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!

Storyboarding

Working on a first draft is chaotic, exciting, and bewildering. In other words, just another day at a novelist’s office. A first draft can take me anywhere from three months (Yea for deadlines!) to three years. Once that rough draft is complete and filed away, I often turn to something else to keep me busy. What I like to do best is to look at older work. To begin working a second draft, I pull up the file of the rough draft, print it out, and fill in a storyboard form for each scene. I got my original storyboard form from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray.

 

This is not your filmmaker’s storyboard. I do sometimes add pictures for reference value, but more often it’s just dialogue, first and last sentences and the basic action put down in a chart.

 

Here is the storyboard from the first chapter of one of my works in progress, Veil of Death.

As you can see, I use color to differentiate the characters, the action and even sometimes the timing.  I do one per scene. Some do this using notecards, but I like to have the additional information I can use to track important objects, character movement, or motivation. Once I have these done, I can lay them out on the floor, or the ping-pong table, and rearrange to my heart’s content. Places in the story where I need to do some real work, like a brand new scene, or a total rewrite, get a placeholder page inserted with notes about the problems I found and ideas for how to fix them. I usually use color paper for these as they stand out when I gather them all up and go back to work on the second draft.

 

This all sounds like a lot of work, but I find it fun and extraordinarily helpful. Doing this work during the second draft allows me to enjoy the breathless adventure of discovery in the first draft. If I know I’ll come back and fix it later, I can trust myself to go on and finish. Second draft then allows me to do all the analytical plot work my inner editor demands of me. Third draft takes me more into the technicalities of the language, spelling, grammar, all of which are challenges for me. Fourth draft is what gets fixed when my beta readers have at it.

 

Do you have a different process? Would love to hear how it works for other writers!

 

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.

Growing the Writer Within Me

What does gardening have to do with my work? Nothing, because I am a writer. And yet, everything.

Always one to need a good bit of time alone, I’d hide out under the tangle of forsythia in the yard, just out of earshot of my mother hollering from the back porch for a chore-ready child. I’d prop myself up in the soft dirt, poke a hole in the leaf cover overhead for sunlight, and read.

The summer before I turned ten, I read The Secret Garden. I decided I needed a garden like Mary, Colin, and Dickon had. I tore all the leaves off the branches overhead, fluffed up the soil in my hideout and planted flowers.

All petals and no roots, they weren’t destined to do well. I’m not stupid. I learned from my mistakes. Start from good seeds. Pull weeds. Pat the soil. Sprinkle liberally with water. That was when the initial stories flowed within me. As I worked, I planted my stories, telling them to each flower, branch, and stone.

Now, at the beginning of my day, I weed. I pat the soil. I sprinkle the various plants with various amounts of water. And I remember those tales I told so long ago. Like good garden compost, the stories are richer for having been buried all this time.

I’m working on one of those now, a children’s story for all those kids who want a horse more than anything. My own dream come true.

Tea Sipping

Image from www.designedtoat.com

In Texas a Tea Sipper is a name given the University of Texas students by the Aggies, a rival state institution. I always laugh when I hear someone say this as if it’s a bad thing, because I’ve been a tea sipper from long before I moved to the great state of Texas and birthed a child who grew up to be a Longhorn.

I never did learn how to drink coffee. Despite my gardener’s love for the grounds, the brew itself is too bitter for my taste. My mother got me started on Constant Comment tea when I was in high school and I have since migrated to a variety of teas — I pick the flavor to suit the moment. My palate isn’t as sophisticated as S. J. Rozan’s Chinese-American detective, Lydia Chin, who often sits down to a fragrant cup (the better to get answers out of a recalcitrant witness) but I do have my personal preferences. English Breakfast in the morning. Earl Grey or Constant Comment in the early afternoon. Lemon Zinger in the late afternoon. I also drink most of my tea “white”. I started doing this the year I lived in Moscow and my fellow Nanny, Di Biggin, always put a dollop of cream in without asking. Pretty soon I couldn’t drink it black without feeling uncouth.

There are a number of good mysteries featuring tea. Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are the first that spring to mind.  Alexander McCall Smith’s famous detecting duo at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are tea-drinkers. My second book, Three Dirty Women and the Bitter Brew has tea in it, but the published version had much less about tea than the first draft did. I had to change just about everything in that book once I realized I’d hung the plot on a murder weapon it would be rude to use.

The Charleston Tea Plantation, purchased by Bigelow Tea in 2003 from William Barclay Hall, a third generation tea-taster. (Yes, that’s a real job!) Hall developed the brand American Classic Tea, which is still marketed by Bigelow. As the only domestic American-grown tea, it truly is a treat to enjoy. I took the tour of this lovely plantation in the summer of 2000 with my Uncle Ed, a canny businessman who was very impressed with their business sense. They had a wonderful harvester that clipped the Camelia Sinensis hedges at just the proper level to get the leaves at their utmost freshness. The minute I saw it, the warped and highly imaginative writer in me wanted to use it as a murder weapon. (Fictional!!) I began the story and it sailed on until I got to the middle of the book. In an effort to get my creative efforts back on track, I called the Plantation to do some due diligence by getting permission from Mr. Hall and his business partner to use their location in my book. I had been so wrapped up in my need to write that I hadn’t truly considered how others might feel about this notion of clipping a victim with the tea harvester until I heard the shocked response to my horribly naive question. Out of respect for the gentlemen-owners and their efforts I pulled the location and the murder weapon from the story and started over.

What seemed like a writing (and personal) disaster became a gift. Without the gimmick of using a murder weapon that no one else had ever used, the story became much stronger. In short, I owe this business not only for many wonderful cups of tea, but also for a stronger sophomore effort.

Cheers!

Writing in the Open

I love doing character sketches. When the children were small, I’d take them on an outing and while they were playing in the sandbox, or the ball pit, or on the swing set, I would pull out a notebook and jot down a character sketch of the Nanny putting her children into the Cinderella Carriage at the Pumpkin Park, or the man reading his newspaper with the collar of his polo turned up against his neck against the morning sun, or the gentleman who drove by me in his truck, speeding up as he hit the puddle to splash muddy water up against the side of the curb with an evil glance sideways as if to say it might as easily been tobacco juice he spat out the window. Each and every person who came into view became a potential inspiration.

A particular way of walking, one shoulder dipping to indicate an old injury, leads to thoughts of how that injury occurred, which leads to thoughts about who else was involved in the accident, which leads to speculation about his motivation for being in that particular place at that particular time. All of these things go into making him who he is. Someone I do not know, but someone who, because I’ve lumped a bunch of motivations and incidents onto his one characteristic, becomes someone I want to know. Make no mistake, I do not consider this construct to be the human being right in front of me. If I’ve done my job correctly, a character sketch wanders pretty far from the truth. At least I hope I have created someone up out of whole cloth. I’ve never been brave enough to fact-check my character study with any real folks. Just doesn’t seem like a likely way to make too many friends.

I first learned about character sketches from a book on writing. Then learned a bit more from a class offering at a conference. Then even more from practice. While I do take notes on my characters while writing my stories (It sure helps to keep the person straight from one end of the book to the other!) I don’t use characters I concocted from my character sketching exercises. Those are more about stretching the imagination muscle and less about finding the perfect character for any particular story. Even more fun for me since I did this so often when the kids were small– my son, Edward, evidently does this when he’s riding the subway into Manhattan for work.

Here’s one way I flex my character sketching muscles :

Pick a likely looking person, one who has something about them that really stands out. For example, that gentleman who came into the park that day, limping on his left leg as if it hurt. It was a clear day, so I decided it wasn’t gout, but the poor dear had been in a terrible accident. I then start looking around and take one physical characteristic from each of the other people nearby. Sometimes this particular character would take hold of me and follow me into What-a-Burger for lunch.

Totally out of the blue: Name: Shorty Gibson

Age of man who just drove by: 57

Sex of first person to enter the door: Female

Height on next person in the door: 6′ even

Weight of woman sitting behind me: 190

Hair of man second in line for the checkout: Sandy, greying, thick, straight, cut like he might have served in the military and couldn’t shake it off. (Since Shorty is female, it will be a little longer than this guys is…)

Then I start making things up:

Favorites: Food, places to sit and relax, family member, pet, vacation,

Happiest childhood memory?

What does she want more than anything else in the whole wide world?

What is she most afraid of?

What is her weakness at work? In a relationship?

Is she in a relationship? If not, how did the last one end? If yes, how did the last one end?

Where was she born? Lived?

Where does she live? City, state, type of housing, own, rent…color of bedroom?

Does she live alone?

Pets?

Who is her best friend? Frienemy? Enemy?

Where does she work? How high up the food chain is she while at work?

How did she get that limp?

How does she get around? If car, what make, model, year, color? Bike? Same…

Does she have any special skills? Fly a plane, know how to wire a light socket, plumb a toilet, break down a shotgun in 1.2 seconds?

As you can see, you can go into incredible detail, or just hit the high points — it’s just a game really — you get to play it how you like. If you make up your own rules, it can be kind of fun, like eavesdropping on the next table during a meal at a busy restaurant. So go out there, write in the open, and have some fun.

Happy Writing!

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