Archive for February, 2011

Having had a lot of experience in theater over the years, one of the things I always enjoyed when I was acting was having a prop in a scene. Food to be eaten, clothes to be packed, dishes to be set, you name it. I always felt an inherent ease and believability in having a task to accompany my performance, something to keep my hands busy while my head was immersed.

But props in a play aren’t always a good idea. When chosen poorly, they can appear contrived, or distracting, drawing the viewer’s focus from the emotional core of the scene.

It’s the same in writing. Just like in acting, props have to have a place in a scene to work, and using them well can be tougher than it seems.

For starters, props can be structurally tricky. Much in the way some of us nit-pickers can’t help but notice that a film actor’s glass of wine/cigarette/sandwich grows and vanishes, grows and vanishes during the course of a five-minute scene, props in writing must be organized and consistent.

Eating and drinking scenes are especially tough. Sometimes characters are gluttonous–you can have them serving themselves twelve slices of pizza before you realize it–or refilling their coffee so often your reader wonders if they don’t have a leaky mug. Dressing your character (or undressing, whichever the case may be)? Be careful they don’t put on more than one pair of socks (unless they’re going skating on a pond in Maine in January) or zip up those button-fly jeans, or tie those sneakers so many times your reader will wonder if they’re practicing knot-tying for a merit badge.

Frequency is another stickler when employing props in your scenes. I’ve re-read scenes of mine where my use of props was so prominent, I wondered if I was writing a scene or a recipe. (In my defense, there is a scene in LITTLE GALE GUMBO where the goal is to teach one of the characters how to make gumbo, so the actions of the “props” took on an unusual focus in the scene. But in most cases, you don’t want your props to overwhelm your scene.)

So when do props work?

1. When they are part of the background, there to reinforce/give authenticity to your setting: Julian handed Anna the menu and she smiled as she took it. “Brunch is my favorite,” she said, setting it down. “I hear the Eggs Benedict here is wonderful.” She couldn’t help checking out the stack of individual jams in their shiny metal basket. It was nothing to alphabetize them while he looked over the Specials Board.

When they reinforce the goal or mindset of a character:  Anna pulled out a second napkin and set it in her lap so he wouldn’t think she was prone to spills this time. OR Anna worked the napkin in her lap, shredding it to ribbons while she listened to him explain Margot’s perfect triple axel.

I like props, I do, but I have to remind myself they are part of the background, bit parts, never leads.

So how do you all use props in your writing? Any favorites you find your characters using from story to story?

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I don’t know about you, but I tend to like characters who don’t have their act together. Especially when it comes to love. Men who say all the right stuff? Women who never get wedgies? No thanks. 

Now maybe I just have a particularly large library of embarrassing romantic moments, but when writing scenes of seduction (or introduction, depending on where your characters are in the mating process), I am always drawn to the goofy over the flawless.

Love is messy. We like it that way. As much as we imagine ourselves having all the right moves and all the right words, we don’t and–let’s face it–we won’t. So in honor of February 14th  (that would be my beloved pup’s 14th birthday, but I hear there’s another holiday then?), I would love to hear the craziest thing you’ve ever done for love—-unrequited or otherwise.

I’ll go first. (It’s only fair.)

In my early twenties, I worked in the art department of a clothing company in NYC and watched the same red-haired fellow ride the subway with me each morning, grab a bagel at the same deli, then ride the elevator into the same building, always getting off several floors below mine. I pined from afar for weeks until, one day, a few days shy of my last day of work, I spent the better part of a Saturday drawing up a phony business card, taking it to the copy shop and causing the demise of at least fourteen trees while I got it JUST RIGHT (for what it’s worth–God, I’m sorry, Mr. Pine. You deserved better!).

On my last day of work, I held the labored-over card in my sweaty hand, followed my crush into the elevator, plotting my delivery, lost in the promise of the moment I was about to experience when–Oops! I realized the doors were closing on my floor! So I did what any love-sick, about-to-be-unemployed textile artist would do: I karate-chopped the doors to keep them from closing, turned to my crush (with leg still raised!) and handed off my card, saying breathlessly: “My name’s Erika and I’d love to get coffee with you. ”

I don’t remember much about what happened next, just that he looked at me like a deer in headlights (or perhaps he was trying to secure my features for the NYPD sketch artist he’d be calling later?) and I walked off the elevator to my department, feeling utterly euphoric, mission accomplished.

He never called. (I know, you’re shocked.) But then again, I did move out of town the next week. So for at least two months, I indulged in fantasies of him calling my empty apartment, wishing he hadn’t waited those requisite three days!

Whew, I feel much better now.

Your turn!

Oh, yes…Happy Birthday, my sweet Olive!

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…a first draft.

(I  know, you were thinking of another ending, and, yes, you’re welcome for the ear bug I’ve now left you with.)

Part of the joy of letting a first draft flow is, well, letting it flow, and forcing yourself to just get to THE END. Because as we all know, you can’t have a second draft (or a third, or fourth, or…) until you have a first.

So that’s the good. Now for the bad.

Sometimes re-reading that first draft can be utterly crushing. Sure, there are some good parts–maybe even a high percentage of them–but much like the feeling you have after that second slice of cheesecake, the earlier, blissful sensation of anticipation is drowned in the all-too-real sensation of heartburn. You know you were enjoying yourself at one point, but that delight is gone.

Right now, I have acid reflux. Bigtime. The first few bites of my WIP tasted so good, I couldn’t stuff my face fast enough. Then came a hundred pages/bites in, and Ooof. I put down my fork, I sat back, I groaned.

What had happened?

And then I remembered, this is ALSO the good. You want to find those gaps, those breaks in the flow of your story/character, those albeit painful places where you need major work. Because that’s what makes your second draft your second draft.

I’m taking comfort in this fact as I read on. Comfort, and Tums.

What do you take to get through your first draft?

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Arguments in life and arguments in writing are very different animals. 

Now I don’t care what the experts say about “fair fighting” and “thinking before you speak” during an argument. It just doesn’t work that way. In the heat of the moment, we’re erratic, irrational, flying from one subject/gripe to another. Making coherent and relevant points? Good luck with that!

And yet, in writing, it can be necessary–even imperative–to outline an argument. In fact, right now in my WIP, two of my main characters are having it out–and believe me, it’s about time–this battle has been brewing for nearly 345 pages! But this is tricky business and while I’d like to be a pantser on this one (as I usually am in most cases), there are important points that need to be made, as well as reveals that need equal screen–er, scream–time.

But what about the all-important element of spontaneity? Keeping that balance between script and scrappy can be tough–but crucial. I believe there is a balance and I’m determined to find it, but probably not on the first go-round.

Anyone else lucky enough to get there on the first try?

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