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Know Your Local Writer: Jill Hartmann

Welcome to the second in a series of interviews with Athens-area writers.  The hope is to inform you about new techniques you might want to try, increase your knowledge of the individuals in your community, and inspire you on your path.  Please contact me if you’re interested in answering our writing questionnaire and being featured here as a future ‘local writer’.

NOTE: Special thanks to AWA co-founder Jill Hartmann for originally supplying us with these wonderful questions for the series.

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Question: At what point in your life did you become a writer and how did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Answer: When I was in first grade, my elementary school held a writing contest for Grades K-2.  All of the classes were asked to respond to the following writing prompt: “What will you ask Santa Clause to bring you for Christmas this year?”  (Nowadays this subject would be taboo for a public school wide writing contest, but it was the 1970’s and it was a private school.  None of the parents complained, as far as I knew).  There were several winners chosen, enough to fill two pages in the school’s quarterly magazine.  My response was one of the winning entries.  I wrote a short paragraph asking Santa for peace and happiness for all of my friends and for my family, and for everyone in the world – and for a special best friend.  (Although I’m Jewish, we celebrated Christmas when I was very little, and I loved Santa Clause.  I think I believed he was real until I was eight or nine years old).

Artist: Elizabeth Goodrick (?)

Artist: Elizabeth Goodrick (?)

I’d have to pinpoint this accomplishment as the moment when I had the epiphany that I was a real writer and that I wanted to keep writing. I received a lot of praise for being among the published winners for that holiday writing contest.  I was six years old, and it didn’t take long for my love of writing to grow exponentially.  When I wasn’t writing stories for school, I would carry my mother’s electric typewriter into the hallway and start writing stories off the top of my head, while sitting right in the middle of the floor.  (I have no idea why I didn’t just carry the thing over to the kitchen table and sit in a chair like a regular kid, but then again, I was not a regular kid).  When I wrote in my diary every night, I usually sat on the floor, also.  What can I say, we had very soft carpet in our house when I was a child!

Q: What books have you read that shaped you as a writer? Which authors’ work do you admire and why?

A: As a child, the books that fired up my imagination were: the Little House books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Oz books, written by L. Frank Baum, all of the books written by Judy Blume, Island of the Blue Dolphins, written by Scott O’ Dell, To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee, and all of the stories from Greek and Roman mythology.  My favorite authors in my adult years, whom I’d like to emulate, are: John Steinbeck and Jane Austen. Steinbeck’s novels resonate with me because of the way he seamlessly weaves his profound messages into stories about real, everyday people.  I gravitate toward character-centered writing, which I think is Steinbeck’s signature, as well as his talent for painting vivid pictures of the places where his characters are battling inner, and outer, conflicts.  When it comes to Jane Austen’s books, I can’t say enough about how beautifully she writes: her characters, her dialogue, her descriptions, are exquisitely crafted. She has created a portrait of an English society long gone that to this day, is not only remade into films over and over again, but also has been taken on by modern day authors with sequels and other stories that recreate that status driven society of early 19th century England.  Both authors have inspired story ideas of mine, and I wish they had written and published many more books than they lived to write in their respective lifetimes.

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Q: Which piece that you have written are you most proud of and why?

A: My short story, “To Ride the Wind.”  I wrote it in 7th grade for an English class assignment (It was inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl, incidentally).  My English teacher encouraged me to enter my story into the middle school’s first annual creative writing contest.  My story won first place, which was one of the greatest moments of my life.  “To Ride the Wind” was published in the school newspaper that summer, which I consider to be my first real publication.  Although we all have to work hard, as writers, to develop our talent and to hone our craft, that story is a symbol of what I’m capable of, and a reminder to never give up on my writing, no matter what.

Q: Do you gravitate toward a particular genre(s) and/or format when you write?   Tell us more about which genres and/or formats are your “passion?”

A: In the past seven years, my focus has been on writing memoirs.  I also continue to write poetry, which I have always gravitated toward as a means of expressing my personal thoughts and emotions about life.  Writing memoirs is challenging in that it requires a high degree of vulnerability and also enough emotional distance to imagine what audiences will be able to identify with when reading about my life story.  I’ve spent a lot of time editing and revising my memoirs, as well as reading others’ published memoirs, to guide me in creating books that read like a fictional character-driven novel, even though the stories are non-fiction.

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Q: Have you studied writing and/or attended writing seminars, workshops or conferences?  Where and what did you learn from your classes/sessions and other writing teachers?  Did any of them stand out to you and why?

A: I attended the USC Film School Graduate Screenwriting Program in the 1990’s, which was eye opening as far as how the television and film industry works.  Before then, I took playwriting classes in college.  I have not attended formal writing conferences, yet.  I have taken advantage of as many of the Athens Writers Association’s workshops as I’ve been able to attend in the past 3+ years, and the members of my critique group have made the most significant difference in my becoming a better writer.  They have been my best writing teachers these past 3 years, hands down.  I have learned so much from everything they’ve taught me.

Q: Have you had any formal writing jobs and/or published any of your work?  If so, tell us about your jobs and/or your publications.

A: Currently, I work as a freelance copyeditor – I proofread, copy edit and revise both non-fiction and fiction manuscripts, and in some cases, Power Point and website copy.  I’ve written articles for publication in the Congregation Children of Israel Temple Times monthly newsletter.  I continue to apply for other freelance writing jobs.  In addition to articles I’ve published in the Temple Times, my work has appeared in three publications in the past three years: Writers After Dark, The Journey Home and Slackpole (the annual holiday issue of Flagpole Magazine).

 

Q: What is unique about your writing process?  What works for you, and what doesn’t work?

A: I’m not sure if this is unique, but I work on writing multiple pieces simultaneously and divide my writing time among those projects.  It is harder for me to write at home than in a coffee house, but I’m working on spending more time writing at my house (while my dogs lay peacefully at my feet).  I work best with a “soundtrack,” which varies, depending on my mood. I tend to listen to a bundle of albums I associate with a particular writing or editing project.  It doesn’t work for me to write in a doctor’s waiting room, or on an airplane, though I have managed to write at a table at the car dealership for several hours, so I’m getting better at writing in less-than-ideal surroundings.  I keep a notebook in my purse at all times so that I can write ideas as they come to me throughout the day.  I used to always write by hand, and nowadays, I usually write on my laptop.  I’ve been thinking of writing shorter pieces by hand in the future because I had a great experience recently when I did that – it was like finding a long lost old friend.

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Q: What is the most challenging area of writing for you?

A: Not editing as I go while I’m writing my first draft.  I still have trouble just free flow writing without going back and rereading and rewriting as I go along.  It slows me down, a lot.  Breaking this habit is a work in progress.

Q: What are you currently writing?

A: My primary current writing project is a memoir about a tragic life-changing event that occurred in 1992, which resulted in a complex life-changing endeavor of mine over the next three months. Events that occurred during that time in my life substantially shaped the rest of my adult life, for the better, in my opinion. My hope is that this story of my journey from heartbreak and grief to activism and healing will inspire others to triumph in the wake of their own tragedies.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning to write?

A: I meet people all the time who tell me about how they are “just dabbling” in writing, whether it be a short story or poetry or a novel, and I always encourage them to not sell themselves short as writers.  Everyone has to start at the beginning and many people who are prolific writers start late in life, not realizing how much talent they’ve always had.  It’s never too late so I say, don’t underestimate yourself and just be willing to learn and get feedback from other writers whom you trust.  Keep writing, don’t give up and join our group. We’re a great source of peer support and encouragement – I know for a fact that it has made a significant difference for many of our members.

Q: How has being a writer changed your life?

A: The real question is how has being a writer not changed my life!  I have believed for a long time, since I won that first contest in 7th grade, that writing is what I was born to do.  I gave it up for 15 years and took the safe route in life, becoming a teacher and then working in administration at a major university.  My dog, Toby Hartmann, inadvertently led me back to writing, and moving to Athens gave me the opportunity to spend the time writing Toby’s story that I used to spend at my brick and mortar job in San Diego, California.  It’s hard to explain how being a writer has changed me except to say that now I remember who I am – not to use a cliché, but it’s true that, “I once was lost, and now I’m found.” I know that this is my purpose in life.  I cannot feel fulfilled if I cannot write – it is what I need to do for myself.  I can no longer imagine not being a writer.  It is scary to open myself up to my readers, but it’s worth it to me to share my voice with the rest of the world.

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AWA at ‘Lickskillet’!

We had a great time, met friends old and new, and sold a few books.  Check out the pics below!

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Katherine Cerulean’s ‘dream board’, our drawing for a gift certificate, a red dalek in the donation box, a Philips ‘Hue’ light, and — of course — chocolate.

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So many beautiful books!

Dac Crossley at his booth.

Dac Crossley at his booth.

The Tuesday Writing / Critique Group debuting their newest book 'Tuesday's Tales'

The Tuesday Writing / Critique Group debuting their newest book ‘Tuesday’s Tales’.

Daniel Galt at his booth

Daniel Galt at his booth.

Sara Winick Herrington at her BEE-you-ti-ful table

Sara Winick Herrington at her BEE-you-ti-ful table.

Sara Winick Herrington at her table with Phyl Campbell, Katherine Cerulean, and Amanda McMurtrey.

Sara Winick Herrington at her table with Phyl Campbell, Katherine Cerulean, and Amanda McMurtrey.

Come See Us at Lickskillet 2016!

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Baby table! Our first little setup at Lickskillet 2013 — this year it will be much bigger.

The Athens Writers Association hasn’t done many public events this year (we’ve all been busy writing!) but even introverts like a moment or two in the spotlight so…  We will have an official table at the Lickskillet festival at Lyndon House in downtown Athens, GA.  This event is FREE.  We will have books for sell by Katherine Cerulean, Jennifer Innes, Elsa Russo, Rob White, Phyl Campbell, AWA collections, and more!

There will also be several OTHER booths run by AWA members —

  • Par Ramsey will be debuting the newest book from the AWA offshoot, the Tuesday Writing / Critique Group, at the festival
  • Daniel Galt has a Halloween-themed, spook-tac-u-lar new kids book as well as his earlier books and beautiful photography prints for sale
  • New member Sara Winick Herrington is selling her just released book Bee Happy 
  • And others!

Our table will also offer free handouts about both writing and living your dreams that have been gathered from the best of our classes.  AWA founding members will be staffing the booth all day and will be happy to answer any questions they can about the AWA, self-publishing, and writing in general.  Katherine Cerulean will be giving free life-coaching sessions at the booth, and we’ll be having a free drawing for 15 pages of professional editing from Jonni Anderson.  PLUS chocolate!

Come join in the fun!  It’s also not too late to get your book added to our booth — contact Katherinecerulean@gmail.com if you’re interested.

October 22, 2016 

10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

 Rain or Shine; Free Admission

Lyndon House Arts Center, 293 Hoyt Street, Athens

About Lickskillet

The Lickskillet Artists Market and Festival is a FREE Community Event hosted by the Lyndon House Arts Foundation. Currently in its seventh year, Lickskillet has become one of Athens’ most unique and exciting events, drawing over 1200 attendees from a ten county region. The Lickskillet Artists Market and Festival showcases the talents of over 100 local artists and musicians and offers a full range of activities for everyone.

Event Highlights

  • Athens area artists displaying and selling paintings, photos, prints, jewelry, clothing, ceramics, glasswork, woodwork and sculpture
  • Musical performances by well-known local talent including The Heap, Monsoon, The Lucky Jones, Norma Rae, Clay Leverett, Dixieland 5, Qamar Tribal Odyssey dancers, Larry Forte, and David Court
  • Self-guided tours of the historic Lyndon-Ware House
  • Children’s activities, including:  chalk art, giant bubbles, face painting, portrait gallery, cardboard village, building and design projects with Home Depot volunteers
  • Local food trucks and vendors: Taza Mediterranean, The Savory Spoon, DaMunchiezz, Nedza’s Waffles

About the Lyndon House Arts Foundation

The Lyndon House Arts Foundation, Inc (LHAF) was created to advance the arts and support the development and operation of the Lyndon House Arts Center. This is accomplished through a coalition of artists, businesses, local schools, government and the community at-large.

In addition to sponsorship of special events such as Lickskillet, LHAF offers several membership levels and the opportunity to contribute to an endowment fund named after co-founder Ronnie Lukasiewicz. LHAF is a 501 (c)(3) organization and contributions are tax deductible.  More information can be found on the Foundation website: LyndonHouseArtsFoundation.com.

Lyndon House

Lyndon House

About the Lyndon House Arts Center

The Lyndon House Arts Center (LHAC) is a community visual arts complex serving Athens-Clarke County and neighboring areas. The two-story late Greek revival structure incorporates the Ware-Lyndon House (c. 1856), gallery spaces, art studios, meeting rooms, a research library, event spaces, and festival grounds. Activities of the LHAC are designed to encourage creativity and provide area citizens with a positive experience in the visual arts.

Know Your Local Writer: Katherine Cerulean

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Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with Athens-area writers.  The hope is to inform you about new techniques you might want to try, increase your knowledge of the individuals in your community, inspire you on your path — or at least tickle your funny bone when you learn your AWA founder was a fan of both ‘SeaQuest DSV’ and shōjo manga.  I started with the easiest writer to corral (myself), but I’m super-excited to learn about a wide range of Athens writers.  Please contact me if you’re interested in answering our writing questionnaire and being featured here as a future ‘local writer’.  Now, I apologize for the length of this post (‘she’ was a talker!).

NOTE: Special thanks to AWA co-founder Jill Hartmann-Roberts for supplying us with these wonderful questions.

Q: At what point in your life did you become a writer and how you first know you wanted to be a writer?

A: I have been making up stories all my life and never really ‘grew up’ in that regard.  Stories with He-Man and My Little Ponies became running through the fields near our home pretending to be a wild horse surviving in a vast wilderness then became making up stories about humans (!) based on the TV shows ‘Sisters’, ‘Earth 2’, and ‘SeaQuest DSV’.

But I believe I became a writer at about age 16 when I started an unfinished novel inspired by ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’.

As for how I knew I wanted to be a writer — I knew I never want to stop telling stories, never wanted to pack away my playmates, my inspirations, and my heroes and become a normal adult.  Stories to me bring out the best, most thoughtful, most beautiful parts of ourselves and our world.  I have always wanted to be a writer.  Or a horse trainer.  Something dealing with unruly mammals.

Q: What books have you read that shaped you as a writer?  Which authors’ work do you admire and why? 

A: That’s an all-day-to-answer question.  I’ll give a few examples.  My mother read ‘The Secret Garden’ to me as a child.  I loved other stories but there was a wonderful plot and sense of character progression to that book, as well as a feeling that magic exists hidden in the everyday and that we transform our lives for the better if we have the courage and dedication to seek it.

‘Misery’ by Stephen King was another important book that shaped my progression as a writer.  A fantastic book that I appreciated even more when I reread it years later.  It was plot AS character, character AS plot.  I loved how Paul and Annie’s conflict felt natural, evolutionary, and destined toward doom.  Annie is one of the clearest, most memorable characters I have ever read.

Lastly, ‘Maurice’ by E.M. Forster came quite along far into my education but pretty much blew the doors off everything.  Perfect love story.  Great character study.  Bold, accessible writing.  Fearlessness.  It comforted me by helping me believe my stories and viewpoints were not too small or simple to be meaningful.  And it challenged me to write outside my comfort zone and use every bit of my intelligence and love in each word and line.

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Other authors include —

  • Dennis Lehane for the absolute beauty and economy of his sentences
  • Nick Hornby for the most relatable, flawed human characters
  • Jane Austen for defining (and redefining) perfect love stories amid human fallibility
  • J.R.R. Tolkien for writing the perfect adventure and then upping the game by adding a spirituality that breaks my heart and encourages me forward
  • Natsuki Takaya for her take on humor, romance, courage and forgiveness. And for writing an incredible novel with over 20 main characters that just happens to also have in it drawings of hot boys (manga comic ‘Fruits Basket’)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald for creating the perfect literary novel (my favorite kind of novel) and putting the words together in such a way that I’m in awe. Every.  Damn.  Time.

Q: Which piece that you have written are you most proud of and why?

A: My latest novel ‘Society & Civility’.  Honestly, I’ve become a better writer than I ever thought I’d be — and it’s only taken eighteen years!  ‘Society & Civility’ started out as a lark, my own take on the regency world of Jane Austen.  Through a LOT of hard work though, it became my most coherent piece — one filled with characters I love and scenes that speak to the challenges of being human — whatever your century or class.  And I’m not gonna lie — the love story gets me every time.  Actually, one line is my favorite and gives me hope as a writer for the future.  Our heroine to a suitor —‘Perhaps my happiness is a great mystery to you, Mr. Barnes, but I could give you a few pointers as to how to obtain it.’  So proud!

Q: Do you gravitate toward a particular genre (s) and/or format when you write?  Tell us more about which genres and/or formats are your “passion”?

A: Honestly, I gravitate toward good writing.  What I mean by this snotty-sounding answer is that I’m drawn to interesting setups with great characters but HOW the story is told, and how the lines are written, is really what draws me in when I’m reading — and writing.  You can call it literary fiction, though I recently learned about a new publishing term ‘upmarket’.  It’s kind of like adding literary to your favorite genre.  ‘Upmarket fantasy.’  Upmarket women’s fiction.’  Maybe that’s my ‘passion’.

My novel and screenwriting history goes mystery, fantasy, fantasy, love story, coming-of-age, love story, ghost story.  I am drawn to fantasy because I feel there is more to life than the obvious.  Also, I’m probably secretly a TV writer because I love characters, dialogue, and scenes SO MUCH.

Q: Have you studied writing and/or attended writing seminars, workshops or conferences?  Where and what did you learn from your classes/sessions and other writing teachers?  Did any of them stand out to you and why?

A: I’m pretty self-taught.  As someone home schooled, I didn’t have a lot of connection to the idea of advanced education — but I had a lot of passion to learn on my own.  The sum of my experiences in that realm is —

  • A two-day screenwriting class — I learned a LOT about format and plotting. As a youngin’ I gained a lot of confidence and I still use things I learned from Michael Hauge today — like that you should make your hero funny, great at what they do, or a good person.
  • Conferences — I went to about three of the Harriett Austin conferences in Athens. Great experience but one with diminishing returns.  I learned to be more outgoing, that agents and editors are real, normal human beings, and I learned more about the publishing industry.
  • A novel critique group — this is where the majority of my education took place. We were together only a few years but I wouldn’t be here without them.  Highly recommended, but you have to keep looking to find the right fit, and nowadays I’ve reached the point where I’m happier to experiment and grow without constant feedback.  But I learned so much from them.
  • Patrick LoBrutto — if you guys ever want to build a shrine to this man, I’ll be first in line to help. I took one day-long class he and Michael Seidman taught about character and at a conference I paid for a fifteen minute critique of my first novel.  Love, love, LOVE him.  He was the perfect mentor, a little challenging, encouraging (there was a scene he called quite good — still proud!), and mostly, he was super-enthused about storytelling and it was palatable and transferable.  I owe him a lot.

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Other than that, everything has come from books and articles.

Q: Have you had any formal writing jobs and/or published any of your work?  If so, tell us about your jobs and/or publications.

A: I’ve always been happy that, while learning my craft, I had a ‘day job’ that was the opposite of writing — lots of walking, up and about, physical (stocking/merchandising at a Best Buy).  That way I always came to writing fresh instead exhausted.  And it’s taken a while to achieve my goal of being able to write at a professional level.

I’ve just written a couple of pieces for BE.magizine, which is a good challenge.

I’ve self published two books —

  • ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ — a novel about a young estate owner imprisoned by his servant in 1800s England. I tried to entice agents by calling it ‘a love story about a man trapped in a cage.’  For some reason, they weren’t biting.
  • ‘How To Come Alive: A Guidebook to Living Your Dreams’ — a self improvement book based on my 35+ years of living and constantly seeking to improve myself.

Q: What is unique about your writing process?  What works for you, and what doesn’t work? 

A: I don’t know if it’s unique, but my process is (in general) to think about a story idea for a looooong time before I actually start writing.  I find the more pre-work I do — ‘hearing’ conversations between characters, building playlists of songs that inspire me, even wearing jewelry that the hero might wear — all that really helps me know who these characters are what I actually start writing.  Mostly, I don’t do a lot of pre-writing though.  Character profiles and anything longer than a couple-of-page outline can stifle the movement of actually writing the novel.  I want a general idea of events and then I want to discover and experience the book as I write it.

Once I’m writing, I actually purposefully don’t think about where the plot is going.  I have my two page outline, but I want to keep as much spontaneity and freshness as possible while writing.  I want the characters to lead me to new discoveries.

As long as I make sure every scene and line is interesting to me, I find I don’t have to go back and cut a lot later.

But I do have to edit a lot.  I do at least five drafts.  It’s just a lot of work and I don’t know any way to make something great without pouring over every word, line, and comma (shout-out to other Oxford Comma fans!).

What doesn’t work is writing anything I don’t care about.  It’s been pointed out that pretty much every idea I’ve ever had is ‘un-commercial’.  When I write to the best of my abilities, I think I can make fascinating worlds, great characters, and unforgettable dialogue — all things I think can be commercial.  But I do have very little interest in playing it safe and doing what’s been done to death before.  I’m invigorated by possibility and discovery and showing the audience something they didn’t know they needed.

from 'A Caged Heart Still Beats'

from ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’

Q: What is the most challenging area of writing for you?

A: Self-doubt.  I sometimes hesitate to write for fear I can’t do my ideas justice.  That leads to long breaks between stories (ironically, I’m much more confident when in the middle of writing).  I also don’t know when something needs more editing and when I’ve done all I can.  Lastly, this self-doubt sometimes leads me to not ‘hearing’ positive feedback and instead only focusing on minor criticisms.  I’m working on these issues, but it’s the work of a lifetime.

On a more practical level, plotting has been something that’s taken time to hone (characters come much more naturally to me).

The other big challenge is figuring out how to combine the touch-the-stars-magic of writing with the idea of making money from it and transforming it into my full-time job.

Q: What are you currently writing?

A: After a break of 18 years, I’ve returned to my first love — screenwriting!  I’m currently working on ‘Beaumont Lake’, a ghost story about a teenage girl forming a friendship with two ghosts while trying to avoid becoming their murderer’s next victim.  It’s a big challenge but finishing this story has been a dream of mine for a long time.  An inspiring song that sums up the mood of the piece — ‘Once Upon a Dream’ by Lana Del Rey.

Later this year, I also hope to finish the first draft of my in-progress novel TRIad, a young adult story about three brothers with superpowers.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning to write?

A: Trust yourself.  Read Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want to Write’.  The craft side will come along naturally as you read a lot and write a lot.  Remember that ‘Talent’ is a myth — there is only love and hard work — that’s what makes great writing.

Remember that you have amazing potential and you can do it — you just have to believe and fight and work hard and never stop following your own crazy star.  No one deserves to be here more than you.

Also, read classics, read other genres and types of entertainment.  Graphic novels, non-fiction, web cartoons — you can learn so much about dialogue from the masters of the comics page (Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz, Berkeley Breathed).

Write what you like, not what others tell you to like.  There something the world has never seen before — alive and dwelling within you — and it is something the world desperately needs.  Share your vision with us.    And remember this quote by Ira Glass —

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Q: How has being a writer changed your life?  

A: In every conceivable way possible.  It’s made me more curious, kinder; it has brought me friends and confidence.  It has filled my days with the most wonderful discoveries and triumphs.

Mostly though, it has allowed me to continue playtime far beyond when most people settle down and ‘become adults’.  I get to travel everywhere, meet the most amazing people, see fearsome and amazing sights, and watch the human spirit overcome every attempt to thwart it.  And then I get to transcribe those experiences and hopefully bring to readers a fraction of the joy that other peoples’ books have brought me over the years.

Another thing writing has given me is the feeling that I’m only getting started.  At 36, I’m beginning to feel like I’m getting the hang of this — let’s go knock the world off its axis!

by October Jones

by October Jones

 

So You Want To Write a Fantasy Novel?

from fantasy-faction.com

from fantasy-faction.com

We recently had two classes at the library.  The first was an AWA round-table event about ebooks and self publishing, which had a great turnout and turned into a lively discussion.  Click here to learn more about How to Create and Publish an Ebook.

Our second talk was a ‘Lunchtime Learning’ event the library asked us to do on the topic of writing fantasy.  As the audience included wee newbies as well many-times-over published writers, it presented a unique challenge.  Below are the handouts for the class if you’re interested.  The first is ‘How to Write a Novel’ — a brief overview for the utter newbie.  Then, having taught them everything they could possibly need to know about that topic (in one page, no less!), we moved on to the second handout ‘So You Want To Write a Fantasy Novel?’  We had a great group and a lot of fun.

Our last class of the season is ‘A Work of HeART: Bringing Soul-Level Beauty & Meaning Into Your Writing‘, and it will take place on Saturday, April 16, at 4:00 PM at the Athens Regional Library meeting rooms.  All AWA classes are free.  More info here.

How to Write a Novel

By Katherine Cerulean

Come up with an idea.  Read a lot, especially books outside of your favorite genre (fantasy, crime, young adult etc).  When you have an idea, ask yourself — who has the most to gain (or lose) in this situation?  A little fish goes on an adventure across the ocean.  Who — besides him— has the most to lose?  His dad, who wants to find his only child and bring him home safely.  It’s been said that the best book to write is the one you want to read  — but can’t find because it hasn’t been written yet.  Go write it!

Really think about your characters.  Who is living in your world?  Who’s the hero?  Do they have flaws like we all do?  The ‘ordinary world’ of the Hero’s Journey storytelling model has the hero ‘making do’ — they think things are fine, but really their world is about to change in big ways.  Think about Rick in ‘Casablanca’ — he needs to confront his past, and become a more whole person to move forward.  Find songs, make playlists, buy jewelry that you think your character would wear — get into their heads and discover their voices.

Outline your story.  This will help you know where you are and inspire you to keep moving forward.  You can outline every scene and plot development but you don’t have to.  Google the ‘Snowflake method book outline’ if you want a very detailed outline.  Otherwise, work on a 1-2 page outline or synopsis.  Writing down the major plot points of a favorite movie (is if you were telling the movie to a friend) can help you learn the process.  Just remember, a good outline is a roadmap — not a blueprint — and like any roadmap, if something interesting catches your eye you should follow it and forget the plan.  Just get back on track with the roadmap after your side adventure.

Your only goal is getting to ‘The End’.  As a beginning novelist, the idea of completing a book can be daunting.  On your first draft, don’t worry about perfect spelling, editing, etc.  Follow your outline — as long as it’s still exciting to you — and head for the finish line.  Set aside some time every week to write.  This is your dream — and you can make it happen!  A novel is usually at least 75,000 words long but it can be as short as 45,000 words (Think of ’The Bridges of Madison County’).

Go through a second draft.  After you reach ‘The End’ pop a bottle of bubbly, enjoy a fancy dinner, and put your manuscript in a drawer.  Leave it there at least two weeks, maybe even a month, and then pull it out and reread it.  Look for big problems: did one of your characters disappear halfway through the book?  Add them into the later sections — or cut them entirely.  Does the beginning make sense now that you’re written the end?  Does the book start too soon — can you cut the opening?  And what about ‘theme’?  If your story became a coming of age story while you were writing it, is that clear from the beginning?  The second draft is a great time to add in or cut large sections of the story if need be.

Do a third draft.  Time to polish.  Run ‘spellcheck’, then read it carefully to check all those  wrong words it missed — then/than, there/their/they’re.  Consider reading your work aloud to yourself — sentences and especially the way characters speak will sound right or wrong when heard out loud.  Do any last research you need.  Basically, make it the best book you can write.  Then…

Find some beta readers.  Beta readers are your first ever readers (yay!) and they are doing you a big favor.  As proud as you are of your book, they don’t know anything about it and are probably really busy in their own lives.  So appreciate them.  3-5 beta readers are the ideal number.  Try to find people who are kind, your friends, smart, and hopefully will give you honest feedback.  It helps if they like your kind/genre of story.  Take feedback cheerfully.

Do a fourth draft.  Good golly!  Yes, that’s a lot of rewrites.  But good readers will point out issues and problems you might want to fix.  I say might because in the end, it’s your call.  Also, read the whole thing again, checking for spelling and grammar errors.

Sent it to agents, publishers, or self-publish.  You did it!

Write another book!  Check out the Athenswritersassociation.wordpress.com for help. 

So You Want To Write a Fantasy Novel?

By Katherine Cerulean

Fantasy is a genre of novel and it includes such sub-genres as ‘Urban Fantasy’ (modern day and set in the city), ‘High Fantasy’ (elves and dwarves and wizards — oh my!), ‘Young Adult Fantasy’ (Hunger Games/The Maze Runner/Twilight), and even ‘Magical Realism’ (usually a character-centered drama with the merest hint of magic [her grandmother caused it to rain every time she baked gingersnaps]).

Fantasy is exceptional because it allows us to dream bigger, hope more, live greater adventures, and experience things that could never be in this world.  When we are young, fantasy stories fill our lives — animals talk, drive, solve mysteries.  And even as older children — Neverland, Narnia, OZ, and Hogwarts are as real as Main Street and our school.  And in the last 15 years fantasy has blown up as a mainstream category for adults — with books, TV shows, and movies full of vampires, werewolves, post-apocalyptic trials, and superheroes are becoming more and more common.

So what do you need to know about this unique form of storytelling?

World-building in fantasy is paramount.  You get to make the rules!  But the flip side is that the drama, plot, and character growth is only as strong as the world you build.  Think about all the details in Harry Potter — often the most important storytelling devices were tiny aspects of magic.  And you have to know what your hero can and can’t do (and explain it to your readers) so they can enjoy the story and the world you made.

Readers want to connect to your character.  This may be true in all fiction, but in fantasy you’re asking the reader to take a leap of faith into a strange, new land where everything we know may not apply.  That’s a lot to ask.  But a great lead character can help suck readers in, and often learn about the new world at the same time your hero does (think about how many fantasy stories start with the lead character embarking on a journey, entering a new, dangerous land, or discovering a power/family/purpose they never knew they had).

Go for the ‘WOW!’  The only limits in fantasy are the limits of your imagination.  So don’t settle for what you’ve seen done before; give us new creatures, devastating choices, weird powers, unusual rules, and awesome fight scenes.  Expand your mind — if you read only 100 young adult fantasy novels, your work will sound like the rest.  Instead, read Shakespeare, watch ‘Spongebob’, listen to murder ballads from the 1920s, play ‘Portal’, and read the comic ’Fables’.  The more influences you have, the most interesting your work can become.

Find a plot that MOVES.  Tolkin said, ‘A journey is a wonderful thing for a writer.’  Most fantasy is plot-based versus character-based which means that what the characters do is more important that who they are.  This isn’t to say your characters don’t matter, but they have to be taking an active role in their world and trying to change things.  Think of Katniss in the Hunger Games: in the very beginning she’s hunting to feed her family, saves her sister’s life, and starts working to survive the games.  She’s active from minute one — and we can’t wait to see what happens next — what she makes happen next.

Know the rules, then break them.  If you want to make every character in your story named something like Xaxzxa Axzxaxzz, then you need to ask yourself two questions — Are the fantasy books I love doing this?  And if not, why not?  Very strange names, 68 main characters, a 1,000,000 word count (most books are between 75,000 and 150,000 words), and other out-there ideas aren’t necessarily bad, but they are all very challenging for readers.  Even the best, most experienced writers would hesitate to make their book hard to read, so just ask yourself if you can do anything to make the reader have a more enjoyable time.

Remember that fantasy is often about INNER conflict.  Sci fi tends to be about the outer/other — what’s in space, on other worlds, and how we treat those who are different than ourselves.  But fantasy is about US, who we really are, what destiny lies out there waiting for us, and what good and evil powers reside within our souls.  While the plot (action) is most important, characters who learn, are challenged, and grow are why this genre is so memorable.  You can also make the implicit explicit — the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, the girl who discovers ‘There’s no place like home’, the boy who makes his father proud by taming a dragon instead of killing one, and the young man who carries his father’s ‘sword’ and says ‘I am a Jedi like my father before me’.  Anything going on in your life, anything that hurts and makes you feel, can probably be turned on its head and become a great fantasy curse/power.  As any scholar can tell you, vampire and werewolf stories are really about our animal natures vs. our civilized world.

Fantasy is a part of our history, our heritage.  Almost all of us grew up hearing fairytales.  And myths and legends, from The Odyssey to the alligators in New York sewers, have been popular for thousands of years.  ‘Once upon a time,’ invites everyone in, and the human mind often welcomes the chance to hear something beyond belief.

 You are unique.  Therefore, your story is unique.  No one in the history of the world has ever thoughts the same as you, enjoyed the same things as you, or liked the same triple-decker ice cream cone flavors as you (you freak!).  So don’t worry about all the other fantasy stories out there.  They call it ‘stalking the gaps’ — look for the story you wish existed but that you can’t find.  Then think of a plot and characters that make you excited, and write the story you wouldn’t want to stop reading (hint: it’s the one you can’t stop writing or thinking about).  As writer Brenda Ueland said, ‘Everyone is original, unique, and has something important to say.’

You can make the world a better place.  Good writing, and great storytelling, is far too rare.  And you never know how many people might desperately need your special, magical story in their lives.  J.K. Rowling was out of work, and surely very busy, but she took the time to write down little Harry Potter’s first story, and millions of lives are better for it.  Fantasy readers are people who believe in the power of magic — some are young, and some simply never stopped believing that the world is full of great and beautiful things.  I think that makes fantasy novels unique because its readers believe that the book you write can change their life, can alter their path, sometimes — it can even save a life.  You should have the most fun you can while writing your fantasy novel, but you should never, ever — even for a second — think that it’s a silly thing to do.  You might just change the world, for the better, forever.  At least you’ll be able to say you made one dream come true — yours.  Best of luck.

Please contact me at Katherinecerulean@gmail.com with any questions and get more support for free by joining the Athens Writers Association — athenswritersassociation.workpress.com.

Literary Elements — How To Write a Book

We have a lot of new members (and new writers!) who have joined the AWA in the last few months, so I wanted to share a ‘Beginner’s Guide’ that I wrote for an Athens Regional Library class a few years ago.

Alright newbies — allons y!

tylerbasu.com

tylerbasu.com

Literary Elements —

How To Write a Book

by Katherine Cerulean

  Somewhere in your heart you know it.  Maybe this is a recent dream, but quite likely it’s been kicking around in your subconscious for some time and every once in a while, when reading a new book, or hearing an author interview, or thinking about your lifetime goals it comes to the surface — you want to write a book.  Maybe you dream of being a fulltime, famous, professional writer or maybe there’s just one idea or story that begging you to expound on it and send it out into the world.

Whatever your dream project is — a memoir, non-fiction, children’s book, or novel — there are some common elements needed to move from Chapter 1 to ‘The End’.

Elements of Success in Writing:

  • Figure out what you want to tell and why. Before you write a word, get a good idea of why this book?  Toni Morrison says ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’  That’s always been my driving force.  Figure out what makes it special and different than similar books.  Don’t worry about originality yet (we’ll get to that part), just envision who your book is for.  Sometimes it helps to think of a person you know who is also your intended audience.
  • Plan (a little). Finding a similar book can help you get an idea of number of chapters, number of pages, type of words (for children’s books) etc that your book might have.  The internet has acted to level the playing field and let you acquire ‘insider knowledge’ of the book business. Did you know there are four categories for children’s fiction?  Simply do a Google search for ‘books how many children fiction categories are there’ and you can find the answer.  Just remember that ten ‘Wikihow’ articles don’t necessarily equal the depth of one good how-to book.  This is the ‘know the rules so you can break them’ phase.
  • Make a roadmap, not a blueprint. I wish I remembered what writing book this was from, but never the less it’s still important advice: make a roadmap not a blueprint of your book.  A blueprint is exacting and unchanging, but a roadmap lets you decide to take a detour when you see something interesting and you still know where you’ll be at the end of your book.  A lot of beginning writers start without a roadmap, and begin with a flush of excitement but can lose their way after a few chapters.  To me, a good road map is only a couple of pages long but will let you know the next ‘beat’ of your book if you get lost.  The outline for my novel ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ was two pages long and explained the main plot from beginning to end — just like you were telling a best friend the plot of a movie you saw.  For my self help non-fiction book, I decided to focus on five areas of improvement (Inspiration, Freedom, Peace, Energy, Strength) and then decided to have five little chapters in each area and named them (i.e. Do Yoga).  These outlines kept me moving forward while giving me the freedom to discover better ideas along the way.
  • Make your goal to finish. Believe me — there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing your first book, of knowing you’ve done what a lot of people will talk about but will never do.  You can always edit and polish on later drafts but just getting finished should be your first goal.  I started with screenplays and just told myself that whether or not the plot made any sense, I would reach page 100 (the length of a screenplay).  I knew one writer who kept rewriting chapter one of his novel over and over again.  I met him again years later and he was still writing chapter ones.  Now, each person must follow their own path and it’s great he’s still writing, but if your goal is a finished book — look toward that finish line.
  • Remember — you have potential. My belief is that LOVE + TIME = TALENT.  If you keep writing, and reading, and learning you will get better and better.  The book ‘Talent is Overrated’ has some wonderful stories about how being born ‘talented’ might mean you get out of the starting gate before everyone else, but if you’re trotting and everyone else is working hard and galloping along you’ll soon be left in the dust.  If you love the book you’re writing, if you’re excited by it, the feeling will pass right along to the reader.  And you are the only you who has ever been, so your work (if it’s true to you) will be original and one-of-a-kind.
  • Just keep writing. Even a page a day will get you to your goal.

How to Write — a Practical Timeline

Here’s the nitty-gritty of how I get to ’The End’:

  1. Get an idea. You might be reading a news article, or another novel, watching a film, or daydreaming a ‘what if’ and it gets you — this is a good book idea.
  2. What kind of book? If you want to explore organic farming, is this a non-fiction investigation?  A ‘how to’?  A novel set on an organic farm?  Figure out what first drew you in — that’s your passion.
  3. Who lives there? In a novel, for me, the people arise from the idea.  In ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ I ‘saw’ a cage in the middle of a Regency England estate and started asking ‘Who would be put in such a cage and for what purpose?  In a memoir you might be writing about your grandmother but who influenced her?  Who were her heroes?  Her nemeses?  Even a non-fiction book may need examples of people who succeeded — be it in building a birdhouse or starting a business.
  4. Make an outline / roadmap. A couple of page document, meant just for you, that hits the main points of what you want to tell.
  5. Research (if the spirit moves you). Some people LOVE research, others can’t stand it.  Depending on the story you’re writing, you may eventually need to do some, but whether or not you like it, don’t let research slow you down too much from actually starting writing.
  6. Boldly begin. Start a chapter one, and make time to write.  I also don’t believe in writer’s block.  If something isn’t interesting to you, set it aside and write something else.
  7. Edit (a little) as you go. I know this runs counter to what a lot of people do but my way is to start each day rereading the pages I worked on last session and making spelling/grammar corrections along the way.  I don’t worry about making big changes though; I mainly read just to get back to the flow and excitement of what I’m doing last time.
  8. Finish the first draft. Hit the last page and celebrate.  Buy yourself dinner or a nice bottle of bubbly.  Then put your book aside for two weeks or a month.  This time is crucial to getting some distance and seeing your work with new eyes.
  9. Do a second draft. Reread the book, see how you feel about it — is there anything BIG you want to change?  New chapters, love interests, and ideas can be worked in now.  Once the ‘big picture’ looks good . . .
  10. Do a third draft. Start looking at the little things — each line, each word.  You may feel like an extra scene is needed to explain a growing friendship, or you may discover new data to share in your ‘how to’.  Reading aloud to yourself is also a great tool for ferreting out awkward sentences.  The third draft is about making it as good as you can make it.  Then . .
  11. Find trustworthy readers. This is super-important: only use people you trust, love, share your idea of a good book, and WANT to read it.  If you can’t find that, it might be better to go it alone.  But getting these outside opinions is valuable, provided you remember it’s your book at the end of the day and the most important person to please is yourself.
  12. Do a forth draft. Take feedback from your readers (try to find at least three) and decide if you need to make a few changes.  If all your readers mention something, you might want to look closer at it.  Most of the great feedback I’ve gotten has been about beginnings (orient the reader about the world better), little side endings (couldn’t they get away and get the money?), and lackluster areas (the ‘food’ section of my self help book eventually became ‘Energy’ after reader feedback).
  13. Do a final draft (and copyedit). Go over your book again, seeing how it strikes you now.  Are you happy with everything or is there anything that still sticks out and bothers you?  Take the time to fix it.  And you do need to copyedit a lot, catching all the grammar and spelling errors you can.  It can be hard to do this on your own, but there are a lot of inexpensive copyeditors out there, or you might be able to do an exchange with another writer (you’ll catch their errors easier than your own).
  14. Cerebrate! You just became an author!

Some common questions —

How do I get published?  It’s pretty confusing these days and only you can decide what ‘published’ means to you.  The traditional way is to get an agent, who in turn will try to sell your book to a traditional publishing house.  You can also query a small publishing house, self-publish, or hire someone to ’self publish’ your book for you.

Say I want an agent — how do I get one?  First you’ll need a very good query letter and/or proposal.  There are whole books about how to write them — in a nutshell, they should recapture in a few pages what made you excited about this book and let the agent know what to expect.  Queryshark is a great site about queries for fiction writers.  You can find an agent on agentquery.com or by googling your favorite writer and the word ‘agent’.  But, it’s super hard to get an agent right now, as their whole industry is changing and they’re not taking on a lot of new clients right now.  So don’t be discouraged if you’re not chosen.  And always remember, you don’t pay for an agent — instead, they get a percentage of the book sale.

How do you ‘self publish’?  You can pay a printer to print up copies of your book.  But the best option for a lot of people (if you book doesn’t have many pictures) is to create a paperback and an ebook using services like Kindle Direct Publishing and Lulu.  You’ll need a program like Microsoft Word, and then Kindle Direct Publishing will give you a template that helps you design the book.  The upside is that Kindle Direct Publishing is free (you only pay for the books you buy), and puts high quality paperbacks (of yours!) into the hands of Amazon customers (and you get a percentage of the profit [higher than traditional publishing] from each sale).  The down side is that it doesn’t work for books with a lot of pictures, and EVERYTHING is on you.  You control how good the cover, editing, format, and marketing is — that’s a lot of power and responsibility.

What about companies that ‘help’ you self publish?  The best examples of these companies really are invested in making your dream come true.  The trade off is usually that you give them several thousand dollars and they take back a lot of that EVERYTHING responsibility that self publishing pushed into you — editing, formatting etc.  Different packages are different prices — just be sure to do a lot of research if you go this way.  And remember, it’s not anything you can’t learn to do yourself — but then, neither is making your own clothes.  You just have to decide if it’s worth the cost.

I have a great idea for a book.  Can I get someone else to do the ‘writing the book’ bit?  Yes — if you pay them.  Yes — if you want be part of a writing team and do half the work.  Yes — if you’re famous in your field and have a big built-in audience.  But if you have an idea (especially for fiction) and you just want someone else to do the work of writing — you’ll find writers already have too many good ideas and won’t take on some else’s.  So pick up that pen!

Can I get rich and famous doing this?  Of course; we’ve all read the success stories.  But the most important question is What do really want to get out of this?  Don’t just lump your book in with your job, the painting you found in the attic, and the lotto ticket you bought this morning at the Quik Trip.  To paraphrase Fight Club — you are not your get-rich-quick-scheme.  If you spend time with your grandmother, learn her life story, and self publish it as a treasured family heirloom — does it really matter if every book club in the country isn’t reading it?  If your great new plan for paying off student debt faster helps 100 kids have better lives, is that not a success?  If the characters that seem as real as day to you suddenly find a home in a second heart — have you not succeeded spectacularly?

Some Tips —

  • Use a computer if at all possible (it will save you a lot of time later)
  • Use 11 or 12 point Times New Roman font
  • Use format>linespacing>Between Lines 2 SP (or something similar in your program). This is double spacing your lines — it’s easier for editing)
  • If you only have one backup of your book file, you don’t have a backup. Keep several copies on different flash drives, hard drives etc.  And emailing yourself the file is a good way to keep it ‘in the cloud’.
  • Name different saves along the way — yourbook010414.doc — might be a good name for an extra copy you made on Jan. 4th. That way, if you don’t like changes you made, you can go back to the older file.
  • Remember to find inspiration — songs, paintings, picture, articles, jewelry etc that can inspire your book and your characters. Put the pictures around your work area (or on a Pinterest.com board to inspire you).
  • Printing out a chapter, editing it with pen in hand, and reading it aloud to yourself can really make a difference in your finished product.
  • Don’t worry about copyrighting your work. It’s yours from the moment you write it.  If you’re concerned, you can always print out the pages and mail them to yourself.  Don’t open the package; the postmark now serves as a date of when you began the work.  If anyone later tried to claim it, they couldn’t.  But honestly, I’ve never worried about it.  And if you’re afraid of someone stealing your once-in-a-life-time Matrix-like idea — then keep it to yourself until the book is written.
  • Read different things. Don’t read only romance and write romance, or only self help books and then write one.  Instead, try all sorts of things and let them inspire you.  Graphic novels, rap songs, 500 year old poems, British TV shows, documentaries!  Your work will be better and more original if you have more interests and express them in your work.
  • Get excited. There has never been a better time to write, to publish your own book, and/or to share your work online.

Let Your Characters Plot Your Novel

For those of you who couldn’t make it to AWA founder Katherine Cerulean’s class at the Athens Regional Library in August, please enjoy this handout — 

Top-romantic-movie-characters-anjs-angels-35604424-1200-1200

Plot is one of those words that can strike fear in a writer’s heart –at least, it does for me.  Especially when I was a beginning writer.  Characters I like, dialogue is fun, words are magic — but plot, plot is tricky.  Plot is so bold, so important.  Plot’s what happens, what surprises people, what keeps people reading until they fall in love with your characters.

It is said that there is really only one plot – the resolution of a problem.  It’s also been said there’s 2, 3, 7, 20, and 36 plots — just so you know, options.  Before we talk about our characters, let’s talk a little about plot.

What is a plot?

The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.

Ernest Lehman said —

  1. ‘In the first act, it’s who are the people and what is the situation of this whole story.
  2. The second act is the progression of that situation to a high point of conflict and great problems.
  3. And the third act is how the conflicts and problems are resolved.’

What does character-driven and plot-driven mean?

‘Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change, more so than the events and situations that take place while plot-driven writing is focused on the actual happenings and the external changes of the story.’ — from thescriptlab.com

More ‘literary fiction’ is character based, while some genre fiction is action-packed and the characters don’t learn or grow as much.  In an action-filled story, your characters may still make important decisions that change the plot, but they are less likely to change themselves in major ways (think about Indiana Jones or James Bond: they don’t change [much] but their choices and actions still save the girl, the day, or the world [the external challenge].)

Do I HAVE to plot out my novel?

No.  In ‘On Writing’, Stephen King writes, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”

From nybookeditors.com — ‘But for writers striving to create something unique and surprising, the kind of work that will grab the attention of agents and editors, the thorough plotting and planning can be a matter of life and death. By that, I mean that planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival.  It may fly in the face of your tried and true approach, but I’m going to ask you to consider a different tack: Don’t plan. Write.’

Having a couple of page outline can help you understand the major ‘beats’ of a novel, and give you a distant landmark to head toward, but too much planning can ruin the moment.  Do what feels comfortable to you, but be open to feeling uncomfortable as well.  I was recently writing the last third of a novel when a conversation with my sister led to a stunning revelation about my story.  I HAD to go in an entirely different direction than I’d been planning.  I was quite concerned that I was ruining my book, but I trusted myself, kept writing, and now it’s my favorite novel I’ve written.

When in doubt, trust yourself.  Or, as I’ve had written on an index card on my wall for almost 15 years — ‘Trust the story’.  The true, beating heart of your story will never lead you astray.

How do I let my characters ‘plot my novel’?

Basic-plot-structure

The idea here is to relax and trust.  If you think about your story, the story world, and each of your main characters, you have all the ingredients needed to plot your story as you’re writing it.  It’s been said that ‘In life, one thing happens after another.  In fiction, one thing happens because of another.’  Your life is being plotted out all the time, sometimes intentionally by you (the protagonist), and sometimes by others (supporting characters), and sometimes by acts outside human control (your two page ‘blueprint’).

Just remember that we are in control a lot more than you’d think.  Look at these scenarios —

  • Car broke down?  . . . and your hero hadn’t changed the oil in the last 6 years.
  • He had a heart attack — after decades of a two-Big-Mac-a-day habit.
  • Your hero got turned down for admission to Princeton for having bad grades.
  • His wife leaves him.

In the first three, the hero made choices (somewhere along the way) that led to these seemingly out-of-their-hands situations.  But what about the last one?  Did he take his wife for granted?  Stop saying thank you and asking how her day was?  Or did she meet someone else, become wrapped up in a daydream, and leave a great life and husband?  Maybe they were both in a life-changing car crash, or won the lottery, or just grew apart.  The important thing is to remember that even in an external action, ‘plot-driven’ story, characters are making choices all the time.

Liam Neeson’s character in ‘Taken’ has no control over the fact his daughter was kidnapped (that was the writer’s big picture ‘blueprint’ of the story they wanted to tell).  However, when he says ‘I do have are a very particular set of skills’, that is pure character.  He’s not mouthing these words so we can jump from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in the story, that character is speaking from personality, anger, and experience.  He won’t just go to the police.  He will find and hunt the perpetrators down.  Bryan Mills (the character) had no other choice in that moment — it’s a character-driven action.

Trusting and following your characters, step-by-steps

  1. When you first develop your story, trust your landscape even if it looks like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle.  Leave room for more characters to appear.  And believe that the whole story exists out there, complete, and that in time you will discover it.
  2. Envision scenes with your characters talking to each other.  Watch for clues — why does he change the subject when she asks about his past?  Why does she call herself Mrs. Callaway when we know she’s never been married?  What made him become a doctor when he just said the law was his first love?  You want to observe these things quietly, and investigate them surreptitiously, as to not impose or change the story world — just watch, ask questions and probe deeper.
  3. Pick a great hero (or know you’ve been picked by one).  Honestly, half the battle of plotting is won by an interesting, inquisitive, and active protagonist.  You should keep digging and working with your hero until you can really hear and see them, and then hopefully they will talk and act in ways that will move your story forward.  Even if your character was told to sit in a bare chair in a empty room and wait, you should know (see) what action they would take next.  How long would they wait?  Would they light a smoke?  Pace?  Sleep?  Sneak out of the room and spy on others?
  4. Keep writing forward.  In your first draft, don’t keep polishing.  I allow myself to re-read what I wrote last session, correct a few typos, then move forward.  That’s it.  If you have those few, big events planned out, start writing toward them (i.e. she leaves for college) and just watch what she does.
  5. Don’t skip ahead.  Once you start writing, stop thinking and plotting it out in your head (work on future stories instead).  If you’re excited to see what happens next, discipline yourself to wait till you can sit down and write what happens next.
  6. Let your character Choose Her Own Adventure.  Ever read those charming second person stories like ‘Cave of Time’?  Now it’s time to put your fourth grade skills to work — only now your hero is doing the deciding.  In the example of someone leaving for college, what might happen?  Her mom suggests a going-away party.  Look closely at your character.  Is she — excited about any party?  Annoyed at her mom for mentioning it?  Wants to spend all of her remaining time packing and planning?  Little choices will tell you a lot about your character, and may lead to big choices (even ones you didn’t plan on) later in the story.
  7. Gage your excitement level.  When your plot goes one way (huge blowout going-away party!), think about how you feel.  Are you excited to read/write this part?  If not, skip it and just have your character bring the reader up to date (‘The worst party of my life.  And then HE showed up’).  Now you’re interested, right?  Write that encounter.  Since you’re not plotting out every little scene, it’s important to feel that internal compass — and be willing to throw out a page or two and back up if you find yourself getting bored.  As my grandmother use to say about crochet — ‘Be a cheerful ripper!’
  8. When you and your characters disagree, you yield to them.  Say you plan on your hero meeting the love of her life, a shy CompSci major, in college and getting engaged fast (which brings on troubles with the mom back home).  And so you start writing it that way, only you’re getting bored writing about their first date and then your hero wants, after using the restroom, to sneak out of the restaurant and never look back.  NOO!  You try to write it right, but your character’s whole personality suggests this other action.  She wants to run out.  You kind of want to see what would happen if she did, but it will ruin your whole plan.  Or would it?  If your story is about growing up, confrontation with parents, and becoming the person you’re suppose to be, then shy Derek doesn’t matter — you just thought he mattered.  Tell yourself you’ll just write a few pages to ‘see where this goes’ and you’ll probably find more interesting, and more original, ways to get her to the point of the big blowup/confrontation with her mom.
  9. If you get stuck, wander.  We are not a wandering world anymore.  You’re either hard at work or hard at play.  We have become allergic to dawdling, saunters, and the meandering path.  But if you lose the flow of your story, think on different locations and people, flip forward in time, even change viewpoints.  Search for the heart of your story, and let what’s interesting guide you back to the trail.
  10. Trust the power of the rewrite.  Your second draft (and third and forth…) is an easy place to cut, add, and polish.  I have never had to change much, but I have made stories immensely better by adding a couple of little scenes, wrapping up characters arcs for characters who disappeared after page 50, and getting voice stronger from beginning to end.  Just have fun with the wild ride of a first draft (follow your heart), and know you can make it more perfect in later drafts.
  11. Let it wobble.  This is a strange concept.  But as you move away from a perfect, detailed structure and start following a real, breathing world full of characters that make weird choices, resist the urge to tie up all the loose ends, make the world pristine, or only leave in lines that are related to your through plot.  Like a bowl spinning but not tipping over, let your story have some odds and ends that don’t quite match and meet up.  Obviously, you want your story to be building tension, and be mostly tied together, but I believe you also want space, room to breathe, and little gaps where a reader might stop and ponder — ‘Why didn’t he finish school?  He just left and we never found out why.’  Or ‘It was pretty cool when her dad talked on and on about space and the planets.  It didn’t tie into the story, but it made me think of my own dad.’  Or ‘Why did he say London reminds him of Paris when he hates London and loves Paris?’  In life we don’t have all the answers in front of us — shouldn’t fiction be the same?

“Follow the light of your intuition, and keep away from the darkness of convention.”
                                                                             ― Michael Bassey Johnson

When you plot out your novel, you are using your reason and experience.  But you’re not creating in the same way.  You’re guessing, and you may get scared and conservative.  You’ll do what you’ve seen done in stories before — and that would a great shame and a repetition.  But if you trust yourself, believe that you know the characters and the world well, and listen to your character’s heart and voice, you can find you’ve written a story wilder than you had planned, more twisty than you could conceive of, and more refreshing (and exciting) than you’ve ever dreamed.

And isn’t that what a plot should be?  

from manhattancouture.tumblr.com

from
manhattancouture.tumblr.com

 

1st Annual AWA Writers Picnic!

wordwomanpartialellipsisofthesun.blogspot.com

Come one, come all!

  • Saturday, June 20, 2015

    2:00 PM

  • Ben Burton Park

    Mitchell Bridge Road, Athens, GA

 

The Athens Writers Association invites all Athens-area writers (including screenwriters, songwriters, poets, etc) to join our five founding members — Katherine Cerulean, Jill Hartmann-Roberts, Jennifer Innes, Elsa Russo, and Rob White —  for an afternoon of fun, food, and fellowship. Come meet the other energetic, creative, and friendly wordsmiths who are living right in your hometown. If you haven’t gotten to come to an AWA meeting before — now’s your chance!

New writers are welcome. This event is FREE!

Note: The picnic is a potluck-style event, so if you arrive hungry, please bring a dish. If you can’t afford a dish or are not hungry, please bring just yourself!

Ben Burton Park is free but has limited seating, so bring a chair or a blanket if it would make you more comfortable.
Feel free to bring Frisbees etc, for even more fun!

 

Come Learn to Make an Ebook on 3/18 at the Athens Regional Library!

from blog.udemy.com

Have you ever wanted to see your book listed on Amazon.com?  Do you dream of sharing your story with people around the world?  Are you unsure about all the packages, services, and editors that can cost thousands of dollars to prepare your manuscript and upload it for you?  Have you ever wondered if you could do it yourself?

Come learn the basics from AWA founder Katherine Cerulean, get the answers you need, and prepare to be ‘published author’!

Full details —

How To Make An Ebook

  • Wednesday, March 18, 2015

    5:00 PM

  • Athens-Clarke County Library

    2025 Baxter Street, Athens, GA (edit map)

  • An ebook is an easy and low cost way to share your writing with the world.  You can sell it on Amazon, Barns & Noble, and other places.

    Whether you want to share Grandma’s childhood memories with your family or become a bestselling author, putting out an ebook out is a wonderful way to achive your dream.

    Come learn from Athens Writers Association founder Katherine Cerulean how to pick the right length for your ebook, whether your should hire an editor or full package service, creating a cover, and how to publish new editions.

    Bonus: learn to turn your ebook into a Createspace paperback.

    Come with questions and leave with a new skill set!

    Free, with handouts.

    We’ll be in multi purpose room C (I believe), which is down at the end of the first hallway on the left.

    NOTE: Food and drinks are prohibited in this multi purpose room; the exception is water, which is allowed.

Upward and Onward

From Katherine Cerulean, founder:

Hi kids,

I just wanted to take a moment to celebrate the past and look forward to the future.  2014 has been a crazy (and busy) year for a lot of us in the AWA and often those adventures pulled us away from the group as a whole but even as exciting new projects and journeys appear on the horizon, I feel the AWA growing bigger and more close-knit than ever before.

We had some wonderful events this year — our first contact with a Georgia Hall of Fame writer (thank you Philip Lee Williams!), our first show at Cine in downtown Athens, our second book collection (edited by the talented [and patient] Jennifer Innes), participated in a poetry reading at Founders Memorial Garden at UGA, and have had many great classes, workshops, and meetings.  We’ve met new friends and discovered beautiful new things about the established ones.  I feel lucky every day for every one of you that have come into my life.

Found on anauthenticlife.tumblr.com

Found on anauthenticlife.tumblr.com

So where does the future lie?  As ever, hidden by mists and clouds, beyond the horizon but before us, along unused trails that your feet somehow already know and your heart sings as you travel down.  In the next month, we’ll be getting together to see what new, exciting places YOU want the AWA to go in 2015, but for me I just want more — more great experiences with you all, more opportunities to read your undeniable great words, and more chances to teach and be taught.  Because at the end of the day, I want us to become so great, our work so polished, and our ideas so exciting that we become a beckon of what a group of writers can do when brought together by fellowship and yes, by love.

And on that note, I leave you with the reason I wrote this whole post, my Christmas gift to you.  I want to share with you the song (that I’ve never told any of you about) but I consider my anthem for the AWA, a song that I’ve listened to coming to and going from many events with you guys, official and unofficial.  I tried to make a video collage and it went hilariously wrong, but that’s probably for the best, because I couldn’t show (or list here) all of you, and you all are part of this adventure.

You truly start the spark in my bonfire heart.