Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Real Thing: A Route 66 Placemat!

What does a cheesy, mass-produced placemat have to do with good writing?

Short answer: simplicity.

Because I've long felt that most writing instruction is needlessly complex (I don't even like the term 'instruction'), my chief guideline while writing YOU'VE GOT A BOOK IN YOU was simplicity.

Simplicity in the ideas I developed, simplicity in my presentation of them. The best teachers, as we know, merely point the way.

I first got the idea of the Route 66 placemat when creating a webinar for Writer's Digest University on writing mysteries and thrillers. My concern was plotting. I expanded on the 'heart-clutching moment' plotting method I'd first written about Writer's Digest magazine, then put together a simplified version of the classic 'hero's adventure' framework.

Then, something even more basic—one might even say rustic—occurred to me, which can incorporate both methods, really, while being totally 'graspable'. A story's plot, I reasoned, is like a map—is a map—and I thought of the simplest map I'd ever seen, which was a Route 66 placemat. Here it is:

[With thanks to the Hoffmaster Company of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for their generous permission.]

I developed the idea in the proposal for my book, and then further in the book itself.

The Route 66 placemat map is a powerful symbol of movement and simplicity, perfect for writing.

Because every book, fiction or nonfiction, is a journey for the writer and for the reader. And ideally it's an adventure too, filled with zest and new vistas.

Just as drivers need a map to get from Chicago to Los Angeles, we as authors need some sort of map to get from "It was a dark and stormy night," to "THE END." And for the journey to open us to the joys, terrors, and opportunities of the unexpected, that map should be as simple and flexible as possible. The beauty is that a simple map lets you get into virtually endless complexity—side trips, backtracks, interconnections and junctions—without encumbrance.

A good lesson for writing, and a good lesson for life!

I submitted a bunch of photographs and other images with the manuscript, but Writer's Digest Books only included a few of them in the published book, the reason being that the images would have put the page count over a threshold that would have put the price of the book too high. My other choice would have been to cut pages of text, which I didn't want to do.

So to my sorrow, the book does not include an image of the Route 66 placemat.

But I'm glad to present it here, just for the hell of it.

I'll publish other images that didn't get into the book here, with explanations and more insights.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My First HCM (Heart-Clutching Moment)

When I was visiting my mother about five years ago, she handed me a piece of paper and said, "I think this is the first thing you ever wrote."

It is a half sheet of lined paper on which I had written an account of an important event in my mother's and my life, that is the death of her father. I titled it, "My Grandfather's Furenal." It wasn't really about the 'furenal'; it was about the news of his death. I was six when this occurred, and the moment impressed itself on me deeply, as did the three days I spent with the family hanging around the mortuary where Grandpa was laid out. I'd only met my grandfather a few times (he lived in another state), but he had been a friendly presence. The transcription is at the end of this post.

I must have written the account when I was eight or nine, on one of the two impossibly heavy typewriters we had in the house, secondhand models that were old and outdated even then. (One was an Underwood, the other probably a Remington.) But boy, were they satisfying to use! I can still smell the machine oil and the ribbons, can still feel the resistance of the keys, that smooth progressive weird sensation that ends with a dry pop! and a release, over and over.

Not everything about progress is good.

My point is this: we all respond to significant moments in life, whether we are children or adults. Moreover, we respond to them vicariously, in the books we read (fiction and nonfiction), the movies we see, the jokes we hear at the tavern.

In my articles for Writer's Digest and in You've Got a Book in You, I call these heart-clutching moments, or HCMs. They tend to be the more genuine, intense moments of life. Birth, death, betrayal, a stroke of luck, a bolt of passion, an instant of grace, a pang of conscience, a disaster—these are just a few sorts of heart-clutching moments.

HCMs are the fuel that drives stories forward, and they are the string that binds your readers to you.

The little six-year-old me was so impressed by a message of death that the little eight-year-old me felt compelled to document it. I don't know who I expected would read it, but somehow I felt it was the most worthwhile thing I had to offer the world.

Grownup writers sometimes feel that to put in HCMs is to be exploitative, and so they tone them down. To heck with that! Let 'em out, write 'em fully, give your readers all the meat and bones of it. We're in the business of making readers feel.

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My Grandfather's furenal

When my mother got up one morning, she answerd the telephone, and I knew that my grandfather was sick of a blood clot in the leg.

But anyway it was on the telephone my grandmother and she said that grandfather was dead, and mommy started to cry. And then she told me that grandpa was dead.

Then we both started to cry. So my mom woke up dad. And that very next day we went to grandma's house and she took us to my cousin's house. And the next day and the day after that and the next day we had to wait for the furenal. Then the furenal. And my uncle gave a big cross of flowers. I was very sad.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Welcome to Zestful Writing by Elizabeth Sims

For years, people have been asking me if I'd ever launch a blog. I've guest-blogged, but have resisted the terrifying commitment of doing a blog of my own. Until today.

Why now? Well, really, this blog is to mark a milestone in my journey as a writer, that being the publication of my first book on writing. You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, published by Writer's Digest Books, is now out in wide release. ('Wide release' makes it sound like a movie, perhaps a romantic comedy about a young couple who dream of escaping their 9-to-5 drudgery by team-authoring thrillers set in exotic locales. I like that.)

Why the book? Because for a long time, when meeting someone new who learned that I was a published author of novels and a contributing editor at Writer's Digest magazine, 87% of them said, "Oh, I'd like to write a book too!" and would naturally ask for advice.

I'd respond as best I could, but it always amounted to a brush-off. Seeking something to recommend, I read a few of the most popular how-to-write books, and was dismayed by how often their authors asserted that writing is hard. Very hard. It'll-break-your-soul hard. Also, I realized that most authors, even very successful ones, feel that same way.

Well, hell.

That was not what I had learned over the years of writing a bunch of novels. I learned—taught myself—that writing a book is easy and fun, provided we jettison doubt and fear, and write with a relaxed, free heart.
Reject struggle; embrace zest!

So I wrote You've Got a Book in You to get that message out, and to offer writers tools they can use to teach themselves how to write freely and well.

My aim with this blog is to continue to explore the ideas I developed in the book, and to document my journey, as a writer, teacher, and person.

I know I'll learn a lot as I go, and I hope you will too. I welcome your comments.

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