William H. Johnson

Archive for the ‘writing tips’ Category

Three Way-Cool Things About Transcribing a Handwritten Draft

In Reflection, The Trubaker Orphanage, writing tips on August 29, 2011 at 11:28 am

What did I just spend 6 months doing? I have a couple notebooks full of writing in pencil. I have colorful tabs to organize and point the way to chapters and parts of chapters that I wrote months ago. I have a summary/outline that changed a couple of times along the way. Now what?

Transcribe, scribe! Onto the computer I go. Most of you probably know by now that I write longhand in pencil. I seem unwilling to go high, mid, or low tech with the writing of my first drafts. One might think that transcription is a royal pain. Why type 80,000 words right after you wrote them? Isn’t it doing double work?

Nonsense! It’s actually a pretty cool process. Here are three reasons why:

1)   It’s like a mini-vacation. Yes, I did say vacation. Where’s the special destination? Your story! The reason I call it a vacation is because you get to “tour” your hard work with no pressure at all. You don’t need to change a thing. I actually recommend that you leave most of what you wrote by hand as it was. This isn’t the time to dive into revisions. This is the time to get acquainted with your accomplishment. Some of this you haven’t seen for months, reintroduce yourself.

2)   It gets you prepared for some serious revising and rewriting. Sometimes I call transcription a “half pass” meaning, yes—I do correct little things, a sentence here or there, add a sentence that I don’t have to think about. But if I have to wonder for more than a nanosecond I leave it alone. When I have questions or things I want to explore changing, I write them on a separate piece of paper and save it. When it comes time to do that first major rewrite I have not only familiarity with the piece as a whole but direction. I feel like I did my homework and I can proceed with confidence.

3)   It gets you pumped up! Dude, dudette, you just finished a novel! That’s what I’m talking about!! Get pumped, celebrate. Enjoy those moments when your fingers fly because you put together an inspired scene that came out how you wanted! (They didn’t all come out that way, but there will be some. Enjoy them!)

I am about halfway through transcribing THE TRUBAKER ORPHANAGE. Another few weeks and I should be done with this step. Do you write longhand and transcribe? Share your stories!


The Benefits of Writing Everyday

In writing tips on April 21, 2011 at 3:35 pm

For the last week I have settled into a new rhythm. It feels excellent.

Traditionally when working on a project I would write 2-4 times a week for 3 hours. That worked great for THE DARK PROVINCE but now is a different time. I only had one child when I wrote my first book and I wasn’t going to grad school.

New times and new stresses have demanded more of my writing. For the moment I have jumped on the daily writing train to find my answer. For the last week I have written everyday for at least an hour. In that hour I can get about 500-600 words out long hand. This morning I went longer and cleared 1000. It’s a good way to get 4000-5000 words done a week but there’s more!

I am one of those writers that need to write for their sanity. If I haven’t written in too many days I start to get the shakes. I get anxious. I’ll be working on other work and I can’t convince myself to focus because my need to express through written word is too hungry to keep quiet. By writing once a day I have a powerful tool in negotiations with my creative side. I can reassure him that he isn’t being neglected—that he was tended to earlier that day and that he is on the schedule for the next day. And the day after that. And so on.

That’s another thing that helps, setting a time for the daily ritual. For me, right now, it’s 9:30-10:30am. It also helps that it is one of the first thing I do so that I can tell my creative side that he has priority. He likes that.

So to sum it up, writing once a day is a good way to make real progress on a manuscript If you write 4000 words a week you’ll arrive at 80,000 in 20 weeks. That’s just 5 months. It can also satisfy your creative needs so that you can be more focused on other obligations like, say, your children.

Don’t have an hour? Give it 30 minutes a day. Even 150-350 words a day will accomplish a great deal if you stay with it. Just a little prescription in a moment of writing bliss from my workstation to yours.

Visiting “The Set” of a Desert Love Story

In Inspiration, writing tips on April 14, 2011 at 11:59 am

One of the biggest differences between the two main projects I’m juggling is the setting. My small town love story is set in the present day on earth and the the sequel to THE DARK PROVINCE is set in a fantasy world out of our reach. To stretch this contrast even more, the world of my small town love story is modeled after a town just 35 minutes east of where I live—on the edge of the southeastern California desert. The cool thing about this is that it allows me to visit on occasion to gain inspiration. Of course everything I describe in my work is imagined however there is something amazing about physically standing on “the set” and imagining where my characters walk, play, and work.

Here are a few photos from a recent visit that I thought would be enlightening to share and give a breath of how this type of visit can generate inspiration.

“There’s something about a town where stores most people would recognize are far and few between.”

The road into town begins with a secluded drive off the interstate. One of the things I love most about this town, like so many small towns around the world, is that nobody’s heard of it. Consider the energy of that; consider what that can represent. There is a sense of privacy inherent in a story set in a place that a relative few have heard of or been to. It can feed a sense of intimacy and at the same time a sense of isolation for the characters. This being a love story about childhood friends that come of age a little late in their lives, I get the benefit of both.

“He chose the mountains that rose toward the sky beyond the town to anchor his frustration and let the words come to him.”

This mountain range guides your drive into town and hovers above the flat desert city. It can be seen from virtually anywhere you stand giving the tiny community an even greater feeling of being hidden. The mountains feel like the walls of a fortress keeping its secrets. In the summer they are bold, arid structures of stone that rise from the desert floor. In the winter they are dressed in green and at times adorned with a misting of fresh snow in the highest elevations.

“If you haven’t played the game of basketball in desert heat, you haven’t truly played the game. The sun nearly scolds your brow and the concrete is like the devil on your shins.”

The main characters, Carlton and Libby, are childhood friends. They’ve spent a great amount of their adolescence right here on this basketball court in the town’s main park. There is nothing glamorous here. Dusty desert soil covers the edges; there are no lines on the backboard. The rims don’t always have nets on them. Glamour, however, never measures how much a place can be called home.

“Morgan’s taxi turned onto Main Street where her glad eyes welcomed more of the same—an antique mall that was less like a mall and more like a pair of Siamese storefronts.”

These antique shops are the centerpiece of the main thoroughfare through the old part of town. They are part of an ensemble of unique, locally owned storefronts that welcome Morgan to town. She is the most significant supporting character, and the lone outsider in the story. With her comes a more objective viewpoint of the setting. I feel that her appreciation for the community’s hidden quality helps to seal off the outside world and reveal its true warmth.

“Do you miss her? I mean, outside of the saintly stuff—do you ever just wish she was still right there at home where you could go and talk to her?”

Estelle “Stella” Trubaker, Carlton’s mother, is something of a town legend. She died when he was eight. Stella was the founder of a children’s home located in the old part of town. With Libby having grown up in that home, Stella is the most intimate thing that she and Carlton share in common. But their memory of the saintly woman differs greatly. While Libby remembers Stella clearly—her face, her voice, the old soul songs she used sing to herself during visits to the home—Carlton has no memory of her at all.

Whether you build your world from scratch, chose a distant land you’ve never visited, or your own hometown you’ve spent most of your life in, choosing a setting is one of the purest joys a writer gets to experience. If it’s based on a nearby town that intrigues you, consider a day trip or even spending a night (I’ve done that too!). If it isn’t nearby, search the internet for pictures from the city or town. If it doesn’t exist on this earth but instead a fantasy world, you can still search online for architecture in real life or fantasy art that you feel a connection to.

Happy location scouting!

How to Take Criticism Professionally

In writing tips on April 5, 2011 at 2:35 pm

“Did the woman right this? The woman wrote this right?”

Those were the condescending words of a man I looked up to that read a film script I co-wrote with a female student in college. On paper he was a good choice of a reader—a professional director with a lot of experience with scripts of all kinds. But wow it took some shaking off. I was insulted for my absent writing partner who he belittled with broad swipes and I was hurt by his overall aggressive style. Did he help make my script better? Yep. Did it feel good? Nope.

Feedback is supposed to help our work. We want our work to be better. So how is it that taking criticism the right way can be so much easier said that done? It is part of being human, I suppose. I don’t know if we ever become immune to the emotional stress of hearing a less than glowing response to our work. But it’s crucial we get good feedback on our writing during the process if we are planning to sell or publish our work. Here are five tips in managing the emotional aspects of receiving feedback.

Make it formal. Treat it like business. Set a specific time to review your manuscript with your critique partner and be prompt. You can even wear business casual attire if you want to. What you wear can help influence your mindset. Get out of the clothes you wrote the draft in. Wear something that is comfortable but that will place you in a more distanced mood.

Prepare in advance for a feedback session. This is a big one for me. Go over your manuscript or script and write down anything that you felt unsure about. Be specific. If there was a scene that you thought went too fast, write that down. If there was a date scene that didn’t have the tension you intended, write it down. When you get into session with the person providing feedback, ask specifically about those scenes. “How did you find the pacing in the date scene between Harry and Bryn? Too rapid? Did the dialogue cause it to drag?” I find this empowering to do because it puts me in the mindset that I am going to the meeting to get work done.

Take copious notes: Write everything down. Everything. This way if there is a note that doesn’t make sense, you can ask about it right away and get clarification. It also makes sure you don’t forget the valuable notes you received during the session. If nothing else it gives you something to do with your hands so you don’t wring them nervously.

If you can, have the initial feedback sessions close together. Syd Field says in his book Screenplay once a draft is completed and cleaned up for viewing that it’s best to have three pairs of eyes looking at your script for the initial feedback. I agree with this number. More gets confusing, less isn’t enough perspectives. I would recommend agreeing on the date you’ll sit down and discuss the work prior to handing it over to the reader. This way, the reader has a target and even if goes past that time, if they are a dependable reader it won’t go too far past. This also allows you to set the meetings within a few weeks of each other and makes it easier to avoid the temptation to start “fixing things” after just one of the meetings. It is important to hear them all out before beginning revisions.

Put the story aside for a time after the sessions are over. Again this is made easier when the sessions are close together. Plan on taking the time—perhaps even have something else you’re working on to get your mind off that piece being critiqued so that you aren’t tempted into diving into it right away. I find that it takes time to process the feedback and most importantly, let any uncomfortable emotional vibrations settle so that clarity can return. For many, their new writing is as dear to them as a new baby and they feel the need to protect it. I think that as a result even solid constructive feedback can register in the mind like an argument with a member of their family and those often take the most down time to shake off.

Happy revising!

Patience is a Virtue, even for Writers

In Reflection, writing tips on August 17, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Last night was tough. Concentration was hard to come by.  The words seemed to come soooo slowly.  I kept looking at the clock: two hours of my three hour writing block was gone and I felt like I’d barely written anything.

I tried starting a section a couple of different ways but nothing caught. I tried music; songs that I related to the story, songs that evoked any emotion at all. Still nothing.

So I waited. Leaned back, laid down and just thought about my main character and other characters in the scene. I stepped into each of their minds and meditated on their desires and what they wanted from one another.

Time passed.

Then with about 15 minutes left I took a third strike at the wall and broke through. It still didn’t feel great but I’d committed to write so I did just that. All told I got to about 1000 words out longhand in 45 minutes (I extended my block a half hour), finished chapter 3 of the manuscript and achieved most of what I wanted to achieve in the session.

Another plug for hanging in there, keeping at it, and being patient!

3 Myths About Writers Who “Plot”

In writing tips on July 20, 2010 at 12:19 pm

One of my favorite things to do is to join my fellow writers in online discussion groups such as LitChat, WriteChat, StoryCraft, and BookMarket. Occasionally the issue of who is a plotter or a panster comes up. More often than not, I find that the majority of the writers present are pansters.

Now its not like these differences in process play out like the east coast west coast rap wars of the 1990’s, but I often find myself concerned that those who plot or those who would plot for the betterment of their craft might be discouraged by the myths that seem automatically assumed by very vocal pansters. Here, then are my top 3 myths about plotters that need dispelling.

Plotting = overanalyzing.

An effective plotter simply breaks down the components of their work to develop them in separate pieces. I actually find it enjoyable because it takes what might otherwise be an overwhelming process and breaks it down to bite sized pieces. As well, it allows my passion to embrace each aspect of my work with the attention it deserves. The main thing I think plotters determine is a basic view of where the story begins, ends and what many of the potential major plot points are. An experienced plotter like an experienced film director knows that once you start “shooting” (or in our case writing a manuscript) improvisation is inevitable. An effective writer will discover better story beats and new characters as well as improvements to characters already created and willingly give over to those discoveries.

Working off an outline or summary is inorganic.

Novel’s are big documents. No summary or outline can tell the whole story. Let’s take the Mother Road for example, historic route 66. It’s an amazing cross country journey that took travelers from Chicago to Los Angeles and vice versa. If I were going to take a trip on the Mother Road, I can look on the map and get a basic view of where route 66 is, decide I’ll stop in Victorville, CA, Kingman, AZ. Gallup, NM, Oklahoma City, etc. But it won’t tell me exactly what time of night I’ll get there. The condition of the old motel I’ll stay in. The tiny old town full of private history that I’ll visit in between my stops. Or the regrets of the old man who sits outside the barber shop and watches the old clock in court square at the same time everyday. Plotters invite discoveries by giving themselves vast uncharted ground to cover.

Being a plotter doesn’t allow the characters and the story to take command of the work.

I more see it like the force. Luke Skywalker asks Obi Wan “Does the force tell you what to do?” and Obi Wan wisely says “Yes, and it also obeys your commands.” I think the same way of writing. When a story comes to me (or chooses me as some might say) it chooses me for a reason. I have something to offer it. Why else did it show up on my doorstep? For example, at the time THE DARK PROVINCE: SON OF DUPRIN was conceived back in August 2003, many of its final components were missing. There was no Calvin, no Mari, no Gooding family at all. There was no Duprin. There wasn’t even a Tiyll or a great city of Metwihn. No theme of religion vs. faith. There was merely a small secluded town called Potsim where an ancient king dwelled with his servants. Open sensuality was the culture’s primary attribute and had I let those characters lead a manuscript then, it is likely that I would have written a full on erotica novel, and a wandering one at that. I wasn’t satisfied. Instead I spent time with the characters listening to them, writing freewrites, dialogues, scenes in stage play format. What they offered me was an original setting and set of characters with inspiring uniqueness. What I offered them was what I had to say as an artist. Together we developed the rest of the world and produced a summary we could all be satisfied with. Then the manuscript was written.

Hopefully this addresses some thoughts about plotters. A plotter can be organic, embrace discovery, give over to the mystical muse and see what happens just as pansters can come up with excellent plot points, beginnings and endings. It has been such a pleasure discussing books, business, and the craft with fellow motivated writers. Let the learning from one another continue!


William the Proud Plotter 🙂

7 Tips For Developing Your Novel BEFORE You Write it

In writing tips on June 9, 2010 at 12:11 pm

So you want to write a novel? Excellent! What’s that? You’ve written half of one and either chucked your computer out the window or buried your work in disgust? You’re not alone. Writing a novel can be a wonderfully fulfilling or unspeakably frustrating experience (or a little of both). My debut novel, THE DARK PROVINCE: SON OF DUPRIN, was not intended to be my first. I bitterly abandoned an old project to take it on, and when I did this I adopted a new attitude toward developing my idea before setting out to write the manuscript. I am now a firm believer that a proper development phase should be the first step in writing a novel.

Here are some tips for a successful development phase:

Designate a notebook for that particular novel and write any thoughts or feelings you have about the piece in it. And I mean everything: quotes from the characters, an intense dialogue, part of an action scene, a moment of intense romance. Write it all down. Even write your personal thoughts on the piece. Does it remind you of a time or person in your life past or present? A freewrite about how it relates can inspire a new ideas for your story.

Perform short freewrites describing characters and setting. Before I wrote THE DARK PROVINCE I knew Calvin Gooding’s family. I knew his strict father and the duplicity of his mother’s faith and gentle pessimism. I knew how deeply committed he was to his traditions. I knew he wasn’t married and how strongly he believed in abstinence. I also knew the history of the land of Duprin; its past wars, its landscape, even its level of technological advancement. Characters, their world, and the story comprise the sacred who, where, and what for your novel. The clearer the picture you can paint of these, the more prepared you will feel when you sit down to write your manuscript.

Frequently attempt to describe the story in less and less words until you can do so in fewer than 25 words. This will focus you more and more on what types of actions you’re looking for. It should include a description of the main character and what they need. For example: An epic fantasy adventure about a deeply religious man who must, to save his dying sister, defy his religion and follow his faith. (23 words) Example 2: A gutsy love story about two childhood friends from a dusty, desert town who must restore a mother’s legacy before it tears them apart. (24 words)

Brainstorm plot points for your story. You need a lot of these with 2 or 3 being particularly pivotal. The first major plot point happens about a quarter of the way through your story. It drives us into the main body of the book’s drama. The mid point happens half way through the story. It serves to kick up the second act drama and keep the action moving in the body of the story. Plot point 2 happens about three quarters of the way through the story with about one quarter left. It places the character at their lowest point or performs a dramatic reversal further deepening the main character’s incline toward resolution.

Develop your beginning and ending and then describe them over and over. I advocate knowing the beginning and ending of your novel before you start writing it; particularly if you’re writing something you want someone, someday to buy. A compelling beginning hooks the reader and invites them to read the rest. An ending must be satsifying to fulfill the story’s arc of action and inspire future readers to recommend it to their friends. Repeatedly describing them during development places them firmly in your mind and helps assure that they are ever present guides as you write the body of your novel.

Write a one-page general summary. When you have your plot points, beginning, and ending play a little connect-the-dots. Have fun exploring the events that will get you from one point to the next. In your previous brainstorm of plot points you probably came up with some good ones that didn’t end up being the major pivotal ones. Flip back to those. They may just fit well on your roadmap.

When you feel ready to write a chapter summary, set a deadline. Look at you – you’ve done all this great developmental work! You are close now to being able to write a solid first draft of a manuscript. Plan on devoting a certain amount of time to briefly describe each chapter. You can do in bullet or paragraph form. Either way works. Give yourself 2-4 weeks to complete this task, no more than 30 days. This will encourage you to trust the work you’ve already done. If you are unsatisfied when you complete this. Set a new 2-4 week goal for further development and revision.

A good development phase can help substantially on the journey of taking whatever piece your passion guides you to write and make it the best it can be. I find that the more effective my process is, the more my passion has room to breathe and inspire. Good luck!

The Power of Personal Journaling

In writing tips on December 15, 2009 at 11:41 pm

A friend asked me the other day for advice on writing. Without hesitation I went right to journaling as a premier tool to help new writers hone their craft.

“Write what you think and feel as though you’re talking to someone you trust,” I told her. “BE HONEST!”

“Ohh – that’s my problem!” she joked. “I’m a LIAR!”

Of course she was kidding but in every joke there is a bit of truth.  Creating convincing prose and developing authenticity in characters, settings, and relationships are common challenges faced by new writers.

Personal journal writing can help!

1)      Writing about subjects, experiences, and observations that move you will help you translate real human emotion into written language more effectively. “Believability” is crucial in drawing a reader in and maintaining their captive attention. Can the reader effortlessly be transported into the world and minds of the characters? For this to take place the reader must be able to relate on a basic emotional level.  This skill can be practiced and improved by journaling about situations personal to you and describing how you feel about them.

2)      Exploring variety in your own personal experiences will aid in diversifying the characters in your story, giving them each unique traits that distinguish them easily one from another. Sure, your main character may more or less be your buddy from school and the love interest is really the girl next door who you never had the courage to talk to, but they aren’t writing your story.  You are. Therefore for it is up to you the writer to call on your own experience to breathe life into all your characters and still make them unique; be they male or female, young or older, liberal or conservative.

3)      Writing descriptively about what you observe in your day-to-day life will help you develop your skills in describing people and places in your stories. Writers, like painters and actors, should be keen observers.  Personal journaling about places you’ve been and people you’ve seen or met will improve your ability to add realistic and compelling detail to the appearance and actions of your characters and settings.

Personal journaling makes a difference.  Writers like any artist must practice their craft. You can start out by just taking time once or twice a week to write about whatever moves you; perhaps a celebrity scandal that’s caught your attention or simply the hug and kiss your child gave you this morning.

So take a trip to the store and pick out a notebook or journal. Pick the one that seems to call to you or gets your attention so you’ll be more inclined to spend some quality time with it.  Even take a moment to pick out a special pen or pack of pencils. Then dive in and start becoming the kind of writer you know you are meant to be.

Happy journaling!