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.