Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Arrogance of Writing: New Author Talks Turkey About His Foray Into Writing

Former Fortune 40 exec Garrett Miller talks about the impetus for his new book, Hire on a WHIM: The Four Qualities that Make for Great Employees, on the qualities every job candidate must have and every hiring manager must look for. Read Garrett's surprising take on what pushed him to write and keep writing successfully.

AA: With your extensive sales and training background, what got you started writing?

GM: Having time on my hands after a job change and starting a company [Garrett is president and CEO of CoTria, a productivity management firm] led me down a foreign path. I found myself with a very rare commodity time. With this hopefully brief window of time, I decided I would write, and with excitement I poured the first of many cups of afternoon tea and stared. I had dozens of ideas and years of kinetic energy ready to be unleashed onto the keyboard. Then the doubts began to creep in, and my thoughts began to attack me. On what authority are you going to write? Who would ever read your book? Despite the doubts, I pressed on, knowing the creative process would be better than sitting idle and to tell you the truth, I did think I had something of value to say.
AA: What was your next hurdle?

GM: Once I was committed to writing, my second obstacle was what I would say, and whether it was new and valuable in the marketplace.

GM: I enjoyed the process of discovering what I would write about. I pulled back my life's camera so that I was looking at my career from a 10,000-foot perspective and asked, "What did you do well, and what did others think you did well?" The answer came quickly hiring. I hired terrific talent into the company, and others took notice as well. That was a great feeling. So, I had my subject matter; now what would I have to say?

AA: Sounds like the roller coaster all writers go through, but how did you figure that out?

GM: The next step took a few days of hard thinking, and that was figuring out why I hired well and why anyone would care. I began to unpack my experiences and looked for common threads that ran through each of my hires. I still remember sitting alone in a restaurant waiting for my client and just writing down ideas and qualities. I rearranged my thoughts, rewrote them and then boiled them down to four words. Then I played with the words, found synonyms and rearranged them until I had a cleaver acronym WHIM. It was at this point that my book was born. I had direction and purpose, and a foundation on which to build. Most important was a new-found confidence in my subject matter that it was new and valuable. Now I could write with confidence.

AA: That's hugely encouraging for any writer fiction or nonfiction. But the title of this post which is your title is the "arrogance" of writing. What do you mean that?

GM: I still found myself amazed at the arrogance needed to write as a "subject matter expert." When I doubted my expertise, I began to bounce my ideas off people I respected. I listened and watched as they heard and processed my ideas. Most of the time a smile would slowly form on their faces as I described my concepts, and then they would give a nod of agreement. What I valued most was when they challenged my ideas and I had to defend them. It was in the successful defense of my subject that I truly grew in confidence. I was energized by these conversations and reconverted to the subject matter expert I needed to be in order to write with assurance.
AA: That's one of the most encouraging things a writer could hear, especially in an age of easy rejection. What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?

GM: Once you set out on this glorious task of writing, be convinced of your subject and the creative process of writing. If you begin to lose your swagger, call on your friends and respected colleagues. Be reinvigorated through lively discussion and debate about your subject matter, and then return, born anew.

Garrett Miller is a Word for Words, LLC, feature author, productivity expert and instructor. His Hire on a WHIM is a must-read for job seekers and hiring personnel. Read more about the book at the Editor's Bookshelf. The book is also available at Amazon, at Hire on a WHIM: The Four Qualities that Make for Great Employees.

Monday, November 15, 2010

After a Writing Conference

I recently did a post on the benefits of writers' conferences, especially in an era of tight budgets. As promised, here's a brief review of the conference I attended this past weekend: the LWC } NYC Literary Writers Conference New York City, co-sponsored by the New School graduate writing program and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and partners.

As conferences go, this mostly held up to its press, offering a comprehensive soup-to-nuts approach to the navigating the book publishing and marketing process (not really for e-books or self-publishing). The conference had good proximity (a two-hour commute), knowledgeable speakers and some networking. Though there were no formal workshops on craft, the most useful part of the time for me was the opening session (there was no keynote), where literary agents asked participants (it was a small group) to read the first page of their novel, story or memoir.

As instructive as the agents' comments were, what I found most beneficial was the mind-expanding experience of listening to other people's work as part of a larger audience. When a piece worked, we could feel it, and most people agreed. The same was true when a piece didn't work. The experience offered an opportunity to hear what others are doing, and to experience your work from other people's perspectives, especially in New York. The opportunity sparked a number of ideas for a novel I'm working on.

The consensus: The first page is all-important, even more so the first five paragraphs, the first five sentences and the first five words.

Even in a virtual world, there's definitely much to be said for the irreplaceable human dynamic.

Resource: ShawGuides

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bitter and Sweet: Variations in Tone

Most writing manuals advise writers to keep the tone of their stories consistent. In itself, this is good advice. But what these guides usually mean is that writers often err in how they vary tone, so it can be best, especially for the emerging writer, to play it safe and keep a story's tone consistent. Yet, like all manmade rules, this one can be broken. Here's when and how.

First, let's define tone. It can help to think of tone in writing like the tone of your voice. With virtually limitless variations, you can convey a range of meanings and emotions sarcasm, joy, sadness. And you can convey degree of meaning and emotion with volume. The same is true of writing.

To hone the definition, consider that tone helps create mood, per James Scott Bell in Revision & Self-Editing. A more complete definition comes from Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages. As he points out, the distinction between sound and tone is subtle. Sound has to do with sentence structure (flow and rhythm), whereas tone "is the voice behind the work." As to how tone relates to style and voice, "A writer's style covers all of his work, while he may alter his narrative voice from project to project to suit each one. Voice is subordinate to style," as Peter Selgin pointed out on this blog.

So how do writers err when it comes to tone? Most often, like point of view shifts, writers vary the tone of a piece in the wrong place like in the middle of a scene, early in the development of a character or in the overall story. Since tone creates mood, you can gradually vary the tone in a scene to increase suspense, or use it to show character development. The key in both instances is timing. In a scene or character, it's best to change tone gradually to show progression and avoid jarring the reader. In a story as a whole, tone has a lot to do with genre (think of TV shows with categories like comedy, drama, mystery). While many stories cross over from one genre to another, most maintain a consistent tone throughout.

This doesn't mean tone should never vary. Some examples where this can work is to  distinguish one character from another, to provide nuances in scenes, and to add depth and breadth to the story. Yet, as with tone of voice, less is often more. So be attentive to "sound" of your writing when you go back and read a piece, and especially as you return to edit.

Resource: Find Your Creative Muse

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Stuck for Ideas? Let Your Work Go to the Movies"

I grew up watching offbeat Saturday afternoon westerns like "Sky King" on TV. Not very original and highly formulaic, series like these featured stories a kid could snack on without spoiling her dinner. They were also instructive on plot, setting and a bit of character development. Now, with Comcast and Dish Network, the prospects of finding old and new flat screen gems from all over the globe are virtually limitless. If you're looking for story ideas, try the "it's so old, it's new" or the "it's so new, it's new" approach.

From A&E to the History Channel to Turner Classic Movies, today's cable fare offers a nearly infinite variety of old films and true stories (check out international news channels like ITN, too) that if studied and emulated (not plagiarized) for their strengths can break writers' block and reinvigorate a writing slump. The key is to select the salient story points plot twist, offbeat setting, funky character and consider how to bring these into the 21st century a la Kenneth Branagh setting Shakespeare's As You Like It in Japan (okay, the reviews are mixed on that one, but you get the point). Speaking of Branagh, on the modern side of the coin, check out Wallander, a British detective series set in Sweden. Emmy-winning Philip Martin's direction in this stark, minimalist setting is refreshing.

Don't limit your search to movies. Stories from genealogies to "Antiques Road Show" can inspire fact-based stories, often the best kind.

Tip: While the classics are great (The Hunchback of Notre Dame just appeared on TCM), look for offbeat stories. A recent showing of Joan Crawford and Leif Erickson in Straight Jacket (also on TCM), had a wonderful twist ending that surprised even a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's Ghost Stories For Young People. But watch the difference between drama and melodrama it's a fine line.