Posts Tagged ‘writing tips’

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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Saying it in a song

I am in awe of songwriters. While I need/take 80,000 words to tell my story, they need only a matter of lines to tell theirs. And when it’s done well…Oh, wow. That one song can make you cry, smile, reflect with all the intensity of any book. As a writer, I can think of no better tutorial than listening to the lyrics of the greats (and the up-and-coming greats) and hearing how they craft the “scenes” of their songs to tell their stories.

Songs like…

Paul Simon’s haunting tribute to the confusion of facing adulthood in “America”

Neil Young’s heartbreaking tale of love begrudgingly released in “Expecting to Fly”

Dolly Parton’s plea to her husband’s  lover in “Jolene”

Joni Mitchell’s unabashed declaration of love in “A Case of You”

Carly Simon’s reminiscence of adolescent yearnings in “Boys in the Trees”

Bill Withers’ lonely lament in “Aint No Sunshine”

Bonnie Raitt’s bad day turned around in “All At Once”

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s touching account of sisters moving apart in “Only A Dream” 

Dan Fogelberg’s perfect capturing of the angst, wonder and regret of reunited lovers in “Same Old Lang Syne”

and the list goes on and on and on…

Now it’s your turn:
What songs move you as deeply as any favorite book?

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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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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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Author blurbs.

We’ve all seen them on books, and maybe once or twice we’ve even been inspired to buy from a debut author because someone we love loved what they wrote.

Well, I’m about to become one of those debut authors looking for love.

Since LITTLE GALE GUMBO is on its way to production and talk of cover art is in the works, the next step in this journey is getting author blurbs, and I will admit, the prospect has me excited and nervous and, well, mulling over some inappropriate thoughts.

Two words: banana bread.

I’ll confess I’ve never considered the inclusion of gifts before on this road to publication–but how could I not now? When I already feel so fortunate to be on this journey, and then I get to hope that one of the authors I have loved for so long, who have been inspiration for me for the last 20+ years of my writing and submitting, that one of those authors will not only be willing to READ my book but also say something nice about it!? Tell me, how can I just ASK for that, empty-handed? How can I not deliver that request with a lifetime supply of banana bread? A sampler box of Zapp’s? A keg of egg nog? (Note to self: ask homebrewing hubby if such a thing is possible and get busy.)

OR…I suppose, I could just ask, with the utmost courtesy and professionalism, with humility, with gratitude, and maybe even a few loaves of reverence, like lots of debuting authors have done before me, and hope that maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be fortunate enough to return the favor to someone else.

In the meantime, I can learn from others who’ve been doing it much longer and who have lots of great advice on the subject. This guest post from Nathan Bransford’s blog is tops. Thank you, Lauren Baratz-Logsted.

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Now that LITTLE GALE GUMBO is almost out the door (my door, that is) and I have a tentative publication date (October 2011!), the discussion of possible cover art is starting. My editor very generously offered me the chance to weigh in on the subject, asking if I had any ideas for the cover, or if I could provide her with a list of covers I had seen that I liked. Exciting? You bet. But not nearly as easy as I would have imagined. If I thought summarizing a 400 page novel into a one-page synopsis was hard, what about summarizing a whole book in a single image?

Thankfully there are talented designers and marketing professionals with the expertise to know how to take a book and distill its essence into a succinct and spot-on visual representation. As a graphic designer in a past life, I know there is much that goes into the decision from an aesthetic point of view–but what about the less-familiar influence of marketing? I can’t imagine the layers and research for that one (soft-focus versus sharpened-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Test Groups?), but I do hope I get to be privy to the conditions that will influence the decision when it is made. Frankly there is nothing about this process that doesn’t rock my world. (Translation: don’t be surprised by future posts on the chemical make-up of binding adhesives. You’ve all been warned.)

But maybe it’s not too early to begin to think about covers for your own projects…if for no other reason, it can be a wonderful exercise in distillation, when a novel begins to press dangerously at its seams, and the forest that’s supposed to be there among all those trees is entirely hidden from view.

So, anyone have any thoughts on their own covers? Any covers on the shelves currently (or in the past) that are your favorites?


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Garlic martinis (and endings) should always be shaken*

Every story has an ending, that much is a given. But as to what sort of ending, we can’t ever be sure. Unless, of course, we are writing our story and have control over its resolution. But just like in life, endings aren’t always tidy and they aren’t always as we expect them to be.

Now some stories are expected to have happy endings–or at least, a predictable formula. Disney movies rarely end badly. (Even though they can still start out pretty rough, ie Bambi, Cinderella, Finding Nemo, etc.)

For a writer, the question of how to end our stories is complicated. Do we want to portray real life, and show the unpredictability of it? Or do we want to give our readers the security of knowing that they can expect a sigh of relief as they round the final corner?

But is giving our readers a tidy, shiny, happy ending best serving them?

I don’t always think so. In the first few drafts of Little Gale Gumbo, I went the predictable route.  That’s not to say the story wasn’t without its drama and tension, but the ending always seemed a little too neat, and I came to realize that there was far more emotional impact and staying power in an ending that didn’t leave my characters “settled.” I think we can all agree, there is a certain degree of authenticity that comes from a book with untidy endings; endings where all lovers aren’t reunited, where arguments and riffs aren’t mended, where people die or leave, just to name a few examples.

For myself, I’ve read books that I’ve loved as I read them, but that ended in such an unsettling way that I couldn’t get past my feelings of despair to see beyond it. But is that not the goal of an author? To create a story that will affect the reader, and linger long after the book is closed?

So my question to all of you writers:  How do you like your endings? Have you ever grappled with an ending that was less than tidy, less than happy? How did you resolve your dilemma?

As readers, have you ever found yourself unsettled or even disappointed in an ending because it didn’t end neatly/expectedly?

*Recipe for Garlic Martini

1 oz. juice from Trader Joe’s Colossal Olives Stuffed with Garlic Cloves
1 1/2 to 2 oz. of Gin
shake in shaker with ice, pour into glass with olives

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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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