Friday, December 30, 2016
Until I started writing Bloody Hollow Summer, I had only a surface knowledge of what scenes in a novel should accomplish. I thought, Well, something is supposed to happen here, so I'll just put my characters someplace and have them do something and say something. I soon had a bunch of boring, lazy, worthless so-called "scenes" that a twelve-year-old might have written.
I believe I've said this before, but this writing stuff is hard.
After many revisions (ongoing, perhaps until I'm old and gray -- oh, wait, I am old and gray) I am learning the importance of writing scenes that serve a purpose.
Every scene in a novel must work toward something. A good scene should move the story forward and engage the reader. It should highlight character motivation, enhance setting, foreshadow future events, complement the tone of the story, or add some other important element to the whole. Obviously, a scene shouldn't just be there for the heck of it, or just so the characters can talk about what they had for breakfast.
Even though the rules of writing are broken for any number of good reasons, there are patterns which have been proven successful with regard to creating scenes. Those who have been doing this writing thing for a long time advise that scenes that open with long, involved descriptions, history or backstory, are a distraction. Avoid launching a scene with paragraph after paragraph of narrative. If a particular setting, or pertinent information about a character's thoughts or intentions contribute to the action of the scene, keep the summary short, no more than 2 or 3 quick paragraphs, if possible, and then get quickly to the action.
Good scenes should incorporate 3 elements: The point-of-view character must have a clearly-defined goal, must face obstacles and conflict in order to achieve that goal, and must face disaster because of that goal. These 3 elements should lead naturally to 3 more scene points which are called the sequel: An emotional follow-through, a dilemma for the character, and a decision which involves new goals. This 3-part sequel allows the reader to absorb what has happened in the scene.
Scene endings are the perfect place for cliffhangers, surprising revelations, and emotional turmoil. The ending of a scene should always involve a promise of further compelling situations.
Building a novel takes almost as many tools building a house, just in different forms. That, I think, is what makes us writers unique. We have to use tools that nobody but another writer can see. We have to build something from nothing.
It's a hell of a job, but somebody's got to do it.
"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
Friday, December 16, 2016
Editing means to change passive words to active, being mindful of repeated words and phrases, and eliminating unnecessary adjectives and adverbs such as very, quite, so, just, really, and suddenly.
It means determining if you've allowed confusing pronouns to disrupt your story. For instance, you have two male characters in the scene performing two actions simultaneously, and you've referred to both as he instead of using one or both characters' names. Your reader can become confused -- is John trying to push the car out of the mud, or is it Steve? Which he is in the car steering?
Are your dialogue tags necessary --you know, that he said, she said thing -- or could you put one character to work, as in "This doesn't look right."? Harry is speaking, but instead of he said, you could identify him by writing Harry looked perplexed in order to identify him as the speaker. You can place the action (looking perplexed) either before or after Harry speaks.
Editing also refers to that fine tuning you do for typos, misspellings, punctuation, missing words, extra spaces. It refers to combing through the manuscript for awkward phrasing and sentence length variation.
Revision is looking at the big picture and tweaking the structure of the whole novel, if necessary. This is the big deal here. This is cutting the fat, involving character, plot, sub-plot, the story world or setting, theme, and style. It's when you examine scene and chapter issues, removing whole sections that don't belong, or adding specific, vivid details in all the right places.
This is when you decide whether there's excessive exposition -- telling instead of showing. Or that certain paragraphs aren't advancing the story, but have slowed the pace when the plot should be moving along more quickly and clearly. You might find that you have to cut whole passages of empty narrative or dialogue.
Are your characters well-drawn, or are they stereotypes? Is the plot too complicated, or so simplistic that it encourages your reader to throw the book aside (or across the room), turn off the light, and go to sleep?
Revision is when you ask yourself if the story makes sense. Is the plot compelling, does the prose flow smoothly or is it choppy? Is there enough to keep your reader interested and anxious to know what comes next?
Although there are writers who can edit and revise their work during the actual writing process, most polish their work after the manuscript is completed because it's the first time the material is seen as a whole, and any missing or weak elements will be more apparent.
But if you just can't resist making changes as you go along, use a notebook. Keep pen and paper beside your computer, a notebook, file cards, or writing pad, and make notes while you compose. You can implement your own particular system for this, noting chapter and scene, sentence, or entire passages you might want to change or delete. At the end of your writing day, or at the beginning of the next, organize your notes in order of importance, then go back to work and write like your brain is on fire and words are the only way to put out the flames.
"One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom you can neither resist or understand." George Orwell, on writing a book.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
When it comes to flashbacks, there are two trains of thought. Some writers say no, no, no, don't ever use flashbacks, they distract. There are others who simply shrug and say go for it. Both types write excellent novels.
Flashbacks are used to convey valuable plot information and insight into character motivation, to build tension or create mystery before the current story action. A flashback can be almost like the author is whispering a secret into the ear of the reader, revealing something of importance about a previous event, or hinting at something yet to occur. Flashbacks are perfect for foreshadowing what is to come.
Flashbacks are often introduced by a character's memory trigger, such as a smell, sight, sound, an event, a person. Triggers aren't always necessary, but the flashback must always be relevant in some way to the current story scene.
Just as with any other literary device, there are rules for using flashbacks.
A flashback must seem necessary and relevant -- it must propel the story forward while looking into the past. The placement of a flashback should follow a strong scene of the current story, you should never just drift into a flashback.
Reader confusion seems to be the number one complaint about the sudden intrusion of a flashback. Always orient the reader as to time, space, and characters' ages if necessary. If your character is 42-years-old today and your flashback takes him back to childhood, get the information across quickly.
(I've just finished re-reading It, and was amazed at how easily and clearly Mr. King continually moved the children of 1958 into the adults of 1985 without any confusion whatsoever. Early events meshed smoothly with current happenings and yet stood out as individual scenes without a bump. Of course, he is Stephen King.)
The mechanics of opening a flashback scene are the same as any opening literary hook -- the first sentence should be strategic. Whether smooth or jarring, that first sentence must be intentional, and used to full advantage.
If the story is being told in past tense, begin the flashback in past perfect (had said, had dressed, hadn't seen), and continue using past perfect for about the first five sentences, then move into past tense. When the flashback is coming to a close, revert to past perfect for the last few verbs to signal the end. If the story is being told in present tense, then the flashback should be told in straight past tense to differentiate between past and present.
Very short flashbacks, a paragraph or two, can be written into the current story as a quick memory. Many writers who use flashbacks use italics as a way of setting it apart from real-time story. But if you are including a long flashback passage, whether you use italics or not, it is always best to give it its own section, separated from the body of the current story.
Just as a person often considers his past in order to understand his present, so, too, can literary flashbacks shine light on a current situation. It's just a matter of looking back in order to go forward.
Friday, November 11, 2016
Theme is the glue that holds the plot together throughout the story from beginning to end. Plot is what happens, theme is why it happens. A story without a theme is just a list of what happened.
Without a theme, your reader will quickly get bored. If your boring, theme-less story even gets past an editor and that round file on the floor beside her desk. (Or if she hands it off to a first reader who, after plowing through your manuscript-without-theme until midnight, rubs her bleeding eyes and decides that she really must find a new profession, maybe something janitorial.)
Readers read in order to relate to others on an emotional level. They look for personal validation and justification. Of course, sometimes they want to be entertained, too, in a more complex way than just watching kittens play on Facebook. They want to dig into the lives of others and find that their circumstances are just as weird or hilarious as their own. Or just as sorrowful. But whatever they read, they want a point of personal reference. A fascinating plot is great, but even a fascinating plot falls apart without the underlying glue of one or more themes.
Humans entertain all kinds of psychological motivations for their behavior, some simple, some complex and intertwined with others. Story themes are the same way, some simple to define, some convoluted and difficult to pinpoint.
Here are a few possible themes.
Alienation, loneliness Love, lust
Loss of innocence, coming of age Madness
Fear Black humor, satire
Prejudice, racism, bigotry, snobbery Patriotism
Despair, desperation Survival
Although it's important to have a theme your reader can relate to, your theme must appeal to you, the writer, too. It's something you love, you hate, you desire, you fear, something you believe in, something that astounds or repulses you.
Otherwise, the glue won't hold.
Friday, October 28, 2016
I have a collection of books on writing that takes up at least two shelves on my wall. I probably won't ever get rid of those books because I simply never get rid of books. I mean, they're books. Getting rid of books is like, the devil's work, or something, right?
When I first began to write, books were the only option to get writing advice and find somebody who might actually read something I wrote. Fifty years later, we writers have more options than ever before along that infinite road called the Internet.
(I'd like to thank Al Gore for that, but I've been told he actually didn't have a thing to do with it. That was just a myth started on the Internet.)
So I've gone hunting along that electronic path and have found a plethora (love that word) of excellent writers' sites. I'm sure all my writer friends know about these sites, but just in case, I've made a short list of some where I've found great advice, comprehensive resources, and general commiseration that becoming a writer is harder than becoming an astro-physicist.
Here are 6 of the best of those sites and what you can find there to help you write and sell your work.
AEROGRAMME WRITERS' STUDIO
This site offers advice from well-known authors, a listing of contests and competitions, and other opportunities for writers to submit their work.
A WRITER'S PATH
You can find a world of great writing articles, and book listings and reviews here on this site. Great blog posts, and information about research, publishing, brainstorming, and even an online thesaurus.
C.S, LAKIN LIVE WRITE THRIVE
Author blog, writing articles and tips.
I found this to be one of the best sites, with more than 1,000 articles, and a long list of online resources.
WRITERS HELPING WRITERS
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi offer great resources for writers, blog posts, articles, and thesaurus collections for character traits, character motivations, settings, etc.
THE CREATIVE PENN
Joanna Penn offers online resources on self-publishing and platform-building, writing articles and author interview podcasts.
These sites and many others like them are not only informative but validating. By taking advantage of these online writers' sites, I've found that I don't feel so alone in my profession. And I've found all kinds of advice that has helped me to write better and to have more faith in my work.
I still won't get rid of my writing books, because first, they're books, and second, there is still excellent, timeless advice to be found on the pages of those books, old and dusty as they are. Words on the page will never go out of vogue, but who knows how long this crazy Internet thing is going to last? Right?
Thursday, October 20, 2016
So far in October:
The Forever Bridge, T. Greenwood (Great)
Grace, T. Greenwood (Very Good)
The Cellar, Minette Walters (Good)
The Summer that Melted Everything, Tiffany McDaniel (Excellent)
Forgive Me, Daniel Palmer (OK)
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood (WOW)
Now for the sad news indeed:
14% of adults can't read.
50% of adults are unable to read on an 8th grade level.
28% of adults haven't read a book in the last year.
33% of high school grads will never read a book after high school.
42% of college students will never read another book after graduation.
80% of US families will not buy a book this year from a bookstore or as a download on an electronic device.
(Statistics are from various sources, 2013 - 2016.)
But . . . here's what else I learned while I researched those sad statistics.
Just six minutes of reading can reduce stress by 68%. That alone is worth the effort to learn to read. If that isn't enough encouragement, reading keeps the brain functioning effectively, and studies suggest that elderly people who read regularly are 2.5 times less likely to develop Alzheimers. Reading stimulates memory, analytical skills, focus, and concentration. Reading before bed has also been shown to improve sleep.
The list of benefits goes on. Mental stimulation, knowledge of . . . well, of anything. Other people, other places, other planets. Aliens. Expanding vocabulary. (I was so proud of myself when I learned the word naive.) Empathy, understanding, and relating to others. Writing skills -- a personal favorite benefit -- are improved, and you become more articulate.
The books listed above that I have read this month are all fiction. I read and do research for articles in non-fiction genres, also, of course, and I spend a lot of time reading health publications, children's magazines, general interest publications, and especially books about writing as a profession. But my passion is fiction. There are those who would argue that I can't learn anything reading stories. Really? The Forever Bridge explained much about the conditions of paranoia and agoraphobia. Grace told me things about living in Vermont that I didn't know, pretty much drawing me a map of that Green Mountain State and its people. The Cellar introduced me to the lifestyle of Somalian citizens living and working in the United States, an eye-opener. The Summer that Melted Everything gave me pinpoint insight into the racism and superstitions of small town society, and brought back memories of the music and culture of the eighties. From Forgive Me I learned a great deal about private investigators, human trafficking, The US Marshall Service, and the way the FBI investigates kidnapping. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things put me right in the middle of how meth is manufactured and its devastating effects on everyone, especially children. It also introduced me to some of the people who wear leather and ride motorcycles and how people are, in the end, simply people. And it was a hell of a love story.
We've become a visual society, but I don't believe that a picture is always worth a thousand words. Sure, I can look at a picture of a gray sky and my mind acknowledges it as "a gray sky" and I assume it's going to rain. But I can read the words "a churning gray sea of a sky" and know for sure it's going to storm.
The worst problem, of course, for those folks who don't try to learn to read, or those who actually can't read, is that the world can be a confusing place. There are circumstances when a person must be able to read travel directions, how to take medications, understand insurance policies, contracts and other legal papers. And unfortunately, for those who don't think reading is important, their children suffer for it, in school and in life. There are very few high-paying jobs for people who think reading isn't important.
I can't imagine a day without reading. Not one day.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
It's the cliche question writers are most often asked by those who don't write: Where do you get your ideas? And the answer that always comes to my mind is Where doesn't a writer get ideas?
The Story is inevitable.
There is a story in the tiniest grain of sand, and there is a story in every stone in the Great Pyramid. There is a story in a light switch, and in a summer storm. There are countless stories in the lives of every living -- and dead -- human being since the beginning of time. In every sight, every sound, every smell, every thought, there is a story that can be told to carry us into fantastic other worlds and realities and possibilities.
A writer's imagination is fertile ground where the seeds of unique ideas grow to bloom.
The problem is not so much where to find ideas, but the choosing among the millions of bits of information that are planted in the course of even one twenty-four hour day.
That young bank teller who cashed a check for you today has a story. The old man in the park has his. Even that candy bar wrapper on the sidewalk has a potential story: Why is it yellow? Who wrote the standards for the ingredient labeling? How was the candy made in the candy factory, what kind of machine created it, how do the machines work, who invented them?
What is the reason behind the design of the parking meter where you left your car this afternoon? What were the mechanics of its production and the materials? Who decided the number of coins you dropped into the meter slot and did that person have a brother who might be a murderer?
Even beyond the plot of that entertaining novel you're reading, there are myriad stories that grow from the very production of the book itself. Who designed the book jacket, where did their own ideas come from? Where did the paper come from for the book's pages? How old was the tree from which the paper came, and did squirrels scamper among its branches?
If you write fiction, your story is in the faces of the people whose paths you cross in your daily routine, and definitely in the face in your mirror. Your story is in the lives of the people you love and the people you don't particularly like and the people you want to get to know. Your story is in the anger, the joy, the common experience in all humankind.
Life is fascinating. You need only to pay attention.
Look, listen, absorb. Create.
If you're a writer of research articles, how-to pieces, technical copy, advertising blurbs, a story is in the what, where, when, why, and the how. Everyone has some kind of experience or expertise in something. Ideas are endless for the magazine, newspaper article, and feature writer. Published materials and the great infinite web offers access to every fact or statistic you could possibly want to know. (And, of course, some you don't want to know.)
Ideas bloom from ideas. Writers read. We're guaranteed to find something to write about.
No matter what the format or genre, whether fiction or non-fiction, mystery or how-to, a writer's garden of ideas is lush.
In the garden there be dragons, alien beings, maybe even the fascinating story of a rock. All around, every day, every minute, there is a story in full bloom.
The story is inevitable.
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Recently, I was questioned about my use of sentence fragments, and since I am such an insecure scribe, I began to wonder if I was using them too much, or if I should be using them at all. I specifically find myself using them for emphasis, and to break up unwieldy sentences. And according to all the information I found on the internet -- all from institutes of higher learning -- students of the English language are terrified of them. It seems that your professor will mark your paper with a big FRAG, or SF, or FIX THIS, or something equally horrific if you don't give every sentence a subject, a predicate, and a complete thought.
I thought, wait a minute now. I read 3 books a week. (I used to read as many as 5-7 but even the most avid readers slow down eventually.) I was pretty sure I'd seen a lot of sentence fragments. And since I have more than 150 books on my own shelves, I was curious to find out if I was mistaken in thinking that sentence fragments don't always get your work rejected. So I pulled out some well-known authors from my shelf to see if maybe I was crazy, thinking I'd seen a million instances of sentence fragments over the last 40 years, written by well-known writers of award-winning books. I also thought that when I read these amputated sentences, I understood every one.
These are some examples of bestsellers where the writer made use of sentence fragments for a variety of reasons.
Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys: "She wished Michael, willed him, to sleep. To relinquish shame."
Stephen King, Lisey's Story: "Suppose it was Scott's? Oh, sweet God, suppose."
Wally Lamb, I Know This Much is True: "See what, specifically? The conspiracy?"
Tawni O'Dell, Back Roads: I tried to think about disgusting things to help me hang on. Rick's fat ass waddling out of Shop Rite."
T. Greenwood, The Forever Bridge: "It was their playground. Their world."
Heather Gudenkauf, Missing Pieces: "It also meant that everyone who had stepped inside Julia's hospital room was a suspect. Including Jack."
Flannery O'Connor, Good Country People: Yesterday she didn't do anything but ramble in the bureau drawer. All she did.
There seems to be many reasons for the writers of these works to use fragment sentences. Emphasis. Explanation. To fast-forward. To add pacing. As many reasons as there are writers. As many reasons as there are stories. So I think I'm safe in using fragments to get my story out there, as long as there's good reason to chop up those "correct" sentence structures.
I never attended an institute of higher learning, and I have only a vague idea where the grammar check function is in my word processing program. Even if I did know where it is, I doubt that I would use it. (I know I wouldn't use it.) I'll just have to play it by ear, and keep on reading good books by great writers who probably don't know where their grammar check function is, either.
Monday, September 12, 2016
What comes first, the plot or the character? Or does it even matter -- one way or another, we've got to fit both to the story. And either way, whether the story is based on plot or person, we've got to get our story-people right.
Huck Finn would never have made it as a street urchin in Brooklyn. Gone with the Wind probably would have lacked certain elements if Scarlet had been a mousy seamstress. The plots of successful novels need to conform to its characters, and vice versa.
It doesn't matter whether you first have a plot in mind or its characters, you have to know your people to their core. And a character sketch is the most comprehensive way to get to know them. Besides, character sketches are such fun for those of us who love to create other humans, outside of actually giving birth to them. We writers have this god-complex going on. If we didn't, we'd all be shoe salesmen or accountants. (Seriously, I'm not denigrating either of these professions, I'm really not sure what size shoe I should wear, nor can I add two plus two without wondering why it always comes up four. For my own peace of mind, I need both of these people.)
Logically, your character sketch might begin with the physical attributes of your story-people. But, again, we're not accountants. Your character sketches could begin with background, parentage, favorite color, or any other defining characteristic. Somewhere along the way, if you suddenly realize he's only five feet four inches tall, and has a mole on his back, add it to the sketch, you can always put everything in order later. Even if you never use this mole in your physical description of your character, you know that he has one, and it helps make him real in your mind.
In addition to the physical description of your character, you might want to know what he eats for breakfast, who is his best friend, what kind of music he prefers, if he drinks cheap beer or expensive wine. Does he have distinctive mannerisms such as peering into every mirror he sees, a certain way of speaking, does he tell off-color jokes, is he always hitching up his pants? Does he sing in the shower even though he can't carry a tune?
Know every detail of all your characters' lives, no matter whether you use any of these things in your story. Open up their heads and walk in, learn what their inner-worlds are like. Even before you start your novel, listen to your characters talk. After you've decided what they look like, what their likes and dislikes are, actually give them words and listen to what they say, and how they say it. Is there anger in their words, sadness, love, hate? How do they feel about the setting you're putting them in? You might think you're putting words in your characters' mouths, but you also might find that they start talking on their own to explain who they are.
This might seem like excessive work to create a character sketch for every character in a full-length novel, but once you can see your people and they've told you all about themselves, you're ready to pour them into the plot cauldron and stir it up.
So, here's the scary part: One or more of your characters doesn't conform to the plot, or the plot itself just won't seem to wrap around these rogues. The solution is to either change the plot, or -- much easier -- to re-mold the character until he fits. There will be character traits and opinions that won't need to be changed, but there will be those that will. And so, here's the happy part: There's a delete key on your keyboard and an eraser on your pencil. Because you're a writer, and the people you create can also be un-created. You can change blond hair to black, or a love of Jack Daniels to a hatred of all things alcoholic. And if you just can't find a place for that particular person in your story, you can just set him aside for the next story.
You're a writer, after all, and there's always a next story, maybe even tomorrow.
Sunday, September 4, 2016
This is a previously published article I did for the Brown County Writers Group's newsletter publication The Twig.
If you're writing your story in Jack London's voice, you better be Jack London. Stephen King? Nora Roberts? Annie Proulx? Sorry, those literary shoes have been filled.
Nope, you're telling this story, in a voice that is probably not yet established with a particular reader/fan base. That takes years. Agents and editors have not yet fallen to their knees and deified you for your not-Dean Koontz, not-James Patterson writing style, but for your brand new voice that is brilliant and unique. And insanely sale-able, which enables agents and editors to put meat on their tables, which makes them very happy to share their paychecks with aspiring writers.
When writers read (every day of our lives) we most often read our favorite writers whose material matches what we want to write. Unfortunately, we also tend to try to hijack our favorite writers' voices and call them our own. Sometimes we don't realize we're doing this, and sometimes we do.
Just as actors set aside who they are to become the characters they portray, so too should writers become the people we invent. We made up these characters, it's our responsibility to match how they think, what they're saying and why they're saying it, with their thoughts and actions.
Not only do your characters have to present a certain voice, every element of the story should project a certain tone. Setting, scene, circumstance, incident, and even era should reflect the overall voice of the piece. It can be understated and muted, boisterous, serious and melodramatic, sad, funny--whatever voice enhances the story in the most original way.
Fiction writers create fascinating stories about fascinating people who do something fascinating, and say something fascinating about something fascinating, from somewhere fascinating.
Well, that's the goal, at least. I've thought I've written something fascinating and find out that maybe only three people in the whole world find it fascinating, and that those people are on some seriously fascinating antidepressants.
The hard part is doing it in a voice that is exclusively your own. Your right word in the right place at the right time is not my right word in the right place at the right time. It's also not Jodi Picoult's right word, or John Grisham's. It's your voice you're selling.
To quote Raymond Carver, whose short stories earned literary acclaim and prestigious awards: "Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications."
Every word you write, and every word you choose not to write, has to work to build a new world of your own that readers clamor to experience, a story told as only you can tell it.
Friday, August 26, 2016
Ah, those figurative language devices. Those pesky English terms that I always manage to mix up. Is this a simile or a metaphor? What is onomatopoeia? I can't even pronounce that word, never mind remember what it means.
So I decided to do some research, and here are the official definitions of those language devices writers often don't even know they're using. Or not using.
A specific comparison using like, as, than. Examples: heart like a stone, thin as a rail, run like the wind. These may be excellent examples, but they are also cliches we've heard too many times. Create your own.
An implied comparison, such as fish out of water, hard-hearted. Again, these are cliches, so create your own brand of metaphors to enhance your particular character, setting, or plot.
This is a term for giving human characteristics to animals, abstract ideas, or nature. Mother Nature is a perfect example. Another is roots clutching the earth like a child clutching his mother. Personification is often used in magical realism to add poetic flow.
Symbols can be objects, characters, colors, or aspects of nature, among many others, to represent abstract ideas. For instance, spring water could represent purity. Friendly dog could stand for happiness. A cemetery might symbolize grief, fear, or loss. But remember, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
Similar, repeated sounds such as a salmon-colored sunset settled over the sea does a great job of creating flow and mood.
The repetition of vowel sounds, often used in poetry.
The repetition of consonant sounds, also often used in poetry, but just like assonance, can be a tool in writing prose also.
This is a reference to a work of art or a cultural icon. This sometimes doesn't work because not everybody will recognize the same art or icon. But it does have its uses if the reference is a common one.
Example: "The federal debt is so high that if the US was a family, it would be homeless . . ."
Example: cold hands, warm heart. Yeah, it's a cliche, don't use it. Come up with something brilliant of your own.
Exaggeration: "I've told you a bazillion times, I hate peas." Obviously, hyperbole is common to kids.
The perfect example: I saw a political sign on a lawn that said "Vote no on libarry." Enough said.
Usually used as verbs, these literary device words mimic the sound of a thing or an action, such as pluck, blast, zoom, gallop, sizzle, whine, clatter. Thunder booms. The dog woofs.
So those are just some of the techniques and literary devices that can enhance your writing. I hope to be able to recognize the opportunity to use them in my own writing. I also hope I can remember what onomato . . . whatever . . . is and how to pronounce it.
Friday, August 19, 2016
Brad Watson's character Jane Chisolm was born with a rare physiological defect that would affect her whole life, but never her spirit.
Based on research into the life of his great-aunt, Brad Watson's new book, Miss Jane, tells the story of a character whose courageous spirit belies a debilitating condition that might leave most females bitter and angry and, eventually, fodder for the madhouse. But Miss Jane overcomes her lifelong disability with grace and dignity and courage.
Brad Watson is as courageous as his great-aunt, taking on a subject that most men would not be able to even consider, much less write about. Miss Jane is born with a rare life-altering deformity called "persistent cloaca", the condition of being born with no external genitalia and only one small orifice for waste elimination. One in 20,000 females are born afflicted with this debilitating defect.
People born with persistent cloaca are, of course, unable to be sexually intimate, and suffer lifelong incontinence.
Jane is born in rural Mississippi early in the twentieth-century when there was no hope of corrective surgery, has one sister, and two older brothers who have left home by the time she is born. Forced to wear clumsy diapers, Jane attends school only briefly, as her condition is complicated and humiliating. An avid reader and a tireless explorer of the forests and fields around the family farm, she manages to educate herself to the strangeness and mystery of nature and of life itself.
When she's fourteen, she does as any other fourteen-year-old girl does: She falls in love with the son of a neighboring farmer. Sadly, eventually, she ends the relationship because she knows there will never be any possibility of a physical coupling or children, although she never tells him why. She leaves it to those in town who have always spread the gossip about her condition to provide him with an explanation.
Throughout her life her best friend and confidant is the doctor who delivered her and who first realized her difference. A widower, he spends much of his own life trying to get help for Jane, and corresponds with many other doctors in the hope that there will someday be a surgical method to correct her horrendous birth defect. She is closer to him than to her family members, and there are hints that the two might have had a romantic relationship if Jane had been whole.
She loses her father to alcoholism, and her mother, who freezes to death in a field, to the bitterness that marks her life as the wife of a farmer who loses many acres of the farm in the crash of '29.
She loses her best friend, the doctor, when he is seventy-four and she thirty-five. He leaves her his house, surrounded by woods, and his beloved peacocks, who takes the doctor's place as Jane's best friends. When she is sixty-seven years old, she receives a letter from one of the doctors whom her friend frequently contacted to see if there was any news of a procedure to help Jane. The letter says that there is now a form of surgery that could correct her birth defect. At first she's angry, bitter, as she walks alone in the woods, listening to her friend's peacocks' eerie cries. In the end she replies to the offer, writing that she thanks him kindly, but that she sees no need to change her life, nor has she any desire to let them "fix" her.
With prose that sounds like poetry, and with great tenderness, Brad Watson has brought to life a protagonist whose life is testament to the indomitable spirit of those who refuse to give in to adversity.
Watson is the author of a collection of short stories called The Last Days of the Dog Men, and the novel The Heaven of Mercury. The New York Times has called Brad Watson "A writer of profound emotional depths".
He teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
You have to put your characters somewhere, might as well use that somewhere to add to the story. And, obviously, setting needs to be appropriate to the theme and/or plot. I mean, you probably wouldn't write a romance novel set on Mars. (Wait a minute . . . Hmm, interesting.) We've all read that novel where place almost becomes another character. For instance, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even Stephen King's Dark Tower series relies greatly on setting. Much of Jack London's work was based not so much on character and plot as on nature, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a perfect example of setting at work to back up plot and character.
The benefits of the right background setting are that it can anchor character, advance the plot, create tension or mood, and enhance a character's disposition or personality. Setting description can also establish an aspect of the story that might be important to the plot later in the story. You never know when you might need a root cellar. Or a crowded Greyhound bus station.
Of course, we have to beware that "dark and stormy night". Now, that's obviously been done to death. (So has the cliche "done to death" been done to death). But if you throw in a few shadows on the staircase of that spooky old house, or an owl hooting in the woods at night, you can build a mood to match your character's state of mind. If your protagonist keeps an immaculate house where there's not one crumb on the counter or even a partial fingerprint on the refrigerator, you have matched your setting to a character who needs an orderly life. (And years of therapy.)
There are many methods for highlighting your story through setting. Lighting, time of day, weather, who or what is nearby, overall geography, furniture, architecture -- all these things and more can contribute effectively to the story. Readers are greedy for details and explanations as to why characters are who they are and do what they do. Setting can help tie it all in.
But readers don't like to be bored. If you go too far with the details, setting can become either ho-hum or distracting. Dragging on and on with description takes away from all the other points you're trying to get across to the reader. Your story begins to suffer if you substitute page after page of setting for character or action. (Mr. London was an anomaly, and knew how to balance setting with character better than most.) There would be little room for forward thrust. You have to blend story line, character, and theme with the proper setting.
Instead of long blocks of description, it is just as effective to pin setting to character action. "As Carol made her way leisurely down the path through the woods, she noticed that the trees were turning to red and gold. and the air was crisper than it had been a few weeks ago." Of course, there are times when a setting does need a more detailed fiction narrative. If Carol was fleeing through the woods, you might throw a couple of obstacles in her way and/or create a cold, strong wind at her back to indicate that even though her pursuer wasn't close yet, he was definitely coming. In that case, there could be a paragraph describing what Carol was seeing -- and what she was not seeing -- as she ran through the woods.
Just like every other necessary ingredient in writing fiction such as character and plot and theme, setting must be perfectly blended into the mix.
Now, if I could just figure out how to build the desolation of Mars around two characters falling in love, I might have a best-seller.
Friday, August 12, 2016
Early in the fall of 1960, I stole a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library at Robert E. Lee Junior High School in Lynchburg, Virginia. I didn't mean to steal it, I just never returned it. See, my parents made a decision to move to New Jersey just as I entered the 8th grade. Before I knew it, we were packed up and on a Greyhound bus heading toward the Garden State (and my own personal "culture shock"). That bus trip was a long and uncomfortable trip; there was a second horrible Greyhound trip in my life but that's another story, and a sadder one.
My only saving grace on that first bus trip was my stolen book. I read for a straight 20 hours, even nearly walked into the men's room at one of the rest stops along the way because I had Betty's Smith's wonderful story in my hand and in front of my face, trying not to think about how I would have been going to my first sock hop at Robert E. Lee on Friday with a freckle-faced boy named Mark Russell if I had not been kidnapped by my own parents.
That was the first time I read that wonderful book. But it would not be the last. Over the years, I have read it at least 7 or 8 times. My daughter also periodically reads it again. If asked what's the best book ever written, we would both answer A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
(Although, lately, she will be quick to add that #2 is Sarah Silverman's Bedwetter.)
I will quote here the first page blurb because I am not writer enough to do it justice.
"There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heap[s]. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water,and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of [it]."
There are parts in the book that stand out in my mind so vividly that when I think of them I almost feel that I am right there when Francie lies to get a beautiful doll, and I am right there when she realizes that shame is hard to live with. I feel the longing when Francie sees the school in a different neighborhood where she wants to be a student, and I am beside her when her father, Johnny, convinces her mother, Katie, to tell the school that they are moving to an address in that school district. I am also Katie when she knows it's wrong and allows it in the name of love for her daughter. I adore Aunt Sissy just as Francie and her brother, Neely, do, and when the children find "balloons" in her purse and blow them up and hang them out the apartment window, I feel their confusion at the consequences that fall upon Sissy.
There is the brave and joyful Christmas tree incident, and the coffee can nailed to the closet floor where Katie hides away every nickel she can pinch from their poverty for her children's future. I mourn for Johnny, whose weakness for drink finally takes him from his family. I am terrified for Francie when the man on the dark stairway tries to drag her away.
So many memorable scenes. There is not one scene in the book that I don't associate with one thing or another in my own life. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a history lesson (set in the early twentieth century), a geography lesson. A treatise on the politics of the era. An understanding of poverty. There's love and hate and sorrow, stoicism, family unity, and courage from the heart.
Everyone should read this old book.
My copy, stolen accidentally (after reading it, however, I certainly wasn't going to send it back to Lynchburg) is held together with silver tape that is now dried out and cracked, and the pages fall out. I suppose I could find a new copy online. But I think I probably won't. I'll just keep tucking the pages back between the torn, broken cover, and read it again.
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
The writer's Cardinal Rule: Show, don't tell.
As I learn more about this thing I do (writing), I'm beginning to realize that many fiction techniques are not as hard as I thought.
You could tell your readers that Lucille has a great voice, but if you want them to believe it, you better make Lucille sing. You could tell your readers that Sam has a temper, but you need to show Sam slug somebody if you want your readers to care.
Lucille might be nervous about a singing engagement, but nobody's going to know unless you make her anxiously pace and clasp her hands tightly in front of her. How about a furrow of worry across her forehead? Before Sam slugs the bouncer, show the flush creeping up his neck, his eyes flashing with anger. After he punches the bouncer, show the look on his face that says he wishes he hadn't done that. Maybe show him shaking his sore hand out because man, that dude's face was hard.
So there was a hurricane. Okay. What happened, what did it sound like, look like? Did the wind roar, did a wall of rain smash into windows? Did the neighbor's roof fly off, were trees crashing to the ground and sounding like thunder when they fell?
I'll be honest, in my own novel I've been lax in putting in the show instead of the tell. In my most recent revisions (I'm not lying -- I really am writing a novel which I plan to show somebody someday) I've begun to work on the details that show my characters' traits and the setting and circumstances instead of just telling my readers who and what and where and when.
I read approximately 2-3 books a week. And of course, writers read for many reasons in addition to being entertained, and I'm finding so many good writers who've got this show don't tell thing down to a natural instinct to enrich their stories with the right detail. I think show don't tell is just that -- the right detail for the right character, for the right setting and circumstances. I'm learning to pay attention to the particular details an author will use to enhance their work.
George Orwell said about writing, "One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom you can neither resist or understand."
Monday, August 1, 2016
So I've been researching query letters and it's kinda scary.
First: Apparently I have written too many words. And here's why this scared me. Well, not scared me, really, just disconcerted me because I keep telling everyone the book is finished and now I'm afraid I've got to edit for the 25th time (Or 26th or whatever.) Now I'm going over it in my head wondering what I need to cut. Wow, I just spent most of yesterday wondering what I needed to add. This writing thing is hard!
The average fiction book is from 80,000 to 100,000 words. I have written 115,000 words, and I can't even imagine how to get rid of 15,000 words. Maybe I could just give 'em to some other writer? Let me know if you need a word or two, or 15,000.
My other worry is that all the successful query letters to agents are so good. But that's not as much of a worry as the fact that these agent queries are written by writers who've actually been published. Some have even won awards for their work, including awards for the very book they're trying to sell to an agent. Which makes not a lot of sense to me -- why would you have to try to sell an award-winning book to an agent? Wouldn't it just stand on its own merit and have agents coming out of the woodwork begging to handle your award-winning book? Writing for money is confusing. And is it super gauche to admit I'm writing for money? Can I put that in my third paragraph bio to an agent? Probably shouldn't. huh?
I've just finished a really good writing guide book by author Hallie Ephron, who I believe is writer Nora Ephron's sister. The book is 10 years old, but the advice and information is still relevant. The title is "The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel". From the first sentence of your first draft to the finished novel and how to write your agent or editor query letter, the manual is clear and concise and easy to read. I've read so many writing advice books, and even have many on my shelves. But this one is so comprehensive that I would recommend that any writer could find answers to just about any question in this guide.
I think I might have even learned how to decide which of those 15,000 words are keepers and which words are just stuff that I can happily send to the dead file.
And so, here I go again. Revise, revise, revise . . .
Friday, July 22, 2016
I had read about Beth Lewis's The Wolf Road on one of the literary agents sites I've been hanging around lately and just happened to find the book at the Mt. Orab branch library in the new books section that same day. I'm only a third of the way in and am fascinated by her use of language and unique characters, especially her unusual protagonist, Elka.
When I first started reading The Wolf Road, I actually thought, Well, I'm not much for post-apocalyptic stories, do I really want to read this? But it's four days later and I haven't set it aside and taken out the next book from my library bag yet. Elka grows on you, and the apocalyptic settings are not intrusive on the story at all. I have fallen into the unusual rhythm of the language and dialect. The natural setting enhances the story, and the supporting characters, both human and animal, are perfectly portrayed. I won't try to lead you to believe that this is a sweet story. It isn't, it's often brutal and sometimes a bit gory, but those things are called for in this story, and it's no worse than some of the crime or mystery novels we read. In fact, I believe that the harsh scenes in The Wolf Road are more necessary than those in crime and mystery books.
The author, Beth Lewis, grew up in Cornwall, loves to travel, and has worked as a bank teller and a juggler. (I love it! Encourages me to think that even a lowly pharmacy tech can eventually find success in the literary world.) Currently, she works as a managing editor in a London publisher's office.
You can read more about Beth online or on the book jacket author's bio on this first novel.
I look forward to finishing this book and to reading more from her in the future.
Before starting The Wolf Road, I read Brandilyn Collins' Gone to Ground, and was also pleasantly surprised. I have to admit, to my shame, that because Brandilyn has won a great many accolades for her books from American Christian Fiction Writers and Inspirational Readers Choice awards, I have avoided her books because we obviously write in different genres. But I found that Brandilyn's Gone to Ground couldn't have been more mainstream mystery. Her characters are drawn from real life -- abused wives, cleaning ladies, and divorced hairdressers. This was a really good novel and I loved how she used a different character's viewpoint for every chapter. She also added interest by using newspaper articles written by one of the characters. Although I suspected who done it about two-thirds through, I still wasn't sure, and the author kept me wondering if I was right. And I commend her on her great short prologue that really drew me in.
My apologies to Brandilyn Collins for thinking she was going to preach to me.
I'm always so excited when I discover writers that I should have been reading all along. It's why I always pick such a variety of books to bring home with me from the library. At the rate of reading two books a week, I keep coming across some of the best and I would never be able to remember all of them. Two oldie but goody crime drama/mystery writers have recently caught my attention -- Harlan Coben and Michael Koryta. I wish I had discovered them sooner, but better late and all that. You can't go wrong with these two writers if you want to read a good mystery.
It really is true -- so many books, so little time.
When you tie your character to a setting, you enhance that character and in turn, enhance your plot. Through best-choice description, you can highlight the mood and tone of the story and thus the inner landscape of your protagonist.
Obviously, you can surround your character with a setting that reflects circumstances and attitudes, but you can also highlight character by showing the difference between their gloomy or desperate or sad feelings by placing them in a setting situation that is just the opposite of those feelings. This is a little trickier, of course. You have to maintain your character's inner landscape while conversely surrounding her with gaiety if she's unhappy, gloominess if she's sweet and sunny, etc.
So here's your exercise for the day, a few minutes of practice to sharpen a setting to its finer points. And since I, too, could use some practice (always), I'll put on my writer's hat (well, I'm always wearing my writer's hat) and try to keep up with your brilliance.
The exercise: Introduce a mood by writing about a particular setting. You can make the place dark or light, gloomy or happy, mysterious, etc. What happened here? A murder? A marriage proposal? A car crash? A birthday party? Why is that house significant to your character? What took place in that meadow?
Upon entering the house, you first see that plaster litters the foyer floor. It crunches underfoot, and even that small sound echoes in the emptiness. Straight ahead is a staircase to the second floor, the newel post lies at the bottom of the stairs amid the plaster.
When you walk into the old-fashioned parlor to the right of the foyer, you see that the stained cabbage-rose wallpaper has spiraled to the floor in strips. The sooty fireplace is missing bricks and the mortar is crumbling to dust. There is a Victorian settee, its stuffing pillowing out in places where the cover is torn. An ornate broken picture frame lies in the corner in two pieces. Plaster has fallen from the ceiling in this room, too, and birds have flown in through a broken window and built their nests where rotting bare ceiling beams are exposed.
Upstairs, a stained bare mattress lies on the floor of the largest bedroom, and the closet door hangs from one hinge. In the bedroom down a hallway where the walls are lighter in places where family photos once hung, the room is empty but for a rag doll lying in the thick dust and bird droppings on the floor. In a bathroom farther down the hallway, the claw-foot bathtub is stained with rust around the drain. The hardwood floor is water-stained and rotting. The silver backing of a round mirror on the wall has eroded and reflection is blurred.
Back down the splintered staircase, and across the foyer and out the door, you can almost forget that the place once housed a family.
Okay, so I was going for abandonment. I'm not sure I got there, but it was good practice. Hope you enjoyed your own practice work.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
If you're a new writer -- or even if you're not so new -- you will no doubt ask Do I really need an agent for this pile of paper on my desk that I hope to call a book someday? Well, agents, of course, will tell you that you do. After all, writers feed them.
But even though many (ok, some) writers think literary agents are mean characters that Stephen King thought up, they really do want to help you. And if anybody deserves help it's that writer with that big pile of paper that she wants to sell.
If you're trying to sell to major publishing houses (uh huh, good luck with that first time around) like Penguin, Harper Collins, or Simon and Shuster, you definitely need an agent to negotiate the sale and insure that you're treated fairly. If you've written a book that is wonderful and excellent but not yet the one that will win you any literary prizes, you can try to sell to a publisher on your own. Those good-but-not-gonna-win-any-prizes books are sold to publishers every day and the writer happily skateboards to the bank without handing over 15% to an agent.
We know what we want from an agent, but what does an agent want from us? Well, it's recommended that you've finished your book (and polished it until you're almost ready to set it on fire and become a snake oil salesman) before you contact an agent. Agents who handle fiction don't have time to read a query outlining that brilliant book you're going to write someday when the kids are grown or after the laundry is done or when you finally grow up enough to know what you want to do with your life. They want to see a query from you that will tell them whether your book is worth trying to sell.
Your initial query is a one-page introduction to your work and who you are. Yeah, I know -- how do you possibly explain the book and yourself on just one page? Don't ask me, I'm still trying to cut down that seven page query letter that I continue to think is even more brilliant than the book I've written.
Briefly, the first paragraph is basically Hey, I hear you're a phenomenal agent and I can't think of anyone else in the business I would want to represent me. Seriously? No, don't say that. Simply let the agent know you know the kinds of books they handle and that yours would fit that particular genre.(That's called research.) The second paragraph should be a synopsis of the book, the tantalizing meat of your story, no side dishes, no condiments, though. The third paragraph is your brief bio as a writer, publishing credits, etc. (Probably shouldn't mention that your 16 adorable grandkids, or your cats, are your muse. This stuff comes under the heading of cutesy, and agents don't want cutesy, they want good writing. This ain't Facebook.) If you have no publishing credits, you don't have to say so, they'll figure it out when you don't say so.
In addition to your query letter, agents will want to see at least two or more chapters to prove you're not lying to them that you are smart enough to put as many as 100,000 words on paper while avoiding unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, and cliches. Not to mention changing the names of the innocent.
So where do you find these mythical creatures called literary agents?
Literary agents hang out on the Internet, and one of the most comprehensive sites is PublishersMarketplace.com. Of course, there are hundreds of literary agents online, and a great many helpful blogs written by both agents and writers. These blogs will obviously be far more helpful than this one. I certainly hope so, because I surely would like to get paid for my work someday.
With regard to writing a book, George Orwell said "One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist or understand."
I'd hate to think I'm possessed by a demon if I'm not going to get paid for it.
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Welcome to Writing for Real, my new blog dedicated to all writers and readers. The struggles, the accomplishments, and the excitement every writer feels for the written word. I'll be sharing tips, and sometimes begging for help with my own literary efforts. Although I'm not a poet, I might throw in a poem or two. (Probably not, I know some excellent poets and I'm not one of them, but I just might throw some of their work up for my readers here to enjoy.)
I'll do my best to give good advice and share the lessons I've learned -- many of them learned the hard way. I also plan to post exercises to prod writers to write and reviews of great books to encourage readers to read. I'll also be shamelessly bragging about the best writers group ever, the Brown County Writers Group based in Mt. Orab, Ohio. The "eclectic gleeks". (Sorry, can't explain, you had to be there.) Our members are both brilliant and mega-supportive. (See? Told you I would praise shamelessly.)
I've been writing since I was a child and read the adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot. (If you are under the age of 50 or 60, you won't know who these characters are, of course.) I remember thinking, "I can write a much better story about those kids and that dog", and so I did. The next thing you know, I was putting a book together with paper clips and staples and trying to sell it on the playground at recess. Of course, I ended up giving it away because seven-year-olds don't have money.
I've written essays, short stories (my favorite writing), health magazine articles, and several general magazine articles. Now that I'm retired, my life has been taken over by the most serious endeavor of writing novels people will actually want to read. A late start is better than no start, wouldn't you say?
Since my first full-length novel is finished, my attentions have now turned to exploring the marketing of my book. And this search will be the subject of this blog's next posting. I'll try to give practical tips on how to get your book published, and the ins and outs of finding an agent or publisher.
So welcome to Writing for Real. I'm gonna love this. Hope you will too.