My Critique Group

Last night was the monthly meeting of my critique group, the Working Writer’s Forum, that both Laura and I belong to. It’s where we met and started working together. For the last five years almost all of my writing has been done with Laura and most of it has been screenplays.

script notations

Since Laura has been very busy with her day job, I recently pulled out the first chapters of the third novel in my Caribbean series. I last worked on it almost seven years ago, but like to think I am a better writer now, so I submitted the first 25 pages to the group.

One of our rules is that you have to say some nice things before you make helpful suggestions. So my writing friends said some nice things, and then pointed out that I had forgotten some fundamental rules and made some beginner mistakes.

“I don’t know what these characters look like,” one of my critique group said. Of course I knew what they all looked like. They’d already been in two books. How could I have forgotten to describe Lissa and Yvie except to say they had green eyes?

Another reminded me that “she said” suffices most of the time. Descriptions of how someone says something is not usually needed.

“How about something more exciting in the first couple of pages, a hook for the reader,” a third person suggested. I thought I had a hook, but obviously it was too many pages into the first chapter.

As we went around the able, a number of the group noted some problems with dialogue so I went searching for help. The Writer’s Digest had some suggestions on their website.

“If you want to learn how to write effective dialogue, study the best plays and films. If possible, study dialogue both in performance (live or video) and in print. Read plays and screenplays to get the feel of writing on the page.

And, in the best scripts, what writing it is—pure dialogue unadulterated by music, actor expression, pictures, or narrative transition supplied by an author. Read it aloud to get a flavor of the emotion contained within the word choice made by the writer of the screenplay. Playwrights and screenwriters who succeed at their craft are probably the best writers of dialogue you can study. By looking at such refined gold, you can learn more than from any ten books that tell you how to write dialogue.”

Well, duh, Laura and I have been writing dialogue for several years now. I should be able to do this better. I am grateful to my critique group for letting me know there are things I need to attend to. The pages I sent for last night’s meeting were a reworking of what I had written all those years ago. I need to scrap that version and start from scratch.

When our moderator called for submissions for our next meeting, I said I’d like to submit a reworked draft of my novel’s opening pages. That gives me a goal with a deadline…thanks to my critique group the Working Writer’s Forum.

 

 

Log Lines and Stale Sandwiches

Log lines don’t really have anything to do with stale sandwiches except in my universe. On her way to my house to work, Laura stopped by the local convenience store and got a sandwich and chips for lunch. She booted up the computer she leaves at my house and while we waited, she opened her ham and cheese on white bread. She said she’d really wanted a tuna salad sandwich, but there weren’t any.

sandwich

I’d have to be starving before I’d eat tuna salad from a convenience store, but she never seems to get sick. However, today the bread and cheese were dried out and she deconstructed her sandwich as we settled in to work on a log line for our latest Christmas movie script titled #Santa. (She ought to just ask me to make her some tuna salad. It would have vegan mayo in it, but I get terrific tuna in oil at Trader Joes. However, she’d have to bring her own bread ’cause we don’t eat gluten and never have bread in the house. Maybe that’s why she goes to the convenience store.)

It seems like writing log lines should be easy. We’d finished the script so we knew the story, but the process of telling it in a few words was painful. Two and a half hours later we had something we liked: A cynical “reputation manager,” with a roster of crazy celebrities and a staff of social media savants, is arrested and sentenced to community service answering letters to Santa – or go to jail.

We’ll sleep on it and see how it looks in a couple of days.

p.s. It’s now two days later and it still seems pretty good.

Writing Like Stephen King

One of my favorite books is Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. King talks about how most of his books were written when he was drunk or high – or both – and listening to heavy metal music at ear splitting decibels.

Stephen King

Laura and I wondered if we could write better if we followed King’s writing process and tried writing under the influence. There are always places in our scripts where we put an MB (make better) or MF (make funnier.) This was an hypothesis that needed to be tested. We already had a control of sorts as we’ve completed quite a few scripts without any drugs or alcohol.

We ruled out the heavy metal music. Intrinsic to our writing process is that we talk to each other; loud music would make that a problem. We also ruled out drugs. Too risky and we didn’t know where to get them anyway. Although as I’ve talked to several people about writing this blog post, a surprising number of them told me they have had a ‘connection.’ Who knew!

That left us with alcohol. I just have to open my wine fridge, and, if Laura prefers a martini, the ingredients are already on the bar.

Now we have the means, but logistical problems present themselves. Laura usually comes to my house for our writing sessions. She can’t drive home under the influence. That would be totally irresponsible. I was recounting our dilemma to my husband and he said if we really wanted to pursue this experiment, he would pick up Laura and drive her home. (He is remarkably supportive of my writing, whatever the process, and I know he is much too nice to make a YouTube video of us being silly and post it online.)

As for me, two glasses of wine and I fall asleep which might not be conducive to inspired writing. This plan was beginning to remind me of my woman’s conciousness raising group from the 70’s. This was back when the head of NIH (National Institutes of Health) was saying cocaine was okay. Somebody in my woman’s group came up with the bright idea that our group should try cocaine. We debated that issue for a year. I suppose it took that long because any topic we decided to talk about always circled back to our mothers. Anyway, we finally decided we had talked about it so much that actually doing it held no allure, so we didn’t.

Laura and I haven’t talked the writing a la Stephen King thing to death yet, but we might be getting close. I’ll keep you posted.

Yoga in the A.M.

I go to a five morning a week yoga class at The Studio in St. Michaels. It starts at 7, but we all get there about 6:45 so we can hang like bats from slings, use the inversion benches and stretch out our backs with straps. This class is NOT Power Yoga. Most of us are “women of a certain age” who have knee, hip, back, shoulder, neck and wrist issues. Our instructor, Paulette Florio, is keeping us limber, flexible and strong.

I sit to write, but get up from time to time to put in a load of laundry, take a turn around the garden and find some Japanese beetles to kill, or root through the freezer to looking for dinner. But it’s the sitting that makes me stiff. Yoga class keeps me moving.

Sometimes for fun I go on line to see the different poses. This is always good for a laugh because there is no way my body is going to do those things! Disclaimer…photo below of a woman in the plow pose is not me.

plow pose

The first time I did this pose in this class I had to call for help. Seriously! I got myself folded in half and couldn’t get back up. This morning we were in plow pose using a chair as a prop and it was actually restful.

Paulette helps us be better yogis by using props. My hamstrings are tight so I use really big yoga blocks. That has made a huge difference in my practice. We use the walls, folding chairs, blankets, blocks of all sizes, short and long straps, big and small balls, and bolsters. (I’ve probably forgotten some.) Paulette also shows us how we can use the props we find in our homes so we always have a studio – even when we’re traveling.

There are no mirrors in Paulette’s yoga studio. That’s by design. She wants us to focus on our own bodies and is always walking around making corrections to our poses. It’s my early morning yoga class that sets me up for another day of writing, but right now it’s time for a turn around the garden. The day lilies are glistening after an early morning rain.

day lilies

What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out when you’re a writer. You have a character in mind, but you need a name. And it’s not like naming a baby where you get to pick a name you like. Writers need to find names that (hopefully) tell  the reader something about the character. The problem is when you begin to write a new project you don’t really know your characters yet.

Laura and I started on a new screenplay this week. Another Christmas movie.

Christmas elf

We had a general idea of what the movie would be about. Our thought was that we would begin by figuring out what each character wanted. It quickly became obvious that it was confusing to talk about characters without naming them. We had started ten steps down the path, so we went back to the beginning. Main female character. Main male character. A secondary love interest. A father. How hard could this be?

What do we want these names to tell us about the character – a character we don’t really know yet? These people aren’t fully developed in our minds yet, so a name we pick now might not fit a couple of weeks into the project. Place holders would have to do for now. Out came the What to Name Your Baby book. We think (still early days) that the main female character is mid-thirties. Google told us the most popular girls’ names in 1979, but none of them seemed right. After an hour an a half we had three names. I’d forgotten how difficult naming characters could be.

We were also struggling with the overall arc of the story. The main female character didn’t have a change moment. She was the same at the beginning as she was at the end. That doesn’t work. Laura remembered reading in Stephen King’s book On Writing that if something about your story wasn’t working, try flipping the characters. So we flipped the male protagonist with the female protagonist and suddenly the story worked. But now the names didn’t work anymore. Back to the baby book and Google.

By this point we were an hour past lunch time and getting a little goofy. On Google we found a link for how to generate a Christmas elf name for yourself. This was just the diversion we needed.

My Christmas elf name is Pompom Frosttree. The website tells me Pompom is a bit of a show-off who likes to climb the Christmas tree and be the center of attention! She wears a handsome tunic embroidered with frost patterns, and she makes magical scooters and bikes for all the good little children. Fits me to a T.

Laura’s elf name is Treacletart Silverbubbles. Treacletart is a bit of an airhead who forgets how to do things, but is loved by all the other elves for being so happy! She wears a sequined jacket with shiny silver buttons, and she makes delicious puddings and cakes for all the good little children. Note to reader: Laura has a jacket just like that and she is a really good cook.

I’m not going to tell you the names we chose for our characters, but here are their Christmas elf profiles. Maybe you can figure it out.

Our main female character: Marshmallow Jinglebaubles. She is very creative, has a sharp eye for art, and loves to decorate the grotto! She wears pointy green shoes with bells on the end, and she makes tasty marshmallows and chocolate covered candy for all the good little children.

Our main male character: Partridge Fairybells. He is a fun-loving prankster who loves to play silly tricks on the other elves! He wears a pale green tunic of fine silk embroidered with gold stitches, and he makes magical marbles and lucky dice for all the good little children.

This silliness didn’t accomplish anything for our script, but it cleared out heads to work again tomorrow. The names we chose today may not be the names we end up with. Sometimes characters tell you what their names are and, when they do writers need to listen.

Work on Multiple Projects

Laura and I always have multiple projects going. Some are writing related, some business, and some personal.

We continue to work on the movie script for The Santa Diaries. It will be retitled at some point because Santa’s diary has been eliminated. The play was more about the play the community theater was producing. The movie is more about the characters. It’s a positive shift.

When we finished the most recent draft Laura said we would have been better off starting the movie script from scratch rather than trying to adapt the play. I think she’s right. We are taking a few days off before reading the entire script again to see if scenes are in the right place and what minor tweaks need to be made. It helps to have a little distance and read fresh. I think we are almost there.

Yesterday I met with the group of people who pull together the speakers for the next Bay to Ocean Writers Conference on February 28, 2015. Save the date!

We started by deciding which presenters we’d like to invite back next year. Some of our faculty come back year after year with new topics and we invite them back because they get such good reviews on our evaluations. (This year we had an 80% return on our evaluations.) One of the questions is, “what topics and/or speakers would you like to see next year?”

We had a list of all the presenters and their topics for the last six years and that and the evaluations guided our decisions.  By the end of an hour and a half we had a list of 30 speakers to be invited and topics we want them to present. My task now, as Speaker Liaison. is to invite them.

I came home from that meeting and spent the rest of the afternoon in my garden. Spring has finally arrived and gardening is one of the things I do for my soul. My psychologist husband says I like gardening because it is low conflict. He’s probably right. The  only conflict I had yesterday afternoon was with weeds.

Running to Keep Up

Laura had the brilliant idea of putting an ad for The Santa Diaries in Spotlight, the newsletter published by the American Association of Community Theatre. She designed the color ad and got it in just under the deadline. Darlene DeLorenzo who coordinates AACT Vendor/Festival Services got us a great location in the newsletter.

The newsletter hit people’s mailboxes by the end of February, a few days earlier than we expected. We were barely ready with the tweaks we’d been making to the script when the first emails came in requesting a perusal script. If any of these requests are interested in purchasing the script package we have to be ready; we’re still running, but almost there.

One of the best parts of collaboration is that we get things done. This weekend Laura was in her office putting together information to go with the script. She’d added some photos from both productions. She emailed me that she needed a photo of one of the Christmas parades we’d walked in carrying a Santa Diaries banner. I had one, actually knew where to find it, and emailed it to her. I knew where it was because I’d opened a Pinterest account for Santa Diaries and made a board of the photographs that I had for each production. If you have photos, feel free to add them to the boards.

Pinterest page

We’ll have the sales package together in the next two days and then we can go back to working on The Santa Diaries movie script. We had to set that aside to make sure we were ready when somebody wants to buy the play script. We’ve got our running shoes on.