Let’s Conference About That

 

Big Daddy 2011

I attended the first ever Daddy’s Girl’s Weekend this past weekend in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I cannot recall the last time I had that much fun but it was probably at a writer’s conference. (Although US Pony Club Annual Meetings are fun too! It was at times hilarious, rowdy, wacky, but always, always in good fun.  In addition to the first Big Daddy contest, won by my dear friend, Dean James, there was a peignoir contest, won by a demure Mississippi housewife. Yes, that was her dripping her feathers all over the room while taking her victory lap.

 

Despite all the fun, I managed to learn something too. Sessions on writing and things of interest to readers took place, and good solid information was exchanged. Speakers included authors Carolyn Haines and Dean James, literary agent Marian Young, screenwriter David Sheffield, publisher Ben LeRoy (the other Big Daddy candidates) and Murder by the Book owner McKenna Jordan. Sarah Bewley did an outstanding job balancing all that work and making it look effortless.

 

I feel like I was away from home for a week instead of three days and came back so filled with good writing energy I want to go back next weekend. That’s a good thing. I first started attending mystery-fiction conferences in the 80’s, going to Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mayhem in the Midlands, Bouchercon, Magna Cum Murder, Sleuthfest, Cozy Cats and Hardboiled Heros are among the many offerings. I’ve been to Florida and Alaska, Muncie, Indiana and Tuscon, Arizona. Pretty good national coverage! I came home from each one with a renewed vigor for writing — and a long reading list.

 

This conference was no different. Listening to David Sheffield talk about his three-year stint on Saturday Night Live was informative. While I have no notion of writing a screenplay, hearing his talk was fodder for my thoughts. (I got a terrific idea for a short story during his talk, but I’m not saying what it is until I write the darn thing.) Carolyn was her usual gracious self, inviting the audience into the discussion when she brought up the subject of characterization during one of the writer sessions. The Big Daddy candidates — including a surprise visit from the King himself — were all such good sports about being front and center in one of the most challenging contests I’ve ever seen.

 

Above all, we had fun. While the world was going to hell in a handbasket — husbands being laid off from work, Japan dissolving under the worst earthquake and tsunami in recorded history, Bahrain going the way of so many other Middle Eastern nations, we laughed, chuckled and just plain old enjoyed ourselves.

 

Some might call us shallow for laughing on a weekend filled with such world events, but recall that this took place in an area recently decimated by hurricane Katrina — and which is now pulling itself back up. Hope in a time of despair, so to speak. I know I needed this respite — and the creative stimulation all the attendees contributed. Where’s the next conference? Signing up now!

 

Happy Reading.

Read All About It

So you want to be a writer. Do you read?

This may seem like a rhetorical question, but I’ve had students in my classes who have come in expecting to write a best-seller (and who expected me to teach them how to do this!) but who do not read.

That’s right. They think they can out-write the many professional, wonderful storycrafters who populate the midlist. My question to them always is, “How will you know how to write a great book if you don’t read them?”

The best writing class I ever took didn’t cost me anything but time. I read for the Best Novel committee for the Edgar Awards a few years ago. I had already written several books, and been fortunate enough to have two published at that time. It became clear very early on that the vast majority of the books that are published are good books. It was also very clear that a small percentage of writers put out an absolutely amazing book during that one year of their life. An even smaller percentage write amazing books on a frequent and regular basis.  The committee was charged with reading over 400 books that year. Yes, that is correct. Over 400. Most of them were good. There wasn’t one book that I read that didn’t have something to teach me in terms of what worked — and what didn’t — in prose. (I used that double negative on purpose, btw…Sometimes using weak grammar makes a point.)

I learned how some authors used setting as a character in the story. I learned how dialogue can make or break a character’s voice. I learned how description, when carefully placed and beautifully crafted, can be an amazing gift to the reader. All of this has stayed with me, influencing my choices when I write.

So if you want to be a writer, read. Read everything you can. Read the best that is out there — and those books less fortunate in their sales, because those books are helpful too.

And if you don’t want to read, then do everyone a favor, and stay away from the word processor.

Happy reading!

Write Away

I’ve been in revisionist country lately, so haven’t done much new writing. The best thing about all this is that I enjoy revising. It’s so much easier than doing the rough draft. I liken revision to working with clay on a potter’s wheel. Shaping, scraping away unwanted flaws, imprinting patterns, changing the shape of it so that it is more pleasing. Writing a book is like building the clay molecule by molecule, word by word. Once you get that clay into a basic shape, you have your rough draft.

Editing, now, that’s where the hard work of spinning all that clay pays off. You can pinch and pull, turn it around to look at it from all sides — and do whatever the hell you want to with it because you created it. It didn’t “happen that way” because that’s the way you wrote it the first time around. Even if you are channeling Ernest Hemingway, you might be getting interference on the line.

Here’s my recipe for revision:

Ingredients:

  • One completed manuscript.
  • One completed storyboard for each scene.
  • List of overused words: a short example of mine are…just, very, anything ending in ‘ly’, ‘ing’ or fronted by ‘was’, ‘to be’, whatever my critique group says is my word of the month.
  • One finger capable of hitting delete even if I really like that sentence.

Scenes: Pull out the storyboards. On the basis of the info on the page, state why that scene belongs in the book and why it belongs where it is in the narrative. Cut any scenes that don’t move the action, motivation, or character growth forward.

Characters: Do they all form a vital function in the storyline? If not, do they need to stay as a supporting character. Have I over-described supporting characters? (Don’t want the reader to finish the book and wonder about what happened to him/her.)

Dialogue: Read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it fit the character who is speaking? Is it age/geographically/gender/socio-economic/etc. appropriate?

Exposition: Where is your white space? (hint: usually around your dialogue or fast-moving action.) Lay your chapter pages out and see if there are any dense areas. Look at them. Does it work? Does it need breaking up? Do you need more description because all you have is dialogue?

Sentence Structure: Have you ended sentences with prepositions? (In dialogue it’s ok, otherwise avoid.) Do all your sentences follow the ‘Subject, verb, Bang/Pow!’ format, or do you have a pleasing variation of sentence structures.

Punctuation: How many commas can you take out and still breathe while reading the work out loud. Did you use parentheses, semi-colons, colons, and quotation marks correctly?

Repeats: (AKA Deja Vu.) How many times do you use a word in the same paragraph? It sometimes throws a reader off if you touch someone on the shoulder over and over again. Have them take their honey’s hand before the awkward pat on the shoulder. Do you have two scenes that seem eerily similar?

Touch/See/Taste/Smell/Emote All The Senses: We don’t just see things. We feel them in a myriad of ways throughout our body. Develop a vocabulary that includes the taste of happiness on the tongue and the fear of fire on our skin.

Color your way to a visual understanding: I go through my rough draft in printout form, using my nifty box of 48 color Crayons to mark sections with sentence structure. Underline the Subject/verb/object sentences in blue, the ones with an independent marker in the middle with orange, and ones where I use fragments with red. And so on. This gives me a nice visual for the rhythm without me having to worry about missing something because I got distracted and didn’t notice I had an entire page of sentences with the same structure. I do the same thing with dialogue, each character getting a different color. I usually do this along the right side of the manuscript page. I mark the left margin of the page with plot. Is the action centered on the main plot or a subplot? Again, each plot line gets its own color.

Then I revise the electronic copy, print it out and do it all again.

Eventually it pleases me enough to let it go. Or the deadline hits me over the head and I have to let it go. Either way it is a darn sight prettier than it was when it started.

I’ve now finished five novels. (Three in print. One more in half-way to rough draft-dom status.) Despite the fact that I could conceivably consider myself an experienced novelist, I still have to do this for each and every book I write. It takes me a year to write a book — at the least. There’s a lot to forget about the process in that amount of time. Must be why I face the blank page of each new book with a feeling of complete and utter panic.

What am I thinking?

I know I’ve done this before, but I have no clue what I’m doing!

Fortunately, now I can go back to some of these blog entries and have at it.

Happy Writing!

Commatosis

Comma pic from the Comma Police

I suffer from a disease that afflicts many good writers, who have not yet had it beat out of them by concerned critique partners. See?! Even with three published novels, I’m still sprinkling extraneous commas freely in sentences that have no need of them. Strike that comma!

It all goes back to the horrid English teacher I had in middle school who tried to teach us grammar by having us diagram sentences to improve our grammar usage. Just the thought of having to diagram my work put me off writing in general for years. I actually believed her rather than running in the opposite direction like any sane person would have done.

And yet… much as I now hate to admit this, she had a point. It is helpful to know how to properly place those prepositions, phrases, dependent clauses — and those pesky commas.

This poor woman, who shall remain nameless because she was probably actually a great teacher, (except for telling me things I didn’t want to hear) gave us a rule of thumb that you ought to place a comma where you take a naturally take a breath when reading. I internalized her words about commas. Not until I began attending a critique group did I realize I had a real problem. My work came back with red slashes through fully half of the punctuation liberally sprinkled throughout my pages.

Remember Teacher’s admonition to place a comma each time you take a breath?Writing excites me. Evidently it also literally takes my breath away. I had no idea that breathless anticipation wasn’t an asset when writing.

So I am here today to confess: I use too many commas in my work. Far, far, far, too, many, commas.

What to do about it? I did an internet search and came up with quite a few really good grammar sites. I signed up for daily grammar and spelling tips which arrive via e-mail. I read humorous essays by other writers about their own affliction with commatosis. And I found a couple of things that actually helped.

The best of these are the witty, well-written Grammar Girl podcasts. These tend to stick with me better than anything else I’ve found. I bought her book, but honestly, the podcasts are the next best thing to sliced bagels.

Oops! Another of my personal problems raises its ugly head — mixed metaphors.

Happy Writing!

Bubbling Up From Within

Never hurts...

Last week I wrote about Writing in the Open, doing character sketches in public places. I said then and I’ll say it again, I don’t use those sketches for my fiction, but they serve as wonderful writing practice. That does not mean that people I meet by chance don’t turn up later in my writing. For example, I took a Memoir class a few years ago from a wonderful woman, Sarah Cortez, author of the poetry collection, How to Undress a Cop. Thanks to one of her excellent writing prompts, I got to revisit a gentleman I met by chance at the Lexington Market in Baltimore when I was living there in the early 80’s.

Here is that story:

Soon after graduating from college, a small group of nurses from the hospital decided to go out to lunch at Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore. Since I was new to town, Susan gave me a ride to keep me from getting lost.

As soon as we went in the double-wide glass doors, the cacophony of hundreds of voices bargaining their way through their weekly shopping list enveloped us. One of my feet slipped against the worn pastel tiles, and I grabbed the steel railing next to me. Grubby with the touch of all those people, I quickly turned it loose. My friends were a couple of steps ahead of me, intent on the soft shell crab they’d whispered about all through the morning’s in-service session.

I took a step forward, and was jostled yet again. I wound up next to the fish stand, where lean sleek bodies of sea bass lay prostrate next to rainbow trout on the shaved ice. I began to worry that the crab would come with eyes as flat as those in the fish case.

A light touch on my arm proved to be an old man. Worn woolen hat on his head despite the heat of the day, he smelled worse than the fish. After establishing that I would not give him a dollar for a lunch which I suspected would be as liquid as the sour odor on his breath, he touched my arm again.

“I was an engineer,” he said.

Before I even realized it, he’d told me much of the sorry story of his life. Hidden behind the fading blue of his eyes, lay an intelligent man, whose life had been ruined by drink. As I stood there listening, my friends occasionally waved at me from their table.

On the way home Susan asked me why I’d listened to him so long. “You’ve got to learn to be tougher, no more Aunt Julie,” she said, unknowingly using the nickname boys and girls in the dorm had bestowed upon me when I became their designated shoulder-to-cry-on. I’d given him an hour of my time. It cost me nothing.

Query Please?

One of my favorite how-to-write authors, Noah Lukeman, has penned yet another terrific how to book for writers. Write a Great Query discusses the topic at more length than I have here, but I will try to distill into a few paragraphs what I try to put into my queries. Remember that I have now sold half as many books as I have written, which is three more than I would have done had I not written all of them — and written queries that got them sold.

Top Tips for a sucessful query:

1) Remember this is a professional correspondance. Be yourself — but use a professional tone. I just know one of my early queries was posted on an office bulletin board as a, “Can you believe this?!” example because I wanted to be funny. After I’d stamped it, driven over the post office and mailed it, I thought about it. I was horribly embarrased by what I had just done, but it was too late to correct my error. Write it. Read it. Sit on it. Reread it. Rewrite it. Sit on it. Have someone else read it. Rewrite it. Spell check. Grammar check. Fact check. Then stamp it, drive to the post office and mail it.


2) Don’t send a query about a fiction work that isn’t finished. Agents and Editors are not there to encourage you to complete your work. In order to get a read, they need a full manuscript available when they ask to see it. Cart. Horse. You understand.

 

3) Keep it brief. A query is a page. First paragraph: Introduce yourself. Second paragraph: Introduce the book you’re pitching. Third paragraph: Wrap it up.

 

4) Include why you are the only one who could write this book in the personal information you give in the query. In my case, it helped to be a master gardener to write mysteries about landscapers. The fact that the gardeners in the books were far more successful in their skills than I am at home doesn’t matter. I knew what I was talking about when I mentioned what plants should go where in the landscape.

 

5) Don’t hesitate to give a full synopsis of the book in your paragraph about the work. Really. I am not kidding. You need to be able to summarize your book — beginning, middle and yes, end — in a paragraph. You don’t want them to feel like they’ve seen it all before when they get to the manuscript pages.

 

6) Include more than one way for the person to whom the query is addressed to get in touch with you. E-mail, phone and physical address.

 

7) You do not have to mention copyright in the query. They’re pros. They understand you own the material.

 

8) Follow directions. If they want queries through the transom on an alternate Tuesday, then do it their way. They are looking for the next big thing. Don’t throw roadblocks in the way to their discovering that you are just what they’ve been looking for.  E-mail if they say e-mail. Snail mail if they say snail mail. Send only what they want, not twenty five of your best lines with a hot air balloon attached to lift it out of the box when they open it. That sort of thing is wasted on the mail clerk.

 

9) Allow them time to read the darn thing before following up to see if they got it. A gentle note dropped in the mail asking if they’ve gotten down to the part of the slush pile with your work in it (with a self-addressed post card) isn’t a horrible thing after a couple of months.

 

10) Don’t be afraid to multiple submit. Just let them know in the query that they are not alone in getting the material. Just please don’t say it in a threatening way. “Lots of people have this and you may be too late,” does not have the same ring as “I’ve sent this to several people and I especially look forward to hearing back from you.”

Happy Writing!

Julie