Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask: Part 3

The most important question you can ask yourself as a writer is "why." This week we examine the power of this question. We started with seeing how it can break writer's block, then used it to work through that tough paragraph, scene or story. Today, we look at the Q&A process.

When writers reach a point in a story—nonfiction or fiction—where they're unsure how to proceed, many plow ahead without adequately resolving the issue. Sometimes this works and the questions get answered along the way. Most times the section ends up needing a major rewrite and leading the writer down the garden path, into a thicket of thorns.

One good way to deal with not knowing what to do next is right in the manuscript. When instinct tells you to take stock, hit the enter key and drop down a line, then describe the problem and how you might fix it. The what-if scenario works well here. Ask yourself, "What if the character did this?" Or, "What if I take the story in this direction?"

Sometimes you can select a scenario, make the fix and keep writing, incorporating the change into the rest of the story and making sure to return and fix everything effected beforehand. Some writers transfer the selected scenario to the end of the chapter or story and check it when they're done writing to make sure they addressed the key points.

If you can't make your selected fix right away, note what has to be changed and where. Novelists sometimes keep a bulleted "To Resolve" list at the end of each chapter. For shorter pieces, you can put notes in brackets within the piece or at the end.

For more information, visit my online editing workshop, On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask: Part 2

The most pivotal question you can ask as a writer is "why." We started examining the power of this question by seeing how it can break writer's block. In this post, we tackle that especially tough paragraph, scene or story.

Before junking what's not working, stop and consider the piece. Ask yourself why you're having trouble, and what made you stop trying to improve it? Why did you resist discarding the section or story if you really believe it's not working? Apparently, it still seems important, even though it's not quite right.

As before, to get at what's really happening, answer these questions in detail, with honesty and in writing. Your initial responses may beget more questions, but continue until you've asked everything you need to, or until you see the answers repeat. The aha moment may shine like a Xenon spotlight or dawn like the sun on a cloudy day. Whatever the candle power, the answers reveal why this aspect of the work, or the work itself, is ineffectual.

To delve even deeper, use the rest of the journalism questions—the who, what, where, when and how of what's going on, nor not—until you're out of questions and answers.

Before revising the story or scene, review your responses. Consider how they relate to your work and what aspects of the writing they address, and how. Now make the fixes wherever they're needed.

For my free online editing workshop, see On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask: Part 1

The most searching, most revealing, most important question you can ask yourself as a writer, maybe in life, is "why." Over the next several posts, we'll examine how to unlock the power of this question to break writer's block, untangle scenes and work through critiques.

First, let's tackle writer's block. Ask yourself what about your writing project has you stymied, why you can't write. What's holding you back? Answer these questions in detail, with honesty and in writing. These three keys—honesty, detail and writing—unlock the power of "why." If you follow this approach, you'll notice that you've begun writing.

Now apply the rest of those journalism questions—the who, what, where, when and how of what's going on, nor not, with your work—until you're out of questions and out of answers. At this stage, you can see a lot more clearly the underlying reasons why you were stuck.

Now go back to the manuscript, but before revising, review your responses to the questions above. How do the answers relate to your work? What aspects of the writing do the responses address, and how? With honesty, drill down to the ore in your line of reasoning, then go to the section that had you stymied and use what you've learned to continue writing.

For my online editing workshop, see On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Conversations on Creativity: Architettura Viva

Angeloni's studio in Castelvecchio
Our discussion on creativity includes a conversation with Milan-based architect Maurizio Angeloni. Here's his take on inspiration and legacy.

AA: How would you like your work to be remembered?

MA: I would like for the result of my efforts to remain as a testimony to my work as "un'architettura viva," a living structure, not a monument, per se, but a place where people can actually live their daily lives.

AA: Whose work do you find most inspiring?

MA: As to the architecture I most admire, I'd have to say that home on a waterfall, Falling Water seems to me an optimal testimony left by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Creativity: The Harmony of Form and Function

In keeping with our theme of conversations on creativity, we've expanded our discussion to include other disciplines. This week we spoke with Milan-based architect Maurizio Angeloni for his take on inspiration and creativity.

AA: Where do you get ideas for your work, and how do you incorporate originality?

MA: In occupying myself with architecture and the work I do, I get inspiration from the very area for which I'm creating the plans and drawings, from the actual form of the land, the morphology, paying close attention to what has been build around it, even in times past in that location. In other words, from the characteristics of the architectural traditions of the region.

AA: Italy is a place with a lot of old and new construction, to say the least. How do you deal with the contrast?

MA: What really spurs me on are the other, less obvious constructions in the area, even those that are old and unused. Regardless of why they were created, I see in their form the possibility of reuse and adaptability for the current needs.

Friday, July 16, 2010

"On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication: Part 4"

Welcome to the last in a four-part series on editing your work for clarity and publication. Today we describe, diagnose and offer fixes for problems that relate to order.

Problem: Readers can overlook this problem in short descriptions, for example, a character experiencing spring after the seclusion of winter. Jody can go outside, feel the breeze, see the sun and smell the lilacs. The order of experience here isn't essential.

Diagnosis: Even in this small example, order can improve the scene. For example: Jody opened the door and stood on the porch. The breeze carried the scent of lilacs, and the sun dappled the front lawn. Aside from more-detailed description, this phrasing works better because time and events unfold in a way that allows Jody's experience to satisfy her and the reader's innate sense of order.

Cure: One great cure for disorder is doing a timeline. This works well for scenes, chapters and plots.

There's nothing like clarity for good prose, and in this competitive writing environment, it can help keep writers out of the rejection pile, too.

Here's a great Writer's Digest article on how this works for a novel, "Your Novel Blueprint."

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication: Part 3"

Welcome to the third in a four-part series on editing your work for clarity and publication. Today we describe, diagnose and offer fixes for muddy wording—a real source of the blues for readers, editors, lit agents and writers.

Problem: Anyone who's read a contract knows what lack of clarity looks like, even if the writer was hoping otherwise. As the word implies, muddy writing is dull writing.

Diagnosis: Big words when smaller are better, long clauses, imprecise wording, mixed metaphors and inaccurate similes all make for unclear prose. Readers come away feeling like they need to clear their heads.

Cure: One way to fix lack of clarity is knowing what you want to say even if you're still figuring out how to say it. Let's start by defining metaphors and similes. A metaphor is a word or phrase that's used instead of another to suggest an analogy, for example, "drowning in money." A simile is figure of speech, often using "like," that compares two unlike things, for example, "cheeks like roses." These tools for writers need to be used correctly (in the right place at the right time) in order for them to function as they should.

As with wordiness, cut unnecessary text, use contractions for less formal prose and expand your vocabulary to make one word count for more. If you're still deciding what you want to say and how to say it, ask yourself what the scene or story is really about. Why did you create it? Then consider how it can be revised to reveal character and advance plot, preferably both.

For a great pro at editing, visit James Scott Bell, or check out his book Revision And Self-Editing (Write Great Fiction).

Monday, July 12, 2010

"On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication - Part 2"

This is the second in a four-part series on editing for clarity and publication. For clear communication, it's best know what you want to say and how to say it. Today we describe, diagnose and provide fixes for the second of four common problems that keep writers from publication: wordiness.

Problem: Verbosity comes in variations. Words can be unnecessary, overabundant or repetitious. Repetition can also present as recurring text or scenes that don't add meaning or depth.

Diagnosis: Several ways to spot this problem are confusion, annoyance and, ultimately, avoidance. Readers will lose interest in descriptions or scenes that feel familiar and skip them altogether. If they really get annoyed, they'll walk away. If your trusted critique group or writing buddy has these responses, there's a problem.

Cure: Cut unnecessary words, use contractions, and expand your vocabulary by reading widely and using a thesaurus to make one word count for more. For sections or scenes that recur without added meaning or depth, ask yourself: What is this scene or story really about—why did you create it? How can it be revised to reveal character and advance plot, preferably both at once?

Betsy Lerner, literary agent and editor par excellence shares her knowledge of the subject at Betsy Lerner, Forest for the Trees.

Friday, July 9, 2010

On a Clear Day: Editing for Clarity and Publication

Welcome to a four-part series on editing your work for clarity and publication. There's nothing like clear communication to get a point across. Even writers of literary fiction need to know what they want to say and how best to say it, how to obscure and reveal. For clarity in revelation, we'll describe, diagnose and provide fixes for four common problems that keep writers from publication: clichés, wordiness, muddiness and disorder.

Today we start with clichés.

Problem: Two common clichés types are word choice and plot choice. Clichéd word choices are common because they're easy to write and understand. But to write with style and keep the reader's interest, clichés aren't recommended, except sometimes in dialogue to convey character. Plot clichés, where nothing original happens, are deadly.

Diagnosis: You know a clichéd phrase because you know a cliché. They're easy to spot, especially if you've stepped away from the work before editing (always recommended). You know a clichéd plot choice when a scene or story is predictable. No one wants readers to come away from a piece thinking, "I knew that would happen." Or, worse, "I could have written better."

Cure: To fix a clichéd word choice, ask yourself what you want to convey. For a clichéd plot choice, for example starting a story with someone waking up, conduct a what-if scenario for characters and plot. For characters, consider a possible flaw or secret. For plot, raise the stakes and increase the conflict. This will enhance the characters, too.

To see whether you've written a cliché, visit Cliché Site. To write with originality, visit Writing Forward, considered one of Writers Digest's 101 best websites for writers.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Poetic Soul: Creativity in the Off-Hours

Award-winning journalist and list maker Jack Sheedy, news editor of the Catholic Transcript, finds the to-do list helpful in keeping him on the writing track, and to fire up his creative soul.

AA: So, what does a working writer and news editor do in the off-hours, especially before a holiday weekend?

JS: Last night, I decided to drag out the old charcoal grill and make myself and the cat some hamburgers. They were delicious, but I had forgotten how long it takes for charcoal briquettes to heat evenly. I was still cleaning up at 8 p.m.

AA: What about the writing side of life?

JS: Oh, I did have a to-do list that included something like “Do some writing,” but it was kind of a vague self-assignment. By the third or fourth day, it had not been crossed out, and so I searched for some old poems I had started. There was one that tried to express something about my father, something that may have something to do with his special brand of selective competitiveness. As I looked at it, I realized I may have a similar failing: a fear of accomplishing something, compensated for by a zeal for accomplishing other things. The poem is still unfinished, but here is how it stands today:

The Man Who Never Ran
By Jack Sheedy

Dad never ran.
It’s not that he moved slowly —
it wasn’t that —
I just can’t see him

in a sprint for the prize,
necktie loosened,
forehead glistening,
gray fedora lost in the wind.
Not my Dad.

Still, there was nothing slow about him.

He walked briskly. Drove fast.
Solved problems quickly. Spurned calculators.
Bought books on rapid math, rapid reading.

But he never said, “Let’s race
to the willow tree” — never tried
to best me, though he could have.
I don’t even know why
this is important —
but doesn’t everyone run, sometimes at least?

Oh, once at the river I was swept downstream,
eight-year-old limbs no match for the current,
and he quickstepped to the bank,
dove in, hustled me to shore, laughed
at our “great adventure” —
then squeezed his eyes shut, lost his voice,
gripped my hand all the way home.

But that wasn’t a sprint — it was an Australian crawl.
Weeks later, at Burr Pond, I studied his strokes,
long and slow and easy,
then jumped in, flailed to stay afloat, moved
arms and legs twice as fast as he did.
It was no use.
There was no way I could keep up with him.

To see Jack in his natural habitat, visit Jack Sheedy.