Twitter can be an excellent tool for people in any profession. But most of us pigeon-hole it, leaving Twitter to the social networking and new media mavens. Here are 3 quick ways Twitter can help you become a better writer.
1. Distilling Your Storyline – the one sentence novel.
A guest speaker at one of my English Lit classes led a class based around the idea. She presented us with half a dozen classics, then had us give just one line summarizing the plot of each–
Mrs. Dalloway – Clarice Dalloway throws a party. (34 characters)
Heart of Darkness – Marlow puts on his story-telling hat and goes for a boat ride. (62 characters)
Pride & Prejudice – The sisters Bennett fall in love, lose love, find it again then live (mostly) happily ever after. (97 characters)
This may seem like a silly little game, but it’s a great way to put your story in perspective. If it’s hard to get a big picture view of your story in 140 characters, then the premise/framing may be too complex. The best stories have very simple set-ups – they don’t need a complex frame, because it’s the characters that matter. Tweeting your one-line summary is a great way to get feedback, too.
2. Asking Questions – tap into your tweeps
Let’s say you’re starting a new project, and aren’t sure whether to go with third person or first. With one simple tweet, you can tap into literally thousands of authors – and their collective knowledge. Although Twitter is running 24/7, scheduled tweet-chats are the best time to talk with others in the know. But be warned, tweet-chats are fast and free-flowing, so it can be hard to keep up. Using – is the easiest way to keep track of the flow; it also allows you to look over the conversation at a later date. A few guidelines:
- Make sure you include the chat hashtag at the end of each post.
- If you’re a very active participant, consider warning your followers that you’ll be taking part in a chat.
- Contribute – if you have an answer for someone else, type away. The best way to get answers is to give answers.
- If you don’t get an answer to your question, wait a bit before re-posting. When re-posting, be polite – don’t demand answers.
- Be specific when asking questions – it makes it easier for everyone.
3. Get To Know Your Characters – writing down the essentials
Similar to 1, Twitter’s 140 character limit is an excellent way to learn about your characters. Write down the essentials of each – but keep it short enough to tweet. This way, you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Consider Elizabeth Bennett from Pride & Prejudice–
Elizabeth likes to talk and people liked to listen. She’s light-hearted and funny, easy to be around, and loves her family. Her figure is light and pleasing, and most people think she’s pretty, but not as pretty as her sister Jane, but pretty enough. She’s full of strong opinions, and it’s hard to change her mind once she’s set against something – or someone. (361 characters)
Elizabeth: good conversation, light-hearted, pretty, loves family, opinionated, stubborn. (89 characters)
If it takes you more than 140 characters to write a character slug, chances are you need to spend more time with your characters. Though it may seem contradictory, mapping out a characters’ attributes – i.e. writing down everything you can think of – is a great place to start. Once you know everything there is to know, it’ll be much easier to work out what’s important and what’s not.
Have you used Twitter to forward your writing? What did you think?
Thanksgiving books abound, many of them about thanks, giving, and the history of the holiday. If you’re looking for something a little more unusual, or just something to break up the learning books, here are a few new classics to try. Thanks to the Harvard Co-op Bookstore Kids’ staff for the picks!
The Ugly Pumpkin, Dave Horowitz
A seasonal spin on Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Ugly Duckling“, “The Ugly Pumpkin” has it all – skeletons, hitch-hikers, and a feast. The story is told in a light rhyme, with lots of opportunities for kids to shout the refrain “I am the Ugly Pumpkin!” The ending brings a sweet surprise for little people.
- ages 3 & up
- some illustrations may be too dark for sensitive children
- several opportunities for children to relate to the Ugly Pumpkin, and share their own experiences
I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie, Alison Jackson, Judy Schachner
Another seasonal take on a classic, I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Pie, substitutes Thanksgiving foodstuffs for insects (fly & pie, spider & cider). The illustrations are bright and vivid, growing more ridiculous with each turn of the page. Older children may enjoy reading the story as a group and recognizing traditional Thanksgiving dishes.
- ages 4 -8
- fun for children familiar with “I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly“
I’m A Turkey! Jim Arnosky
This often underappreciated bird gets his due in Arnosky’s funny homage. Tom is part of a large flock of wild turkeys (“We putt and peep and squawk and squabble. Talking turkey. Gobble, gobble”). Turkey life has its downsides (“ ‘cuz lots of critters find us… tasty!”), but Arnosky’s naturalistic acrylics imbue the birds with, if not quite majesty, lots of personality. Though Tom does suggest “the very next turkey that you see/ might be from my flock. It might be me!” no allusions are made to Thanksgiving—this is a treat for any time of year.
- ages 4 – 8
- song download available from Scholastic, here
- best for kids who won’t be upset by eating turkey after reading the book!
Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’ (reillustrated edition), Eileen Spinelli and Megan Lloyd
From School Library Journal:This charming title, originally published in 1982 (HarperCollins), has been newly illustrated with vibrant, humorous artwork, with wolves instead of people as characters. The trouble begins when the turkey slips from Mrs. Tappleton’s grasp and slides out the door, across the lawn, and into the frozen pond. Nonstop hilarity continues and more challenges develop with the pies, mashed potatoes, and even the salad. This family races through the day, experiencing one calamitous food catastrophe after another. However, the guests realize that Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate one another, not the traditional feast. This never-a-dull-moment look at Thanksgiving is a feast for the eyes; the slapstick events that develop are what help to strengthen the family.
- ages 4-8
- longer, like a chapter book; older kids may want to read it alone, or to the group
- fun animal references – Grandpa was as hungry as 3 elephants! – for younger children
- the Tappletons are wolves – some nice wordplay for older readers
- the “family is the most important thing” message is neatly woven into the story without being overwhelming
Yesterday, we talked about authenticity in a nebulous sense - what it is, and why it’s important. Today’s post is about co-authorship, or building a relationship with your audience. [As Crouch is an actor and playwright, he speaks specifically about theater, though the same ideas carry into other aspects of fiction, too.]
A large part of Crouch’s theater philosophy revolves around the idea of acting and not acting. “I’m bored to the back teeth of watching actors act,” he says. “There’s a truth about actors – they have to do everything…and there’s no room for the audience left. Art is about making connections, the act of suggestion. If I suggest something is so, then it is so.”
So what exactly does the audience do?
“It’s an act of co-authorship,” says Crouch. In a play, “the idea is present but is given manifestation by a contract between the audience and the performance.” In Crouch’s one man play, “My Arm”, the driving idea is that the character (also named Tim Crouch) can’t lower his arm – said arm has been held above his head since he was a child. Despite the obvious idea that Crouch would sit on stage speaking with his arm above his head, he does not. Instead, his arm is down, by his side, the entire performance.
At one point in the story, Tim Crouch the character talks about a scar on his back. He turns around to show the audience the scar – the audience who know that Crouch has two normal arms – and most everyone leans forward to see it. “That’s a writer’s gold dust,” says Crouch. “The know, empirically, that it’s not my story…[but they] will things to happen. We will make things appear…between out eyes and our ears some miracle happens. Our eyes see a physical presence but our mind sees something else.”
Other examples of this co-authorship include metaphors and similes. “[ When I was done] I removed the adjectives from the manuscript. I didn’t want to do the work for you [the audience].” How can a narrative get by without adjectives? According to Crouch, it’s all about personal experience and visualization. At one point in “My Arm”, the character describes a low point in his life. Instead of saying “I really cried, and I never cry” or “I was really depressed, so I cried for the first time in ages” he says:
…not having cried for as long as I can remember I have now taken to crying like a newborn lamb in the rain.
This is an incredibly powerful image. Why? Because almost everyone can envision a newborn lamb, and the lamb’s lament. It immediately pulls the audience back to a place when they felt like a newborn lamb in the rain, creating a much more powerful emotional connection than “and then I really cried, and I never cry, like, ever”.
“If you forget the audience are going to do 90% of your work for you,” says Crouch, “then you’re in trouble. I think.”
So how do we create this sort of sincerity and suspension of disbelief in writing? A good first step is to consider the first person autobiography. We already know the story, and all the details, but “it’s very authentically an image,” says Crouch.
“[An image] created not by me, by by us.” The character I see as me, a writer with husband, small child, and a novel on the way – is tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed. The character you see might be red-haired, pale, and green-eyed, because that’s what writer suggests to you, or perhaps because you once knew a red-haired woman with a similar one-line bio. Of course, it’s hard to resist the temptation to tell the reader what a protagonist looks like in detail – it’s human nature to want to share our vision. But, when reading, “a reader brings the pages to life, otherwise they’re just papers”.
Building a relationship with readers, co-authoring, requires letting go. Like any venture involving two people, there’s an element of trust involved. Writers have to trust their reader to fill in the blanks, to get what’s going on – because that’s the most effective path to creating a suspension of disbelief. Why? Readers want to suspend disbelief. Readers want to get into the story, and see what you have to say. Banging them over the head with every little detail, leaving too few gaps, actually pulls a reader out of the story. And nobody wants that. (There’s a good example of this over at Livia’s blog, here.)
Today’s takeaway: Trust your readers, and trust your instincts and personal experience. Don’t tell your readers how your character feels (I felt depressed, so I cried). Hook into their personal experience, and let them do the work for you. It’s much more satisfying on both sides.
Do you have trouble trusting your readers? Why? How do you hook into a personal experience?
Last week, I attended Crouch’s first ever writing workshop, held at the ICA Boston in conjunction with Grub Street. Here’s the blurb from the Grub Street Rag:
FREE PLAYWRITING WORKSHOP: CREATIVE WRITING PERFORMANCE WITH TIM CROUCH
British playwright/performer Tim Crouch will offer a practical introductory workshop on writing for the stage – translating ideas into text and stage action. The workshop will explore the differences between dramatic text and other forms of writing culminating in the creation of short pieces for performance.
For those who haven’t been there before, the ICA can be a bit intimidating – it juts out over the Charles, a melange of glass and beam, its design straddling the line between Boston’s past and Boston’s future. Already nervous–a bit of Googling revealed Crouch to be a theater experimentalist – the ICA nearly put me over the edge. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the driving wind, I may never have made it in the door!
So what was the workshop like?
Truth is, I’m still not sure. I’m still trying to work through the ideas, the things I liked and didn’t like. The most important thing I learned, though, is this – writing is all about just setting out to tell a story. Sounds simple, right? It is. It’s that annoyingly obvious kind of simple, the kind that needs to be pointed out. And point it out Crouch did – 6 times over the course of 2 hours.
What do I mean by setting out to tell a story?
There are two kinds of writers.
1. Planners & plotters.
I’m a scribbler. I skip the planning, and just write what comes until I hit a wall. Then I start to think through what I’ve written so far, trying to see how it works. Plotters & planners sketch out their work until they know all the necessary ins and outs of the story. Either way, you get a story.
But is the story authentic?
Authenticity in stories is a bit of a hot button topic. The word has been bandied around at every writers’ conference, and class I’ve ever attended, and was a favorite of one of my English Lit. professors. I think a better word for “authentic” work, though, is “genuine” or “sincere”. Whenever my Nana meets someone she likes, she says they’re a “genuine” type of person, or “the salt of the earth”. A genuine story would be one that resonates, or feels true to itself, rather than forced, full of issues, themes, and ideas no one is actually interested in reading.
Except…well, aren’t ideas what set our stories apart? In Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Wintergirls, there are very clear body image issues. In Oscar Hijuelos’ Dark Dude, there’s a lot about personal growth. How do these authors imbue their work with ideas that speak to readers but maintain a sincere voice?
Crouch’s take – I just set out to tell a story – says it all.
“No one can teach anyone to write,” he says. “If you try to [impose structure] something else will be communicated on top of the immediate narrative. Pre-rationalization is like a little death. Structure is deadly. It takes away from the act of generation.”
So how did Crouch write his first (very successful) play, “My Arm”, about a man who can’t lower his arm? He describes it as being “sharp and bitter in my mind… all I did was set out to tell a story. I had no idea except to honor that idea. By the second day, I had a concrete idea of how I worked. [When I got to the end], I didn’t think I’d got to the end. I was very surprised.”
And how does authenticity play into that? According to Crouch, writers need to post-rationalize. “Just sit down and write,” he told our 40-some group. “Whatever’s in your life, up top of your mind, will come through. Later, you can go back and figure it out.”
The big take-away? Mess is good. Crouch’s whole point is that mess is, ultimately, good, because it makes our work authentic, genuine. And it doesn’t matter that it’s messy because that’s what the revision process is all about.
How do you write? Have you ever tried post-rationalization?
This week, Baby and I have been sick again – and Baby had a round of shots on top of it all, so it’s been a difficult few days. As a result, I’ve been letting him listen to his favorite song, the theme from The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh almost every time he’s upset. He’s loving it. Me, not so much.
Then it occurred to me – Baby responds to this particular song in any format. It doesn’t have to be the original version – I can sing it, and he’s happy. So, after a bit of searching, I tracked down this piano solo:
The piano solo is a much easier format for me. It’s soft and pleasant sounding; I can loop it in the background, and not grind my teeth as it plays and plays and plays. And that started me thinking about the seven stories hypothesis.
The seven stories hypothesis (SSH) is the idea that there are only seven stories in the world. Here’s the basic list:
- Man vs. Nature
- Man vs Man/Woman
- Man vs the Environment
- Man vs Technology/Machine
- Man vs The Supernatural
- Man vs Self
- Man vs God/Religion
Some people believe there are only 5 plots (2 & 6, 5 & 7 are grouped together), while others believe there are 20. Others have different names and segments of nature for the plots. These are from Christopher Brooks’ The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (a great read, by the way):
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
Regardless, the idea stands: there are only so many stories to go around. So why do we keep buying books? How do authors keep us hooked?
A new take on an old idea.
However you slice it, the stories I tell will be different to the stories you tell. Why? Because we’re different people, with different experiences. True, we’re both people. True, we may both have stories that fit into the same basic plot, but the details, and how we handle the situations, will be different. (A great example of this is Cinderella – Cinderella stories, a blend of Woman vs. the Environment and Woman vs. Self, abound in film and literature.)
Does this mean I catalog all my work? No – I don’t need to. I already know where it fits. What I do do is play the SSH game with other books, looking for stories that fit into the same basic plot as mine. This helps me work out the most important parts of the story. Considering these other stories also helps me find my own version – thinking about how I might have handled a certain storyline allows me to tap into my own experience and make my work authentic.
Next time: authenticity and my workshop with playwright Tim Crouch.