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Think fast

On Saturday I attended my WRW chapter meeting, and our guest was author Barbara Samuel. During a session on understanding and uncovering your voice, she had us do several impromptu, timed writing sessions, no editing allowed.

What an eye opener. The goal was to help us understand that how we each approach the same topic is what makes us unique, and is the product of our voice.

We wrote about our lives at different ages (7, 12, 18). I loved finding that no matter the focus of the writing, my theme was a match for what those ages often represent. The early foundations of who we are at seven, the feeling of not fitting in at twelve, learning to be independent from our parents around eighteen.

The other thing that struck me was how much I could produce in four short minutes. Somewhere in the range of 150-200 words. Wow! If I could do that on my WIP, I’d be going a smoking 2-3000 wpm. I could write for an hour and call it a day without the slightest guilt.

If only.

My plan is to use this type of exercise any time I feel bogged down in my MS. Just to grease the skids, so to speak. Pick a topic or random photo and go.

Maybe it’ll put the editor back in her box and limber up my creative brain again.

Hmmm. “When I was fifteen…”

Photo credit: YOUNG WOMAN WRITING © Ilya Lobanov |

Stop the movie

Many writers complain that they can no longer read for pleasure, that their writer brain won’t let them get into the story without analyzing for plot points, tension, and word choice.

While I find myself occasionally noticing these things as I read—or stopping to wonder how the writer got me to read 30 pages without noticing—I still have the opposite problem. Even with a book I’ve read before, I often cannot shut off the movie in my head to concentrate on the actual words.

This is especially true of a well-written work of the type I’d like to emulate. I might be able to focus on the first few paragraphs, but after that, I get sucked in and my movie is off and running. Ten pages later, I realize I’ve failed to learn anything except that this particular author has something I don’t, and I’m no closer to figuring out how she does it.

So, I’m trying something new. I’m typing out the passages I want to analyze in an attempt to contrast an author’s craft with my own. What do her paragraphs look like in Scrivener? How long are they, how much emotion and detail do they have? How long is an action scene or a love scene? Then compare to my own.

How does it feel to write those words and paragraphs? What kind of cadence and flow do they have?

I have no intention of plagiarizing the works, or copying the writing style. I have my own voice. But I can’t think of another way to slow down and focus on the content than this, and I think there is value in seeing the other author’s writing in a similar format to my own. I have no idea what my words and paragraphs would look like in a paperback. Is there enough whitespace? Too much?

But I know what hers look like, and now I can compare them on a level playing field.

I tried this experiment today after I’d surpassed my 1K/day goal. So far, I think it’s helping. I was able to pick out the internal dialogue, bits of setting, and emotional elements, and how she was fitting them in without slowing things down. While I’m nowhere near cracking the code, it can’t hurt.

I’m certain that most of the benefit of this method comes from slowing myself down. I read at 400+ words a minute. Even more if I speed read (which I don’t for novels—I like to relax with them). Reading out loud would be another option for slowing down. The average person—depending on what part of the country they’re from—speaks at around 200 wpm. But I type around 60-70 wpm. S-L-O-W compared to reading. This forces my brain focus on the words, and messes up the continuity.

For this exercise, that's a good thing.

There are surely other methods that would help. I often find value in summarizing the chapters or scenes to see how the author makes the book flow and sets up the structure (similar to Larry Brooks’ deconstruction method, or James Scott Bell’s plot analysis exercise). But I like to try new things too.

So tell me. How do you stop the movie in your head?

Taking a shortcut

A few months ago I read a good writing book called Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. In it, Bell advocates going through six books and writing a note card for every scene to describe its POV, location, type of scene, and purpose. Then when you're done (six months later), you periodically pull out the cards and flip through them, lay them out to see the flow, and so on.

The idea is that eventually an understanding of good story structure will bubble up from your subconscious. I don't doubt the efficacy of this exercise. Nor am I one to shirk a little homework. But in this case, I made it through about half a book before I gave up. Maybe if I'm having trouble sleeping sometime, I'll try again.

In the meantime, I'm going to try Larry Brooks' suggestion to do something very similar, but using movies. Good movies are built around the same structure principles as a well-written novel. So, it makes sense that we should be able to accomplish a similar exercise with a movie, and in much less time. Maybe three hours.

So, my plan next week is to analyze at least one movie. I'm putting it here to hold myself accountable. I'll post my results for discussion in a future installment.

If you're up to it after you read Larry's post, I'd love to hear how it went for you too. (No, the comma is not required before “too”.) 😉

Have a great weekend. Write on!

The Daily Squirrel

squirrelYears ago, when I was in Toastmasters, we had a member, Ken, who was truly a remarkable speaker. Anytime we had an unfilled speaking slot, he would give an impromptu speech using a random topic from the audience. His most memorable speech was about gray squirrels. He gave a humorous, completely off-the-cuff, 7-minute speech about hunting squirrels as a kid. True? Who knows? Impressive? Absolutely.

In honor of Ken’s “squirrel speech”, I’ve started a (mostly) daily exercise that I call “The Daily Squirrel”. I think of a random topic (my squirrel), and then try to write a short scene around it. You can do this while brushing your teeth or waiting in line at the grocery store.

As an example, I chose a water bottle as my squirrel, and here’s what I came up with…

He reached for the water bottle tucked into the truck’s console, but it slipped from his grip as he lost the feeling in his fingers. The bottle fell to the floor with a thud, water pulsing out onto the dirty carpet. Every lost drop made him more desperate to quench the fire in his throat as his heart stopped beating and he gasped for his last breath.

Okay, morbid, but you get the idea… To force myself to practice, I’m planning to add a daily squirrel to the end of my (almost) daily blog posts.

Wanna try it? Share your own daily squirrel.

UPDATE 1/14/2010: The Squirrel has gone weekly as it became too time consuming. Look for it on Sundays. Click here to see all of the Sunday Squirrel installments.