Monthly Archives: December 2013

Spontaneity In Your Writing

When writing a story, be it short or long, do you outline your project first? I do—to an extent. When I sat down to write my novel Jazz Baby, I wrote an extensive outline, diagrammed every twist and turn my story would take from the beginning to the end—and all points in between. Then I wrote the story and so very little of that original outline actually made it onto the pages of the finished product.

Let’s face it: Real life cannot be diagrammed. Life is spontaneous. Things happen that we could never foresee. Death is seldom predictable, yet it visits each and every single person born on this planet.

Spontaneity brings realism to fiction.

That doesn’t mean an author should write by the seat of his/her pants. I’ll outline the bare bones of a story; work up a feel for where it will start and where it will end. But all of that in-between stuff, that’s where spontaneity comes into play. This is usually the fun part of writing. Even I, as author, won’t know the full extent of what a character may say or do until the moment arrives.

But allowing spontaneity to take root is not as simple as just writing whatever comes into your head. If the hero does something that’s out of character, you risk losing readers. In other words, if your hero is an honest guy, you can’t have him stop a robbery in one scene, then watch as he steals money from a Girl Scout in the next scene—unless you’ve already established this guy has those sorts of flaws. This is where a good outline comes in handy. If you’ve taken time to flesh-out your characters, discovering likes and dislikes, quirks, behavior patterns, and such, you’ll be able to insert these characters into scenes that are believable.

However, doing things out of character doesn’t necessarily make for bad storytelling. If there’s a reason, a situation, or even the unexplainable—and it’s done right—a character may behave in a manner that is unrecognizable by even those closest to that person. The American TV series Breaking Bad pulled this off in brilliant fashion over the course of five seasons.

Short stories are a different animal compared to novels—at least for me. I don’t usually outline my short stories (at least not extensively). They begin life as a few words jotted on Post-It notes. These words usually consist of an idea that comes to me while I’m busy doing other things. Last night, I had an idea for a short story. The words on the Post-It read simply: Girl, closet, candle, heroin; trouble with parents. Moody. Eventually, after much consideration, I’ll begin building the story inside my head. When I feel it begins to make sense, can hear the characters voices, and know where I want to go with it, I’ll then start writing the story.

Outlines are important—to an extent. They help keep a story on track, giving the author an understanding of where to start and where to finish. Just don’t get so caught up in the outline that you’ve squeezed all of the spontaneity from your story. Life isn’t diagrammed; it’s filled with shock and surprise and joy and horror. Your writing should be that way, too.

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Daily Word Counts

I see it on many sites, in chat rooms, and posted on message boards all across the internet: Authors boasting of daily word counts. “I force myself to write at least a thousand words per day,” one claims. Another swears by two thousand words per day—even if the mood has all but vanished! Other writers attempt something within reach, like perhaps a daily word count closer to two hundred—no need in pushing too hard.

Word counts are fine for motivational purposes. I have no problem with daily a limit—so long as it inspires.

But inspiration is often the casualty of daily word counts. Just because an author has forced him- or herself to post two thousand words on Microsoft Word doesn’t mean all of those words are worth another person’s time (or money) in reading.

I speak from experience. I, long ago, had placed a daily count on my writing. I decided that if I had any real hope of being a legitimate author, I needed to complete at least five pages of text each day—whether I felt up to the challenge or not. As a result, I ended up wasting time, effort, and paper. (Yeah, I wrote all of my original work on paper until just the last couple of years.) I’d spend hours pouring “great” ideas onto paper, certain that my first novel was writing itself. Of course, later in the day, just before bedtime, I’d snatch up the day’s five pages and have a proofread. Horror would fill my blood, polluting my sense of being an author, as I’d read awful tripe I’d been proud of only hours earlier. Don’t get me wrong; this wasn’t a daily occurrence. Terror would only strike on those days I wasn’t motivated to write—those forced moments of “creativity!”

Any author will tell you that creativity can’t be forced. I learned years ago that if I am not motivated to write at any particular time, then there’s no sense in going through the motions. It took many years to comprehend this situation. My ego and my confidence took a serious beating during those moments of forced writing. I’d read that garbage and become convinced I would never write anything worth reading. I mean, if I couldn’t stomach my own writing, how could I expect intelligent readers to part with their hard earned money in purchasing my work?

But here’s the thing: Word counts actually work for some people. There are writers out there who, the moment they sit down to create, find immediate inspiration. I’m just not one of them. And neither are many other authors. So don’t feel pressured to write just for the sake of writing. Don’t get sucked into the notion that just because a favorite author demands two thousand words a day from himself that you have to match that count. Quality is always better than quantity.

Happy writing! file0001372359562

Twitter As A Marketing Tool

Marketing in this modern world of indie publishing has afforded authors a wide array of options. Among these choices are blogs, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn. I personally prefer Twitter. Twitter allows for quick messages and immediate feedback. With generous retweets, the audience potential is virtually unlimited.

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On Twitter, I’m known as @voiceofindie (though I’ve recently added @BeemWeeks). Those who follow me know this account isn’t just a self-promoting entity. I promote the work of others more so than my own. Writers, bloggers, musicians, artists, and photographers often benefit from shout-outs and retweets. But I don’t do this expecting retweets of my own stuff. I do this for one simple reason: A stronger indie movement is good for everyone treading this platform.

When we indie writers, musicians, and artists work together, we strengthen an up-and-coming industry. This tells the mainstream: Hey, we can do this without you. It lets the world know we exist, that our work is of the highest quality, and we’re only gaining in power.

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I’ve discovered many new and talented writers through this process. I’ve also been turned on to great music from some seriously amazing musicians. Bands like Argentinian rockers Amoenus and Nashville-based The Bloody Nerve are reaching the world with music that, in most cases, sounds far superior to the auto-tuned nonsense seeping from the major labels these days.

@voiceofindie is growing each day. The only drawback is that I may not be able to get to every retweet every day. There are just so many wonderful participants involved in my little experiment. And that’s exactly what it is: an experiment. I set out to see if creative sorts from across the world would come together in the twitterverse to share what they’re reading or writing or listening to or recording. And it’s working. So why not join in and support indie! Tweet for tweet is the cheapest way to spread the word.

A Lost Treasure

I am a garage sale junkie. I spend many summer mornings going through the stuff other people no longer want cluttering up their homes. I search primarily for music CDs. With the advent of digital downloads, MP3 players, and the like, CDs can be had for a dollar each–or less!

I also find books I’ve been meaning to read. Best sellers in near-perfect condition often go for a couple of dollars–compared to fifteen or twenty dollars the booksellers demand.

Every so often I’ll find a gem that maybe didn’t quite make anybody’s best seller list. You know the ones: interesting cover, intriguing blurb on the back, a young author showing promise. This is how I came across a collection of short stories by a writer of whom I’d never heard. I found this book lying in a box with other books designated for sale to benefit a high school girl’s senior trip to a place I no longer recall.

I picked the book from the box, thumbed through its pages, got a feel for style and content. But it was the author’s short bio on the back cover that sealed the deal for me.

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The book is called Downriver, and it’s written by Jeanne M. Leiby. Not a household name, sure, but Miss Leiby grew up in my home state of Michigan. I have a soft spot for Michiganders, be they writers, actors, or musicians. I feel the need to at least give them a chance to show me they’re worth supporting.

After purchasing the short story collection mid-summer 2013, I added it to the growing pile of books sitting in my closet. There it sat for several months, just waiting its turn to dazzle me. That turn finally arrived in early November.

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To say Jeanne M. Leiby’s work pulled me in is an understatement. She writes the way people talk. She adds little quirks to her characters that you would swear you’ve seen in people you’ve personally met. There is a realism in Leiby’s work that makes readers appreciate her efforts.

I instantly became a fan. That she’s a Michigander only made this discovery that much sweeter. I had to know more about this amazing author. Does she have other published works? Has she written any novels? Info in her bio on the reverse of Downriver indicates she graduated from the University of Michigan (a hated school in my part of Michigan). She also received degrees from The Bread Loaf School of English/Middlebury College and the University of Alabama. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Fiction, New Orleans Review, The Greensboro Review, and Indiana Review, among others.

I went online and dug deeper, learning Jeanne Leiby became a teacher, sharing her talents with students at the University of Central Florida. She won the 2000 Poets and Writers Writer Exchange. She served as fiction editor of Black Warrior Review and Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Review. In 2008, Jeanne took over as editor of The Southern Review at LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Oh, and if that’s not impressive enough, while working as an intern at a publishing house, Jeanne Leiby became responsible for finding and publishing White Oleander by Janet Fitch–which just so happens to be one of my all-time favorite novels.

But then I saw it, there at the tail end of her Wikipedia page. On April 19, 2011, Jeanne M. Leiby was killed in an auto accident in Louisiana. According to police, Miss Leiby was driving a 2007 Saturn convertible with the top down. She was not wearing a seatbelt when she lost control of the vehicle, hitting a guardrail, before being ejected from the car. Doctors at a nearby hospital pronounced her dead on arrival.

That news kicked me in the stomach. I felt cheated. Here is this amazing talent from right down the road, and she’s gone before I get the chance to discover her work. But I also feel cheated by Jeanne M. Leiby herself. Had she exercised a little common sense and worn her seatbelt, she just might still be here today, writing some brilliant prose that would make the rest of us writers jealous.

An amazing talent is gone from our midst, but her work remains with us. Do yourself a favor and invest in a copy of Downriver and see how good a short story can be.