Saturday, November 5, 2016

Macaroni and cheese

The act of crafting a great beginning sends many writers to Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or the bottle for answers, or a way to procrastinate. Personally, I Googled how to begin a novel so I could begin this blog post about how to begin writing.

The answer? There is no perfect way to begin. There are many ways to craft a beginning, and each rule or strategy has its merits, but every writer has to find his or her own way depending on the piece. However, I did learn that writing a great beginning can be difficult, intimidating and frustrating. 

Regardless of whether we follow the rules or break them, the way a writer begins a book, article or a blogpost gives the readers a path in to the world he or she created. In the speech class I teach, it's called an attention-getter; and in journalism, the lead (or lede) or hook. Regardless, each is a strategy designed as a preview of what's to come. Each word, line and paragraph work together to encourage the reader to continue. A great beginning creates desire. A great beginning creates the need to find out what happens, or explore the "what if?" A great beginning is essential.

That's a lot of pressure.

While watching a cooking show, I started to think about how the chef began the process. There were lots of utensils, equipment and ingredients scattered about. But if you go back before the the process began, the ingredients and equipment were scattered about a store, and before that, possibly scattered around the world. And before that, maybe the chef was a kid who grew tired of plain old macaroni and cheese and wanted to switch it up. So how do all these factors come together? With time, patience and desire to create something wonderful.

Every chef knows that his or her mac and cheese is not like anyone else's, and that's what makes the world an interesting place. And the recipe has probably changed from the first effort, and maybe quite a few times. What's right for one chef may not be right for another.

So when readers enter a world that may be self-contained, or spread out like the ingredients in a great dish, the writer has to find the right way in. He or she needs to guide us through the one door that will take us right to the heart of the story, and make it clear and interesting while asking questions and presenting options. The effort to begin the story effectively may be long and difficult, or maybe not. Maybe the simple blue box of macaroni and cheese is the secret comfort food your favorite chef craves, and that's OK.

Here's how authors began a few of my favorite books:

"Four hours out from Los Angeles I drove into nothingness."

            Jory Sherman, from The Ballad of Pinewood Lake

 "This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun."

            Mitch Albom, from The Five People You Meet in Heaven

"Begin here. It was raining." 

            May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude

"Jack is the church I have joined, but he is a church without ceremony."

            Martha Bergland, from A Farm Under a Lake

So I've learned that it doesn't matter how we find our way in, but that we are more likely to find the way that speaks to us. And the rules are followed, and they aren't, and sometimes the method that should work doesn't, and what shouldn't work does. Why? Because writing, like life, is complex and difficult and we all have a unique perspective, just like a favorite macaroni and cheese recipe.

Write soon,
Mary

Friday, October 7, 2016

The director's cut

Are you like me and love to explore the writing process? I must confess that a large part of my home library consists of how-to writing books. To me, finding great tips and techniques from other writers regarding how to tell a story feels like finding hidden treasure. 

Some of these gems of insight, though, come from other sources. I want to share one of my favorite tips from my friend and fellow writing-group member Candace Carrabus Rice, author of “On The Buckle,” and “The Roar of Smoke.” She suggested writers watch the director’s cut of a movie to get commentary and a unique look at the creative process. 

“It will help you get insight into plot to learn how the director sees the story,” she said, “and how he or she made it work. It’s like looking at an x-ray to see what’s going on behind the scenes.” 

And the good news is that you can watch movies and call it “research!” 

What’s your secret source of writing tips? 

Write soon,

Mary


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two examples of an author's bio

Here are two examples of an author's bio from books I found in my house:

First, the bio from one of my favorite novels, The Ballad of Pinewood Lake, by Jory Sherman.

Jory Sherman is a widely published author and poet whose works have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. He is the author of many novels, several of which have won major literary awards, including the Western Writer's of America's Spur Award for The Medicine Horn. He has been inducted into the Writers Hall of Fame.

After Sherman's bio, I would flip through some pages and pick a random spot to begin reading, knowing that this is a book worth examining more closely due to the fact that there are some big-time credentials. Ideally, I would find a beautiful passage and then want to read everything he wrote!

Second, the bio from my favorite nonfiction book, Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, by Mary Horner (I had an "in" with the selection committee!). Because my book is about writing, I went heavy on the credentials regarding writing and education. I wanted to let readers know I was a credible source.

Mary Horner is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in more than two dozen publications. She currently teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges. She earned a master's degree in communications from Lindenwood University, and a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she also earned the Writing Certificate. She completed the Core Curriculum program in medical communications with special emphasis in editing/writing from the American Medical Writers Association. In 2005, she received The Best Mom award (from her kids).

If I were rewriting this, I would move the second sentence to the end, so instead of moving from past to present tense, and then to past tense again, I would move from past to present tense only once, and would probably add a future project. The future project would give readers something to look for later, or let readers in the future look for other books I've written. Finally, when this book came out I didn't have a blog. I do now, and would provide a URL, and let readers know I'm on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

At the end I added a little humor. What information do you include in your bio?

Write (a bio) soon,


Mary

Monday, September 12, 2016

Use your author's bio to your advantage

I love reading author's bios. I don't know what I think I will find, but I guess I want to know if the author is someone like me, (which gives me hope that I will be able to finish those pesky novels I've started) or has been given the name of a magic website that writes the books for him or her! (In that case I want to know where I can find that magic website.)

Regardless of whether your bio is for a book, website or magazine/newsletter article, think of it as a business card used to introduce yourself. Here are seven tips for writing your bio:

1) Write in third person.
Make it easy for copy editors to publish the information. When I was a typesetter/staff writer/copy editor at a local newspaper, I edited about 6 million press releases. If there were two press releases of equal importance, and I only had room for one, I would run the one that was already edited professionally and fit our style. Was I lazy? No. It's just that I had so much work that I never felt completely caught up and any little thing I could do to try to lighten the load was a welcome relief.

2) Set the tone.
Some writers keep the information completely formal and professional, while others include personal tidbits for a touch of fun or playfulness. As the writer, you set the tone. If you are writing about the funeral business for members of that profession, perhaps a serious tone would fit best. Keep your readers in mind.

3) Keep it short (but, see next item).
Promote yourself, but don't look at this as a resume or CV (think highlight reel).

4) Write a long bio for special occasions.
If Oprah or the Pulitzer people call, they will need all your background information.

5) List or link to your website or blog or other writing samples.

6) Include current and/or future projects.

7) Have someone edit to ensure professionalism, and correct spelling and grammar errors.

Although there are no hard and fast rules, bios should give readers insight into the author, and create interest in his or her work. Next week I'll share a couple of examples.

Write soon,

Mary



Thursday, August 25, 2016

Fun with typewriters!

A few years ago I visited a large resale shop with my daughter, Nila, who became fascinated with an old, manual typewriter. She took it up to the front desk and asked the clerk if she could try it. The clerk gave Nila a piece of paper to put in the roller. As she began to peck at the keys, another shopper about my age reminisced about using a typewriter at her job.

As Nila started to get the hang of how hard to press the keys, she got to the right margin of the paper and heard the "ding," of the typewriter bell, signaling to manually move the roller to the next line. To her, the sound was magical. Her eyes got wide as she said "Awesome!" The woman and I looked at each other and laughed.

Nila then pressed the metal bar on the left side of the machine to push the roller to the right to begin again. She typed a few more lines and was hooked. She loved it so much she bought it and used it for several years. 

I was reminded of this story when I came across the video titled Typewriters in the 21st Century. Here's a link:


Write soon, (maybe on a typewriter?)

Mary