Posts tagged writing advice

Out of Your Head

As in, getting out of it.

Writers spend a lot of time alone in their minds, which can be translated as either a mystic dreamscape of endless possibilities and wonder, or as a windowless garret lit by a single candle rendered from rodent fat.

When it starts turning from the former to the latter, it is time to blow that popsicle stand for a while. Knowing what works for you is an individual thing that nobody can teach, but it’s crucial to your mental well-being to figure out how to air out your mind on a regular basis.

Personally, I’ve got four things that can always reset and refresh my mental energy.

  1. Music. Specifically, finding new music I haven’t ever heard before. Pandora, Bandcamp and are incredible resources for exploring new sounds and finding new artists. Plus, you can generally multitask with this one, adding it into other means of clearing your head.
  2. Outdoors. I’m no woodsman or explorer, but I do love me some forests and parks. There are four in a reasonable radius from me, ranging from heavy pine thickets to wide-open prairie grassland. Nothing works for me as well as getting in the wind and letting it scour through my brainmeats.
  3. Exercise. I came late to this one – from adolecence through my early thirties I snubbed the idea of any physical effort, but once I got over the fear of the gym and the habit of a lifetime, I was hooked. Being able to get active and get the blood pumping helps both your body and your mind, whether it’s lifting kettleballs, running down the street, or doing yoga from a DVD.
  4. Cleaning. What? Yeah. Cleaning house helps me settle down in a very quiet way that also makes my living environment more pleasant. It doesn’t hurt that I notice the more cluttered my quarters are, the more cramped my brain tends to feel.

Those are the main methods I’ve got to bring myself around after my skull gets me stir crazy. I’d love to have more tools in the box, though – if you have a specific way that works well for you to stretch your mental muscles (or some new music you think I’ve got to hear), feel free to leave a comment.

On Reading

I was an actor long before I started writing. I worked – unsuccessfully – to make it on the Chicago scene.  I’d abandoned that dream, but lately I’ve signed up with a program called “Get Lit(erary),” bringing readings of fiction, drama and music to local establishments. I’ve been able to watch the most common mistakes of novice readers, and would like to address them here.

Reading is a very public performance for people who often work privately. Below are some basic tips for making the most of your readings.

1.       Speak Up and Slow Down. Most people on stage feel that they’re speaking much more slowly than they actually are. You should aim for a measured pace that keeps the audience with you, not stuck behind and straining to understand. By the same token, the person you want to hear your words is the one in the back of the house. If that means raising your voice in a large venue – within reason – then be sure to do so.

2.       Breathe. Allow yourself to take space to breathe between sentences, unless your scene’s at a breakneck pace. Breathe through your nose if you can (especially if you’re on a microphone), and breathe into your diaphragm, not just your chest. This is where speech originates – just above the navel.

3.       Engage the Audience. There’s nothing worse than a reader who keeps their nose stuck in the book they’re reading from. You know the lines, so make a point of delivering them to the crowd. Make eye contact. Look up from the script as often as you can. The audience is here to see you, to connect with you, not just to hear what you wrote. Engaging with the crowd is the biggest thing you can do to keep them entertained, involved – and more likely to buy your book.

4.       Use your Voice. When you come to a tense section of the reading, slow down and lower your voice – or speed up slightly, and raise the pitch. Which you do is a function of the scene (a lurking killer in the house vs. a race through the Ardennes), but by modifying the way you speak, you present the audience with a chance to be caught up in the action. Coming to a romantic scene? Soften your tone and draw the words out. Speak as if you were reading to a crush, or to a committed partner. Again, you know the scene – use a voice that enhances your words.

5.       Always a Full House. It doesn’t matter if the hall is packed or the bookstore has only three chairs filled with the manager, a cashier and a cat. These people are here to see you. You owe them your best. It can be hard to smile through disappointment; but hey – you’re acting now, and this is all part of the act.


Have you had reading experiences, bad or good? Trade a tip in the comments section and you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a signed copy of FAMISHED: THE FARM on its October release!


Bits, Pieces, Chunks and Excerpts

Never nice to have a horror writer start out referring to bits and pieces, huh? Be thankful I didn’t keep the original title.

I use Twitter for a daily trawl of writing advice. One of my faves is Elizabeth S. Craig (@elizabethscraig), who bills herself as a “laptop-wielding, mystery-writing mom” at her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder.

Today she had a link that really got me interested: How to choose an excerpt to showcase your novel, from Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel blog (Roz tweets as well, as @dirtywhitecandy). She has some great pieces of advice, but the most important one was:

“Choose an excerpt that shows off your hook.”


FAMISHED has some interesting hurdles to overcome in selecting text for a reading. I’m going to discuss the portion that applies to writing today, and then the portion that applies to the actual performance in a follow-up post.

A good portion of the novel deals with subject matter not for the squeamish, and in a public reading, I don’t want to put off my hosts or their unintended guests – visitors to the bookstore or library who wouldn’t touch a horror novel to begin with. On the other hand, it’s a dark supernatural story, and the people who are coming to hear me likely want a bit of shadow-stuff.

So how do I balance the bits and pieces?

It’s not rocket science, but this was the process I followed:

  1. Cut the first and last chapter from the draft – the beginning of your book is for the sofa, not the stage; and I’m certainly not handing out spoilers at my own reading.
  2. Cut any chapter that hits my personal “squick factor,” the scenes I’m proud of but which I know aren’t for everyone.
  3. Review my alpha and beta reader’s notes for their “squick factor” call-outs, and cut them. I only chose people with strong stomachs to help me finish FAMISHED.
  4. Cut the “surreal scenes,” the one or two places where reality and dream are blending for the protagonist. Again, those are good for sitting, not for stand-up.

That left me with about half a novel. No problem! Next I went back to the non-creepy hooks of FAMISHED: themes of isolation and familial ties.

There are a few scenes that seem attractive when viewed through this lens:

  • The first meeting of our protagonist and the family of antagonists,
  • The first meal at the Farm, which skirts, but does not press, the central horror of the situation,
  • An interview between two isolated prisoners, or
  • One of two rebellions within the family.

Each of those five scenes is thematically tied to the overall novel. They’re suspenseful without being horrific, and they each display an important shift in the rhythm of the story.

Editing’s another key. While I read the work aloud as I wrote it, I read it for a single reader – not for an audience. The beats work differently in your head than in an open room. Roz covers this well in her essay under the headings on “Abridge” and “Write an Introduction.”

The next post will cover coming at this reading as someone with a performance background. I’d like to thank Elizabeth Craig and Roz Morris again for their excellent pieces of advice which sparked this entry.

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