Experimenting: Not Just for Science

A few semesters ago I was taking a TV Script/Screenwriting course at UCF. While the format for script and screen writing is completely different than the writing I have been focusing on in the Writing for Publication course, we constantly experimented with different writing exercised to help establish what works best for us as writers.

Many of the students in my script/screenwriting course realized how imagery and details were there strong points, whereas I learned dialogue is something I write well. We would take class time to write in non-script form and find out strengths. It was afterwards that we would learn how to change it to what format we needed.

I think this type of experimenting with exercises that move one out of the comfort zone and even the type of writing that is not designed for what you are trying to write for can help writers explore the strengths and weaknesses. By moving out of our medium as a writer we can clearly identify what our style really is.

Some of my favorite exercises that might help define you as a writer include:

Write a short story using the first sentence from a newspaper or article.

Write a story with two or more characters and no dialogue.

Rewrite a previous work without any adverbs.

I think many of us still in writing courses tend to primarily write for school versus ourselves. If we want to improve and become more distinct, we need to challenge ourselves, even when we write for our own enjoyment. If we take the time to perform these types of individual exercises we can feel more confident in our work and our style.

A Dash of Style

A few years ago I was perusing a second-hand book store and came across a most interesting book, A Dash of Style by Noah Lukeman. While my book store companion was unimpressed and informed me that the book would be a boring purchase, the $1.50 price did not dissuade me. The book has been a huge help as I have been referencing it on a more regular basis.

The book is slightly deceiving as it deals exclusively with punctation. I am very aware of how important it is to use proper punctuation, however, I never realized how much of a difference it can make to our writing by playing around with the various, and correct, uses it can make to what might be a simple paragraph. Noah Lukeman takes this book one step further by suggesting exercises of writing.

Noah Lukeman breaks the book down into three major parts: The Triumvirate, Into the Limelight, and Proceed with Caution. Each section is a further breakdown of specific punctuation such as, the period aka the stop sign, the comma aka the speed bump, and the semicolon, the bridge.

I think many of us assume that the subject of our work is going to get us noticed. But I think if we take the time to renew our stance on punctuation, we might be able to make our style more distinct and readable.

If you want to learn more about the book, check out Lukeman’s website:

http://www.lukeman.com/adashofstyle/

Hanging with the best

Before establishing an identity for yourself, while emulating your favorite artists, it is often times that writers block comes very easily. Either in the way of inspiration as to what can come next that will help the flow of the piece, or how to phrase your next idea. Personally, when writing music, I like to watch live concerts of my favorite artists. I most enjoy watching Pat Metheny play. He is a jazz guitarist. I already know what is going to happen next in the song while listening, but what provides me inspiration and sparks ideas is watching his playing style. How he carries himself, what techniques he uses over others, and how he communicates with the other members of the band to signal unique live changes to the songs.

As for writing, I know that writers often times do a lot of their writing and get a lot of their motivation outside of their homes and in various places – whether outside at a favorite view, a favorite social place, etc. What inspired this post was an article I read on some of the most famous places that writers would drink and socialize at. I believe that if anyone had the chance to visit one of these places, it would provide a lot of inspiration and open their eyes to better understand the writer they are emulating. For example, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese in London is a bar that has been around since 1666. Here, Charles Dickens even went so far as to allude to this bar in his piece A Tale of Two Cities. I believe this kind of experience can be invaluable to a writer and provide a tremendous push in their works.

http://www.thedailymeal.com/10-places-drink-your-favorite-writer?page=1

Dude thinks like a lady

When writing any story, it is important to not only be conscious of the audience, but of our characters. The variations between men and women can have a major impact on a writer’s style. Men and women view the world around them differently, they react to situations differently and use language that is generally language specific. As Leigh Anne Jasheway puts it in her article, “How to Write Intriguing Male and Female Characters”: “Chances are, if you’re female, you write like a girl, and if you’re male, you write like a guy.” With audiences beginning to push for the dual perspective in books, wanting to be more rounded in the story than to be restricted to one point of view, it is becoming imperative to know how to write in both styles. Here are some tips from other writers on how to write the perspective of the opposite sex.

Be conscious of descriptions:

When illustrating a scene, it is important to remember how the opposite sex will describe their surroundings. A woman might look at a dress and think, “She had on a pearl white Vera Wang dress that accentuated the curve of her waist perfectly.” A man, however, would pay less attention to the name brand of the dress and its exact color. Writer Gail Mayer Martin says: “Men usually don’t know cotton from rayon and have no knowledge of colors other than the primary shades. To a man, red is red, while a woman calls it crimson or magenta or strawberry.”

Be conscious of emotional reactions:

When writing from the perspective of the opposite sex, it is important to pay attention to the emotional image of each gender. Typically women tend to include lengthier, emotional descriptions. They prefer to talk it out, rather than keep the emotions bottled up inside. With men, they are much more direct and to the point. Author Mary Connealy writes: “I often cut the guys’ dialogue several times to make it terse. Have them grunt on occasion. Have them think a whole bunch of stuff and then just say, ‘No.’”

Go to the source:

When in doubt, observation and research are key. Author Irene Hannon suggests reading books written for and by the opposite sex. If you’re wanting a male perspective, read a highly charged thriller written by John Grisham. If you’re wanting a woman’s perspective, read a romance novel. Books where the audience is primarily geared toward, and written for the opposite sex can offer insight into their thought processes and ideals. Lacy Williams, as well as several other authors, recommends listening to the way family members talk, how they handle different situations and what they say. Many wives writing from the male perspective will ask their husband for advice on a specific scene. This is a helpful tip for both men and women, which can be presented to members of their families and friends.

Style and the Historical Genre

Though style is ultimately the conception of the author, the genre one is writing in can also have an effect on the presentation of sentences and structure. When writing historical fiction, style can be affected by numerous elements, such as tone, historical accuracy, and when to utilize proper jargon. Time and place dictates the writer’s society, and therefore their reactions to different situations. Being conscious of these word choices can help generate a writing style structured for the time and place of the novel.

Have a specific time and place in mind:

When writing any piece of historical fiction, it is important to keep in mind the context of the era. Europe in 1937 was very different from Europe in 1942. Though only a difference of five years, the context of the era and the events in history had a great impact on the society of the time. By narrowing down the exact time and place, the author is able to project the emotions of the era through their tone and word choices. Is this a Europe still fighting the effects of the Great Depression, or the invasion of enemy forces?

Know the society:

After deciding the exact time and place, the author also determines the expectations and reality of their character’s society. This has an effect on the writer’s style, since it dictates the roles of the characters. Women in 19th century England had expectations of marriage and finding a husband. However, being seen with a man in public, unchaperoned, was grounds for ruination. This would in turn effect the writer’s ability to convey specific situations. They would need to retain a more proper tone and use of language when a couple addresses one another, rather than the casual tone of the modern era. When writing in 19th century England, one must also be aware of titular distinctions, such as how to address and present the nobility.

Use of appropriate language and phrases:

When writing historical fiction, the writer must have a firm grasp on the language of the time, as well as which language is considered inappropriate. Avoiding modern slang keeps the audience grounded in their sense of time and place. Jargon and phrases from the time era are equally important in order to embed the audience in the time frame. Using phrases like “the ton”, which refers to London’s elite society, are generally well-known and accepted terms for people who frequently read Regency era novels. It is expected as a way to alert the reader of their time and place. However, using too much jargon can alienate the reader. In his article, “How to Write Historical Fiction,” Chuck Sambuchino writes: “Certainly I could say ‘The footpad bit the Roger, tipped the cole to Adam Tyler, and then took it to a stauling ken.’ But I have a feeling modern readers might now understand that I was saying that a thief has stolen a bag, passed it to a fence, who in turn sold it to a house that receives stolen goods.” Finding a balance between past and present word choices becomes key.

The right way to emulate

As artists, I believe strongly that before we identify ourselves, we tend to emulate others. I believe that it is very important to do so. The legendary artists and writers have all established their identities and style, so there is plenty to learn. After a while of emulating our favorite artists, we take bits and pieces (or create something new all together) that defines us. As a musician, I completely relate to this. On saxophone, I will listen to a lot of artists like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker in hopes to emulate their tone and improvisation, while on guitar I listen to a lot of Pat Metheny and Grant Green in order to emulate their style. When I write music now, a lot of the artists above can be heard indirectly touching the pieces.

The same concept applies to writing. Before a writer can establish an identity for themselves, I believe it is crucial to experience different writing styles and different artists.   By emulating famous writers, we figure out what works and what doesn’t.

However, it is very important to note that there is a huge difference between emulating and imitating. When emulating, we hope to take the best of what we have learned from our favorite artists, and create our own style based on it. Taking the strengths and having them shape our work. Imitating on the other hand is flat out copying the artists. By imitating, we go out of our way to ensure our work is exactly like theirs, which is a problem. There is no value in having a knock off work.

For this post, I found inspiration in the story of this blog! Check it out:

http://chrisgoslow.com/emulating-vs-imitating-your-artistic-role-models-where-art-truly-starts/

Emulating Style

Style or “voice” is a by-product, not a goal, and you may find it takes time for yours to emerge…and one day, when you’ve stopped worrying about it, it’ll be there.  

 JURGEN WOLFF

Everyone has their favorite writers and genre’s.  The real question is, should you emulate your favorite writers style?  I came across a blog that stated this question and it really made me think.  As aspiring writers, we should find ways to pave our own legacies and use our favorite writers style as a reference without copying their style.  It is a difficult concept to take something that exists and turn it into new.  Emulating our favorite writers, while seemingly a good idea, takes away some of the originality in our own writing.  I think that with the amount of resources available to us, we should try to not emulate our favorite writers, but gain inspiration from them and create something new.

Blog: http://timetowrite.blogs.com/weblog/2013/07/should-you-emulate-your-favorite-writers-style.html

Nora Roberts: Changing the face of “Category Romance”

When a reader thinks of a Romance Novel, we often attribute it to a “category romance.”  By this I mean, the stories have similar styles in format and story line.  They follow a simple structure of boy meets girl, they fall in love, and happily ever after.  Nora Roberts found a way to Americanize the Romance genre.  She started out writing “category romances”, but then expanded her work into something incredible.  She changed the face of romance novels by giving her heroines spunky careers and a care-free attitude towards marriage.  Her stories are not solely about finding love, they are about real people discovering what its like to build a life together.  Her characters are searching for something, not someone.  Her writing style defies the definition of a romance novel and is written for the masses.

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/20/nora-roberts-interview-romance-fiction

 

Providing the Perspective

One of my favorite films of all time is Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille. It tells the story of a rat named Remy with a passion for cooking and for art, two things that are (as far as we know) exclusive to the human race. Over the course of an hour and a half, he teams up with a mousy restaurant plongeur, Linguini, and the two become a force with which to be reckoned. Ultimately, Remy and Linguini find success – Remy in the kitchen and Linguini in love – and, as is the cast with most all Disney films, they live happily ever after.

But there is a character in the film with whom I identify more strongly than any other.

Anton Ego is a restaurant critic who, most notably, writes positively scathing reviews. We learn early on in the film that he has written a poor review of Gusteau’s, Linguini’s restaurant, which causes Gusteau, the chef, to die of a broken heart. Later in the film, Ego asks the waiter at Gusteau’s for a fresh plate of perspective. When the waiter replies that he cannot provide this, Ego simply says, “You provide the food, I’ll provide the perspective. Remy and Linguini then proceed to serve Ego a dish so powerful that he writes a review that changed my perspective on a lot of things.

Good food is like good writing. They are both works of art, meant to incite emotion, to unearth memories that had been previously forgotten. They are meant to challenge our preconceived notions about what is normal and what is proper and what is right. And the best part about good food and good writing? Anybody can consume it, and anybody can create it.

“Not everybody can become a great artist,” Ego writes, “but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

The practice worth emulating?

Being critical, but not immovable. Consuming every piece of art of which you are capable of consuming. Remaining open to change and challenges. Practice. Dedication. Love. Heart.

These are all things we can learn from a garbage boy, a rat, and one very jaded critic who realizes that art doesn’t discriminate. We are artists. More than writers are we. We have the power to stir emotion. This is a practice we should always seek to emulate.

“Just take it bird by bird.”

Sometimes, especially as young writers, it can be overwhelming and scary to focus all of our attention on a project, to give our undivided and complete effort to something that may or may not succeed. After all, like anything creative, writing is always hit or miss: what works on a sunny Tuesday morning in June may not work on a rainy Sunday evening in April. What we write deeply affects and is deeply affected by our surroundings, of which we must always be painfully aware. But in this heightened state of awareness, we must also be prudent. We must hone the ability to understand when the anxieties creep in (as they often do in these heightened states) and take our writing step by baby step.

One of my favorite books of all time is Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I am a big fan of sound advice, and this book not only contains advice on writing, but advice on learning, loving, and living, three things of which I am most fond. Lamott notes immediately that the first pearl of wisdom she bestows upon her students is that “good writing is about telling the truth.” Even when we write fiction, we are still being truthful about the imaginary circumstances. Perhaps this is true not just of writing, but of art in general. There must be some degree of imagination involved, but if we aren’t being honest, our writing isn’t worth much. As Lamott says, “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little.”

We are not sheep lice, and so we must understand.

But at the heart of Lamott’s writing is this: we must go bravely, yet slowly. If we must write, then we must write, but we must take our time, putting our whole heart into every piece of our work. This is true of any task we undertake, but because we are writers, it will ultimately prove especially relevant. Whether it is her incredibly dry sense of humor or her timeless advice, Lamott’s book is a must-read for any writer or person who simply exists. This is the inscription on the back of the book; I think of this often:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

I take each day bird by bird. It helps a lot.