Long Story Short

Writing a short story elicits the same panicked feeling that trying to turn my long-bed truck in a tight space engenders. Terror. Anger. Shortness of breath. The sudden urge to clasp my hand over my heart to stop the pressure. But just like parking the truck, it is possible when I expend the right amount of focus and effort.

 

People like Laura Lippman, who posted this morning on her Facebook status that she’d whipped through a 3000 word first draft of a short story this morning floor me. (I’d hate her, but she is one talented woman, and works hard. If these things just fell in her lap…might be a different feeling.) Dana Cameron and Toni Kelner are also talented short story writers as well as novelists. If they can do it, I reasoned, so could I.

 

Except it wasn’t that easy. It took me about three years to finish my first novel. There was  a whole lot of learning going on as I wrote that first book, starting with learning how to leave the first chapter alone long enough to write the second (Put it in the freezer under the lasagna.) and how to figure out what to do with a bad manuscript once I’d typed The End. (Put it with chapter one in the freezer and start something new.) Learning another form of writing was not even on my radar. Then a friend asked me to write a short story for an anthology he was putting together. I shared my feelings of inadequacy with him. He told me to try. He’d let me know if it was good enough. So I gave it a whirl. After whirling with the story for three months, I sent it to him. I don’t know if he was unwilling to tell me how bad it was, or if it was better than I thought it was, but he accepted it.

 

So I had one short story in print. You’d think this would inspire me to write several more. Nope. Not until several years later when the editor of the ACWL anthology wrote me and told me to submit a story did I attempt a second one. To my surprise this one was much better. I’d done some research for a western woman character who had been bugging me, stopping in at the Austin County Jail museum in Bellville, Texas. The woman became a little girl. She wound up having to make a difficult choice concerning her loyalty to her father that stretched her character in the right direction.  That one I’m proud of.

 

I hope to write another one this month — not all in one day like Laura did, but I think I ought to try for one a month to see if I get any better at it.

 

Happy writing!

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!

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!