a character. One of our favorite people, Chuck Wendig, works almost exclusively in third person, present tense. He does it extremely well and explains his choice on his blog.
We are communicators. It's why we write. We have a broad array of tools to strengthen the impact of our language. Let's use them.
Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.
--- William Faulkner
How many of us have heard this piece of advice? I know I had to the point it became just another item on my checklist. But then, I started to think about it a little deeper. Why are we told to do this? "To strengthen your skills. To look at how other authors use the same story elements."
All good things, sure. Do I walk over to the westerns and pick something up? Where should I start?
Look at your writing to help you decide. What areas of your manuscript need some sprucing up?
How's your pacing? Too fast? Pick up a classic of nearly any genre to slow down on the foggy moors. Not fast enough? Thrillers are known for slamming their foot on the gas and asking, "what brakes?".
Is your setting falling flat? Check out fantasy and sci-fi to add a little bit of wonder and flare. Stilted prose? Grab some poetry. Too wordy? Snatch up a short story. Are your characters doing the 2-D two-step? Literary fiction dives so deep into the character that it makes submarines jealous.
Historical fiction, young adult, romance, mystery, horror--each area has strengths and weaknesses. So, when you decide what to read, read for those.
Read a history book. Read a language manual. Read about business practices, knitting, and humor. (Seriously, do yourself a favor and pick up a humor book, we all need a laugh.)
Biographies could inspire your next character. History could reveal a new setting or an intriguing artifact to base a plot around. Can you kill someone with knitting needles? Also, who isn't a fan of witty banter?
Business executives need a lot of creative thinking to stay ahead in their fields, and they are exponentially more productive than I am, that's for sure.
Heck, even an SAT prep book can give you a plethora of random facts and a nice jolt to your vocabulary.
Don't think you need to stop with just reading outside your genre. Every art has something to offer and views the world differently than we do.
Movies are known for their dialogue. Actors take characterization to crazy levels that frequently make the news. Artists see the world in colors and lines, musicians in notes and rhythms, and chefs in flavors and textures.
JC Lynne pulls headlines for stories as well. The Esau Continuum
A Book That Started with Pictures
April J Moore discovered a box of photos that inspired a true crime tale. Folsom's 93
Jeffrey Eugenides And Tiresias
Jim Campain chooses history to frame his stories. Mysterious Miss Snoddy.
Miranda Birt frequently pretends to know what she’s doing; sometimes it even turns out to be true. She went and got a massage degree, dropped out of traditional college a few times, and owned a small business. After a lot of work and heartbreak, she decided none of it was for her and started over yet again.
Now she spends much of her time at a day job in an attempt to fund her writing habits. Also, to pay down her student loans. Oh, and bills. Because, you know, important things.
Miranda is currently working on a fantasy novel along with puzzling out how exactly one goes about writing these “short” stories.
Thank you for your patience as we get this new system up and running, You can now add comments to blog posts by clicking on the button next to to the post title. Here's a screenshot:
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