Monday, June 27, 2011

Writing Tip # 5: The Leaf Technique

If you want to create a fictional character, use the leaf technique.

Start with the stem (character's gender and age), and branch out. Where does she (I'm using "she" for simplicity) live? A farmhouse at the end of a dirt road? A villa in Italy? A high-rise off Fifth Avenue?

What about values and beliefs? Did she go to a rural Baptist church or was she raised by Buddhists? Is she a backsliding Catholic or agnostic? What's her personal motto? What image does she strive to project to others? Why? Is she successful or does her true personality break through in words and actions?

What is she hiding from you? Make her tell you.

Does she have a mannerism? A favorite saying?

What scares her--really, really scares her? What's her strength? Weakness? What happened to her at age 3 that shaped her world-view? Find 6 milestones and describe a critical event for each one, something that formed your character's world view.

Do you know her name? If not, don't worry. Pick one. The true name to fall out of the sky. Just like a leaf.
Pay attention to every detail on your leaf. No vein is too small. You can't learn enough about this person. Listen. How she she talk? Is her voice rough and gravelly or soft and lispy? Strident, nasal, girlish? What's her accent? Does the gap between her front teeth make her self-conscious?

No, you won't put every detail into your book. But somehow they shine between your words. The more you know, the more it shows, and your character will leave a distinct scent on the page. You'll be writing from a powerful place, a place that can't be explained, and the only way to get there is to do the hard thing and study every line and furrow on your leaf.

It's impossible to know too much about a character.

Question: But isn't this difficult and time-consuming?
Answer: How much do you want to write? This want should be overpowering and unstoppable. If you have a choice between writing and having lunch with a pal, you may love your pal dearly, but you'll pick the writing.

Question: Speaking of air, do I have to pull my character's details out of the air?
Answer: Yes and no. But you can learn simple techniques to jump-start characterization.

Assignment 1: Buy a notebook. Write your character's name on the first page. If she doesn't have a name, give her a temporary one. Write down details. You can change them later, but for now, start branching and exploring.

Assignment 2: Find a tray and "shop" your house, looking for totems and objects that relate to your character.

Assignment #3: Create a mosaic. Add photos that bring your character to life.
 (I made this one for a dear writer friend. I used

One of my mosaics (made in Picnik).

Next Post:  A simple way to jump-start a character and fill in these details.

Coming in July: Solitude and Everything Else: Writers Talk About Writing

Finding Time to Blog

Last week, I received an avalanche of email from people who wanted to know how I find time to blog and write novels.

"How do you find time to maintain three blogs?"
"Where do you get the energy?!!"
"Do you ever sleep?"
"Do you have full-time help or an assistant?"
"Is your publisher/assistant/son writing your blogs?"

How I Find Time to Blog and Write Fiction

Part I:

Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to get published, I asked other writers these same questions. I really needed answers.
I had a busy life: a husband, two super-busy kids, three dogs, a cat, and a dirty house.

A writer friend, Shirley Hailstock, had a busy life, too, and she had a full-time job. I was struggling to find ten minutes to myself, but Shirley wrote books, baked cakes, and diapered two stair-step babies.
"How do you do it?" I asked.
It took me a long time to understand her answer and to apply it to my own life:
"MLee," she said, "I've got 24-hours a day. So do you."

Part 2:
You need a daily plan.
When you find one that works, stick to the plan.

If you have a blog, and you want it to grow, you should post every day. Do I do this?
Pioneer Woman advises bloggers to post daily, even if it's just a paragraph, and she's right.

But this won't happen if you aren't realistic about your lifestyle. 
Make a list of the things that distract you, then add reasonable solutions. If noise bugs you, get earphones or tell the noise maker to dial it down. If phone calls break your concentration, find a way to deal with callers--a way that spurns telemarketers but won't make you inaccessible to family.

For most writers, interruptions rip through their thoughts and words. You can't control other people or external events/noises; you can't control when Blogger eats your post or if Internet Explorer crashes.
But you can control your reactions.

Part 3:

Get Creative.

When my boys were young, I wrote on the kitchen counter. That way, I could spread my papers around me, and my legal pads would be safe from grape juice spills.
It's all about zoning.
I don't have an office, so I created an semi-imaginary locked door. When noise shatters my focus, I put on earphones. It helps some. A real door would be better.
Mainly, the earphones serve as a signal to my family that I'm working.
I also bought a folding screen at Big Lots, and I put that around my writing chair.
Now it's time for me to answer your questions--how do I find time to blog and write?

I don't have any sure-fire answers. And what works for me today might not work next week--it might not work for you at all.
Each day, I grapple with the same issue: how to find time and energy to blog and write fiction.
I goof up all the time.
But here goes.
* I don't have a housekeeper or an assistant. I write all of my blog posts and novels--some are good, some could have been better.
Que sera sera.

*I don't do post-mortems. I'm like Sysphus pushing that rock up the hillside every single day, but I try to move forward.
*I guard my writing time. Woe to the people (you know who you are, Bandwidth) who interrupt me in the middle of a sentence.

*I don't explain why I need solitude. I used to, but I quit.
Now I just bite harder. That may sound mean, but I live with two messy, loud men, and when I'm in Sweet Cakes mode, they think I'm being cute.
So I tell them, "Look, guys, I'll be writing from X to X. No interruptions unless the house is on fire."

*Finally, if you love what you do, the days seem longer even if they move in a blur.
Time elongates, but I can't explain how or why.

Resources and Suggestions:

1. Take workshops on time management and draw up a plan that works for you.

2. Even better, sign up for social media classes at Learn short-cuts. Register for free services, such as Hootsuite, which make it easier to keep track of mentions and re-Tweets. Write a series of posts and use Blogspot's "schedule this post" option.

3. Limit your social media time. If you're an author (and you're facing deadlines), visit Facebook and Twitter once a day, then move on to the next item on your list. Schedule Tweets in advance.

4. Spelling errors and brain burps won't show up in your blog post until you hit the "publish" button. I'm not kidding. You can proofread, but you might not see any typos until the post has gone live. Resist the urge to spit polish. Let spelling errors and stray commas go. Don't obsess over a word or spend your time editing. Chances are, you'll introduce new errors. Your time will be better spent if you write a new blog post or take some photographs or do something fun. The how to blog" experts will tell you to brush up on spelling and split infinitives, but it's not that freaking important. Seriously. (NOtice the stray " up there? It's stAYING.) The world won't end over a comma. Sometimes I'll have a flash of inspiration, and I'll revamp a post, but it's a time-eater. If you still find yourself fretting about the invisible Grammar Police, there are resources: Follow the Grammar Divas on Twitter for daily tips.!/Grammar_Diva  . They're great! But try not to sweat the *"%$ and the hiccups. We all have 'em.

5. Buy a notebook and keep a daily "blog idea" journal. Brainstorm for ideas. Use the "clustering method" from the book Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico

6. Blog because you love it.

7. Honor your writing time, no matter how fleeting.

It's your 24-hours.

**All photos courtesy of Dreamstime and Shutterstock because if I'd done a photoshoot, you wouldn't be reading this post. Dreamstime also has *free* images, btw.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Imagining Interiors

While I was writing Acquainted With the Night, I was part-author, part-interior designer.
 It was a challenge to decorate a vampire's manse--how would a wealthy vamp deal with sun-filled rooms? Would he hire an architect to seal the windows? Or would that cause gossip? Would a human designer kiss-and-tell? What if she created a horrible room? Would the vampire bite her?
Perhaps it would be better to hire a vampy designer, someone who wouldn't decorate-and-tell, and who understood the need for dark rooms. Of course, as a writer, I can't put all the background into a book, so I have to paint rooms with bold strokes. I don't do this quickly. During the planning stages, I take my time, but when I put words to paper, the clock starts ticking.
I can't throw in details for the heck of it. Colors and objects count--they add layers to a character or setting. I have to pick and choose these details, adding just a few, then I must leave.

Readers see a fictional room in their mind's eye. They build upon the key items the writer has brought to the room, adding color and details.
That's the best kind of fictional decor--where the author and reader are co-designers.
Do you have a favorite fictional decor? What about a film set? I love the kitchen in Something's Gotta Give because it's gorgeous and because the white furnishings perfectly depict the main character's personality.

Assignment: Find a photograph and add details. Blog about how colors and details give insight into personality.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Rule of Three

Whether you're writing a blog post, a poem, or a novel, remember the "rule of three."
Fairy tales understand the importance of this concept. From the cradle, we have been trained to recognize the potent force of a trio.
Three pigs. Three bears. Three sisters.
Three is more powerful than five or five hundred.
When events happen in threes, they resonate in the reader's subconscious.
Look to nature for examples--the three-leaf clover is the rule rather than the exception.
Assignment: Think of ways you can add a trio to your next blog post.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing Tip # 4

Writers should study chickens.

              Lay lots and lots of eggs.
And when one breaks, make an omelette.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Armchair Traveler

I have become an armchair traveler.

Before we moved to a farm, my husband and I took vacations.

Our carefree, wandering days have been replaced by egg gathering, fence mending, and bottle feeding newborn lambs and kids.
When I wrote Acquainted With the Night, the book swept me back to places I loved. 

 My job involves sitting in one place for hours (and maybe eating too much chocolate) ...

... but I'm not in that chair.
I'm re-imagining beloved places and fitting them into a fictional world.

Upcoming Post:
Solitude Vs Everything Else (Piper interviews authors about difficulties in the writing journey)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Beyond the Comfort Zone

Proceed with caution: you are about to leave the comfort zone.
Some of the images and ideas may repel, disturb, and annoy, just as some art, fiction, and sculpture can evoke strong, even repellent, feelings in those who view it.

If you're a writer, you fret endlessly over words.
Bloggers pay close attention to the tone of each post. You don't want to offend anyone, don't want to bore or bother anyone. You don't want your words or images to be misinterpreted.
Maybe you hold back and paint vanilla-scented words.

Nothing wrong with that--vanilla is a universal scent.
However, it isn't universally loved. One in a thousand readers will be allergic to vanilla beans and a larger percentage will find the smell boring. They may even leave a bitter comment.
Are you afraid of the bitter?
Are you watching what you write or do you take bold steps?
Words can be disturbing to you, the creator, and your first reaction will be to wipe your feet and get rid of the sticky mess.


Messes arouse the ick factor.

Words have gravity. If they spill, you can't control where they go.

The artist understands the physics of words.
Bald, rude words can be funny or appalling--to the writer and the reader.

Or the artist can be subtle, and a rude gesture may or may not look rude.
You might not find it unless you're looking. Or it could be something that builds--like music.

Words can be comical on the surface but underneath, they can be filled with subtext.

An artist knows she's done her job when her work evokes strong reactions, good and bad.

Seasoned artists aren't swayed by either reaction.

Because once a post (novel, painting, or sculpture) has left the building, so to speak, it's not yours anymore. You can't tell people how they should interpret your ideas.
(As for the Internet, you can edit a post, but your original words are somewhat radioactive and will live on and on and on.)
Many bloggers moderate their comments because they don't want negativity to leave a stink--and words do have a lingering smell. Who wants to deal with Viagra spammers clogging your comment section or the occasional heckler?
Your blog is a virtual home for friends. You want the visits to be delightful, right?
Seriously, no one likes chewing gum on their shoe.

But what does this have to do with you and your words?
If you've read this far, maybe you're thinking about writing a book. But each time you try, your inner critic gives you the finger.
What then?
If you're writing a poem or painting a fresco, you need to stop moderating your own negativity.
Of course, you can play it safe.

But the good stuff happens when we take risks.
Three rules:
Don't be too hard on yourself.
Don't write for applause.
Don't look down. 

Assignment: Defy gravity.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Room of One's Own

In a perfect world, I wouldn't write in the family room.
I'd build an unreachable attic, and the trap door would open over a swimming pool.
Or I'd have a secret cottage in the woods.

 A fence would be a nice touch.

It doesn't have to be fancy.
But these days, even a simple place is crazy-expensive.

All I really need is music, a laptop, and a furry companion named Mister.

As for the room, I'll invent one.
It will have flowers,
and a view.

Lots of books, too.

Once I'm settled in this imaginary place, I can keep building.