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Monday, February 6, 2012

Blog Move

Attention, readers! My blog has moved! You can follow me from here on out at rachelhorwitz.com/blog Thanks for all your support here on Blogger! I look forward to seeing you over at You Are What You Write 's new home!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

I Hear Fictional Voices with Z.N. Singer

I write because I hear voices in my head.

I haven't checked, but I'm probably not alone in this. I'm pretty sure all writers are writing what they are told by voices in their heads. In fact, I am sure that musicians make music because they hear things, and that artists draw and sculptors sculpt because they see things. In short, we are all crazy together. Blessedly, magnificently crazy.

It is a gift. Not a burden. We, and we alone, are chosen by these voices, these visions. They come to us, and to no one else. No other writers hears the voices I do, and no one who isn't a writer even understands what I mean. And they come for a purpose. They come because we can do for them what no one else can. We can give them what they need. The Greeks were wrong: there are not three Muses. There are infinity.

Give us life, they whisper. Make us real. Give us form that we might be born into the world and the minds of men.

And we do. Because we love them. I don't know what I'd do without them. Why, if I didn't have these voices in my head, I might go crazy.

I lost the voices once.

It was after I'd finished my first novel length project. I put it that way because it was a fanfiction – I have since mostly abandoned that field, but at the time I'd forgotten my passion as a writer, and writing that fanfiction novel woke me up again, and taught me some good lessons besides. I don't regret it. But the point is, it was my first novel that I completed, and it took me two years. Two years of a novel's worth of voices in my head. For two years, the cacophony in my cranium exceeded any I'd had before. It was wonderful. I loved it.

And then I finished it. I sat back in my chair, expecting to be satisfied, thrilled, ecstatic.

The voices were gone. I was scared.

I'd fulfilled my mission: I'd given them life, a form in which they could live in the world. And so, now, they no longer lived in my head. They didn't need me anymore. For the first time, I experienced a mass exodus of voices. My head was empty. The void frightened me. For several days, I honestly thought I might lose my mind from it. How could I live without those voices? I didn't I could.

But of course it was temporary. I'd been laying the groundwork for my novel for the past year, and with the cast of Fate/Spiral Time gone, those fledgling voices began to grow to fill the gap. It wasn't the same, not nearly, but I no longer feared for my sanity.

Some time passed. There was a false start: I thought I was ready and discovered that I hadn't nearly fleshed out the setting and characters enough. Then I was busy with school and trying to produce my first e-book, an anthology of my short stories – I made progress, but slowly. But then finally came midwinter break, and my anthology e-book was out and I had the time to finish preparing at last. Two weeks ago, I began to write again. This time, it was different. This time was right. And so, this time, the voices began to rise...

Soon, those dark empty rooms will be full again. Full of voices and dreams. I'm so glad.

I've missed them so much. Those voices.

Author Bio: Z. N. Singer probably owes his career first and foremost to his parents' callous act at the tender age of seven – specifically, they threw away the television. It never returned to the family, and he was forced to find other entertainment. He found books. Because writing makes a satisfying career but an uncertain source of income, he finds time to write in-between coursework at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he studies Interior Design (not decorating – think interior architecture). You can find more examples of his writing, as well as extensive and ever expanding documentation on the world in which his eventual fantasy series will be set, at www.thewordpile.com . Free samples of (fantasy) fiction writing and occasional short stories available as well. There's a chatbox and comments are open to all, so no matter what your reason, even just to hang around, be sure to stop by. You can also connect with me on Facebook  and Twitter .

Monday, January 30, 2012

START Your Book the Right Way

Before you even think to write, you have to START. “Well, duh,” you say, huh? Okay, I admit you have a point. You have to start anything to get the ball rolling. But I’m not talking about rushing into your idea all bewildered where half your notes end up in the trash. This tactic is efficient and effective. It applies the simplicity of the acrostic to the complexity of noveling and results in a firm foothold.

Spark the idea. The lucky thing about this step is that it generally happens all on its own. If you force an idea, it will probably lack the originality you so desire. Allow your thoughts to flow freely and they will undoubtedly reward you with a unique concept.
Think it over. Add events, characters and other major pieces that contribute to the beginning of your writing adventure. Don’t over think and start butchering your idea apart. Remain permissive and accept what comes to you.
Apply the details. Incorporate your subplots and minor characters while expanding the idea. Note: Your outline will become cluttered, but that’s not a problem. Plenty of your content will ultimately be cut, so having additional ideas never hurts.  
Research your field. No matter the topic or genre, be sure you have done your research. If you are hurling readers into the future (ie- Sci-Fi) it has to be believable to your otherwise primitive audience. Make sure your facts add up. Moreover, you should read similar stories to improve your understanding and expertise on the subject.
Time to write. Well, nearly. Set a schedule for writing and be sure it’s worked into your routine so your rough draft can actually be completed. This step is where many aspiring writers drop the ball. “It’s hard to find time,” and “I’m busy.” There’s no excuse. Your story won’t write itself. Find time.
That final step is certainly the hardest, but I’ll borrow a quote from my favorite little green man, Yoda. “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Using this template, you can surely START your novel and transform that spark of an idea into to a fully fledged rough draft.
View my archive and stay tuned for more on specific topics. If you’re looking for something but can’t find it, let me know and I’ll blog it!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Constructing Character

Without characters, you have no story. It is the characters who should drive and shape the plot, not the other way around. Main characters, secondary characters and tertiary characters are what define a narrative. You can’t mention X-Men without images of the mutants, or Titanic without the star-crossed lovers. A story can happen from any perspective, so it is imperative who you choose to tell your tale.    

I want to briefly mention archetypes or what I call, molded characters. These people are essential a cut out of a personality that has become ingrained in human storytelling. The jokester, the bad boy, the damsel in distress, the imposter, the hero, the villain, the know-it-all, the sidekick—the list goes on. What all these have in common is their lack of depth. They’re flat and uninteresting, nothing more than an underdeveloped outline. In short, they’re boring. However, since all characters begin at this level, you can transform a mold into someone unique and wonderful.

Forming characters might seem like a daunting task, but by building layers of complexity, you can construct a person who comes to life in your writing:

Pick a Mold Type. Choose a Name. Imagine their Appearance. Define Personality. Understand their Motivations. Give them Challenges. Lastly, ensure Development. These steps speak for themselves, but I’ll show you how character construction is done using Neytiri from Avatar.

Mold Type:  Independent Woman
Name: Neytiri
Appearance: A blue-skinned humanoid that stands twice the height of a human. She has a sleek, toned body, cat-like eyes and dark, braided hair. Her figure is somewhat feline with satellite ears and a tail.
Personality: She is a caring teacher, offering her knowledge readily. As a skilled hunter, she is independent, resourceful, clever and cautious. Her reputable position among the People gives her the freedom to speak her mind, which she does curtly and with harsh judgment. She honors her duties, respects others and has the ambition to prove her spirituality.
Motivations: As the next Shaman for her tribe, she soaks up information and etiquette as she strives to fills her mother’s shoes while keeping her tribe safe from outsiders.
Challenges: Presented with a charming human, she must make him one of the People to prove to herself and the tribe that she is a worthy leader and teacher. In addition, forces outside of her control threaten her way of life.
Development: Through teamwork, the pair overcomes the forces of nature and humanity that stand against them. Although she believes she is solely teaching him, he also opens a new world to her by means of friendship and love. Having trusted him, a betrayal and ultimate redemption show her that she truly impacted his life and the life of her tribe.

That may be a rough description of Neytiri, but it shows how you can transform a mold into a character that looks, sounds and feels real. Using these steps, shaping your story’s characters won’t be any trouble at all. Treat this as an outline. Feel free to add or remove details until it functions as a written portrait of your character. As you can see, creating a well-rounded character is fairly simple. Writing them memorably is the challenge.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Alcatraz Review

It shouldn’t come as a surprise after my previous post (a glorified love letter to my idols) that I would take the opportunity to review JJ Abrams’ new drama, Alcatraz. So, here it goes. A gushing list of admiration. Endless praise.  Detailing the unblemished success of a creative mind I greatly admire.
Well…not exactly.
Abrams’ knows a winner when he sees one. It was natural to choose a story with compelling characters, a mysterious island, the troubles of time travel, flashbacks, and a villain that tugs at your heartstrings. But enough about LOST.
I had faint senses that Alcatraz would resemble its predecessor, but using the same musical score (or one that is extremely close) pushes my buttons. When the plots share obvious connections, it would behoove the creators to do their best to distance them. The overt parallels nearly seem to diminish the success of LOST as if it were a formulaic show, easily copied. There was even a Jack character*. And don’t forget, Hurley aka Soto is the same loveable teddy bear. However, I admit, this is where the similarities end.
Alcatraz is not a sci-fi / fantasy thriller, even though there are aspects of the show that suit these genres, it is certainly more a new-age cop drama than anything else. I love stories that transform common knowledge into something spectacular, so the concept that the Alcatraz prisoners have actually disappeared instead of being moved is right up my alley. The opening was classic. Hooking viewers with the empty cells and stormy evening, it clearly foreshadowed the turmoil and mystery that will be central to the program. And it doesn’t hurt that the main character, a detective, is female. Who doesn’t love a woman in charge?
Two episodes in (technically three), each show introduces the prisoner who has returned, his M.O. and the inciting incident that alerts Madsen and Soto to the reappearance. In cop-drama fashion they tail their suspect through a maze of misunderstandings until finally he is apprehended. Yawn.
I am interested in the allure of the “63’s” disappearances, much less how they are wreaking havoc on downtown San Francisco. Why did they disappear and why are they returning? What does Emerson** have to do with this incident? Is Dr Beauregard ageless or just really old? Is this a government conspiracy? Who is directing them to cause mayhem once they return? How did they disappear to begin with? The potential for creativity entices me to want more. Not for the dramatic police narrative, I have already found love in Person of Interest (note- another LOST alum) for that.
I trust Abrams enough to produce a story that is groundbreaking and unique. And although so far Alcatraz may seem to be riding LOST’s coattails, I am sure something dwells within the bowels of The Rock that viewers have yet to understand. After all, Lucy, Hauser’s assistant, was a bit too knowledgeable of the inner workings of Alcatraz – and look how that went – she was there in ’63, looking as sinister and youthful as in the present day. Despite my criticism, JJ, you’ve got me hooked.  
*Jack. Could be a nickname for John. Could be the man’s name. There are literally thousands of male names. Writers, please pick something else. Please.
**Emerson Hauser is definitely a nod to Michael Emerson, the portrayer of the incomparable Ben Linus. If he comes anywhere close in character to Ben, I’ll be a happy girl.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unorthodox Idols

I felt it was important to explain why my greatest idols are not other writers. Don’t get me wrong, I admire many writers, but I find myself more drawn to film and television masterminds. I would say this is because when I read, I see a movie.  When I write, I write a movie. Not a screenplay (I’ve tried that), but how a film would read in novel form. Even before getting a scene down on paper, I have to act it out. See how the dialogue flows. Imagine the position of the characters and a 360 degree setting. I try my best to create a moving picture. So, I suppose my admiration speaks for itself. 
 J.J. Abrams, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan. LOST, Avatar, Inception.
Their originality and unique transformation of old ideas is exactly the style I aim to achieve. The manner in which their stories are told holds the audience’s attention in an otherwise complex narrative. Their use of the camera is stunning. Perspective can have personality and these artists prove it. It doesn’t hurt they’re box-office favorites. I often gather inspiration from these three and after reviewing their work, I’ve found it comes down to another three simple factors:
Characters: Relatable no matter who, where or when they are.
Questions: Keep the audience on their toes. Get them invested.
Challenging Concepts: Simple should be made complicated.
Instead of awaiting a tome from my favorite authors (well, they’re either dead or done writing) I eagerly anticipate new shows or films from these innovative storytellers. I will review JJ’s newest program Alcatraz soon. Waiting for the Avatar sequels with bated breath. And July CANNOT bring the Dark Knight Rises here soon enough.
Even though these insights come from individuals involved in a different aspect of art, I feel many of the skills one creative employs can be transferred to the style of another. Whether it’s an episodic series, a canvas drawing or a spectacle on the silver screen, we’re all storytellers.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

7 Simple Edits

Lately, I’ve been an editing fiend so I thought, “What better time than now to share my editing tips?” Yes, you read the correctly, editing tips. Sure, writing tips are helpful for the first run-through or so, but editing is an entirely different animal. And while the material on how to become a better writer is endless, resources for editing are few and far between. So here you are writers! Seven helpful editing tips!
Ok, actually, before you even start editing, be sure you’ve done the following:
Created an outline. Written a rough draft and reread your product. Formatted your story based on preliminary changes for a solid foundation.
There yet? Good. Now you’re ready to edit.
1- Read Out Loud: This is a step that will help you catch missing letters or small words like “to” that you may have skipped over during the first run-through. It will also show you awkward wording since I’ll bet you’ll find it awkward to read.
2- Finding Flow: You can’t jump from A to Z, there’s a whole alphabet of letters to pass through first. Your writing will sound choppy if your transitions weren’t smooth. Take the time to patch them up. You’ll find yourself sliding through the plot as opposed to stumbling.
3- Repetition:  Thoughts get repeated. It’s a fact. You repeat yourself in writing. Just an avoidable truth. Whether its words or phrases, or even whole paragraphs, take into account where there’s repetition and take it out. There are exceptions, but that’s another post.
4- Show Don’t Tell: No one wants to read a lackluster story that answers everything for them. Paint a picture with your words! Lead readers down your carefully maintained trail, with excess information swept aside until you have them cornered in your woodland cabin. Alone. Terrified.  I mean…until they are absorbed in the narrative and forget it’s not real.
5- Trim the Fat: On your editing journey, you will come across many unnecessary words, sentences, scenes, or pages even that add nothing but evil filler to your tale. Cut them out. It will be alright. Your novel will not only forgive you, but thank you for making it better.  
6- Rinse and Repeat: Plain and simple. Once you’ve edited, you’ll probably feel the need to add new details and patch up your handiwork. Go ahead. Make some changes, reread and then edit again. And again. Sure, one more time.
7- Know When to Stop: Now stop it. You actually CAN edit too much. Unless you’re a professional editor, there are surely things you’ll miss. But before you hand your baby over, you can definitely polish your work to a shiny finish.
Leave a comment if you have specific editing questions or tips!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Musings on Adjectives and Adverbs: Don't be Hatin'!

If you’ve learned anything about me by now, you know I like descriptors. I tend to go against the grain of conformity and feel a slight twinge when I hear people bashing my favorite parts of speech. Unlike most writers, adjectives and adverbs are my friends. I realize some people might now say, “But Rachel, those just clutter your writing.” Sure, I agree that’s possible. I approach descriptors as I would real friends. There’s no sense in collecting a gaggle of people to follow me around for no good reason. I choose them carefully.
That doesn’t detract from the blind hatred people express in their direction. Nouns may be the popular kid on the page, but they can’t survive without my friends. I defy anyone to explain the difference between a person, place or thing without adjectives. The questions nouns inherently create must be answered by descriptors. They’re what make your story interesting, your characters unique and your setting realistic. Otherwise, you would end up with some cave drawing of an epic tale:
Man asks other men to protect ring. They cross lands to a mountain. The ring is discarded.
Sure, it gets to the bare bones of the plot, but would you really want to read LotR diluted to such simple terms? I think not. Adjectives are necessary to add flavor and spice to nouns.
I will reiterate, select your descriptors with care. Don’t throw them into your writing willy-nilly. The last thing you want to create is confusion for your reader. Adverbs can sometimes be redundant when explaining verbs as in a sentence like:
Frodo quietly whispered, “Help!”
Readers know what an action looks or sounds like. Repeating the manner in which it takes place is counterintuitive. However, if you were to say:
Frodo whispered loudly, “Help!”
Then, I would side with the descriptor. One would expect a whisper to be quiet, but in this case it establishes a specific type of utterance that clarifies the scene.
I argue that the same confusion in a scene can be created by withholding descriptors as well. It becomes a fine-line to toe in order to successfully use adjectives and adverbs. Without descriptors, stories would never have evolved. Writers would not be able to create their own voice. Prose would have remained stagnant, unable to reach its rich and diverse potential that people create today.  I wish writers would reconcile with descriptors instead of hating them for adding “nothing” to prose. Deep down you know that’s simply not true. They’re a crucial piece of your arsenal. Seriously.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Writer's Sketch 6: Agent from the Black Lagoon

“Change it all!” the creature, hunched over a towering pile of papers, shouted. Beneath the desk, my knees clicked together as I accepted my red-blotched manuscript. The wheezing breath timed my flipping as I surveyed the damage. Pages-upon-pages with the dreaded red ‘X’, others trailed with a patchwork of corrections.
Swallowing the bullet of air lodged in my throat, I decided, against my better judgment, to protest. “I have to keep these scenes,” I said sheepishly, prodding the page in question. The depths of darkness further disguised the creature in a swath of shadows. It inched its bony elbows across the desk, and lowered a burning glare to eye-level. An urgent, overwhelming need for my mother crept into my frazzled thoughts. I did my best to return the intense eye-contact to no avail. My eyes watered and my lids did all they could to shield me from the searing disapproval.  
“Re-write everything,” was the command. One might say it leaked from the creature in the form of a whisper, but in actuality, it was uttered from the corner of its mouth and strangled the air as it drifted to my ears. I began running my fingernails over my teeth. The slightest nibble pacified my shaking if only for a moment. “I noticed,” I began gingerly. “You cut this character entirely.”
A plume of smoke danced past my eyes. Could it have been from a cigarette? Not likely. It had been emitted from the creature’s incredulous snort. “Waste of ink. Not funny,” it replied. I wrung my hands together until the cracking bones snapped me back into reality. My fidgeting feet slipped. The stone tile beneath my feet had been polished by my shoe-soles into glass. One last pluck of courage bubbled through my system. “Did you like any of it?”
The echoes of cackling began in the pit of the creature’s stomach. Its amoeba-like shadow shifted with mirth. A snicker traveled up its throat until the burst of laughter crossed its lips; the creature rocked in its chair, reveling in hysteria.
Back to the drawing board.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Poetic Justice

I have a confession. I love school. I love learning. Now that I am (possibly…maybe…at the least, currently) through with my education I feel it’s an appropriate time for this admission. Now, just like everyone else I had a favorite subject. Three guesses what it was, and the first two don’t count. Yup, English. Fourth grade, when I was nine, was definitely the year this became a solid fact.
My teacher, Mrs. Kirby, would gather her gaggle of rambunctious students in a circle on a tattered rug and read Roald Dahl stories. There were others: Bridge to Terabithia and Where the Red Fern Grows, but Dahl’s stories were a memorable staple.  While other children picked at their scabs or fell asleep against the blue bean-bag chair, I was engulfed in every word. I didn’t want the stories to end. And when the chapter came to a close, I could almost hear the film reel in my head clicking off.
It came as a natural next-step to start writing my own stories. We were assigned vocab-related short stories to complete each Wednesday that I penned with fervor. As an additional means of enticing the class to write, Mrs. Kirby gave the opportunity to write a poem. Not only would it be shared with the class, but it would be published in a book for New England’s Young Writers. As far as nine year-old me was concerned, she had me at published.
On the ride home from school, I fumbled together some animals (surprise, surprise) and rhyming words to create my masterpiece. It lay on the page as the quintessential depiction of spring time. I would love to share the piece with you, but alas, it has disappeared into the depths of my bookcase. I recall bees and trees, spring and a bird’s wing, many flowers and hours. It was my grand entrance to poetry.  Thank goodness I’ve since chosen fiction.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How to Start and Finish with a Bang!

Hoist anchor! There’s a reader on the line! Sure, the middle of your novel may be grand, but without a hook to catch readers, they’ll swim off to another, tastier story. There are plenty of books on the shelf as it is. OK. Enough with the finishing metaphor. My point is, if the opening of your story is bland, readers can only assume the rest will be too. Make it exciting. This rule holds true for the ending as well. What’s worse than reading a good book and it ending in the most predictable manner possible? Here’s a few simple do’s and don’ts to avoid a lackluster start and finish.
Do Use:
Action: As the saying says in the title: A Bang! Riveting action not only attracts readers to a story, but simultaneously leaves them wanting more. More is good.
Dramatic Dialogue: Plain dialogue won’t do. People don’t want to take part in mundane conversations, let alone read them. Be sure to use dialogue that is right in the thick of things.
Flashback / Flashforward: Timeskips can work wonders. Unless you say the time is different, readers won’t know you’ve employed this technique. It’s up to you, but I’m partial to keeping them guessing.
Symmetry: This is something that can be coupled with any of the other methods. I adore stories that have an equal weight about them. Whether it’s a cyclical or mirrored narrative, it works. 
Don’t Use:
Prologue/Epilogue: Some people swear by these. But I can’t find a literary device I detest more. If it belongs in the story, it doesn’t need external bookends. That is all.
Clichés: Please don’t start or end your novel with a cliché. Just don’t do it. See my previous rant as to why.
Description: You have an entire book to describe what’s happening. Make the reader’s entry and exit a thrill, not a bore.
Give-aways: Under no circumstances should you give-away important information too early or too late. Too early and you can kiss readers goodbye. Too late? Well they’ve already left.
With all that said, I hope you remember the golden rule: Keep it exciting. Oh and one more thing. This is easily the most important fact. Never. Ever—
Oh, reader on the line. Hang on.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Review of War Horse

Caution: Spoilers!
Think War Horse is another silly animal movie? Wrong. Panning shots of the English countryside set the backdrop for a colt’s birth and eases viewers into the vast world that surrounds us all as we are welcomed into life. Young Albert Narracott and his equine counterpart, Joey, train each other in the disciplines of friendship and willpower as War Horse gets off on the right hoof.
The call of “War” inevitably tears the pair apart as they must navigate through the horrors of World War 1 in parallel journeys. This type of interwoven narrative shows the gradual development of characters in addition to creating a side-by-side comparison of what Albert and Joey will overcome to be together again. As a film geared towards the younger crowd, flagrant gore is avoided with artful suggestions of the tragedy at hand but beautifully achieves the sense of dread and helplessness indicative of war.
Certainly, the most unexpected aspect of War Horse is the lives Joey touches. From British and German soldiers to French patriots, Joey proves himself a loyal, remarkable horse capable of anything he puts his mind to. My only complaint about the film is that the German’s and French speak in accented English as opposed to their native tongues. Note: the troublesome drawback of subtitles is not lost on me. One of the finer points of the journey is the passage of Mr. Narracott’s service pennant. Not only does the banner function as a means of keeping track of Joey, but it also symbolizes the courage of each of its recipients.
My favorite moment* came in the trenches. Terrified, Joey has entangled himself in the barbed wire of no-man’s land. Lacking any source of optimism, the survival of the war horse perks the hopes of soldiers on either side of the battle. Joining forces to save Joey, a German and an Englishman cut him free. This poignant scene shows the common bond of man and our compassion for others, even animals, in a time of great struggle.
From the start of Albert and Joey’s reunion, I became a human faucet. The boys have matured into men. This notion only emphasizes the heartwarming call from Albert, in what should have been Joey’s final moments. The ending scenes of the film mirror the opening brilliantly and bring a well plotted and developed story to a close.
The simple fact that I saw this movie with my parents and pre-teen brother vouches for the movie’s accessibility across generations. After all, War Horse is timeless. The bond between human and pet tends to transcends into a connection akin to family. And after all Joey and Albert experienced together and apart, it’s no wonder there wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre during the credits. Verdict: A.
*Yes, I loved the scene between the soldiers as it dealt with Joey. My true favorite moment was when Colin (the Englishman) says to Peter (the German) “You speak good English.” To which Peter replies, “No, I speak English well.” As a beloved, nerdy scientist often proclaims, BAZINGA!