Sunday, July 27, 2014

Story Hangover

I've done everything by the book. I put my first draft aside to let it rest and I haven't opened the file since. I brainstormed and I came up with a new story idea, that I love. But still, it doesn't work. Every time I try to concentrate on my new story I fall back into the old story that should rest. Every thought of my new protagonist sounds like the old protagonist. 

Don't get me wrong, it's not writers block. I have the story in my head and I am excited about it. I write, but the outcome doesn't sound like it should.

My diagnosis: I have a story hangover.

So what can I do, to get rid of it. Well, I've got several ideas, but as this is the first time for me I don't really know which of the measures does work. 

A) First a don't
Let me start with what you should not to: Stop writing. You should continue to write every day, even if it is as little as 250 words. 

B) Experiment
Try out techniques. Try something you haven't done before, for example try to write in a different POV or try to write a different genre. You could also try to write a screenplay, just for the fun.

C) Focus on your weaknesses
Other examples you could try include things you know you are weak in, for example dialog or description. If you are a discovery writer, try to plot a story, if you are a plotter, try to discovery write.

D) Writing prompts
Take a writing prompt and write the story. Do this every day until you are out of the story. Alternatively, take a scene out of a movie and try to write this scene until it paints exactly the picture the film does. For example the scene from Gladiator, where Russell Crowe comes home and finds his wife and kid killed. Try to provoke the same feelings people had in the cinema.

E) Read a book
Use the time to read a book you always wanted, but did not have time yet (without letting go the every day writing). Diving into a story will help your brain to loose the other one. It's pretty much the same as rushing into a new love after a partnership ended, just not as unfair for the book as it is for the new partner.

F) Rewrite/Translate
Ok, this option is very writer-in-a-foreign-land-specific. I could take a story I wrote in German and rewrite it in english.

Again, I don't know which of above option does work. Maybe I will try to rewrite another story or try to experiment. I'll let you know which one did work. Did you experience story hangover too? How did you got over it?

Looking forward hearing your experience
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How To Come Up With Story Ideas

First draft is done - Yeah! But now what? The story has to rest, like a beer has to ferment. Write some short stories? Probably, but most of the times they don't keep my mind enough occupied to forget about the story I just finished.

Here's what I do: I start a new story. I flip through my list of story idea and pick the one that appeals me most, and if there is none, I come up with a new idea. But how to come up with new ideas out of the blue? There are certain techniques that give creativity a jump start. 

Read Newspapers
Truman Capote found the story for "In Cold Blood" by reading the newspaper. 
The trick is to read it with an eye for conflict. For example could a headline about a conflict between two foreign countries lead to a story. For two coworkers in an American company originating from these countries this conflict suddenly wouldn't be far away anymore. Even though they got along very well earlier, they even might have been friends, they now have to deal with old prejudices and taking sides.
But it's not always about big things, more often it is about the small things that can cause a large conflict for somebody. Just think of what matters to you or to somebody else.

This technique probably doesn't give you a story idea right away, but it turns on the creativity in the brain. It is basically very simple how it works: Take a random person and list three things this person does. A pilot flights a plane, gets to see a lot of different places and his highest concern is the safety of the passengers. Now turn each one of those into the opposite and see which could be the best story. A pilot who doesn't fly a plane? Possible - he could be suspended because of drinking or he could be have developed a phobia. A pilot who doesn't see different places. Again possible, but probably not very exciting. Finally, a pilot whose highest concern is not the passengers safety. Looking at these options, the first one is probably more about inner conflict, where the last one could be good basis for a thriller.

Steal a Good Idea
Have you ever read a book, where a certain part got you under your skin. One specific conflict, one idea, draw your attention? Take this idea, put in a different place and write about it. Don't get me wrong, this is no fanfiction. Don't take the story or a key element, but one that one moment and develop it further. 

Everybody Has His Own Story
Take a person you don't know, just anybody. It should be somebody you either like or dislike just based on a look or the way he or she behaves. A grumpy co-rider on the train or a funny guy sitting next to you in a coffee. Then, try to come up with a story for them. Who are they, why do they react the way they do? What is their pain, what is their joy. You would be surprised with the potential of this technique. 

Happy story finding
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Aftermath

I'm close to finishing the first draft of my current novel. Working title: Exodus. 

How does it feel - great, but... at the moment I don't dare to look back. I have the feeling, that it would be the same view as a bull would have, when he looked back at the china store he just walked through.

This is also the check for being a discovery writer - you actually back-load the work.

So let's have a look at the next steps.

1. Put the story away
First, I have to give the story a rest. I let it go until I almost don't remember what I've written. This could be everything from a couple of weeks up to three month or even more. I work on something else in the meantime, short stories or a new novel. This first step is crucial, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to gain the necessary distance, and to approach the story with fresh eyes. But why? Well, right after I've finished my story, I'm in love with it and I'd never doubt that. Distance gives me perspective as well as a sense of realism with regards to what I've written.

2. High level concept review
When I pick up the story again after some time, I start the review/editing top-down. Does the story work? Where are the plot points and are they at the right place? 

For that, I use the shrunken manuscript method. I change the font a very small, but still readable size (4 - 6), so the number of pages is reduced. Then I print the whole story mark the important points and lay it out on the flor. I also mark the appearance of the different characters/viewpoints with different colors. This method helps me to immediately see any disproportion.

The result of this step is a list of necessary changes to chapters or scenes and where I probably need to add or remove parts.

3. Brainstorm Read-through(s)
As a next step I read through my story as if I were a reader and take notes of what jumps into my eyes. Additionally I emphasize on the following points:

  • are all loose ends tied-up
  • what promises do I make and do I keep all of them
  • are the main and side characters consistent
  • do I have side characters, which just disappear
  • which parts of the plot twists do I have to foreshadow
  • etc

All these questions are still related to the story structure and the concept. Basically, the story has to work. The result is again a list of scenes/parts to be removed, changed, or added.

4. Rewrite
This is probably the most cumbersome part. I have to implement the changes out of step 2 and 3, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. I write new scenes, change existing scenes. Sometimes I even have to introduce complete new story strings or characters.

5. Repeat Step 1 - 4
After having rewritten all parts, I need to go back again to step 1 and repeat this cycle as many times as needed until the story ties. At this stage I also start including beta readers, probably right after the first iteration.

6. Rewrite Scenes
Until now, every step was to ensure the story ties up. Now, it is about the beauty of the craft. I will read through every scene and try to shape it. All those guidelines, like "show, don't tell" or "use all five senses" to let the scene become alive, come in handy. There is so much about the how, I probably have to dedicate an own blog posts about this topic alone. Nevertheless, this step is not anymore about the story structure, but about the techniques how to draw the reader into the story and keep him reading.

As an additional difficulty, I will have to look up all German-blended expressions and correct them. I expect a lot of them. As an example, I used the term elephant in a china store in this blog instead of a bull in a china store.

7. Copy-editing
The borders between rewriting scenes and editing as well as editing and proofreading are fluid. Editing in my understanding takes care about mistakes and sentences, while working directly in the document. It might include rewriting certain sentences, but most of the time it is about correction words and mistakes.

8. Proofreading
Last but not least comes the proofreading. This like a last step of quality assurance. I print the manuscript, grab a pencil and read line by line, forth and back. Yes, I meant back. As our brain is used to read economically, it actually doesn't read a word, it recognizes it. The disadvantage of this is, that we read over errors without seeing them. By reading a text from the back, we can prevent us from falling into that trap.

9. Alpha readers
At this point, I have done everything possible in my hands to submit your story to a greater audience: The alpha readers. They will come back with feedback and yes, as soon as they come back, I will have to start with step 2 - for the sake of the story. 

Happy reviewing and rewriting
Your writer in a foreign land

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Midweek teaser: And the winner is...

I got the answer - thanks to Grammar Girl. 

In my blog post a couple of weeks ago, I asked whether there is a comma between the dialog and the dialog tag when the spoken part is a question. And, if there is one, where does the question mark go?

The resolution: The question mark replaces the comma.

And the winner is: "Forget about what?" she said.

Your writer in a foreign land

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Favorite Podcasts - My Writing Class Room

I am teaching myself writing, or rather it is a learning by doing. This concerns all dimensions you could imagine, from the writing skills to grammar, from vocabulary to understanding how the industry works.

Ambitious, but I'm not alone. There are many helpers out there; fellow writers, editors, agents, all willing to give the community back something and thanks to the Internet they can be found easily.

Since I've started to write I came across a lot of podcasts and I decided to dedicate them a post - not only to thank them, but also to spread the word and hope they help other the way they helped me.

Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells provide a 15 minute episodes every Sunday evening, reliable like a Swiss watch. Episodes have a great variety. Sometimes, they have guests in their show, talking about their work and life or participating in the discussion. 

Most of the time it is vivid discussion about what to write, how to write and great examples out of their experience. Listening to them is always a lot of fun. For example, with their pointed examples, they opened my eyes what "show, don't tell" actually means and where telling is ok.

They also have a book tip every episode - based on their tip, I read "A Short Stay in Hell" from Steven L. Peck. It loved it.

Mur Lafferty provides a great mix of talking about specific topics, such as killing darlings, the value of writing, self esteem, having great interview guests, or proving feedback to questions asked over twitter and or e-mail. 

Outside of the great writing advice and the interesting interviews, this podcast gives me a very warm feeling of not being alone out there with my wishes and fears. Last Thursday, the 327th! episode was published and listening is worth every minute.

Among the writing podcasts, Helping Writers Become Authors is probably the most structured one. In episodes of usually 5 to 20 minutes, K.M. Weiland takes you through writing topics from character arcs to plotting and from writing personality to how to get organized. Sometimes, the podcasts feels like sitting in class. Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate it. Interestingly, while I listen to other podcasts aside of doing something else, I have to concentrate more when I listen to this podcast. It almost seems, that other podcasts talk more to my left side of the brain, while K.M. Weiland talks to my right side of the brain. Anyway, I learned a great deal of what it means to write a good story. 

I especially loved an idea she brought up in one episode regarding music. Usually I get into the mood of a scene by listening to specific music; slow for romance, fast and loud for angry moods, melancholic for more sad scenes. She brought up to switch this from time to time - listening to a march or to epic classic music while writing a romantic scene changes the outcome in a surprising way. the same happens when writing a war scene, listening to melancholic music or to rock music.

As an indie author herself, Joanna Penn focuses her podcast more on the marketing and distribution side of a writer's life. She has a lot of interview guests sharing their experience of writing and especially of how to bring a book to the market. For me, as I am not from the business, these episodes help me a lot to understand the industry as well as the current market dynamics. Episodes are between 40 and a bit over an hour long.

The Grammar Girl's podcast focuses on specific grammar topics. The host, Mignon Fogarty mixes fun topics, such as understanding the background of "Little Buny Foo Foo" with more grammar use related episodes, for example about the correct use of quotation marks or the Oxford comma. For me, as a writer in a foreign land, her podcasts are extremely helpful, but I am pretty sure, the same is true for a lot of writers with English as mother tongue. Episodes are usually 5 to 10 minutes long. 

Brad Reed talks in each episode about a specific topic in great detail, for example how to keep characters alive or unreliable narrators. For my part, I love the episode about the techniques for writing dialog. Each episode is between 30 and 50 minutes long. Unfortunately, the podcast is currently on hold (after 13 episodes). However, Brad announced, he will start again soon. I'm looking forward to it.

Thanks to all those who spend valuable writing time on helping other writers by sharing their experience. 

Happy listening,
Your writer in a foreign land