Friday, April 24, 2015

A Writing Hint I Learned From Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy
Maeve Binchy

I've beem reading a book of Maeve Binchy's columns that she wrote for The Irish Times newspaper over the years. This beloved Irish novelist wrote for the newspaper for a long time. The title of the book is Maeve's Times with a subtitle In Her Own Words. She wrote her columns with the same warmth, wit and humor that characterize her many successful novels. She died in 2012 and had one novel published posthumously, and now this collection of her columns. I have so enjoyed seeing life through her eyes as I read.

Last night, I ran across one of the columns that dealt with the craft of writing. That is the one I'd like to share with you today. The column's title is Develop Your Own Style.  The gist of the whole article is that writers should write as they talk, not try to use flowery or impressive language. She says that we don't have to use elaborate and complicated words. 

She gives an example of one youg woman's offering and then her own suggestion as to how to say it in a different manner. The young woman wrote the following sentence:

Untimely fingers of frost in what should have been the sesaon of mists and mellow fruitfulness nipped Ann O'Leary as with furrowed mien she proceeded from the domestic portals and directed her steps to the main thoroughfare. 

Maeve goes on:

"She was trying to say It was a cold autumn day when a worried looking Ann O'Leary left her house...or something like that."

It appears that the young woman was attempting to write literary fiction style while Ms. Binchy suggests writing in the way we talk to one another each and every day. Perhaps there is a place for both or a happy medium. For me, the way Maeve Binchy writes speaks to me. I feel like I might be at lunch with her and she's telling me a story. She's real people! I much prefer her style to the flowery language of the first example.

Which style of writing can you, as a reader, relate to better? Which one appeals to you as a reader the most? Which type of sentence would you choose to use as a writer? 

It's possible that you choose the one that is going to speak to the audience you seek. It seems to me that Maeve Binchy made the right choice. Would she have been as successful if she wrote her books like the young woman's sample sentence. I think not.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What Kind of Writing Space Do You Have?

My Writing Space

My online writing group has a new privae group facebook page where we can handle chatter instead of cluttering up our actual writers group inbox with our chit-chat. One of members who lives in Australia posted a picture of the place where she writes and asked others to do the same.

What fun it's been to see where we all write, whether in Australia, Japan, Ireland, Canada or various parts of the USA. A few were reluctant to 'show' the area because it was so messy. Not a problem with anyone--it shows you're working said one person. The most unusual writing space was on a commuter train that one member spends 2 hours each way to get to work in Washington, DC. She posted a picture of the train seat with her laptop on it. 

Another member who has written nonfiction books and many articles works mostly from her bed! She scatters files and other necessary items around the bed on the floor, sits up against some pillows and tap, tap, taps away on her keyboard. My body would not work well after an hour or two of that position, I'm sure. But it is her favorite spot.

When I first started writing, my place was on the ktichen table with an electric typewriter. That meant I had to clear all my 'stuff' away before my husband got home from work so we could eat dinner there. A real bother on days when I the words were coming fast and furious and I really wanted to leave it as it was so I could hurry b ack to it in a short while. 

In the house we live in now, we turned one of the bedrooms into a home office as per my request. We bought a desk that has a nice shelf unit above it, then a computer desk for me, two small bookcases, an office chair, the computer and printer plus a small file cabinet. This allowed space for both Ken and me. He seldom works at the desk, however, so this room as turned into mine. How could I be so lucky? 

It really doesn't matter where your writing space is or how large the area is either. Designate a corner somewhere if you must. But let it be a spot where you can leave your work scattered around you, easily found when need be. If you still have an active family life--kids coming and going--husband hollering for help in finding something--let them know that your corner is your corner. Nothing there is to be moved or even touched. Set the ground rules early on so there's no I didn't know! statements forthcoming. 

It would be great if every writer had a specifically designated entire room in his/her house for writing--a place where no one else was allowed to come in. That might happen once you're a famous writer but for the majority of us who are working our way up the ladder of success, we're happy to have a corner somewhere to call our own. 

What kind of writing space do you have?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Few Thoughts On Writing Backstory In Fiction

Over the many years that I've belonged to writing groups, whether face-to-face or online, the question of backstory in fiction comes up and is hotly debated. 

Some writers love using backstory as a technique while others think it detracts from the main story. The poster above brings out another viewpoint. I wonder how often this occurs. How many writers end up with a better story in the backstory than they do for the main event? 

Before we go farther, maybe backstory should be defined. It's everything that happened before the current story you are writing. Those things that have a bearing on your characters' lives and the eventgs in the main story. So, yes, it can be an important part of your novel or short story. Oviously, it's easier to incorporate backstory into a novel than a short story. I think some short story writers who write the 2,000-3,000 word stories can do it but those short-shorts leave you no room to do so.

Writing a large chunk of backstory often ends up with a lot of telling rather than showing. I have read books that choose to use large amounts of the book with backstory and all too often, I begin to lose the main story. As a reader, I don't like jumping around from time to time. But that's me. I'm sure there are readers who don't have any problem whatsoever with it. 

My personal choice would be to weave the backstory into the main story. It helps build your characters in a reader's mind, dribbling bits and pieces of what occurred in the life of the character. 

When you want to use backstory, ask yourself:

1. Why is it necessary to the main story?

2. Do I trust my reader to pick up on backstory that is interwoven in the main story?

3. Do I want to make sure my reader gets all the facts?

4. If I write a lot of backstory, will I end up with two separate stories?

5. Why do I like writing backstory?

Writers have varied opinions on the use of backstory. They are individuals who look at this topic from various perspectives and when the subject arises, many argue vehemently for one side or the other. Anyuone have thoughts to share on this topic?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What Are Your Go-To Reference Books?

Today's photo is of the first cookbook I ever purchased. I bought this basic cookbook in 1961 at a Book Fair sponsored by the PTA in the school where I had my first teaching job. It's still my go-to cookbook for the basics of preparing foods. There are recipes that are spotted with this messy cook's splatters. I have lots of cookbooks but there are a few that I use on a regular basis while some just look nice on the bookshelf. 

How about the books that deal with writing in your bookcase? Do you have one or two that you refer to more than the others? I certainly do. I'll list just a few of the ones that I especially like and are not those I read this once and that's enough kind of books. Look them up on Amazon for a full summary and review.

1. Self-Editing For Fiction Writers (second edition) by Rennie Browne and Dave King

2.  On Writing by Stephen King

3.  Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott

4.  The Power of Memoir by Linda Joy Meyers

5.  Writing and Publishing Personal Essays by Sheila Bender

6.  Seven Steps On The Writer's Path by Nancy Pickard

Your list may be quite different from mine. If you write nothing by novels, reference books in that vein will head your list. If you are a short story mystery writer, you'll look for books that help you come up with the best mystery stories possible. If you are a poet, your list will be filled with poetry help books. 

Every now and then, we should take some time to leaf through some of the favorites on our list. Just becasue we read the book and thought it wonderful does not mean we retained everythikng in it. Read it again for a reminder and perhaps to inspire you, as well. 

Every writer should have one section of their home library reserved for books on the craft of writing. It's your home tool box! 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Grab Your Reader At The Beginning

The importance of first things that a reader sees cannot be emphasized too much. The title and the first paragraph are two major parts of any story, essay, article or poem. This is where the reader is drawn in. The writer's aim here is to capture the reader's interest and push them to want go farther. 

When I was in high school, back in the '50's, English teachers all taught that you needed an introductory paragraph when writing an essay. Your topic sentence must be in that first paragraph so that your reader knows what will come within the body of the essay. Someof those introductory paragraphs were just plain boring! All dry facts, no sensory details, nothing to create a sense of looking forward to what came next.

Today, we teach new writers that ya gotta hook 'em fast! We live in a speeded up world with all our techie gadgets that get us to where we need to go as quickly as possible. Time is the enemy. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! It's a fact but it also gets a bit wearing at times. Even so, I believe in diving right into the story in that all-important opening. 

Let's look at titles. The title is the first thing a reader sees. The other day, I was at the library scanning titles in the New Book section. I didn't have time that day to pull umpteen books from the shelf to see which ones appealed to me. Instead, I scanned the titles and the ones that grabbed me were the books I pulled out and read the frontispiece. When you are selecting a title, don't wait til one pops into your head and go with it. Play around with titles. Make lists. Decide what is in the story/essay that you want to bring out through your title. 

Time and again, when members of my online writing group sub a new story, they ask for help with a title. They might use a working title and then ask others to help formulate one that works better. It's difficult for the writer because they know what the full story is about so how are they going to choose one that appeals to myriad readers? What do you like best in a title? Short and sweet or a question or a hidden meaning? Author's choice!

The other place to hook your reader is in the opening lines of a poem or the first paragraph in prose. Some use dialogue to pique interest. Others use an action scene making the reader wonder how the character got there in the first place. Including sensory details in that opening paragraph brings the reader right into the scene. The most important thing for me is to make itvisual and make it interesting. 

How often do you edit and re-edit your opening paragraph? Maybe not as many times as you should. Make that opening bit count bigtime. In my juvenile novel, chapter 1 begins with the following:

Will flicked a blue and white marble with his thumb and followed its path with one eye closed. Before the marble found the target, a loud voice interrupted his concentration

Only two sentences. The reader knows that a boy is shooting marbles, that a loud voice interrupts him. I hope the reader wants to know A. who that voice belongs to and B. what it says.

Remember the opening of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens? 

It was the best of times. It was the worst of time,

That paragraph continues with more comparisons. What it does is make the reader want to find out why it was both the best and the worst of times. It also hints at tension or conflict to come within the novel. It is not an action opening which we see more of today but it did its job in hooking the reader.

Put first things first and concentrate on your title and opening when you write your next story/essay/article/poem.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Other Libraries In My LIfe--A Photo Essay

Yesterday, I posted an essay about the first library I used and loved. Today, I have a few pictures of other libraries in my area. The one above is the Kansas City Library in Missouri. It's so unique that I wanted to include it. 

This is the Manhattan Publice Library in Manhattan, Kansas, where I live. Only a small part of it is showing.  A recent enlargement of the Children's Department has made our library a building of impressive proportions. 

This is the atrium area of the Manhattan Library that leads to the Children's Department on one side and the main library on the other. An elegant metal sculpture depicting several of Aesop's fables graces the wall area.

Another library in my community is Hale Library on the Kansas State University campus. Made of native limestone, as are the majority of the buildings on campus, it is a magnificent piece of architecture and houses a very fine collection within its walls. Many a student fondly remembers the myriad hours he/she spent here.

The last photo for today is one of the libraries I shall always remember. We were staying in a small English village a few years ago. Ken went out for a walk in the early morning. When we were getting ready to leave the B&B, he said, "Come over here, I want you to see what I discovered this morning on my walk." We strolled around the building until we came to the road side. And there stood an old telephone booth that had been turned into the local library. I wanted to go inside and explore the books on the shelves but we had to get on the road so I didn't get to do that. My dear husband knew that, if I once got inside that little library, it would be difficult to get me out again! 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

To Celebrate National Library Week

Adele Maze Branch Library Oak Park, IL

This is National Library Week. Today, I'm posting a personal essay I wrote about what the library has meant to me throughout my life. The photo is of the very first library I ever went to and continued to use for all of my growing-up years in suburban Chicago.

My Second Home
by Nancy Julien Kopp

In addition to my regular residence, I have a second home. My mother introduced this special dwelling to me when I was only six years old.  She held my hand, and we walked several blocks in warm autumn sunshine, stopping only when we approached a square brick building. Graced by trees and shrubs and a patio-like courtyard, it had a certain elegance and air of importance that I recognized, even at so young an age.

We entered the building and stepped into a cool, quiet atmosphere. The first thing to meet the eye was a large, wrap-around desk that extended across the entryway. A stout woman stood behind the desk, gray hair severely drawn back and caught in a small bun. No make-up adorned her face, and there wasn't a smile there either. I moved instinctively closer to my mother, my hand nestled in hers, until I looked up into the woman's eyes. What I saw made me smile at her. Blue eyes, the shade of cornflowers, sparkled with a smile of their own, softening her otherwise stern appearance. Soon, the smile in her eyes spread to her wide mouth.
"We've come to get a library card," my mother announced. The woman had the application card ready in a flash and passed it over to me to sign my name. I proudly printed it for her and slid the card back across the desk. Not only could I sign my name, I could read, as well. Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot had shown me the way.

"Alright, Nancy," she said as she read from the form, "come with me."

She came around the desk and offered her hand, saying, “I am Miss Maze.” I grasped the hand this corseted woman in the black dress offered. My expectations were great, and I was not to be disappointed, for this kind woman led me to the Children's Department and patiently showed me all the books that stood on shelves like soldiers at attention. She spoke with wonder and awe as she explained the kinds of books that rested before us, making me eager to read every one.

It was a land of enchantment, a ticket to exotic places.  My mother and Miss Maze introduced me that day to the fascinating world of books and libraries, and thus began a love affair that continues to this day. I became a voracious reader and still am.

I was the child whose nose was always in a book. When old enough, I walked to the library alone at least weekly, sometimes more than that. I strolled past the conservatory that was home to a tropical rainforest, then on by a city park, across the railroad tracks and down a cinder path that ran behind the train platform. By the time I reached that cinder path, my pace increased, even though I carried a stack of books. I was in a hurry to reach the riches awaiting me at the library.

The grade school I attended had a separate library, which we could use when we reached fourth grade. I visited it regularly but also continued going to the public library. I felt at home in both places and felt much the same when I moved on to the high school library, then one on my college campus.  The libraries provided necessary information for all the papers I wrote during those years, as well as hours and hours of entertainment, as I read book upon book. The building I had frequented near my home during my growing up years was renamed when my old friend, the librarian, died.  The South Branch became the Adele Maze Branch Library, and every time I saw the plaque bearing her name, I thought of those cornflower blue, smiling eyes, and her kindness to me and other children through the years.  How I wish I could thank her for what she gave to so many. 

During the years since I left my home community, I have made a habit of making a visit to the library one of the top priorities whenever moving to a new place. Within the first week, I have fled the packing boxes and sought out what has become a second home to me. Over 50 years of marriage, we have lived in five different towns, and, in all of them, the library has been a sanctuary and a haven.

Now, when I open the big glass door to my local library and walk through the atrium to the book-lined shelves, I feel just like I did when Miss Maze took my hand and led me to the children's books. I am happy and contented, as though loving arms have surrounded me with a great big hug. Best of all, I still feel an exciting anticipation of the unknown treasure waiting for me amongst the volumes that line the shelves in my second home.

I am so grateful that I had a mother who led me to one of the greatest treasures in my life, the public library.