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As writers, one of the most important jobs we have is to breathe life into characters and describe them to our readers. We need to do this effectively enough so that the picture that forms in our readers’ minds is close to what we envision. And we need to do it in such a way so that we don’t inundate readers with lengthy infodumps.

Body language is an excellent method for inserting character description without it coming off as “infodump-ish”. By slipping in gestures, facial expressions or movements within dialogue, an author can provide a pretty detailed physical description to a reader in a way that seems perfectly natural.

Another great use for body language is to create a more robust communication between characters. If we look at normal interactions between people in the real world, we see that messages are interpreted through more than just words. Vocal cues and body language are even more important than the language itself in successful communication. Mirroring this in storytelling can make character exchanges more realistic and compelling.

Let’s look at some interesting numbers regarding communication: only 7% of successful communication is through words alone. Another 38% is achieved through tonal inflection, modulation and other vocal cues. That means a whopping 55% of communication is done via body language, facial expressions, hand gestures and other visual cues. Studies have shown that when what is being said is in conflict with facial expressions or body language, the majority of listeners will choose the non-verbal communication over the verbal. (Source: Albert Mehrabian,1981)

If you think about it, this isn’t surprising – our eyes are our strongest sense and much of what we know about our world is learned through visual perception. As authors, we often rely heavily on “showing” a reader through visual description of our characters and locations. What I find surprising, however, is how infrequently body language is effectively utilized in character dialogue. It’s almost as if description is forgotten the moment a character opens their mouth to speak.

Let’s look at this in practice. I’ve written two passages below, purposely omitting vocal inflection and concentrating purely on words and body language to create an exchange.

She had long brown hair. Her eyes were green and she wore glasses. Her lips were thin. “Hmmmm, I’m not sure what you mean,” she answered. I knew she was lying through her teeth.

In the above example, the reader is told what the woman looks like through a couple of descriptive sentences (ala “infodump”), followed by a dialogue exchange and a conclusion made by the narrator. Yet there is nothing in the interaction that would alert the reader that the woman is lying beyond the narrator’s claim. The reader is distanced away from what is happening and must rely solely on the narrator’s opinion.

She twisted her dark hair into a bun as she answered the question. “Hmmm, I’m not sure what you mean.” Green eyes peeked over the rims of her glasses for a brief moment as she tipped her head to pin her hair with a pencil. I wasn’t sure if it was the way her eyes avoided my gaze or the hint of a smirk on her thin lips, but I knew for certain that she was lying through her teeth.

In the second example, the infodump sentences have been replaced with description strategically placed in such a way to convey visual cues to both the narrator and the reader. Not only does the passage create a more realistic exchange between the narrator and this character, it provides a physical description to readers without breaking the action in the story. Body language allows readers to observe and make their own conclusions in a way that mimics reality. They can “see” the visual cues and come to their own conclusion about the character’s truthfulness (which may or may not be intended by the author to align with the narrator’s choice).

A character’s posture, gestures, nervous habits and facial expressions provide a lot of insight into their personality. How he or she behaves non-verbally around another character speaks volumes about their relationship – not only with that person, but also with him or herself. As an author, body language is an important tool to create rich, deep characters that can communicate not only with each other, but also communicate with the reader. This allows the reader to develop a relationship with the characters, resulting in a more emotionally-invested reader.

 

 

 

 

 

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by Vargus Pike

Occasionally when I hear someone say that writing is a lonely business, this picture forms in my head of a writer in some distant white field with a flock of words. Shepherding them into patterns while they keep the wolves of self-doubt at bay. Or I imagine the writer stranded in a desert isle with plenty of food and water but without pen or paper as they struggle to commit to memory the story they must tell to native publishers to appease them and survive. A lonely business indeed.

But is it lonely for everyone?

True when I write I spend much of my time sitting by myself in a room, but am I lonely? A continual barrage of characters seems to constantly leak from my psyche like so many ants. They crawl around my head searching for release until they find their way to my fingers and emerge onto the pages. There is the old fishmonger – his third leg his cane. Each step he takes in his shop a labor, a struggle to survive as he puts his fish out in the morning and then throws them away in the evening unsold because no one ever comes into the store. The mother bereft; her children stolen by a reclusive neighbor who plans to sell them to a rich childless woman in a compound in Idaho, until his truck breaks down near a wildlife refuge in Oregon and things go horribly awry. Wrong place, wrong time. The couple in love who travel down the coast collecting memories in a bag on their honeymoon, then on their fiftieth wedding anniversary in the Kansas nursing home, they live they open the bag and are magically transported into their past. Their attendants find them dead in their room the next morning with water in their lungs, sun burnt, hand in hand – their slippers filled with sand. Writing may be solitary but for me lonely never.

The scary thing is I have absolutely no Idea where the ideas come from. Lacking a better explanation the Greeks placed the blame firmly in the hands of the 9 Muses, Daughters of Zeus. Lacking a better explanation I tend to agree with them and why not? Stranger things happen in the minds of writers and leak out onto the page every day. So the next time you feel lonely while writing a horror story alone in a dimly lit rented cabin in the middle of nowhere and you hear a floorboard creek behind you relax. Chances are it is one of the Muses looking over your shoulder helping you flesh out the story.

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We’ve all experienced that panicky moment when we stare at a blank page and freeze, our normally overly imaginative brains suddenly going silent. Or worse – we open up an existing story only to find prose flowing more like cold molasses on a winter day than the usual gush of words flying so quickly that fingers can’t keep up. Your muse has deserted you to go on an extended vacation, leaving you without an ounce of creativity.

So what can you do to overcome this paralyzing sensation? Here are a few tips to get the creative juices flowing again:

Change your environment – If you normally write from your computer in your office, try getting away to a coffee house or bar. If you are used to writing indoors, try your hand at writing in a park. Trade a noisy environment for a quiet one – or vice versus.

Create a schedule for yourself – Sometimes the best way to get the juices going is to make writing a habit. Set a regular time to focus on writing – and stick to it. Experts say it takes 21 days to form a habit. Make yours writing.

Make use of writing prompts – There are tons of resources to find short prompts to inspire the muse within you. These can be great tools to get your creative juices kick-started again. I’ve taken what came out of past writing prompts and incorporated it into current works in progress.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket – If you find yourself out of steam and unable to work on your next Great American Novel, switch it up and work on something else. Write a personal essay, blog post or short story. I normally keep a couple of manuscripts or strong story ideas tucked away to use during dry spells.

Take a walk – It’s long been said that exercise can break through writers’ blocks, and recent research now backs this up. Scientists have found that people who exercise regularly actually do think more creatively. Adding a regular exercise regime to your day can do wonders for your writing – including strengthening that imagination.

Join a critique group – Critique groups, like the ones put on by 9 Bridges, are a great opportunity to get around writers. Often, simply by being around writers and listening to other work being read, you can get the creative juices going again. Check your local groups – 9 Bridges welcomes all writers, whether they are in a place to read material or not.

Read a book – I know it may seem a little counterproductive to spend time reading when you should be writing, but the best writers are also avid readers. Ask any prolific author and they will tell you that they devour books.

And above all, the number one thing you must do is…

Keep writing – Don’t worry if it’s good or bad, happy or sad, or even within your chosen genre. Sometimes the muse has a will of her own and will take you down trails you never considered. Just let the words flow and take you where they will.

by Elizabyth Harrington

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by Heather Curry Self

I enjoy reading how other authors write–and what they enjoy about their writing process. What works for them. But that’s the key thing: What they enjoy writing about their writing process. How they get the story down is how they get the story down.

James Patterson says outlining your story before you do anything is key; Stephen King says outlining doesn’t work for him because he doesn’t exactly know where the story is going to go, so don’t bother. James Ellroy writes everything down by hand with a pen on yellow, legal-sized notepads first and then copies them into a computer. Woody Allen writes all of his scripts on an old, manual typewriter and then has an assistant transcribe them into a computer.

With both novels I’ve written (Coming Home and Backbeat), I didn’t use an outline as I fall into the camp King’s way of thinking. But I have another story that’s so complex I’m going to have to outline—at least loosely—key points I need to connect. I did a lot of notepad writing with Backbeat, but never did with Coming Home.

Once, during a conversation with a woman it came up that she was an “established” author—whatever that meant; when I asked her if she was published as I’d love to read something she evaded the question. I then mentioned I’d published one book and was now woking on another.

She asked me what my process was. Did I outline? Did I set a specific time? No, I replied, I didn’t outline. I generally set a specific time on weekdays as I worked full-time, but sometimes on weekends the time varied. Some days I didn’t write at all as I needed a break.

What followed was her telling me what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. She outlined how she wrote and then went on to say I should use her writing process because it worked for her, and I shouldn’t follow mine because it didn’t work for her. She then went on to say she knew better than I did about how to write—why I should follow her process.

Yes—she actually said that she knew better than I did about how to write and continued to push me to agree to follow her method. When I thanked her and said I’d certainly keep her suggestions in mind, but, for right now my process was working splendidly, she got quite upset.

Your writing process is your writing process. Which means there is no “wrong” one to follow. (I’d be willing to bet that the authors I mentioned above would agree.)

If you’re just stepping into the realm of authorship and aren’t sure where or how to begin, maybe try the process of an author you admire. Then discard what doesn’t feel right to you and try something else. If you find you work best with an organ grinder and a monkey dancing next to you—great. I’d find it distracting, but I’m not you.

Writing can be grueling and frustrating at times. Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to push an adult giraffe through a door made for a small dog—but there should still be an overall feeling of enjoyment. And that starts with your personal writing process and rituals—not mine, not King’s, not Patterson’s or Ellroy’s, not Allen’s—unless of course you find that their process (or a combination of them) works for you.

That’s perhaps the only “rule” I might suggest you follow.

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How to depict taste, smell and texture on paper.

by Mark V. Harrington

It sounds so simple. You’re writing a restaurant review or have decided to write about your favorite recipe. Yes, you can put down in words the ingredients that go into the recipe. Your can recount the décor of the restaurant. You can give the directions of how to put the ingredients together or even put in words how the service was and what was on the menu. But the big question is how did it make you feel? How did the taking a bite of that sourdough bread, that has a light coating of sweetened honey butter feel in your mouth, how did it taste, what came to mind? When you’re separating eggs through your fingers, how do you depict how it feels to have the whites sliding through your finders until only the yoke is left in your palm?

Getting all of this down on paper can be sometimes challenging and sometimes daunting. We know what we are feeling, smelling, tasting and yet translating that into words is a task that leaves us speechless.

Let’s take, for example, our previous egg. We pick it up out of the bowl and know the delicacy of this item and yet our fingers feel the hardness of the shell. We are tempted to press, but our inner voice knows better. It knows that while the shell is hard, it is thin, delicate; a temporary protective barrier entrusted to keep the liquid white and yolk safe until it is needed. Taking it in hand we strike it against a bowl, but not too hard – just hard enough to put a chink in this egg’s outer armor. Then with deft hands we open the shell with one hand, letting the fluid, viscous contents flow into the palm of our other hand.

With fingers slightly separated, we feel the slippery whites of the egg slide between them, thinking of the rich meringue that it will create, the tasty macaroons or the airy Pavlova, (a meringue-based dessert named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova). You’re left with the yellow liquid sphere of the yoke in your hand, itself protected by it’s own protective barrier, though much thinner and definitely more delicate than it’s outer cousin, the shell.

Descriptive words can be a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled writer. They not only communicate information such as color, scent, texture, and taste, but can also transport the reader into the writer’s experience. Painting a picture of sight, sound, scent and texture so that the reader feels what the writer feels, smells what the writer smells, and tastes what the writer tastes.

It enables the difference between:

I cooked the chicken in a frying pan with salt, pepper, cumin, and crushed garlic until it was done.

And:

Cooking the chicken in a frying pan, the scent of cumin and crushed garlic filled the air, taking me back to the open air markets of India. The salt and pepper added its own subtle sensualness to the aromatic bouquet.

See the difference? In other words descriptive words are your friend, don’t be afraid to use them.

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BW-author-profile-masked-02-copyby Larry Dunlap

I’m always surprised when one of the very first questions I am asked is why I chose to write a memoir for my first attempt as an author. It’s not that it’s a bad question, it’s that I had little choice, as it turned out. While it is my first book, I’ve been a writer for a long time, and a voracious reader since early childhood. I earned my bones as a pencil-for-hire technical writer starting at Transamerica, Countrywide, and Hallmark through the mid-Nineties but I’d been writing everything from business plans to training programs to technical specifications well before then. But always, on my own time, I was reading every kind of fiction and creative non-fiction.

When I finally found time to write as an author, which I had previously attempted two or three times over the years, there was a decision to make. What to write. I had three options. The first seemed obvious, I’d been deeply involved in the computer game business designing and overseeing the development of my own graphic multiplayer online strategy game. While the game was a critical success, these kinds of projects are expensive, and I fell a farthing or so short of what was needed. However, over the several decades I’d been subconsciously mapping out the details of the game, I’d developed a back story. It was a complex trilogy, though, which seemed like a daunting place to start. My second choice was a novel about a young off-the-grid, dishonorably discharged, veteran with a sordid past, living illegally on an abandoned boat in a rundown marina in southern California, reluctantly working as an off-the-books private investigator to survive. I got pretty invested in this guy, and thought I’d like to take on authors like Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. Ha ha, sure. But then there was this real life story about a turning point in my life with a rock band in the mid-Sixties. The story almost told itself, and it seemed to demand telling, but I wondered if anyone would really care about some guys from the Midwest who almost made that climb to the top of the music biz.

The final decision came from two conversations. The first was with one of my band brothers, Dave. There are four of us, the four Midwestern musketeers so to speak, who are still in contact 50 years after our adventure began. Whenever we get together, sooner or later we always turn to reminiscences of the odyssey we took. While Dave and I were talking, he mentioned that the other two had told him they felt they could only converse with one, or more, of the four of us about those experiences because no one in their real lives could relate to what they’d done and where they’d been. That seemed incredibly unfair.

The second conversation was with my earliest best friend in high school, who’d introduced me to science fiction and board games. When I’d left Indianapolis for parts West, we lost contact with each other. But, serendipitously, I discovered him again when I was home visiting family and bandmates. When I mentioned I was considering writing about what happened in my life after I left Indy, and would he be interested in reading that, he said he’d always considered my experiences a “cautionary tale” he used to warn his children of what can happen when you wander off the beaten track as I had.

I totally got that. I’d lived in Indiana, it is an insular place. Often hard for people there to relate to things far away on either coasts. But when I considered it later, I realized that many of the adventures I’ve enjoyed reading generally had a cautionary tale at the root of them. I hadn’t thought of it that way before—so maybe it wasn’t such a bad book idea after all.

I began the process of getting things organized to write in early 2010, putting together calendars both in paper and spreadsheets, gathering photos, researching all the locations, music industry magazines, contracts, recording, people we met, and those who represented us–over several months of research. Though memoir, differing from biography and/or history, is a matter of opinion—what the memoirist remembers—I still wanted use all the dates, times, and facts I could find as milestones to weave my memory through.

The next big step was figuring out where to start. I had no problem with the ending. It was dramatic and obvious. It was where to begin. Despite all the crazy and interesting, almost unbelievable things, that had happened to us, who was going to care about reading a history of my band, no matter how I described and related these events I’d written in my calendars. It was well into the following year before I realized that if I wanted anyone to be interested in this book, I was going to have to write it through my own lens, how I experienced it. I would have to be the personal narrator. I struggled. I wrote about grade school, high school, discovering an obsession with singing, followed closely by an obsession with basketball, overshadowed by the mystery of girls. And then I tossed it all out.

I discovered memoir, in the sense that I hadn’t really understood what memoir was before then. I read other memoirs, mostly hated them, especially the music and band books, until I read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, and “Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of a Unlikely Stripper” by Diablo Cody, and a novel that felt so much like memoir that I thought it counted, “The Descendants” by Kaui Hart Hemmings, and I got it. It wasn’t about history, it was about emotion, it was about what the things that happened to you meant, not getting dates, times and dialog exactly right. And that left the largest stumbling block. I was going to have to dig into myself. It took the next four years to write about the six years of the memoir (with look-ins to events back into the Fifties), and examine personal life back then and how things affected me in the story and even to some extent, to the present. Before this, I’d never considered myself a person who spent much time looking backward but now it was liking pulling myself out of a fugue state after each writing session.

Each draft vastly improved my creative writing skills, bringing more and better descriptions of the band’s experiences, but also found me digging into things about my own experiences I hadn’t considered sharing with anyone. It was becoming more and more obvious, I’d have to be willing to strip emotionally naked to uncover the real story. And since it was about my band, appropriately named Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, perhaps that made sense.

I finally found my beginning at one of the lowest points of my young life at 24. My marriage to my high school dream girl, who’d rescued me from the pain of being a high school teenager, borne our two beautiful young sons, and whom I loved beyond reason, was in trouble. The vocal group, that sang A Capella Fifties rock tunes, and had given me something to dedicate myself to as a teenager; that had recorded a record in a homemade studio that inexplicably out-charted the Beatles on Chicago’s big rocker, WLS, for a few of weeks in January 1964, was scattering to the winds. The winds of change had begun to howl and while they slammed some doors, others were being blown open. So while this isn’t quite where my personal story started, this is where NIGHT PEOPLE, Book 1 of Things We Lost in the Night, A Memoir of Love and Music in the 60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves begins.

 

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by Elizabyth Harrington

One of the things we do at 9 Bridges is to offer critique groups. Our most popular format for this is our verbal critique groups where people bring material to read out loud. About once a month someone has a question about the format of the group. Usually it’s a request to share files prior to the meeting or to bring printed material to pass out. The logic from the author’s viewpoint is that the person hearing the material will miss things if they aren’t following along with something on paper.

But the benefits to a verbal group outweigh the disadvantages.

Listening is an incredibly important skill that we as humans in industrialized nations are losing. I’m not talking about losing our hearing, although we are bombarded daily with more noise than our ancestors(grin). I’m talking about really paying attention to what someone is saying. With emails and social networks replacing phones and in-person friendships, we are slowly losing that social interaction that requires talking to and listening to one another. That is one of the reasons why the verbal format of these critique groups is so important. In addition to everything else they get out of the group, members are forced by the very format to practice their listening skills.

The art of storytelling started as an oral tradition, and in many ways, it still is. A good piece of writing has a natural flow to it, a little like a stream that carries the reader to sea. This is something that is easily picked up through listening, but can be lost while staring at something on paper. Things like pacing, voice, repetition and dialogue stand out when a piece is read out loud. Many writers habitually read their pieces out loud to themselves while editing – we’ve just taken this to a group dynamic.

Not only do our critique groups encourage the development of good listening skills, but they provide a safe place for writers to practice reading in public. With the resurgence of independent book stores and the importance of self-promotion among authors, it’s vital, more than ever before, to develop this ability.

Finally, while the verbal format allows writers to share and receive feedback on their own material, there’s another important benefit: participants get to hear the feedback on other writers’ work as well. I’ve improved my own writing tenfold simply from listening to the feedback given to my critique group peers.

Whether you prefer a written or verbal style, critique groups are an important resource for writers. If you haven’t experienced this for yourself, we invite you to check out one of our groups at a 9 Bridges Chapter near you.

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by Elizabyth Harrington

Recently I was asked by a new member of our Portland chapter to explain how a critique group can have so many members and still be of value to writers. The asker’s opinion was that a group of this size was too large to be an effective critique platform.

I replied that unlike most writers groups that consist of a critique group and nothing else, 9 Bridges gives writers a platform to connect and share. In addition to the standard critique groups (Portland has four separate groups meeting weekly), our community offers write-ins, workshops, social events, and promotes other events that members might find interesting (like writers conferences, book signings, workshops and presentations). We are also building a repository of information and resources that will soon be available on our website. Finally, writers develop contacts and relationships through our organization, some of which turn into long and lasting friendships.

I could almost hear the “aha moment” happen over the phone. Then came the excited reply: “You mean it’s an entire community of writers!”

EXACTLY.

While 9 Bridges may have had humble beginnings as a chapter of the Coffee House Writers Group, it quickly evolved to something much more dynamic and exciting: a community of like-minded people with members throughout the country.

Our workshop series came out of discussions on craft and the business of writing during critique meetings. In response to requests for some kind of community interaction between meetings, we created a Facebook community so writers from different critique groups could connect. And, as people moved around, we started new chapters and extended our community reach across state lines.

As our membership base grew, we attracted the attention of other organizations, many of which extended invitations to their events or offered special discounts to our members.Suddenly we realized we were no longer simply a single critique group; we had evolved into a community that shared information, events and experiences with one another. Our tiny family had become a large village.

The best thing about a community is that it is always evolving and changing. Every new chapter – every new member – has something new to teach us. Over the years I’ve been involved with this community, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch it expand and evolve. I am looking forward to many more years watching our humble group become a movement.

Keep Writing!

Elizabyth Harrington
Executive Director

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