New Growth

          At the beginning of the year, I wrote about choosing a word to define the big picture of the coming year. I chose Discovery. Discovery is the word that best defines my new focus.

          Throughout my life I have made choices. There are a few that I regret, but not many that I would change. Even so, those choices limited other choices. When I chose not to return to college and take a job on the other side of the country from my parents, I cut many ties and limited my support circle, at least until I plugged into the new area. When I returned home, I turned my back on opportunities there to explore opportunities nearer to my family. When I married, I no longer sought out romantic relationships. When I had children, I chose to spend the majority of my time caring for them. (I also made conscious choices to spend time away from them or force them to care for themselves, as appropriate.) With every choice I made, my other available choices changed or were limited, narrowing my focus and goals.

          I now find myself in a season where my choices have vastly expanded. There are few true limitations on how I can choose to spend the time left to me. My age may be one limitation, but not a huge one. I may not be able to study medicine and become a surgeon . . .but I don’t want to. So I don’t feel limited by not being able to be a doctor. As I evaluate my life and make new choices that will determine what the next season will look like, I realize I need a short season of Discovery. Actually, I realize I’ve already embarked on this new season . . . and it has been full of new experiences and new discoveries in the midst of old, familiar experiences.

          The summer was spent in road trips to visit important family and friends. I didn’t get to visit everyone important to me, but I did get to visit many. And I had long conversations with others. Relationships are being reconnected, forgotten family history rediscovered. I’m exploring new relationships with my adult children. (And adding a daughter-in-love!) I’ve investigated several options for employment and careers. My latest choice is to return to college.

          What am I Discovering? Well, I’m rediscovering what it’s like to work a night shift . . . utilizing new skills I learned in a course I took. (And I’ve discovered I don’t want to stay at this job much longer.). I’m discovering adult children can be even more fun than little ones. They can also disappear for days or weeks, never realizing how much I miss them. (But it really is a joy to see them becoming fully matured adults.) I’m also discovering what it is like to attend college. (Well, that’s actually a rediscovery. But college at 52 is a lot different than college at 19.)

          I enrolled in the university that is in our town. I’m going to discover new things about life and people and subjects as I attend college. One of those new things is art. (I decided to explore my creative side. I hope that focusing on other creative endeavors will release the creative block that is hampering my writing . . . and my life.) I’m taking 2 art classes. One class is drawing. We spend almost 3 hours drawing. As I shade and draw and color, I have had plenty of time the think. My mind usually just wanders, never really lighting on a subject. I’ve noticed, though, that I find myself seeing other opportunities to draw., desiring more time to draw and seeking to learn how to achieve certain effects.

          That reawakening and rediscovering is expanding into other areas of my life, too. In other words, as I Discover, my appetite for Discovery grows. I’m coming alive. Appropriate, don’t you think, seeing that spring is just around the corner?

          Come grow with me!

My Fair . . . What?

          Last week I went to a musical with some friends. My Fair Lady is a play I’ve always enjoyed. In the past, I have experienced it as a beautiful love story. The prickly, selfish, clueless man finally meets a woman that breaks through those prickles and teaches him to care about someone other than himself. He helps her develop skills that give her access to a better life; she helps him develop relational skills that gives him access to a better quality of life; finally they come together in mutual love.

          The story I watched unfold last week was not that same, satisfying love story.

          Eliza is young and stuck. She’s stuck in her lower class world because of the way she talks. She wants to work in a flower shop, where she can make more money and be more respectable. She wants out of the life where circumstances seem to be forcing her. When she hears Henry Higgins boast that he could teach anyone to talk proper English, she takes him up on the offer.

          Instead of teaching her to talk as a respectable flower girl/shopkeeper, he gets caught up in his own dream and sees her as his tool to achieve it. He’s sure he can teach her to talk like a true Englishwoman born into nobility. He could pass a street flower girl off as a duchess. He gives no thought, and discounts others who do, to how that would affect Eliza. In fact, throughout it all, he never shows the least sign of even recognizing Eliza or her feelings, much less empathizing or understanding them. Even when he supposedly realizes he loves her, all his words show is that he’s gotten used to seeing her face, to hearing her voice, to having her near. She can find his slippers. He never voices anything that made me think he even tried to understand anything from Eliza’s perspective.

          Is Henry Higgins a clueless, somewhat selfish bachelor who begins to learn in the course of the play, to notice and care about another person? Is it realistic to believe that the after-life of this story includes a healthy romantic relationship between him and Eliza? Or is he a selfish, myopic and heartless man who finds another person to stroke his ego and indulge his selfishness?

          For my part, instead of watching a touching, comedic love story, I observed the beginnings of a poignant, but blatant emotionally abusive relationship. The actions, words and reactions of both characters were classic examples of such a relationship.

          But!

          Isn’t that what fiction is meant to do? Shouldn’t the reader (or viewer) be immersed in the experience? That realistic portrayal of human emotions is the mark of a true storyteller, is it not?

          I still believe My Fair Lady is great show. I identified with Eliza so much it was almost painful. (Okay, let’s be honest. It was painful.) Even so, I enjoyed the show even as I flinched. And, once again, I was inspired to keep writing in the the hopes that one day . . . just maybe . . .I’ll be able to write something as moving and lasting.

Stephanie’s Busy

Stephanie is on a road trip with a couple of her adult children. She thought she would still be able to write and upload today’s blog, but didn’t happen. She’ll be back for sure next week. Rather than leave you with nothing to read, though, she suggests you read an old post of hers from the 100th Week of Routines For Writers. You might want to check out the “best of” blogs Shonna and Kitty wrote that week, too.

Introducing The Beat Sheet: A guest post by Larry Brooks

Routines For Writers is thrilled to have Larry with us every Tuesday of this month.  In addition to these wonderful teaching posts, and in celebration of the release of his new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling,” Larry is offering our readers a special gift.  Just contact him at Storyfix (storyfixer @ gmail.com), mention Routines For Writers and show him the receipt for your purchase of  his new book.  He’ll send you a free copy of  the ebook“101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”  (I’ve read most of both books.  They are great!)    Thanks, Larry!

Introducing The Beat Sheet

A guest post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix.com

Part One of two. Check back next week for the Big Payoff.

Say the word “outline” in a writing conference crowd and you’re likely to end up in the parking lot helpless tied up by all the available toilet paper in the hotel. Even hint at it and some people go off as if you’d had the utter gall to say the words “liberal” or ”right wing whack job” at a fund raiser.

Too bad, too, because outlining is a misunderstood term. Big time.

I’ve enthusiastically advocated story planning, which doesn’t necessary require a written “outline”… just a clue as to what you’re doing, and going to do, which are very different things. When they encounter the concept, people sometimes assume I’m referring to outlining. In which case they attack with a 36-roll package of Charmin and an attitude.

Allow me to clarify: in order for your story to work, you need to have discovered what your story is. And it won’t happen by just starting out with a blank page and a full coffee pot, any more than you can get to Paris from Los Angeles by driving east without a map or a credit card.

Okay, you actually can do that. It’s just that nobody will pay you money to ride along. Which, in case you just got out of bed, is the analogy at hand – you’re trying to write a story that someone will want to actually read, or even buy.

If you use a draft (instead of an outline) as the search tool to find your story, then I promise you there can be only one of two outcomes: you will need to rewrite the draft once you do find the story… or (perhaps better here, because), the draft used as the search tool, which may mistakenly now believe works, won’t.

Same outcome, really. But in one case the seat-of-the-pants writer knows what she’s doing (she begins a new draft now that she’s found her story)… and in the other, the writer is operating either in a shadow of ignorance (forgivable if the writer is new at this and/or hasn’t been enlightened), or in the abyss of defiance (they don’t believe there are really are principles underlying what makes a story work, they think they can just make up their own story physics, the equivalent of literary finger painting).

Drafting or outlining, it’s all just an obligatory first phase of story development. You’re stuck with it, just as you’re stuck with one of those two outcomes should you choose to search for your story in a draft rather than using more efficient methods.

One of which I’m about to describe.

Enter “the beat sheet,” a way to discover, explore, revise and perfect the sequence your story. And, it works just as well as a story search and discovery tool as it does a fine-tuning instrument.

A beat sheet is a sequence of short bullets rather than entire sentences (like, literally, “boy meets girl, love at first sight”) to describe the mission of a moment of a scene in your story, you can actually construct your story, front to back, using three of four pages. It’s a placeholder, a mental yellow sticky note, that allows you to put a particular brick into the wall your are building, but without building the wall first.

Once you get the sequence of bullets right – which means you know this story, you’ve worked it out, you feel it, you’ve tried options and have landed on the best creative choices, and with optimal tension, pacing and power…

and now you’re ready to write this story…

you can expand these bullets into sentences and entire paragraphs, which become the raw material (call it an outline if you want, just don’t tell your pantser friends) for the scenes themselves.

Or not. You can also begin to write a draft from this point, using only the beat sheet bullets, skipping the dreaded outline altogether.

So is it outlining, or not?

Well, it is and it isn’t.

When it isn’t, this process of creating story beats is what organic writers like to say they prefer to do in their head. In the moment. On the fly.

And when that happens effectively – which it must if you are to write a decent story organically – it is absolutely no different than writing it down first as a series of bullets… or even as an outline.

Sorry, it’s all just story planning by another name. Nobody gets out of the pantsing party alive.

Which means, there should be no toilet papering of writing teachers anymore. At the end of the day a successful story, although taking separate routes to get there, ends up functioning in one, highly principled way. Just like an airplane – it’s gotta have wings, it’s gotta have power, and even though it looks like a giant arachnid, it’s using the same principles and physics as the Boeing 737 that took you to Grandma’s house last Christmas.

Professional authors know what the path toward a successful story looks like. Some of there are pantsers. Some are outliners. And some combine both, using a beat sheet.

But all of theme use the same set of storytelling physics.

With beat sheeting, a bullet does not a full scene make.

Which means, if you use only that bullet as your starting point, you can pants your way to the end, over and over again, to your heart’s content.

Or you can write the bullet down and then expand it into an outline for the scene.

Either way works, because when the scene’s purpose and content is defined in terms of it’s placement, and in context to what came before and will come after – which it must if it is to work well enough – then it doesn’t matter. Either way, you’ll have that key, almost magic ingredient already nailed down: the mission of the scene, both expository and otherwise.

Here’s how it looks.

To start, open up a blank page on MS Word (or whatever you write on), and make a list from 1 to 60. These are all going to be scenes, and you can add and delete as necessary.

At scene #1, label it, “the opening.”

At scene #2, label it, “the hook – if that didn’t happen in scene #1.”

At scene #12, label it “First Plot Point.” You’ll come back to scenes 3 through 11 later. We’re just hitting the major story milestones here, and what we’re hitting them with is a purpose and a functional role in the story sequence.

See, you’re already orders of magnitude of a process which doesn’t embrace the underlying principles of story structure.

At scene numbers 20, 21 or 22, label one of them: “First Pinch Point.”

At scene # 30, label it: “mid-Point.”

At scene #36 or 37, label it “second Pinch Point.

At scene#44, label it: “the Lull.”

At Scene #45, label it: “Second Plot Point.”

Notice there is no content yet. Just like a house with the studs up, you only have the vaguest notion of what the finished house will look like when it’s done.

But, because those weight bearing, wind-resistant studs are in the proper place, anchored to the foundation (your story’s concept and theme) solidly, you know the thing will at least pass inspection.

Whether it’ll end up on the cover of House Beautiful… that’s still up to you.

These scenes are the first that you plan.

Or, if you hate the word, they’re the first that you think about, with a goal of determining what they are and what they contain, in context to the mission of the particular milestone. Which means, you need to understand that a “first plot point” is a very different thing than, say, a pinch point or a context-shifting midpoint.

And if you don’t understand those terms, you’re in a bit of a literary pickle, because all you’ve got going for you is an intuitive sensibility (usually developed from the novels you’ve read and perhaps studied), or pure blink luck.

For every other scene, which will be developed in context to whatever story quartile it is in (because all four parts have different contextual missions for their scenes), you are creating narrative exposition that links these milestone scenes.

Like putting sheetrock up over those studs.

It’s critical to understand and embrace the truth that that every scene in your story has an expositional narrative mission to accomplish. And it’s not just characterization (which is incumbent upon every scene in the story). Rather, it’s a piece of narrative fuel that adds information (story exposition) that moves the story forward.

Every number on your list is a story beat.

It can be one word, like: sex.

It can be two words, like, “kills husband.”

It can be several words: “kill husband while having sex.”

It’s less important that you write it down than it is that you know what the scene needs to do. And if you don’t, just keep working on the other beats. Because it is the connective tissue that will lead you back to the undefined scene/beat and show you what it must be and what it must do.

It can be anything you want, so long as you know what it means.

Larry Brooks is the author of Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.” He is also the creator of Storyfix.com, recently named as the top writing website.

Special offer from Guest Author Larry Brooks

This month Larry released his new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling.” I’ve been reading it and highly recommend it to anyone who has not already bought it. To encourage you to go buy it (there is a link just below Larry’s guest post), Larry is offering a special gift to our readers.

After you purchase the book, contact Larry (storyfixer @ gmail.com). He will send you a free copy of his ebook “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”

Thanks, Larry!

Author Crush Mishap

         What?!? No Author Crush blog today?

         That’s right. Pitiful me wasn’t able to convince one of my favorite authors to come blog with me. Something about being too busy writing. Imagine!

         So I’ll chat with you about my favorite authors. My first exposure to books, at least any that made any impression on me, was Dr. Seuss. I learned to read from “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Hop on Pop”. Dick and Jane just couldn’t keep my interest like Sam, I am. I exhausted the libraries of every school I attended (we moved a lot). I must have read thousands of books, and I’m sure their stories helped formed my character and personality. The ones I remember most vividly are Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew), Louisa May Alcott (I was ecstatic when I realized she wrote more than Little Women), Madeline L’Engle and a series that followed the adolescent life of a girl named Beanie up through her marriage. In high school I discovered romances and coming of age stories. Madeline Brent (I couldn’t believe “she” was actually a “he”!), Mary Stott and S. E. Hinton are a few authors I remember. Later it was Judith McNaught, Kathleen Woodiwiss and scores of others (I can remember stories much longer than author names). High school was also the time I discovered science fiction. I’ve always preferred the “softer”, more fantasy-like science fiction, Ray Bradbury, Zenna Henderson, Madeline L’Engle. Sad to say, I was an adult before I read Lord of the Rings, but am in awe of J.R.R. Tolkien. As a young (and now older) adult, looking for to feed my fantasy hunger, I read a lot of books, but the ones I’ve most enjoyed are stories that either affirm or at least not denigrate Christian principles. C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, of course, and Kathy Tyers, Karen Hancock, Stephen Lawhead, Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, Shanna Swendson, Julie Kenner are just a few. I’m sure I will think of more after this blog is posted. While fantasy is my love and I am constantly discovering new authors, like Sarah Addison Allen, I also enjoy contemporary and historical fiction. Bodie Theone, Janet Evanovich, Elizabeth Peters and Jane Austin are more of my favorites. From my children (mostly grown now) I discovered Stephenie Meyer, Patricia Wreade, Garth Nix and other YA authors who write stories even an adult (or at least this adult) can enjoy.

         In case you haven’t caught on, I adore reading. There is no better way to relax than to immerse myself into a well-told story, becoming a character, seeing life from that person’s eyes. And what better way to improve my own writing? I think it’s time for me to take a bre . . . I mean go to work. 🙂

         See you on the other side of the next story!         This was originally posted in February 2009. Because of a mis-communication, the author scheduled for today was not able to post.

New Adventures!

          Kitty and Shonna and I planned this month’s theme many weeks ago. Considering our anniversary month and harkening back to our blog’s theme of “Helping Writer’s Write More,” we decided to encourage our readers as they got back into writing routines after the summer or began anew. We never realized how apropos that would be for me.

          I am off on yet another grand adventure and new beginning, courtesy of my husband. My husband and I are moving overseas to teach English. In fact, as you read this, we are probably enroute. The next few weeks are sure to be full. Of that I am certain. I’ll have ample opportunities to create new writing routines and and endless supply of experiences to mine for ideas. This can only be good for my writing. I feel the spring of imagination bubbling up already!

          It may be awhile before I’m reconnected, but when I do return here, I’ll share just how this new adventure is helping me write more. See you on the other side! (of the ocean, that is)

          What’s your next adventure?

Less Than Two Days Away

Our contest for a free critique ends this Friday at midnight PST.  Enter now! Just share your favorite writing routine in the following post:

http://www.routinesforwriters.com/2010/09/03/followers-contest-free-critique/

My favorite routine today is to start with my homemade amaretto latte to wake up the brain cells. Off I go to make it and get started with my WIP.

Remember, don’t enter in *this* post, but in this one:

http://www.routinesforwriters.com/2010/09/03/followers-contest-free-critique/

Followers Contest–Free Critique

It’s crazy to think we’ve been team-blogging for two years now! We are so thankful to all of our readers (glad it’s not just our families reading anymore). You all inspire us to stick with our writing routines and we hope we do the same for you.

The best way we could think of to celebrate two years of “helping writers write more,” is to have a followers contest.

THE PRIZE

One follower will win a three-way critique of 25 pages. That means one manuscript critiqued by all three of us here at Routines for Writers!

FYI—it’s always good to know your critiquers (certainly sets expectations) and we all have our favorite kind of books: Stephanie is our Sci-Fi/Fantasy gal who enjoys writing book reviews; Kitty is all about romance and women’s fiction, working towards her MA; Shonna is our resident middle-grade/YA fan and she comes from a technical writing background.

*Helpful note* A little spice or scariness is all right, but if you are going to make us blush, faint, or want to poke our eyes out, just know that we will skim over that part. In other words, you super-spicy or horror writers may want to let someone else win this one.

THE RULES

  1. You must be a follower—either on our RSS feed (click on the link in the right-hand column, or on the coffee cup for some browsers) or on Twitter: www.twitter.com/routineswriters
  2. Leave a comment IN THIS POST giving us your best writing routine. You don’t have to be fancy, a simple “write every day” will suffice. We’re always looking for a good tip or a timely reminder.
  3. Bonus point: If you blog or tweet about our contest, we’ll give you another entry. Leave a SEPARATE comment IN THIS POST to let us know about your bonus point.

*If we’ve been helpful to you on your writer’s quest, please spread the word about our site. Thanks!*

Contest Ends: Friday, Sept 10, 2010 at midnight Pacific time. Winning writer has one week to submit his or her work. The critiques will be kept private; not published on the blog, so you shy folks go ahead and enter.