Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dangling Carrots...

As a writer of fiction, I've had to learn how to dangle carrots in front of the reader. It's not as cruel as it sounds - I don't giggle with sadistic delight as I watch the frustrated reader try to grab the out-of-reach carrots I'm dangling. But, in fiction, I must give the reader something to reach for - some reason to turn that page.

I think of it this way -- rather than showing all my cards to the reader, up front, all at once, and rather than drop key information about characters or situations altogether, in one huge dose, I try and lightly sprinkle these key details throughout the story - bit by bit. It's partly to sustain the action/plot/conflict throughout 400 pages, but it's also to provide a more interesting story, overall.

Here's an example: Let's say you have a character receive a letter, gasp, then nervously stuff the letter into her pocket. This instantly produces the obvious questions for the reader: What's in the letter? Who's the letter from? Is it good news or horrible news? How will it affect the character's life? You've just dangled the carrot. And if you can hold off and have her not open the letter for a chapter, or even a few chapters, then you've carried the suspense even further, making readers even more eager to have their questions answered.

Call it a hook, or a gimmick, or even passive-aggressive manipulation, lol - but whatever you call it, you can't deny that some level of suspense can keep a reader interested. And, it can keep things interesting for you, the writer, as well. Because, trust me, if you're bored with your own work, the reader will be just as bored.

The textbook from which I teach (Crossroads) calls this carrot-dangling technique "developing dramatic questions." Basically, you want the reader to have certain questions about characters' pasts, or their future decisions. Because questions make readers curious. Curious enough to read on. And, even better, it makes them think for themselves. You're not spoon-feeding them and over-telling the plot. Instead, you're giving the readers a chance to form their own opinions and suspicions. They become more actively involved, that way...

One word of caution - there's a difference between dangling carrots and flailing them about with a devious look in your eye, taunting the reader mercilessly. Dangling carrots is a way to create suspense. But if readers can overtly see it as manipulation, if they can tell it's just a gimmick, "stuck there" to produce suspense, it won't work. It's got to feel absolutely natural - part of the story itself, worked in seamlessly. Because if readers feel manipulated, if they "see" you dangling carrots in an obvious way, it'll only make them frustrated. And rather than read on, they might just close the book altogether.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


This might be the last blog post before Thanksgiving, so I wanted to make this one Thanksgiving-centric.

It sounds corny, but I'm thankful for writing. I thank God for the creative outlet it allows, for the "other" world it lets me enter, for the unique connection it brings between fellow writers. I'm grateful that I can be myself in ways I can't be otherwise, through writing. And, I'm grateful for the magic that happens (occasionally) when the Muse sprinkles generous portions of her creative pixie dust onto my fingers as I type.

Because when I'm in that "zone," when everything else is shut away except the words I'm placing on screen, that's magic. There's nothing else like that high, and I'm most grateful for it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Let it BREATHE...

I'm sure you've heard this advice before: "At some point in the writing process, put the manuscript aside and let it breathe. Leave it alone for a few days, even a few weeks, and come back to it with a fresh, more objective eye."

I've taught this to my students for years, and have always believed in its core value: that distancing yourself from your own (very subjective) work can help you see things in it later on that you wouldn't normally see. The distance provides a small amount of objectivity.

I've never before experienced this "truth" to such a great degree as I'm experiencing it right now. A bit of background info: Last summer, I spent 6 glorious, difficult, intense weeks writing the first draft of a new novel. I wrote about 10 pages a day (sometimes more) - every single day - in order to complete the manuscript before my first faculty meetings began. I knew that once the semester started, I wouldn't have the time to finish the novel. I would have to work it in between meetings and lesson plans and essay-grading and classes. Nope, I'd rather "rush" to finish it, all in one gulp.

Well, because of that rushed timeframe, I wasn't able to do what I usually do with a first draft - each day, I normally get my bearings by reading over the pages I'd written the day before, then write fresh pages. But, this time, I only read maybe the last couple of paragraphs and then dove in to write the new pages. Thus, much of this new novel had been written, but never reviewed.

So, now, as I'm editing the manuscript four months later, having let the material "breathe," something amazing is happening. There are entire passages, even entire chapters, that I barely recall writing. It's like looking at someone else's book -- which is exactly the point. Fresh eyes! I'm seeing not only the strengths in the writing, but the glaring flaws and inconsistencies, too. Things I might not've been able to see so well, if I'd "known" the material from many read-throughs.

Another good reason to let the material breathe is that sometimes we can grow tired of our own work. We get a sort of manuscript-fatigue if we work on something too hard, too long. It's almost like friends who see each other too often. If they take a break, the next time they see each other, there's more to talk about - the relationship has been refreshed.

And I must say, I'm enjoying reacquainting myself with this new novel, revisiting characters I'd only just met a few months before. Absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Waiting Game

If you're trying to get published, it's inevitable -- you will be forced to master The Art of Waiting, like it or not.

By now, I have just about mastered this "art." And I've got the war wounds to prove it. Just two examples: an article I got published in 2007 took 3 YEARS to see the light of day. I submitted a query, waited a few months. Got a request to see the full, waited a few more months. Got a "We're interested in maybe, perhaps, possibly publishing it, but would you be willing to make a few changes?" email, waited a few more months. By the time I went to the bookstore and got the edition in my hot little hands, so much time had passed that a tiny part of me wasn't even joyful about it. The grueling process itself had practically sucked some of the joy away.

Another example: a huge (I'm talking big-wig, best-of-the-best, stellar) NY agency requested a full manuscript of my novel. Then, they sat on it. For 18 months. I sent four VERY polite, professional email inquiries, but to no avail. Totally ignored. Finally, I sent a (still-professional) hard copy letter to the office, saying another agency was interested in seeing the full (which was true). The next day, I received a form email rejection, saying my material "wasn't for them." It took 18 months for them to decide that.

Those are extreme cases, and most of the time, agents/editors are very courteous to stick to their word, to their projected turnaround times.

But the main point is, if you're a writer trying to get published, you WILL be made to wait. It's a natural part of the process. So, what to do during that time? Try to forget about it, let it go, and KEEP WRITING.

As a matter of fact, right now, I'm awaiting a response from the agent who (very kindly!) requested re-writes on my novel. The holidays are a very busy time for everyone, agents included, so I really don't expect to hear anything before Christmas. This agent is a rare breed, in that she's been nice enough to keep me updated/informed about her turnaround time along the way, which has lessened my wait-anxiety.

Here's what I'm doing in the meantime - I'm pushing the agent situation to the back of my mind, and biding my time by editing the second book in my series. It's keeping me very busy - and very focused on something else besides the gnawing anxiety that I might get rejected. Or, heaven forbid, that I might actually get accepted!

So, remember - keeping busy and staying productive kills the frustration/anxiety/impatience bug. Well, maybe it doesn't totally kill it. Maybe it just maims it a little bit. ;-)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Lovers, Unite!

Passing along this link that many of you might already be aware of -- It's a book lover's dream! It has book reviews and recommendations, author interviews, quotes, trivia, reading groups, etc. You can also stay in touch with your friends and find out what books they're currently reading - and create a "book list" that helps you keep track of what you're reading.

So, if you love to read, you should definitely check out Goodreads! It's book heaven!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Fragments and Run-ons - Acceptable or Not Acceptable? That is the Question!

Yesterday, I talked about the joys and dangers of bending grammar rules in creative writing. Today, I'd like to focus particularly on fragments and run-ons. *Note: What follows is strictly my opinion -- a few writers/teachers differ from me on this...

First of all, I feel that too much of a good thing IS too much of a good thing. Too many fragments, too many run-ons, too many ANYTHING can be too much and can overwhelm the reader. And, after awhile, over-use of something makes it lose its flavor, its punch.

So, here goes: I think fragments are completely, totally acceptable in creative writing. They can be used in powerful ways. For emphasis. For drama. For...well, you get the point. Fragments are just what they sound like - pieces, fragments, of whole sentences. Sometimes, there's nothing more striking than seeing a fragment planted in the middle of a long, descriptive passage of text. A fragment, because it's usually brief, tends to be eye-catching and effective. Again, not that fragments should be terribly over-used (or even used at all, for some writers - it's your choice). But I personally love them. Love them!

Now, let's talk run-ons. Here's where some might differ from me. In fact, a well-known, best-selling author of women's fiction (who shall remain nameless) apparently adores run-ons. So much so, that nearly every sentence of hers is a run-on. Maybe it's the grammar teacher in me, but it drives me nuts, lol. I want to get out my red pen every time I read her books, which is why I no longer do. It's just too distracting.

Here's the thing I don't like about run-ons. A full sentence (subject/verb, complete thought) is whole, all by itself. Therefore, to add another complete sentence hot on its heels, with only a comma (or nothing at all!) separating the two, feels like too much information at once, even in creative writing.

My suggestion? Separate the two sentences with a period. Or, if you want to get creative, use a dash (which is an informal version of the semicolon). Or, you could add a conjunction in between the sentences, which corrects the run-on automatically.

Here's an example of a run-on that I, personally, don't find acceptable in any case:

Shelly didn't think it was going to rain, she took her umbrella anyway.

Here we have two complete sentences separated only by a comma (essentially, a comma splice).

I think it looks/sounds better this way (and, it's grammatically correct, to add the conjunction, "but"):

Shelly didn't think it was going to rain, but she took her umbrella anyway.

That "but" actually adds to the meaning of the sentence, making it easier to read.

I'm curious - any preferences out there, on the run-on issue? Do you like them, dislike them, or have no opinion either way (either as a writer, or as the reader)?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ack! Grammar!

So, let's talk grammar.

The good news: The rules of grammar can be bent, twisted, and in some cases, broken, in creative writing. As opposed to formal writing, in creative writing, we're allowed dashes (which I adore!), fragments (which I also adore), run-ons (which I personally don't adore), and many other errors that a formal writing teacher would be happy to slay with one stroke of her bright-red pen.

The bad news: The rules of grammar cannot be totally thrown out the window in the name of creative writing. Things like too many run-ons, lack of proper format and punctuation, misspelled words (accidental), wordy/wandering/meandering sentences that have no clear focus, etc. These should not be acceptable, even in creative writing.

Which brings me to this: if a writer cannot master the elementary basics of grammar, the reader will learn quickly not to trust him/her. And, worst of all, poor grammar distracts the reader from the point being made.

I've seen this happen over and over again with my students - they'll have a nail-biting plot, smooth dialogue, deep characterization - but I'm too busy marking the myriad of run-ons, the lack of punctuation surrounding dialogue, the missing indents for each new line of dialogue, and the misspelled words, to see the good stuff. Sure, as a teacher, I'm actually looking for that sort of thing. It's my job. But - the reader will catch it, too, and will be distracted from the sparkling text.

Bad grammar always gets in the way. It's almost like a crimson wine stain on an otherwise-pristine white carpet. What's our eye drawn to? Always the stain.

And, honestly, agents/editors won't give a stained-with-bad-grammar manuscript a second glance. They'll look at a poorly-written page, no matter how brilliant its text, and move along. On to the next writer.

So - know the basic rules of grammar first. Honor them. Only then are you free to bend them.

In the words of T.S. Eliot: "It's not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Word Choice

Here's a quite-difficult writing exercise I recently gave to my students:

Using one-syllable words ONLY, write a short scene from a story (or you could even write a long-ish poem or mini-essay).

Students surprise me every time with this assignment. Because of the difficulty level, I'm usually expecting them to come up with a somewhat simplistic, nursery-rhyme-ish, sing-songy-sounding story/poem. But they don't. Their work is poignant, rich, deep, philosophical, and oftentimes, funny!

It's one of my favorite in-class exercises - not only because it's challenging, but also because of what it teaches the students. Every time, without fail, the students tell me something along these lines: "This assignment made me look at every single word SO closely. I really had to slow down and think about my word choice."

What a great lesson for all writers - the importance of word choice. How about these: hurt vs. ached; exciting vs. scintillating; loud vs. sonorous. We writers have total control over what ends up on the page - word choice is our choice. And it's not that the words have to be formal-sounding or overly-descriptive or intellectual-sounding. But one word can create one image in the reader's mind, while another word can create an entirely different image. It's that important.

For me, keen attention to word choice happens in the editing process. The rough draft is for pouring my thoughts/ideas on paper nearly the moment they spill out. But in the editing process, I slow down, almost painfully-so, and pay careful attention to sentences, to individual words. And yes, I break out my thesaurus from time-to-time. No harm in that! It's one of a writer's many tools.

So, today, why not give this one-syllable exercise a try? (I'd love to see a few of them posted in the comments! How fun! I'll start...*takes a breath and dives in* lol).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quote of the Day

I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am. ~Jane Austen

Excellent philosophy: press on, write something - even when we don't much feel like it...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Double Meanings

I love double meanings. In titles, in character names, in dialogue. If done correctly, intended double meanings can have a one-two-punch effect, making already-deep text plunge even deeper, reaching the reader on an entirely different level.

Here's an example: I happen to love that old 80's t.v. show, Thirtysomething. Well, in Season 3, a character named Ellyn finds herself in murky water, dating a married man. For many episodes, she deals with the moral issue itself, with judgment from her friends, and with the empty promises of the married man (to eventually leave his wife for her).

In a particular episode, he actually does the unthinkable and leaves his wife to be with Ellyn. Unexpectedly, both he and his 12-year-old daughter move in with Ellyn, while they all try to sort out the chaotic details of this sudden decision. Well, Ellyn visits her therapist when the romantic bubble starts to burst - when she realizes that the decisions she and the married man have made start to affect other people. Like the daughter.

Which brings me to this -- there's a powerful scene where Ellyn is talking to her therapist about the daughter, venting about how aggravating she's been. Ellyn spouts off something like: "This girl is sweet, but annoying. She's bugging me! And she's careless. She loses things all the time! Her school notebook, even my very-expensive bracelet. She left it in the cab yesterday and now it's gone. Can you believe that? This girl loses everything!" *a pause as Ellyn realizes what she's just said* Then, she whispers, slowly: "She loses everything..."

The first time she said it, the statement meant one thing. It was about jewelry. But the second time she said it, the statement meant an entirely different, more poignant thing. The daughter was the one paying the price for Ellyn's decision to date a married man. The daughter was the one "losing everything." Double meaning. I love it. And then, of course, those physical objects of the notebook and bracelet have now become actual symbols of a greater loss woven throughout the episode. Thirtysomething is filled with that kind of deeper meaning in nearly every episode.

I think it's an excellent lesson for writers - not that we have to try too hard to inject double meanings into absolutely every line. In fact, if the symbolism/double meanings are all over the place, or are overly-obvious, they become less effective. But sometimes, when the scene or dialogue or description allows, a double meaning can be pitch-perfect and create a deeper throughline to the rest of the story. Powerful stuff.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Rounding out a week of discussing the importance of reading, I thought I'd bring it to a close with this - wise words from a wise man:

We read to know that we are not alone. ~C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

20 Questions

Yesterday, I talked about the importance of reading (of "studying" authors and reading books through a writer's eye). Here's an assignment I give to my Creative Writing students, to help them develop that writer's eye. They choose a novel and then answer these questions. I tell them to be honest - even to examine the "flaws" in the writing/plot/characterization. No book is perfect, and I think we can learn from all books, even the not-so-great ones.

Opening and Setting:
1) Examine the title of the book. Is there a double meaning? Does the title refer to a specific object/phrase used inside the book?

2) Study the first sentence of the novel. Is it interesting/captivating? Does it make you want to read further? Why or why not?

3) Pay attention to the main setting of the book. When did the author give that information to the reader? (the first page, or 20 pages into the book?) Was the setting too obvious or given away too early, or was it just right?

4) Does the writer seem to “know” the character thoroughly? Explain your answer.

5) Do the characters feel authentic - do they seem like real people with real emotions/reactions/thoughts? Give an example.

6) What is the main character's name? Is it significant? If so, explain why.

7) Who’s your favorite character, and why?

8) What are that character’s good points, and what are his/her flaws?

9) Does that character grow or evolve from the beginning of the novel to the end? If so, explain why or how.

Writing Style:
10) Is the writing easy to read, or does it seem challenging? (i.e., are cliches, wordiness, passive voice present?)

11) Regarding pacing -- Are there places that are slowed down by too much dialogue, exposition, or description?

12) Are there any spots that contain too much “telling” and not enough “showing?” If so, what would you suggest for these areas?

13) Examine the dialogue - did it feel natural, the way real people talk? Or was it odd or unnatural in places?

14) Did the dialogue reveal anything significant about the characters? Give a brief example.

15) Is the plot convincing, grounded in reality? (Even if it's sci-fi or fantasy, there should be grains of truth inside the plot, a believability of some sort). Or is it too outlandish to be believed?

16) Did the author use any ongoing symbols throughout the novel? If your answer was “yes,” were these symbols subtle, or too obvious?

17) What was the main conflict of the story (in just a couple of sentences)? What was the climax point of that conflict?

18) Was the ending satisfying (i.e., did it tie up loose ends and seem to “close” the story)? Why or why not?

19) If you were dissatisfied with the ending, how would YOU have written the ending, to make it better?

Overall Review:
20) In just a couple of sentences, give your overall impression of this novel.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Read, Read, Read!

Read, read, read. Read everything-- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window. ~William Faulkner

I couldn't agree more with Mr. Faulkner. I'm always amazed at the small percentage of my Creative Writing students who don't enjoy reading! To me, writing and reading go hand-in-hand and personally, I don't see how a writer can't love to read.

In fact, my own love for writing was born directly out of my love for reading. I can remember being the geeky 7th grader whose favorite day of the month was seeing that huge stack of rubber-banded books on my teacher's desk - which meant that the books I'd ordered from the school catalog weeks before had finally come in. I would spend that evening choosing the first book, then devouring it, pouring over it, getting lost in that imaginary world. To this day, I still love the texture of a physical book in my hand - and yes, I even love the way a book smells. Ahh, that new book smell. Nothing like it. See? Geeky. But my greater point is this: from the time I realized the words in those books didn't just magically appear on the page - that there was an actual person laboring over those words behind-the-scenes - I wanted to be part of that process, as a writer. To create that book-loving experience, myself.

But something interesting happened as I started to become a more serious writer over the years. I started to read differently. Even the books I read for pleasure became more like textbooks. I found myself studying, through a writer's eye - examining dialogue, paying attention to plot development, noticing subtle symbolism within the text. And this, I believe, makes for better writing. I'm studying the Masters, as Mr. Faulkner put it. Watching them work, peeking behind that writer's curtain, seeing how it's done.

To that end, I've started giving my Creative Writing students a book report assignment during the semester. They are to choose a book (even one they've read before) and see it not as a reader - but as a writer. I give them a list of 20 questions (which I'll post on tomorrow's entry) to help them start to look at all books through a writer's eye. I'm hoping this will be the beginning for them, that it will change the way they see the written word, and that it will influence them personally, as writers. Because I'm a firm believer that a good student (of the written word) makes a better writer.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Rejecter!

I've been reading this blog for awhile now and wanted to pass it along. It's written (cleverly) by an anonymous NY assistant agent. Because she's anonymous, she gets to tell it like it is - and gives VERY blunt and VERY practical advice to struggling-to-get-published writers. I love it. I love the tone of her entries. I think sometimes the best thing writers can hear is HONEST advice.

Here's the link: The Rejecter

And here's the description: I am an assistant at a literary agency. I am the first line of defense for my boss. On average, I reject 95% of the letters immediately and put the other 5% in the "maybe" pile. Here, I'll talk about my work.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Casting Your Characters

I don't know about you, but I sometimes have trouble "seeing" my characters vividly if I don't have a pretty good grip on their physical appearance. They tend to be sort of vague and faceless as I write, unless I "cast" them. This may not work for everyone, but something that helps me is to have a particular actor/actress in mind for the "role" I'm writing.

Before even starting my book, during the characterization process, I "cast" my main characters, figuring out which actor/actress would most physically fit the description in my head. That way, their features are stronger when I write because my brain is already familiar with that image. For example, the two main characters (Brooke & Adam) in one of my novels, are "cast" as Reece Witherspoon and a Welsh actor named Ioan Grufudd.

Another trick I use to help me picture things more vividly - and I know this sounds a little extreme - is to create a screensaver on my computer that's got the character pictures, and places for the setting (in this case, a village in the Cotswolds).

This, for me, creates vivid images in my mind that I'm able to (hopefully) transfer to the page. Because if I can see it, I can write it. Plus, it's fun! I love creating this screensaver during the brainstorming process because it gets me involved in the story/setting/characters early on. Anybody else use these tricks? Or others? I'd love to hear about them...