Posts Tagged ‘writing challenges’

My apologies for being absent from so many of my favorite blogs and visiting with everyone. I’ve been neck-deep in reading through the copyedited version of LITTLE GALE GUMBO, and let me just say, to all the copyeditors out there, I raise my glass to you.

As a moviegoer who can’t help but notice when a certain actor’s drink is half-full in one shot and then miraculously filled to the rim in the next, I was determined to take great pains to keep any continuity issues out of my novel. Copyeditors catch those (among other things) and I am in awe of what they do. How they keep it all straight (dates, ages, names, eye color–you name it!) is a mystery to me, but I’m so grateful to them for it.

Every lily has its thorns? (Or something like that...)

But before the copyedited manuscript arrived last week, I was making a bit of progress on my WIP when, oh jeez…I found myself stalled again. Remember the same fella who was giving me pause? Well, he’s at it again.

Twenty pages in, I realized he wasn’t just coming off as flawed, he was coming off as, well, not very likeable.

Sounds like a job for “the scene”! You know, the one that reveals the soft, smushy, maybe even lovable underbelly of your character. The one that confirms to your reader that this person deserves their attention and their sympathy (when called upon, of course).

Now I know there are umpteen debates on whether a character has to be likable to be enjoyed. For me, I not only have to like a character to read them, I REALLY have to like them to write them. Otherwise I find myself wondering why we’re spending time together. Sure, they should be flawed, make bad choices, the works. But at their core, they MUST have a good heart to lead my story. Now, don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying EVERY character has to glow from the inside–just the ones your reader is supposed to care and root for.

You can’t assume your reader will simply like your character. Like any person we want to get to know, or feel for, we have to learn about them. We have to see them in action over time (or pages). Case in point, I once had dinner with a guy I was newly dating (and liking) only to have him berate our poor waitress because she’d neglected to serve my sandwich with mayo. (And by berate, I don’t mean “point out gently”, I mean “raise voice and throw up hands”.) So much for Mr. Nice Guy. I knew before the check arrived, I didn’t need to know anything more about this guy except how to get away from him as fast as possible. And we all know our readers won’t even wait for the check.

Now I’m not suggesting you need to have your character pull a busload of puppies from a live volcano, or that a flashy show of concern will miraculously erase twenty pages of schmuckness. Like anything believable, the reveal of character should be as natural and genuine as possible.

Writers, have you found yourself in a similar state of conflict with a character?

Readers, have you recently encountered a character who left you a little cold when you were supposed to be warm and fuzzy?

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With book 2 simmering on its digital back-burner, I’m looking to my next project, and it’s shaping up to be yummy. Lots of emotional umph. A bit of mystery. A lot of romance.  Even an exotic locale or two. The only thing I’m a wee bit torn about is my lead character.

He’s a, well…a HE. 

Don’t misunderstand–he’s a great character, I can tell that already. But as someone who writes women’s fiction, am I breaking some kind of rule by having my main character be a  man? 

I don’t know that I am. I can think of plenty of novels where the lead was a man–Prince of Tides, comes to mind at once–that were every bit as compelling and emotionally-rich and, even more importantly, relevant to women. Admittedly, Prince of Tides would not be categorized as women’s fiction, but the point is that plenty of women read it and loved it.

Then why the hesitation on my part?  

Okay, help me out here, friends. How much does the gender of the lead affect your reading choices? Some, none, all? Do you feel that genres must stick to certain structural codes in order to be relevant–or is that all hogwash?

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Before I get into this post, I want to take a moment and just say how very lucky I am. Two very dear bogging friends, with not-to-be-missed blogs of their own, Teri and Downith, checked in with me after my posting absence to see if I was okay. Wow. We’ve never met face-to-face and yet they made a point to check in. Thank you, ladies. Truly.  You can’t know how kind that was.

Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it? The flu of the century landed at our house and even after I put the damn pineapple at the foot of its bed, it still wouldn’t leave. So rude. Anyway, I can tell how long it’s been by the fullness of the box wine in the fridge and the number of empty tissue boxes stacked on the counter (Seventh Generation products, but I still feel badly for not going total-green and using hankies, but frankly I don’t want that gunk in my washer, so I ask your forgiveness yet again, dear trees.) .

But in between coughs that could be mistaken for seal mating calls, I have managed to be nearly done with a draft of my WIP, and can I just say: My characters think WAY TOO MUCH! Now I know I’m an analytical person who can over-think a wrong number, but my characters really need to, as Carly says: “turn down the noise in (their) mind(s)”.

But then I stop them thinking those seque-less bursts of self-analysis, and I realize the reader STILL wants and needs to know what they’re thinking, just not in such a way that pulls the reader out of the scene like a commercial break.

So I have them reveal their thoughts in as an unobtrusive a way as possible, while they are doing, the way we all do (unless we are in an actual conversation about our thoughts which happens a lot in real life, but can really kill the mood in a book)–ie, the dishes, walking the dog, making dinner, etc., so the thoughts come out in little pieces, enough to suggest their thoughts, ideas, maybe even their backstory, without usurping the pacing of the scene.

It’s not always easy. Especially when we find we’ve let those thoughts go unspoken and we feel the need to purge them in a single scene over several paragraphs like dumping old files when we realize we’ve overloaded our desktop.

So how about you all? Ever find your characters think too much?

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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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We all know the phrase: Timing is everything.

Most often it’s applied to comedy, but punchlines (and roux) aren’t the only things that benefit from good timing. Deciding when to reveal something to your readers requires good timing too.

Stop me if you've heard this one: Plot reveals are like a good soup...

We readers are savvy. We can smell a set-up a mile away. We can also smell an “info-dump” from 50 feet. You know, that point in the story when you can feel the author is about to present a lot of backstory, or maybe explain a crime or a plot twist. 

But, oh, as a writer…it’s so tempting to fall for the easy, breezy, utilitarian “info-dump”! You can see the scene, practically feel your protagnonist’s palms grow moist as he takes his place in the center of the living room, his lover’s eyes fixed adoringly on him as she settles snugly into her seat (and she better be snug–this could take awhile), waiting patiently for all her questions (and ours) to be answered at long last.

Oh, it will be perfect! There will be Murder She Wrote moments (“It WAS you outside the museum!”). There will be Three’s Company moments (“Well, Gee Whiz–no wonder there was a life preserver  in my shower!”). There will even be Dallas moments (“I KNEW it was only a dream!”). And you can’t wait to craft them all, you’re giddy with excitement, dizzy with impatience. Believe me, I know. I feel the seductive charms of the “info-dump” with every novel.

Then, just like Pam Ewing, I wake up.

Now don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, and in some genres (mysteries are the obvious ones here), the big reveal is unavoidable, the living room, homage-to-Agatha, blow-by-blow impossible to avoid–and what’s more, it can often times be expected and looked forward to. But in other genres, that sort of wrap-up can just feel forced, cliched.

Because the fact is, in daily life, we rarely have someone’s undivided attention for the duration of a thirty minute explanation, nor are we so sharp and with it (I am speaking for myself, of course) that we can neatly and smoothly deliver an A to Z wrap-up without so much as a pause.

BUT, all that said, our reveals should have a certain panache. They should be well-timed and tidy enough that we don’t a) miss them or b) bury them or c) throw them out to the reader like strings of Mardi Gras beads. We don’t want to show our cards too early but we can’t hide them too long or the reader will get understandably bored, or feel manipulated.

Like I said, it’s tricky, tricky stuff.

So how to know what time is the right time? I don’t know if there is a right time. There are certainly wrong times–and we know those at once (they usually come with wincing and eye-twitching)–and perhaps right times are merely the absence of those aforementioned winces and twitches, who knows?

For me, I’ve come to think my characters know best. They know when it’s the best time for the novel–even if sometimes it’s not the best time for them (“What? You couldn’t have told me this BEFORE I got the tattoo?!”)

So what about you and your reveals? Any tried and true tips to knowing when to say when?

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Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.
–Kurt Vonnegut

In my list of favorite writing advice from the masters, I would say this tip is up there in the top ten. It’s true. Someone, in every scene, has to want something for the reader to care.

There are the big wants, the ones that are the spine of the story, be it love, family, justice, revenge, etc.–and there are the smaller ones (ie, the drink of water) that drive the scenes and the characters toward the big want. Which is why when one of my scenes stalls (or my plot as a whole) I will very often look at what my characters want*–only to discover they either don’t know or don’t want anything!Huh?

Now, let’s be honest: everybody wants something. Even the most indecisive, weak characters have to want something. Otherwise, there is no journey for the reader. Why should we follow a character if they want for nothing? There’s nowhere to go, nowhere for them to take us. Even if all your character wants is to buy a stamp, we can care and we can follow. But without a mission, a desire, however small, your reader will surely get off at the next stop and search out a train that has an actual destination. Who wouldn’t, right?

So does your character know what he or she wants for Christmas?

*Sometimes I will go through my whole manuscript and identify the wants in every scene and make sure there is one (of course, there will usually be as many wants as you have characters in that scene, even if some of the wants aren’t on display…)

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It was so great to open the big blogosphere envelope this morning and read the fabulous news of a fellow blogger’s book deal–congratulations, Teresa!

My own publishing journey is likely gearing up for another burst of activity in the next few weeks as LITTLE GALE GUMBO is now on its way to production and I will see it again only to make any small needed changes (Thanks for asking, Karen!).

In the meantime, I am, as my posts have indicated, busy writing/editing/hoarding words on book number 2, all the while knowing that LGG’s release date of October 2011 SEEMS like a long way away, but there is much to be done to fill in the weeks between now and then (most of which will not involve copious amounts of homemade egg nog, surprisingly).

What always amazes me in the process of writing is how utterly dualistic the experience can be–like a love affair, it seems to know only extremes in the beginning–some days are: Weeee! I was BORN to write this book–we were made for each other! Then just as quickly, the next day comes: I don’t know who this book is! I can’t believe I ever loved this book–what was I THINKING?! Then the next day, you’re back in crazy mad love, the earlier hour’s crushing doubt washed blissfully away…

Exhausting, isn’t it? And then, oh and then…one day, the two ends of the spectrum seem to move closer together and there’s less of the doubt, less of the angst, and more of the joy, the confidence, the delight in the flow of your work, and that delight grows and grows and…Yeah, it’s awesome.

So—where are all of you in your literary love affairs at the moment?

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Lately I’ve been waiting.  And not just me, but all the characters in my WIP. We’ve been waiting for a certain character to make his appearance in the story. Sure, it was slightly agonizing, knowing all the delicious drama and intrigue he would bring with him, but I had a very clear idea of when and how he was going to arrive and I was determined to wait. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Or so I thought. But then my fella decided he had grown tired of waiting, and, well, he just showed up. Early. Really early. Maybe even fifty to a hundred pages early.

So what’s an author to do? Because frankly, now that he’s here, I don’t want him to leave. Now that he’s here, the story is richer and spookier and sassier and even more fun than it was before he arrived.

So I think I’m going to let him stay. (As if I could get him to leave now, anyway.)

Do you know the feeling? Ever had a character make a surprise entrance, despite your best intentions to keep him/her waiting at the door?

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When I was a second-year student at Hampshire College, I joined the food co-op, Mixed Nuts, which is a collectively-owned grocery store where students could (and still can) get wonderful natural, organic foods at affordable prices. Once a week, I would join other Hampsters in the co-op’s little store and help organize shipments of granola, dried fruits, whole wheat flour, seasonal veggies, chocolate chips, and, my personal favorite, bulk spices. To this day, every time I add cumin to a dish and enjoy that smoky scent, I am transported to that time and place. It always makes me smile.

As writers we all know the power of description to draw our readers to our setting and our moods, and there is quite possibly no other sense as evocative as smell.  Some smells are universal; the smell of the ocean, salty, rich, sometimes sour with the tide. But others are more personal: ie, my cumin association.

Using the sense of smell in writing can be tricky. What evokes for one reader, may not for another. So what to do? All day long, we inhale and we smell. Some of us have stronger noses than others, and some of us find some smells comforting while others find the suggestion stomach-turning (See: Skunk musk).

Here’s a perfect example: as a child, I used to ride the bus from Portland, Maine with my grandmother to her home in New York City. This was in the 70’s, the old days when you could smoke in the back rows, and as a child I always waited for that first whiff of a freshly lit cigarette to waft down to the front where my grandmother and I always sat. To me, the smell meant travel, new places and the excitement of the road. Now, no matter the ill-advised health implications of this memory, to this day, if I am walking along and catch a faraway whiff of a just-lit cigarette, my mind returns immediately to that Greyhound bus and joyful thoughts of impending adventure. Not exactly a textbook scent to evoke warm, cozy feelings, is it? But to me, it’s as real as it gets.

So where am I going with all this smell talk? Well, I think as writers, scents are one of the hardest AND easiest ways to pull our readers into a scene, for the reason I just presented. Smells are so personal–and so powerful. How do we best harness that power in our writing?

What do you think?

And what smell association do you have in your bag of tricks that means the world to you?

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Ahh, first impressions. In life, they’re so easy. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re wretched, sometimes they’re so utterly remarkable that you meet the person again and say: “Are you SURE we’ve met before?” But they are what they are. Because in real life, you don’t (with some exceptions, I suspect) get do-overs when it comes to introductions. And frankly, there’s some great relief in that fact.

But in writing, introductions can be agonizing. Let’s take, for example (and one I happen to be working with currently), a pair of soon-to-be-lovers. You as the writer can’t wait to have them fall in love, can’t wait to discover where they will go, the funny, saucy encounters they’ll enjoy–heck, even the door-slamming fights. Now if only you could get over that darned first meeting and get to the good stuff!

Because let’s face it, SO much hinges on that first impression. Especially in fiction. Sure, we’ll give a character a chance to redeem him or herself later (everybody has bad days!) but that first scene when one character lays eyes on another has to draw us in and reveal something intrinsic to their relationship that leaves us thinking…YES. Wow. These two cats just hit it off.  Bigtime.

In a word: CHEMISTRY.

We all know it. We all love it. And creating it between our characters has to be as organic and authentic as it is between us and our own loves. Two people just have to click. But sometimes the gap between that click moment in our minds and the click moment on the page is so brutally wide we can’t get across it–and until we do, the story itself just won’t move forward.

So we try everything. And I mean, EVERYTHING.

We have them meet at a coffee shop, or maybe on the side of a road, or maybe in a grocery store both reaching for the last head of lettuce (okay, so that one was eliminated early…).

We try Accidental (“Tell me that wasn’t your car I just side-swiped?”), we try Planned (“Are you my four o’clock?”), we even try a combination of the two (“Hey, you just side-swiped my car!–and, oh my god, YOU’RE my four o’clock?!”).

But the fact remains that their budding, building connection–and the reveal of it–has to flow naturally to be convincing. And that, my friends, is the rub that keeps us reworking that first scene until it, yes, CLICKS.

So what about you all? Can anyone else can recall a similar dilemma with any of their main characters–and, better yet, an inspiring account of how you solved it!

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