I just got back from a fabulous week at the Write by the Lake writers retreat in Madison, Wisconsin. If you’re searching for conferences to attend next year, I highly recommend this program. I’ve gone the last three years. They offer a dozen different course options that provide intense study into a specific genre or practice for the week. Courses are for all levels from introductory to those with a full manuscript looking for a masterclass.
This year, I swayed from my usual path of nonfiction and opted for the course on picture book writing.
Here’s what I learned:
My instructor, Georgia Beaverson, had us do a writing prompt on the first day. We had to write down our first memory. The second day we rewrote that memory from another person’s point of view. She then made us edit our wordcount down by HALF (oh, the agony).
She said we could also try reworking the piece into different tenses, illustrating that a story can be told in many different ways, by different people, and sometimes reworking it can lead to great discoveries.
I’ve been working on my memoir for the last several years, and I’ve reworked some of my essays to be performed for adult storytelling. (I highly recommend taking a storytelling class if you have one in your area. I took one two years ago and it was wonderful!) What I learned by doing so was that moving around and utilizing the space I could tell in, I imagined new ways of describing the action or character emotions in my writing. Performing the scene helped me write a stronger scene.
In the picture book writing class, I adapted one of my essays to be told as a children’s picture book. The audience was entirely different, since I’d previously written and performed for adults. In this instance, I played up sounds, using onomatopoeia, stronger verbs, and I limited description where illustrations could play a role.
Using the same plotline, I now had three different ways of telling/performing the story.
Ohmygawd! Justin Timberlake was right all along!
The more you write, the better writer you become, and practicing different kinds of writing tools, genres, and craft elements are key. I was amazed at how each exercise in storytelling, whether on paper or a stage, shaped me as a writer. It was fun, challenging for sure, but rewarding across the board.
Sometimes when we’re stuck, we aren’t sure how to gain that forward momentum again. Whether or not you choose to pursue a different genre or space for your story, trying out different exercises can offer up different questions to make you think, explore, and get that creative blood pumping again.
Things You Can Try:
- Work with a critique group that has multiple genres – How will their feedback strengthen your writing? (Ex. Will listening to poetry help you improve your word choice and descriptions? Will the romance author help you write funnier characters or scenes?)
- Adapt your story into different formats (written, spoken, illustrated) – You may discover something new, or gain confidence in an area you previously felt uncomfortable in.
- Just play – Are you stuck on a scene? Is the writing starting to bore even you? Move around, make yourself do the actions! Try drawing it, what’s the action you want to portray? You don’t have to show this to anyone else, but practicing in new ways can help get you past writer’s block.
- Change the POV.
- Change the tense of the story.
- Change the audience you’re writing for.
- Read different genres. Listen to people tell stories. Note what draws you in.
How can you rewrite and/or adapt your stories
to learn something new about them?
Got an example?
Share your favorite way to practice writing.
I’m a sucker for Carol Burnett comedy. Who among you isn’t, I ask? Her Q & A’s on “The Carol Burnett Show,” her role on “Mama’s Family,” Mrs. Hannigan from “Annie,” I could go on and on. But my all time favorite Carol Burnett role is “Noises Off…”
“Noises Off” is originally a stage play by Michael Frayn, and later a screenplay by Marty Kaplan.
“Noises Off,” the film, if you’ve never seen it, stars Michael Caine as a director, trying his best to prepare a makeshift cast for opening night of a play. It follows the closeknit, albeit deranged, cast of characters through the final rehearsals, opening night, and while on tour. The charades on stage aren’t nearly as wacky as the shenanigans happening backstage!
Often those who know me will hear me cry “Oh my Gooooooooooooooooooooood! The study door is open!” And you’d know that was hilarious after you watch Carol Burnett, who plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett.
The film’s other acting delights include Christopher Reeve as a very introverted actor who gets a nosebleed anytime someone loses their temper. John Ritter plays the jealous boyfriend who can’t keep it together. Nicollette Sheridan plays the scantily clad secretary of Ritter who often loses her contact in her own eye. Mark Linn-Baker, who many of you may know as “Larry” on the show “Perfect Strangers,” plays the human punching bag for director Michael Caine, spending his time fixing props, stepping in to play parts, and buying flowers to seduce women on the set. And Julie Hagerty plays the stage manager who is in love with Michael Caine, who doesn’t have time to deal with it all!
One of the reappearing comedic elements in the film revolves around a plate of sardines. At any given time there are several plates of sardines shifting their way on stage and backstage, moving from tabletop to stairway. Whenever the actors start getting dysfunctional, those sardines are misplaced, sat on, or dumped on someone’s head.
Why, dear readers, am I telling you about this 1992 film? Because it is a prime example of characterization. If you want laugh out loud, popcorn eating research on how to develop a cast of characters in a “show, don’t tell” manner, I suggest you rent this movie. And why not read the play? The movie begins with a slight set up from Caine about his disastrous play and cast that is falling apart and how he should’ve seen the signs, he should’ve called it quits 5 cities ago, and it cuts to the dress rehearsal. So many blogs I’ve been reading lately talk about the first 20 pages of a book and how the intro has to hook the reader. Well, I dare you to watch the first 20 minutes of “Noises Off” and tell me if you were hooked or not!
Granted, I’ll give you, the film is a bit of a slapstick, so the characters are extremes to an extent, but I think they’re also true depictions of what would happen when you place a group of people on set for several months, over and over. Romance, jealousy, alcoholism, and missing sardines are bound to occur. But, let’s put this in writing terms once more, what are the sardines of your story? What is it that keeps the story moving? If you’re not sure what got Character A from one scene to the next, “get a good old fashioned plate of sardines!” How will you hook your readers with characters and action?
What are the tools you use when developing characters? I’d really like to know. And is there such a thing as too much butter on your popcorn? I like mine with parmesan cheese on top. Happy movie night and happy writing!
Resolution Friday: So another week of changing the ordinary has come and gone. I’ve read for pleasure every day, which was by far the easiest of my resolutions. I also read more Susan Shapiro Only as Good as Your Word and am still laughing out loud. Lastly, I wrote another wacky family memoir. You can read it here.
So, it’s a new week, and I’ve been given much to think about. Thanks to Kristen Lamb’s blog and a few others I’ll be adding as a mash up, I’ve been challenging myself to think about how I blog and how I write. It’s natural to go with what you know, and most of what I’ve known has been write-your-ass-off-and-pray. Ooooooooooooom. But Kristen says I can’t do it that way, and I believe her. So, that means hunker down and get ready for a bumpy (best new year) of your life.
So if you’re like me, beginning to write again after a hiatus in sales, may I recommend Preparation. Preparation is that thing you do before you actually have to do it. It’s meant to help you, seriously. It’s where you can lay all of your pretty little ideas out like paper dolls and mix and match their clothes to see what works and what doesn’t. Hey, lay off my metaphors, I told you I’m in sales, and yah it’s retail! But, Preparation offers you several options, ones you can see in advance, and it gives you time to craft the end result. For example, do I want to wear the sequin top with the plaid wool skirt and capri leggings? Repeat after me, NO! But that sequin top looks great next to those dark wash denim jeans and metallic flats. What’s that? You’re adding hoop earrings in a brushed bronze metal? I LOVE IT!!! Metaphor aside, take time to write down ideas for both blogging and writing. Plan ahead for both when you will write and what you will write. Otherwise, you’ll start blogging some remake version of “The Night Before Christmas,” oh wait, I already did that.
If you’re having trouble figuring out how to start a story, try making a list of things you like, or character traits about a friend or family member. Does anything on that list remind you of a good story you would tell someone in conversation? Now how would you tell it if you were writing it for someone? Take all the ideas that come to you and write them down. What pieces seem to fit together in a fresh and exciting way?
If you’re still struggling with idea starters, here is a list of ideas I came up with for future memoirs, or even an essay collection, if you titled it, Things My Dad Has Done to Freak Me Out.
- Incessantly sneak up on me from behind and scream “What are ya doin’?!”
- Innocently spell my name wrong on my birthday cake, for the last 20 years
- Pushed me into a man dressed like a Troll, and cried “Take her!”
- Left me in a haunted house by myself
- Left me in a corn maze by myself
- Left me buried in the snow by myself
- Forced me to learn to ride a bike without training wheels
- Forced me to learn to swim without swimming lessons
- Hid a creepy plastic nativity scene donkey in my bedroom
- Got me to eat gravy that had giblets in it
What are you waiting for? Get writing!