Archive for September, 2010

Last week I sat down at the doctor’s office and picked up the latest issue of a weekly news magazine.  I found a great single-page essay and was nearly at the end when I saw, wedged neatly into the final paragraph of the author’s column, a box telling me what I would find on the following page.


Now it’s no secret that I’m a card-carrying member of the instant-gratification club (recent membership in gazillions, last I checked) but is my attention span so short that I need a preview of what’s on the next page while I’m still on this one?

And even more importantly–what about the poor author of the article I’m reading? Here she is, about to deliver her powerful summary and right at the peak of its impact, my attention is yanked to the next author’s article. How is this good for either author? How this is good for me, the reader?  I don’t think it is.

As writers, we know we need to hook our audience right away. We all struggle with that perfect first line–the one that will draw our readers in and keep them there. We know how little time we have to make our impression–we’ve all seen MTV (or at least remember how it first looked). This trend of love-at-first-sentence doesn’t concern me.  What concerns me is that our wooing window is shrinking even further.

Then I am reminded of a book like Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, a beautifully written novel that brings its readers into the world of Crosby, Maine and into the homes and hearts of its small population. This is a gently flowing stream of a story, not a raging waterfall. At least, not right away. But make no mistake, despite the lack of an initial riptide, myself, and many, many other readers, were sucked under.

But back to the doctor’s office…

Now believe me, I was planning to turn the page of the magazine–frankly it hadn’t occurred to me not to. Yet seeing that “ad” for the next page put me off. Kind of like the way you’re reading an article on-line and a pop-up flies onto the screen, utterly blocking your reading from view.

So please tell me: Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here? Or are we fast approaching a place and time when we’ll need some sort of incentive (think: free toaster) to simply turn the pages of a book?

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For me, one of the hardest parts of writing is knowing where to start a scene.

The obvious answer: Well, at the beginning, of course.

But just where is the beginning?
Do you do as Elmore Leonard is always credited with saying, leave out the boring parts?

Let’s use the example of someone arriving at their office to find they’ve been fired. Following are two places you could begin the scene:

Option #1: The traffic on the freeway was thick as Joseph headed into the office. He punched absently at the radio buttons and sipped his coffee, thinking on the morning’s news. It had been a grim start. A fire downtown. A burglary down the block. It reminded him of that summer he’d spent in Boston, when he’d shared an apartment over a bakery with his ex-girlfriend and her best friend…

Option #2:
Fred Morris gave Joseph a weary look from the other side of his long desk.
“I’m sorry, Joe. You’re a good kid. I wish there was some other way.”
Joseph stared dully at the framed picture of his boss’s third wife on the wall, his head spinning. No. This wasn’t happening.
He swallowed. “You’re…you’re firing me?”

See what I mean? I don’t care so much about the traffic Joseph faces getting to work. He lives in a city. He drives on the freeway. Facing traffic seems obvious to me, and frankly, I don’t appreciate you the writer making me suffer it along with him. Unless, of course, Joseph commutes with a key character and that agonizing drive can serve as an opportunity to move the plot forward through dialog (useful dialog) then it’s just filler and a real mood and pacing killer.

Now myself, I tend to start scenes in the thick. The first line is often a line of dialog, and usually something dramatic, such as: “Here he comes!” or “You did what?”

Does this work? Sometimes. But only if I can successfully ground my reader in the scene ASAP. Never assume your reader knows where they are at all times. You are the tour guide, you lead your reader to landmarks, points of interest, etc. But keep in mind (and this is spoken by someone who was a tour guide in a past life), no one likes a long-winded tour guide. Keep a group of tourists standing too long in the hot sun while you elaborate on the finer points of gambrel roofs and you’ll see a lot of blank and grumpy faces.

The same holds true for your readers. They signed on to your tour because they want to see stuff. They want to learn and they want to peek. They want smells and sounds and sights and tastes. And frankly, they want it as soon as possible, so don’t belabor your introductions. Get to it. Bring them into the carriage house and show them the old wheels, the old beams, the scrawled numbers on the vertical boards where the builder did some last-minute math. The cool stuff.

Now, once you have them in the carriage house, once they are settled in, by all means, give them a bit of exposition, but only once they are comfortable, in the shaded cool, and with lots of stuff to look at while they listen.

So when it comes to knowing where to start my scenes, I try to:

–establish place, as quickly and succinctly as possible

–then, whenever possible, start at the point of conflict, or as close as you can without confusing your reader or changing the tone of your pacing

Anyone else care to share how and where they like to start their scenes?

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The mighty first draft. We have such great expectations, don’t we? We all want perfection. We all imagine we will produce a manuscript that makes us smile, laugh, cry and cheer the first time around. After all, if we can’t get it down the first time, then it must not be our true vision, right? We must not be every bit the storyteller we imagine? Right?


Wrong. It just doesn’t work that way.

Well, not for me, at least. And I should know.  I’m fighting the first-draft-blues myself just now.

Now don’t get me wrong–my WIP is delightful, delicious and every bit as juicy as I hoped it would be when I first sank my teeth into it several months ago. But it’s not great. It’s flawed. Hugely flawed. And what’s more is I know it’s hugely flawed, even as I write, and write and write.

But you know what? It’s supposed to be. Because first drafts are supposed to need work. Lots of it.

Now the fall is a big birthday season in our house, so lately I’ve been thinking of story structure and development like a birthday cake.

Bear with me: You start with the basic cake. Say, a simple yellow sheet cake. This sheet cake is your first draft. It’s solid, it’s the foundation of your masterpiece, but it’s not nearly enough on its own. Still, it has to be a good cake or else all the decorations, all the buttercream roses or the piped scalloped edging or the Scooby Doo candles, will not make up for a bad tasting cake. (Not in our house, at least. )

Next is your crumb coat. Draft #2. This is your thin coat to keep those dastardly crumbs from rising to the surface of your beautiful finished product. Again, nothing too fancy or too involved. We’re still working on the foundation here. Evening out the sides, making sure we have clean corners, a nice flat top, etc.

Now with draft #3, we’re finally getting closer to the good stuff. We know we’ve got a strong base so we can begin to apply the final coat of frosting liberally, making sure the surface is the smoothest surface possible. Then, only when we have that smooth surface can we safely and confidently move on to…

Draft #4.The decorations. So get out those frosting bags and go for it. Put the finishing touches on that masterpiece, light those candles, and send it out to be enjoyed.

Now that’s not to say every manuscript will take 4 drafts. (I could have easily used the 14-tiered wedding cake for this analogy–I’ve baked those cakes too, if you know what I mean.) The point is that a first draft is just that. The first. Of many.

So shake off that crumb coat of self-doubt and cuticle-tearing-pressure and take comfort, as I do, that the point of a first draft is to simply get it down. A first draft doesn’t have to be beautiful or tidy or frankly even enjoyable. It just has to be done.

Then you can get to the good stuff.

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Hey, don’t I know you?

Wait. Give me a second. I know we’ve met somewhere before. I can feel it. You’re so familiar, it’s on the tip of my tongue. In fact, wait–yes! I know where I know you from!

You were in my last book!

And here you are again, in my new story! How about that! I mean, what are the odds, right? Oh yeah, it’s great to see you. No, I mean it! It’s really, really…Well, no. Actually, I have to be honest. I think you should go.

Now don’t get me wrong, I loved loved loved spending time with you in my last novel. We had a blast, didn’t we? And that character arc you experienced, well, that was the best. Really.

But I’m moving on. And I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have to try someone new now. A hero with blond hair, maybe? Who has a tattoo? Oh, and he could smoke. You detested smokers–yeah, I remember that–but this isn’t you I’m writing now. This is him. And he smokes. Maybe. I’m not sure. All I’m saying is he could. And I need to be okay with that. Okay?

And yes I know that you were the kind of guy I love to write about, my ultimate guy, the kind of guy I could put in a story and bring home to mom to read, but there are other guys out there. Other guys I want to get to know, other guys I want my readers to get to know.

So I’m not saying we can’t stay in touch.

I’m just saying maybe we should, you know, write other people.

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We’ve all read the scene or even watched it in a film:

Character A is hiding a secret from character B. Character B stops by Character A’s house while he’s out and in the two minutes and ten seconds that Character B is there, the phone rings and someone leaves a telling message on Character A’s answering machine REVEALING THE PRECIOUS SECRET!!!

Well, isn’t that convenient!?  He just happened to be in the house for that phone call. What good luck! (Or bad, for poor Character A, I suppose.)

Now I do accept that this device (and others like it) could be considered treasures in some plots, tried-and-true techniques that we have come to expect in certain stories and certain story arcs, and I will admit I’ve used them myself.

Exhibit A: When I was working on very early draft of LITTLE GALE GUMBO, I built a pivotal plot reveal around a run-in with a nefarious neighbor who was looking to blow off jealous steam by spilling the beans about our heroine’s great big secret.

In the words of the scum-eating shrimp from Finding Nemo: I am so ashamed.

Ah, but in my defense, it was so simple. So perfect! And it always seemed to work on The Love Boat when anyone would innocently sidle up to Isaac’s bar at the Pirate’s Cove and happen to sit next to the guy who’d just been on the Lido deck with someone else’s fiancée!

Maybe. But the problem is that too often, most often, it just isn’t that easy and readers know that.  Sure, plots can’t duplicate the speed (or lack thereof) or timing (ditto) of real life or we wouldn’t get past the first chapter. Just as dialog shouldn’t be written exactly as we speak in real life, plotting requires a certain amount of tweaking to keep it engaging. But there is an ocean between tweaking and Oh-give-me-a-break!

After years of unbelievable plotting, my measure now for building to a reveal, for moving a plot forward, has to pass the “Isn’t that convenient?” test. If I can’t read something without thinking that, then I need to revise. I need to come up with a better solution or scrap that plot point entirely. The strongest plots must hinge on a believable progression of events/exchange of information. A convenient burst of information can blow a hole through an otherwise solid and engaging plot, and leave your reader feeling cheated, thinking you couldn’t be bothered to build a solution that was believable but rather latched on to a what-are-the-odds? scenario that frankly only worked for Isaac, Gopher and Doc.

So what are your feeling on the convenience-factor of plotting? Are you more lenient as a reader, and/or a writer?

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Seafood paella, any way you want it.

When my husband and I decided to make paella this weekend, we went in search of the definitive recipe.

Well. It turns out there isn’t a definitive recipe for paella–so far as we could tell. Some use artichoke hearts, others use green beans; some say steam the mussels before the end, others say wait; some use white wine, others don’t.

This isn’t surprising. Much like gumbo, there are as many different recipes as there are people making it. That’s part of what makes the dish so much fun. There isn’t a right way or a wrong way. Except for one: it tastes good or it doesn’t. The only true test of what is right and wrong is the end result.

Which got me thinking about how we all plot our stories. We’ve all heard the cry of the storytelling cynic who insists there are only a handful of plots in the world and that every story is essentially a version of one of those few templates.  For some reason, this theory instills despair in lots of writers, but I don’t think it should.

Look at fashion. Clothing can be divided into essentially four main pieces: pants, dresses, shirts and skirts. Yet as far as I can tell, we never feel limited in those selections, simply because within those few basic components are an endless array of choices to make them unique. Fabric choices (cotton, wool, silk…), styles (bootleg, short-sleeve, turtleneck, pencil…), colors (red, emerald, black…) You get the picture.

So what if you happen to glance through the weekend book reviews or PM deals and you read about “the book you are already writing!” Well, here’s the thing: At this very minute, lots and lots of people are writing stories, and chances are someone is writing one very close to the one you’re writing.

I say, so what.

Just as there are many ways to make a good paella or a good gumbo, there are many ways to write the same story as Joan is writing, or Peter, or Frank. What matters isn’t that you invent the entrée, but that you make it so tasty your diner wants a second bowl. It will be your ingredients and your cooking that will make it your own dish.

In other words, don’t worry if someone else writes your story before you get to it.  As our mothers used to say: Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.

Write your story and write it well.

And second helpings will follow.

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Trust is hard. Trust is scary.

I should know–I’m nearing the end of edits for LITTLE GALE GUMBO and soon the book will be out in the world AS IS, without any more chances for me to polish, tweak, cut or add. Yikes.

This means I have to trust that the reader will understand what it is that I’m saying, what I’ve been trying to say in the two years I’ve been working on this story. I think this is what they mean when they say this is where the rubber meets the road.

But back to trust.

How can we be sure our readers will understand what we’re saying?

One all-too popular option: exposition.

I’ll give you an example:

Halfway through the climactic scene in my novel where sisters Josie and Dahlia Bergeron finally face off about their conflicting affections for their childhood friend Matthew, I develop cold feet. I worry–panic!–that my reader still isn’t 100% clear (at page 345, by the way) that Josie has always loved Matthew and Matthew has always loved Dahlia and Dahlia has always loved Jack.

So I think, maybe, just to be really, really, really sure, that I should gently toss in a few lines of dialog so there’s absolutely no chance at confusion.

It could go something like this:

Josie: “I just knew you’d say that, Dahlia Rose! Because ever since we arrived here on Little Gale Island twenty-five years ago from New Orleans where we fled from our abusive musician father with our Creole mother who’d eventually open the Little Gale Gumbo Cafe and charm the guarded islanders with her authentic Creole dishes, ever since then you always toyed with Matthew’s heart because it was so clear that he loved you, even though you  knew I loved him and you didn’t, because you were too busy loving Jack who you kept pushing away because of that time when we were teenagers on the porch of our old house and I was holding our neighbor’s baby boy and you said you’d never let any man own your heart the way Momma let Daddy own hers!”

Yikes. Subtle, huh?

It goes without saying that if by page 345 your reader doesn’t know the basic background of a character (that includes historical AND emotional information, by the way), then there’s a good chance your reader won’t have reached page 345 because they will have long since decided they don’t know enough about your characters to care about them and if they don’t care, they don’t read on. And who can blame them?

So how to know when you’ve committed exposition-icide? A simple test: Ask yourself if your characters already know what it is you have them say? If yes, then you’re guilty as charged. Clearly the sisters already know all this about themselves–they were there, remember? This is clearly a technique to remind the reader, and make no mistake, the reader knows this. Your reader is smart. Your book is not a study guide (presumably)–unnecessary exposition makes your reader feel as if they are either being subjected to a review of what’s on Friday’s test, or, worse, that you the writer don’t:

a) trust the ability of your reader to understand your writing

(b) trust the strength of your writing to convey what it needs to convey, or

(c) both.

So what’s the fearful writer to do?

Work on his or her craft, introduce important information in a smooth and patient way, and, then, TRUST. Make absolutely sure that you’ve shaped a cozy, cocoon of a world where your readers know where they, how they got there and who they’re spending their time with.

We’ve all been there. And sometimes the temptation is still strong (Is there an exposition patch on the market yet, or what??).

Take comfort–it’s just the distrust talking. Don’t listen.

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It wasn’t Dickens. It wasn’t Eyre. It wasn’t even Hemingway.

The first book I ever read that filled me with the insatiable hunger to write a book of my own was Sheedy.

As in, Ally.

Long before she was brat-packing and High-Art-ing, even long before she was Ally, Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy wrote and published a sweet and whimsical little book called She Was Nice to Mice. She was just 12. Yes, 12.

Now I was a few years younger than that when I first laid eyes on that book in the children’s room of the New Gloucester Public Library but I thought writing a book and getting it published had to be the coolest, most enviable thing a girl could do. (With the exception of getting to star with Lynda Carter on Wonder Woman–darn you, Debra Winger!)

Now, admittedly,  it would take me a few years more than Ally to get a book deal. Okay, many more. But I can still see that cover in my mind, still remember the nine year-old me pulling it off the shelf and admiring its whimsical illustrations (drawn by the much older, 13 year-old Jessica Ann Levy), thinking to myself: I want to do that too…I bet I could do that too…

What do you remember as the moment or the book that caused your writing epiphany?

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I suspect we all do it. It’s too tempting not to. When building our stories, we sometimes cast well-known actors and actresses, and maybe even our friends, family members, or people we see in line at the grocery store.

For me, the real casting call usually comes early in a novel when I’m stuck on a particular character’s physical form. I have a good sense of his or her personality and quirks, but they haven’t yet taken shape in my mind clearly enough.

Now casting your novel may not always be to replicate an actor or a role. Most of the times, the character I’m trying to cast could never be confused with the actor/role I’ve based him or her on. They’re never that close. It’s merely a way to solidify a character in my mind and move forward, a reference I can always draw from when I feel him or her slipping from “view,” or simply not clicking into place, or a way to distinguish characters that begin to feel too similar.

On the whole, I am of the less-is-more school when it comes to a character’s physical description. I will offer the basics to get a reader started but I’d rather they draw a full picture of a character as it suits them, and not always be restricted by my image. (Let’s not forget that we cast as readers too. Probably even more so.)

Still, it certainly is fun to do.

So what about you all? Any famous folks in your stories? Or would you rather not say…

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No one likes rules.

Well, I never did. And even though I am now a parent and responsible for laying them down and upholding them, I still don’t like them. But they are everywhere, and in some cases, they have to be. As I get older, I appreciate that simple truth.

But what about in writing? Do we need rules in writing? And are these rules global or do we each latch on to our own preferred cache of writing laws to hone our craft? And what happens when a highly-admired writer “breaks” these rules we hold dear?

A purist's Whoopie. Chocolate with vanilla filling.

I have recently posted about the preferences for/against any dialog tags other than said or ask, as well as the use/misuse of adverbs. If pressed, I would say these tenants are some of my “rules” in writing, as in, the ones that I believe make my writing stronger and tidier and better-crafted when I can adhere to them.

Or do they?

Just the other day I started Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom and within a few pages, there they were: tags and adverbs!–and not just once, but several times! Egads! Someone mused (optimistically, I might add), another person teased (and teased again within a few sentences). I was confused, I was shocked, I was wickedly thrilled! How could a writer of such esteem use adverbs, and tags other than said or ask, when all my writing life I’ve believed that doing so was frowned upon?

Now make no mistake, I am not a purist. (Well, except when it comes to eggnog, Whoopie Pies, and to not tweaking the original Star Wars movies–George, did you have to replace the aged Anakin in the final Jedi ghost group shot? Really?) There are plenty of times in my novels when I have used more than my quota of adverbs. Many, more more. LITTLE GALE GUMBO will indeed greet the world with several that I simply couldn’t bear to cast off. This is not a critique, simply a curiosity. An observation. Maybe even, a bit of a relief.

So what about you all? What happens when a writer you admire, or even one you know 90% of the world’s population admires, breaks a writing rule you hold dear? Does it make you rethink your rules? Or does it make you believe even more firmly that rules in writing are as individual as writers, or better yet, just made to be broken?

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