Monday, December 27, 2010

Those Deadly Pronouns

The use of pronouns came up on a list I read. As always, they’re viewed with mixed opinions. My main concern is that the antecedent be clear. I really hate to stop and have to figure it out or wonder who “she” is.

Overuse of proper names is equally distracting. You just have to read your work carefully and make sure it’s clear. If not, look for an interesting way to fix it.
When two or more persons of the same sex are present in a scene, the pronouns are difficult. Try to use descriptions to identify people or use the names more often. The tired waitress, the frazzled customer, the girl. Use dialogue instead of narrative so it’s clear who’s doing what. Review scenes with a number of hes or shes and see if the writing can be made clearer and more vivid at the same time.

Pronouns modify the last stated noun. Example: I found a book in the store. It was old. This sentence means the store was old, not the book, because store was the last stated noun. Use care with pronouns.

Personal pronouns modify the last stated name. Be certain pronouns modify the intended proper noun. Joe and Bill raced around the track. He longed to leave him in the dust. Technically, this means Bill yearned to leave Joe, but the reader may have doubts, and it may not be what the writer intended. Try being a little more creative. Bill’s big Nikes kicked dust in Joe’s face. Joe hated coming in second—he yearned to leave the older boy in the dust, and one day he would. The context makes this clear, even with all the pronouns.

What are your pet peeves on pronouns? Do you have any good examples?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Celestial Events? Not.

Eclipse of the Moon, image credit David Lee, NRC--
no, I didnt' see it.

The number of times I’ve left my warm bed at some wee hour to witness a celestial event . . . well, more than I care to count. Last night was typical—solid cloud cover, not a glimpse of the eclipse. My alarm went off at 2 and I grabbed coat, camera, and binoculars and went outside to a starless, moonless fuzzy sky. At about 2:30, without seeing a flicker of anything interesting, I caved. I did get a picture of the sky (lightened as much as Picasa allows) and a shaky picture of my neighbor’s Christmas lights.

Neighbor's Christmas Lights
I’ve spent hours lying on my back in a cemetery, watching clouds in the dark of night. Sometimes all I get is bug bites or frostbite. I am not lucky in these matters. A few years ago, a friend and I drove into the mountains looking for a dark spot to watch the Leonids. We took the inevitable  thermos of hot chocolate, a couple of lap robes, and wandered around till we found a dirt road leading into a dark field. After we’d sat in the car for an hour, a fist knocked on the car window--some guy with a gun over his shoulder wanted to know if we had a problem. After we wiped up the chocolate that went all over the blankets, we explained about the meteor shower (news to him). He seemed skeptical but left, back to his warm bed no doubt. For our sins, we saw lots of clouds. Not a single shooting star.

When my son was small, there was a time with lots of reports of UFOs in the area. He and I got up at two and sat in the back watching for them. We lit three candles, hoping to entice them to our yard, which wasn’t that big—certainly not big enough for the mothership, but we thought maybe a scouting party in a smaller craft might come by. After a while, Johnny suggested food. They might like cookies, he said, only we didn’t have any. All we found were saltine crackers, but he added a glass of tea. The aliens never showed.
My usual view

That was long ago, but I’m an optimist, at least about some things. So I woke my grandchildren and two dogs in the middle of the night, and, miracle of miracles, my husband, and set out on another celestial hunt. It was freezing cold, but we had hot chocolate and blankets, drove into the mountains, and spread out on the ground. We saw maybe three shooting stars.

The most (and possibly only) successful night came when Hale-Bopp passed over the mountains around Clyde. I drove out with my cat in the car (what can I say? I like company), found a dark mountaintop, and waited. And there it was, right on time, right where it was supposed to be. I even have pictures, if I could find them.

Really, the return on investment is out there with sending query letters.
So, what are you doing January 3?
The next meteor shower is the Quadrantids on the night of January 3. The shower has a sharp but brief peak, with few meteors on the nights before and after. The Moon is new, so it won’t interfere with the shower’s fireworks.

Name / Date of Peak/ Moon
Quadrantids/ night of January 3/ New
Lyrids/ night of April 21/ Rises after midnight
Eta Aquarids/ night of May 5/ Sets in early evening
Perseids/ night of August 13/ Full
Draconids/ night of October 8/ Sets around midnight
Orionids/ night of October 21/ Rises after midnight
Leonids/ night of November 17/ Rises around midnight
Geminids/ night of December 13/ Just past full

NOTES These are approximate times for the Lower 48 states; actual shower times can vary. Bright moonlight makes it difficult to see all but the brightest meteors.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rules or No Rules?

A few truths pop up in most commercial fiction. Does that make it formulaic? I don’t think so. People read fiction for entertainment or escape. Happily-ever-afters make me happy. Life has enough tragedies—I don’t need any more. Crime fiction does have some bad scenes and a few murders; but the main characters usually win in the end, and the bad guys get what they deserve, so it’s satisfying.
What about the “rules”? Don’t kill children or dogs, at least not if they’re major characters, and definitely not “on-screen.” That’s an understandable guideline, one that suits me. A child murder in backstory is usually acceptable though, something that happened before the main story begins and is only referred to, not seen.
Rules are only guidelines, and they shouldn’t stifle creativity. Sometimes they even make you stretch to come up with an interesting twist on an old theme.
Rules can always be broken, and it’s easy to come up with successful examples, but seriously breaking them makes the book a harder sell, particularly if you’re not an established writer. The rules are there for a reason—they’re proven to make books more interesting and help them sell. But it’s still tough sometimes.
What do you think? Do you find them constraining? Do you ignore them or try to work with them?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Clowns—no, it’s not about politics

It’s about the papier-mâché clowns I used to make. Most of them became lamps, and they all found homes. Papier-mâché means chewed paper, but I wasn’t that authentic. They were entirely handmade though. I made coat-hanger frames, tore newspaper into small pieces, and soaked it in a mixture of flour, water, and Elmer’s glue. Each clown took close to 40 hours to make , counting the drying time. The clothes were paper too. The oven was always on and steaming. Definitely a winter event. But it was fun. It did destroy the kitchen while I was doing it though. I can’t even write on a computer and be neat. My kitchen table was under this mess for weeks at a time.
The clowns were unique and most represented something or were doing something, such as napping. One was a boxer, one a cowboy, a baseball player, but all had clown faces and feet.
Later I tried using dolls for the base to save time, but they weren’t as interesting.
All this was many years ago, when our son was in middle school. One day he asked if I could pretend to be normal for a while and bake cookies or something that smelled good instead of paper. Since then we’ve come to appreciate that neither of us will ever be “normal.” He’s a musician, so he can’t say much.  

From now until Thanksgiving, I doubt if I’ll get any writing done. Maybe I’ll post about cooking—it’s better than cleaning.  I’d like to paint a couple of rooms, but I doubt I’ll have time. I don’t want just plain color, I want faux finishes. Nothing’s ever simple.

What do you do? Do you cultivate messy, impractical activities?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Coal in the Pudding

As writers, we know far more than we tell, but there’s always a temptation to use everything you’ve researched. When we succumb, it’s like finding lump of coal in the pudding—the big action scene is at hand, our pulse is racing, and whoa! We stop to watch the heroine prepare her hot air balloon for the escape from the rooftop, and we’re treated to every detail. Ah, yes, you think. The writer spent an afternoon researching with a balloonist and made note of every tuck and fold. And here it all is—every tuck and fold. The story comes to a dead halt, or maybe there’s a brief mention of something important—which you’ll probably miss because by then you’re skimming past this fascinating scene. If you’re still reading at all.

Think before you let the research take over. Make sure the information is something the reader needs to know. Bring it in when it’s pertinent to what is happening in the plot. Mix it with action. If it doesn’t move the story forward, sit on your hands until the urge to tell all has passed.

And then there’s necessary information and how to present it. Although you can let a character explain what the reader needs to know through dialogue or thought, this too can be heavy-handed. There must be a valid reason for the character to explain.

Dave answered the door. “Hello, my daughter. How’s the architect business today?” 

A little obvious, don’t you think? But it did tell us their relationship and that she’s an architect.
Information should pertain to the story or reveal character. Maybe the daughter has a roll of blueprints with her and forgets them when she leaves—they should have some significance other than being a device to tell the reader what she does.

Dave answered the door. “Hi, Brenda.” The roll of blueprints in her hand bumped his chest, blocking his welcome hug.

“Sorry, Dad.” She propped the drawings beside the door. “The Richardson’s house plans. I forgot them this afternoon. I’ll have to drop them off tonight.”

This lets us know their relationship, that’s it’s a warm one, her occupation, and that she’s going to arrive at the Richardson’s unexpectedly.

Then later, when she stops by the Richardson’s, she finds something important to the story. If her being an architect isn’t important to anything, maybe it should be left out.
Just something to think about.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Current Reads

A Nail through the Heart by Timothy Hallinan. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose about terrible things. It can break your heart. I'm only a few chapters in, but I'm hooked. Thanks, Peg Brantley, for recommending it. It's a library hardback but I'm lugging it around anyway. I got to read for half an hour Thursday night waiting for a high school choral program to start. (That was fun too, but it's another story.)

The PostmistressI also got The Postmistress by Sarah Blake recently, but I had to give it back to the library before I got anywhere. I heard some of it on Radio Reader, which is why I requested it. But things came up and it came due too soon. That's the good and the bad thing about the library. I don't have enough time, but I do have access to many more than I can buy.

My TBR stack is big enough to be a hazard now. I should quit buying or requesting anything for a while and try to catch up, at least a bit. There are so many good books I want to read. I still have Richard Helms's Six Mile Creek waiting, and I loved his Pat Gallagher books--also Grass Sandal, so I'd really like to get to this one.

So, shall I read or write? That's the question.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Hook and a Promise

Don’t you read at least the first paragraph before you decide on a book? The beginning of story lays down the promise for the rest of story and the author has to live by the rules she or he sets. I hate it when the opening of a book promises humor and delivers tragedy, or the opposite. I often chose my next read by my mood. Sometimes I want drama, sometimes light humor—whatever, the opening paragraphs guide my selection. If the book turns out to be something else, it’s a disappointment. So, writers, be careful to open with the right tone. 
The beginning of your story should do at least three things: get your story going and set the tone; introduce and characterize the protagonist; and above all, engage the reader's interest!

The opening scene can also create mood, introduce the narrator or narrative voice, introduce other characters (one or two, possibly even three, but too many is just confusing and dilutes interest in the main characters), the setting, time, and so on.

For example, volcanic openings—those with high drama—promise that the rest of the story will leave you breathless too.  It’s difficult to deliver on a promise like that.  Think about it. You may want to be a little more subtle in the opening, make a little less noise at the outset.  If it leads to melodrama later on, so be it.

Jennifer Crusie promises wit, romance, and a fun read in Fast Women.  It’s all there in the opening, and she keeps it going until the very end.
The man behind the cluttered desk looked like the devil, and Nell Dysart figured that was par for her course since she’d been going to hell for a year and a half anyway. Meeting Gabriel McKenna just meant she’d arrived.

Gwen Hunter opens Delayed Diagnosis with an ominous tone, and she delivered!
I had never been a coward, but it took all the courage I ever had to walk in to Marisa’s room. She was just sitting there, slightly slumped, her face and form in silhouette, framed by the window and rising sun. Unmoving. A mannequin in shadow.

I thought both of these books opened with a terrific hook and a promise. I’m sure you have examples of your own openings or other books with good openings. Share some! We all learn from seeing them.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Controversial "Was"

Do you try to show everything? Do you avoid “was” like the Nile virus? I try to limit it, but too many colorful descriptions and exotic verbs can take you out of the story as quickly as too many dull verbs. (Since most stories are written in past tense, I’m using was instead of is or some other form of the verb to be.)

Was has a place in writing. It’s part of the English language, and to leave it out completely makes for awkward, usually overblown, prose. This has been a recent discussion on a list I belong to. There’s a lot of confusion about it was. It isn’t always passive voice. Passive refers to who performs the action. If Bill threw the ball, Bill, the subject, is performing the action and the sentence is active. If the ball was thrown by Bill, the subject, the ball, is not performing the action and the sentence is passive. In this case the use of “was” is passive. Even passive has a place. I try (but it still creeps in once in a while) to limit passive to the rare occasions when who did it isn’t important to the story. The meeting was postponed until Friday. That’s passive, but what matters is the postponement, not who postponed it.

Another frowned-upon use of was is in telling (instead of showing), when the subject is linked to an adjective. She was tired. You could go into a more lengthy description and show that she was tired, but that’s not always necessary. Showing takes more words, so you have to ask if it’s important to the story or if it slows it down with unnecessary detail. Remember, moderation in all things. I think you should definitely lean toward more showing than telling, but I disagree with Mae West—too much of a good thing is not always wonderful.

But there’s another use of was—progressive tense, when the subject performs an ongoing action. Ellen was crossing the street. This is not passive. Sometimes showing progressive action is the only way to make sense. Ellen was crossing the street when a car hit her. If I say Ellen crossed the street when a car hit her, it gives an entirely different picture.

Here’s a bit from The Peeper where I thought telling worked better.

Julie hung there, her bare ass balanced over his shoulder, her pale hair swinging against the man’s hips. The quick glimpse was enough. Poor Julie. Hot tears ran down Elliott’s cheeks. That image would haunt him forever.

I could have substituted something more colorful for was, but this is in Elliott’s point of view and The quick glimpse sufficed or The quick glimpse satisfied Elliott would sound stilted and unnatural, at least to my ear.

How do you feel about was? Do you think it has a legitimate use in fiction? Do you go to great lengths to avoid it? When do you use it (if you do)? Have any examples you’re willing to share? I’d really like to know your thinking on this.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Infernal Conflict

No, that’s not a typo. That’s how I think of it—hellish. Infernal (or internal) conflict is the kind that arises from within as opposed to external conflict, which is imposed from the outside. External conflict isn’t too difficult—it can be anything from a violent storm to a sick toddler to an ax murderer. It’s the internal stuff that’s hard to come up with. It has to be believable, and the reason or motive behind it must be strong. The stronger the motive, the stronger (and more sustainable) the conflict.

All stories need conflict. Without it, a plot is merely a series of related events. It’s the struggle we like to read about. We want our heart to pound with the protagonist's and to feel the emotions she feels. But the conflict should be appropriate to the story. If you’re writing romantic comedy, you don’t want the heroine claustrophobic because she was trapped in a well when she was four.

The character must be in conflict with herself. Logically she knows the cliffside path is safe, but she can’t make herself walk it. For this struggle with herself to be believable, she needs a strong reason for her fear. If she dropped her favorite doll into a ravine and lost it when she was a child, it’s not much of a reason and shouldn’t cause such paralyzing fear. But if she fell into the ravine as a child (how bad do you want it to be? You can always raise the stakes—maybe she landed in a nest of snakes), the reason is much more believable. The stronger the reason, the stronger and more believable her inner conflict will be. So at the climax, when she needs to go out on that path to save the injured man, she has to overcome her own terrible fear. And we want to experience her struggle, feel what she feels, and empathize.

Internal conflict comes from backstory. It has to be there when the story begins. Usually it stems from something that happened when the character was an impressionable child. Otherwise, the reader may think she should just get over it. She may feel a little trepidation, but it shouldn’t stop her from going along the path. It can be a hard sell, making the reader sympathize and share the emotion. Irrational fears don’t cut it in fiction.

How do you handle infernal conflict? Have any examples?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who Said That?

Run-together paragraphs drive me nuts. Having to stop and figure out who’s saying what takes me right out of the story. With dialogue especially, each person needs his own paragraph. If one speaker says something, and the other reacts with a thought or motion but no words, then the second person should still have a new paragraph. It helps the reader keep the picture and the conversation straight.

“No, I don’t want to go there,” Lucy said, taking a book off the shelf. She kept her focus on the book. “It isn’t necessary.” John thought she seemed uneasy.

“We can talk about it another time.” John noted the book title: Sunrise in the Garden of Love and Evil. Was it significant?

Question: Who said “It isn’t necessary”? It isn’t clear whether it’s Lucy or John. You can assume from the paragraph breaks that John said “We can talk about it another time,” but if the writer has confused you before by not following this practice, you may wonder about that too.
All it needs is to break the paragraph when there’s a new subject or speaker, either before “It isn’t necessary,” if John said it, or before John thought . . . if Lucy said it.
Keep it clear!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

This Time It's Banana Bread

I blame Jennifer Crusie for this. Andromeda, the heroine in Maybe This Time, made banana bread almost daily. So of course I had to have some too. My grandmother made the best in world. She tried to write down her recipe for me, but she was a little-of-this, pinch-of-that kind of cook and even though this is very good, it’s never exactly like hers was. I don’t think my bananas were quiet ripe enough this time. Patience is not among my virtues.

If you want to see the recipe, click here.

Here’s another food scene, this one from Haunting Refrain. He’s just cooked pasta alla carbonara. I wanted to show something about Kate and John in it by having her describe how she’d set up a portrait of him (she’s a photographer).

By the time Lena got to “Stormy Weather,” Kate was swaying to the music, a blissful look on her face. She finished the last bite and closed her eyes, savoring the rich taste. “You may be my new best friend. Do you cook often?”

“Occasionally. What’s your contribution going to be?”

“I'll take your picture.” She cocked her head and studied him. “Let's see. Not in a chef's hat. Maybe gloating over a table covered with cholesterol—cream, butter, eggs, you know. And something red—tomatoes, apples. And long, spiky pasta.” Warming to her theme, she continued, “Of course, there’d have to be a worm in one of the apples.”

Want to share some ideas or examples of how you or a favorite author uses food in books?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Movie: Junebug

In many ways Junebug was a good movie. I found it thought-provoking and interesting but too slow in places. It’s like a book where the author stops the story and goes on for several paragraphs describing a still, isolated landscape or object—and it’s not Pat Conroy. The camera spent a minute or more on insects flying over grass, and several times it showed a still view of some woods—the same view at the same time of day—by the third time it began to look like a stock photo they’d plugged in as filler. It lingered on an empty kitchen table with light coming through the windows behind it a number of times. Very strange cinematography. I think this is what Elmore Leonard means when he says to leave out the boring parts.

The cast was superb. The picture of the South was somewhat exaggerated—geez, no wonder people think we’re weird. The crazy folk artist had such a strange accent I missed much of what he said.

One question is how the older son (Alessandro Nivola) emerged from that family to what he is now—a sophisticated, well-spoken young man of infinite cool and empathy. He’s married to a sexy, even more sophisticated art gallery owner (Embeth Davidtz). Amy Adams, as Ashley, the very pregnant daughter-in-law, was perfect. So were the parents. They're not my idea of a middle-class southern family, but that's how Angus MacLachlan, the writer, (or maybe just the marketing folks) described them. It’s worth seeing, especially when Nivola sings an old hymn at a church supper. Really beautiful.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Stop!" she cried.

Attributions and tags are the verbs that indicate speech, such as said, yelled, retorted, and so on. Said is a perfectly good, unobtrusive little word; some of its more colorful counterparts can be distracting. Strong dialogue often makes tags redundant.

Diane Lane
“Stop or I'll shoot!” she cried.

The dialogue shows that she’s upset and loud. Cried is unnecessary. Remember: Moderation in all things.

Beats are the actions that accompany dialogue and show how the speaker is feeling or reacting.

Consider how the following beats suggest Albert’s reaction to the envelope.
The envelope lay unopened on the desk. Albert wiped his brow. “It came today.” 
Albert, hands tucked in his pockets, stared out the window. “It came today.”
Albert picked up the envelope and smiled. “It came today.”
Albert waved the envelope and grinned. “It came today.”

Here’s a scene with no attributions. It has a couple of beats and thoughts, but I think the dialogue conveys the mood and makes it clear who’s speaking.

“Back off, Kendall. I’m not drunk and it’s not your business.”
“It’s my business if it affects my case. Or my partner.” Damn touchy son of a bitch. The dumb jerk hadn’t learned anything. She could smell the bourbon.
Your case? How the hell do you think you got it? Because I gave it to you, that’s how. You’re a goddamn babe in the woods. Do you want to solve this thing or not? Because if you do, you need my help.”
“You got that backwards, hotshot. You need my help to stay out of jail. You’re the light at the end of Grayson’s tunnel, and he’s not looking anywhere else.”
“I can take care of myself.” He stood and grabbed his coat.

How do you do it? Anything you avoid? Bits of dialogue you want to share? Any advice or words of wisdom?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Food and Eating Scenes

Okay, I got this idea from Stacy Juba. She and Norma Rhuss have posted excerpts of food/cooking scenes from their books and included the recipes. Their books sound like fun reads and the recipes look good. I like food in books. It can show a lot about the character and what’s happening. Remember the movie Tom Jones (youtube link)? Wow.

Do you have an interesting eating scene? Want to share?

So, here's one from The Peeper, where Kay takes pity on hungry Sam. The tea, of course, is iced—this is South Carolina.

“Chicken casserole with cheese and mushrooms. Nelson likes it.” She put the plate on the table and handed him a fork. “Tea? I’ll put on a pot of coffee for later. I have lemon pie too.”
He nodded and took a bite. “Dump Nelson and adopt me.”
She smiled and poured him a glass of tea. Handing it to him, she took the chair opposite his. “I hate to disillusion you, but my specialty is take-out pizza.”
“Just call me on the nights you cook,” he said. “I’m already an expert with pizza and burgers.”

Kay’s Chicken Casserole
10 servings

1 cup uncooked rice (wild rice is better)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1 cup sliced almonds, toasted
4 cups cooked chicken, cut into cubes
1 container of fresh mushrooms, sliced, or 1 can/jar
1 stick butter
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 cup sour cream
Milk, about 1 cup
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Cook wild rice as directed. Melt butter in skillet; add onions, celery, and pepper, a bit of salt. Add mushrooms (if using fresh) after about 4 minutes. Cook until tender. Remove from heat and transfer to a large bowl. Add soup, milk, almonds, 1-1/2 cups of cheese, chicken, mushrooms (if using canned), and rice. Mix well and pour into greased 13 by 9 pan. You can refrigerate here and cook later.

Bake in 350 F oven for 20 minutes. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the top. Bake for 10 minutes more.
If cooking from refrigerator, it will take 40 to 50 minutes. Add the last 1/2 cup cheese and cook till it’s melted and casserole is bubbly.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Current Read

Today I’m reading Maybe This Time, by Jennifer Crusie. I’m already a Crusie fan, so I expect to enjoy this. I’m in a mood to feel good, so I put aside two other books to read this one. Ms. Crusie’s characters always appeal to me. They’re people I’d like to know and be friends with. Andie, the protagonist in Maybe This Time, is going to be another one—besides, she bakes banana bread. I wish she lived next door. Maybe she’d share.

Crusie thanks Henry James and Truman Capote, who were there before her, for the basis of the story, a strange housekeeper and two weird children living in a creepy old house and driving off nannies.

To use the teaser idea from MizB, which I got from V R Barkowski, here are a couple of lines. I left out a bit of the first paragraph.

“I did some research for a friend of mine. She’s interested in hauntings . . .”
“She,” North said, Sullivan’s motives becoming much clearer now. The combination of a shiny new hobby and a shiny new girlfriend must have been irresistible.

The writing is fluid, fast, and charming. The quirky characters are fun. I’m about half way, wishing for banana bread and laughing a lot.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rejections, Revisions

We’ve all read about successful authors who racked up 100, 200, or more rejections before they were published. Some of those rejected books went on to become best sellers or even win prizes. What I’ve wondered is how different the book the first five agents rejected is from the version that finally sold. How much revision do you do, and when?

If you send ten query letters without a bite, what do you do? Revise your query? That makes sense if no one has even seen the first chapter of your manuscript. But if you’ve sent a few pages or chapters and there’s still no interest, how many rejections does it take before you take another look at the opening pages? How many before you begin major revisions to the plot? Maybe raise the stakes for the protagonist?

If you come across an agent’s or editor’s advice that strikes home, usually concerning things to avoid, do you immediately go back to your manuscript and search for those little sins? I call that tweaking. My manuscripts can always be improved—I’ve never picked one up that I haven’t found something I now think could be said better. But at what point do you say Enough? If no one is interested, when do you put it on the shelf and begin querying the next one? Or do you ever give up entirely on it?

Monday, September 6, 2010


Some of my orchids have bloom spikes this year. This summer’s rain and extra feedings have revived them, and during the night, the angraecum opened. The plant isn’t very interesting but the flower is graceful, waxy white with a fragrance that calls you back. I brought it inside for just that reason. Every time I walk by, I have to lean closer to enjoy more of it. The effect perfume should have.

Describing this particular scent isn’t too hard. It’s light, flowery, and sweet—common adjectives we all know. Though they don’t tell you exactly how it smells, they’re enough to give you a good idea. But how do you describe an unusual scent, one you can’t associate with something well known?

Scents are strong memory triggers too. Think about them. The heavy, cloying scent of lilies. Do death and funerals come to mind? What about hot, milky tea and buttery toast? For me, that was an after school treat. Or tomato soup and cheese toast. Talcum?—my great grandmother. What are some of your scent memories?

Odors, smells, scents, fragrances—there are subtle differences, and all can be useful in evoking mood or triggering something.

Here’s a bit where I wanted a scent to alert my MC to something, point him in a direction. The scent, a slight tang with a hint of decay, tantalized him. Green. A green, growing fragrance contaminated by death. The concrete of the city surrounded him, the wrong place for such odors. Turning in a slow circle, Will sniffed, seeking the source.

How do you do it? Do you have a description you’re willing to share?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Powerful Influences – Does what you’re reading affect your writing?

For me, it absolutely does. Strong voices creep into my head and lodge there. I’m reading Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and realized my own writing has taken a major detour from my usual path. His words and images are powerful. They stick with me. Phrases and descriptions swirl though my head; the problem is, they aren’t me. Neither am I channeling Mr. Woodrell particularly well—double whammy. Since this is such an interesting book, I’ll concentrate on reading and hold off on writing for a few days. I think the world will wait.

Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels had that affect too. I’d find snappy dialogue appearing on my screen, and my MC took on a cocky attitude I didn’t recognize.

After reading Pat Conroy, my descriptions get longer and more frequent. Unfortunately I don’t have Mr. Conroy’s gift for making them flow and drawing the reader in.

The influence of good writing is a positive one as long as I don’t get carried away. I learn from it. It gives me ideas on how better to show something or another way to approach a problem or create a smooth transition.

Poor writing teaches me a lot too. I try to analyze what bothers me and see if evil demons have injected something similar into my work. Sometimes they have. Ouch.

What I need is to absorb the lessons of other writers but somehow keep to my own voice. My writing may not rock the world, but at least I’m comfortable knowing it’s mine.

So, what influences you? Is it a strong voice? Whose? How does it affect your writing?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Current Read

This is my day-late teaser for Should Be Reading's Tuesday Teaser. MizB asks readers to post two sentences from their current read. I learned about it from VR Barkowski's blog. It's interesting and you can get a taste of some good books. Go on over and check out some of the teasers. Here's mine.
She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs. She smelled the frosty wet in the looming clouds, thought of her shadowed kitchen and lean cupboard, looked to the scant woodpile, shuddered.
It's from Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. Beautiful, different writing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Writing with a Partner

Have you ever considered writing with a friend? Or even someone you respect but don’t know well? It can be a challenge. I did, and it turned out to be a great experience, but it doesn’t always have a happy ending. We’re all egotists in some way and used to having total control over our writing. It’s normally a solitary endeavor, and sharing responsibilities and control is a new concept. You have to be willing to set aside your ego, at least most of the time. This is my experience.

First, decide why you want to partner with the other person. Do you have complimentary skills and knowledge? Is one of you plot-oriented but not as strong on character development? Assess your abilities and see if they mesh. If you have the same areas of strength, you’re more likely to clash. You really must respect each other’s ideas and sensibilities. My partner for The Peeper, Jim Christopher (Chris), is a forty-year law enforcement veteran and a terrific storyteller (He has other stories that will make your hair stand up!) and I'm a published author and editor. He had the basic concept and asked if I’d be interested. Yes! I definitely was.

Chris is a big man with a big personality. He makes a lasting impression on everyone he meets. I’m quieter, more dig-in-and-hang-on than commander in chief. Our differences kept life interesting for many months.

Set ground rules. Be constructive. We decided I was stronger at relationships and he at plotting, but both of us could make valuable contributions to any part of the story. This worked well until he wanted to kill someone I cared about. After my outraged protest, I think he pushed it just to stir the pot. Humor is important.

We read Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s posts on collaboration and decided that, on the main characters, Chris would have final say on the males and I would have it on the females. But we wrote whole scenes individually, including all the characters in the scene. Then we exchanged them by email and made minor changes to each other’s work. If we felt significant changes were needed, we discussed them in person. We also met for plotting sessions. Sometimes we disagreed and hashed it out over several days, arguing our reasons and objections. But in spite of our very different personalities, we didn’t get angry. I believe this is because we respected each other and were both willing to compromise. Most of the time.

Chris has a peculiar ability to foresee scenes in number of words. He’d say, “We need a fight with this and this. It should run about 3,500 words. Then this should happen. It’ll take about 5,000 words.” That’s totally foreign to me. I just write until it’s done. But he turned out to be amazingly close.

Of course he had the final say on the police procedures. Even though I wrote some of those scenes, he made sure they were correct. I learned a lot. And he wrote some of the more personal Kay and Sam scenes. I’ll bet some of his cop friends would be surprised. I was.

Elliott, the hero of the story, was Chris’s brain child. He set the tone and voice initially, but his idea was so clear I was able to follow it. Much of the humor came out of Chris’s head. I loved it.

So if you find the right person, it can be a great experience. If you don’t, admit it isn’t working, dissolve the partnership quickly, and stay friends.

Have you tried this? Did it work for you? What went wrong and what went right? Any suggestions? We’d like to know.


Calling Down Your Muse

My muse is nothing if not unpredictable. She strikes without warning at the most inconvenient times, such as when I’m driving and have no way to write, but she rarely appears when I sit down at my computer. I’ve spent enough hours staring at a blank screen to have written the Lord of the Rings. (That’s when the siren call of Spider Solitaire lures me in.)
I once advised students to type a sentence, any sentence, and then begin editing it to call up their muse. You know, Mary had a little lamb. . . . Then you begin making changes. How about a more modern name, one with a little sass? Jinx. Okay, that could work. Next, why a lamb? Is that the image for your heroine? Let’s give her a Mustang—a 5 litre V8 that pumps out a smoking 412, to be exact (thank you, Ford). And surely you can come up with a stronger verb than “had.” Are you getting the idea?

You can do this with a sentence you’ve written too. Here’s one of mine, obviously written on the muse’s day off: Creeping forward, the two boys shined the flashlight into their secret cave, a narrow cavity behind the crumbling brick wall of the apartment house basement, checking for rats or signs of discovery.

How do you call down your muse? Any tricks you'd like to share?