Don’t Say A Word

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So there I was…with a finished novel after just eight years. Not that it took me eight years to write it. I took about four years off to study photography and another couple of years to apply some of that studying to the actual pursuit of picture taking.

During this time, I used the storyboard for my novel as an example of story boarding in my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshops. I also talked about the novel profusely, to anyone who would listen. I even posted excerpts on my blog.

Let’s turn the clock back a bit…to long before I started the novel…way back to the days of Sinclair Lewis. He and his wife would never utter out loud the title of his book Main Street for fear that another writer would pick up on it psychically and use it. Which, of course, assumes that writers are somehow psychically connected.

Maybe so, maybe not so.

I finished the novel over a year ago and put it aside for a few months before going through it for one last round of revisions. Then, I started contacting literary agents. Lots of them. After a few weeks, they started getting back to me with the usual death threats and warnings of legal action. I’m used to this. I bask in the dark light of agent rejection and use it to fuel my enthusiasm for the impossible.

But I didn’t like some of their comments, especially the ones who said things like:

‘We don’t need another Three Faces of Eve book. What the hell were you thinking when you wrote this garbage?’ 

‘Have you seen the movie Seven Sisters? Obviously you have, because this novel of yours is just a rewrite of the movie with a different title, different characters, different story line and different concept. And different uses of the word “and.” Rejected!’

Bastards.

But now that the word’s out, I can talk about the word. The name of the novel is The Weekly Man, not Six Brothers and One Sister. Both have seven main characters.

Seven Sisters has three women born the same day in a society that only allows one baby, so they hide their identity and each of the sisters can go outside their home one day of the week and they name themselves after the day they can go out (i.e., Monday, Tuesday…you know, days of the week).

The Weekly Man has seven personalities living in the same body. The one who was born in that body on Monday exists every Monday (but isn’t named after the day). The one who was born in that body on Tuesday only exists on Tuesdays (and he isn’t named after the day either). So, a different personality each day, ending with a female personality on Sunday (but she’s not named Sunday).

In Seven Sisters, the characters all know of each other’s existence; in fact, they live together. In The Weekly Man, the characters (even though they live in the same body) don’t know of each other’s existence until they’re in their 30s and they start meeting on social media. It took over a year of research and banging my head on table tops in the coffee shops around the city where I did my writing to work this out.

In Seven Sisters, the characters are focused on keeping their existence secret from the rest of the world . In The Weekly Man, the characters are kept secret from each other. Seven Sisters is a serious movie. The Weekly Man is humor. For instance, the Tuesday character is trying to murder the Thursday character but can’t because the they don’t exist on the same day. And, of course, the Sunday character is thinking about getting a sex change.

Now, I’m not saying that the people who wrote and produced Seven Sisters picked up on my idea through some kind of psychic connection. I would never say such a foolish thing, Sinclair Lewis or not. However, I did learn a lesson from this: When you start a novel, finish it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t be distracted by photography or other pursuits. Don’t use your novel’s storyboard in your writing workshops.

And don’t let the agents get you down when they point at you and laugh. It’s their job. It’s nothing personal. Well, the death threats are kind of personal, but I get those all the time, and not just from agents.

I guess the thing to do is sit on the book for a couple of years until there’re all new agents out there who don’t watch movies and have never read books on multiple personalities. Yeah…a couple of years.

In the meantime, I’m working on another novel. But I’m not going to talk about it. And I’m sure as hell not going to say the title out loud.

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Can Anyone Write a Novel?

I suppose I’d have to pare this down to the essence of writing a novel: Can anyone tell a story? On this point, I’d have to say, “Yes, anyone can tell a story, but some will tell a mesmerizing story while others will put their listeners to sleep.”

So really, it’s a matter of teaching poor storytellers how to tell their stories better, and the further question is: Can poor storytellers be taught to tell their stories better? And again, I’d have to say, “Yes, of course! But they’re really going to have to work at it.”

So how do you teach someone who can barely explain how to boil an egg how to create a cast of exciting characters acting out their dynamic lives in a compelling world?

They Have to Change Their Life Style

First, they have to change their life style. In the decade plus that I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops, I’ve had a surprising number of students who didn’t seem to belong in a creative writing workshop. They weren’t necessarily shy or quiet spoken; they just didn’t generate much interest in what they had to say. Just gonna give you the facts, mam. They spoke with a flatness that left their words forgotten seconds after they were mouthed. This was just the way they talked and it carried over to the way they wrote (at least 99.99% of the time). It was the way they thought, the way they lived their lives. They lived on the left side (of the brain, that is) where everything is well-delineated shades of gray or simply black and white. The trick was to get them to use the right side of their brains on a daily basis…not once a week or two or three times a week, but every day of the week and, if possible, several times daily.

This one actually has an easily identifiable solution, but not so easy for the student to actually do. It doesn’t require a lot of effort…it can be done without any preparation and no follow-up is required. It’s a no-brainer, which is why I call it mindless writing.

I’m not going to get into a lot of detail on this technique. If you want more in-depth information, I suggest you buy Dorethea Brandte’s book On Becoming a Writer. The basic gist is:

  • Set a time to write (5-10 minutes)
  • Pick a topic (could just be the word banana)
  • Write about it without stopping (no editing and no stopping to think)
  • Stop when you reach the time you set

Done in the morning, this exercise primes the right side of the brain for creative thought throughout the day. Done several times a day, it helps break down the barrier to the right side of the brain that left-brainers put up because they’re not used to thinking that way, they’ve been taught not to think that way, or they believe deep down inside that they don’t have the ability to think that way.

Again, done several times a day, mindless writing can change the fundamental way a person views their life. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly over the years.

They Have to Read

They have to read. And read. I knew a man who wrote one of the longest novels I’d ever seen by a first time novelist. He boasted that he never read fiction and rarely read non-fiction, but he wanted to be a writer. He asked if I could take a look at his novel and I agreed. Just a few paragraphs into it, I could see that he really didn’t do a lot of reading, but I read the whole thing. It was painful. Descriptions were matter-of-fact with no emotional connotations, the characters were lifeless throwaway caricatures, modulation was replaced by a flat line of overly technical and inert action, and there was no real point in calling it a story because there wasn’t much of a storyline. He obviously didn’t know how to tell a story and I’m assuming it was because he just wasn’t familiar with the concept of story.

Writers earn their storytelling ability by reading stories, writing stories and reading more stories. What they do when the read, is listen to storytellers telling stories. And that’s a learning experience.

Maybe at some point in a writer’s life, if they’ve written a dozen novels and write every day and don’t have time to read because they’re writing…maybe these writers can get away with not reading, but I’d bet a week’s wages they read a lot before they wrote those dozen novels.

They Have to Write

Yep, they have to write, consistently, every day (whether mindlessly or otherwise). I’ve had many students who couldn’t write worth a damn when they started my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop and they couldn’t write much better by the end of the workshop, but they followed up on what they learned in the workshop and kept writing on their own, every day, and it paid off. One of them even wrote a couple of plays that were produced and received great reviews.

Writing is a cumulative thing; the more you do it, the more you build on it and the better you become at it. It could be just five minutes of mindless writing in the morning. It could be five minutes on a scene written over lunch. The morning writing and the lunch writing might be bad writing, but they’re writing. Professional athletes have good days and bad days, but they perform consistently and that consistency makes them professional athletes.

There’s a deluge of exercises, processes, procedures, methodologies, approaches, techniques, and insider tricks and tips currently being pushed on the burgeoning market for would-be writers, especially in the explosion of baby boomers with lots of time to write and lots of storytelling to do. But they’ll need to change their life style, read more and write more before they finish that first novel.

Storytelling has never been for the privileged few, it’s always been for those who want to tell a story, and putting the story on paper or in cyberspace is just another way of telling the story. So, yes, anyone can write a novel.

(Visit me at biffmitchell.com)

Free eBook: The Revision Process

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When you’ve finished the first draft of your novel, the fun is over. Now, it’s time to get into the real work: re-writing.

This is a multi-step process and the steps have a very distinct order. Break that order and you could be letting yourself in for a lot of heart ache. Re-writing is where the real writing begins. Everything up till now was getting an idea out where you can see it.

On the other hand, there are those writers who seem to get everything down on the first draft. I hate those people. Fortunately, they’re rare. Rare enough that you’re likely not one of them, so this ebook might just help you to get through the revision/re-writing process with your sanity relatively unscathed.

You can download a free ebook on the the revision/self-editing process from my website. Just scroll down to Free Stuff.

Free eBook on Writing Sex, Violence, Humor and Foul Language

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You don’t have to be a successful standup comedian to write convincing humor. In fact, you don’t even need a keen sense of humor. And you don’t have to worry about your sex scenes turning into pornography once you know the difference between romance, eroticism and pornography.

Humor, sex, violence and foul language are elements of writing that can cause problems for writers. How much violence is too much, or too little? Where do you draw the line with profane language even when you have a character based on a real-life person whose foul language almost obscures everything they say?

Four of the sessions in my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop deal with these topics. This little ebook presents those sessions along with some exercises to help you tackle these problems in your writing.

You can download the ebook free in the Free Stuff section of my website.

Become a Writer

Do you want to write a novel, play, short story, poem, annual report?

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This workshop will show you how to conceive an idea, develop it, and turn it into a finished piece of writing ready for publication. The focus will be on writing a novel, but the techniques you’ll learn apply to all forms of writing.

Presented by Biff Mitchell, author of Writing Hurts Like Hell: How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time to Write a Short Story, this workshop is based on 10 years of teaching writing workshops through UNB CEL, the Maritime Writers Workshop, the Muse Online Writers Conference and others.

Fee is $95 and includes a free digital publication kit.

There will be four 2-hour sessions (June 12, 14, 19 and 21) from 6:30 till 8:30. For more details, email biff@biffmitchell.com. Enrollment is limited to 10.

 

Writing Hurts Like Hell – Breaking the Story Board

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I encourage my writing students to create a story board before starting their novels. I stole the idea from Walt Disney, who created a visual story board for the animated cartoon movie Snow White. I think is was something like a half mile long. This isn’t exactly what I do, not having half a mile of wall space.

I use one large card for each scene. Each card indicates the names of the characters in the scene and, very briefly, what happens in each scene. The cards look something like this:

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The story board is a form of visual plotting. You can see how the story progresses. You can see where you might need more development, where scenes are missing, where you might need a previous scene to make a later scene make sense, and where you might need to delete a scene because it doesn’t advance the story. It gives you new ideas for more scenes and new directions for the story.

The story board creates a structure for your novel, so that when you start writing, you know where you’re going and how to get there. Starting off with that structure burned into your head saves a hell of a lot of time, cuts down the chances of getting writer’s block and makes it possible to get back into the writing if you’re away from it for a while. It also allows you to put together a realistic writing schedule because you can see what has to be done and the scope of what has to be done.

All this said, there may come a time when the story itself takes over, when the actual writing reaches a point where the story board doesn’t make any sense and you just have to write.

OK, the blood-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails anthologies, J, just said, “But Biff, you spent all that time sweating and suffering over a story board…and then…and then…you have nothing. Ha ha!”

And the fox said, “Ha ha!”

“Hey fox,” I said. “Guess how J writes a novel?”

“With brilliance, insight and feeling,” said the fox.

“Thanks, fox,” said J, smiling like a self-satisfied Canadian, who’s actually an American living in New Mexico.

“No!” I said. “He sleeps. Yes, he goes to sleep with a laptop in his lap and dreams. And while he’s dreaming, he records the dream and when he wakes up…presto…novel finished. And perfectly formatted.”

Just as J and the fox were about to say nasty things about me, I ran into my bedroom and crawled under my bed with my desktop computer. I can hear them shuffling around my apartment looking for me, but I know they’re afraid to look under my bed, fearing whatever stuff a writer hides under his bed. Like the stuff I got from my stag party about thirty years ago. I won’t get into details that might even scare me.

So yes, this just happened to me. I had the story board completed for my next novel, the details of which I won’t get into because they might even scare me. I estimated a short novel of about 60,000 words. I had everything worked out, plotted, carded, and on the wall at my studio.

But, as I approached the 60,000 word mark, things started to happen. The characters started doing things that I hadn’t planned. The story line started finding new paths that wandered far away from the story board. Tomorrow, I’m going to break the 80,000 word mark…and I’ll be nowhere near finished.

So, am I sorry I bothered putting all that time and effort into a story board?

No.

Now, I should mention one other thing. I created that story board three years ago. Then, I took three years off to study photography. I came back to the novel a few months ago. I had the story board to come back to for re-orientation. But more important, I had a structure in my head that had three years to simmer and evolve. I dumped the opening chapter for something that, after three years of second thought, worked much better, and then continued with the original plan.

But, like I said, around 60,000 words things started to get out of hand.

I think J and the fox are looking for me in my refrigerator, and eating everything in it as they look. I didn’t know foxes ate avocadoes. I didn’t know editors ate.

But get this. It’s working. Each day when I start to write, the words are gushing out. New ideas and new directions are falling into the manuscript line inspired rain.

The fox said, “Did someone just say ‘inspired rain’?”

“That sounds like something dumb that Biff would say,” said J. “He’s still here. The refrigerator is empty. Let’s find him.”

So I have to make this fast. The story board gives you a structure to start with. It organizes your brain, and your creative instincts, around that structure. And once you have that structure, you can toss it when the story goes its own way. Without the structure to begin with, you would never have gotten to that point where the story would have taken off on its own.

Now, having said all that, there are writers who never use a story board. I mean, some writers just all asleep with a laptop in their laps. The story board is meant for people like me…busy people with fulltime jobs and myriad other things to do.

If you’re not writing fulltime…take the time to do a story board, especially if it’s your first novel. Get that structure in your head and, if the time comes, dump it and just let your story take you where it will go.

“Hey J,” said the fox. “Biff’s under his bed. And…holy shit look at the stuff…oh…the stuff!

Oh, shit.

Finishing

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There is nothing more orgasmic than writing a beautiful sentence…even if you’re the only one in the world who can appreciate its beauty. But then…then…there’s compiling all those beautiful sentences into a complete whole. In my case…like…Biff Does Vegas. But my kids might be reading this blog, so we’ll leave it at that.

OK…I like the trip there. I always have. I wrote something on my LinkedIn to the effect that sitting at the top of the mountain with a beautiful view is cool but, hell, the adventure’s over. So I’m not a big fan of finishing. I’m into the trip.

But then, things finish. If they don’t, the journey’s going nowhere. Such is the hell we have to live with in this universe that never seems to make sense.

Let me tell you a story.

“Please do,” said the fox.

Guess what, fox? It’s fuck off Thursday. So…please do.

I’ve written novels that took me up to three years to write. Hey, I work and do lots of other shit. My last novel, Reality Wars, took exactly three years.

But then, I’ve written short stories that took me longer. One of them, The Nickel, took ten years. And it’s like…twenty or thirty pages.

I was traveling out to Vancouver with a friend who’s car broke down on the busiest street in Winnipeg during rush hour traffic. The engine fell out. We sold what was left of the car to Trapper John’s Used Cars, Best Deal In Town, or something like that. Got $99.

Took a bus the rest of the way. Glad that happened though, because it inspired the best story I’ve ever written or ever will write. It was in Saskatchewan that the bus passed an intersection in the middle of nowhere. I mean, there was nothing but flatness for a thousand thousand miles in every direction. But there was this intersection where two roads crossed paths.

And there was a sign. It read: D NAT ONS. I mean, wtf, in the middle of nowhere? Donations for what? And there was a donation box below the sign. Did I mention wtf? That image suck to the inside of my mind like the worst booger from somebody else on the elevator that ever was that sticky.

I carried it out to Vancouver where things got so hot I had to leave and come back to New Brunswick where the woman I loved still lived. I carried it through about another day or two before I was hit by 50,000 volts of inspiration and started writing about it.

I wrote furiously…like…I burned the letters off my typewriter (remember those? those things that didn’t allow you to cut and paste, and if you burned the manuscript for a novel…without a carbon copy…well…goodbye novel). But I stopped just short of finishing. It was like the journey with no end in sight. No reason to continue. There was no ending. So, I put it away for a while. About three years. And brought it out again…and got another few pages. But no ending.

It wasn’t until several years later that I took my type-written manuscript to work with me that the juices started flowing again. And, boy, did they flow. I was a bartender in a the games room of a night club. (NOTE: want to learn about people…spend a few years working as a bartender. END OF NOTE.) It was quiet that night. Well, it was still early and the only customers I had at the bar were three members of the Princess Pats regiment. There was a military base close by.

I started to work…with pen…on the next page of the story. And the next page. I’d already passed the work up till then to the three guys at the bar and then passed each page to them as I finished it. I got three or four pages done that night…before things started to get busy and I had no time to write. Boy, were they pissed that they didn’t get to read the end of the story.

But I knew I was close to the end, close to finishing. I put the pages away and got people drunk for the rest of the night. Those pages stayed as they were for another few years, teetering on the edge of finishing. Until one day or night…I honestly don’t remember…I finished it. It was just one more page.

One more page. I waited years for that one more page. Waited that long to finish it. The story won an award in an Australian literary magazine site and was later re-published in the Projected Letters Literary Magazine (now defunct until the publishers get off their academic asses and do something useful). But the journey was over. I knew the ending. It was a beautiful view.

And this is why I drive everything I’ve written out of my mind and focus just on what I’m writing now.

The adventure.

I’ll put that story here tomorrow. It’s an adventure itself.

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