Are You Being True to Your Writing?

As a writer, this is perhaps the MOST IMPORTANT question you need to ask yourself.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Novel Dilemma: Story No Longer Relevant … Now What?” Many of you commented with empathetic remarks or great advice (thank you!). And now, I’m happy to report that I found the answer to my own question.

I am re-working my original plot line, but keeping the same two characters. I arrived, however, at this final conclusion by asking myself the question:

Be YourselfAm I being true to my writing?

Really, the props in this epiphany go to my boyfriend, Oscar—who, over chicken wings at Native New Yorker one night, said to me (as I complained how I can’t write anything great), “You’re stuck on your book, because you’re not being true to your writing.”

Whoa.

Just think about that for a moment—being true to your writing. What does that mean? Oscar spelled it out for me, plain and simple: “Shari, you’re trying to write about a girl who grew up without a father. But you never lost your father. So you can’t really understand what your character is going through.”

BINGO.

He then went on. “But you know what it feels like to be Jewish and in a relationship with someone who harbors anti-Semitic feelings.”

Are you seeing where I’m going with this yet?

It suddenly dawned on me that I was trying to be TOO CREATIVE with my writing. I was trying to write about things that I thought were exotic or conflicted, but that I didn’t really understand. I was trying to be J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald … all at the same time.

But I just had to be Shari Lopatin. And write about what Shari knows … with some exaggeration.

Suddenly, the book won’t stop flowing from my fingertips. I wrote 10 pages in two days. And I’m going like a train on fire. In addition, those who have read my first few (new) chapters said the story is MUCH more intriguing, now. Who would’ve thought?

Have you been feeling stuck in your writing?

Maybe you should do as I did. Take a hard look at your plot lines, and your themes. Are you being true to yourself, to what you know, and what you understand?

I’m Back, with Author Jessica McCann!

Hellooooo! It feels so good to be back from my blog hiatus (although I’m now posting every OTHER Thursday) … and I’m swinging into full gear with a special guest post today.

Jessica McCann is a new author who just launched her first historical fiction novel a year ago, All Different Kinds of Free. Personally, it’s on my bookshelf and I CAN’T WAIT to read it, as Jessica’s book has received raving reviews so far.

But today, she was kind enough to share some insights on reaching success as a writer and author. Not to mention, we live in the same city (Phoenix, Ariz.), so I was pumped to have Jessica write a post for Rogue Writer.

Is Your Writing Ready to Take on the World?

GUEST POST BY JESSICA MCCANN

Writing is a lot like parenting. It’s hard to know when it’s time to let go. It doesn’t matter if the writing is a magazine article query or a novel manuscript, it can be difficult to send it out into the big, bad world alone.

How do know if you’ve done all you can? How do you know if it’s ready? The short answer is, you never know for sure. That unknown can be intimidating, and it holds many people back. It locks them into the “I want to be a writer” mindset rather than letting them move into the “I am a writer” mindset.

If you’ve provided your writing offspring with unconditional love, a balanced education, steady discipline and a chance to mature, then it’s time to stare down the fear and let it go.

Love

It all begins with this, in my experience. You must love your writing, warts and all, if it is to ever thrive and be loved by others. Don’t hold back. Write your passions. Let your first drafts flow unbridled. Consider reading Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg, one of my favorite tomes on being a writer, for encouragement and inspiration.

Education

Does your writing have a balanced education? Know your subject matter inside and out, whether it’s gardening, personal finance or the hometown of your fictional characters. Do your homework, and infuse your writing with facts. Authenticity shines in both fiction and nonfiction.

Discipline

Make your writing behave through firm, consistent editing. Introduce it to William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. This slim book is loaded with writing and editing gems. Among my favorites? “Avoid qualifiers (rather, very, little). They are leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.” Nice.

Maturity

Give your writing a chance to mature. Once I’ve researched, composed and revised, I let my writing let sit for at least a day or two, longer when possible. I let it age. Coming back to it with fresh eyes helps me assess whether it’s ready to leave the nest.

Ok, so you’ve loved and nurtured your work. You’ve learned and grown and matured right along with it. Now it’s time to let go. Like parenting, it can be scary as hell sometimes, but you’ve got to have faith. No one can soar without taking a leap.

Are you ready to let go?

If not, what do you think is holding you back?

Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist, lives with her family in Phoenix, Ariz. Her nonfiction work has been published in Business Week, The Writer and Phoenix magazines, among others. All Different Kinds of Free (http://www.AllDifferentKindsOfFree.com) is her award-winning debut novel. She welcomes interaction with readers and writers at her website (http://www.jessicamccann.com) and on Twitter (@JMcCannWriter).

Watch the book trailer to All Different Kinds of Free

What Are You Willing to Sacrifice to Write?

I first met Lynette Benton on Twitter, and soon discovered what a great writing instructor she makes! That’s why I invited Lynette to write a guest post for Rogue Writer. Today she asks, what would YOU be willing to sacrifice to write? Read (and see) Lynette’s hilarious answer below …

What Are You Willing to Sacrifice to Write?

BY: LYNETTE BENTON

I left my full time job, partly so I’d have time to write.

I only attend every third or fourth birthday, graduation, baby shower, wedding, anniversary, and random celebration hosted by my husband’s huge family. (They’re very forgiving; or they just want me to finish this darn memoir they keep hearing about.)

I descended from my husband’s and my lofty culinary standards by occasionally substituting garlic powder for the freshly peeled deal.

I arranged to teach all my writing classes on only two days a week.

For the 25 years I’ve been with my husband, I’ve let him indulge his passions for vacuuming, doing laundry, and grocery shopping.

But, still, I felt too busy to make as much progress on my memoir rewrites as I wanted to. I had to get drastic.

Years ago …

… a friend with the kind of hair women swoon over, became a White House fellow. He told me that to succeed in this enviable new position, he was making some major changes. Then he waltzed into my apartment with his big, shiny curls cut short and slicked down.

“I’m wearing it like this for the duration,” he said.

Lynette before cutting her hair
Lynette before cutting her hair

Well, my hair is nice, but quite difficult to manage. So one day last spring, I had four inches trimmed from my footlong mane. Nice. But it still took a ton of time to wash, comb, and arrange.

At my wits’ end, I announced to my husband, “It’s either the memoir or the hair. One’s got to go.”

I crept into a hair salon where no one knew me, so they wouldn’t tell me my hair was too pretty to chop off. “Cut it down to an inch all over,” I ordered.

Even after three months of short, short hair, I still don’t look like myself to myself. But my memoir rewrite is moving along at a steady clip now.

 

You don’t need to be as drastic … 

Lynette after cutting her hair
Lynette after cutting her hair

… as I was to free up time and energy to write. Because that’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? It’s not just time that we writers need; we need energy—creative energy, physical energy. (Only non-writers think it doesn’t require a lot of energy to write for four or six hours a day.) So here are some actions you can take to give yourself more time (and energy) to write:

  • Marry someone with a small, unsocial family.
  • Slash your online memberships in half. Social media is great for writers. It’s critical for platform building, and it’s nice to connect with other writers and the rest of humanity after a day of writing in solitude. But, if you belong to 50 LinkedIn groups, as I did, you know it’s impossible to keep up with all of them. Cut your list to 25—as I did. Then see what other online communities you just don’t need to receive any more emails from.
  • One day a week, don’t venture farther than your porch, or if you don’t have one, your windows. Getting dressed and commuting anywhere use up time and energy.
  • Forget about nail polish, unless you’ve been invited to the White House or Buckingham Palace. (This one was really hard for me!)
  • Don’t iron anything. In fact, wear a uniform. I’m sure Steve Jobs’ success can be attributed partly to the fact that he never had to worry about what to wear.
  • My friend Lesley says to wear paper cuffs you can write on while waiting in the grocery store checkout line, if you’re not concerned about looking a little insane.
  • My husband wants me to add that it’s not necessary to change your clothes every day. But you might not want to try that at home.

**********************************

Lynette Benton’s articles and essays have appeared in newspapers, Skirt, More Magazine online, and numerous other publications. She teaches and edits creative and business writing in the Greater Boston Area. Her memoir, My Mother’s Money, is in the revision stages. Visit Lynette’s blog, Tools & Tactics for Creative Writers. Contact her at relief11@comcast.net, or on Twitter at @LynetteBenton.

The Best Dialogue Tip EVER

I can’t write a story without dialogue. I mean, dialogue brings a story alive. But have you ever read a book where the dialogue scenes just dragged and bored?

I have. And nine times out of 10, I never finish the book.

So what makes dialogue drag, and what makes it sing? I’ve been writing a long time–professionally for six years, but 22 years if you count my first story at age 7. And I’ve never been able to find that magic piece of advice that makes my dialogue unforgettable.

Until the other day. And finally, it clicked.

Every sentence must REVEAL SOMETHING about your character.

Out of every “craft” tip and professional development paragraph I’ve ever read, this one sentence drills down to the heart of the matter. Your dialogue should never be day-to-day chatter. Every line spoken needs to have a purpose—to reveal something—about the character (and sometimes, even the plot). If it doesn’t, don’t write it.

Whoa.

This got me to stop and really contemplate every line. And let me tell you, since I began thinking in these terms, my dialogue writing jumped so deep, I might as well have leaped off the Grand Canyon.

OK, now I cannot take credit for this. I actually read it on another writer’s blog (or perhaps it was a literary agent). I forgot who they are, but this advice was so good, I just had to share it with my followers.

So what’s an example? Check out The Help

I pulled a short section from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I’m currently reading and cannot put down. I think Kathryn mastered this dialogue technique incredibly well.

Please note, I cut out some of the narration to emphasize the dialogue between Hilly and her friend, Elizabeth. The scene takes place in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. Hilly discovers one of her friends, Skeeter, supports integration and becomes upset when she finds a booklet of the Jim Crow laws in Skeeter’s briefcase…

(Hilly speaking) “I’m not talking about pots. I am talking about the laws of this great state. Now, I want you to ask yourself, do you want Mae Mobley sitting next to a colored boy in English class? Do you want Nigra people living right here in this neighborhood? Touching your bottom when you pass on the street?”

(Hilly speaking) “William had a fit when he saw what she did to our house and I can’t soil my name hanging around her anymore, not with the election coming up. I’ve already asked Jeanie Caldwell to take Skeeter’s place in bridge club.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “You kicked her out of bridge club?”

(Hilly speaking) “I sure did. And I thought about kicking her out of the League, too.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “Can you even do that?”

(Hilly speaking)”Of course I can. But I’ve decided I want her to sit in that room and see what a fool she’s made of herself. She needs to learn that she can’t carry on this way. I mean, around us, it’s one thing. But around some other people, she’s going to get in big trouble.”

(Elizabeth speaking) “It’s true. There are some racists in this town.”

(Hilly speaking) “Oh, they’re out there.”

MY QUESTION TO YOU: What did you conclude about Hilly’s character from this dialogue scene? Do you see how Kathryn used the dialogue technique I described above? How else can YOU bring your characters to life, using dialogue?

****

[Did you like what you read today? Then try signing up for my blog to receive posts via email every Thursday. Or, follow me on Twitter!]

Snatching Success: Q&A w/ Bestselling Novelist, Bruce Cameron

How many of us writers dream of making it onto the New York Times Bestseller’s list? For Bruce Cameron, that dream came true with A Dog’s Purpose—soon to be a DreamWorks movie, too.

W. Bruce Cameron is the New York Times bestselling author of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter which was turned into the hit ABC series (starring the late John Ritter) that continues to run in syndication, 8 Simple Rules for Marrying My Daughter, and How to Remodel a Man. He has twice received the National Society of Newspaper Columnists Award for Best Humor Columnist and was recently named Best Columnist of the Year by the NSNC. His nationally syndicated column is published in more than 50 newspapers. Cameron’s fiction debut, A DOG’S PURPOSE, is a New York Times, USA Today, and Los Angeles Times bestseller and is soon to be a major live-action film from DreamWorks Studios.

I actually heard about Bruce’s “novel for humans” via a Facebook ad, of all places. I’d never clicked on one before, but being a complete animal-lover, I clicked this time. Maybe it was fate, because I immediately connected with Bruce’s story of striving for success, and asked his publicist for a Q&A. The timing worked out perfectly, as his next novel, Emory’s Gift, is releasing next week on Aug. 30.

So thank you, Bruce, for taking time out of your busy schedule to offer advice for those of us who are still working toward the Dream! Here are my 10 questions for Bruce:

1. SHARI: Your book, A Dog’s Purpose, is a New York Times Bestseller and soon to be a movie by DreamWorks, according to the book’s website. However, in your bio, you mention you didn’t reach success as a writer until later in life. What was the key factor that made THIS book successful, as opposed to other works of yours?

BRUCE: Well, I suppose the main factor in this book’s success is the fact that it was published. When I refer to my lack of success as a writer in the years previous, I’m talking about the fact that I wrote many books that were never published. However, my first book, 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter, was a New York Times bestselling book and was made into a television show on ABC.  I think that once I began writing about themes that were universally appealing (such as family, relationship, animals, etc.) I connected with my audience.

2. SHARI: Many of my blog followers are developing writers, or professional writers looking to reach success as authors. What are the top 3 pieces of advice you can offer them, to help them reach that success?

BRUCE: The first thing that I would tell them, is that they should ask themselves what they mean by “success.” All my life I wanted nothing more than to have a hard cover edition of a book of mine for sale in a bookstore. I have achieved that, but it is during a time in which fewer people are reading and bookstores themselves are disappearing. Does success mean selling a few thousand copies of an e-book? Is it material success, critical acclaim, great reader response? What has happened to me with A Dog’s Purpose is that I have touched a lot of people’s lives. That’s not what I started out to do but it has turned out to be the most profound element of my success.

I wrote and wrote for years without selling a single thing. So my second piece of advice is keep writing, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up.

Most writers feel that a work is not successful if it is not read by large numbers of people. To reach large numbers of people one must spend an awful lot of time marketing. My final piece of advice would be to prepare yourself for just how much time it will take to connect with your audience so that they are even aware of your work.

3. SHARI: How did you start writing? Was it your original career (such as a degree in journalism or English), or did you begin writing later in life?

BRUCE: I started writing when I was in the fourth grade. I wrote my first novel when I was in high school. I was an English major, and worked briefly as a freelance writer before poverty forced me to get a day job. But I have always been a writer; albeit not always a professional one.

4. SHARI: What is A Dog’s Purpose about, and how did you think of the idea?

BRUCE: A Dog’s Purpose asks the question, “what if your dog never really dies?” I got the idea because I was riding my mountain bike in Colorado one day and met a dog along the way who reminded me so very much of my first dog Cammie, whom I met when I was just eight years old. I was struck with the odd sense that I had just interacted with my long dead friend. Ever since that day, I have wondered if it really was Cammie, and if so, what did that look like from the dog’s perspective? These questions ultimately led me to writing the novel A Dog’s Purpose.

5. SHARI: You have a new book coming out soon, Emory’s Gift. Tell us about this story, and when is it due for release?

BRUCE: On August 30, 2011, Emory’s Gift will be released in hardcover. It is the story of a 13-year-old boy who teams with his father to save a wild grizzly bear from the people who would do it harm. Once they embark on their mission, the lives of the boy and his father are changed forever.

6. SHARI: As a writer, what has been the largest hurdle you’ve had to overcome?

BRUCE: Because I was not able to make enough money as a writer to survive, I got a day job – a good day job – and wound up getting married and having children. The demands on my time were great and so it was always my writing that got sacrificed. I don’t regret any of it, but it is true that my choices led to me not being as productive as I would have wanted.

7. SHARI: What do you think makes a great writer, versus someone who’s just average?

BRUCE: The writers I enjoy reading the most are those who combine talent with an understanding of the importance of plot, character, and story structure. Writing is an art, but it is also a skill that must be practiced over and over. 

8. SHARI: Now that you’ve finally reached success as an author, what’s it like? Are you enjoying it?

BRUCE: I am living the life that I always wanted. My biggest challenge is trying to adjust mentally to the idea that this is really it, that I don’t have to continually scan want ads for jobs that I could do to support my writing.

9. SHARI: Do you have any recommendations of other writers/authors/teachers for my blog subscribers to follow?

BRUCE: As a screenwriter I have had to spend many hours reading and rereading Sid Fields seminal work screenplay. It has taught me so much about story structure and I would recommend it even to people who have no intention of ever writing a script for a movie.

10. SHARI: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BRUCE: Readers who were drawn to and pleased by the spiritual message of A Dog’s Purpose will find that this same theme shows up in Emory’s Gift. Though it doesn’t have a dog on the cover, I urge anyone who felt moved by A Dog’s Purpose to give Emory’s Gift a look.

[Want more interviews, like today’s Q&A with Bruce Cameron? Then sign up to get posts from ‘Rogue Writer’ delivered by email, every Thursday! Still not sure? Read up on this blog and my experience, first.]

Drama Lessons Americans Can Learn from Spanish Soap Operas

He bursts through the door, his black hair slicked away from his obsidian eyes, his chest bulging from a torn shirt. And his cheeks flush with the tone of desire.

“Rosa,” he says, “I am in love with you.”

“But, your brother,” she gasps, her lips pursed, begging to be kissed. “We are to be married tomorrow, at sunset.”

“I don’t care! Don’t you know, Rosa?” He glides forward, gripping her fragile arms until she begs him to stop. 

“Don’t Antonio! The pain, I can’t take it!”

“He impregnated your best friend, Rosa!”

Gasp! Shock of horrors. Noooo!

Yea, imagine if YOUR life played out like that. Some hot, Latin hunk whose glistening pectorals bulge from his torn shirt declares his love for you the day your cheating, good-for-nothing fiancé gets some other chick pregnant.

This is why I love Spanish soap operas—and I don’t even speak Spanish.

C’mon American writers! Where’s your sense of drama?

I have a Latin boyfriend. Who’s Guatemalan. And I LOVE it. He and his family introduced me to a whole new definition of the word, “drama.” Mix that with my engrained sense of Jewish humor, and the world is in for a lethal weapon.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love American writing and film and yada yada yada. But seriously, don’t you think we could learn something from the Latin culture?

Here are seven lessons American writers can learn from Spanish soap operas:

  1. No passion? Don’t even bother writing it.
  2. If it doesn’t happen in YOUR life, it’s perfect for the story.
  3. Someone better be crying, while someone else is making love.
  4. It’s OK to use swords in modern-day fights.
  5. Knights in shining armor really do ride in on white horses and sweep women off their feet.
  6. Get sexy. Really, really sexy.
  7. Screaming, yelling, and accusations (especially irrational ones) are a good thing.

OK, so what’s my point here? I’m not telling to you actually start writing Spanish soap operas (per say), but I AM telling you to think about why they’re so popular.

Besides the steamin’ hot guys and girls, of course.

If you loved this entry, don’t miss the next one! Keep up with my weekly posts by signing up to receive my blog entries via email!