Jaye Wells

Category Archives: Writing Life

Craft Thursday: Speak Up

Life has been pretty crazy lately. There have been some family things going on that require me to be away from my writing desk more often than I’d like. I promised my agent pages on a new project next week, so I’ve been a little stressed about getting it all done. Then I remembered that there is more than one way to get a story written.

Enter: Dictation.

tell your story

I read a couple of posts and a book by authors who swear by dictation as a method for drafting a novel. They pretty much all recommended Dragon for dictation, but a quick search told me the program is $300. I have text-to-speech (TTS)  on my Mac (just open any document or program and fit the “function” key twice), and I can’t imagine the Dragon software is 300X better. I did, however, download the free Dragon app for my phone for dictating on the fly.

Here’s what I’ve been doing. While I’m out running errands or if an idea comes to me while I’m folding laundry, I pick up the phone, speak into the app and then email it to myself. Now, the resulting document is a mess. First, the app doesn’t register punctation, so it’s really a string of words without any formatting. But the beauty of this is that once I’m back at my computer, I take those raw words, add the punctuation, and flesh out the scene. In essence, the dictation draft, messy as it may be, allows me to not face a blank page.

We’ve all been there, right? We get a fresh cup of coffee, turn off the internet, pull up our word processing program of choice, and then stare at the blinking cursor of death. It’s hypnotic, that cursor. It taunts and dares us to try to be brilliant. It’s daunting, y’all.

But if you can come to a page that already has some raw material on it, it somehow feels more manageable. “I don’t have to create anything from scratch, I just have to fix these words.”

A few benefits of this method include:

You talk faster than you write, so you can get a lot of words down quickly.

Speaking your story might make it easier to access your authentic voice.

Because your goal is just to get ideas and words down, it’s easier to ignore the internal editor.

Dictation might not be for everyone. It takes some getting used to to speak your story instead of type it. If it just doesn’t work for you, there’s another option. I have a new obsession for fountain pens. I have cheap ones and expensive ones (the cheap ones are actually my preference), and they make writing by hand a pleasure. In the same spirit of just getting things down, I like to sit down and write a quick scene on paper. Often it’s just a page or two of dialogue. There’s something freeing about putting it on paper. “I’m just jotting down some notes,” I say. “There’s nothing here that can’t be changed.”

Once I have a couple of pages, I either type the scene into Scrivener or I’ll speak it using the TTS function on my Mac. Again, the goal here is just to get something on the page that I can go back and flesh out. The bonus is that it’s easier for me to carry a pen and a notebook in my purse than to lug around my laptop. The benefits of this method are pretty similar to the dictation method, but you don’t have to worry about messing with technology you’ve never used before or the pesky problem of dictation programs inaccuracies.

My point here is that sometimes we have to get creative and work smarter. There is no writing police force who will arrest you if you speak your story instead of type it. You don’t have to sit in front of a computer for the work to count. Progress is more important that perfection, especially in the drafting phase.

If you’re feeling stuck, try to speak your story. Or pull out your favorite pen and jot down your scene. You’ve not nothing to lose but your resistance.

Happy Writing!

Craft Thursday: Making Old Stories Fresh

Today’s Craft Thursday entry is from my Jaye’s Office Hours vlog. James asked me how to avoid writing cliched stories, and this is my answer. Did you know I have lots of craft posts over on my Youtube channel? Subscribe today so you never miss a video!

Craft Thursday: Creator vs Consumer

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Are you a creator or a consumer?

It’s a question I think about a lot these days. So much of our energy seems to be focused on consuming, chewing each other up and digesting whatever is offered without thought or principle.

I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m angry. I know this is because I have spent too much time lately consuming the garbage I’m seeing here and elsewhere online and in the news. As the old saying goes, “garage in, garbage out.”

I don’t want to be angry or bitter. I don’t want to believe that this world is unsalvageable or that people are not basically good. I don’t want to lose hope.

Yet, I know the source of hope always lies in creation. Luckily, my life centers on being creative and sharing those creations with others. I know magic exists in this world and in people because I have seen it over and over through stories and paintings, architecture and songs. I have seen strangers be kind. I have seen miracles in the mundane. I have seen humility in the magnificent.

Even if you’re not “a creative” you can still foster a positive creator mentality in your own life.

Creator Mentality means that you:
do instead of complain
make instead of destroy
build instead of tear down
share instead of hoard
foster curiosity instead of suspicion
compliment instead of insult
think instead of obey
build up instead of tear down
join communities instead of factions
are open and present instead of closed and anxious

Imagination, progress, change–these are the vehicles of creation. The fuels of this miraculous engine are curiosity, delight, and enthusiasm.

It’s a choice you have to make every day. Some days it’s harder than others. We’re not perfect, but we have potential.

Today, I choose creation. I hope you will, too.

Craft Thursday: The Lists

listIt’s pretty common in my workshops for me to suggest writers make lists of words for their stories. It’s a technique I learned from Alexander Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists. In the book, she recommends that authors make lists of thematic words relating to their story and characters that can be woven through the narrative to add more emotional resonance and create image systems. It’s a great technique that I use for my own novels.

Recently, I picked up Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. I’ve been sipping from this font of writerly knowledge a bit at a time, giving myself time to digest each essay. Bradbury has long been a favorite writer of mine, and I’m not sure why it took me so long to find this book, but I sort of feel like it came into my life at the perfect time. Aren’t books magic that way?

Anyway, one of Bradbury’s techniques reminded me of the word lists I mentioned above. According to Bradbury, for years, he kept running lists of words. When he needed to sit down to write a short story, he’d look at that list, choose a word and start writing.  The idea that we each have our own unique image system that can be used to find story ideas sort of blew my mind.

Lately, I’ve been in a weird space. I finished a novel a couple of months ago that took me two years to write. I want to write, but the idea of diving headlong into another huge project so soon feels daunting. The well needs some time to refill. However, I have a book on submission and lots of time of my hands now that I’ve finished most of my grad school coursework. Idle time is dangerous for an imagination. But then Bradbury and his word list offered me the perfect solution. Why not just write my own list and use it to write some shorts of my own? Not because I’m supposed to be writing, but because I want to be writing.

An interesting thing happens when you start to make these lists. Following Bradbury’s example, I formatted my list with “the” in front of each noun, e.g. “The Moon,” “The Tomb,” “The Hallway.” It’s a fun exercise to sit down and see how one image leads to others and before you know it, you have this neat list of all the images that your subconscious loves or fears. So far, my list is four pages long. That’s material for a LOT of stories.

Also? It’s fascinating to see what’s coming up. Images appear like words in the those Magic Eight Balls. They sort of emerge from the depths of my brain before sinking down below again. Paying attention to what’s coming up has been enlightening and has helped me really get a handle on my own personal image system. Meaning, the themes and images I go back to over and over again in my stories–the symbols that make up a large part of my writer voice. The ideas that fascinate and scare me enough to keep returning to them over and over in my work.

I feel sort of silly that it didn’t occur to me to apply the word lists I used for my novel to other things, but that’s sort of how this writing thing goes. The tools you think you’ve mastered have a way of evolving into new uses. I’m excited to see what sort of short stories come out of this, and even ore excited to see how my list of images grows and changes over the years as I become fascinated by or afraid of new things. As I fall in love with new ideas and characters and places.

So I guess today’s craft advice is twofold:

1. Always be open to using old tools in new ways.

2. If you pay attention, the mentors you need will appear right when you need them.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

Craft Thursday: Must-Read Craft Books

When I’m teaching writing classes, I tend to mention the same craft books over and over. So for today’s Craft Thursday, I thought I’d share the titles with you and why I like them. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every good craft and writing life book I’ve read. It’s just a list of the ones I name-check most.

 

41KC-kry-QL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_1. Fiction First Aid Raymond Obstfeld: Great overview of common problems that plague a lot of manuscripts. Good to read prior to revision to help diagnose problems. I don’t think I read this straight through, but I’ve referred to it again and again over the years.

2. Writing & Personality by John K DiTiberio & George Jensen: This book used Meyers-Briggs personality to help explain how each type approaches large writing projects. I can not overstate how much this book did to help me find my process. I reread the section on my time at least twice a year–or whenever I try to convince myself that I’d have an easier time if I plotted (hint: I wouldn’t). Note: I’ve had trouble finding new copies of this book, but you might get lucky and run into at a used book store.

41OCo751wEL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_3. Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver: I don’t know why it took me so long to discover Mary Oliver’s poetry, but now that I have, I’m totally in love. This book is Oliver’s primer on writing and reading metrical verse. You might have learned some of the information about meter in high school, but if you’re like me, the only one you could reliably name was “iambic pentameter.” I suggest this book because understanding the rhythm of language will help your prose crackle with emotion and texture. If you don’t read this book, you should at a minimum start trying to read more poetry and music lyrics. Trust me, it will help you become a better writer.

4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: This is not a craft book–it’s a writing life survival manual. I probably have as many books about how to survive being a writer as I do how to become a better one. This is a great, easy-to-read book that is worth rereading at least once a year.

51xKvj+iyQL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_5. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: Truby’s background is in screenwriting, but the way he constructs his stories is very similar to my own process. By that I mean, he advocates an organic approach. Instead of plotting, the prework here is focused on character creation and world building. The book is filled with writing exercises and great advice. It can be a bit dense, but it’s definitely worth a read.

6. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card: Character creation is one of my strengths, but I read this because I was writing a book with multiple POV characters and wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing anything. He introduces both topics in a clear way that’s great for newer writers. However, for my money, the best thing in this book is Card’s MICE Quotient. I won’t tell you what it is, but it sort of blew my mind.

What are your favorite craft books?

Craft Thursday: Jaye’s Office Hours

This week, I wanted to let you know that I’ve started a new thing called “Jaye’s Office Hours.” Since I can’t get everywhere to teach writing classes or speak about my books, I decided to use vlogging to get some of my lessons out there. Jaye’s Office Hours won’t just be about craft. I’ll also answer questions about my stories and do virtual readings, etc.

Here’s my most recent vlog, where I discuss the three types of research I use to write my books.

Be sure to subscribe to my channel so you don’t miss any of the videos. Also, if you have a topic you’d like for me to tackle or a question about my writing or how to write, let me know in comments!

 

 

Early Craft Thursday: Escape Hatches

Today for an early Craft Thursday, I have a guest post up at the wonderful Writers in the Storm blog about writer burn out.

Here’s a preview:

See, what I figured out is that everyone needs a hobby. We each need something that doesn’t have ego or income tied to it. When my hobby became my job, I lost that safe space where I could create without fear.

We don’t talk enough about the causes of burn out in the writing community. Everyone is too afraid of admitting that they’re not super successful that they don’t know when to ask for help. Don’t let this be you. The writing life you save might be your own!

Read the post over at Writers in the Storm.

Craft Thursday: The Lived-in Story

house_1313667821_crop_550x415This week, we began a big house project to update all the paint, carpet, etc. We live in North Texas, where the foundations are as shaky as a drunk during a sobriety test. This means our walls are riddled with hairline fractures and buckled walls that look like scabs. So it’s time to update.

I’m pretty excited about this work. One of the reasons we’re doing it is because it’s cheaper than moving. When one-half of the income earning team is a writer, it’s not a great idea to buy more house than you can afford. So we’re staying in the house we can afford and making it nicer.

But yesterday, when the dry wall guy came and got to work on the cracks, sadness hit me out of nowhere.

See, he wasn’t just fixing the foundation shift fractures and scabs, he was also erasing all of the little imperfections caused by a decade of my family’s life. For example, when my son was five or six he loved to hang off things. It’s what little boys do. Unfortunately, that included the towel rack in his bathroom. For the last eight years, every time I walked into his bathroom, I saw the two little holes where the brackets used to be. Every time, I’d think back to when he was five and so rambunctious I wasn’t sure either of us would survive it. Now, he’s thirteen and he’s taller than me. He’s calmer now, too, and hardly ever hangs off things. Those two little holes were the only evidence I had that he used to be that little daredevil. And now they’re gone, smoothed over. Erased.

Those two holes were proof that a real family lives in this house. It’s a family that’s been too busy being happy to waste time fixing every hole that appeared while we bumped and danced our way through the chambers of this heart disguised as a home.

It’s all made me realize that while I’ve longed for a more perfect house, there are trade-offs. When you smooth things over too much, you lose something. Hospital corners and perfectly taped wall seams please the eye, but they don’t do much for the heart.

Naturally,  this reminds me a lot of writing. I’ve been in my MFA program for a year and a half now, and two weeks ago I completed the draft of my thesis novel. I’ve given myself a couple of weeks off to let the story marinate, but soon I’ll return to it to begin the long, harrowing process of revision. There’s a lot riding on this book. Not only is it how I will earn my MFA, but it’s also, hopefully, the next book I will have published. It’s risky because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s, to use a trite phrase, a book from the heart.

What I’m saying is disaster could be imminent (in writing it always feels that way), and so every time I think of this book–this book of my heart–I think about its imperfections.: the lazy prose, the leaps in logic, the clunky metaphors–the usual first draft stuff. But there are other imperfections. This is the first time I’ve written a multiple POV third person novel. It’s the first time I’ve written this genre, which I’m calling “Appalachian Gothic.” Purists might be able to nitpick my approaches to the techniques and tropes. They’ll say I’ve broken The Rules.

But here’s the thing I’m realizing: All those “mistakes” might just be proof that someone real has lived inside that story. We talk so much about polishing our drafts and editing, which are very important, but we must be vigilant that in our efforts to polish the products of our hearts and minds that we do not erase all signs of experimentation and messy truths, or the love. Art is not about hospital corners and smooth walls. It’s about taking risks and throwing yourself against the walls and exposing your stained carpets and scabby dry wall to the world.

It’s not something we talk much about in the popular fiction world. We talk about The Business and What’s Hot in the Market. But I maintain that the best genre fiction is the kind that takes the limitations of convention and uses them to create something new and exciting. Art doesn’t come from abundance and endless options. It comes from scarcity and limitations. It’s about using what you’ve got in a creative new way–whether you’re talking about creating a new piece of music from a limited range of notes or painting using a limited color palette or creating a new kind of story using the conventions of a specific genre.

My point is that you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment, and when you revise, don’t polish it so much that it loses its personality. That personality might just be your voice. Do you want to sound like everyone else? Do you want all of your story walls to look perfect and smooth and be the same neutral color as all of your colleague’s story walls?

Maybe you do. Maybe that’s the safest route, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. Plenty of writers earn very respectable livings by producing neutral stories that deliver pleasing symmetry and smooth walls to readers who want that sort of reliable reading experience. Lord knows, a “house” with holes in the walls and mystifying paint colors are a tougher sell.

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last two years is that success isn’t guaranteed on either path. Markets shift on a dime, readers’ tastes are fickle, and writing is too fucking hard to do it without making sure it satisfies something inside of you. Personally, I’d rather fall on my face with a book that’s got part of my soul in it than become a millionaire writing beige stories. I have friends who have the total opposite approach. It works for them, and I’m happy for any writer who finds a way to be happy in this career. Every writer has to make that choice for themselves, and there’s no right answer that fits everyone. Whatever path you choose, just do it with intention, is all I’m saying. Also, understand that both paths are hard.

But even if you choose the neutral path, don’t be afraid to add a pop of color here and there: a decorative throw pillow in the form of a character who goes against stereotypes, an accent wall in the form of a plot twist, or a beloved ding in the walls that you don’t take out because it’s what made you fall in love with that world to begin with. Show your readers that a real person lived in that story and that while you lived there you had a hell of a time.

Where I Write

My publisher, Orbit, asked me to take part in a fun thing called Where I Write on Periscope. It was fun to invite viewers into the place where I write all of my books. The original broadcast was live, but now it’s up on the Where I Write web site. You can watch it here.

Here’s a screen shot. If you watch the video you can find out what this is and why it’s super important to me as a writer.

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Craft Thursday: Jaye’s Writing Hacks

It’s been a while since I wrote a new Craft Thursday post, and I thought it would be fun to compile a list of the tools that help me write.

“Life is not a support system for art–it’s the other way around.” -Stephen King

I have that King quote hanging on my monitor as a reminder that it’s not the trappings of being a writer that make me better, it’s the writing itself. I mention it here because when I was a new writer, I believed that if I had to cool office, the right fancy pen, and the best laptop, I would be a “real writer.” Eventually, I learned that those trappings of success only made me feel like an imposter, so I stopped trying to look like a real author and just focused on being myself, who wrote because it made me happy, and I needed it to feel balanced in my life.

My point is, don’t think you have to run out and get all the things I’m about to list to be successful. Mostly, these are just tools that have made my life easier, not things that I require. In fact, many are necessary now only because I’m busy. I didn’t use a lot of this stuff when I first started out. It was just me on an old laptop at my dining room table. Bottom line, all you need to be a writer is a writing instrument of some sort, a vehicle for those words (screen, paper, receipt, napkin), and the discipline to apply ink to page. Still, toys are fun, so I hope you find some stuff here that makes your life easier.

So here we go:

IMG_08761. Computer: I used to have an HP that weighed roughly the same as a baby elephant. Then I got a Macbook–a little less heavy but still fairly unwieldy. Both were great for writing. However, I travel a lot for work now, so I needed something portable. I’ve had my Air for four years and just had the battery replaced in the hopes it’ll last a few more. When I’m at home, I hook the Air up to a larger screen on my desk, so I have two screens going. I also use a wireless Mac keyboard, which, when I leave the Air at home and take my iPad instead, I bring along for writing on planes.

2. Headphones: I spend a lot of time writing in cafes and airplanes, so I make sure always to have a pair of headphones on me. I always keep a spare pair of those white Apple headphones (I promise this entire list won’t be Apple products) on me because they’re light and portable. However, my preference is this pair of Bose headphones. I don’t have the  noise-canceling ones, but even the basic ones do a good job of blocking noise and creating a sort of cave of music around my head so I can focus. When I’m drafting a novel I listen to playlists I create for that specific book, but sometimes I just listen to whatever strikes my mood that day. However, when I’m revising I either listen to no music or one of those new agey tracks of water running and temple chimes. They help me focus on the more delicate work of making the word not suck. They’re expensive, so I asked for them for Christmas one year. They’re also big, so I sometimes leave them at home in favor of the cheapies.

3. Word Processing Software: I draft using Scrivener. Because I write my discovery drafts out of order, it helps me keep everything organized and allows me to move easily scenes around. The notecard feature also lets me transfer the scene goals from my storyboard into the program so I easily can reference what scenes I need to write next. It also has lots of great bells and whistles for tracking progress and knowing what you’ve done and what’s left to do. However, I don’t find Scrivener that great for revisions, so I usually compile the draft into Word for that stage. Scrivener is about $45, but there’s a free trial.

 

IMG_08774. Pens! Even though I prefer typing when I write, I have a pen thing. I suspect most writers do. I’m a weird duck because I like a bold blue line, and sometimes it’s hard to find inexpensive pens that I like. Last year, I decided I wanted to start using fountain pens because they make me feel fancy. However, I’m also pretty cheap, and I lose a lot of pens, so I didn’t want to spend a mint. I put out the call and my colleague and friend, Chloe Neill, suggested the Lamy. I now own two. The black pen is a Lamy Safari, and the purple pen is an AL-Star.  They write like a dream. The only thing I don’t love is that fountain pens don’t travel well. You can take out the cartridge and put a fresh one in at your destination, but you can’t use them on planes. The Lamy models are about $22-$40 plus the cost of cartridges. I’ve had these for about six months and have had to replace the cartridges on each a couple of times. I use them A LOT, but I also use Paper Mates, Bics, or whatever’s handy all the time. But the fountain pens are my favorite for longer forms of writing.

IMG_08785. Storyboard. I’m more of a puzzler than a plotter, but I do map out the scenes of my story on a storyboard. Since I’m a visual person, I find having the plot laid out on a storyboard very helpful. This is my current storyboard. I’m getting ready to redo it because I’m starting rewrites on this book. But as you can see I divide the acts into four horizontal rows (Act 2 gets two rows because it’s twice as long as the other acts). I like the board’s wings because it lets me put additional notes or place extraneous scenes when I’m not sure where they’ll end up. Some of my colleagues use different storyboard methods. For example, Vicki Pettersson thinks I’m a crazy person because her storyboards are oriented vertically. Others color coordinate their boards based on POV character or subplot, but I’m just not that organized. At most I’ll have one color for scenes that are done and another for ones I still need to write.

6. Scapple. This software is made by the same people who did Scrivener. It’s a mind-mapping tool, which appeals to my right-brained self. Because each of my Prospero’s War books is based on a different alchemical process, I do a mind map of all the correspondences for each process to help me come up with story ideas. Here’s the Deadly Spells Scapple (mild spoilers ahoy)

7. Meditation. Okay, this is the most woo-woo thing on the list. I started meditating a couple of years ago to help manage stress. I should probably do a whole separate Craft Thursday post on the benefits of meditation for writers. We spend so much time in their heads always thinking, thinking, thinking, that it’s nice to shut the heck up and be in the moment. Also? Meditation helps with focus. I got started meditating by using the Headspace App. It’s free to begin with and provides 10, 10 minute guided sessions to help you learn how to meditate. Andy has a soothing voice, and he has a British accent, so it all feels very important. Once you get through the ten days, you can buy a subscription for the fifteen and twenty-minute meditations. I did this and liked them, but they’re not required. The best thing about meditation is it can be totally self-guided. There are lots of great free apps, podcasts, albums and stuff online. There are also a million different variations that you can try until you see what works best for you. I like Sarah McLean’s stuff. I did a meditation retreat with her a few years ago, and it was fantastic. I don’t meditate every day, but I try to do it often. Sometimes I’ll just put on 10-minute nature soundtrack and focus on my breathing for a bit before I write. It never fails to help me get in the zone fast.

8. Pinterest. A couple of years ago, I started making Pinterest boards for all of my books. In the olden days, like 2009, I used to make poster collages like a kindergartener, except mine had pictures of vampires and stuff. Now I can use Pinterest, which is much easier and doesn’t leave you with Rubber Cement in your hair. There are a lot of side benefits to doing this. First, when your books come out, you can share your boards with readers to show them what your characters and world look like. Second, when you work with a publisher, you can send the board to your designer. Third, when your book gets optioned for TV, you can send the boards to the show runners so they can pitch your books to network execs. Fourth, you can keep interesting links you want to research later for future books all in one place. I’m sure there are others. If you’re visual at all, I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not, it’s probably worth checking out. Here’s the Pinterest board for DIRTY MAGIC.

9. Printer. Writers and trees are natural nemeses. People are all, do everything electronic to save the trees! That’s nice and all. I mean, I like trees. I really do. But I also know that the best way for me to edit a book is to print the whole thing out and have at it with a red pen. This means I need a good printer. I’ve found a few features to be pretty helpful so I’ll mention them now. 1. Ability to print two-sided. This actually saves paper, so suck it, environmentalists. 2. A high page-per-minute print rate. 3. Wireless capabilities (so I can print things from my couch). I currently use a Brother HL5470DW. They cost less than $200 at the office supply store. I’ve had it a year, which means that it’s probably almost obsolete. I also have one of those scanner/copier/color printer abominations, but I hate it because it sucks through color ink like a vampire on a bender. I hate it for printing, but it’s great for quick photocopies or scanning stuff quickly to send to my agent or whatever.

This post went a lot longer than expected, but I hope you’ve found some stuff that might be useful. Again, I don’t NEED any of this. Sometimes it’s nice just to sit down with a cheap disposable pen and a pad of paper under a tree (a nice one that doesn’t hold grudges about you killing all its relatives) and write. But these things make my life easier. Happy writing!