Tag Archive for writing techniques

Try Q&A to Dissolve Writer’s Block

“You don’t get me.”photo

“What do you mean?”

“You think you know everything I’m going to say before I say it. You don’t ask; you don’t listen. It’s getting old. I’m done with this.”

Sounds like a couple arguing. It’s not. Rather, it’s me doing what I do when I get what some call writer’s block. I’m skeptical about the term because I grew up in newsrooms where writer’s block wasn’t permitted.

“Writer’s block?” some editor would yell. “We work for a daily newspaper. Cut the crap and get me that story by four.”

Writing fiction is different. When an author tries to force or rush the relationship with his characters, they become predictable, or worse, stop talking altogether. The first time I felt this happen, it stopped me cold. What’s worse than predictable fiction?

I pushed back, thought about it, and decided to try a solution from my reporting days. I put the story aside and drew up half a dozen questions for my rebellious character. Then I sat us down and conducted an interview. The most challenging part was relinquishing authorial control and “answering” in the character’s voice.

In my novel Bootlicker, for instance, Ike Washington is on the verge of becoming South Carolina’s first black congressman since the Civil War. He has the looks, the pull and the votes. But he has risen to power on the coattails of a racist U.S. senator, and that knowledge haunts him. Voters weighing their choices in 1992 smile to his face and call him bootlicker behind his back.

During the writing process, Ike didn’t always like the way things were going. He and I broke away from the narrative several times for some intense back and forth.

I’d say: Senator McCauley coerced you in the beginning, but it didn’t take long before you went along willingly. You liked becoming Big Ike.

And he’d fire back: Easy to say from where you sit. I was a scared kid at the start. I didn’t know how to say no to the most important white man in town.

It’s an interesting drill, and I left my desk more than once feeling a little dazed. Allowing the characters to speak up led to a few plot twists I hadn’t expected, plus dialogue that felt more real than when I was unilaterally calling the shots.

My talks with Ike also led to a series of short, stand-alone chapters where Ike’s nightmares bring him face to face with a man McCauley and the Klan lynched decades earlier. Ike stumbled on the crime scene and has always felt guilty that he didn’t prevent the murder, or reveal the truth afterwards. I would not have had these scenes had I not asked Ike about his dreams.

There’s a joke that goes something like, “The answer to writer’s block is simple. Lower your standards.”

Before taking that easy out, try doing a few interviews. It worked for me.

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7 Tips for Better Sex (Scenes)

A hot young couple. Alone at last. He hisses, “Tell me what you want.” She murmurs, “You know what I want.”sex copy

Now Imagine a couple married 32 years in the middle of a garage that hasn’t been cleaned since their 20th anniversary.

“Tell me what you want,” he shouts, exasperated. She is equally frustrated. She wants to park in the garage, but can’t because of the mess.

“You know what I want,” she says.

When it comes to sex scenes, context, tone and tenor matter more than size.

As writers, how do we capture the sexual tension as well as the act – for the two are not the same – in a way that is arousing, revealing – in terms of character development – and which successfully moves the story forward?

Here are seven tips:

1 – Use Sex Scenes To Expose Your Characters

Well-written sex scenes are titillating, sure, but they can also reveal personality, creativity, and other traits. Is she comfortable enough to guide him? If so, does she whisper directions? Move his hands? Change his pace? Are these two givers or takers? Traditional or experimental? Talkers or quiet? Are they clumsy? Athletic? Patient? Frantic? Do they want the lights on?

2 – Eroticism Should Advance the Story

This actual line from a work of fiction does not advance the story: “When he slid his tongue into my mouth, I felt like a pork loin simmering away on the stove. All warm and mushy.” When the passion has subsided, we should be further along in the story than when clothes started flying.

3 – Treat Sex Scenes Like Any Action Scenes

Sex is not new. Courtship is not new. The chase is not new. Everyone knows a lot about the subject. If you’re going to tackle sexual tension and the act – or its many variations – you must work extra hard to make your prose unique. As Kerouac said, “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”

4 – Be the Bikini

A skimpy bathing suit or short black dress is more erotic than a naked body.  There are things readers do not want to see, hear or smell in sex scenes. Leave a little to the imagination. Be the bikini.

5 – Prevent Premature Evacuation

We speak in fiction of breaking the dream – of writing something that is so jarring it stops the reader cold. It could be a line of awful dialogue, a factual error, or an inaccurate description of a city. Or it could be plain old bad writing – a confusing sentence or a participle dangling.  Commit any of these infractions and your readers will be gone – premature evacuation.

6 – Beta Test Trusted Readers

That means well-read folks (professional writers or editors if you know or can afford them) who will give an honest reaction to your work.

7 – Attend to Before and After, as well as During

Before: What makes sex sexy is all that goes on beforehand – the eye contact, the sparring, the walk to the door. Just as you only get one chance to make a first impression, the first kiss is also the last first kiss. The path isn’t always smooth. That’s okay. Bumpy is fine so long as the bumps are intended and believable.

After: Theoretically, there’s no more tension now. What’s going to keep the readers interested? The cliché is that women want to cuddle; men want to get out as fast as possible. Avoid the cliché, just as you would with anything you write. What they do and say here is important. Be creative.

What else goes into a well-planned sex scene?

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Outgoing Writing Students Share Tips for Success

One of the challenges of teaching writing classes to college kids is that they all come in with different levels of interest and experience.

Here are three things I do at American University to help smooth the way.AU outside

1 – Before the semester begins, I send out a short survey. I ask my incoming students how much they’ve written outside the classroom, why they’re taking the class (no penalty if it’s simply to fulfill a requirement), and their toughest writing challenges. I find the kids appreciate being asked and are happy to respond.

2 – On opening night, I pitch like a used car salesman. I know most will not go on to writing or communications careers. I tell them to think of their time with me as cross training for whatever field they eventually choose. I point to studies that show employers place high value in employees who are clear and concise. I warn they will hear a lot from me about precision and clarity.

3 – On finals night, I offer a bonus. Sharing a tip for success with my next students earns two free points. Most remember they were afforded this opportunity thanks to the previous class, and include some lesson learned. I’m always surprised by one or two comments on the tip sheet, which you can find (unedited) here on the class blog.

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Dial Up Sex Scenes Webinar 3/11

Tune in 3/11 & 3/28

Tune in 3/11 & 3/28

Which sells, sex or sexy? As we know, the answer is, both sell. Some audiences are impatient, others prefer drawing a little tension-building romance and seduction. The act – and the writing of the act – are intensely personal. As with any form of writing, the more you practice, the better you get. But practice what, and how?

Attraction, they say, begins with the eyes. Male or female, we see something we like and quickly – almost primitively – begin plotting to get it. Sometimes the plotting is deliberate and obvious; sometimes it’s sweet and subtle.

Where does it happen? Why does it happen? What do our eyes take in? What smells are in the air? Where does attraction strike and how long does it take to go from mutual appreciation to a shared laugh … to hands touching … to a private setting and then to a first kiss? Or does it all happen in plain view – say on the beach at sunset – or at 2 a.m. in a club with music blaring and the bass cranked up so high, it feels like your own heartbeat?

Most relevant from the writer’s perspective, how do we capture the sexual tension as well as the act – for the two are not the same – in a way that is arousing, revealing – in terms of character development – and which successfully moves the story forward?

I hope you’ll join me for a webinar that will explore these questions and many more next Tuesday (3/11) at 7:30 p.m. and/or on March 28 at 1:30 p.m. EST. Mark your calendars and sign up here.

Follow this link to subscribe to Steve’s Back Story blog.

 

Let’s Undress a Few Sex Scenes

Illus3-Dan&RuthieWhich sells, sex or sexy? As we know, the answer is, both sell. Some audiences are impatient, others prefer drawing a little tension-building romance and seduction. The act – and the writing of the act – are intensely personal. As with any form of writing, the more you practice, the better you get. But practice what, and how?

Attraction, they say, begins with the eyes. Male or female, we see something we like and quickly – almost primitively – begin plotting to get it. Sometimes the plotting is deliberate and obvious; sometimes it’s sweet and subtle.

Where does it happen? Why does it happen? What do our eyes take in? What smells are in the air? Where does attraction strike and how long does it take to go from mutual appreciation to a shared laugh … to hands touching … to a private setting and then to a first kiss? Or does it all happen in plain view – say on the beach at sunset – or at 2 a.m. in a club with music blaring and the bass cranked up so high, it feels like your own heartbeat?

Most relevant from the writer’s perspective, how do we capture the sexual tension as well as the act – for the two are not the same – in a way that is arousing, revealing – in terms of character development – and which successfully moves the story forward?

I hope you’ll join me for a webinar that will explore these questions and many more on March 28 at 1:30 p.m. EST. Mark your calendars and sign up here.

Follow this link to subscribe to Steve’s Back Story blog.

 

Free Webinar 10/1: Character Above All

Uncover your characters' secrets

Uncover your characters’ secrets

Novelists know that our characters begin much like the little wooden boy began. They sit one-dimensional, quiet and unmoving unless – or until – we pull the strings. Only then do they start to move, talk, lie and grow big noses. But a funny thing happens the deeper you get into your story. Call it growth. As your characters develop and mature, they come alive. Your work at the keyboard is like the blue dust that turned the wooden boy into Pinocchio. Once this transformation takes place, your characters become more like sentient beings, full of the same needs and emotions that drive the rest of us. Those of you with children will recognize this as a significant moment – the day when the kids begin expressing their own point of view, and when your words are no longer accepted as gospel simply because you are the parent. Yes, you can subdue or quiet your characters in a way that will not work with your children, but that is the wrong strategy, in my view. For if you look at the writing of a novel as a journey through uncharted territory – and with you as the leader – your characters, if you let them, if you talk to them, ask questions and listen to what they have to say … will steer you to fascinating and secret places that do not exist on any map. And that is where your stories will take off. I hope you’ll join this discussion in a free webinar Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

 

 

Free Webinar Tuesday: Honing in on Those Distinctive Details

Free writing webinar Tuesday

Free writing webinar Tuesday

What separates great and average writing? A sharp eye and the ability to turn important details into compelling storytelling. As legendary basketball coach John Wooden said, “Little things make big things happen.” Dial up this webinar and be prepared for a deep dive into the small details that will make your writing unique and original. The sign-up sheet is here.

 

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Improve Your Blog Posts: Free Webinar Tuesday!

Author Steve Piacente with Bootlicker poster

Come blog with me …

Cover the 5 C’s, and you’ll be blogging with more confidence and capturing the attention of more readers. Come learn and try a few exercises in my free webinar on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The sign-up sheet is here. Hope to see you Tuesday!

To subscribe to Steve’s Back Story blog, please click the green or orange icon on the blog homepage.

Defeat Writer’s Block: Free Webinar

Bust through writer's block

It’s time to break through writer’s block.

You pace. You change rooms. You turn on music, get coffee, and put up laundry. Nothing works; the words simply will not come. The answer isn’t trying to stare down the screen. The answer lies in unclogging the creative channels that produce the ideas and prose hiding within. Join me Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. for a free webinar focused on tactics and exercises that will help you vanquish dreaded writer’s block. The sign-up sheet is here.

Take a Breath – They’re Free

Last week I hosted a webinar on how to launch a book, did a radio interview, wrote a blog post, sent out two dozen tweets, pinned some photos on Pinterest, began making preparations for part two of the webinar, and started planning two upcoming swings to Miami and Charleston, S.C. to promote my new novel Bootlicker.

Next week will bring more of the same. Same for the week after, and the week after that.

Today I’m sitting back and enjoying a beautiful morning in Lovettsville, Va., where in several hours my daughter will be married.

You don’t need a wedding in the family to take a break from marketing and promotion. It’s important to step back once in awhile, take a breath and enjoy the beauty of a fall morning in the country. Try it, you’ll see I’m right.

First dance …