Writing Tips

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you. Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Green Stamps of Writing

Think keeping a journal and a notebook at the ready is a waste of time? Think again.

Many of you will remember Green Stamps. Back in the day, we zealously collected them every time we bought groceries, and then pasted them into our collection books. If you were too busy to deal with them when you got home, you tossed them into a paper bag for a future date. My mother and I and later I as a young wife had marathon pasting sessions. I would collect the bag jammed with stamps, a stack of the little paper books, a bowl of water, and a sponge and watch television why I pasted the thousands of little green possibilities. I still have several Christmas bells and other tchotchkes I traded my precious books to buy.            

Seeing a picture of Green Stamps recently brought a flood of memories to the fore, and I realized there is a relationship to my days of saving Green Stamps and my days as a writer.

Thomas Edison, the genius inventor, said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

I’m a collector. A list maker. A saver. Once I filled little books with petite Green Stamps and now I fill larger books full of words. My current two books (aka WIPs) began with twenty composition books filled with character names, settings, plot ideas, snippets of scenes, full chapters, etc.

From those yellowed pages, I transferred everything to my pc—didn’t exclude anything as one would never throw out a wrinkled green stamp—and an author was born. Many of those became short stories and a few have won awards and been published in a number of anthologies. Some of those became non-fiction articles that are in print or online. Most have found their way into novels, five at latest count.

Into that count of word saving I added hundreds of notes from journals I’d kept since I was a teenager. In my childhood, we moved over forty times. In my adulthood, I’ve moved almost thirty times. All of my notes and journals went with me, including across the Pacific and back. I have been a writer since I won my first contest in fifth grade with an exciting story about not being a litterbug, which obviously tells you what generation molded me.

Today, I save snippets from the blogs and websites of others that generate my blog and article ideas and loads of ideas for my creative writing classes. Pinterest opened a world of pictures to go with my words, turning my files are burgeoning paths of possibilities, ideas for clients and my own writing. As I did with the bags full of Green Stamps, occasionally I set aside time to paste ideas and pictures into readily accessible files and delete those that are too crumpled and out of date to use.

Recently a writer I respect asked me to describe the room I was in, not by the room accoutrements themselves, but by the people. We were in a restaurant, and she asked me to tell her about the restaurant by looking at the people around me. How were they dressed? What were their ages? And so forth. I have to admit that I stumbled until I caught the idea and began to regurgitate information. I came home to make notes on those people, because it occurred to me that they would fit nicely in a scene in an upcoming short story.

If you truly want to write, begin your idea files ASAP: journals, notes, pictures, old photos, info from social media, workshop notes transcribed and expanded into a viable idea. Writers by nature are collectors: ideas, new ways to see the world, character studies (just listen to conversations while you are in line, in an elevator, in church), the color of the moon, the sounds at the beach.

If you are a writer at heart, every one of these made an idea jump into your mind. Now turn that into a story.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Stump* Speech

   Whew, you think. The novel is done. You just typed THE END . . . except you're not done. It's not The End, really. Now comes the hard part for many if not most writers: Marketing your beautiful baby. And that’s a job not just for the newly published who either self-published or managed to attract the attention of a publisher. More and more big-name publishers are requiring their big-name author-clients to market their own creations. (Anyone remember seeing James Patterson on TV in the last few months?) The ultimate goal of marketing is, of course, to garner and increase sales. However, the other side of the coin is: Successful authors need to connect with their readers. Actually, they must connect with their readers. That means authors doing readings at book clubs and libraries, book signings, and, if we’re lucky, media interviews. All of those tasks require (gasp) public speaking.

   For me, and a lot of other writers I know, the prospect of public speaking is terrifying. Our normal milieu as we create our stories is quiet and solitude in front of a computer or with pen pressed to paper. We’re watchers . . . we observe the behaviors of other people and take copious notes for future story/character ideas. Being the watch-ee takes us totally out of our comfort zones.

   That’s where a “stump speech” can come into play to reinstate some degree of confidence. Authors who are on the stump for sales need to spend time developing a speech that can be easily modified for their diverse audiences. What follows are a few processes I use to calm my racing heart when I’m about to go on display in front of strangers.

   The first thing I did for DEADLY STAR was to write a flexible stump speech. When I'm asked to speak, I start with an anecdote geared to that audience…I try for something that involves finding myself in an awkward situation. Then I go into a brief bio, including why I use a pen name and how I chose it. Then I follow up with something about how the story developed, the characters, and I read two or three excerpts. I print out my speech in large, bold, double-spaced type and practice reading it. That helps me with timing the length of my presentation and makes me familiar enough with the script that I don’t have keep my head down to read it word-by-word and line-by-line. I can wing most of it, ad lib a bit, and actually make occasional eye contact with someone. Caveat for public speaking: It’s important to really know your story, because the Q&A will turn up some surprising questions.

   If I can, I stop by the bookstore or library where I’m going to speak and get familiar with the space. I tend to tremble a lot when I have step up to a microphone in an unfamiliar place in front of people I don’t know. Another trick is to attend someone else’s reading, often if possible…that takes a lot of the mystery out of the event.

   These concepts for easy public speaking look over-simplified, but they're really not. A fellow Sisters-in-Crime member came up with seven quick points for dealing with the scary thought of having to speak in public (and she’s very good at it):

1.      Research your audience
2.      Plan
3.      Practice
4.      Know your stuff!
5.      DON’T worry.
6.      Get big.
7.      Love it and embrace it.

I’ve got my stump speech down and am confident I can adjust it as necessary. How are you doing with yours?

That’s all for now. You-all guys keep on keeping on, and I’ll try to do the same.


P.S.: The artwork is off of my Facebook page, and I think I need to incorporate it into my stump speech.

(* “Stump” is another word for “campaign” – like politicians do when they’re trolling for votes.)