Tag Archives | writing

The Lesson of the Super Suit Scene

I’ve been thinking a lot about this scene from the movie The Incredibles (the first one). In case you haven’t seen it, it comes near the end of the movie, when the big bad is attacking the city. It’s the Super Suit Scene.

I Am The Greatest Good…

The movie cuts away from our main characters (Mr. Incredible and his family) and jumps to Frozone, the sidekick. As you can see, in the clip, it would have been really easy to simply show the man getting ready for a night with his wife, when – bam – a robot comes stomping down the street. Done. Six seconds. And scene.

But no. The scene goes on for another forty seconds in what is arguably one of the best moments of the movie. In that forty seconds, without EVER seeing the wife that he’s arguing with, we get to know this character and what his life is like:

He lives in stylish condo.
He is a dude who cares about his appearance.
He is married to a woman who keeps his shit together for him.
They have the kind of relationship where they can just yell at each other from the other room (also – she is probably in the kitchen cooking, which is why she doesn’t come to argue in person – which leads one to believe that he’s not much for helping out in the kitchen).
They host dinner parties, but have busy lives that make it the kind of thing you have to plan far in advance.
He is prioritizing being a super hero.
She knows his priorities and isn’t happy about it.
They have had this argument before.

It’s an awesome scene, because all of those things we learn about him are things we can relate to. Who hasn’t had an argument with their spouse from the other room? Who hasn’t had priorities that our spouse didn’t understand? Who hasn’t found themselves rushing around to find their shoes/keys/super suit?

And they could have totally just cut it after those first six seconds. Those were enough to explain his presence in the next scene, but instead they ran with it, and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

Giving Our Sidekicks The Time

It has me thinking about my own minor characters. What scenes have I cut after the first six seconds (so to speak)? Would those scenes be better if I let them run a little? What could I learn about the character if I did? Would those things make them more relatable? Would it serve the story as a whole?

I don’t know that I will ever write anything as brilliant as the Super Suit scene, but it’s good to have goals.

Continue Reading

Four Easy Ways to Make Scrivener Instantly Awesome

Scrivener 3.0Last week I had lunch with a writer friend who recently took the leap and downloaded the Scrivener app. I was so excited for her, because, well, I’m such a Scrivener nerd. I pulled my laptop out right there in the restaurant and showed her a few of my favorite little tricks, just enough to get her started without being overwhelming. And it seemed to me that others out there might be interested. So here we go:

Four Easy Ways to Make Scrivener Instantly Awesome

1. My number one favorite way in which Scrivener helps me with my writing is with the daily word count. Especially if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year, you have to check this out. It allows you to enter your writing days (for example: I write Monday through Saturday and take Sunday off), and then calculates how many words a day you have to write to hit your goal. If you miss a day it recalculates automatically. It’s AWESOME for keeping on track with writing goals.

2. Second is Scrivener Snapshots. This has changed the way I organize versions of my story in ways I didn’t even appreciated when I started. Used to be, every time I changed something significant in my story, I would save a new version and my files were cluttered with drafts and I could never find anything. Scrivener Snapshots made all that a thing of the past.

3. Similar to how I used to save drafts, I used to have files stuffed full of research, both on my computer and in my web browser, and I could never find anything. In Scrivener, you can drag and drop whole websites into your research files and never have to go looking for shit ever again. You can even access them when you’re offline. Awesome.

4. Then, once you have all that research, you can open it easily without losing your place in your writing by using Quick Reference Windows. Sometimes I’ll use this function to open an image so I can look at it as I’m describing it. Sometimes I use it to reference historical facts, or orient myself geographically in a city. You can also use it to open another chapter and view it beside the one you’re working on. So handy.

Using those four basic tools makes Scrivener instantly awesome, but there’s much more, when you’re ready…

For Instance

You could just type “Scrivener” in to the search bar here on my website (top right there) and see everything I’ve ever written on the topic, but here are a few of my favorite, slightly more advanced, tricks and tips:

Color coding your files/chapters
Using the Corkboard View
Word frequency function (great for highlighting those pesky adverbs)
The handy name generator
Track your work history
Get nerdy with meta-data

And the coolest thing about Scrivener is that I keep discovering ways in which it makes my life easier (well, my writing life at least). To keep learning with me, consider signing up for my newsletter (to get these posts in your inbox every Friday), or follow me on Twitter (where I share links to all kinds of good Scrivener info).

Continue Reading

Google Maps Street View: An Awesome Writing Tool

Google Street View Writing Tool
Before I jump into this week’s post, I just want to say THANK YOU to everyone who gave an opinion on last week’s post. Your feedback is so helpful. It’s looking like the orange background is going to win it, but I’ll let you know when I make my final decision. Okay… onward!

Today I want to share a brilliant new writing tool I discovered while working on my novel: Google Maps Street View. It’s so obvious I’m kind of embarrassed that it took me so long to take advantage of it.

Using Google Maps to “See” a Place

Around page 98, my main character drives through a small town outside of Barstow. In editing, I realized that I didn’t really illustrate the scene very well. I couldn’t, because I had never been there, and therefore had no concrete details to share about it. Then it occurred to me – I don’t have to go there.

I pulled up the town on Google Maps, chose a corner that made sense for my scene to take place on and dragged the little yellow man into place to get the street view. So awesome. It was all tall signs and squat buildings in dusty shades. I “rolled” down the street a bit to see how the road slowly transitioned from sun-bleached town to lonely desert. There were two traffic signals.

A Word of Caution

Researching a place this way, I couldn’t smell the air, or notice how the people interact. I couldn’t feel the heat of the day on my face. I couldn’t hear the whistle of a train in the distance. There’s a lot you can’t get from “walking” down a street virtually, but if you’re just looking for a detail or two to set a scene, it’s amazing.

That said, I would never have used this trick for getting to know the main setting of my story. If I had tried to portray an ostrich farm without actually going to one, the story would have surly rung hollow. Because it’s those precise details (the heat, the train whistle) that make a reader feel like their with their narrator in the world of the story.

Also, I think it’s one of the biggest perks of being a writer that you can go anywhere and investigate anything in the name of research. Show me a writer who hasn’t worried about the FBI scanning their browser history and I’ll show you someone who writers boring stories.

Continue Reading

“142 Ostriches” Is Getting Published!

debut novel getting publishedI have been holding out on you, dear readers. For almost two months now I’ve been dying to tell you the news, but I didn’t want to jinx anything. I’m superstitious like that. But the paperwork has been signed, it’s all official. My manuscript was purchased and will be published by Kensington Publishing.

Shortly after the offer was made, I had my first phone conversation with my editor, Kensington Editor-In-Chief John Scognamiglio, and he explained how he feels my book should be released in the spring, and since they already have their spring slate for 2019, my book will be coming out in the first half of 2020. It feels like FOREVER away, but I know the time will pass quickly. And there are benefits to having such a long lead time. For one, my second book should be well on its way by the time the first one comes out, which will be fun.

Another plus is that I have plenty of time to prepare for promoting the book. Already I’ve spent a fair amount of time working on the six-page marketing questionnaire sent to me by my editor. It asks everything from “Who do you think will buy your book?” to “Are you a regular contributor to any magazines or newspapers?” It’s a surprising amount of work, and I’m only just getting started.

Right after I jumped into the questionnaire, I saw that Jane Friedman recently published a new book called The Business of Being a Writer. She’s one of the few writing/publishing experts I pay close attention to because she always cuts to the chase and seems to know what it is I’m hoping to learn. So I bought her book. And it totally delivered, so I gotta give it a plug here.

Not only does the book walk through contracts in a way that really helped me understand what I was looking at, she also talks about how royalties break down, how to build a platform and network to promote yourself, and what to expect overall when one is trying to build a career as a writer. Definitely worth a read.

Anyway, next step for me is to get an author headshot. Ug. I kind of wish I could just stick with the image I use on everything already, but it’s getting pretty old, and it’s only going to be older by the time the books comes out, so I’m biting the bullet and getting it done tomorrow. So tonight is all about the beauty rest… I even got my nails done. I’ll share my favorites in an upcoming post and get your thoughts.

I’m sure there will be much more to say about all this publishing stuff as time goes on, but for now I’m too busy celebrating to write much more. Cheers!

Continue Reading

Five Good Sentences – The Key To Getting Unstuck

I’ve been struggling with my new story. I just can’t seem to find my way into it. I have an instinct that having some kind of structure to work into might help, but I can’ seem to crack that nut. Yesterday, I spent two and half hours of precious writing time just staring at my computer.

This has never happened to me before.

Stuck

If you follow along, you know I have been working on this project, I’m calling it Novel 2, for a long time. Whenever I would get frustrated with Novel 1, I would stick it in a drawer and work on Novel 2. Then, in 2016, I took a month-long break from Novel 1 and did NaNoWriMo, so that was another 50,000 words there. Over the years, I have amassed a lot of pages. One might even say a first draft, but then… but then…

First drafts can only go so far. Then it’s time to start rewriting and I was effing stuck. I don’t believe in writers block, but getting stuck is real as a mo-fo. To try and get unstuck I had a little gripe session with my bestie, then took a step back. How can I be so stuck when I have so many pages of writing? I told myself (without considering if it was really true) that somewhere in those pages, there must be SOMETHING I can work with.

Getting Unstuck

And then I remembered something I heard Tom Barbash say while I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He said something about a writer who would read his first drafts hoping to find five good sentences he could work with.

As luck would have it, as I was googling Tom so I could share a link to his bio, I came across this video of discussing this very topic. Check it out:

I thought to myself: five good sentences is a pretty low bar.

Five Good Sentences

So I put aside all judgements and all worries about how and the hell I’m going to structure this story, what the POV will be or how our narrator knows what she knows, and I just read it.

And you know what? It’s not all bad. I mean, it’s pretty bad. It’s a crappy first draft, but there are way more than five sentences that I can work with. And that is really encouraging.

Just like that, I’m unstuck. I still don’t have answers to all those questions I mentioned, but I’m just going to keep writing and trust that the answers will come. Because writing is kind of magical like that. Our job, as writers, is just to show up, put our fingers on the keyboard, and make space for the magic.

Continue Reading

The Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Four writers I fell in love with (left to right): Kirstin Valdez Quade, Tom Barbash, Peter Orner and Elizabeth Tallent, with Zzyva editor Oscar Villalon

I am exhausted. In the past month I’ve slept at home, in my own bed for only four days. It’s my own fault. I planned this summer’s schedule, but honestly, when I did, I didn’t expect to get into the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. I had applied before and not been invited, so I didn’t bother planning my summer around it. So when I did get in (high five!) I had to rearrange my plans and things got a little hectic. I regret nothing.

In case you’re unfamiliar, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is a conference. Every day starts with writing workshops. After a lunch break, participants come together for craft talks, panels, and readings. Basically, as a participant, you start with your workshop group at 8:30am, eat, then get back to learning and absorbing until well after dark when the authors do readings under the stars. Then you race home to read and make notes for the next morning’s workshop. It’s a marathon of a week. Not for the faint at heart.

Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Edan Lepucki reading early in the week.

I learned so much, and met some amazing writers, but since I usually try to keep things focused on the practical here, I thought I would share a few things I learned (or learned again) about workshopping. These ideas apply to anyone giving or receiving feedback on their work, so don’t feel like you have to go to a conference to use them. Just grab a writing buddy and start helping each other out.

Here they are:

1. Before giving feedback, read the work at least twice. The first time through, just read. Don’t even hold your pen. If you can, take a break after the first read, then come back with your pen and set to work.

2. Aim for four comments/notes per page. I like to put check marks next to things that work for me, and sometimes that’s all I have on a page, but it can be hard to get feedback, so hearing about what works is just as important as hearing about what doesn’t.

3. Don’t push your own expectations onto the story. Pretend you’re reading the New Yorker. If you don’t understand it, consider that maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re not getting what the author is going for. Maybe they are jumping POVs on purpose, or slipping around in time to represent a character’s state of mind. Don’t be too quick to judge.

4. If you get conflicting feedback from readers, see it as a sign that something isn’t landing on the page. The analogy, given by (the incisively thoughtful) Charmaine Craig, was that of a fever – it is just a symptom of infection. You have to be the doctor and get in there to diagnose and then cure.

5. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t figured something out (like theme or who the murder victim is). Your confusion will be your reader’s delight because the story won’t be telegraphed. As you discover the answers, so will your readers. Your story will be better for it.

Those are some of the highlights.

And with that I will simply close by encouraging everyone out there to apply to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And if you don’t get in, keep trying. It was such a great experience.

And one more photo from a little hike I took mid-week. So pretty:
Squaw Valley Community of Writers

Continue Reading

I Want to Be A Badass

I married into soccer the way other people marry into Catholicism. World Cup is like Lent – we don’t mess around. But in all seriousness, I’ve really come to appreciate the sport. It is a beautiful game, and I enjoy watching, but the thing I love most of all, the reason I keep coming back to sit next to my husband on the couch is this moment:

The moment right after a hard-won goal is scored and the striker loses his damn mind is absolutely captivating to me. I can almost feel that adrenaline pumping in my own veins, feel the exaltation so good it hurts. Almost.

As writers, we don’t really get that moment. When things are going really well we can slip into that magical zone where it doesn’t feel like work, but never have I ever been so overcome with my prose that I’ve slid across the floor on my knees, fists balled, screaming to the heavens.

Writing is like a sloth playing soccer. Though I’ve never actually played a game, and I’ve never (literally) been a sloth, it seems to me an apt metaphor. It’s not that we don’t struggle, or get tired, or sometimes put the ball right where we want it, it’s just that all the emotions of a ninety minute game are stretched out over years (sometimes a lot of years).

I crave that feeling. I wish I could cram the experience of writing a book into ninety minutes. I want to be a fucking badass, sliding across the grass knowing that, hell yes, that just happened. But it’s never going to happen at my laptop, and I don’t know how to manage my disappointment at that.

Am I alone in this? Any other writers out there get that craving for adrenaline and pressure and putting it all on the line? If so, how do you blow off steam? Have you found a way to bring that intensity to your writing? How can we balance the fact that our job is to sit quietly, alone, at a screen all day, when sometimes we want to run and yell and be a total badass? I’m not being rhetorical here, I really want to know…

Continue Reading

Taking a Vacation From Writing

Happy 4th of July everyone! My family and I are celebrating the country by being back in it. Yep, home sweet home. We just spent two weeks on vacation in South America doing a 10-day guided tour of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas, and then a stopover in Quito, Ecuador to visit my husband’s family for a few days.

It was an epic trip. We’ve been planning it for months. And one of the things I always wrestle with when we go on vacation is whether or not to bring my writing. The decision was made harder this year by the fact that the deadline to submit my pages for the Squaw Valley Community of Writers was about a week after we were scheduled to leave. So my choices were to bust my ass and get the work done before we left, or bring my lap top and work up until the last possible minute.

Well, there was no way I was going to be sitting in the hotel room in Cusco working while the family went exploring. I busted my ass. I carved out as much time as I could to polish up those pages and put as bright a shine on them as I could. Then, the day before we left, I sent the pages in, closed my laptop, and got to packing.

Then the anxiety set it. Partly it was anxiety about the pages I submitted. Imposter Syndrome is real, people. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I could have made those pages better. But there was nothing to be done at that point. Except stress about it. Because, you know, that’s fun.

Also, I’ve realized over the years that I get anxious when I don’t write for more than a day or two. In the past I’ve devised little writing exercises to take on vacation and keep my writer brain engaged while I’m away from a story, but this time I didn’t want to bring busy work. I wanted to relax and enjoy my vacation. I wanted to not work.

I compromised by journaling. I brought the notebook I use for morning pages and took the time to write about our experiences. Decidedly NOT work, but it was enough writing to keep the anxiety at bay. (Some day I’ll reflect on why I’m a mess when I don’t write, but for now, I’ll embrace it as motivation.)

Here are a few more photos from the trip.

How do you manage writing on vacation? Do you bring the laptop? Always or just sometimes? Do you enjoy stepping away from your work, or does it make you nervous like me? Do you have any advice for dealing with the nervous rash I get when I don’t write (wait, let me guess – therapy)?

 

Continue Reading

First Idea, Best Idea?

Back when I was in grad school studying all things writing, I had a professor who insisted that when you’re writing you should trust your instincts and always go with your first idea. He was really emphatic about it.

Well, I thought about that long and hard. Then I dropped his class.

Back then I couldn’t really articulate why I thought this was such bad advice. I only knew that my first ideas are, more often than not, my worst ideas. Cliché, predictable, boring.

But since then, I’ve had some time to think about it. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Instincts Have Their Place

As humans, we are pattern seeking animals. We are quick to categorize. This has served us well over the course of our evolution. For instance, if you see a red glob of color with little black dots all over it and a green leafy top, you think “strawberry” and eat it. If you see a bug buzzing around in black and yellow, you think “bee” and leave it alone.

But as writers, we have to dig deeper than those first instincts, those base impulses that have kept our species alive for so long.

As an example, lets say I want to show that my character is happy at receiving some very good news. I could show him smiling. Yes. Smiling. Everyone knows that smiling means happy. But it’s boring.

Dig Deeper

To create a more interesting character, and tell a more interesting story, I need to explore what happy is to this particular character. Does he sing when he’s happy? Whistle? Does he tuck his chin, like he’s afraid to show his happiness? Is he more likely to buy something or give money to a homeless person on the streets? That’s five more ideas.

Five isn’t a bad start, but really I’m just sorting through more of the placeholder images in my head for “happy.” The reason people usually stop there is that it’s a lot of work to come up with unique ideas.

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Do It

Another teacher I had in grad school (one whose class I didn’t drop) suggested making a list of at least thirty possibilities. You’ll find your best (most literary) options at the end of the list.

So here goes… Things my character might do after receiving good news:
6. push his hair back from his head
7. go outside
8. jump up and down
9. call a family member
10. run
11. write a note
12. drink alcohol
13. drink something else
14. smoke pot
15. dance around the room
16. lay down on his back and lace his fingers over his chest
17. jump up and dangle from a tree branch
18. cinnamon toast
19. make his bed
20. clap
21. talk to his cat
22. throw a rock
23. tell a stranger on the street the news
24. post it to social media
25. make a sign for the window of the house
26. sit back in his chair and just soak it up
27. polish his shoes
28. play an old favorite song
29. kiss his wife
30. handstand

You can probably tell I got a little stuck there around 19. Who makes their bed when they get good news? Nobody I know. And actually, it’s hard to say which of these is the right choice, since this is not a character I actually know, but I do think those last three are interesting. In fact, I really like 28. In my mind he’s putting on an old record of some Ramones song and rocking out, letting the excited energy fly. That could be a fun scene.

What do you think? Do you usually go with your first idea? If so, do you find it changes as you write it? Or do you, like me, have to dig to find the little gems that make a story fun?

Continue Reading

How to Open a Quick Reference Window in Scrivener in One Step

This post assumes you’re working with Scrivener 3.0. If you haven’t yet upgraded to 3.0, check out this post for a basic overview of the software update. 


One of the things I like best about Scrivener is the flexibility. There’s rarely just one way to do something. But when it comes to quick reference windows, I sometimes feel like there’s so many options on how to view them that the options overwhelm my distracted brain and I end up not being able to remember any of them.

Well, in my current project, I have a lot of reference material – things I’ve pulled from the Internet, timelines, photos – and out of necessity I’ve finally found the quickest, easiest way to pull things up when I just want a quick look and don’t want to lose my place in my writing.

Back Up

What’s a quick reference window, you ask? It’s a small window that floats above the window you’re working in so that you can see your research (or another section of your writing) while you’re writing.

It looks like this:

Sweet. Show Me How

It’s so simple. I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out. Just drag and drop the thing you want to see in the pop-up window to the little icon at the top that looks like a pad of paper with a pencil.

To really use this trick like a pro, don’t click on the thing you want to show in the pop-up window. Doing that will jump you away from what you’re working on. Just drag and drop. Bam.

Like a Boss

That’s pretty much it for today, but as a parting shot, here are a few more tricks you can do with the quick reference window function:

If you think better with all your material spread out for you to see, take heart, you can open as many windows as you want. There’s probably a limit, but I haven’t found it. Just keep dragging and dropping and windows will keep popping up:

If you’re curious how I got a whole webpage to show up in my research section, you probably missed this post on how to embed a website.

If you like to minimize distractions, check out this post on how to view your research in composition mode.

Do you have any unusual ways to use the quick reference windows in your writing? Share them in the comments below. It’s always fun to hear how other writers are making the most of their software.

Continue Reading