The Great Divide

I am in the middle of several big life changes. Some of these are welcome — and expected. Some are neither. I am going from Mother of Dependent Children to Mother of Adult Children. (Our youngest just graduated from college.) My husband has actually uttered the word ‘retirement’, so I might be transitioning from Self-Employed Writer At Home Alone to Writer Looking for a Quiet Place to Work. Our parents are getting older (and wiser) as we creep across middle age and I have to recognize one day (May it be far, far away!) I will be one rung closer to being The Matriarch.

 

Some days it’s easier to think about my own personal life transitions than to craft a good transition from one scene to another, or even to wake up my character in the morning.

 

However, to make it all the way through a manuscript, one must segue from beginning hook through the muddled middle to satisfying end. Writing transitions can take several forms. If you are looking for transitional words or phrases, here’s a great site with helpful hints on that topic. I’m talking about transitioning between scenes.

 

The Shuffle:

“Doran needed some caffeine in the worst possible way. There was no way she would be able to face the meeting that morning without some stiff fortification. She tossed back the covers, threw her feet over the edge of the bed and managed to stand on both feet. She glared in the general direction of the kitchen, wishing for the first time that she had someone living with her who would start the pot brewing rather than having to do it herself. Stumbling into the shower, she braced one hand on the wall and turned on the hot water. The alarm went off again before the hot water even began spouting, so Doran steeled herself and stepped under the needle sharp spray of the cold water.

Doran continued stumbling to her closet, then her car, then into the office…yadayadayada…”

OK, you get the idea. I needed to wake Doran up and get her out the door to that important early meeting. My prose met her (Or was it my?) lack of mental acuity and hit shuffle mode pretty quick, getting nowhere fast. Some days it’s the hardest thing to get your character across the room without becoming a complete bore.

Since the purpose of this scene was to wake Doran up and get her ready for that all important meeting, The Shuffle slowed us down–– not putting us in the middle of the action.

Here are two other ways that work better.

Full Steam Ahead:

“Van Morrison was all about Crazy Love when Doran’s fingers finally slammed the off button on her clock radio. She squinted at the digital readout, trying to figure out why she’d set the alarm for five a.m.

“Botheration!” she exclaimed, throwing back the covers and vaulting out of bed. She shed clothes on the way to the shower, where she stepped in, scrubbed down, and shut off the water long before the water had warmed to a human temperature.

Ten minutes later, briefcase in hand, Doran pulled the door closed behind her.

Twisting the key in the ignition, she focused in on the clock on the dashboard. She breathed a sigh of relief as she backed out of the garage. She’d have enough time to hit the coffee shop drive-through and still make it to the meeting on time.”

Don’t you agree that this one works so much better than the first?

Dead Halt:

“Putting her head down, Doran closed her eyes.

*

*

The next morning Doran arrived at the meeting on time, even if it Fred called it for such an unholy hour of the morning. The good thing about only having enough time for a cold shower before she arrived was that she was awake enough to take on the questions she knew were coming.”

This transition is a complete blank in the middle. I stop with one set of actions and the next set are clearly happening in another place or time. I left off the part about her getting up because then I could move right into the action in the meeting. With this kind of transition, you use a series of hard returns in the middle to show the reader that Time Has Passed. (I used stars in place of the hard return so that you could tell that I meant to do that…)

 

If anyone has another favorite way to move their characters through the empty space between scenes, share!

 

Happy Writing.

Expositioning Yourself

I am learning so much from my new critique groups. Yup, as in plural, like three.

Why on earth am I in three critique groups? Well, they all bring something alive for me during the session, be it one person’s flare for similes, another’s dead reckoning of grammar, or, the fact that they write far better than I ever will — but I’m hoping that some of their polish will rub off on me!

During one recent critique, I told a woman that she was using too much exposition. Well ouch! Be careful what you say in critique. She took it really well, but confessed that although she’d heard that before, she still didn’t recognize an exposition when it hit her in the face. I then was truly embarrassed not to be able to define the darn thing. Exposition is like good art; I know it when I see it.

No? Too lazy an answer? I thought so too, so out I went in search of the Great Exposition Explanation.

From Dictionary.com:

Exposition: ex·po·si·tion noun ˌek-spə-ˈzi-shən

1: a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing)
2a : discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand
b (1) : the first part of a musical composition in sonata form in which the thematic material of the movement is presented (2) : the opening section of a fugue
3: a public exhibition or show
— ex·po·si·tion·al adjective
See exposition defined for English-language learners »
See exposition defined for kids »
Examples of EXPOSITION

The subject requires some exposition.
a clear exposition of his ideas
the great Paris Exposition of 1899
This is not an easy book, and the reader may find the layers of detail challenging. There are long expositions of the knotty tangles of monarchical lineage, and the necessary chronicle of historical events occasionally consumes the novel’s narrative drive. —Lucy Lethbridge, Commonweal, 23 Oct. 2009
[+]more

And of course it was the last line that nailed the definition for me. “Knotty tangles, necessary chronicle…occasionally consumes the novel’s narrative drive.” Yup. That’s Exposition for you.

So how do you turn exposition into descriptive wonderment?

Take the following.

Tad was twelve. Nan is nine. Tad is older than Nan. Nan likes popsicles. Tad used to get secret popsicles from his father.

And then (to borrow from my previous post) reimagine it so that you show, not tell and…

Tad leaned over Nan’s shoulder. He swiped one finger along the edge of her popsicle to catch the drip before it hit her fingers.

“Hey,” Nan protested. “You got twelve-year-old cooties all over my treat.”

“Well, it’s better than having sticky baby fingers.” He wiped his sticky hand on the back of his sister’s Disney on Ice t-shirt.

“Moooooooom!” Nan squealed.

He didn’t like popsicles as much now as he did when he was five.  Dad used to sneak one to him to coax him into quietness while Nan was taking her nap. They tasted even better because Mom didn’t know, and Nan didn’t get any. Dad stopped bribing Tad when Nan was two and stopped taking naps.

Well, Mom still didn’t know. She was always at work, and Dad did the grocery shopping. Tad went over, opened the freezer and pulled out the last red popsicle. Tearing open the package, he took a bite off the tip and savored the cold tang as it blasted his tongue. He guessed they were still pretty good.

Happy Writing!

Reimagine

At our SCBWI meeting this month, three Houston SCBWI writers, Vonna Carter, Millie Martin and  Lynne Kelly Hoenig discussed a Darcy Pattison seminar they had attended on rewriting their books.

Interestingly enough, the spin that this seminar put on their revision was using a ton of wonderfully useful exercises to evaluate their manuscript. (It sounded so wonderful in fact, that I have my reserve-my-space e-mail already written and timed to go out on the day registration opens for the Houston SCBWI-sponsored seminar later this year.) But even better than the tales of revising and camaraderie was one of the things one of our speakers said that caught my imagination.

She used the term ‘re-imagine’ in place of ‘revision’.

This word opened up a whole new line of thinking about my work-in-progress. Instead of having to re-do, I can step back, walk around the piece a bit, see how it looks from a distance, and then put my imagination to work again to strengthen the work a bit more.

Learning how to write for a Middle Grade audience has been daunting. Not only does a twelve-year-old think differently than an adult, everything is different, right down to the line of sight from which a twelve-year-old sees the world.

I started the story in third person. Finished it that way too. Mistake number one. Third person isn’t as popular with that age group because it’s harder to connect with.

Rewrote the story in first person. This improved the story tremendously, but…not enough. I was deep into the characters and the emotional investment that six months of working on the book gives me. Second mistake: no perspective.

I struggled both times to make it through the middle of the book to a happy ending. Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out why that pesky middle section was so darn hard. Third mistake! In the process of writing the book, I’d fallen in love with what I’d written and couldn’t see past the work I’d already put into it to identify the problem myself. It took an insightful critique by Abby Ranger from Hyperion to give me the Eureka! moment necessary to identify the deficit in the manuscript. The problem I’d set for my character to solve wasn’t a strong enough problem to carry the book.

Ms. Ranger had the distance (and skill) to re-imagine “what if” my Suzie faced a bigger problem. “What if” the problem was bigger and badder than the financial one I’d set for Suzie and “what if” she was able to find a strength that moved her twelve-year-old self from ordinary to extraordinary.

Poof! As soon as I left the meeting, I too began to re-imagine the story. What if Suzie’s financial trouble was because her mother was in trouble. What if…Mom’s job was gone because her place of work burned down? What if…Suzie and her friends found out who really set the fires?What if…the person setting the fires was close to Suzie and discovering who it was could hurt everyone? What if…Suzie’s journey to clear her mom brought her closer to being independent, but also confirmed her love for family and friends?

Ah, ha! Re-imagining this story has brought me another boatload of work to do — but it’s work I’m happy to have because it will make this story stronger, better, something I’ll be proud of having written and closer to being something that will sell.

Fingers crossed…at least when I’m not typing madly away.

Writing that Makes Sense — Part 4 – Touch

Touchy Feely, that’s me. I love to plant things in my garden that have tactile attributes, so you’d think that putting things like this into my writing would be easy. Velvety soft lamb’s ear, the smooth crisp sides of the aloe vera, spikes and shoots of the red yucca. But it isn’t always that simple.

Let me start be looking at TOUCH and how our bodies interpret it. All objects have texture, be it the mustache on a dashing hero’s face to the feel of a breeze lifting the short hairs along your arm. In a way, it’s friction, or tactile tension, that you are feeling.

TOUCH is a complicated combination of the ability to sense heat, pain, mechanical pressure, and texture. We define TOUCH through the largest organ in our bodies, our skin. TOUCH includes more than just what you skim your fingers over, it includes your entire body. Some label TOUCH the somatic sense, because it includes the sensations produced by movement, both of objects around your body and the movement of your body itself.

While I’ve discussed in my previous posts on Writing that Makes Sense including language to express the different senses, I have not yet touched (sorry!) on what sensory detail can do for your character building. Each person has touch sensations that stimulate some sort of happy — or not so happy memory. This means that your reader comes with certain expectations of what each sensation of touch means to them. Your characters should as well.
One of my favorite plants is the fuchsia bougenvilla, a plant that thrives on the hot west wall of my garage — and which has long thorns hidden among its leaves. I’d never given that a second thought until an acquaintance of mine mentioned that when he was young, he literally skewed one of his eyes on a bougenvilla’s wicked thorns. Obviously the tactile nature of this plant means something very different to Jeff than it does to me.

Writing exercise:

Trifold your paper vertically to create three columns. List TOUCH adjectives, nouns and verbs in each of the columns. Stroke, velvety, slap, marble, embers, you get the idea.

Realizing that sometimes just mentioning specific nouns can evoke the sense of touch if there are memories attached, look at the list of nouns in particular. Make sure they are specific — Lava instead of stone. Jot down any memories associated with the nouns — or make them up — you are a creative writer after all!

Happy Writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part three – Hearing

I talked about the benefits the Auditory sense brings to your writing when you read it out loud,  but there is value in adding this sense TO your writing.

I am not talking about, “It sounded like a herd of elephants running overhead,” although that too has a part to play in stimulating the auditory sense in your readers. What I find benefits my writing the most is using action or something that brings an auditory memory to life as part and parcel of the story. The best example of this that I’ve ever seen (heard?) is in Tensleep, a novel by Sarah Andrews, where the action takes place at an oil well drilling site. The author uses the sentence structure, the action, the dialogue to build a “sense” of the reverberation of the drill in the background. It is so skillfully done that I didn’t “hear” it until it went silent on the page — and then the silence echoed in my own mind.

That way of doing things is hard, and therefore pretty rare to find. Most of us use those pesky things like adjectives, nouns and verbs that have to do with hearing.

The sense itself is kind of interesting. Sounds strike our eardrum and set off vibrations which our nervous system interprets in terms of pitch, intensity, resonance, “color”, — if you don’t believe that sounds have color, then listen to Adele’s Ringing in the Deep and tell me her voice doesn’t color that song bluer than blue has ever been. Now that you’ve allowed me color, I’m going to add shape as well, because a round sound is not the same as a sharp sound. (Perhaps the word that I’m really searching for is length of sound, but I rather like shape as a descriptor better than length.)

Familiar sounds spark memory associations. A barking dog will have very different connotations to someone who was bitten by a dog than for someone who has always had good experiences.

So what sort of words evoke sound? Clanging, Bell, Ringing, Chime, Echo…on and one. Make your own list and see where it takes you. Writing in the Open is a wonderful tool for capturing sensory writing. Go to a playground, a forest, and a church and see what your hear, see, smell, taste, touch.

Next week I’ll work on Taste, recipes included!

Writing That Makes Sense – Part 2 – Smell

In part one of Writing That Makes Sense, I talked about building a vocabulary for SIGHT, now let’s hit that second sense, SMELL.

I picked SMELL to work with second because you cannot TASTE without the sense of smell. In short, aroma brings home the bacon. (Sorry, might not be factual, but so much fun to say!)

So how does a writer bring the sense of smell to a piece? Begin by thinking about things that evoke responses in you when you smell them — favorable and not so much, because both of those can help build a smelly vocabulary.

Sometimes it’s enough to mention an object that evokes the smell without saying,” the aroma of _____.”

Coffee. Fresh baked bread. Freshly mowed grass. Burnt sage. Pine. All evoke a sense of smell without even using an adjective. Then there are the seven basic odors the human nose can detect:

  • Camphor –  mothballs
  • Musk – perfume
  • Floral – roses
  • Mint – peppermint candy canes
  • Etherial – gasoline
  • Pungent – vinegar
  •  And last-but-not-least on the reaction scale, Putrid – Unnaturally green food in the back of your fridge.

For now, I’m lumping the pheromone system in with the sense of SMELL, but there is some evidence that there are actually two senses that the nose connects with our brain.

Exercise:

Grab your magazines and start looking for pictures of things that smell. Take a sheet of paper and list all the nouns, adjectives and verbs that you can think of that have to do with smelling. Sharp, sweet, sniff, quaff, waft, you get the idea. Try combining some of them that you wouldn’t ordinarily put together. You never know what might work.

Now go back to that piece you did with SIGHT and add something about the SMELLs in the air. Don’t make it like a laundry list — you know what I’m talking about.

Susan saw the orange cones. Susan smelled burning rubber as she hit the brakes.

Susan’s car shot past the orange cones trailing a cloud of burning rubber as her foot pressed hard against the brake pedal.

Second exercise; Go for a walk with your pocket notebook. Stop somewhere and close your eyes. What do you smell? Can you identify individual people by their smell? Objects close at hand? List them complete with the impressions you got just from your nose.

Happy writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part one – Sight

I shared a revised scene in critique group this week that got me thinking again about how to add sensory detail to writing.

Here is the clip from the story:

The crisp air of the late spring afternoon brushed my cheeks as I cued Callie for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn at the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.

“Oxer,” I called out to let everyone know which of the jumps we planned to take.

Another rider circled left to get out of our way and Callie took it clear. It was only two-six, and not very wide, but the size of the jump didn’t matter to me. My heart beat faster every time I let go and concentrated on that one moment: the strides into the jump and the pure joy of flying through the air to land on the other side, my amazing mare already seeking the next jump. After a few more jumps I asked Callie to transition down to a trot and then to a walk, patting the mare on her neck. Even snooty Mrs. Everett had been watching us all afternoon — allowing Callie an admiring glance when she’d gotten the one stride the first time through.

One of the ladies said hearing it made her feel like a fly on the rear of the horse, sailing along with the main character. That was my hope, of course, but it’s never a given that what I see when I write will be what the reader will experience. I consider Maria’s comment a high compliment!

Of the senses, sight is the easiest to convey. Most of us have developed a pretty good descriptive vocabulary for what we see — color, distance, size, volume, positioning, lightness or darkness. But what about the other five senses?

(Yes, you read that right. I believe there are five additional senses that can be evoked when you’re writing fiction. More on that as the “parts” unfold…)

In Diane Ackerman’s excellent book, A Natural History of the Senses, she discusses the first five senses in as lovely a way as I’ve ever found. Once I read a part of her book, my mind was much more in tune to all five senses when I wrote.

Here’s an exercise I use to spark my sense of SIGHT:

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns on it. Label one Verbs, the other adjectives

Begin listing every single word that comes to you. Some of them will not relate directly to sight, but put them down anyway, you can always transfer them over to the sense-page to which they belong later. Fill up the entire page. Call a friend, open the dictionary, do an internet search — there are no restrictions on what you can use to build your SIGHT vocabulary.

Second half of the exercise: Use your painter’s eye to “draw” a scene.

  • Find a magazine featuring your choice of reading material: high-end decorating, lush gardening, delectable cookery, or a travel adventurer’s dream.
  • Pull pages of ads or photo illustrations out at random.
  • Pick one of the scenes that appeals to you.
  • Take a piece of paper and divide it into three spaces.
  • Write the name of three main objects in the scene you chose. People are objects, but don’t pick more than one person to describe. Leave plenty of room around each noun.
  • Draw a line out from the word in the middle of the page and begin describing what you see.
  • Color? Shape? Size? Time of day? Season? Weather? What direction does the light come from? Age of the object?
  • What other things can you see in the picture you chose?
  • Turn the page over and write a bit about the scene. (Making up a story is actually helpful!)

This will give you a good way to “see” how strong you are with your ability to “see” the scene and describe how it appears to a viewer.

Hold onto this scene because you’ll be coming back to it later.

Happy Writing!

Conferencing, part 2

I am heading to another conference this weekend. This time it’s a professional day with the Houston chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Truly looking forward to a whole day with professional writers, agents, and editors sharing their wisdom. I hope to come away with some gems that will shine up my own writing. The only question left for me before tomorrow morning is what to wear to give just the right impression to the editor with whom I’ve been paired for my critique.

In a happy coincidence, my sis-in-law, Randi, who writes exquisite short fiction, invited me to attend a Literary Salon sponsored by Inprint! of Houston. True confession — I have been writing for over 20 years now, but I was intrigued — what the heck is a ‘Literary Salon’ anyway? It turns out that it was a talk by a wonderful writer and University of Houston MFA-Writing Professor on critical reading with a bunch of nicely dressed intelligent folk who like to read.

My new shoes, photo from Buckle.com

While I felt the need to buy a new pair of shoes for the event so that I would be sufficiently Literary, I came away with the sure knowledge that watching folks at this salon was the same as people watching at conferences. There’s always one person who feels the need to stand out — not always in a good way. (Not at this particular event, but I needed a segue.)

So for those getting ready to attend their first conference, a few “rules”.

  1. Polish the heck out of your work.
  2. Put it to bed before you go. Don’t take your manuscript with you unless someone has told you ahead of time that they want you to deliver it to them.
  3. Don’t try to talk business in the bathroom. Just. Don’t.
  4. Practice an elevator pitch until you can deliver it in your sleep.
  5. Dress nicely, but comfortably. Those spike heels are killer — in more than one way.
  6. Mind your manners.
  7. Listen. You may hear things you didn’t want to hear. Don’t argue (at least not out loud) with the experts.
  8. Sleep on the advice, then weigh it and see if it hits a chord you didn’t know was there. Not all advice is good advice, but it never hurts to think on it.
  9. Network with folks just like you. It’s fun, and you never know when one of them turns out to be oh-so-helpful next week.
  10. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your nerves cause you to break one of the “rules”. Everybody does it. Everyone gets over it. Just don’t break the same one over and over again, cause that gets old really quickly.

Don’t have a conference lined up this weekend? Do an internet search — there’s bound to be one coming up close to you soon. Meanwhile, sit your behind in the chair and work!

Happy Writing.

Freudian Typos

I have an affliction. I type the first three letters of a word and suddenly it goes sideways and I wind up with a word completely unlike that which I started out to use. (This is similar to, but not identical with the syndrome popularized on websites everywhere about the iPhone completion conundrum.)

The worst of these made it into print, when one of my characters gave another a gentile handshake. I know of at least one potential reader who passed on the book based on that alone. Have to say I cannot blame them.

So what other typos are normal?

  1. They’re     There     Their
    • ‘They are’ is shortened to They’re. (Contraction)
    • There is where you want to go. (Adverb indicating direction)
    • Don’t get on their nerves by using the wrong word. (Possessive Pronoun)

     

  2. Two     Too    To
    • It takes two to Tango. (Number)
    • It is too much if you misuse this word (Adverb)
    • Using poor grammar sends me straight to the moon. (preposition)

     

  3. Accept     Except
    • I accept your apology for misusing that word. (Verb: to receive)
    • I like everything you said, except that you used the wrong word. (Preposition: but or leaving out)
    • Excepting the fact that you didn’t use soap, you did a good job on washing that pan. (Verb: to leave out)
  4.  

  5. Already     All Ready
    • I already told you how to tell the difference. (Adverb: by now, even now, or by then.)
    • We are all ready to learn. (Two words meaning ‘All are ready’)
  6.  

  7. Between       Among
    • Cordelia had to choose between Scott and John.( the ‘tw’ in Between cues you to the fact that it involves two people or things.)
    • Harry choose from among strawberry, chocolate or vanilla. (Used with three or more people or things.)

I could go on, but there are a number of good English Grammar websites out there — these are just some of the examples that plague my own writing.

 

Happy Writing!