Writing Collaborations: What’s the Goal?

This weekend, I’ve been collaborating on a short play writing project with one of my students. We have a finished draft on a fun and meaningful script which I plan on using in my new show coming up in April.

It’s been a while since I’ve collaborated with students on a creative writing piece. I used to do it all the time. In fact, these type of collaborations are what kick-started my writing career. I have many students to thank, because they helped me to just write and put my work out there.

This weekend, I’m writing with a student who has never written a play before. She came up with the idea for the play and I helped to formulate it into scenes. We each took different scenes to write and then there’s the process of combining them together, editing, adding new ideas, and the general non-stop revisions which are needed. I’m excited to see the final product of this script.

This endeavor got me thinking: what’s the goal of this type of writing collaboration? A new writer with an experienced writer.

Here’s how I approach it. I, first, want the idea to originate with the new writer. I wanted her to have ownership in the process because I know how I can be: I get an idea and I can’t stop until it’s done. This allows a new writer to catch-up to my overbearingness, so to speak.

The new writers are typically reluctant to edit my work. That’s understandable, but I want to make it clear that there is no hierarchy in this collaboration. There’s only one goal: write a quality piece. That’s it.

That means that I will edit the new writer’s scenes thoroughly. I’ll make additions. Suggestions. Give feedback. Get feedback. And, invariably, the new writer comes back with “yes, yes, yes, that’s so much better. yes.” I’m not a better writer than they are. I just have more experience. I’ve also produced 25 shows. I know visually how the dialogue will look on-stage.  I know what will work, what will sound authentic, and what won’t.

My goal is for the new writer to see my entire process and, hopefully, learn from it. Then they get their name as a co-writer in the playbill which is always fun. And, if they act, which they almost always do, I let them star in their own play if they so choose.

What’s important in the process, at least for me, is not to settle for less quality because a writer is new. I will push them, I will encourage them, I will ruthlessly edit their stuff in order to make the piece better. An okay piece will not be acceptable to me if it can be a great piece, because I’m putting my name on it as well.

I guess what I’m saying is: don’t dumb it down. Keep the standard high.

I had a past school principal who said that the lost practice of kids and parents eating supper together every night has hurt the kids’ development. They need to hear adult conversations. They need to be able to ask questions. Wonder what that word means. It’s one of the ways they grow and learn.

This is exactly how I view writing collaborations with students. I hope my intent is reached with this one.

This is going to be a good play. It’s entitled: “Why Leaves Change Color.”

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If It’s Good Enough for Mr. Livgren, then …

I’ve admired Kerry Livgren for a long time.

Yes, you know him. The composer, guitarist, lyricist of Kansas.

Yes – “Carry on Wayward Son” – “Dust in the Wind”

Okay, now you’re with me.

Livgren didn’t just disappear after the glory years of Kansas in the late seventies and early eighties. Far from it. He released many solo albums, founded the band A.D., got back together with his old mates from the pre-Kansas days and released three terrific albums under the name Proto Kaw.

The guy is brilliant. Yet, the thing that has stood out the most for me about his musical procedures is that he is never satisfied. He said in an interview once that if he has the opportunity to make a previously released song better, he wouldn’t hesitate to do that. And he has.

He has remastered albums. He has kept the vocals of songs and completed rerecorded the instruments to make an even better product.

His dedication to his craft is relentless, and it has inspired me (as a writer) to be like Kerry!

When I think back seven years ago when I was writing my first novel, I didn’t know what I was doing. Seven years later, I’m still learning – lots.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the old stories. A lot, actually. I’m proud of my first novel BEAUTY RISING, but can it be better? Yes. Can I apply things I know now and didn’t know then to make it better? Yes. Will I do it? I will try. (There is a thing called time, you know.)

So I am hoping to do something like Kerry does. I’m not going to change the stories. The heart of the story will remain, but I might rework the language. I make color passages in a more interesting way. I may delete adverbs which I seemed to like so well back then. I’m looking forward to doing a new re-edit on some of my old stories to help freshen them up with my new rounds of knowledge about writing.

If it’s good enough for Kerry, it’s good enough for me. What about you?

Writing for Pleasure

Last night I decided to write for pleasure. My pleasure.

Sadly, a lot of writing time can be consumed with the less desirable parts of the trade: marketing, editing, blurb-writing, social media, writing-to-get-the-blasted-thing-done.

We’ve all been there. But when’s the last time you wrote for pleasure, not for purpose.

Much of what I have written this year has been purpose-driven, and, of course, that’s not bad. It’s good actually. Get a plan, stick to it, work hard, reach your goal. That’s been my driving force for years. Luckily, most of the time it has coincided with pleasure, simply because I love to write.

But there is something to be said for deadline-free, purpose-free, just-have-fun kind of writing.

That’s what I’m doing now. I’m writing a dramatic duet.  Just because I want to. How selfishly creative of me. For me, pleasure writing using comes back to writing drama. It’s just so fun to watch the characters begin to form and to have new ideas pop into my head which lead to more ideas. I can get consumed by the narrative and forget about the outer-trappings of the world. To be transported as a writer! How delightful, indeed.

If you haven’t written for pleasure in a while, take a day off from your novel. Refresh your creativity on something that grabs your mind. Allow yourself to “go down the rabbit hole” and forget about the deadlines and the unfinished work ahead of you.

Enjoy the words. Laugh at the characters. Be silly with your expectations. Remember when you had yet to publish anything? When you would sit for hours all alone and laugh at the ridiculous things you’d written. You didn’t care what others thought or whether you should query an agent. You wrote for the love of it. You wrote for pleasure.

I must admit–it’s quite fun to be doing that again.

The First Ever Massive Trilogy Read-Through

I had just finished the second revision of book 3 of my brand new trilogy.

So what was next?

Revision three, of course.  But then I paused and thought for a moment. I knew what I needed to do, but I was reluctant. It would be too time-consuming. It would stop the flow of my revision work. No, don’t make me!

What was it? It was to read the entire trilogy from first to last page. I would become the first person to read the entire trilogy, which makes sense since I wrote it.

I told myself I needed to do it. I rolled my eyes and thought of any other way to get around it. But I knew if I wanted to present the very best overarching story possible that I needed to delve back into the ENTIRE story.

So that’s what I’m doing.

I just finished reading book 1: A Man Too Old for a Place Too Far, and you know what? I enjoyed it. After just finishing the storyline of the entire trilogy, it was fun to revisit the genesis of everything. There were definitely some details along the way which I had forgotten, but I was pleased with the story’s consistency.

I think I’m on the right track, and that makes me happy.

It can be painful to read one’s own work. Tedious, actually. But it’s so important, and I usually end up surprising myself thinking “Hey, how did I think of that? If I wrote this paragraph today, I don’t think it would have been as good.”

On the other hand I also run into these thoughts: “I don’t really like this sentence anymore. How about a simple edit?”

Re-reading is crucial to jog one’s memory of the myriad of character and plot details which absolutely must mesh.

But do it. Hold your nose if you have to, but keep re-reading your own work. It will be well worth it.

If you haven’t read book 1, please check it out. It’s a story I’m really happy with, and it’s only $1.89 on Amazon. Permanently.  Thanks for the support!

Link to Amazon. Only $1.89 on Kindle.

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Writing: About Lengths and Words

I’m a concise writer. I know that.

I’ve learned to slow down my writing over the years because at times it can be at breakneck speeds, and there are rumors about that some readers like to stew in the words of a story and not have to gulp them all down from the end of a fire hose.

Who knew?

So length and word count are always on the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. That’s not always a good thing. I’ve heard that the best length of any story is precisely the length it should be. Some stories are meant to be short. Others long. Many others somewhere in-between.

The general standard (some would dispute this) for length is above 20,000 words is a novella and above 50,000 words a novel. If you are well below 20,000, you’ve simply written a short story.

As I’m narrowing in on the ending to my trilogy, I’m finding that volume three is feeling shorter than the other two. Is that bad?

Well, it all depends, and this is where it gets messy and subjective. This is where a fresh pair of eyes and a good editor can help guide you.

I want an ending that’s satisfying but doesn’t drag. That’s well developed but not too short that the reader feels shortchanged. (As a side note, I know that not all readers think alike. Some will never be satisfied no matter the length, but that’s another post.)

How do you navigate your story so it’s exactly right? You can’t. No story is ever exactly right. But you can make decisions which will help guide in the right direction.

First, don’t fret on word count. If the story arc and development leads you to 40,000 rather than 70,000, then please leave it at 40. No one wants to read 30,000 useless words.

Second, make sure your story development delivers on all accounts. Characters. Have you satisfactorily shown their development? Do their decisions in the book make sense in a chronological way? Have you shown the readers what they are desiring and why they do the things they have done? If not, expand. If yes, move on and don’t say anymore. In regards to subplots, are they all necessary. Yes, you might be able to expand your novel another 10% by telling us a backstory or weaving a secondary thread through the plot, but is it necessary. Completely necessary to show characterization, so show foreshadowing, to bring the plot to realization?  If you can’t answer yes to all of these, then nix it. Perhaps write it a short story instead. Don’t bog down the storyline in unwanted information.

Third, slow down and let the language simmer a little more. You always want to keep your language short and concise, but don’t be afraid to expound a little. I’m writing this especially for me. Add that description–especially amidst the dialogue. Because I just love dialogue and I can write some of my draft chapters almost like a play. Not cool! Think of the reader. Show what happens. Describe the movements. Describe the scenery. But don’t feel compelled to write twenty pages about the topography of the protagonists hometown. (Please no! Keep it moving, remember)

A good editor will help you with all of these because, honestly, it’s so hard to judge one’s own writing.

How about you? What helps you in your writing endeavors?

Plotting or Plodding?

Humph! Here’s the real truth about writers: sometimes we have no idea how it’s all going to turn out.

I mean, really, what are we doing? What am I doing? What is my plot doing?

Sometimes it feels like I’m playing a giant connect-the-dots while blindfolded. Are these two dots really going to connect in the end?

This is an issue with any type of writing – including a stand-alone novel. But with a series, humph! Plotting seems like plodding at an ant’s pace.

I’m working on the final segment of The Forgotten Child Trilogy, and while I’m currently on chapter 19 – more than half way finished, I am starting to wonder how I’m going to tie up all of these strands. Yes, I like strands. Perhaps too much. Maybe I should have stuck with the third person limited. I did that once with the novel A Love Story For a Nation and I must admit it was freeing because every scene whether description or dialogue came from one person’s perspective. That’s why books which in the first person “I” have such an appeal.  It’s immediate. It’s personal. But let’s admit it. It’s also limiting.

My first series is being written in third person omniscient. It has to be this way because there are so many characters who are helping to tell the story. Now, I don’t write the narration from everyone’s perspective. In fact, there are three (maybe four) antagonists and I don’t tell it from their perspective at all. It’s just a choice I’ve made in this particular series. I wanted their motivations to be slightly obscured through the perspective of the different protagonists. Yes, this story is about many people.

There’s the rub. It can be confusing because I’m trying to balance many different strands from many different perspectives: Frick, Bee, Ash, Hatty, Ruthy, Rachany, Haddock, Adams & O’Malley – any more?

Okay, so what’s the solution? How to keep my head on straight?

First, take a deep breath and know that no one else – I mean no one – will ever see your first draft. So it’s okay if it’s terrible, and it usually is.  Just get the story down the best you can. You may not fill all holes at once and that’s okay.

Second, plan on spending the next six months doing rewrites and revisions. Just do it. Build in the time into your writing schedule. You’ll be amazed at how your mind will shift and you’ll get new ideas – better ideas – over time. Don’t be in a rush to get it done. Take your time.

Third, remember that it will work out in the end. It always does. The ‘i’s will be dotted the the ‘t’s crossed. It just takes time. It may seem chaotic right now, but after you write that next chapter, some clarity will come. More direction will be revealed and you’ll get there.

Four, remember to tie up all the ends even if it means re-writing. Don’t leave anything hanging when you come to the end of the series. Therefore, read the whole thing again. I know, I know. You told yourself that you’d rather bang your head against the wall than read your story one more time. But it will be worth it. Slow down. Read it again. Make sure it’s all tied up neatly in the end.

A good last impression is the best impression. Don’t let the end slip away from you.

Okay, now I need to start following my own advice.

Cancel Everything. Write and Discover.

A couple months ago, I was publicly weighing the options of how to write book three of my trilogy. I first stated how great outlining was, though I rarely used it before. Then I followed that up by stating that I just need to discover where I’m going before I get there.

I’m not a good third way into my novel and I realize how ridiculous all of this sounded. I can’t plan or outline or discover anything until I start writing.

Writing is outlining. Writing is planning. Writing is discovering. At least it is for me.

I fretted and worried about where this story would be going. How silly it all seems now!

As I started writing, I have discovered ideas that I would never have thought of before. I  came across plot shifts and surprising developments that even surprised me, the writer.

How does that work? How am I so blinded by my own story that it ends up surprising me?

It must be about a lack of development. When I outline an idea, it’s just a shell with not any structure standing around it. It sounds good at the time, but it’s hollow with no substance behind it.

Then I start writing. The first idea gets developed and that leads to a new set of objectives and details which I didn’t have in my writing bag before. So I shift gears and end up going in a direction which I couldn’t have anticipated.

When I’m not writing, it’s frightening because I can’t figure out what’s going to happen.

But when I’m writing, it’s exhilarating. It’s like walking down a virgin path in the woods and discovering a mysterious cave you never new was there. I don’t think I’ll doubt myself anymore.  This is how I write. This is how I live. I can’t plan. I don’t know how to. All of my plans fall through as my never-ending brain shifts and changes at the whims of a new idea.

So I think I will strop trying to write like anyone else but myself.

I write to discover. Period. Foreever and ever. I’ll leave the outlining to those really smart writers who have a singular mind which doesn’t change.

I’ll continue to change with the whims of the air. And my mind.