Friday, January 27, 2012

Writing Software

After writing two novels in Word, I’d become more than a little annoyed with the program. It gets clunky and cumbersome, and with longer documents, it's prone to crashing. The only other option I'd found was Pages for Mac users. It has some great features that I love, but lacks a comments or revision mode, which is vital to a writer's life.

I’d long ago resigned myself to the fact that, like it or not, I’d always have to use Word. But then I went to the January Writer’s Residency at Seton Hill and found a few programs that have made my writing life so much more efficient and enjoyable.

The first one is Scrivener. It’s a fantastic writing program that allows you to break up your writing into chunks (even as small as scenes) within one project. You can also have notes on the side of your screen! There’s an outlining option and easy to create note cards in bulletin board view--which I found helpful in planning my new work-in-progress. It even has character sketch templates! Scrivener blew me away. Totally worth the $45 price tag.

The other thing that seems to slowly drain my writing time is the internet. I’ll write a paragraph, and then check my email. Write another one, and then check my Facebook. Write another one, and then check Twitter. You get the picture. This Residency, someone mentioned Freedom. It kills your internet for a set number of minutes. The only way to cancel it is to re-boot your computer. It’s an instant distraction killer. I got it bundled with Anti-Social, which does the same thing but only for certain websites. So, if you’re like me and write with an internet radio station playing, like Pandora, this might be a better tool.

The last program I heard about at Residency was You can download a desktop version or use a free one via the web. You set a number of words you want to write and a time frame in which you want them completed. Should you slow down or stop typing entirely, the screen fades to red and the program starts making annoying noises (babies crying, horns honking, etc.). The only way to make it stop is to start typing again. They have a few different settings, one of which is called “kamikaze.” If you fail to start typing after the warning, the program actually starts deleting your words! I don’t know that I’m brave enough to try that, but I’m thinking about trying it on one of the more forgiving setting.

Have you found any other helpful programs? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

maximum impact

I recently had a short story critiqued in a writers' workshop. This was a good experience because it reminded me of some things I needed to be reminded of, namely, a short story should be as dramatic as possible. I'm a bit embarrassed to say my rough draft could have grabbed the reader more. It could have had a bigger impact.

In revisions I found maximum impact came from knowing my protagonist and making sure all aspects of my story were interconnected.

  • Every other character in the piece should have had a strong connection to the protagonist. For example, it's not enough to put a child in danger, the child should be related to the protagonist, if possible.
  • The setting should be important to the protagonist. It's not enough to put the protagonist in the setting. The setting should be crucial to the protagonist--this is the place he or she has to be.
  • External plot complications need to be unique to the protagonist. Think about the protag. Determine what's the worst possible thing that could happen to him/her--and then make it happen.
  • External plot needs to be linked to internal character arc. In our example, perhaps the protag him/herself was in peril as a child, so he/she cannot abide kids in peril. Would your protag sacrifice him/herself for said child? Ooh, now that's dramatic.

What do you think? Do you have any tips for achieving maximum impact in fiction?

Good luck with your writing!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Genre Cheat Sheet

I met some beginning authors recently who didn't know what genre they were writing. Uh oh. Here's my genre cheat sheet, an easy way to tell what you're writing. The following comments apply ~90% of the time:
  • YA: teenaged protagonist, plot is a coming-of-age tale, ending should be hopeful. Note: you can have sex and violence in YA but it cannot be gratuitous or gory.
  • Women's fiction: female protagonist, plot is a voyage of self-discovery/self-awareness or similar. You could say in women's fiction the woman saves herself. Note: women's fiction rarely has a male protagonist.
  • Romance: plot is person meets person and sparks fly, obstacles keep them apart, but in the end they are together and it's Happily Ever After (HEA). Traditionally, this has been boy meets girl and the HEA is marriage, but strictures are loosening. Note in romance the two characters save each other.
  • Fantasy: plot is a battle between good and evil and there must be some kind of magic/supernatural/paranormal elements. Within fantasy there are two major settings:
    • urban fantasy: setting is contemporary planet Earth
    • epic/high/traditional fantasy: setting is a secondary made-up world.

    Note: fantasy originated as a reaction against the industrial revolution/scientific method so there is an inherent irrationality at its core.
  • Science Fiction (SF): any plot or characters are allowed but SF is based on logic and reason, extrapolation and speculation. There are many famous SF tropes including: the future, alternate timelines, time-travel, outer space, other planets, space ships, aliens, androids, AIs,robots, clones, telepathy, teleportation, dystopia, apocalypse, post-apocalypse, faster-than-light travel and similar. Note: if you use any of these SF tropes in your fiction, it will generally trump everything else in your story and your fiction will be classified as SF.
  • Mystery: plot involves a dead body (or other serious crime) in chapter one, the protagonist is some kind of detective, and the bad guy is brought to some kind of justice in the end. Note: the reader and the detective essentially solve the crime(s) together during the course of the book. Mysteries are logical.
  • Thriller: the plot involves the protagonist trying to stop some kind of villain before he/she commits their crime, and the crime should be significant such as mass murder, terrorism, assassination and similar. The climax occurs when the protagonist defeats the villain. Often, the reader knows who the villain is and what they are planning but the protagonist does not--adding to the thrill factor.
  • Horror: here the key is author intent, the author seeks to unsettle and/or frighten the reader. Thus any plot or characters are allowed. Often unnatural and/or supernatural elements are involved. In recent years, horror has often involved graphic violence, including plenty of gore.

Some deprecated genres include Chick Lit (call it humorous women's fiction), and Westerns (not selling at all).

Some so-called genres modify the genres in the list above. For example, you can have historical women's fiction, historical romance, historical mystery, etc. Another example: humorous women's fiction, humorous fantasy, humorous SF.

Good luck with your genre!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

writers cheat sheet

Ah, residency... That time when you get to connect with old writer friends, make new writer friends, get your words critiqued and your mind expanded with new ideas, eat bad cafeteria food, sleep little, drink too much, and all the rest. :)
It's interesting; we have critique groups with a wide variety of writers and it seems we experienced writers always tell the newbies the same things. So, if you would like to appear experienced, here's my cheat sheet for writers:
  • Dialogue Tags:
    • Know how to punctuate these, e.g. "You rock," Joe said.
    • Only use "said" or "asked" in your dialogue tags. I'm not kidding.
    • Only use one dialogue tag per paragraph.
    • It's better to use beats instead of dialogue tags, e.g. "You rock." Joe picked up his pick.
      (Beats are small physical actions.)

  • Characters' Physical Description:
    • Characters shouldn't think or talk about the color of their skin, hair, eyes, etc. when in their own point of view.
    • Generally, do not describe the height, weight, girth, color, of characters--unless you write romance, or maybe fantasy.
    • Describe characters via qualities that are important by showing these qualities to the reader.

  • Don't use Distancing words, like "thought", "perceived", "realized"--anything that's a synonym for "thought". These put an extra layer between the character and the reader and you don't need it. Similarly, words of perception like "saw", "heard", "felt" also put distance between the character and the reader.
  • Don't use extra words like "that", "well", "just", etc. These are rarely needed or effective.
  • Don't use adverbs.
  • Know your genre. You need to know what genre you are writing in. This is important. I'm going to write more about this later in week.

Good luck with your writing!

Thursday, January 5, 2012


As you may or many not know, Seton Hill Writers had its origins at the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill University. Coming up very soon, we have our winter 2012 residency. What goes on at such a residency you may ask? Well, I'll tell you. :)

We start off by discussing the genre novel that we all read. This year it was the mystery The Snowman by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. (This was awesome by the way; I will be blogging about it later at some point.) It's always a kick to discuss a novel in detail with other diverse people who study writing. Invariably, we disagree about various aspects of the novel.

Then, we split up into various classes. Classes generally vary each residency. This time, the first day they include: Critiquing and Clarity, The Business of Writing, Character in YA and Middle Grade Fiction, How Much is Too Much: Boundaries for Dark Content in Horror and Fantasy, or The Four-Layer Method of Revision. Then, this time, after dinner there are Masters Thesis Presentations.

On the ensuing day, we have morning Writing Workshops, where about 3 folks have submitted a short story or chapter and everyone (groups of 6 to 12 people) critiques them. This is always very interesting. It's really neat to read all the new creative projects.
After lunch we have classes: Character and Dialogue, Point of View, YA Dystopian: The New Young Glums, Deep Characterization For the Romance Hero/Heroine, or Endings and Beginnings. After dinner students meet with their mentors.

The next day starts with more Writing Workshops. Lunch is with the new semester's email critique partners. These are your critique partners for the entire semester and you have to plan out how you will handle submissions, etc. Afternoon classes include: Conflict Plot and Scene Building, Setting and Research, Origin of the Species: Creating Other Races, Putting the Thrills in your Thriller, or Writing and Marketing Cross-Genre Books. After dinner are more Thesis Presentations and Alumni Panel Presentations.

The subsequent day again begins with Writing Workshops. Then we have guest speakers after lunch. This time Sophie Littlefield, Rachael Herron, and Juliet Blackwell, all authors, are our guests. The guest speakers are often authors and usually teach some kind of class or workshop in the afternoon. That evening these guests will do a talk "Gender and Publishing" with a book signing and reception afterwards. Sounds fascinating! :)

The following day begins with classes: Structure and Synopsis Writing, Revision, Empowering Female Characters, Marketing Mystery and Current Trends or The Language of Fear. That afternoon we have Writing Workshops, followed by a graduation ceremony and a reception. (Congrats grads!)

As you can see, it's a jam-packed week. Phew. I'm worn out just from writing about it. :) It should be a blast!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

fiction in context

I read an interesting and well-written book over the holidays Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. She writes about France in WWII. The first novella, Storm, describes the chaotic flight from Paris when its citizens believe the Germans are coming to destroy the city. This novella is primarily about greed and fear and how the French people treat each other. The second novella, Dolce, tells of French people living in a small German-occupied town. Again, it is primarily about the French class struggle, the haves versus the have-nots, with the occupying Germans portrayed surprisingly humanely. As a reader, I did find it somewhat disconcerting that there was essentially no mention of Nazis or Jewish persecution.

What makes this book more interesting is we also have the author's notes about the book. For example, she writes, If I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it. and Think about as well: the famous "impersonality" of Flaubert and his kind lies only in the greater fact with which they express their feelings--dramatising them, embodying them in living form, instead of stating them directly and Have no illusions: this is not for now. So mustn't hold back, must strike with a vengeance wherever I want. There's a lot of good writing advice here.

Nemirovsky also outlines 3 additional novellas she plans to complete the book.

However... she does not finish the book.

While working on it, in July of 1942 Nemirovsky was arrested as a foreign Jew by French police (she was born in Russia), detained at Pithiviers and then taken to Auschwitz where she was murdered in the gas chamber within a month. Her last known letter, smuggled out of the transit camp, was: Thursday morning--July 1942 Pithiviers. My dearest love, my cherished children, I think we are leaving today. Courage & hope. You are in my heart, my loved ones. May God help us all.

What is particularly mind-boggling is according to the letters and supplementary materials included, it appears no one in France knew was going on at Auschwitz. Nemirovsky's friends and family wrote many letters (after she was murdered) trying to find out what happened to her so they could send her money, clothing, food, and blankets.

Tragically, during all this, the author's husband offered to take her place in the camp and thus attracted the attention of Nazi authorities. They hauled him to Auschwitz and murdered him immediately in the gas chamber.

As a reader, it is very difficult to consider this book without taking into account the historical context. In my opinion, in context, it is poignant, tragic, agonizing, and frankly, heartbreaking.

I'll leave you with one more quote from Nemirovsky's notebook:
June 28, 1941. ...I swear here and now never again to take out my bitterness, no matter how justifiable, on a group of people, whatever their race, religion, convictions, prejudices, errors.