Monday, July 10, 2017

5 Tips for Summer Writing

As we move through July more people are taking vacations or spending time doing fun outdoors things. Who has time to write?  We all do and we should make good use of these warm summer months to get things done with our writing that we might not normally do.

Here are 5 tips for using the summer to get your writing in gear even while you are on vacation.

1. Visit a museum.  If you are visiting relatives out of town why not take a trip down to the local museum and study some history. You might come up with a good story idea or two or four or six. Think about all the real life characters you can learn about in a museum, not to mention coming up with interesting facts about a region that you might be able to use in a time travel or even in a futuristic fantasy.

2. Take a hike and let your mind wander.  Some of my best story ideas have come up while I am on a long walk, enjoying the scenery
. Thinking up a plot while trudging along a trail in the high country can not only make the walk go faster, but if you find yourself surrounded with a beautiful mountain view or looking for shells on a lonely beach you can also soak in the feel of the location and use that for a story in the future. Appreciate the setting and think about how you might write about it. You might even look for a way to put it into a scene in your book when you get back to your hotel room.

3. Read!  What is better to do that sitting on a beach chair soaking up the sun and reading the latest books you have been promising yourself you want to tackle. They can not only rejuvenate your brain but sometimes they can also remind you that YOU can write as well and get you going again. You might also consider reading through your latest work and look for new plot directions or pick up something you haven't work on in a while and read through it as though you were reading someone else's book. That might break a logjam in a story for you.

4. Relax! Not only is sitting by the beach or taking that long walk energizing but just letting your
mind wander with nothing to do can clear out some of the dead brain cells and get new ideas planted in your head. Even if you don't feel like writing you can still plot or come up with new ideas for characters. Sometimes being away from your writing desk can totally free up your brain to go in new directions.

5. Do some fun writing. Put away that fiction and try writing non-fiction for a change. Do an interview with someone at a place you're visiting and write up a non-fiction blog piece on the person. Whether it's a fellow traveler or the guy who's selling ice cream along the beach walkway. Think about how you might write a news feature on the person. What kind of questions would you ask? How would you tell the story?

Summer can be a great time to relax and get our writing thoughts in order. But then, eventually, we do need to get back to the keyboard or notebook and sit down and start tackling those writing subjects again. But why let all that great writing time go to waste? Enjoy the summer, but come back refreshed and ready to write!

Monday, June 26, 2017

5 Tips For Sharpening Scenes

Don't we all sometimes feel like a scene we are writing is just... well... blah?  What can you do to make it more effective, make it more exciting or as something the reader wants to read? Sometimes it is the small things that can make a difference in bring a scene to life. The other day on the internet I read a headline about Stephen King being the writer who brings our time period to life and it got me to thinking. How does he do that? How could we use that same sort of writing technique for our own stories?

1. Use little details. Often it is those little things that King mentions in a story that makes it so much more real. For instance in his bestseller, Mr. Mercedes, he has someone back in the past driving a Datsun. It's not just a car; it's a Datsun, a specific model. His character Det. Hodges, sits in a La-Z-Boy, not just a lounger. We may not even know the difference between that sort of lounger and others, but again, it's something specific.

2. Turn something unknown into something fearful. I remember listening to the audio version of his book Desperation about driving into a deserted town in the desert as I was driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. There weren't many little towns on that highway, but I remember fearing that I might suddenly arrive at the desert town of Baker and suddenly find it deserted instead of being the place I normally stopped for gas and a Diet Coke. And I remember the fear of driving across a small strip of Oklahoma that was very empty and worrying about what unknown territory might be out there. King can take that small fear of the unknown and blow it up into something big. We can all relate to that.

3. Use all the senses in a scene. This is something I constantly teach in writing classes. Is your
character greeting someone at the airport? Don't forget all the noise and bustle around the person--women with crying babies, people shouting at each other to hurry or in greeting, people jostling others to get ahead of them. What about the smells? People always seem to remember smells except when they are writing. I remember standing beside the Olympic torch in Vancouver and being overwhelmed not by the crowd around, or even the damp chilly day, but by the smell of the fuel that was keeping it lit.

4. Sharpen the focus on your characters.  Again it is often the small details that bring a person to life, whether it is a habit that the person often does or a quirk. Years ago I wrote a series of short stories for an anthology with another writer and when we were coming up with new characters for each story he always started out with a character's quirk. I thought it was a fun thing to do, but as we developed the stories around a certain theme, I found those quirks were very useful in bringing those characters to life.

5. Experiment. Try something different, something you haven't done before. It might be a short story when you are used to writing long or it might be a longer story when you normally write short. Try writing a science fiction or fantasy if you normally write romances or a mystery.  Just stretching your imagination can be fun not only as a way to take a break but also to give new vitality to your writing when you go back to your normal work.

And finally remember those scenes as you edit. As you go through your work before sending it off or publishing it, see how much you notice about the scene and read it as though you were a reader, seeing it for the first time. Are you giving your readers a real picture? A story they can step into and enjoy? If not, then look for some of these ways to make the picture come alive.

Monday, June 19, 2017

5 Tips for Getting Re-Energized

Sometimes that old goblin just gets to us -- we can call it hitting the wall, or writers' block, or just losing inspiration. What can you do when that happens? There is always the easy way out: you can give your writing a rest for a while and come back to it later.  The only successful way to do that, though, is to give yourself a deadline. Give yourself a day or two, a couple of days, or even a week, but you have to be ready to get yourself back in your chair at the end of that time period and be ready to go again. If you don't, you face the possibility of days turning to weeks, into months and nothing is getting done.  What can you do to get yourself re-inspired or re-energized?

Here are some tips that can help:

1. Take a trip.  I only suggest that at the beginning because I just returned from a four-day journey that not only re-energized my thinking, but also provided some wonderful and stimulating ideas for a romance I am writing that is set in the 1880's on the grassy  plains of southern Colorado.  At my sister's suggestion we ended up driving along a dirt road through those exact grassy plains. In addition to returning to town with lots of bug bites, I also came away with some wonderfully inspiring ideas for what a character might feel on a summer morning. The trip also had me thinking up new scenes. Now we can't always take a trip to the exact story location, but we can do other things.

2.  Try fresh research.  We may all do research before we start writing a story, but sometimes you have to go back and re-study some of those old notes. Remember why you were putting things a certain way, or look for small tidbits of research that you might have overlooked in your writing and use them. That refreshing of your ideas may spark new thoughts and new directions in your story. If you are writing historical pieces, research can always play as major role. The problem is not to let it get so overwhelming that all you do is research. Sooner or later you need to stop and write that story.

3. Try a new approach.  I usually write off the top of my head without planning what will happen next, but sometimes that can also slow me down. Sometimes it pays to take those few extra moments or hours to sit down with your plot and characters and think about what you want to happen next. Are there scenes that you realize you will need to get to a certain point? Try writing them, or at least try a couple of different story or plot ideas and see if might help get you past this current hung up point.

4.  Try writing in a different genre for a short story or a non-fiction piece of writing. Much as I love writing romance and mystery or suspense I also once enjoyed reading science fiction and horror. A month ago I went to a session on writing horror and found us studying so many of the masters I had once read. It gave me new ideas for possible short stories and I came home and started a science fiction work. It got me back to writing and that was what was important. I may turn the story into a short serialized piece. I have also been working on several non-fiction biographical pieces that help keep the writing flowing.

5.  Try writing sprints. This is something that I have heard work for so many people.  This week I plan to take part in several write-ins with different groups of authors and I may try some writing sprints as we work on our projects.  I want to see how successful that might be. Again, the key is trying something new and something that also helps to keep writing.

Don't let the summer get away from you! We are hitting peak vacation time, but you can also use it to re-energize your writing so that when you come back to doing it full time or part time, you will be ready to go!

Monday, May 22, 2017

5 Tips for Getting Organized

Every time I need to take a break from writing I seem to find myself wanting to get organized. I find myself thinking that next time I'll do a better job of being organized and that will be the answer to everything. I'll get organized, I'll be able to think better. I'll be able to write better, and everything will just all into place.

Well, unfortunately there is no easy answer to getting the muse to work, but I do find that sometimes it pays to do some re-organizing. It can help.  So how do you re-organize yourself?

1. Start with your notes.  Do you keep story ideas written down on small slips of paper? Do you put them into notes on your phone? Do you tuck away story ideas for a later date?  Well, sometimes just organizing those notes and putting them all into one place can bring back an old idea or get you started on a  new project. Put them all into one place and then separate them every so often. You might find several that go together and can send you off in a certain direction.

2. Organize your work space.  I don't know about you but I find myself constantly losing just about everything I need. When you need that information on a certain time period or need to check a certain piece of grammar in your editing, you suddenly can't find the book that might have the answer.  My solution to that is to keep several editing and grammar books right on the desk next to my computer. When I was working in a newsroom, I always had a dictionary handy (in those old days we didn't have handy references built into our typewriters. I still like having the book to look things up.

3. Keep a notepad or notebook to write down things for later.  I keep things in a daily calendar notebook so I can not only see what I need to do today schedule wise but so I can also have it handy to refer back to it later.

4. Use your phone to take pictures. My sister keeps all her notes and projects on her phone.  If she needs to remember an article or even a recipe, she takes a picture of it so she can refer back to it later. I'm not sure that works for me because I would forget I have it, but that can work. Even in your writing it can work well.  For instance, if you're doing research in  a museum take pictures of the displays or even the reference material.

5. Take the time to organize.  Again, whenever things get too crazy,I know I need to just spend a day putting everything back in its place. Next month, things may go crazy again, but for a while I have them in place and know where to find them.  I regularly teach classes and often find myself suddenly needing certain writing books. I may keep them around me for the month of the class, but when it's over they go back on the shelf so they don't clutter things up too badly.

The key to all this is not to let the clutter get so out of hand that the job becomes overly time consuming. When I was working, I often had to share a desk with another news producer. It paid off because at the end of the day I had to clear out all my clutter so I could start fresh the next day. I still often do that at the end of the day or the end of a project.  Keep the clutter in line and you can succeed!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

5 Tips for Getting Story Ideas

Story ideas can be hard to come by for some people, but for me they always seem to just burst from within.  As a journalist for years, I was constantly on the look out for non-fiction story ideas to turn into news stories. Years ago at a writing seminar, I heard best selling author Robert Crais say he was constantly being asked where he came up with his ideas.  His response, "I don't know where they come from. I just get them."

That can be so true on so many levels, and when you're a writer sometimes you do just see them without knowing why.  But what if you need to come up with an idea for your next story or book. That's usually when the well goes dry and those ideas don't just pop up.  So where can you get story ideas if they are a problem for you?

1. Look around you.  Yes, sometimes it can be as easy as listening to your wife or husbands's comments about their bad day. Maybe they accidentally got cut off in traffic or cut off someone in traffic and come home in a bad mood as a result. Aha! Story idea -- what that person they cut off or who they cut off and drove by and cursed has followed them home.  Think of what might happen next. Or what if that person keeps following them.  Yes, instant thriller or mystery.

2. Don't forget your family.  I always love to tell the story of how I came up with the idea for one of Home Fires Burning, one of my early romance novels. I based it on my mother's very romantic tale of how she knew she would marry my father the first time she saw him.  She was a young teenager, and he was a cowboy coming to work at her uncle's ranch, but he saw her as nothing but a pesky kid. Still she put herself in his way and kept at it over the years until he eventually saw her as a romantic interest. Recently I was working on re-writing a short story set in the same area and my sister showed me a picture she had taken of my brother walking the same area. Suddenly I had a new idea for a new short story.

3.  Look at the news.  This has always been a staple for me.  As a news person I was always finding weird stories that caught my interest and me to thinking "what if?"  A news story about a woman who finds her family after 50 years?  Think of all the possibilities.  An older woman who reconnects with a teenage boyfriend in a nursing home by accident? Again, the story might make for a heartwarming story in a hometown newspaper, but it can also be the basis for a fiction tale. I used to keep a file of the quirkiest stories I ran across. They always seem to provide great possibilities.

4. Listen to people where ever you are.  One of the things Robert Crais also said at that writing convention was that writers are notorious eavesdroppers and he is right.  I find myself picking up on conversations whenever I am out and just sitting somewhere by myself, whether it's a bar or a coffee shop.  I can hear a conversation between two people and start thinking about what might be the basis for their discussion or argument, and voila! Instant story idea.

5. Brainstorm whenever you have a chance.  I've been sitting with my friends at times when we're just talking and mention to them I need a story idea.  Suddenly someone has a tiny spark and then so does someone else, and at least one or two others are willing to step in and add new wrinkles and pretty soon the story ideas start flying.  (tip -- on this last one, providing alcohol for those friends can often be a real help)

These are just some of the ways you can come up with story ideas.  I always also say, don't turn your back on them just because they seem weak at the time. Sometimes you can put a couple together to come up with a story. The final tip is to write them down or keep those stories in a file. That way next time you are stuck you can dig out that file and get an idea to start writing!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

5 Tips for Beginning Writers

As someone who has been writing novels, short stories and non-fiction for years, I am often asked how to get started or what it takes to write a book. I wish there was an easy answer. Unfortunately the answer is to write, write, and write some more. And then keep writing. But where do you start? Actually the answer to that is to you can start with your story in a variety of different ways. Here are five different things you can do to start working on your story.

1. Start with a simple idea.  This is often where beginners start. They want to write a book about their uncle who was a cowboy, or they have an idea that revolves around an event. But you need more than idea, you will need to think about where you're going with that idea. What will happen to that cowboy or what happens at that summer picnic that is interesting?

2. Come up with characters. NO story is going to be read if it doesn't have characters that grab and hold the reader. Cardboard people are not going to hold anyone's interest.  Write up a character sketch or use a character profile that will allow you to show that character and who she or he is over the course of your plot.

3. Provide a problem for that character. That is where you begin to develop your plot. Do you want your character to solve a murder, take part in a caper, fall in love? What do you want your character to do and from there you can start to work on the plot of your story.

4. Don't forget to add dialogue.  Your characters need to speak.  Just telling the story is not going to be interesting. You need to make certain you are including dialogue in your scenes or you are just telling the story. We want you to show your story, not tell it, and dialogue shows what is happening.

5. Make a plot list so that you see the scenes you have in your story. You need an opening and that can have several scenes, but what happens?  Building a plot list can help you keep your story organized. Now if you don't know where to go after the opening scene, think about what you want your ending to be. Where do you want your characters to end up? Write that down as your last plot point and then start filling in the middle. What else do you know should happen? Keep listing those things until you have a semblance of a plot. You can always change as you go along.

And once you have decided to write a story, then get busy. Start getting scenes, character sketches, ideas down on the written page.  Go back to that original premise. If you want to write a story, you have to WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!

Monday, March 6, 2017

5 Tips for Writing Atmosphere


This weekend I got a wake-up call that is already providing excellent help for the story I am currently editing.  It came in a workshop about writing short stories.  The instructor talked about bringing the setting to life through atmosphere.  I’ve often worked at finding different ways to express setting, to bring it alive for the reader. I use “ambience” as my guide for bringing it life. How does it feel or smell to the reader? What about noise?  That was the thought he put into making it come alive as “atmosphere.”  So how does that work? Here are five tips for providing atmosphere for your readers.

  1. Consider the characters and Point of View. One thing that really hit me as he talked about atmosphere was the different way each character might look at a setting. I remember my thrill the first time I visited New York and the urgency of the city.  I wanted to drink it all in. On the other hand, the first time I took my father to New York, that sense of urgency became a feeling of anxiety. Too much going on—things moving too fast. He was a man of the country and he wanted out of those canyons of tall buildings.  He preferred the feel of the open landscape. 
  2.  Remember the seasons. A cold winter day in New York was very different than when I visited in spring or the heat of summer. The ambience in the cold was a much different feel, not just in temperature, but in the flow of the city, not to mention the variety of smell and increase in exhaust fume. Again that change in sensations is the atmosphere you want to get across.

  3. Don’t forget to feed on all your sensations. To me sound can be just as important as the sights or smells.  The quiet of a summer afternoon on a Colorado prairie is going to be very different than the constant sound of ambulances or police sirens in downtown Denver.

4. Try to see it through your character’s eyes. I mentioned earlier about writing in different Points of View, but remember that a character’s overall view of life will be very different.  Again, going back to my dad – on another trip--this time to the Northwest. He surprised me as we reached the yellowing grass of New Mexico and its wide open plains. We had just driven across country from lush grassy hillsides in Oregon and Washington. But he was happy to see those wide open plains.  He confessed that he had felt claustrophobic in the middle of all those tall, close-in trees. 

5.  Soak in all the sensations and get them into your story. To my dad, that was the other thing about being back close to home. He could smell the grass, he said, and he hadn’t felt that when we were back east where the scents were to him very foreign, whether from cars or even to the damp scent of the forest. He was ready for a quiet evening, looking over the plains and feeling the warm, dry evening breeze.

Characters from different backgrounds will see your story atmosphere and setting differently and that’s one thing you need to remember and bring to life as a writer.    




5 Tips for Summer Writing

As we move through July more people are taking vacations or spending time doing fun outdoors things. Who has time to write?  We all do and w...