Reasons to Write

by Kate Messner
by Kate Messner

If you are a teacher of writing, a teacher who wants to write, or maybe even a writer who wants to be taught, I’ve got a book for you. I attended an educational conference recently and one of the sessions I sat in on was “Teachers as Writers”. It was a session designed to help teachers discover their inner writers, to share their writing with students and to help them help their students to blossom as writers.

During the workshop, the presenter used two different activities from 59 Reasons to Write by Kate Messner. Each of the 59 prompts offers a new approach to a fun writing exercise.

Here are my creations from our brief session. They are not earth-shattering pieces, but they were thought-provoking exercises and they are proof that you don’t have to write a novel to be a writer. Anyone can write with a little push and a little inspiration.

Six Words on Me
Teacher, writer, speaker, wife, mother, friend.
I am a crazy Spanish teacher.
I am a novelist by night.
I’m mom to two great kids.
I love my sometimes silly husband.
I speak well and speak often.
My friends make my world fun.
Plainly pretty, slightly plump, wildly entertaining.
General Hospital fanatic, Team Scorpio forever!
I laugh often and laugh loudly.

A Poem of Home
Home is where your memories lead you.
Way back…
To a much simpler time and a better place.
With some homemade cookies and a warm embrace.
Warm summer breezes and grandma’s face.

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Toastmasters: Where Authors Are Made

Toastmasters: Where Authors Are Made. Go ahead, fellow Toastmasters. Consult your manuals. Check the Toastmasters International site. No, you are not crazy. The real slogan still reads Toastmasters: Where Leaders Are Made. But I think most Toastmasters would agree that the organization helps us to grow in a great number of ways. We become better speakers, true leaders, and in many cases, real writers. If you google the topic, you will find an assortment of articles and podcasts about it and testimonials from individual members who have become published authors. It stands to reason that Toastmasters would be beneficial to those of us looking to publicize and promote our books. But I’d like to share with you a few of the ways Toastmasters helped me with the writing process itself and allowed me to take Once in Love with Lily from a fun, little National Novel Writing Month project to a published novel.

First, crafting speeches gave me an edge when it came to structuring my story. In the beginning, I struggled with the story arc. While the action was intriguing, it lacked the proper flow. Then one day, my editor, fellow Toastmaster Eileen James, said to me, “Think about how you put together a good speech. You begin by thinking about the end. Where do you want to go with this speech or story? What is the intended ending? Now, how do you get there? Remember to tie the ending back to the beginning to satisfy the audience’s need for cohesiveness.” A novel is a bigger project than a speech, but it still has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Once I started thinking of it that way, I was able to put together a story that was grounded, but showed growth, as the characters learned real lessons.

Second, through my experiences as an evaluator, grammarian, or ah-counter, I learned to become a good listener. This can be very helpful when coming up with ideas for stories. (Consider that fair warning that anything you say can and may be used against you in a future novel!) In addition, it helps to create realistic, natural-sounding dialog. I’ve become accustomed identifying patterns of speech, accents, verbal ticks, colorful quotes or phrases. I’m not that creative after all. I could never have come up with something like “He’s all hat and no cattle.” But bits like that are the things that make characters real and, I hope, make the dialog come alive on the page.

Third, as early as project four in the Competent Communicator Manual “How to say it” we are taught to look at word choice, to choose words that paint a vivid picture and convey the most accurate visual or explanation possible. If I hadn’t known “how to say it”, I might have kept descriptions simple with something like: “As she walked down the streets of New York, she couldn’t help but notice how crowded and noisy it was.” But thanks to my Toastmasters training, I came up with this:

She headed down 8th Avenue through the throngs of people already crowding the streets. “Ah, New York,” she thought. “The honking taxis, the charming street vendors with their poached sunglasses and purses, and the faint smell of homeless that lurks just off the main drag really give it a certain je ne sais quoi.” She crossed the street against the light along with the natives, leaving a gaggle of tourists in the dust. (Excerpt from Once in Love with Lily by Cathryn K. Thompson)

Which example did the better job of transporting you to the streets of NYC? Of course, the second example would be pretty wordy for a typical 5-7 minute manual speech, but in a novel there is room to elaborate.

I can’t say that Toastmasters has taught me much about romance. There is a code of ethics to contend with, after all. But it certainly has helped me to hone my writing skills, to tell a story with a goal or lesson, to depict true-to-life characters and conversations, and to choose the best way to say it when it comes to setting the scene or conveying emotions. I never knew I had an author in me. Maybe you do too. You never know when or where inspiration will strike. When it does, Fellow Toastmasters,  take advantage of your already vast experience. Write it down. Develop it. Tell your own story. Even if you have to publish it under an assumed name! Show the world what Toastmasters has done for you.  If you’re not a Toastmaster, visit a club near you and experience it for yourself. Toastmasters: Where Leaders… and Authors… Are Made.

This Is Not a Setback

NaNoWriMo Week Two

My goal for week two was to work on closing some of the gaps in the story and make some strides toward completing my draft of the sequel to Once in Love with Lily. The good news: I did just that. I worked my way through the first several chapters and added new material to help form a more cohesive story as well as add some tension where needed. The bad news: I had to murder a few of my darlings. Some of my favorite scenes had to be cut to tighten things up and I ended up with three thousand fewer words this week than I had at the end of last week. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “You’re going the wrong way!” It may seem that way, but I assure you, this is not a setback. It’s all part of the process. At least that’s what I’m telling myself!

My goals for this week:

1. To continue editing and adding, but actually make my word count go in the right direction.

2. Research and Development. I can’t give you too many details just yet, or this post would need a spoiler alert. But, I can tell you that Lily is going on location. She’s headed somewhere I’ve never been. So, it looks like I’m going to need some inspiration. YouTube and Pinterest, here I come… Again!

Reporting In

NaNoWriMo Week One 

 During NaNoWriMo, the traditional goal is to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. It’s supposed to be a novel that you start from scratch on day one. I accepted that challenge in 2011 and finished the first draft of my first novel Once in Love with Lily. This year, I began on November 1st with a unique goal. Instead of writing fifty thousand words of a completely new novel, my goal was to complete a workable, readable draft of the sequel to Once in Love with Lilly. I had already written several drafts and I was still waffling on content. So, I had decided to start from scratch one more time and knock it out in thirty days. I kept up with my daily word count and for the first three days, and I was feeling quite pleased with myself until…. I committed the number one NaNoWriMo sin. I re-read what I had written!

Every one knows that if you’re trying to knock out a novel in a month, you don’t have time to read and edit, but in this case, I’m very glad I did. As I looked at my “fresh start” with fresh eyes, I came to a huge realization. My hero was distinctly unlikable. I had become so concerned with creating the hook that agents keep talking about, that I had destroyed one of the beloved characters that had hooked my readers in the first place.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot who I was. I tried to become a plotter who focused on structure and eight point story arcs, when I’m anything but. I have always claimed to write from the heart first and the head second, to be more concerned with meaningful relationships, quality drama, and realistic dialog. I’ve generally found that if you tell a good story, proper structure will naturally evolve.  Ever a victim of self-doubt, I had allowed my own insecurities about my lack of formal training in the craft to cloud my judgment.

Once I had that aha moment, I went back to my original plan for the story and began cut, copy, and paste together all the usable pieces from the subsequent drafts. What I now have is about forty thousand words of a story that still needs a lot of detail, a ton of editing, and a fair amount of restructuring before it’s ready for public consumption. Still, I’m comforted by the fact that it is a much truer version of Lily’s and Tony’s story.

This week I hope to complete several new chapters that will begin to fill in some of the holes in the original plot and find ways to weave some subtle humor into the somewhat serious plot. I’ll keep you posted!

If you are interested in reading the original, Once in Love with Lily is on sale for.99 cents at the Amazon Kindle Store now through November 15th. Click here to view the book trailer.

Lily cover

 

 

The Novelist’s Approach to Writing Soaps

Soap : a serial drama, on television or radio, that features related story lines dealing with the lives of multiple characters. The stories in these series typically focus heavily on emotional relationships to the point of melodrama. (Wikipedia)

There has been much speculation about the cause of decline in soap ratings. Some say that it’s due to women working outside the home. Others blame the presence of internet, or the rise in popularity of reality TV. But this raises a few questions for me. I ran home from school every day and watched with the help of a VCR. Working women can still watch with the aid of DVR. Why aren’t they? And if young people are watching reality TV for the melodrama it delivers, then why are soaps, which by definition deliver melodrama, unable to cash in on this? My theory: a decline in quality of writing. Some may assume that you can only attract younger viewers with fast-paced, non-stop action. I respectfully disagree. Action alone does not good drama make. Viewers, young or old, are not stupid. They have high standards for entertainment and recognize a good story when they see it. If you pick up a novel and the author doesn’t deliver, you put it down. If you turn on a show and the writer doesn’t deliver, you turn it off. Good writing is good writing, no matter what form comes in. Here are three key elements to good writing that apply to novels and TV serial dramas alike.

Characterization

In addition to a good story line, you need believable, consistent characters. They need to be people we can relate to on some level and identify with. Sometimes, we love them and sometimes we love to hate them, but we need care about them. We want to root for them. And perhaps most importantly, we want to know what to expect from them. That doesn’t mean that the story has to be predictable. In fact, in most cases, we don’t want that. But, each character has a history and a personality that should dictate their words and actions in any given scene. Yes, we expect them to change and grow over-time, but if they behave in a manner that is uncharacteristic, then there should be a reason for it and that reason should be made clear to the audience.

Relationship Building

The audience will not be invested in what happens to your characters if they’re not invested in the relationship between the characters. If you want your audience to feel for a man who lost his wife, they need some explanation of the relationship. They need some kind of evidence that he actually cared for her. This could come in the form of a flashback that shows them a piece of the couple’s history. It could be by way of a discussion the man has with his potential love interest about his past. You need to evoke those emotions from the audience by showing them what he felt for her, not just telling them he loved her. They need to see it to believe it.

An audience will feel the gut-wrenching pain of a mother who has lost her daughter when they’ve watched her act as a mother to that child and seen the relationship develop over time. They will cry with her when they remember the good and bad times that they celebrated or survived together. They are less likely to weep for an aunt who loses the niece she’s been raising if said aunt and niece only appeared in one scene together throughout the entire story line. If you want the audience to buy into the emotion, the relationship building cannot take place completely off of the canvas. It takes away from the drama. (Face it. Nothing that takes place off camera is emotionally satisfying. You can’t tell me that Julie Chen’s recap of the HOH competition is as exciting as watching it live!)

Proper Use of Flashbacks

I am a fan of a good flashback. I use them in my writing. I enjoy a good flashback on television. But the operative word here is good. Flashback should serve a very specific purpose. That purpose is to provide the audience with information that they did not have before without taking away from the original story or disrupting the flow of the action. Flashbacks should not be used to recap information that the audience has already seen. Nor should they be used to explain a part of the mystery that the audience is capable of figuring out on their own. If you’ve done your job well, the audience will be involved and interested enough to follow along. Taking the time to explain what they already know is a waste of time and assumes something about their intelligence.

I’m not naïve. I do understand that writing for a show that runs five days a week fifty-two weeks a year is different than writing a single manuscript in that same amount of time. The fast pace of soap production must present its own problems that a novelist can’t even begin to understand. But I have always seen soaps as the world’s longest series of romance/mystery/action-adventure novels all rolled into one exquisite, dramatic presentation. (For those of us who watched the alien and demon possession story lines of the 90’s, you can throw sci-fi into that mix too.) A serial drama, in print or on screen, has to grab and keep the audience’s attention. You have to deliver not only on the action, but with the characters, and avoid over-explaining or playing down to your audience. A very wise editor once told me, if the writing isn’t up to snuff, a reader may not know what is wrong, but they will know that something is wrong. That something will turn them off. Soap writers, if your viewers know something is wrong, they are likely to turn your show off.

These are just my two cents, though I have a feeling, based on my twitter feed, some other fans might agree. If you do, or you don’t, please feel free to comment. I’d like to hear your thoughts. This brings me to one final piece of advice for the soap scribes out there. When reviews come in, some are good. Some are bad. Authors have to choose which pieces of criticism to ignore and which ones to learn from. Writers, you are under scrutiny. Everyone has opinion and a voice in today’s social media circus. That doesn’t mean that you have to pay attention to all of them, nor are you obligated to respond or defend yourself. Sometimes you just have to brush off the negative stuff. (You’ll never make everyone happy when it comes to who should be sleeping with whom.) But, if you find that there is a common thread to the critiques, you may want to take some time to reflect. We all have room to grow. It’s a necessary part of life and professional development.

 

The Tour That Never Took Off

Friends and followers,

I was asked to take part in the a blog tour several weeks ago, but due to finals week, a class trip, and moving classrooms, my tour was delayed. Below is the report on my night life, now that my day job is no longer getting in the way.

1. What are you working on?

I’m currently working on my second novel. It is the sequel to Once in Love with Lily. The working title is Forever, Tony. For all of those who read the original and wondered, “What happens now?”, you’ll have to read it to find out. But I can tell you that there is much more to Lily and Tony’s story. Happily ever after would be far too simple. There are still many twists, turns, and secrets to be revealed.

And yes, for my GH friends, now that summer has arrived I hope to have more time for Endgame as well. I know you have been waiting “patiently” for the continuation.  https://www.fanfiction.net/~catkthompson

2. How is your work different from other pieces in its genre?

According to the reports, the difference between my romantic fiction and typical novels of the genre is that Lily is far less predictable and much more realistic than others. Some say that it is a fairy tale, yet down to earth. Others have said that it “depicts how love actually happens”. Locations are also real and identifiable, so world travelers may experience nostalgia for areas of Paris, London, and New York, yet those who’ve never been can live vicariously.

  1. Why do you write what you write?

I write what I write out of an obsession for celebrity bios and soap operas. I love the idea of the show-business life. I’ve often said I think I should have lived in New York the 1950’s so that I could have enjoyed Broadway during the heyday of Lerner and Lowe and Rogers and Hammerstein. But, alas, I was born in 1975, and I fell in love with daytime television in the late eighties, when Gloria Monty was the queen of General Hospital and the tag line for soaps was “Love in the Afternoon!” The result: I’ve melded those two worlds together and created a love story that I would enjoy watching unfold like a daytime drama (without the aliens or prosthetic masks, or D.I.D. storylines).

4. Describe your process.

When I began the adventure, I had no process whatsoever. I didn’t even realize that there was a process. I never studied writing. I never knew that I wanted to be a writer. (Yes, some people have said that they hate me for this!) But now I can’t imagine not writing. For one thing, the creative outlet allows for the stories in my head to have a place to go.

If I had to classify myself, I’d say that I’m a pantser, not a plotter. I never plan out anything beyond a basic outline. I don’t even write lesson plans on a regular basis (Don’t tell my principal I said that! I do plan. I just don’t always write it down!) I’m certainly not going to plot out an entire novel.  I do have a beginning and an ending point in mind, but the stuff that comes in between is just the characters telling their story. There is a natural ebb and flow in the action, but I don’t focus on the plot arc too much at all.  When the first draft is complete, I then revisit those things and begin to add reinforcement to the general structure. I don’t over intellectualize, first of all, because I didn’t study the craft the same way others have. Second, because I believe that the quality of the story is as much about the way it makes me or the readers feel as it is about the plot outline.

A Note of Appreciation

Many thanks to Eric Ralph for encouraging me to participate in the tour and forgiving my untimeliness. If you haven’t experienced Eric’s work yet, visit http://ericmralph.com/ By his own proclamation, he writes strange, funny things and funny, strange things. He’s always good for a laugh, a pun, or an 80’s reference. His first novel is a remarkable piece of religious satire called And God said… An Absurd Tale of Love, Power, and Paperwork –the story of what happens when God retires, gets married, and moves to Jamaica.  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00C334PIA

 

 

Technique, or Technically Crazy

It’s late, I’m tired, and I may be crazy, but I’m going to put this out there anyway just for kicks. Do what you will with it.

booksAs a novelist, part of my writing process involves reading completed scenes aloud in order to ensure that the dialog is realistic. That is nothing extraordinary. Many authors do it. But the conversations are often worked out in my head long before the words ever hit the page. This usually involves finding a quiet place to sit and… well… talk to myself. Now, I have heard people say that you can talk to yourself as long as you don’t start to answer back. Even if that’s the case, I’m still in trouble. I frequently talk back, yell back, and even swear back—all in a British accent. I don’t suppose it will help my cause to admit that I was born in Toledo, Ohio to parents of German and Polish ancestry.

As if what I have just told you is not enough to question my sanity, this morning I came to the realization that I may be truly certifiable. As I said before, I have to find a quiet place to talk, and often that sanctuary is in my car. So, this morning, as I drove to work, I began playing out a particularly emotional bit of conversation. I didn’t notice any of the other drivers staring at stop lights. They probably just thought I was talking on the phone. (Yes. I’m sure that’s it.) But, I did notice that about ten minutes into it, I was forced to remove my glasses and wipe tears from my eyes. Yes. That’s right. While driving to work, I allowed myself to get so worked up over my characters’ conversation that I actually made myself cry!

I’d like to tell you that it’s all just a completely natural part of the creative process, but I’m not so sure. I mean, really… I was so wrapped up in the stories in my own head that I broke into tears in my car on the drive to work. Can that possibly be normal? Can you imagine walking into the office with red puffy eyes and having to explain it to your boss—or in my case to a bunch of teenagers?

“Ms. Thompson, are you okay? Did you have an accident or something?”

“No, Billy. I was just imagining that I was a forty-five year old British woman who finds out the love of her life is…”

I’ll just stop right there because there is no way that conversation is not going to end badly!

Friends and fellow authors, cast your vote. Can I chalk it all up to technique, or am I technically crazy? Just for fun, click “like” for technique and “share” for technically crazy. We’ll see who wins.