Thursday, December 29, 2011

Out of Character

This morning I saw something unusual. Something unbelievable. It lasted only about two minutes, yet I've been thinking about it for awhile. I watched a duck, one of those large and ugly Muscovy ducks, land in a white pine outside my lanai. 

It was absurd. I usually watch squirrels and woodpeckers in this tree. But this huge bird tried to go where it is not designed to go. I watched this duck gingerly step across the branch, its webbed feet awkward on the bough. It looked up into the pine needles and nearly lost its balance. It looked down along the bark, moving cautiously, like a human walking a tightrope. It inched along the limb until its own weight caused the tree limb to bend and the poor duck fell. Instinct caused it to extend wings but it was surrounded by pine cones, needles, and tree limbs. So it made quite a racket as it crashed through the lower branches until it was able to fly away.

I wonder what caused this duck to attempt to waddle on webbed feet through the treetops? I sat in disbelief by what I'd seen. There was a lesson behind it, brief though the observation was. 

This is must be how the reader feels when we ask our characters to act outside their nature. We  create our characters and so know (or should know anyway) what makes them tick. When we drop them into a tree (or some other scene or situation in which they do not belong) it sticks out for the reader, much like this duck distracted me from what I'd been doing. I had to stop and watch this absurdity play out. 

In our stories, though, the reader may not watch in disbelief, rubbing his or her eyes and wondering, "Am I seeing things?" The reader may drop the story in disappointment, feeling let down by the writer. "Does he really think I'm an idiot to believe this would happen next?" "Where did this timid character suddenly find such courage?" 

Its okay to challenge a character, to give him or her flaws. These make the character real, just as real people face unusual circumstances and learn and grow from them. But remember to play fair. You created the characters after all, so you should know how they will each act and react in a given situation. Dropping them into conflict just to stir things up doesn't help the story--or endear the reader to you or your characters.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sprawling Among Worlds

Wow! It's been such a long time since I've posted. But I still managed to find time to work on my projects. Not a lot of progress, but a few revelations and plot twists. The problem's been that though I have written whatever scenes have come to me, they haven't always been for the same project.

For instance, I've discovered how a homeless character survives during the heat of summer and how another character plans to stand up to her mother. I've explored the streets of 19th century New York City with yet another character. I've also been to a strange and sandy planet with two science fiction characters and have flown over ancient ruins (and across that world's time) on dragon back. I even found myself in the mind of a character who writes horror. (This new short story came to me on Christmas Eve.)

I guess these bits and glimpses of stories shouldn't surprise me; I've been stretched out among various teaching locations all autumn and have gotten used to focusing on one and then switching gears to prep for another group, venue, and age group. As busy as it was, I came  to thrive on the different group dynamics so it seems I would also enjoy the variety among my various writing projects and the different worlds each presents. 

Still, I'll take this progress over none at all.  Whether writing or teaching, neither feels like work. For that I am grateful and plan to continue "sprawling." 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

World Building

    It’s been almost two weeks since I returned from the SCBWI Florida Mid-Year Conference in Orlando. For the past three years it’s been held at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and Conference Center. Friday includes day-long intensive workshops followed by the Saturday conference.
    This year we skipped the intensives and went to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter instead. Last year, however, two of my friends attended the picture book intensive on Friday. Unfortunately, the novel intensive was full, and I can’t draw so the illustrator’s intensive wasn’t an option. So, I created my own “intensive.” I wandered the resort taking photos to inspire the setting of my fantasy novel.
    The Coronado Springs Resort has a Mayan theme. The conference center is decorated with interesting borders, decorative artifacts, and huge murals. 

 The different Casitas have different fa├žades. Those bordering the lake, edged with irises and water lilies, reminded me of dormitories or classroom buildings. Suddenly my main character was attending an academy to develop her gifts. Later she would travel to ruins to find forgotten (or protected) artifacts.

    As I wandered the path along the lake, I saw the flora transformed into vegetation in this magical world of the story. Eventually this path led to the large pool area which includes volleyball nets in sand lots, a games area with swings and slides for little kids, a concession stand, and a huge pool next to a Mayan step pyramid complete with twisted vines and a waterfall cascading down the center.

    Perhaps my characters would find a natural waterfall or pool on their adventures. Might it be spelled? Might it become a trap? The resort setting was helping me plot and plan.
    Themed signs around the pool also triggered my imagination. Some looked like they might be makers intended to ward off trespassers, and my imagination created possibilities for my characters to deal with.
    Beyond the pool was a wooded area and farther beyond that were smaller buildings housing townhouse-styled guest rooms. These all helped me create the academy’s campus and towns or villages to become part of the story.
    Benches and hammocks scattered along the edge of lake offered places for me to sit and record the thoughts triggered by the resort setting.  Later, I stopped at lake-side tables to eat and allow my imagination to fill in details.
    Though I didn’t attend an intensive, my intensive exploring aided in developing the setting, provided hints at plot, and helped me develop my characters. These photos and the others I took have helped me visualize the setting whenever I've had to be away from the project for awhile.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Story Collages

    Sometimes it helps to visualize a character before writing. Since I teach as well as write, I sometimes have gaps of time during which I do not get to work on my projects much. So creating a collage of images from clip art, magazines, and sometimes even crude drawings, helps me get back “into” the world and characters. Then I can quickly pick up the voice and begin writing.
    While talking about creating characters with a group of friends who write, I mentioned my collages. I expected them to react as if I were simply procrastinating. Instead, they wanted to know more.
    So, yesterday we gathered at my home to create these collages. Everyone brought magazines and I showed several of my previous collages. Then we began browsing magazines, ripping out images, cutting, exchanging, and pasting.
    Everyone’s collage reflected her own style. One focused on all the characters for a new project. Another pasted people and items that each character would own into a journal. Another, who writes picture books, made a composite of children the age of the main character to help visualize the reader. Another focused on facts about different characters and found images to represent those character traits. My collages blend character, setting, and items to represent character traits. No white space is visible in my collages; images overlap and pieces flow over the edge of the paper. I also include words to represent the theme or events of the story.
    It was interesting to see how each writer will use these  images to reconnect with a project. The characters and these collages are as diverse and unique as the writers creating them. Not only did this provide insight into my own characters but into the creativity of each of my writer friends.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Writing in "snippets"

     My workshop students often express how they struggle in finding time to write. I always share my “snippets of time” suggestion: if you can carve out 15-20 minutes here and there, you can write a few paragraphs at a time until your draft is finished. Then you revise 20 minutes at a time.
      Basically, if you want to write badly enough, you’ll find time, even if it’s snippets of time. My students appear dubious. Have I really done this?
     I have. For about five years, when I worked a full-time day job, this was the only way I could write. I used my “snippets” during my lunch break. Later, when I found a job that allowed me to arrange a 4-day work week, I still used the “snippets” to work on one magazine article a week. At this job I receive an entire hour as a lunch break. Though I didn’t need an entire hour to eat, I did need to get away from my desk so I’d spend the rest of my lunch hour researching the next article topic, reading a book about writing, writing a few paragraphs, drafting a cover or query letter, or researching markets. Every Monday on my way to work I’d mail off a manuscript or query letter.
      Eventually, the credits added up, led to other writing credits, and finally to my first book series: Kids Throughout History for the PowerKids imprint of Rosen Publishing. When I took on that project, I left that 4-day-a-week job for a half-time job at the District Library in that town. That job offered resources and encouragement from library staff and patrons. I doubled my output of writing—and accumulated bylines. 
     Now that I write full-time and teach part-time, I still use snippets on occasion. This method comes in especially handy during Season when the number of writing workshops I teach increases and it seems I’m teaching more than I’m writing. I can always find 20 minutes here or there to create a paragraph or a page at a time because writing is that important to me.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cycles of Writing

When I look back on the years I've been writing I realize that I've gone through cycles. At first I read everything I could by authors I admired. I studied how they did everything my writing teachers and mentors told me to do with my writing. Next I went through a period when I read everything I could get my hands on about the craft of writing. Then I wrote whenever I could squeeze in 20-minutes straight. Later, I read about the lives of other writers--when I wasn't working or writing.

At times the cycle repeated. If I felt burned out on the writing (and I have come to that point about three times in 25 years) I returned to the reading. Reading books of the type I wanted to write. Reading books on the craft of writing. Reading to find inspiration from the lives of other writers. 

I've recently allowed a period of burying myself in novels. It was a means to get through several hectic teaching semesters. Whenever I could, I squeezed in revisions on one book, promo work for others, and world-building for a new book. But I've also returned to reading about writing. On Monday I started reading The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans. So far, I highly recommend it. First, Athans is an editor at fantasy publisher Wizards of the Coast. Second, it is rare among books on this genre for the coverage of fantasy writing. Most well-known books on the topic are heavy on the sf. 

I've nearly finished reading it. That's saying a lot since I'm still teaching (and the summer terms are condensed semesters). When I finish I plan to reread and annotate it as I work on that world I'm building. I have a feeling I'm about to go through the "write whenever I can find 20 minutes" phrase of the cycle soon. What a great feeling!

Friday, May 20, 2011

All Things Writing

Words are my business! I write, I edit, I teach, I create and give presentations. Obviously words are important to me. They've fascinated me since before I could read. As a writer and educator I enjoy sharing all I've learned during 25 years as a professional writer. So, when I'm not writing or teaching (college, elementary arts enrichment, and writing workshops), I enjoy coaching other writers of all levels.

New writers need help with craft, with how best to weave their words into captivating tales. Other writers need motivation and encouragement when the rejections arrive. Even established authors benefit from someone who truly understands this business. And, it never hurts to have someone to be accountable to in reaching those writing goals. For all these writers, I've created this blog. I'll focus on the craft of writing, words, the writing process, and publishing. 

Click the links if you're looking for my "wonderings and wanderings," visit my website for more about me and my books. For news about upcoming programs visit "Lisa Wroble Writing" on Facebook.