Friday, July 10, 2015

Character Fodder

We pull our characters from a myriad of situations. Sometimes we stitch them together like Frankenstein’s monster – a little from one person, something else from another until a character emerges. Other times we combine two or three people we know really well, into one. Then there’s the character that makes themselves up; you know the ones. They download into your head and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. They are born like children with fully realized personalities. They may even have built-in catch phrases and drive specific cars. Those are the fun ones, the ones that you can’t fight off the page. No matter how much you try to bury them, they keep knocking on the inside of your skull until you let them out. I have one such character but this blog is not about him because characters such as those need no help, save for our discipline in getting them onto the page. This blog is about the first type of character, the one that’s stitched together like a patchwork quilt.

The other day I was purchasing plants from a nursery. A simple task. As a woman who worked there helped load them into my car she stated an observation. “You drive a Yaris, you get better gas mileage than a Prius.” The woman next to us had just pulled up in a Prius and the woman speaking to me showed unbridled disdain for the other car.

Now there are a few ways I could have proceeded. I could have simply said, “Yes, thank you.” thus agreeing with the obviously opinionated woman and our conversation would have been over.

My father (who I relayed the conversation to later) assured me that’s what he would have done. But, among my many faults I’m contrary, I pride myself on telling the truth and I like to stir up trouble. Plus I had very recently had a long conversation with my father about my car. Yes it gets great gas mileage, there is no doubt about that. It also blows into the other lane on the freeway when a truck passes by or when there are winds above 30mph. If you watch the collision dummy footage you will find, to my dismay, that if another car plows into a Yaris at a low speed (with older models such as mine) it crumples up like a tin can.

Therefore my response to the woman was something like, “Yes but if someone hits me there’s a good chance I will not survive.”
 To which she actually replied something like this: “That’s a conspiracy. They want you to believe that but those statistics are all made up. There haven’t been any car accidents in California in the last ten years. The news is full of lies about cars in order to promote fear and make people spend more money to buy more expensive cars.”

I was flabbergasted. I actually tried to argue with her by telling her I had viewed the crash test dummy footage online. She argued back telling me, and truly believing this herself, that the footage was faked. Her next statement, the one that had me walking away shaking my head was: “And if you put those negative thoughts of an accident out there, you will draw one to you.”

Now I believe in positive thinking and affirmations just as much, if not more than the next person but I am a realist. I do not think that if I jump off a tall building and believe I will land unhurt that I will indeed land, unhurt. I also believe in plenty of conspiracy theories but when I drive my car I feel like I’m driving a tin can. As for no car accidents in California… I don’t even watch the news but I personally know of three people who were involved in automobile fatalities in the Bay Area in the past few months and have personally witnessed several not fatal ones myself, quite recently.

But alas… what’s the message here? The importance of all this? That woman makes a GREAT character, or more so, part of a great character. A character who truly believes these things to be true. And I would have missed out on all of that good fodder if I had just agreed with her and moved on. The lesson/s – talk to people, listen and ask questions.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Writing Groups and Why You Need One

You’ve probably heard utterances of “writing is a lonely job”. I’m here to tell you – it doesn’t have to be.

We’ve all heard of writing groups. Where writer’s meet to either write together or critique what they or others have written. What I’d like to argue is that you don’t have to find “the perfect group”. That’s right, any group will do. No matter what genre the other folks write, no matter the type of people they are and no matter whether they approve or are supportive of what you write or not.

“How can that even work?” you demand. Simple. It’s not the personalities it’s the process. When I started meeting with writer’s groups I would proudly state that I was a romance writer only to be met with criticism and judgment. At first I got bogged down with the details, I felt less-than and even disrespected by some of my writing peers. In the end what I found out is that doesn’t matter. I’m not in a writing group to make friends necessarily, though that has definitely happened because no matter what, there are good people in the world and like attracts like. What I came to know is true for me is that I’m in writing groups to write. The impetus of one or more other writer sitting down and “just writing” without talking to one another or engaging in other distractions is a very powerful time.

The first group I joined was one you can probably find on in your area. In some areas it’s called “Shut up and Write” and in our area it’s “Just Write”. Regardless of the name, the concept is simple… You arrive at the designated time, introduce yourself to the group and say a sentence or two about what you’re working on. You are not required to say anything you don’t want to. Meaning if you want to reveal your genre you can, otherwise you can just say you’re working on x, y and z. An example would be: “Hello I’m Raina and today I’m working on a scene in Chapter 4 of my third novel.” If someone asks what it’s about I can politely tell them it’s fiction as opposed to saying it’s a paranormal romance. What I learned the hard way is that some people do judge so if you’re a sensitive type, keep it to yourself.

Another thing that I learned the hard way was when one writer asked me in my “Just Write” group if we could critique each other’s work. I had never done that before and I didn’t realize that 1. It was a set-up and 2. That was not the right venue for such a bold foray into the unknown. I trepidatiously agreed, I should always follow my intuition. I had my coveted and closeted writing torn to bloody shreds in front of my eyes. The person whose work I critiqued explained how I knew nothing about critiquing and told me they would not be taking any of my (implied) crappy suggestions. Sometimes people need to make others feel badly in order to make themselves feel better. I took this as a fantastic learning experience and have since found two different critique partners that I trust who are kind and helpful. And all WE do is critique each other’s work, we don’t get together and write.

As for the writing -- I now have three different writing groups and I love them all for different reasons but mostly I love that they enable me to sit quietly and write with a group of people for a set amount of time. There’s something purely magical and persuasive about that. Sometimes I get more written in an hour with a group of other writers than I get written in a day at home. Fewer distractions and focused concentration. Maybe there’s a little bit of healthy competition too!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Constructive Criticism

“Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one.” – Wikipedia -

When you’re a fledging writer you will probably receive two kinds of input. The first is constructive criticism and the second is unconstructive criticism or as I like to call it = Bull$h!t

The danger, at first, is that you may not know which is which and if you receive mean-hearted unconstructive criticism you may abandon your dream altogether. Remember when you were a kid and you had a dream? It’s happened to all of us at one point or another in our lives. You had a dream and some mean-spirited adult masquerading as well meaning told you that no matter what you did or how hard you tried you would never accomplish it. They convinced you that they knew best and because of X, Y or Z you could never achieve your goals.

It could have been that jealous theater teacher in high school who was a teacher and not an actor because they themselves failed at becoming famous. Or perhaps it was a parent who didn’t want you to be a police officer because you may get hurt in the line of duty so they told you that you were too out of shape. It could have been an older sister who was envious of your amazing voice and told you that you couldn’t carry a tune. The examples are unlimited but you get the idea. Well, the same exact thing will happen when you start to put yourself out there as a writer, before you’re published. After you’re published even if you are crap, they’ll tell you how fabulous you are but that’s a different blog post.

From my limited experience I’ve found that the writers who are kind and encouraging, the ones who take the time to build you up, pat you on the back and take you under their wings are the successful ones. I meet a lot of writers, I talk to a lot of writers, I attend a myriad of writing classes. The writers who I have personally chosen to be my critique partners are kind and helpful. If they don’t like the way I’ve written something or think I can do a better job they tell me nicely. They don’t put me down, belittle me, condescend or patronize. A New York Times bestselling writer in my RWA group has been one of the most encouraging women to me and other new writers. Other women in my groups who are both traditionally and self-published have also been kind and helpful. However, this is not always the case, nor will it be. For every five nice, kind, wonderful, helpful people there is always at least one a$$hole.

I count myself lucky that I’ve only run across a couple so far. Women with obviously low self esteem who, for no reason other than to make themselves feel better have tried to tear my writing apart in patronizing, nasty, self inflated ways that was not helpful to me. These people also happen to be unsuccessful, which I understand is part of their reason for putting other writers down.

I know I have a lot of work to do but I also know I’m a good writer. I have doubts about other aspects of my life but not about my writing. I don’t think I’m anywhere near great but I believe I have that potential. I’ve been writing for my entire life. I’ve even earned quite a successful living as a writer.

I’m sharing this because if someone who isn’t confident in their abilities or even if someone is having a bad day; an attack on their writing could keep them from following their dreams and that would be a huge shame. Sometimes people are taught that constructive criticism is pointing out their faults and “helping” them to become better writers but I disagree. If you read the definition at the top of the page it is delivered “in a friendly manner, not in an oppositional one.” There are ways to tell someone anything NICELY! A very well known teacher said to me a week ago, “that’s really good writing and I like it a lot but I think it could be even better with…” THAT’S THE KIND OF CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM YOU SHOULD PAY ATTENTION TO! And that’s the kind you will get with a professional, successful writers and your helpful critique partners. Please don’t settle for anything less and please don’t take writer bashing by meanies to heart, remember they’re the ones who suck - the life out of everyone around them because they’re unhappy… (not you)!!!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

NaNo is Over but Your Writing JuJu has Just Begun

In the spirit of NaNo past I wanted to focus this month’s article on “how to take it with you.” For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writer’s Month where the challenge is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. If you haven’t done it before I suggest you do!

My personal NaNo story is – I had been working on my first novel for 15 years, yup that’s correct. But I hadn’t really... What that means is I’d work on it feverishly for a few months and then put it away for years, then work on it again for a bit and so on and so forth. After I joined a writer’s group people would ask me “what are you working on” and I would tell them. Then they’d ask “how far are you? Or “when will you be done?” or something else along those lines and I’d have to admit I’d been working on it forever. Last year a group member said to me, “Why don’t you just finish it? NaNo is next month, finish it then.” I had never heard of NaNo and just hearing this woman I didn’t know tell me to “just do it” was the push I needed to get it done.

I joined NaNo in 2013 and wrote my first novel. This year (November 2014) I joined again and wrote the prequel. Are they “finished finished”? No. But each of them are over 50,000 words and I am rewriting. So what makes a writer actually sit down and write? That’s the question I found myself asking. And there are a lot of answers, for most people there are different things and different reasons. The one issue that is undeniable however is consistency. When you take any writing challenge you HAVE to produce. Let’s say you set a goal to write 5,000 words a week. You do the math and find out that’s 715 words a day and then, no matter what, you make that happen. If you’re too tired when you get home from work you sit down and write anyway. If you have a lunch break, you write during lunch. Sometimes I take out my laptop in my car (not while driving) and write there. The one thing I’ve found that’s more important than anything else is forming that habit and NaNo did that for me, it formed my daily writing habit.

So much so, that this past week I wrote over 11,000 words on my third novel. The one thing I can now say is that it gets easier and I’ve heard this over and over again. Once you get into the habit and once you get the hang of doing something new that you’ve never done before it begins to flow. Just like when you’re exercising a new part of your body and your muscles are stiff and don’t stretch as much or as well. The more you practice/stretch/shoot hoops, the easier it becomes.

Figure out what works for you writing wise and don’t make the number something so high you cannot achieve it. Make it achievable. Start with 1,000 words a week if you need to, that’s 143 words a day. This blog post is over 500 words and I wrote it in 15 minutes (not including editing), just to give you an idea… Once you’ve hit your 1,000 words a week, up it in small enough increments you won’t fail and you won’t feel overwhelmed. Forming that daily writing habit seems to be more important for people than trying to eek out writing sprints once a week. Plus you won’t have to go back and read what you wrote because yesterday’s scene is still fresh in your mind. I loved reading that Neil Gaiman wrote a chunk of his book Coraline by writing 50 words a night before bed instead of reading. The take away? Just do it - daily!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Lock Picking – A Personal Guide to Book Research

Lock Picking – A Practical Personal Guide to Book Research
By Raina Schell

“Write about what you know and care deeply about. When one puts one’s self on paper — that is what is called good writing.” ~Joel Chandler Harris

I’m no expert but I do know that when you write a book and/or character, a lot of research has to go into it to make it believable. For example, one author I spoke to recently used firearms in her book so she took shooting lessons. This is what we, as responsible writers, do – strive for authenticity.  More so, this is what we wake in the morning itching to do…

Researching is one of my favorite aspects of writing, it makes me giddy inside.

Elisabetta (Lizzy) Moretti, the 23 year old Sicilian woman who is the protagonist in my Destiny Series was born on paper over 15 years ago. Lizzy evolved again and again over the past years that I’ve been writing her and she continues to evolve but one thing has remained the same, Lizzy is a thief. She wasn’t born a thief but she fell in with the “wrong crowd” somewhere along the way, you’ll have to read the book to find out the nitty gritty of how and why; and she was well trained.

When Lizzy learned how to lock pick I learned how to lock pick. I watched youtube videos for hours and hours and because I didn’t have a lock picking set (yet) I made my first picks out of paper clips. I then proceeded to pick every lock in my house. Within a week I could pick the deadbolt on my front door with a paper clip (actually 2 paper clips as one is used as the tension wrench) in under 30 seconds. No, this did not make me feel safe but it did make me feel quite accomplished. That’s when I realized I’ve always been a lock picker. It started when I was a wee tot and would pick the bathroom locks with broken off Q-tips, the cardboard ones, not the plastic ones. I didn’t understand the mechanism of a lock (tumblers and the shear line) then but I still had the innate ability to do it. Maybe it’s because I was locked in my room without food for days as a child, true story. Or maybe it’s because when I set my mind to do something I do it. Persistence-are-us. Who knows why? It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is throwing yourself headlong into that research. Almost as if you’re an actor and you’re method acting. You become your character. Lock picking can even be a metaphor for whatever it is you need to learn in order for your character to be believable and well rounded. You could go into your story and character development giving them a skill you have already mastered, one you’ve always wanted to learn or one you knew as a child but forgot somewhere along the way.

What I’ve learned from writing thus far is that a majority of it crawls up from the deepest, darkest hidden parts of ourselves, clawing and scratching its way to the surface in order to forever stain the whiteness of screen or paper.