Friday, February 17, 2006

Stuck for Ideas? Try this Writing Exercise.

Freewriting is one of the best writing exercises you can do to eliminate writer's block. It's easy, and doesn't require any special tools. Best of all, it's quick - each freewrite should be timed for no more than 15 minutes - and a great writing exercise to develop new ideas for stories and plots.

How to Freewrite:
All you'll need for this writing exercise is a pen and paper, or a computer if you're more comfortable with a keyboard. I recommend pen and paper, because the physical act of writing seems to unlock something subconscious, allowing your thoughts to flow more naturally. At least, it does for me, but as always, experiment with what works best for you.

If you're still feeling stuck for inspiration, try using a game like Creative Wack Pack ( a deck of colorful and inventive cards) to help you get your creative juices flowing.

Set a timer for at least ten minutes, and no more than fifteen. I suggest starting with 10 minutes, because you will have to keep writing non-stop for the entire time. When you first start doing this exercise, that ten minutes may seem like forever!

Begin writing and - here's the important part - DO NOT STOP! Do not lift your pen from the paper or your fingers from the keyboard, even if you wind up writing "I don't know what to write." over and over again until your ten minutes are up. Write anything, even if it's unconnected nonsense. But keep writing, and do not stop.

When your timer signals, stop writing. Look over what you've written. Sometimes it will be pure rubbush, but often you will be surprised to find that you have pulled ideas for a short story, a poem, or another writing exercise. If not, don't worry. The object of this exercise is to just write, so if you have anything worth saving, that's a bonus!

Some writers like to do a freewriting exercise as a "warm-up" before they begin the day's work. Others use it when they need inspiration. Whatever you decide to use freewriting for, be sure to have fun with it. And keep writing.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Overcoming Writer's Block

When you're staring at a blank page or a blank screen and your mind is as blank as the thing you're looking at - don't feel alone. It happens to every writer: the dreaded Writer's Block.

So what's a writer to do? Here are some ideas...

Deadlines, distractions, and frustration can all contribute to writer's block. And writer's block can cause its own vicious circle: you can't think of anything to write, so you get frustrated, so you tighten up, so you can't think of anything to write. Voila! Writer's Block.

Every writer has his or her own tricks and strategies for overcoming writer's block. Play with a variety of solutions until you find a few that work best for you.

Sometimes, the best way to overcome writer's block is to simply take a break. Make a cup of coffee, take the dog for a walk, take the dishes out of the dishwasher. I like to go to my local library or bookstore and browse for an hour or so. Being surrounded by writing seems to relight the torch of inspiration for me. Find what works for you.

Another useful tool for overcoming writers block is to do a 10 minute freewrite. Freewrites are writing exercises where you write nonstop for a short time, usually no more than 15 minutes.

During a freewrite, you just write. You don't compose, or edit, or (preferably) think. You just write without stopping until your timer rings. Make yourself a list of subjects to write about and you'll never be stuck for a topic.

Of course, a freewrite can be about very simple things. For example, write about what you did in the first ten minutes of your morning, or the experience of drinking your first cup of coffee.

When you draw from your freewrite list, write using different perspectives each time. For example, let's say that "Describe my favorite china cup" is on your list. You can:

* describe the way your cup looks at different times of the day,

* write about the sensory experience of using this cup,

* explain the emotional reasons why this cup is your favorite,

* compare your china cup with your favorite earthenware bowl.

Use your freewrites to observe things you wouldn't normally notice, and describe them in unusual ways.

Another cause of writers block is not staying in the moment. Many writers try to write a perfect piece in their first draft. This is a sure prescription for disaster. The pressure of trying to find the "perfect" word for each word will overwhelm even the most experienced writers. Don't overburden yourself. The time to find the "perfect" word is during the editing process.

Write from your heart. Edit with your head.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

James Frey Defends A Million Little Lies

In an interview with the New York Times, author James Frey says he altered much of the book to serve what he felt was the greater purpose of the book: to detail the story of addiction and an addict's struggle.

Pffffft! Why not present it as fiction then? It seems to me that Frey knowingly concealed his "alterations" because he realized the book would create more "buzz" (and more sales) as a gritty, anti-glamour memoir...
February 2, 2006

Frey Says Falsehoods Improved His Tale
By EDWARD WYATT - New York Times

James Frey yesterday offered the first detailed explanation of why he embellished and lied about events in "A Million Little Pieces," his best-selling book: it made a better story.

"I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require," Mr. Frey said in an author's note released yesterday that will be included in future editions of the book. "I altered events all the way through the book," he added.

Also yesterday, Nielsen BookScan released figures showing that weekly sales of "A Million Little Pieces" have fallen by more than half since the disclosure of Mr. Frey's fabrications on Jan. 8, by the Smoking Gun Web site ( In the most recent week, 58,000 paperback copies of "A Million Little Pieces" were sold in the outlets tracked by BookScan; these do not include mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart, which sell close to half of all paperbacks. At its highest point, the book sold 176,000 paperback copies in a week.

Last week's sales were the lowest since Oprah Winfrey chose the book for her television book club in September. On Jan. 26, Mr. Frey appeared on Ms. Winfrey's show and under her questioning, admitted to extensive fabrications.

In his author's note, a three-page essay titled "a note to the reader," Mr. Frey also said that officials at the rehab facility where he was treated had previously questioned his account of having a root canal procedure without anesthesia. "They believe my memory may be flawed," Mr. Frey wrote. Though he does not name the facility in the book, it has been identified elsewhere as Hazelden, in Center City, Minn.

Other events that Mr. Frey had previously defended as true but which, according to the statement, were invented, include "my role in a train accident that killed a girl from my school."

Repeating admissions he made last week on Ms. Winfrey's show, Mr. Frey also said he falsified descriptions of time spent in police custody and in jail.

Overall, his portrayal in "A Million Little Pieces," is of a person who "I created in my mind to help me cope" with drug addiction and recovery. He said most of the invented material "portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am."

The events and details were invented, he said, "in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book," specifically to "detail the fight addicts and alcoholics experience in their minds and in their bodies, and detail why that fight is difficult to win."

"I sincerely apologize to those readers who have been disappointed by my actions," he said.

On the New York Times best-seller list to be published on Sunday, which reflects sales in the week ended Jan. 21, "A Million Little Pieces" is ranked No. 2 among paperback nonfiction books. But the editors of the list have added a note saying: "Both author and publisher acknowledge that this memoir contains numerous fabrications." David Drake, a spokesman for Doubleday, said the company will continue to market "A Million Little Pieces" as nonfiction, despite Mr. Frey's admissions.

"The publisher's statement and the statement from the author give the reader due warning," Mr. Drake said. "It is a memoir, albeit a flawed one."

Some experts on memoir disagree with that decision. William Zinsser, the author of several classic guides to the writing of memoirs and nonfiction, said in an interview yesterday that he thinks the author's note will significantly alter a reader's view of the book.

"I believe most readers of those statements would think, 'I don't know what I can believe,' and conclude, 'I will look for a book that is more authentic by a writer whose experiences are obviously true,' " Mr. Zinsser said.

On the message boards on Ms. Winfrey's Web site,, more than 20,000 messages about the book have been posted since Mr. Frey admitted, on Ms. Winfrey's show, that he lied. Many of those messages criticize Ms. Winfrey for her anger at Mr. Frey and for turning against a book that many readers still embrace.

The publishers of "A Million Little Pieces," Doubleday and Anchor Books, said yesterday that they were printing 100,000 new paperback copies of the book and 3,500 hardcover copies that include both the author's note and a publisher's note explaining the controversy and apologizing for it. The publishers, both divisions of Random House Inc., also posted the note on and said they will distribute it to booksellers to include in copies of the book already in stores.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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Developing Plot - Exposition

Every good fiction plot follows something of a formula: Exposition, Rising Action, Conflict, Falling Action, Resolution. And although not everything in real life gets resolved, fiction readers usually want a wrap up; a tying up of loose ends; to feel satisified at the conclusion of the novel.

Using a formula may sound confining, but it's actually freeing, know the path you need to take, and therefore you have more energy to devote to the creative aspects of your plot. You can enjoy the view, instead of looking for the map, so to speak...

First, let's deal with the exposition, or the background of the story. Exposition, properly done, makes the reader care about the characters, and become more involved in the results of the events that happen to those characters. Good exposition creates powerful characters, and in turn, a compelling narrative.

For example, if I tell you that a 30-year old woman, let's call her Susan, got hit by a bus and was killed, you would think this is an unfortunate event, but you would not necessarily be saddened by hearing about it.

But what if I tell you that Susan was a single mom who left behind a 5 year old daughter?

What if I also reveal that, as a child, Susan had lost all her family in a fire, and so had no relatives to care for her daughter?

And that after being homeless and destitute, she had pulled herself out of despair and depression, finished college with honors, and started a business employing battered women?

You can see that adding more information turns a simple unfortunate fact into a tragedy. Once you know more about Susan, her loss takes on more weight and color. You become more emotionally invested.

The purpose of exposition is to give the reader background information on the characters. As a writer, you can simply refer to some of the information, or you can add more detail by creating a scene or conversation between the characters. The latter is usually the best way to keep the story moving, because it is extremely difficult to write narrative exposition that doesn't become deadly dull.

Make sure that any exposition is relevant to the piece. Using our character Susan, for example, the reader doesn't need to know that Susan once dyed her hair blond unless this information is relevant to the forward momentum of the story.

Additionally, deliver your story exposition in small chunks. Large chunks of background information tends to be overwhelming for the reader. Besides, by breaking your exposition up, you can use it to develop the tension or conflict in your story.

Next time: Conflict.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Write and Be Read

There's a recent surge of interest in the web as a community-building tool. Sites like Ares, wikipedia, and Google's orkut, are logging large numbers of search queries.

Why is this so hot...
Orkut is an Internet social network service run by Google and named after its creator, Google employee Orkut Buyukkokten. Since its launch on January 22, 2004, orkut's member-by-invitation-only format has spawned a rash of online orkut scalpers.

Wikipedia is controversial, but that hasn't hurt its popularity. Wikipedia, or "Wiki" is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Subjects are posted, and anyone visiting the site can chime in their two-cents worth to build the knowledge base. Wiki is a massive collaborative project, (almost 930,000 articles with 340 million words!) and there is no single point of contact.

Because the entries are not fact-checked, using Wiki as an authority source cannot be recommended, but it provides a quick way of looking up a term or a subject. Moreover, entries that are biased, incorrect, or out of date are usually corrected quickly by other users.

Wiki also hosts discussion boards for each topic, sometimes carrying heated debates, depending on the topic.

Then there's Ares – another contender for open-source downloads. As a free, peer-to-peer file sharing program, Ares enables users to share any digital file including images, audio, video, software, and documents.

To get around the legal issues that plagued previous peer-to-peer file sharing programs, Ares has posted a copyright warning, thereby putting the onus of obtaining permission on the users.

Another web place that is hot, hot, hot is MySpace. The site, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., boasts nearly 42 million users, mostly under the age of 25. It allows each user to create a free personal profile, incorporating photos and audio. This has made the space extremely popular with bands, who can upload their music and potentially get it heard thousands of users.

MySpace users are highly interactive, and discover and form new groups of people or bands by looking through other people's profiles and their lists of friends and contacts. In three years, MySpace has gone from a defunct URL, to ranking as the 7th most popular English language web site ( ranking).

What does this mean for writing and the web? New avenues are opening up for writers to market themselves and their work, through non-traditional channels. The viral possibilities inherent in these kinds of sites make it possible to post and be seen by large numbers – for free.

Consider the possibilities...

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

James Frey - whence the lawyers now?

There's an interesting "cease and desist" letter on from James Frey's lawyers, claiming that The Smoking Gun made allegations that are false, unfounded, and defamatory.

In light of the fact that James Frey has now publicly admitted that much of A Million Little Pieces is *ahem* substantially altered, I wonder if James Frey's lawyers will be sending The Smoking Gun a letter of apology.

Legal issues aside, James Frey's addiction seems to have been only the tip of his problems...

The Smoking Gun

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

James Frey - A Million Little Lies

For those of you who were unable to watch La Oprah today, it was one of the most painful hours of live television ever.

At times, Oprah looked as though it was all she could do to stay in her seat, and she could barely bring herself to look at James Frey. Frey seemed bewildered by the intense emotion his lies have engendered. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and call him "shellshocked". Whatever.

Unfortunately, I don't think James Frey "gets it". I think he "gets" that people are very, very angry at him, but I get the distinct feeling that he doesn't really understand why. In fact, he couldn't bring himself to use the word "lied" until the very end of the show, when, as he was dissembling for the umpteenth time, Oprah barked, "Lied, James! You LIED!"

And although he mumbled The L Word for the first time in the hour, he seemed shocked at the vehemence of her statement.

"Sure, I mis-represented some of the facts, but it's not that big a deal, is what his slack-jawed visage seemed to say.

Except that it is a big deal. Because not only will this incident make the reading public more skeptical, thus making life incrementally more difficult for new non-fiction authors. The fact that Doubleday is named in the lawsuits (yes, there are now three lawsuits, not one) raises the question of whether a publisher can, or should, be held liable for the failure of its authors to tell the truth, or do their own due diligence.

If the publisher is liable for the veracity of a memoir, where is the author's responsibility for personal integrity? Why isn't anyone responsible for their own actions anymore?

Doubleday has issued an apology, and plans to include an author's and a publisher's note in subsequent printings of the book.

What they should do, is not print it at all.

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Oprah faces off with James Frey

Well, it may have taken a while, but now Oprah's ... upset ... with James Frey. After first saying that the important thing about the book is not that he lied, but that he climbed out of addiction, she realized that she may have left the impression that she didn't feel truthfulness is important.

So on today's show, she puts him in the hot seat, and asks the question everybody else has been asking, "Why? Whydja do it?"

Now I really like Oprah, but I usually can't break away to watch the show when it airs in my part of the world, so I rarely catch her. However, I think I'm going to have to make an exception today. This is one Q & A I wanna see...

For those of you who can't make the broadcast, I'll post the scoop later...

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Write a book - Part 3

When you start working on your storyline, or the theme of your story, consider using one of these classic story themes as your writing guide:
  • A journey: there and back.
  • Winning a prize or contest: it may be physical or spiritual.
  • An awakening.
  • Winning or losing a loved one.
  • Overcoming adversity.
  • An ugly duckling becomes a swan.
  • A falsehood or secret is revealed: the basic premise of mysteries.
  • Loss and recovery.
  • A blessing becomes a curse.
  • Returning from destruction or ruin.
  • Descent into destruction or ruin.

These writing themes have been used for thousands of years; as far back as the Ancient Greeks. Storytellers sitting around prehistoric fires probably used them, too, no doubt with great success. They still work in writing today, because they are themes woven through all of human society and human civilization. The great classic themes are universal precisely because they tap into a part of the human psyche that is so deep, that it’s practically a part of our DNA.

Use a story expectation that the reader can recognize, and then manipulate it, frustrate it, or fulfill it, on behalf of your reader. Most full-length novels can handle two, sometimes even three themes. More than that, though, and you had better be sure that you have the requisite writing chops (skill level).

Short stories are built around one theme. More than that, and you risk blowing the power of your narrative.

If you are using more than one theme, choose one as the main theme of your narrative, or you will dilute the strength of them all.

For homework, grab some children’s fiction from the library, and examine the themes. Even in very simple stories, you will see that the central theme usually comes from one of those listed above.

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