Monday, June 30, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

Happy 4th of July!

Wishing you an Independence Day filled with 
fireworks & picnics!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Ski Bum

About 15 years ago, I ventured on a solo vacation to Aspen. While I was there, I signed up for lessons - little did I know that the advice my hippie Zen master ski instructor would share would continue to hang about at the back of my mind all these years later, a reassuring mantra.

He had a list of three Important Things to keep in mind while headed down the slope:

1) Gravity Works
2) Breathing Helps
3) You Hit What You Aim For

I've been in a lot of situations since there where these pithy words have centered me and I've been surprised by how much I lean on them when it comes to my writing life.

Gravity Works
In skiing, gravity is what gets you down the mountain, one way or another (hopefully upright and on both skis). In writing, for me, gravity is all about what keeps me grounded to my work. What's my purpose? The more aware I am of my purpose, the more apt I am to align my actions with my dreams. Without gravity, I'm an untethered balloon and any old breeze can blow me off course.

Breathing Helps
Kind a a "duh" point to make, right? Breathing helps with balance, refuels the brain, lowers stress. Important on the slopes, essential in a writing life. Through good news and bad, through a tough slog of revisions or the frothy adventure of a new story, breathing is the number one way to connect with your core self. Gravity may get you down the mountain, but breathing properly will shift the journey from something to white knuckle your way through, to an experience you can, well, write home about.

You Hit What You Aim For
Technically, I think my instructor said, "you hit what you look at, so don't look at trees or kids." Translating that into my writing life, I've taken this to mean that, once you get yourself in motion on the trail you want to break, you'll arrive at your destination sooner or later. So make sure it's really where you want to go. And don't give up before you get there.

Gravity works, breathing helps and you hit what you aim for.

What about you? Have any ski bums given you insights into the world lately? What are you aiming yourself toward?

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Good Idea

My husband is in the medical field.  Often when someone he’s just met finds this out, they describe a pain they’re having or an injury sustained in the past.  He doesn’t really mind but I know that it happens more than it doesn’t. 

The same is true when people find out I’m a writer.  The biggest question they ask is “Where do you get your ideas?”  I know I’m not the only one who gets this question—in fact it’s an inside joke with many writers I know. 

Strong and innovative ideas are the foundation to good writing.  But it’s still a tough question to answer. How do you explain how the things you’ve seen, heard, read, dreamt, and felt mix with your brain chemistry to be communicated through your unique voice? 

It’s a mysterious alchemy to be sure.   I don’t understand how it happens.  Though I do know some of the circumstances that seem to bring it about.

I’m a big daydreamer.  It’s not a problem for me to enter my own world and start the “What if?” game.  In line at the store, riding on a train, or waiting for school pick up are great places for this.  I seldom focus on TV commercials because when they start, I’m daydreaming.  I find that driving alone on country roads has brought me some of my best revelations.  Just not at night.  That’s not so relaxing. 

Traveling often sparks new ideas.  Getting away from your regular routine stimulates the brain.  So does meeting new people, learning something new, or reading a different type of book than you normally would choose. 

I guess I get my ideas from living life—taking the familiar and turning it on its head, adding something new I’ve learned and whisking it together.  And of course, writing itself spawns ideas—those things you just start writing in that moment and didn’t even know were there. 

Writing it down brings all of those ideas to life.  Putting yourself in the chair and writing is the only way to use all those great ideas. 

All roads lead back to getting it on the page.  Isn’t that always the way?  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Writing: How Good Does It Have to Be?

by Misha Crews

As I re-read the title of this blog, it sounds like a joke. But I hear this from people all the time: “I really want to be a writer, but I just don’t know if I’m good enough.” And that begs the question: just how do we define “good.” And how good is good enough?

Ask ten people how they define good writing, and they will probably give you ten different answers. One may be obsessed with grammar and punctuation (“You used approximately 4.5 adverbs per page; that’s 2.75 more adverbs than recommended!”), one may talk esoterically about “art” (as in: “It’s okay writing, but it’s not art.”), and one or two may simply say, “Anything that I can’t put down is good writing to me!”

So what is Good Writing?

Now, this is a touchy subject, and to be honest I hesitated to tackle it, because I’m afraid it will seem that I’m either defiling the hallowed rules of grammar or bruising the tender flesh of art. But I’ve done a lot of reading lately, from both published and unpublished writers, and I’ve come to realize something important:

“Good writing” is writing that creates an emotional connection with the reader.

And that’s it. (Almost.)

Good writing makes you laugh or cry, makes your skin crawl, arouses your passion (for good or evil). It communicates something to you. It brings you into its particular universe. It makes you feel, and that’s the primary mission of “good writing.”

A long time ago I started to read a book which I found to be constructed of pretty bad writing. I won’t go into detail, but I’m sure you’ve all read enough poorly-written books to know what I’m talking about! But even with its technical flaws, I found myself becoming absorbed by the story. I wanted to know what was going on. When I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it, and when I finished it, it stayed in my mind for a long time afterward. And you know what I call that? Good writing! You know what I call the technical flaws? Bad editing. *smile*

The way I see it, if this writer had had a better editor (or a better grammar teacher), this book could have been a best seller. Because it created an emotional connection. And the fact that it was able to have that affect in spite of poor use of language just highlights how deep that emotional connection was, and makes me realize anew that the author was indeed a very good writer.

Good writing doesn’t have to be technically perfect. But it does have to be technically correct enough that it doesn’t detract from the emotional connection.

What makes writing technically correct?

Here’s what technically correct writing is made up of (in my humble opinion):

• Grammar and punctuation.

• Proper spelling (of course!).

• An understanding of – and comfort with – language. Not just for dialogue purposes, but also because the rhythm of language varies from age to age and from place to place.

• Story structure: the highs and lows, ebbs and flows of your story.

• Characterization: the hardcore techniques of bringing your people to life.

I’m sure I’ve left out a few things, there but those are the basics. All of these things are important: Grammar, punctuation, language – these are your tools, your instruments. Story structure and characterization – these are the beams and girders of the world you are building. But none of them should ever become more important to you than forging an emotional link with your readers.

So how do you go about creating an emotional connection? And how do you know when you’ve done it?

Here’s what I think: How do you create an emotional connection? Start by feeling it yourself. Fall in love with your characters – even the bad guys (or especially the bad guys, as the case may be!). Make sure every part of your story fascinates you, and if it doesn’t, change it! Because if you’re not interested in any part of your story, I don’t see how or why the reader would be!

And how do you know if you’ve actually achieved the emotional connection? Have someone read your work. Or several someones. They should be people you trust (especially when you start out!), people who aren’t afraid to be honest. Are they “feeling it” when they read your story? No? Ask questions, figure out what’s going wrong and change it. Yes? Well then, you’ve got something good going!

(Oh, this is very important: they should be people who enjoy the genre in which you’re writing. I once had someone get very critical about my writing. Eventually I found out that this guy never read “women’s books” and in fact hardly ever read fiction at all! So save yourself some time (and heartache) and don’t give your romance novel to someone who hates romance novels, LOL!)

So what do you call Good Writing?

If you’re still not sure that your writing is good, don’t be afraid to indulge in a little self-examination. Just ask what you, yourself, consider to be good writing. Shakespeare? Okay, are you trying write like Shakespeare? No? Oh, you just want to make people feel the way you feel when you read Shakespeare?

Okay then, you have now established what kind of emotional connection you’re trying to forge with your readers: the same kind old Will forged with you!  And that’s a good place to start! Just remember, William Shakespeare didn’t start out as an Immortal Poet. He didn’t just pick up a quill pen one day and scribble rough winds do shake the darling buds of May on a piece of parchment. He honed his craft. He learned how to make art by making art. He learned by doing.

And I hope that this blog has made you feel like doing! So quit reading, and go write. (You can start by leaving a comment, if you like!)

So how do YOU define good writing?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Nic's Picks: Sizzling Summer Reads

Now is the perfect time to pick up some sizzling summer reads, because before you know it, school will be out, the beach will beckon, and you'll be ready to dive into your carefully compiled To Be Read pile.
My own TBR pile is already tall and teetering. What's in it? I'm so glad you asked! Here are my Top 5 Picks for summer reading:
5. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
I'm a sucker for an underdog story and Addison's Sci Fi novel promises to be a humdinger. In the novel, 18 year-old half-goblin Maia returns from banishment, navigates the Elvish court, and takes his place as the unwanted Goblin Emperor after his father and elder brothers are killed in a suspicious zeppelin crash. Court intrigue abounds. And Maia must overcome a myriad of challenges. Now that's an underdog story that promises new tricks.
4. America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture by Erik Dussere

If you've ever felt like an outsider, Noir is for you. From Dashiell Hammett to today's writers, Noir speaks to all of us because, somehow, it's about all of us. Nominated for Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Edgar Award, America Is Elsewhere takes a look at the connection between Noir and the ideas we live with today about masculinity, purchasing power, and success. Hmmm...
3. Hunted by Elizabeth Heiter
This may be debut author Elizabeth Heiter's first novel, but I'm betting fans won't let it be her last. When a serial killer turns the tables on FBI profiler Evelyn Baine, she becomes the hunted. I hope you'll hunt down a copy as soon as you can.
2. The Boy in the Smoke by Maureen Johnson
Voted UK's 2012 Teen Queen by Young Adult fiction fans throughout the British Isles, Johnson penned this novella in celebration of this year's World Book Day. In it, she gives fans a glimpse into the backstory behind her popular Shades of London series--and I'm a decided fan. If you aren't familiar with Johnson's Shades, but would love to see how YA, paranormal mystery, and Jack the Ripper lore can come together, check out the first novel in the series, The Name of the Star. Whichever selection you read, you'll never look at the strangers you pass on the street the same way again.
1. Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman
 Milchman's novel is the winner of this year's Mary Higgins Clark Award and as if that weren't yummy enough, it's a psychological thriller about a woman's quest to solve the mystery behind her husband's maybe-not-so-self-inflicted suicide. I plan to read mine with the lights on. And maybe pick up a signed copy since Jenny Milchman will be on tour. Her schedule is jam-packed with possibilities to meet the author as you can see by clicking here.
So there you have it! These are Nic's Picks for Summer Reading. Now that I've shown you mine, how about you show me yours? What books are you planning to pull of the TBR pile this summer?