Saturday, February 26, 2011

Put Me to Shame

Here's the truth. I have a love/hate relationship with GOOD books. I'm talking about writing where prose is rattled off without effort (seemingly). Prose that contains poetry and poignancy and depth and subtle symbolism. Prose that's tight and free of cliches, free of adverbs and over-telling and too-long descriptions that bring a plot to a standstill. Prose that's brilliant - that makes me re-read sentences and absorb them.

I "hate" these books because they put me to shame. I read them and think, "Aww, man. I can never be THAT good. Not in a million years."

But then, something else starts to happen when I read these books. Soon, I shove away the self-defeating thought and replace it with another one: "Hmm. I don't know if I'll ever be that good ---- but maybe I can TRY."

Reading GOOD books makes me want to do better, be better. To raise that bar as high as I can lift it, then train and stretch and jump and jump until maybe, just maybe, I can reach it, too. My own personal bar. And, the thing is, my bar is different than someone else's, because we're each different writers. My bar isn't that incredible author's bar. It's MY bar now. And because of her, it's higher.

So, thank you, good books. Thank you, incredible authors, for stretching me, challenging me. For making me want to be a better writer.

**my current good book of shame is: Juliet, by the wonderful Anne Fortier - highly recommended. What's yours?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What's Your Pitch?

I learned a long time ago, from attending writers conferences, that in order to "pitch" a book (to an agent, or even to your audience), you must be able to sum it up in one to three sentences. If you can't do that, something's wrong -- either the plot is too convoluted, or you don't know your own intention/focus clearly enough. You don't understand the heart of your book.

Nathan Bransford (former agent and blogger extraordinaire) just posted this on his Facebook page. It's a wonderful formula for helping writers determine their "pitch." Just wanted to pass it along...

One sentence pitch formula: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER, they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Don't Manipulate the Reader

In the last entry, I talked about moving our readers - getting them to care about the characters and what happens to them.

But there's a fine line between being moved and being manipulated. If your goal, as the writer, IS to produce tears, then be prepared for the backlash - for the reader to produce eye-rolls, rather than tears. What I mean is - a smart reader, a conscientious reader, can see right through that manipulation.

Have you ever watched a movie that was trying too hard? That was setting up circumstances and plots solely in order to reach a solitary goal -- to make the reader weep? And did you ever see it coming and, thus, when it came, have the opposite reaction -- either a giggle or an eye-roll? Or even a bit of anger toward the writer for trying to manipulate you? I have. Lots of times.

Sure, each one of us has a different threshold for tears. For some, it takes some a LOT to produce tears. For others, it takes nothing more than a Hallmark card commercial. Still, though, most readers/viewers know when a writer is trying too hard, can see right through it.

So how do we evoke emotions in our readers without trying too hard? I think it's pretty simple. Just write the story with truth. Be in that moment yourself, as you write it, and let the character, the plot, the dialogue, ring with truth. Don't try at ALL to force emotion from the reader. Just write. And if you write your scenes with that sort of honesty, if readers are absorbed in your story, in those characters, then, trust me - when that character is in pain, or experiences a joyful moment, or even when that character dies - your readers will be moved. They can't help it. Because by that point, they're invested in what happens.

If you're writing from any place other than honesty, then the writing, I think, will feel manipulative and forced.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Made 'Em Cry!

A good friend of mine just finished reading my third novel. When she wrote me about it (she lives several states away), she told me how moved she was - that the ending made her cry! - and that she was even tearing up as she wrote me the email.

My dad had a similar reaction to my second book - there were moments he said he teared up, too!

Both of their reactions mean so much, because it shows me they were invested in the story. They cared about what happened to the characters. If I had to choose one primary goal at all as a writer, it would be that one, I think. No -- not to make 'em cry (in fact trying to produce tears from readers is quite manipulative). But my goal is to make 'em feel moved. In this case, my friend's and dad's tears were evidence to me that the story reached through to their hearts.

That, I think, is a sign of success!

By the way, is it weird to admit that, sometimes when I'm re-reading/editing my OWN scenes, I tear up, too? I mean, I already know what's happening to the characters - I wrote the scenes! - and still, sometimes, I get affected by the work. Or, rather, by those characters (because they're so meaningful to me). I guess that's good!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Be a Man!

So, here was my writing prompt for today's Creative Writing class: "Pretend you're someone of the opposite sex, getting ready for a blind date." :-)

I told them to try and avoid stereotypes and to be "sensitive," keeping in mind they're reading theirs aloud for a mixed audience. It was great! The students were respectful and funny and insightful.

I started out by telling them about my story (I've actually blogged about it once before) -- how I assumed a male narrator for my last novel, and how challenging I thought it would be. Turns out, it wasn't that challenging at all, because I stopped looking at my character as MALE first, and started looking at him as HUMAN first. And it worked. I thought of men that I know personally - father, brother, cousins, friends - and tried to blend in realistic character traits that a man would have. Sure, my character liked sports. And sure, he wasn't very big on sharing his emotions. But that truly was part of his character, less than because he was a "man."

Today, I encouraged my students to challenge themselves - to write out of the box, wriggle out of their comfort zones. To consider writing from a different point of view - the opposite sex, or someone much older, much younger. I still think it's possible for writers to connect with characters much different from themselves. Because, when it all comes down to it, we're all human. Young, old, male, female. There are just certain things about human nature that we all share, that will never change.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is There a Doctor in the House?

As writers, we get to experience things (well, at least in our minds) that many people don't. If we want our characters to fly in a hot air balloon, or experience cancer, or quit their jobs and abandon their lives, we can do it.

Sure, there's online research, to help us capture these unfamiliar things on the page. But there's also an enormous well of resources around us, if we'll only just take a look. Think of friends, relatives, people you know, who might be able to help, to give a first-hand account of something you're writing about.

In the book I'm currently editing, there's a scene in which a character has had an accident (he falls) and needs medical attention. I wanted to be as accurate as possible with the medical side of things. Cue my father, a doctor! Tonight, I had a conversation with him, in which we discussed the medical realities and questions that would need to be addressed with this character's situation. It actually turned funny, our conversation, when we both realized we were talking about a fictional character. It went something like this:

Dad: "If he has a concussion, head trauma, then it's important to assess his level of consciousness. Has he been attacked?"
Me: "No. He just fell. But he might have bumped his head. I haven't decided yet. Maybe, to uncomplicate things, I could have him not bump his head. I could just give him hypothermia. And maybe some dehydration."
Dad: "Okay, well, in that case..."

And so on. It was fun, discussing a character's health as though he was a real person!

So, as you're researching things/situations you've never personally experienced, look around at the people in your life. Are there experts there, right under your nose, who can give you inside information? Who can give you accurate assessments that will help you write the scene like an expert? If so, use them.

Trust me, they won't mind. Especially if, like my father, they're big supporters of your writing. They'll be more than happy to help, and to know that they were an important part of the process.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Do I Know You?

Today in class, we discussed characterization. I gave the students my list of questions, regarding traits/qualities/quirks/beliefs of characters - my standard "character profile." I explained that we, the writers, should know more about our own characters than anyone else. And that even though we might know what's in our characters' wallet or purse, or know the exact location of every tattoo, it doesn't mean that information will necessarily end up in our story. What's important is that we know it. That we know them.

I compared this idea to Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz - how the wizard was doing all sorts of things behind that curtain that Dorothy didn't see (well, at least, not at first). The point is, we, the writers, are the ones behind the curtain, doing all sorts of research and fleshing out of characters that the reader might never be fully aware of.

Today's class buzzed with energy -- it was so fun to see the students excited about this. I passed out my list of character questions and asked them to add 10 of their own. Then, we shared. I couldn't write them down fast enough. Hands going up all over the room, eager to share. They added some great ones, like these:

* What's the posture/gait of the character?
* Does the character experience road rage?
* How many languages does the character know?
* What kind of shoes does the character wear?
* Does the character text?
* What's the biggest secret the character has been holding onto?
* Does the character have a healthy self-esteem?

And on and on. I wrote down at least 50 new questions, for myself, that the students came up with.

Bottom line in all this -- know your characters inside and out. Know what their reactions would be in a given situation, what their hopes are, their fears. Once you know the characters that well, they'll start to write themselves. They'll start making decisions on their own, start living and breathing and acting more like real people. Which, even in fiction, should be a top priority. That the characters ring true.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Shake It Up

I often blog about the importance of listening to that "inner editor" we all have -- our "gut," if you will -- when editing a novel or story. Well, today, I was editing a chapter of my novel and felt "meh" about the opening paragraphs. That's not good. A new scene or chapter should always be treated like the first paragraph. It's important. It sets the tone, draws the reader in. Those opening paragraphs should pop, move, or at least be interesting.

Here's my original opening for Chapter Twenty-one:


Hours later, well after the meal had been devoured and the dishes cleared away, Holly sat at the kitchen table with her father. The girls had been upstairs, getting ready for bed, and he had just come in from work, deciding to eat in the kitchen rather than his study. He'd popped the last chip into his mouth and wiped his stubbled chin.

"So..." Holly started, twisting her napkin into the shape of a swan. "I wanted to talk about Mildred."


"Well, did you ever ask her? To marry you? You never said."


*YAWN* My inner editor tells me that scene feels flat. Uninteresting. So, here's how I changed it. I wanted to shake things up a little. To keep the content of the scene (an important exchange between a father and daughter about his recent engagement), but to begin in a more interesting, less generic way. I think/hope this version is an improvement:

She couldn’t make a habit of this. Of being angry with her father, constantly surprised at his constant insensitivity. But, after nearly three decades of knowing him, Holly still expected more. “People don’t change,” her mother used to tell her. So why couldn’t she make herself believe it was true?

Fashioning a swan out of her paper napkin, Holly waited for him to explain. The girls had gone to bed an hour ago and Holly was about to do the same, when her father had arrived home from London.

The look on his face when he entered the kitchen told Holly he was about to confess to something she might not want to hear.

“I’ve asked Mildred,” he'd told her. No compulsory small talk or segues to prepare her. Only an announcement: “I gave her the ring on Friday, and she accepted.”

Friday. Two whole days ago. And he was only just now bothering to let her know.


I'm not saying Version 2 is perfect (in fact, I'm still working on it), but I do think it's better. More interesting, more "active" than Version 1.

So, whenever you're a little stuck, whenever your inner editor tells you something is too flat, not good enough, shake things up. Re-think the scene. See it from a different angle. Make it pop. It might take a lot of mental brainpower and energy and time (it took me about twenty minutes of brainstorming, just for these paragraphs). But in the end, it's worth it.

What NOT To Do

You know, it's funny -- I think I learned more about how to be a better teacher from not-so-great teachers, than from the good ones. I watched them closely, realized the kind of teacher I didn't want to be, by observing what they did wrong, or did poorly. "I will never be/do/say that!" I would think to myself, filing their error away in my mind.

The same can be said of not-so-great books. Reading poorly-written sentences or intros, observing awkward dialogue and thin characterization -- these are all great teachers. We can learn what not to do, in our own prose. "I will never write/say/do that!" <--we should file that away in our writers' minds.

Along those lines, here's a fantastic blog entry that reveals 18 "Don'ts" that I fully agree with.

Ultimately, I think it's about awareness - once we're aware of the pitfalls and weaknesses, we can do our best to avoid them!

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I found this great 4-part video about Storytelling (via Nathan Bransford). It explores the basic building blocks of writing -- the pitfalls to avoid, strengths to strive for, and mechanics to incorporate.

I like what Mr. Glass says, regarding anecdotes and revelation. I think if a story is lacking either that steady push-forward of plot, or a relevance (why is this story meaningful or important?), the entire piece is weakened.

I also agree with him, about editing - about being ruthless and tough, when it comes to removing the "trash" to find the gold in your writing. It reminds me of something a writer said during a conference I attended years ago: "A sentence (or storyline, or character) must EARN the right to live." Be brutal. Be ruthless. Cut whatever doesn't belong there.

Mr. Glass also discusses how all writers go through a period (usually early on) where their good taste doesn't match their writing (which is underdeveloped, at that point). His solution is to write, write, write. Very reminiscent of this recent blog post, the "million bad words."

So much great advice in those videos. Very encouraging. I really needed to hear it today.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

4 Reasons to Write

Passing along this interesting link to a video/interview with Roger Rosenblatt: 4 Reasons to Write.

A brief synopsis: What makes good writing? Can it be taught? And, by the way, why write in the first place? Such questions are asked throughout a new book entitled "Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing." It follows a teacher and students through a semester of a class called "Writing Everything."