Tag Archives: Pamela Nowak

All Those Potential Stories

One of the most frequent questions writers hear is “where do you get your story ideas?”

Well, to be honest, where don’t we?

A couple nights ago, we were clicking through channels and landed on a PBS program about nineteenth century unsolved crimes. The episode was about a string of murders in Austin, Texas in 1885. I was immediately hooked, scribbling notes with vital information so I could later look up the crimes and explore the details again. My head kept telling me there was a story there. Well, it was actually a bit like alarm bells.

I’m not sure what it was…the historical period, the unsolved nature of the crimes or that they likely the work of a single person (an early serial killer), the fact that law enforcement never connected them, or perhaps the potential to create my own plot around them…something reached out and grabbed me.

It isn’t the first time that’s happened watching TV.

The same thing occurs when reading travel or history magazines—a lot. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve torn out pages and filed them away because I see the spark of a plot or core of a character within them.

Special news sections in papers are just as hard to resist. When I lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I used to look forward to Frontier Days and the multi-page spread with stories of life and events of the early community.

I’ve bought more books than I can count for the same reason. Book stores with large regional history sections are tempt me. Book sections within historic site visitor centers or museum gift shops seem to have tentacles that grab me and suck me in. I leave with a bag and an empty purse, story ideas shouting at me all the way home.

Historic hotels or bed and breakfast inns that have unique histories hook me, too. Next thing you know, I’m chatting with the manager about the past and where I might find more information.

Maybe it’s the penchant for research that lives within me. Maybe it’s the writer. Put them both together and I’m pretty much doomed.

So, all you writers out there…where do you get YOUR ideas?

Growth

by Pamela Nowak

The other day, I began working on my presentation for two upcoming conferences and a thought slammed through me. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have even imagined myself in such a position.

Ten years ago, I wasn’t published. I had—finally—placed in and won a few contests after years of attending critique group, entering again and again, and plugging away at rewrites. At that stage, I was “getting close” and my critique partners were telling me I would sign a contract “any day now.” Still, I hadn’t crossed that threshold. I didn’t think I’d learned enough, and I certainly didn’t think I had anything to share in front of conference attendees.

I remember my first conference…twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, I sat in awe of the presenters. And, here I am, preparing a presentation…my tenth one, I think. Growth is an amazing thing!

But growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum and it doesn’t occur without effort. It doesn’t happen because one calls oneself a writer for a few (or more than a few) years. It doesn’t appear because one claims membership in a few writing groups. And it doesn’t get bestowed upon us just because we tinker around with writing and call ourselves writers.

Growth happens when we practice our craft, when we put our work out there and allow others to give us feedback. It occurs when we listen to critique and learn from it. We grow when we read books and observe what others are doing. We stretch ourselves each time we attend a conference or a workshop or class with the attitude that we will gain something from it. There is always a technique or tool that is new, another layer, a unique way of seeing an element of craft if we open our minds to seeing. We need only recognize that our work always needs improving and look for ways to make our writing better.

I find, even in preparing for the workshop, that I am growing. Each element I prepare to share with others leads to more growth of my own writing. As I glean examples to share with attendees in my session, I realize there are techniques I need to apply more often to my own writing.

And as I recognize that, I renew a promise to myself. This year, in all I do and in every conference I attend, I will look for ways to grow and things to learn. Whether it be in socializing with old friends, interacting with attendees as a presenter, or seeking new knowledge while sitting in the audience at a workshop, I will open myself to learning all I can and growing further.

Join me?

The Curse of the Critique Button?

I’m cursed. I can no longer watch a movie, attend a play, read a book, or (now) enjoy television without the writer in my head critiquing. And while that means I’ve finally internalized many craft lessons, it also means entertainment is much more complex. Last week, when I started griping about the slipping plotline on The Following, my man just rolled his eyes and nodded.

This was something I first noticed several years ago and, because I used to direct community theatre, I thought it was a result of directing experience. I found that I paid more attention to what other directors did in terms of lighting, costuming, and set construction. That was bad enough. When I became hyper-aware of choreography, line delivery, and how actors developed their characters, I realized writing was the culprit. I’d translated craft lessons first into my directing, then into how I watched a play.

Then, it was books. It became nearly impossible to shut off the critique in my head when I read. That aggravates me because I love to read. I focus on favorite authors but run out of books. That puts me on a search for new authors which sometimes means I grumble for a while—until I find the joy of a new discovery. I’ve learned, over time, to overlook small things but it still gets to me when I come across unmotivated characters. Especially because that makes me look closer at my own characters and necessitates editing. That’s a good thing, in the end, but it does make me complain. Ken just smiles.

Recently, though, I find it’s bleeding over into movies and television. I used to always notice costuming. Now, I see lack of motivation, manipulated plots, and lack of character arc. I leave movies knowing that I once would have been entertained but now see flaws. Television shows I enjoyed before now prompt negative comments. I can’t seem to turn off the darn critique button! I suspect it drives my family as batty as it does me but I have to give them credit for not laughing.

All that said, I’ve also developed a wonderful appreciation for things done right. I adore a well-written novel and will praise the authors who write them to no end. A well-scripted, well-directed play leaves me smiling for days. Great movies stay with me, becoming those I purchase to watch again and again.

This past month, I began to notice timing, motivation, conflict, character development, and surprise hooks as well as flaws in series TV. My list of favorites has narrowed, but I’m seeing a lot more “things done right.” This season, I’ve praised The Good Wife, True Detective, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, and Game of Thrones—an eclectic collection, each doing something different but all of them discussed in the living room as well-done.

So, yes, I’m cursed…or am I simply seeing things differently?

I suspect we all are, those of us who write.

What about you? What does your critique button have you noticing?

Being in Community with Other Writers

By Pamela Nowak

In the twenty years I’ve been writing (well… writing with publication as a goal), there are two things that I’ve come to learn are vital:  learning craft and being in community. Since many of us often talk about craft in our blogs, I thought I’d talk about community and how important it is to the writer.

Writing is a solitary task. We sit down at our keyboards and immerse ourselves in the worlds within our minds. We write in our pajamas, our hair a mess, not seeing anyone all day long. At times, we emerge from a muse-inspired streak amazed that hours have passed. Sometimes, we tweet or update our Facebook status to brag about our frenzied, pajama adventure.

But we’re still alone.

Oh, but when we get a Like or a Comment or someone tweets back, something happens—a gooey warmth because we realize we aren’t alone in our solitary task.

When it comes down to it, those times when we discover others do exactly the same thing, we feel a sense of belonging that buoys us up and gets us through those times when we get discouraged by the writers’ block and the rejection letters and the editors who are making insane demands of us.

This incredible sense that I am not alone is one of the things that has made RMFW my family.

And who can’t use more family, right?  (Well, as long as they don’t interrupt the muse!)

Family, though, is more than being part of a community.  It means being “in” community together, interacting.

Interacting?!  Talking to people?  People you don’t know?  (Reader sticks head in sand).

Small steps can get you there and bring you the surprise of your life!

For me, the first step was joining a critique group. I got lucky the first time out. I discovered a genre-specific group I fit with well, one I could learn from, one in which I felt comfortable laying myself bare. When that group moved too far away from me (I lived in Wyoming at the time), it took a bit more effort to find a group that felt right.  Several of us created a private on-line group and I joined a multi-genre group.  Throughout those early years, I learned far more than I ever imagined was possible about craft and made friendships that nurtured me and allowed me to grow as a writer and a person.

I also began attending conference…standing in the corner looking on mustering every bit of my energy just to avoid fleeing to my room.  It took several years for me to venture out of the corner and interact but I spent those early years learning craft. But every year, I knew more people and discovered that the time with them provided me with a boost that inspired months of writing.

Still, it was my move to the Denver metro area that really allowed me to discover the meaning of community.  Someone asked me to help with the editor/agent critiques for conference.  A few months later, I was recruited to chair conference. I was fully, completely, in community. Nearly six years later, I still volunteer for several conference committees and serve on the RMFW Board. I also serve on committees for another writers’ group, WWW. Being involved has allowed me to get to know so many of my fellow writers, to be part of a family with them, to become a bigger person.

So…to the point of my rambling…

If you’re writing but still feeling that constant isolation, still expending lots of energy at conferences and feeling lonely while you’re there, I invite you to be in community with other writers. Join a critique group if you haven’t done so and allow yourself to develop friendships with your critique partners.  Let those friendships stretch beyond your monthly meetings. Attend monthly education events and talk to the person sitting next to you. Go to conference and step outside your social box. Spend time getting to know other writers. You have something in common to talk about, after all. Volunteer.  It doesn’t have to be for anything big. Even small tasks make you part of the bigger family and bring you in to contact with other writers.   Again, you already have something in common.

You’ll discover that we are all introverts that write in isolation but that we can thrive in discovering others who share our same hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles. And, once we share, we grow stronger and increase our energy until it becomes a big snowball.  And who doesn’t like snowballs?

The first steps toward being part of community may be difficult but they are so worth it.

For more information on community:  critique groups, education events, retreats, conference, or volunteering, check out the RMFW website:  www.rmfw.org.

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Pameladownload Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as president. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent two dogs and a cat.

Pam loves hearing from readers and invites them to visit her on her website, Facebook, or Twitter.