Thursday, January 21, 2016

Writing With Quiet Hands

By Kristy McCaffrey

It’s that time of year when writers often decide to sharpen their skills, test the boundaries of their abilities, and become better at their chosen craft. I recently had the pleasure of reading Writing With Quiet Hands: How To Shape Your Writing To Resonate With Readers by author and literary agent Paula Munier (Writer’s Digest Books, 2015), and I couldn’t resist sharing some of the gems within.

If you’re an accomplished craftsman, the idea of quiet hands might be familiar. Quiet hands are confident and sure. In writing, inspiration is often considered the most necessary ingredient but without a mastery of craft even the most galvanized idea will fall flat.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” ~ Stephen King

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What are the tools of craft in writing? Voice, tone and style.

Munier says, “With your voice, you express your truth as a storyteller. With your tone, you communicate the emotion, atmosphere, and mood of your story. With your style, you articulate your story and give form to that expression.”

* * * *

A Word On Structure
The right structure for a story is critical to its success. Choosing the right place—the setting—can make a story shine, or fall flat. Basically, there’s a beginning, middle and end (the classic three-act structure). Whether you’re a plotter or a fly-by-your-pants writer, Munier advises not to overthink this formula. Other considerations: where to enter the story and where to exit it. Setting a time parameter can help a writer focus on the necessary events needed to unfold the story. Generally speaking, the shorter the time frame, the better. The best advice Munier has on structure is to “know your genre.”

“The debut writers in your genre are the writers you are competing against. The Sue Graftons and Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the world broke out and found their audiences years ago in a marketplace far different than the one all wannabe best-selling authors face today. They’re not your competition; they’re way beyond that.”

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While a common complaint from editors is a lack of connection with the main character, Munier says the reason she most often stops reading a story is a lack of narrative thrust. Scenes must build, characters must be complex, and everything must lead toward a climax. So, make things happen. In many stories, not enough transpires. Have your protagonist drive this action. Raise the stakes, with bigger and bigger obstacles. Add a deadline to enhance the urgency. Don’t overdo descriptions, but also don’t overdo dialogue. Above all, strive for clarity. Bottom line—pacing is crucial.

But she also stresses the importance of not pulling back on a first draft. Her advice is to write whatever works and let it take as long as it takes.

The second draft, however, is a different beast. Munier describes it as a “...supercharged developmental edit...” It’s here that you identify themes and weave them into the story, look at the imagery and symbology of the work, and milk the drama.

Many beginning writers tend to write in chunks—a chunk of description, then a chunk of backstory, then a chunk of dialogue. Instead, Munier suggests that each scene be a “tapestry of character, dialogue, action, backstory, inner monologue, and setting...”

Embrace revision and acquire editing skills. At the very least, learn to copyedit your own work (spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, typos, redundancies, inconsistencies, awkward sentences, etc.). You may pay for copyediting or developmental editing, but as a professional you should learn as much as you can and apply to your own work before sending it to others.

Things to address in revision:
Character Names—keep them simple and make sure the reader isn’t confused by similar names
Don’t write in dialect—ever
Tone Down The Hyperbole—don’t write melodrama
Watch Dialogue Tags—stick to ‘said’
Lose The Clich├ęs
Swap Weak Verbs For Strong Ones—weak verbs include all forms of “to be”
Lose The Adverbs—let the verb do all the work
Use All The Senses

And finally, develop good writing habits: write every day, have a quiet work space, live a healthy lifestyle. Habit is more dependable than inspiration.

“Writing is nothing less than a path to enlightenment. The best writers are the writers whose work is enlightened by experience and polished by craftsmanship. These are the writers who write with quiet hands.” ~ Paula Munier

Stay in touch with Kristy

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Great Work of Your Life

By Kristy McCaffrey

First, Happy New Year to one and all! This is a time of fresh starts and new ideas, so perhaps this post will spark a bit of recognition in your heart, especially for those who may be seeking that BIG question: What is my purpose?

When I was a little girl, I couldn’t NOT write. I filled dozens of journals, I categorized every aspect of the King Arthur legends onto notecards and filed them, I kept a log of every movie I’d ever seen. Narratives have flowed through me like the blood in my veins since as long as I can remember. So what did I do? I studied engineering in college. Did I feel it was my place in life? No.

In Stephen Cope’s The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling (Bantam Books, 2012), the author delves into the idea of dharma—a concept from Hinduism that encompasses one’s character or fundamental nature, the essential quality of who we are and what we’re meant to do here on Earth. This idea isn’t exclusive to Hinduism, however.

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” ~ Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

What does this mean? When you are fully immersed in a task that excites and invigorates you, you’ll come alive with energy. The endless and necessary hours of work and toil will be wholly satisfying. But if you deny the desire to move forward into an inspired task, you will lose more than just your purpose in life—you will cease to fulfill a potential that this world needs from you.

Dharma is sacred duty. How do you find this duty, this revered vocation? Within the divine texts of the Bhagavad Gita are four central truths.
            Look to your dharma—name it and embrace it.
            Do it full out—commit to it completely.
            Let go of the fruits—success and failure aren’t your concern.
            Turn it over to God—true vocation unites the individual soul to the divine soul.

In our lives, we’re each given a gift—you might call it THE gift, a desire within us to pursue that which calls from deep inside our soul. Cope states, “The Gift is God in disguise.”

In his book, Cope shares details from the lives of people who have lived their dharma. When Jane Goodall was four years old, she disappeared at her family home to hide in the hen house to learn how they lay eggs. This took hours of waiting. Naturally, her parents were frantic with worry. When she finally emerged, her mother—instead of scolding and punishing her—acknowledged what her daughter had been seeking. This validation is important in embracing one’s dharma, especially at a young age when we’re all impressionable to the opinions of those around us.

This is illuminated in the story of a man who became a priest, but what he really desired was to study and create music. He joined his vocation at the urging of his mother, who had always wanted a priest in the family. That he was close to the spiritual music of the church seemed to fulfill him, but not quite. Over time, he became depressed and unhappy, and ceased to be the best priest he could be. Even more, he was despondent from being near to that which called to his soul but not fully joined to it.

We serve no one—least of all ourselves—by not acknowledging and fulfilling our dharma.

When I began writing in earnest, I was filled with doubts. I embarked on a long journey to learn the craft of writing, which hasn’t always been easy. I made mistakes and stumbled, and for a long time I spent more money than I made. But I have never ceased to feel that I was on the right path. I’ve come to believe it’s not the writing itself that is my dharma, but rather the way it propels me forward into areas of curiosity. I’m simply a conduit to filter and share what I learn with others.

What is your dharma?

Stay in touch with Kristy