Sunday, June 26, 2016

Reads for Writers: Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald Provides a Masterclass

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice and/or creativity.


In his book Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate, Brian McDonald shares brilliant insights about writing using well-known movie screenplays as well as novels as examples. Once you become aware of “invisible ink”, you will see it wherever it appears. If you truly take in what McDonald reveals, your writing will take on new dimensions.

McDonald discusses “visible ink”—dialogue and language—readily seen by the reader or viewer versus “invisible ink”—how events are ordered, what events occur, how characters behave—not easily spotted by readers, viewers, and listeners. (page 2)

The greatest truth in this book: Invisible ink is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it. If you learn to use it, your work will feel polished, professional, and it will have a profound impact on your audience. (page 3) What more does any writer want than to make a profound impact on his or her audience?

McDonald writes in a simple straightforward style. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you already know what he is talking about. He has spent years studying “invisible ink” so follow his instructions to find it by re-watching movies, reading screenplays, or rereading novels. Simple does not mean easy. His advice is worth the effort.

Here are a few of McDonald’s examples:

In Finding Nemo, the father desperately tries to keep his son safe by never letting him out of his sight…What happens? His son is taken away…This is his personal hell.

This is one of the ways to apply invisible ink to your work, but it will yield powerful results…Find the thing your character would rather die than do and make them do it. (page 60)                                        

Because the scene with Don Corleone and Bonasera is the first scene in the film [section of The Godfather screenplay is included in book], it becomes invisible ink. The audience has no idea that this scene will help them understand the rest of the film. Like all forms of invisible ink, it works on a subconscious level. (pp. 64-65)

You want to see truth in fiction? Watch Jimmy Stewart’s breakdown in It’s a Wonderful Life, just before he decides to kill himself. It’s about as real and truthful as anything you will ever see on film. Capra is known for being lighthearted, but when he got dark, he always told the truth. If you want to affect people deeply, tell the truth. (page 76)

          Here are a few of McDonald’s insights:

Writers with the least experience and skill think that the more complicated something is, the better. But…their work comes off clumsy and unfocused. If you want to come off like a mature writer, be precise. (page 21)

The worst of us has good in him and the best of us has some bad. That is a truth that many of us want to deny, but as storytellers it is the truth we must illuminate.

The truth will always be sadder, happier, funnier, scarier, and more profound than the best lie. More importantly, the audience never “sees” it, but does feel it. (page 78)

Invisible ink is all about communicating with your audience clearly and getting it to feel and think what it needs to so it will experience your story. (page 116)

          I highly recommend this book to all writers!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reads for Writers: Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home by Susan Hill

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Readers always have books they haven’t read nearby whether in stacks by the bed or on bookshelves for someday. If you have new ones entering your life via the library, friends, or bookstores, some day can quickly become some year.

          English novelist Susan Hill certainly found this to be true.

“It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not. But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realized I had never read.

I pursued the elusive book through several rooms and did not find it…But each time I did find at least a dozen, perhaps two dozen, perhaps two hundred, that I had never read.” (page 1)

          She also found many books she would enjoy rereading and so began a journey through her own library which she turned into a book entitled Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home.

          As a lifelong reader in her sixties, an author, a reviewer, and a judge for literary awards, Hill has a great many books so it’s easy to imagine that one or more could be misplaced. What fun to come across so many unread books and old favorites then decide to read or reread as many as she could in one year and write about them. Another of the joys of this book is the commentary from Hill as she recalls meeting authors at parties or while interviewing them for the BBC.

          Hill is partial to classics and literary novels, but has a fondness for murder mysteries and a few children’s books, too. Among them, she recommends My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (page 55), The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald (page 74), The Bell by Iris Murdoch (page 115), and The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen (page 141).

          She also enjoys diaries written by The Reverend Francis Kilvert (page 83), Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary (page 92 & 128), and The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (page 93).

          For a challenge, Susan Hill ends with a list of forty books that would last her the rest of her years on earth (pp. 235-236). Taking up the challenge, I made my list of one hundred books as I am younger with more years to read—hopefully. It’s a painful challenge as I sit surrounded by thousands of books that I love.

We only had one book in common: Shakespeare. I went with Shakespeare’s complete works as they are published in one volume. Hill chose to pick “Macbeth” since his work was not published together until after his death. However, I’m currently reading The Blue Flower since she recommended it so highly—perhaps we will have two books in common.

Have fun reading Howards End is on the Landing, discovering authors new to you, and making your own list of books to last for the rest of your life.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Inspiration vs. Deadlines

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I don’t need inspiration to write my assigned articles. I know who I’m interviewing and why. I have a deadline and a need for a paycheck so the writing gets done. That’s not to say I’m not inspired while writing, just that the deadline is the driving force in these cases.

          For this blog, my magazine essays, and my facebook column for the magazines I edit, I can choose my own topics. While there is a weekly or monthly deadline, inspiration plays the bigger role—at first. If I don’t have any ideas and deadline is approaching, then the deadline pressure squeezes thoughts out of me because I never miss deadlines.

          As I write this post, I’m three weeks ahead for this blog plus I’ve written two other pieces for later this year. I’m a week ahead for the facebook column, too. At this time, magazine deadlines are ten days away so there is no deadline pressure now, but I have time to write. However, I’m not inspired. I also don’t feel the need to be inspired.

          I don’t feel the need to be inspired. That is an uncomfortable but true statement. It’s why I’m forcing myself to write this piece. I like to think I always have something to say on topics that interest me, but after writing six pieces (now seven) in nine days seemingly effortlessly I need a break.

          I enjoyed writing these pieces. I love wrestling with words and thoughts and organization. I was energized by the ideas and work, but now I’m not. I’m going to read instead then walk the dogs.

          Writing is demanding. Deadlines are essential. Inspiration is elusive. Rejuvenation is required. Downtime is necessary.

          I’ll write later—today, tomorrow, when deadlines are imminent, and when inspiration strikes again.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Reads for Writers: On Story: Screenwriters and Their Craft edited by Barbara Morgan and Maya Perez

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I’m always on the lookout for TV shows about writers and authors. PBS has a show entitled On Story based on the Austin Film Festival. Various hosts interview mostly screenwriters who either wrote original works or adopted them from books. Even if you are not writing a screenplay, hearing writers discuss their work is inspiring.

          On Story: Screenwriters and Their Craft, edited by Barbara Morgan and Maya Perez, is a book based on these interviews. A wide array of writers, many of them award winning or Academy nominated, give good advice.

Here are a few excerpts:

…To me, the life of writing is the life of nurturing your own enthusiasm, your own passion for writing. You’ve got to nurture it…

                                 --Randall Wallace (page 24)

                                 Credits include: Secretariat, Braveheart

…Screenwriting is much more like writing poetry—the real juice is not in the lines but the space between the lines. If the lines are done right, the audience makes the jumps. If you tell them everything, they’re just observers. If you do it right, they’re participants. That’s what you want. That’s what all great art does…

                               --Bill Wittliff (page 28)

                               Credits include: Legends of the Fall, Lonesome Dove


…What I learned was about 70% of my first drafts were awful, but there was 30% that was better stuff than I ever would’ve gotten on paper if I was limiting myself because of fear of what people might think. I’d urge young writers, first write for the content of your heart. Don’t worry about what other people might think. Just cut loose…Find a way to get it on paper…

                                                     --Bill Wittliff (page 32)

                                                     More credits: The Perfect Storm, The Black Stallion

Conflict was the major thing. I used to have this huge sign over my typewriter that said, “Conflict, Stupid.” Nine times out of ten if you’ve got a scene that’s not working for some reason, the characters are not in conflict. They’re just giving out information. They’re wandering around and not going anywhere.

                           --Nicholas Kazan (page 67)

                           Credits include: Bicentennial Man, Reversal of Fortune

I can’t remember who said—it may have been Hitchcock—that books are written from the beginning to the end, and screenplays should be written from end to the beginning. The ending of a movie is crucial…I think the ending is so important that if you don’t know the ending when you start, you shouldn’t do it.

                                      --Steven Zaillian (page 163)

                                      Credits include: Awakenings, Schindler’s List

Helpful advice for almost any writing project you are working on.

Monday, May 30, 2016

It's All Copy

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Time is a funny thing. It seems to pass slowly while we wait for birthdays and holidays or winter to be over, but days fly by as we rush around working and running errands while planning dinners and doing laundry. Years pile up and before we know it we receive reunion invitations with numbers we can hardly believe.

          However, the biggest jolt in time for me is when children of friends who live far away who I remember in baby bonnets or first grade are now driving or going to college. How could that much time have passed?

          These children seem to have spent their time well. They have learned to walk and talk and read and write. They are graduating, moving, and preparing for careers.

          Has my time been as well spent?

          There aren’t as many milestones after graduation except new job titles and possible marriage and/or parenthood. For writers: pages written, assignments completed, and pieces and books published.

          Happiness and satisfaction are good indicators. Stay the course if you are happy and satisfied; shake things up if not. Trying something new can be fun in either situation.

          What we do need to remember in the end is that life is short. Writer and director Nora Ephron, who died a few of years ago, was on a clip from Charlie Rose’s show in her son’s tribute documentary, It’s All Copy, discussing that you know what you want for your last meal but you never know when you’re going to die so have that meal soon. Good advice—plus it answers the everyday question of what’s for dinner!

          "It’s all copy" is a phrase Ephron’s mother, a screenwriter, used to say whenever life didn’t work out as planned. Ephron also noted everything you see, feel, and hear is fair game.

          Don’t just write what you know. Write about what catches your eye, gives you goosebumps, or sparks an interest.

                   We do not write in order to be understood,

we write in order to understand.

                             --C. Day-Lewis

I am rewritten by what I write.

                             --Robert Grudin

          Life is short so write whatever you want whenever you can wherever you are.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reads for Writers: My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop or as I call it--Bookstore Vacation Destinations

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

          Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don’t generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.

          For readers and writers planning summer vacations, check out My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice and Booksellers Across America, published in 2012). There are eighty-one independent bookstores in thirty-six states to choose from as an added bonus to or as the main purpose of any trip.

          After reading the fantastic tributes by writers like Isabel Allende, Wendell Berry, Meg Waite Clayton, Fannie Flagg, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Pete Hamill, Ann Hood, Mameve Medwed, Ann Patchett, Chuck Palahniuk, Michael Tisserand, Luis Alberto Urrea, Abraham Verghese, Terry Tempest Williams, and Simon Winchester, not surprisingly, I want to visit all of them. Luckily, two are within an hour of my home. On the next trip to see my dad, we will visit the one within an hour of his home.

Then I will branch out with friends and other family members in tow. I think we could visit maybe ten or twelve more in daylong trips from their homes—only one or two a day so we have plenty of time to browse, read, and shop once we arrive. That is the point after all.

All of these tributes mention the importance of the book-loving owners and knowledgeable staff. Beautifully summed up by Ann Haywood Leal in her tribute starting on page 201: “Finding a book a home in someone’s heart is a talent. They may not know it, but…the staff of Bank Square Books [Mystic, Connecticut] are in the business of matchmaking.”

Some excerpts from the tributes:

The floors have to creak, of course. There should be a bit of a chill inside—not dank, or damp, but enough to bring on thoughts of curling up somewhere with one of the bound companions. If the table displays, favorite picks, and the like have a quirky randomness to them, in defiance of the latest imperatives from publishers, all the better…

All of this you take for granted at The Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle.

                                                Timothy Egan (page 88)

At Watchung Booksellers [in Montclair, New Jersey] there’s a daily rhythm to the life of books. Kids are running around—a bookstore like this is where kids are first brought into the wider world of reading—and there are the sounds of conversations about books, and the humming quiet of the browsers, and the crisp tearing and folding of gift-wrap paper at the counter, and it smells like books, with that fresh, subtly seductive smell. Independent bookstores such as Margot’s [owner] collaborate with writing in such an intimate way that makes cyber bookselling seem merely retail.

                                                Ian Frazier (page 119)

…The event is an author series called Book Your Lunch, and it’s the brainchild of bookseller Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction an independent bricks-and-mortar bookstore in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Book Your Lunch is a fantastic way to bring readers and a wide range of authors together—from mystery writers, to award-winning novelists, to non-fiction and cookbook authors. Fiction Addiction sells tickets in advance, and the featured author reads from her work, or gives a short talk, followed by a Q&A session, a delicious lunch, and then an on-site book signing.

                                                          Mindy Friddle (page 121)

Some of the writers of the eighty-two tributes may not be familiar to readers. All of the essays end with writer bios, listings of their books/works, and/or website addresses. (While 84 writers wrote tributes, two were collaborations and The Strand in New York City received two tributes so in total eighty-one bookstores are celebrated.)

As if dream bookstores and writers new and familiar to readers weren’t enough to delight readers of this book, within the essays many of the writers mention their favorite authors.

What more could a reader ask for? Well, I do wish the bookstores’ addresses, phone numbers, and websites were listed at the end of the essays or in the Bookstores by Location index on pages 375-378. Not hard to find online, but still it would have been better in the book.

Whether you are traveling or not this summer, My Bookstore is plain fun--fabulous destinations and numerous book suggestions for readers. It’s almost as good as visiting one of these treasured bookstores!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ready, Set, Write! But What If I'm Blocked? Plus Bonus Recycled Essay

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I’m ready to write. I’ve set aside time to write. I’m sitting in front of my computer, but I’m not writing…yet.

          It’s frustrating when I’m ready to write essays but nothing comes to mind. The only thing more frustrating when it comes to writing is when I have thoughts, ideas, or sentences in my head, but can’t write them down because I’m too busy doing something else.

          I sit here waiting for thoughts to come, my muse to visit, or for some glimmer of an idea. Too distract myself from becoming more frustrated, I look around my office.

On the shelves of a nearby bookcase, I have a favorite pair of small watercolor paintings of the same stand of maple trees—one done in the greens of spring and one in the golds and reds of fall. They are serene and beautiful. They also capture the passing of time.

          Time is the resource most writers need and most writers waste. If you have the time to write, then write. Keep going even when it is painful prying words out of your head. Eventually something will click. The flow of words will increase. The writing will become less painful.

In the rare cases when it doesn’t, I flip though one of my monthly notebooks looking for a phrase or an idea that inspires me to write now. I also keep a running list of topic ideas at the end of the list of all the posts I’ve written.

I write as long as I can, but if the words don’t start to flow I find it’s better to stop and take a walk or tidy up a room. Inspiration often strikes when I’m not writing. If I’m lucky, it strikes while I still have time to go back to writing at my computer. If not, I jot my ideas down in a notebook planning for my next writing session.

The best writing happens when I’m in the zone. I have an idea and just go with it. It seems so easy. However, sometimes writing is really hard work. I’m prepared with topics, but inspiration doesn’t always take the bait so I have to dig deep to uncover something else to tempt my muse. It’s worth the effort, but can be excruciating.

The reality is the more you write the less often writing is painful. But when it is painful, work through it. You will never get this time back so be ready to make the most of it—whatever it takes.

Below is an example of recycled writing mentioned in post dated 5/2/16. I wrote the essay for today's blog first. The recycled and yet new essay below appeared on my magazine’s facebook page.

On the shelves of a bookcase in my office, I have a favorite pair of small watercolor paintings of the same stand of maple trees—one done in the greens of spring and the other in the golds and reds of fall. They are serene and beautiful. They also capture the passing of time.

          Time is the resource most of us need, but most of us waste. These watercolors remind me I’m in my office to work. The sooner I finish, the sooner I can spend time on other—sometimes more fun—stuff.

          Since most of us have to work, it’s the downtime that we get to allocate. We prioritize family, friends, hobbies, TV shows, music, chores, errands, etc. Then there are unplanned emergencies or other surprises. Do we ever get this balance right?

          It would be nice if there were a savings bank for time. If we mow the lawn faster or fold the laundry quicker, we could sock those minutes away for another day, build up balances so we could be at every birthday party, dance recital, game, or get together.

          Since there isn’t a way to save time for another day, we are left to make the most of our time the best we can. It’s important to remember to enjoy the moments when we love exactly where we are and who we are with. These memories sustain us when we can’t be there.

          I read somewhere that Leap Day should be a worldwide holiday. It’s a bonus day. It should be treated with reverence and spent doing fun things we never have enough time for with the people we love.

          In fact, I think every holiday should be that way so make time for your mom this Mother’s Day. She spends a lot of time caring for and thinking about you. Return the favor.

          Memorial Day deserves our time, too. Line the town parade route on May 30 at 10am. Visit a military site or cemetery. These veterans gave not just their time to us; they gave their lives. There is no greater gift so remember and honor them and their loved ones.

We wouldn’t have the freedom to choose how we spend our time without their sacrifice. Thank you to all of them as well as all veterans and active military personnel.