Thursday, February 14, 2013

Basics for Beginners: How To Books I Found the Most Useful

Thanks everyone for your suggestions on things to include in my course.  It's a lot, so I decided to divide my course into two parts:
  • The Macro Level of Writing: All the stuff that goes into creating a compelling plot
  • The Micro Level of Writing: All the stuff that goes into creating a compelling scene.  (I did several blogs on this back in 2011, by the way, if you want to check my archives.)
One of the things I gave my students was a handout on the books on writing that I've found most useful.  Here's my list for the Macro Level of writing.  Starred * books are the ones I recommend the most.

Most of these books can be purchased through

You’ll notice a number of these books are about film writing. That’s because novelists have become aware that films can teach us a lot about how to write a successful novel. The structure is exactly the same.

*Bob Mayer. The Novel Writer’s Toolkit. A wealth of information on how to develop your characters and use them to drive your plot.

*Alexandra Sokoloff. Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. Can be purchased on The best explanation of the 3-Act, 8-Sequence structure I’ve found. Countains lots of information on what goes into each part of your novel. A real deal at $2.99, downloaded into your e-reader.

**Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction. While Maass’s intention was to help you write a book that’s a keeper, I found it full of awesome tricks to help you brainstorm your novel.

Donald Maass. The Breakthrough Novel and The Breakthrough Novel Workbook. Once you’ve got your first draft, use this book to revise your book. Maas gives all sorts of suggests to recognize and fix problems with your novel and make is more sellable.

Blake Snyder. Save the Cat! The late Blake Snyder was considered the guru of film writing. His techniques are just as pertinent to writing a great novel and he gave many workshops for novel writers.

Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey. An alternative way to plot your book. Vogler uses James Campell’s research on mythical structure to explain how to structure a story. He also explains how to tie it into the standard 3-Act, 8-Sequence structure I describe at the end of this course.

**Martha Alderson. The Plot Whisperer and The Plot Whisperer Workbook. I just discovered her. She’s got great hints for how to plot your novel.  She has the clearest explanation I've found for how to connect the character's inner transformation with the external plot.

Karen Weisner. First Draft in 30 Days. I wouldn’t recommend this if it were the only book on writing you were going to purchase, as it is very superficial and doesn’t explain some of the real essentials. But, it’s great on showing how one scene leads to another. And if you’re someone who thrives on worksheets, it contains a huge collection of useful worksheets that can help you keep track of everything.

**And my latest find:  Les Edgerton’s Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs The Reader at Page One and Never Lets Go.  This is the best book I've found on writing the beginning section of your novel.  While Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages is considered the classic in beginnings, I'd say that Edgerton's book is even clearer on what has to go into an effective beginning and how to achieve it.  Plus he looks at how it plays out in the various genres and when you can get away with the exception the rule.

You'll notice I didn't add Deb Dixon's book Goal, Motivation and Conflict.  Not because I don't think it's important, but rather becuase it's so out of print that I've never been able to find an affordable version of it.  Dixon's ideas are the core of every novel.  Fortunately, if you attend any writing course, you'll find her quoted (and probably misquoted) left and right.

So what are your "must be in my bookshelf" books on writing?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Basics for Beginner Writers

I've got a new challenge. I'm teaching a course "Getting Started Writing Your Novel" for stark beginners.  My class is full of folks who have never written a novel before -- not even the adolescent attempts I was famous for as a teen (I wrote six "books" back then, all so bad that they're not even gathering dust under the bed.) 

This got me thinking: what does a beginning writer need to know?  It's one thing for an experienced writer to talk about GMC or layering a scene.  But for a stark beginner, it's easy to get the forest confused with the trees.

In the next few posts I'm going to be sharing what I think beginners need to know to get started writing a book.  (Welcome, beginners!)

In the meantime, you more experienced writers, what is it that you wish you had known when starting out?

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Joys of Critiquing: Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour

One of the great things about being a member of a critique group is you get a sneak preview of books before they come out. In my case, it was Anita Seymour’s Royalist Rebel. This historical novel, due to be released on the 17th of January is based on the early life of Elizabeth Murray, a fascinating woman who managed to walk the line between being one of King Charles’s most loyal supporters and maintaining a friendship with Charles’ enemy, Oliver Cromwell.

Here’s Anita’s cover blurb:

Royalist Rebel by Anita Seymour

Intelligent, witty and beautiful, Elizabeth Murray wasn’t born noble; her family’s fortunes came from her Scottish father’s boyhood friendship with King Charles. As the heir to Ham House, their mansion on the Thames near Richmond, Elizabeth was always destined for greater things.

Royalist Rebel is the story of Elizabeth’s youth during the English Civil War, of a determined and passionate young woman dedicated to Ham House, the Royalist cause and the three men in her life; her father William Murray, son of a minister who rose to become King Charles’ friend and confidant, the rich baronet Lionel Tollemache, her husband of twenty years who adored her and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, Charles II’s favourite.

With William Murray at King Charles’ exiled court in Oxford, the five Murray women have to cope alone. Crippled by fines for their Royalist sympathies, and besieged by the Surrey Sequestration Committee, Elizabeth must find a wealthy, non-political husband to save herself, her sisters, and their inheritance.
The trouble with blurbs is that, although they give you a glimpse into the challenges the characters face, they fall short when it comes to revealing the author’s style. And in Anita’s case, the style is positively delightful. She has a gift for finding the prĂ©cised world-building detail that brings you right back into the seventeenth century and at the same time adds a layer of meaning. While giving you a chuckle or two along the way. Her characters are multi-layered. The conflict within Elizabeth’s family is as compelling as the struggle between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers. Anita’s research is thorough and deep, and she’s put a lot of thought into making sense of Elizabeth’s motives and actions. By the time you’ve finished reading Royalist Rebel, you can see why Elizabeth had the love and admiration of the men in her life, including the leader of the cause sworn to undermine everything she stood for.

The good news is the Royalist Rebel is only the start. Anita’s already at work on a sequel and I can’t wait to see what comes next!

By the way, in putting this blog together, Anita and I had a discussion about the critiquing and editing process.  Here's what she wrote:
Jen Black read the finished copy and she said it was so different from reading individual unpublished chapters spread over a long period. She thought the finished book was well edited and flowed much better than it did when she read it the first time.

That's good to hear as it underwent some major changes between the crit group and the submitted manuscript, and then again when we got down to edits - so it seems the system works - I just hope other readers feel the same.
Royalist Rebel by Claymore Books, an imprint of Pen and Sword, is released on 17th January 2013

For a little background on the novel, see Anita’s Book Blog

The National Trust Website of Elizabeth Murray’s former home, Ham House, at Petersham near Richmond, Surrey

Anita’s Blog

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Four Essential Elements to Every Beginning – and Six More You May Need

About six months ago I downloaded into my Kindle six free books on writing. One of them was Les Edgerton’s Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs The Reader at Page One and Never Lets Go. I could kiss Amazon’s feet for this find! It’s been far more useful to me than Noah Lukeman’s classic The First Five Pages.

OK, every writer knows that the beginning is crucial. If an agent or editor doesn’t like your first page – forget five pages – out it goes. Where Edgerton differs from Lukeman is that he explains, in great detail and with lots of examples, HOW to create that winning opening scene. Plus, he gives you the exceptions to the rule and how to recognize and deal with them.

So what does your opening scene need to have? Edgerton lists ten components:
1) Inciting incident
2) Story-worthy problem
3) Initial surface problem
4) The set-up
5) Backstory
6) A stellar opening sentence
7) Language
8) Character
9) Setting
10) Foreshadowing

The first four are crucial, the remaining are optional.

1) Inciting Incident. The inciting incident is what sets the story in motion. It’s an event, not a situation. It upsets the equilibrium of the protagonist’s world and makes her realize she has a problem.

2) Story-Worthy Problem. The story-worthy problem is Edgerton’s term for what romance writers often call the internal conflict. It’s the flaw in the protagonist’s outlook or personality that needs to be changed in order for the protagonist to achieve his/her goal.

3) Initial Surface Problem. The initial surface problem is the protagonist’s immediate goal It’s the problem sparked by the inciting incident and demanding immediate action. For example, in The Hobbit (which I just saw – marvelous movie!), Bilbo Baggin’s surface problem is whether to accept the contract offered to him by the dwarves.

4) Set-Up. The set-up is just that, enough details to make clear what is happening in the opening scene. It gives the reader enough information on where and when the action is taking place and who the characters are. That much, and no more.

Every opening has to have those four elements. But what about the remaining elements Edgerton lists? Whether you include them depends on the story you’re telling.

5) Backstory. Every writer knows too much backstory kills your beginning. But how much is too much? Edgerton says, if possible, save the backstory for later chapters. Include just enough background information to keep the reader from becoming confused, but nothing more.

6) A stellar opening sentence. I’m sort of puzzeled by why Edgerton considers this secondary, since he says, “Spend an awful lot of time on this sentence.” (One of the delights of Edgerton’s book, by the way, is his chatty style.) This is the sentence that grabs the reader. On the other hand, no matter how good the opening sentence, if it’s not backed by the other four crucial elements, the reader isn’t going to read past the first scene.

7) Language. I thought Edgerton was going to talk about that elusive term “voice” here, but actually he focuses more on how you craft your language. Which is part of voice, but feels to me more like Creative Writing 101.

8) Character. The opening merely introduces your characters. It doesn’t give their life stories. But the key is “show, not tell.” The inciting incident is the tool by which you start to reveal character through the charcters’ reactions as the incident unfolds.

9) Setting. Too much setting bogs down a beginning, but carefully selected details of setting, worked into the action itself, make it come alive.

10) Foreshadowing. A good beginning will hint at the ending.

So there it is: a checklist, a way of looking at the first chapter of my WIP and making sure “it’s all there”.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Getting Ready for a Conference

In the good old days, before I became a writer, getting ready for a conference was easy.  Pack and go.  Not much thought to clothes because all conferences those days were "business dress" and I had my wardrobe of women's dress suits (a few of which I still have.)

Getting ready for a writers conference, even when you're just a participant, is a whole different ballgame.

First, I'm never "just a participant".  I always pitch. After all, why pay the conference fee, if I don't take advantage of chance to meet people face to face.  So that means getting a pitch ready and sweating over a one-line log line.  I've done a few pitches now and I no longer sweat over the pitch. In fact, I've discovered that less is more.  So I usually just put together one short paragraph that highlights the gmc and the thing that makes my story unique. (GMC = goal, motivation and conflict, the core of any novel)

What's really important about the pitch is what makes your story unique.  If you've ever been in a plot workshop and read a bunch of gmc lines, you've discovered that they're pretty much the same.  What catches an agent's or editor's interest is how you're going to take that standard plot line and make it fresh and new for your readers.

Anyway, getting that "right" can take me a week or two, if it's the first time I've pitched a book, less if I've already pitched or queried (I use a modified version of my pitch for my query and vice versa, depending on which I wrote first.)

Then there's the rehearsing.  Or there was.  Now I just read it over a couple of times to make sure it flows and then don't fret it.  By keeping the formal part of the pitch (those cue cards) short, I've left lots of room for questions and answers and the whole pitch flows a lot better.  I've also learned to ask questions about what the editor/agent is really looking for.

This particular conference the prep was a bit more detailed.  One of the editors I'm pitching to wants to see a "one sheet".  This is a single piece of paper that gives your contact details, a brief bio, and the essential facts of the work you're pitching (title, genre, word count, hook, brief summary, gmc).  I'd never done it before, but I did have all the elements already prepared thanks to having already prepared queries and a pitch for my book.

The only trouble is, I'm terrible at formatting.  Not that I can't do it.  I'm a wizard at Word.  Just that I don't have the artist's eye to make the page actually look good.  No worries, I thought (now there's a NZ expression!) I'll just take one of the resume templates MS Word provides and modify that.

Oy!  It took me four hours.  It would have been easier to try to make my own template based on what theirs looked like.

Then there's the issue of clothes.  "Casual but professional" was what the conference coodinators suggested.  Obviously I wasn't the only one who was confused, because that was the announcement topic that generated the most chat.  Anyway, I spent 2 hours this morning trying on clothes, because what works as conference casual in a damp, cold New Zealand winter is obviously not going to work in Arizona at 91 degrees F.

At least the evenings are conference casual, too.  None of this bringing along a second set of formal outfits, as was the rule at RWNZ and RWA national events.  Though I do miss "dressing up."

I still have to pack.

Still, the conference looks exciting and I can't wait.  I'll report on it when I get back.

Monday, April 16, 2012

American Bandstand, Teens and Fifties TV

It’s a law of physics. You know. Like apples falling on Newton’s head. The more I really want something, the more I can count on getting it -- exactly when I don’t want it.

Susie from down the road pulls the elastic from her pony tail and shakes loose her honey blond curls. “Hey, Sophie. I’m going over to Polly’s to watch American Bandstand. Wanna come?”

Her invitation is for me, but her eyes are on my older brother. Like a cowboy in one of those Westerns he watches, Marek hooks his thumbs into the pockets of his chinos and leans against Dad’s wood-paneled station wagon. He’s trying to look cool, but he’s lapping up Susie’s adoration as avidly as our dog licks the trickle of ice cream from a melting cone.

A longing spreads across my chest with a hunger worse than three months of starvation hiding from the Polish Policja. After a year in the US, I still don’t have many friends.

Of course, Susie’s invitation comes at exactly the wrong time. I foolishly spent the morning clothes-pinning playing cards to the fat wheels of my little sister Viola’s red Schwinn bike, which she’s rolling back and forth. The tsking click accelerates like a Geiger counter measuring her worry.

As if I’d forget.

So starts an early version of my YA Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty.  In my last blog post I talked about using childhood memories to add texture to a novel.  This week's post is how it looks in action.

First, it's a way to clearly set the time and place -- in this case, a Long Island suburb in the 1950's. 
Dick Clark's TV show American Bandstand, which ran from 1952 to 1989 (!!!) in various versions, was a teen icon.  Top teen pop stars appeared live on the show, singing their latest hits.  The show also introduced the concept of the Top 40, which has survived to today.

The show's original name was Bandstand, which is what it was called in 1956, but since most people knew it asAmerican Bandstand , I used that name.  It ran in the afternoons, and rolling back the rug and dancing along with the music was almost an obsession among teens in the fifties and early sixties.  So when Sophie is invited to watch it with friends, its a way into the "in" crowd at her new school.

I can't believe how big tv was back then, as big as it is now.  By the mid 1950's most homes had a black and white tv and kids talked about the shows and the plots like they do today.  American Bandstand came on around 4 or 4:30 -- scheduled to catch the teen audience -- and kids rushed home to catch it on tv. 

Color started coming in in the early 1960's, but people made attempts to colorize their tv screens before that.  I remember being really excited about one product and bugging my partents to buy a thick sheet of clear plastic that stuck to your screen through static electricity and promised to add color to the program.  When light hit the plastic, some kind of coating on it would add hues of mostly red and green to the image.  But the color came from the coated spots on the plastic, not from the image on the screen, so there was no coordination between the real color of an object and what you saw.  You can imagine my disappointment at a green face or a red glass of milk.  Needless to say, that fad didn't last long.

Rolling back the rug was another feature of the fifties.  Back in those days, wall to wall carpeting was a luxury that only the rich could afford. Most people had homes with wooden floors (linoleum in the kitchen).  Area rugs covered the center of the room.  When exposed, the wooden planking made a great dance floor.

My parents (and many families) had two sets of rugs -- gray wool ones for winter, and gray straw mats for summer.  The rugs were fairly large and covered most of the floor, leaving about two feet around the edge of the room.  It was a big annual project to shift furniture and change rugs.  I can't remember where the kept the set that wasn't being used.  Changing rugs made them last longer, though.  My parents, when they built a retirement home out on eastern Long Island in the late 60's, actually brought the wool rugs, still in great condition, with them.  By that time the rugs were 20 years old.

To be continued next week...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Write What You Know – Using Your Childhood to Shape a Story

One of the things I loved about crafting Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty is that it’s set in a fictionalized version of my hometown. Dumbarton is Huntington, New York.

I’d discovered long ago when I wrote “The Last Gift”, the one-act play that was eventually produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, that my background is a rich source of material with which to texture a story. My grandmother’s American Foursquare home in Ozone Park, Queens, was the model for the home that my heroine reminiscences about, complete with the slanting row of stained glass windows that followed the stairs up to the second floor.

The central motif of Exiled is “the Castle”, where the major tragedy of my heroine’s life occurs. In real life, the Castle was the old Ferguson Castle overlooking Huntington Harbor. It belonged to Mrs. Juliana Armour Ferguson, the heiress to the Armour Meat fortune. By the time I was a child growing up in Huntington in the 1950’s, the estate had been long abandoned and taken over by the Township for taxes. “No Trespassing” signs hung along its poison-ivy covered walls, but they were no deterrent to a kid determined to explore its grounds.

Details count and that’s where one’s background becomes a gold mine. For me it’s things like the poison ivy, the signs, the gatekeeper’s house and the “tunnel” through the wall. Plus the quiet magic of a summer day on Huntington Harbor, with boats bobbing at their moorings, the swish of waves along the shore, the pounding of hammers at Knutson's Boatyard, and the sound of a radio from the deck of one of the boats moored in the crowded harbor.

There was a legend among us kids that there had been a terrible tragedy in the castle. After I’d done a lot of research, I discovered we had the Ferguson Castle confused with the Boldt Castle in at the outlet of Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River. But our mistaken rumor was enough to inspire what happens in Exiled. I promise a separate blog on Ferguson Castle, because the truth is even more fantastic than the stories we made up about it.

Dumbarton Combined High School is another major setting in my novel. The building itself was inspired by what is currently Huntington Township’s town hall. The town hall has been through several iterations and has been the site of various schools since early in Huntington’s history. The first school on that site, which overlooks the village green, was the Huntington Academy, built in 1794. It was replaced by Huntington High School, also known as the Union School in 1857.

What is now the Town Hall Annex was actually a separate school constructed next door and known as “Main Street School”. Built in 1898, it is the oldest part of the structure and originally housed kindergarten through 8th grade students. By the time I was a student there, it was the home of the school cafeteria (downstairs) and the math department (upstairs).
By 1910, the Union School building had grown too small for the needs of the growing farm community and had been replaced by a much larger “Union School/Huntington High School”, which was renamed the RL Simpson High School in 1950, after one of the township’s outstanding educators. By 1958 the school had again become too small for the area’s needs and a modern new high school was built about a mile away.

In the meantime, the township had outgrown its junior high and the old RL Simpson High School structure was renovated to become RL Simpson Junior High. It was linked to the old “Main Street School” – now called “the Annex” -- by a covered passageway, known as “the Portico”.

This is the setting for Dumbarton Combined High. Originally, I described the school as a junior high, with a much-younger Sophie as part of the 9th grade class and her little sister Viola starting 7th grade there. When I changed Sophie’s age to make her much older, I needed a school that allowed me to have the two girls on the same campus. A critique partner mentioned that she had attended a “combined high” housing grades 7 through 12. The two-building structure of RL Simpson Junior High was perfect. I could put the high school kids in the “big” building and the junior high kids in the “Annex.” Dumbarton Combined High was born.

The metal lockers jutting into the hall, the desks set in pairs in each classroom and the seat outside the guidance counselor’s office are exactly as I remember them, but I had to make up the Vice Principal’s office. I was never quite bad enough to merit a trip there.

The current Huntington High, which I attended in the mid-1960’s, much expanded, still serves Huntington’s students. At one time it boasted the largest auditorium on Long Island, seating about 3000. I remember particularly the huge overhanging balcony that shaded the seats below (and was a source of a major "scandal" that got all the honor students in serious trouble), the knobby upholstery, and the two, long sloping aisles that seemed to take forever to get down. I’ve “transported” this auditorium to Dumbarton Combined High, where, in a smaller version, it serves as the setting for some of the novel’s most crucial turning points.

But there are smaller details, as well. A return visit to Huntington reminded me of the cemetery and the old library (now part of the Historical Society museum), where Sophie snubs Joseph.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I remember clothes-pinning playing cards to the spokes of bike wheels to make a clicking sound as you rode, shaping“poppers” out of fallen maple seeds and how cherry Coke really was made. These are the details that make Exiled come alive.

What are the rich memories of your own childhood? I encourage you to explore your past. There you’ll find more texture for your scene than you can ever possibly use.