Category Archives: Writers & Writing

I’m back: Florida Writers Conference 2018

I have once again been invited back to join the faculty of the Florida Writers Conference !

This year’s conference (the 17th annual conference) will be at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs, October 18-21, 2018. The theme is “Where does our muse live?” Other speakers will include former prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein as the National Guest of Honor; Florida Writer of the Year Heather Graham, (author of 200 novels and novellas!); and Peter Meinke will be heralded as Florida’s Poet Laureate. Continue reading

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What sailing ships tell us about storytelling

As a kid, I was fascinated by sailboats and sailing ships. I loved reading adventure novels such as C.S. Forester‘s classic Horatio Hornblower series. I also enjoyed building models. So, one birthday (or Christmas), my parents gave me a model sailing ship. The model was never built. I could never muster the enthusiasm to spend the hours working on the rigging, sails, masts, etc. to complete it. In retrospect, my reaction may have been my first practical lesson in visual storytelling.

One of the first lessons novelists (and screenwriters) learn is that conflict drives story. Conflict forces characters to act; they are forced to resolve the conflict by making a decision. A story where characters do not have to make choices isn’t very engaging. Readers (and audiences) invest in characters based on the choices they make and how they react to these choices. The various pivot points in those decisions determine the plot.

So, how does this apply to my model sailing ship? Continue reading

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Why Florida is a great place to be as a writer

TortugaBaywEHA

Tortuga Bay has been nominated in categories such as mainstream/literary, women’s fiction, YA historical fiction, YA fiction, and YA/New Adult/Coming of Age

Tortuga Bay has been doing very well in the literary competition race this year in Florida, which prompted a thought: How important is Florida as a center for writing?

This question can be sliced a lot of different ways, but as a social scientist and economist, I thought one way would be to look at employment. Presumably writers tend to locate in places where opportunities to flourish would be greatest. We would naturally expect places such as Los Angeles and New York to be havens because of the concentration of the entertainment industry. But what about states like Texas, or Florida, which are large states but where our industries are perhaps less developed?

So, I went to the U.S. Department of Labor and dug up labor force data by occupation (May 2015, the most recent available right now). For those that are data hounds, the classification is Writers & Authors OES code 27-3043 under the larger classification of Independent Artists, Writers & Performers.

As expected Florida does well.

Overall, the nation employed 43,380 people who listed writers & authors as their primary occupation. The top two states–California and New York–employed one third of the nation’s writers and and authors. Florida ranked fourth, just below Texas. The top six states employ half of the nation’s authors & writers.

State Employment % of Nation
1 California 7,890 18.30%
2 New York 6,710 15.56%
3 Texas 2,340 5.43%
4 Florida 1,770 4.10%
5 Pennsylvania 1,550 3.59%
6 Illinois 1,460 3.39%
7 Ohio 1,250 2.90%
8 Virginia 1,190 2.76%
9 Massachussetts 1,180 2.74%
10 District of Columbia 1,170 2.71%

When broken down by metropolitan area, the dominance of New York and Los Angeles are clear. The New York City metropolitan area alone employs 15% of the nation’s writers and authors. The Los Angeles metro area employs another 12%. Chicago has the next highest concentration with 5.5%. Thus, the top three metro areas employ one third of the nation’s writers and authors. Miami, with 510 writers and authors, ranks well outside the top 10 among metropolitan areas.

This raises an important question: Even though Florida does not have a dominant metro area, what explains the state’s ranking? Quite simply, Florida writers are distributed across several metropolitan areas as the table below shows.

Metropolitan Area Authors & Writers % of State
Cape Coral-Ft Myers 40 2.26%
Deltona-Daytona Beach 50 2.82%
Jacksonville 120 6.78%
Miami-Ft Lauderdale 510 28.81%
Orlando-Kissimmee 350 19.77%
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titsuville 30 1.69%
Port St. Lucie 50 2.82%
Tampa-St. Petersburg 350 19.77%

More than half of our states writers and authors are employed in Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Orlando-Kissimmee, or Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area. We are spread out over the state. Unfortunately, data for Gainesville and Tallahassee were unavailable because of their small size, but the pattern is pretty clear: Florida’s authors are spread out geographically, suggesting no metropolitan area has a defined competitive advantage within the state.

In short, Florida is a good place to be a writer. We have one of the  nation’s highest concentrations of writers yet geography does not see to play as important a role in where we live and work.

 

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The Hunger Games, Dialogue, and Voice

My new favorite young-adult series is The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The books literally grabbed me from the first page. I’ve been mulling over the stylistic and artistic reasons why I think these books were so good, particularly since I’m not a big fan of first-person narrative. Ironically, I think it’s the first-person voice that grabbed me.

For many writers, the first-person narrative is a mechanical vehicle for engaging readers by shifting the point of view. Rather than an out of body, third-person perspective, the reader gets to see the world through the eyes (or, more appropriately, lens) of the lead character. This technique is moderately successful, IMHO, but most writers don’t really exploit it effectively.

Collins does, however, because she has infused the first-person narrative with a distinctive voice and perspective: 16-year old Katniss Everdeen. The language is broken, littered with dependent clauses where sentence structure often seems incongruent. In short, she’s writing like a teenager thinks and talks. Take the first two paragraphs from The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough convas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed togehter. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is a fresh as raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Short sentences, short clauses, some strung together, some on their own. Throughout, Collins mixes present tense with past observations by the character. Again, these are techniques for pulling the reader actively into the story and Katniss’s character. As the story progresses, Collins infuses more of Katniss’s way of thinking into the book, including self questioning and the kinds of dilemma’s anyone would face in such as situation. And it’s all teenager, not adults writing like teenagers.

Where did she get this fresh approach? I think it has a lot to do with her experience writing screenplays for children’s television shows. Screenplays are all about dialogue and developing distinctive characters. That’s a critical stylistic building block for these books, and a good lesson for writers more generally.

So, voice, character, and perspective are wrapped together in a very fresh first-person narrative. And the rest will be history….

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Suzanne Collins on writing novels

I just finished reading the incredibly awesome Hunger Gamesit’s one of those books that makes you wonder why you even try to write novels–and stumbled across this excellent interview with Suzanne Collins at Newsweek (published Sept. 4, 2008). She has great insight into writing fast-paced novels based on her experience as a playwrite and screenwriter for children’s television, and I thought this passage was particularly relevant for novelists:

NEWSWEEK: Did you learn good storytelling from kids’ TV?
COLLINS: I started as a playwright. Any sort of scriptwriting you do helps you hone your story. You have the same demands of creating a plot, developing relatable characters and keeping your audience invested in your story. My books are basically structured like three-act plays. I’m very conscious of pacing because you get very little downtime in television.  You have to be moving the story forward and developing the characters at the same time. Another television thing I use is I tend to end my chapters on some sort of cliffhanger, which can involve physical peril, or the moment a character has a revelation. That seems like the natural place to break because we do that in television so the viewers will come back after the commercials.

For more on writing screenplays, I recommend the book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by New York University film professor Robert McKee. For more on Suzanne Collines, check out her wikipedia biography.

For more on the Hunger Games, check out its wikipedia entry.

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