Tag Archives: Lydia Sharp

A Baker’s Dozen of Links for Writers

It’s the season of sweets, gift giving, and toasting to a new year.

So, from me to you…

…A Baker’s Dozen of links to articles, interviews, and posts from this last year that have inspired me to write, reaffirmed my commitment to write, or changed my perspective when I write.

1-5. Stocking Stuffer posts by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (at The Bookshelf Muse) on:

Each post offers five simple tips that will help you tighten up your writing and/or strengthen your story.

6. Lynn Capehart’s article in The Writer on inclusionary writing. I won’t ever look at character descriptions the same again.

7. Lydia Sharp’s post on the Difference between inciting incident and catalyst. This post, along with a great first chapter critique I won over at Becky Levine’s blog, helped me reshape the first chapter of my novel and set my story on track again.

8-11. Author interviews I’ve had the honor to conduct, in which authors share the story behind the story, offer insights into the challenges of historical fiction and research, or talk about the passion behind their characters:

I’m looking forward to several more author interviews this year from Cathryn Grant (whose debut novel, The Demise of the Soccer Moms, will be published as an e-book in January), from Danielle Evans (Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a wonderful collection of short stories), and from Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters, due to be released April 12, 2011).

12. Kristen Lamb’s post on the Writer Reality Check. “Takes guts to be a writer,” Kristen says, and she lists some realistic expectations for those of us who want to make writing more than just a fun little hobby.

13. A call to action from Writer Unboxed for all Writers to Pay It Forward. “Paying it forward is something we can all do because no matter where we are in our writing careers, there’s always someone just one step behind, hungry to learn.” Much of the time, I’m the one a few steps behind. I could not grow without the encouragement, support, and wisdom from writers who are further along than me, and I can’t fully embrace those lessons until I pass them on to someone else.

There you are! Happy New Year, my friends!

May your days be full of writing and your muse be close at hand.

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Short Story Techniques for Novel Writing

If you want to be a great writer, you have to learn to write well.

On that advice, beginning writers often spend more of their time studying the craft of writing instead of creating the stories.

Or, at least I do. Still attempting to crank out my first novel, I assume that how-to books on writing (successful) 80,000+ word stories should find permanent space on my bookshelf and time in my hands. But, I’m discovering that techniques for crafting longer works can be found from other sources that don’t focus on the novel specifically.

Back in March, Lydia Sharp (from The Sharp Angle) published a post where she explains that “[a] good way to improve your skills as a novelist is to write short fiction.” Short stories require structure the same as novels — clear plot points and solid character development. And, short stories have less time (and word count) to accomplish these goals.

If you can master the techniques in short fiction, you can master them in novels.

But even with Sharp’s convincing post, it’s easy to minimize the benefits of short story writing, because Oh…a whole novel gives me plenty of word count to fill in plot points and work in characterization. Yet, under the protection of more space to “fill,” each word must have a strong purpose or the reader will lose interest. And, fast.

Tom Bailey’s A Short Story Writer’s Companion* offers plenty of lessons on characterization, dialogue, and voice. But it was Andre Dubus’s essay – filed under the category of Rewriting – that solidified the translation of short story techniques to novels.

Andre Dubus, image from Wikipedia.org

In “The Habit of Writing,” Dubus speaks about character development and draws on a technique he calls “vertical writing.” After pushing through a story and still feeling a strong disconnect from the character, Anna (in his novella, Adultery), Dubus decides to dig deeper into her psyche and to find out exactly what Anna was feeling.

“…[F]or years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could. Very slowly, I worked on feeling all of her physical sensations. Following her through her day [thinking]: “Just follow the dots: become the character and follow; there will be a story” p. 137.

I’ve heard of character journals, and there are several great worksheets online that help characters come to life. But, Dubus’s words “vertical writing” and “follow the dots” give me a much better visual. And, it’s a technique that complements my tendency to write a story more organically. For me, character worksheets act like lists, which can be confining (in writing, anyway…everyday life is a different story), and I always stray from outlines.

I know, some writers cringe at the thought of organic writing – No outline, No peace! – but Dubus makes a good case when he talks about his own process:

“I try never to think about where a story will go…I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender” p. 136.

Larry Brooks, in his essay (posted on WriteToDone), “SOLVED: The Outlining vs. Organic Writing Debate,” also supports organic writing. He says, in comparing premeditated with by-the-seat-of-your-pants, neither process is better than the other. Both can work as long as certain protocol is followed:

“[S]tory architecture is universal. If a writer understands basic story architecture, organic drafting becomes an efficient and joyful process.”

Short story techniques – like Dubus’s ideas of organic and vertical writing – offer me more ideas on how to tackle that novel. If the story is moving forward but feeling flat, I can pause and then write downward instead: follow the dots of the character that alludes me — an organic writing technique that doesn’t ignore the structure of the story, but enhances it.

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* Bailey, Tom. A Short Story Writer’s Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print. (check citation format)

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Back in the Game

I’m not a quitter.

Okay, ignore that telemarketing job I walked out on after less than a day. I couldn’t take the rejection.

Don’t consider my brief one-week stint flipping burgers at a bowling alley. I didn’t much care for the mess.

Fine. The one time I flat-out quit something, I was in the fourth grade.

An asthmatic kid who barely weighed 50 pounds, I walked out onto a soccer field not knowing the difference between a forward and a fullback. Like a deer caught on the city streets, I scrambled back and forth. I turned towards my coach on the sidelines in a desperate plea for help. The soccer ball came out of nowhere – at great speed and force – and hit me flat on the side of my face.

It stung.
My nose bled.
The whistle blew.

Oddly enough, my recent novel-writing experiences mirrored my fear of rejection, my discomfort with a mess, and my day on the field.

I jumped back and forth between the first five chapters. I tried desperately to find my footing in the story and plow through to the end. At work, the story unfolded clearly in my mind. When I got home and opened the file, the plot faded, the chapters looked disjointed. I considered my options: walk away and let the novel gather dust on my hard drive, or suck it up and trust that the struggle yields a lesson.

One place I found solace was on The Sharp Angle, in Lydia’s recent post, The Benefits of Writing Short Fiction:

A good way to improve your skills as a novelist is to write short fiction.

Most of my writing experience is rooted in short fiction; I can write a lucid beginning, middle and end for a concentrated word count. So, I wondered how to translate those skills (in which I feel more confident) to novel writing (in which I fall back into the nightmare of a fourth grade misfit in the middle of a soccer field). Lydia responded to my question in her comments and helped me figure out the crux of my problem:  the “ominous middle” of the novel, as she called it.

The middle of my novel resembled a custard pie that didn’t quite gel. Some semblance of structure existed, but most of the story oozed all over the place. No wonder I never ventured past chapter five. And, because of my fear, chapter five almost ate me alive.

But Lydia’s post, her comments, and her suggestion reinvigorated me.

I am armed and ready.

Nothing’s coming between me and my laptop, at least not during the hours of 1 and 3pm (aka. nap time for child #2). I’m balancing some novel work with short story edits and trusting that, with persistence, the pieces will fall together.

If’ you’re fighting with your novel and are dizzy from the glare of too much red ink on that rewrite draft, here are some links to re-energizing tips:

And, of course The Sharp Angle, where the conversations on short fiction continue.

What resources do you rely on to to carry you through the muddy rewrites of a novel?

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Theme and Irony Working Together

This week I read two articles that touch on two different concepts; however, both articles offer guidance on how to trim and focus my work in progress.

In the March issue of The Writer, author Terry Bain* discusses a step by step approach to finding the theme in your story. He mirrors my past (green writer) inclinations, when he says he thought his stories were finished and ready for publication, because they sounded good. For me, I always thought a story that flowed well and told a good tale was good enough. But, like Terry Bain, no one was falling over anyone else to publish my early works.

Terry Bain suggests, maybe those stories were missing a central focus, a theme. He says a writer can start a story with a theme in mind, but the writer may do better to let the story unfold and discover the theme later.

I’m a writer; I know about theme. But, it is a piece of the puzzle I tend to ignore. Typically, theme isn’t the spark that ignites my stories (except if I’m writing on Wednesdays), but it is one concept I should hold onto right now as I rework my novel.

Theme is not to be confused with plot, which moves a story forward. Terry Bain says, theme can “shine [a] flashlight on some aspect of life.” A theme doesn’t give the reader answers to world-wide problems, but it does provide another way for the reader to connect with the story.

He also says, “…knowing your theme…helps you make key decisions about what to keep and what not to keep,” and he offers some questions and suggestions to help an author clarify the theme and refine the story:

  • “Do the characters’ actions imply any universal truths?”
  • “What made you write this story in the first place?”
  • “Watch for repeated words or images. Or words and passages that strike you as particularly poignant.”
  • “Try to simplify your ideas into a few simple words.”

His last suggestion leads me straight into the next great article I read this week on The Sharp Angle.

Lydia Sharp wrote a post on Irony that complements much of what I read from Terry Bain. Lydia Sharp, however, suggests finding focus in your story via a one sentence pitch, a sentence that incorporates irony.

[I]rony,” she says, “is a writer’s best friend.” If a well-crafted sentence contains irony, the writer can reveal the complete story and hook the reader at the same time. And, that well-crafted sentence becomes crucial when the author approaches an agent.

“The irony shows the potential for an engaging story, no matter what the story is about. Without that clear potential, good luck finding someone to take an interest in your work, let alone represent it or publish it.”

I’m not ready to pitch my story. But, I want this rewrite to move along with a little more ease. Theme and Irony might be two key concepts to keep in my mind’s forefront.

If you haven’t read Terry Bain’s article, pick it up. And, if you haven’t seen Lydia Sharp’s post, click on over. I’d love to know your thoughts and hear about your experiences. Do you start your stories with a theme and a one-sentence pitch? Or do you write the story first, then flesh out the point?

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* Bain, Terry. “Theme is What Unifies Your Story.” The Writer. Mar. 2010: 21-23, 55 . Print.