It’s an odd thing, but one of the best techniques I know for keeping my bottom in the chair and my mind on the page is setting a timer. It’s as if my brain knows it doesn’t have to think about or do anything else for that short burst of time, that its only job is to write.
And by golly, it works.
These days, I set the timer on my iPhone for 30 minutes, and I am almost always surprised when it buzzes, because I’m so deep in the work. If you’re prone to distraction from your phone’s beeps and buzzes, turn it off or tuck it in a drawer and use a kitchen timer. I landed on 25 minutes almost by accident—20 seemed too short, 30 too long—and only later discovered that the time management expert who developed the Pomodoro Technique advocates 25 minute sessions. (Why pomodoro? It’s Italian for tomato and he uses, and sells, a tomato-shaped timer.) Now that I’ve done this for a while, 30 minutes is just right.
Give yourself no more than 5 minutes for a break. Do a few deliberate stretches, pee, refill your coffee or water, sit back down, set the timer, and forget it. Don’t go online until your day’s writing session is over. Any longer break, or one that engages your attention in any significant way, will break the connection between your conscious and subconscious minds and disrupt the flow.
In my Building Character class, one of the tools I describe is the free write, an exercise to delve deeper into a character. Use it with a character who is not forthcoming about their experiences, one who is very different from you, or even one you know well. In writing the stand-alone currently circulating with publishers, I used a free-write session with the main character who is in many ways much like me but whose particular motivation wasn’t clear on the page. I’ve also used it in revision, as with the forthcoming Bitterroot Lake, when my editor suggested that the killer’s motivation needed more depth. I combined a free-write with some emotional research to delve deeper and even found the basis for another scene I knew I needed but had resisted adding because I didn’t know what the story needed.
A student new to the concept asked how to get started. The keys are to write by hand, write in first person, and open yourself to the voice and experience of that character.
Why by hand? Grapho-therapist Jamie Mason Cohen said in an interview that “[w]hen you write by hand, the act itself slows you down, resulting in single-tasking and focused concentration on what you’re doing in the moment and fully present.”
I believe that free-writing these snippets of our characters’ inner lives by hand frees our creativity by creating a direct link to the subconscious. It frees us from judgment. This same effect comes from writing in first person, in the voice of the character we’re exploring, even if the story itself is in third, or in first but in the voice of a different character. For a few minutes—five to twenty—you’re giving that character a chance to speak directly to you. To tell you their story. You may not use it all on the page, but you’ll learn details and detect emotions that will help you understand that character, their emotional responses to the story events, and what they do as a result. In other words, this simple exercise will advance both characterization and plot
Try asking yourself a some questions, almost like a guided meditation. One of my favorites for mystery and crime writers comes from my friend Ramona DeFelice Long, a writer and editor, who called it channeling your inner OJ. You’ll remember that after OJ Simpson was acquitted of double murder, he claimed to be in search of the real killer and wrote a book called If I Did It, giving a hypothetical description of the murders and how and why they might have occurred. Talk to your suspect and let him or her tell you how and why they might have done it. Pay particular attention to the why, their motivation, and see what surprises they reveal.
Other prompts to ask your character, writing for at least five minutes: What I most want is… If I don’t get this, I will … The thing that stands in my way is… What I am most afraid of is…
This week, I recorded a short video (really short!) as part of Sisters in Crime’s SINC-Up series of writing tips. My topic: emotional research. Watch it here.
In the unedited version, I also suggested talking with people who have had the experience you’re writing about, if you can, or folks who work with it professionally; and searching out articles, personal accounts, and other resources. In the example I gave, from my Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, I found guides online for teachers and school counselors that were enormously helpful.
I wrote about the importance of reading like a writer a few months ago, but today I want to suggest that over the next week or two, you should just read because you love it. Read because it feeds your soul and reminds you why you write. Read because you’ve been reading since you were five or six years old and few things connect you to who you really, truly are than a good book. Read not because you want to learn how Elizabeth George handles shifts in POV (masterfully), how Laura Lippman writes the modern noir in Sunburn, or how Ken Follett makes building a cathedral fascinating—although it’s perfectly fine to notice those things, and even to make a few notes for your own WIP. Read to get lost in a book, to forget what time of day it is or where you are. Read to meet new people, eat new food, explore a new community, and find out what happens, as my friend Barbara Ross says in her “cozy covenant.”
I promise, if you take a little extra time during this holiday season to read for pure joy, you’ll return to the WIP invigorated and inspired.
My favorite writing blog—it may be the only one I still subscribe to—is a group blog called Writer Unboxed, subtitled “about the craft and business of fiction.” Founded by novelists Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, it’s a group blog with more than thirty regular contributors along with a cast of occasional contributors and guests, offering posts on craft, business, and inspiration. The craft posts are detailed—agent and teacher Don Maass, for example, raises a provocative topic then offers specific questions for you to ask yourself about your WIP. Novelist and teacher David Corbett writes often about character, and I’ve come to value craft posts from Kathryn Craft, Barbara Linn Probst, Barbara O’Neal, Heather Webb, and others. Editor Dave King, co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, often posts snippets from manuscripts he’s worked on, showing his edits and annotating them with his thinking. Editor and novelist Ray Rhamey dissects the opening pages of NY Times best-sellers in his “Flog A Pro” segment. Other posts give a practical look at the business of writing. I was particularly inspired by a Barbara O’Neal post on using collage to better visualize a WIP, and drink in posts on refilling the well and nurturing the creative spirit. Dialogue often erupts in the comments, giving additional suggestions and ideas.
I’m a big fan of literary agent and teacher Donald Maass. I’ve attended both his Break-out Novel Intensive (BONI) and his BONI Graduate Retreat, intensive seminars where 30 writers gather for a week of classes with Don, Lorin Oberwenger, and other instructors. When I attended BONI in Hood River, Oregon in April 2012, I had a 3-book contract with Berkley for the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. The first manuscript was due August 1; I had about 60% of a first draft and felt pretty good about it. I went home and started over.
And Death al Dente won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Each of Maass’s books on writing is filled with insight, easy-to-grasp analysis, and detailed exercises. I recommend them all, but particularly the most recent, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). We read in large part for an emotional experience, and Maass’s book shows us how to evoke that on the page for our readers. Easy to say, difficult to do, but so much easier with a master teacher.
Most of the books I’ve mentioned in the last few weeks have been reference books or craft guides. Today I want to spotlight Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, by Dan Blank (We Grow Media, 2017). I first encountered Blank and his work on Writer Unboxed, a terrific group blog that mixes writing craft, promotional advice, and inspiration. He no longer blogs there, but writes a weekly newsletter to which I subscribe. Blank works directly with writers to, as he says, “develop their author platforms, launch their books, and create marketing strategies that work.” (More on his website.) His newsletters and his book are not places to learn technical details of SEO, how to increase your Facebook following, or how to build a website. Instead, he focuses on giving writers ways to develop connections with their readers. As I said last week in raving about Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, readers read in part for an emotional experience. If you give it to them on the page, they’ll read your next book. And if you market and promote your work with that same goal, istarting by dentifying your passions, why you write, and what experiences you want to give your readers, you’ll not only connect with them, you’ll enjoy the process.
Wow. Believe me, it’s true. That’s a big part of why I’m doing these Writing Wednesday posts. Sure, I hope you’ll buy my books. But I also want to share some of what I’ve learned in the process of writing and selling them you, and engage with you in the process. Because that’s a big part of why we’re driven to create, isn’t it?
Decades ago, in college, we were all required to buy Fowler’s Modern English Usage, originally published by H.G. Fowler but then in a 2d revised edition by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was brilliant, and it didn’t always make sense to my ears because — well, because I am an American. And my idea of “modern” wasn’t quite the same as old HG’s or Sir Ernest’s.
So I was elated to discover Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan Garner, published by Oxford University. (Shown is the 3d edition, 2009). It’s modern. It’s American. And it’s just what every writer needs. It even includes a “language-change index” which does exactly what it says.
This is a season that is particularly shaped by tradition. We celebrate some of our most important holidays and holy days in the last quarter of the year, as autumn becomes winter and we turn the page to a new year.
But this year, traditions are dramatically changed. Travel is harder, public events are limited in size, individual gatherings and celebrations are being reshaped.
And that has me thinking of the role of tradition in story. Think about it in the story you’re working on. How do traditions influence your characters? How guide or frustrate their choices? How create—or recall—tensions between characters, or within them?
Which character assumes the family will always gather at her home? Which character resents that, resists it, has always tried to change it, and finally circumstances allow the change—but what now? Whose help does she need? Who refuses to give it? What does she feel compelled to do, but unsure that she can succeed?
Who absolutely will not hand over the star that always goes on top of the Christmas tree, because it’s always been on her tree because we’ve always gathered at her house.
Who tries to interject new traditions? Who feels rebuffed, rejected, relegated to the kids’ table?
I’m speaking both literally and metaphorically here. Traditions aren’t confined to the holidays and holy days, or to family gatherings, and you needn’t be writing about the pandemic to ask your characters these questions. Think about how your characters respond to traditions and to changes. Consider how the usual ways of doing things have influenced the interactions between spouses, sisters, business partners, or rivals—and how changes in the traditions affect those interactions. What ripple effects occur when one person decides to think or feel about “the way things are” or “the way we’ve always done it”? What does that character do as a result, and how does another respond?
And if you find yourself singing a particular song from a Broadway musical, go for it.
How I first found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (2012), I have no idea, but you can see that both the cat and I find it enormously useful, if for slightly different reasons.
The ability to identify and describe body language and facial expressions is critical in conveying emotion on the page. The authors list dozens of emotions, from adoration to worry, briefly define them, then set out physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and other key indicators. They also include a section on avoiding common problems, such as too much telling and cliches, and tips such as finding the root emotion, using the setting, and using visceral or instinctive reactions.
I use the lists as a starting point, thinking about a particular character, their personality, gender, how they use their body, how controlled or demonstrative they are, the intensity of the situation. You are the ultimate authority on your characters, but the authors’ lists will get the ideas moving. I’ve annotated my copy, listing additional emotions, adding observations of my own, and interleafing other resources. The authors have also written books on character traits, setting, and more. I see from their website, Writers Helping Writers, that they’ve put out a new edition of the Emotion Thesaurus. Maybe the cat will get me a copy for Christmas.