Writing That Makes Sense – Part Six — the Mystery Sense

What Lies InsideThe last post on this topic is the one that has taken the most time for me to write. (Obviously, since there is such a long break in the postings!)

The Mystery Sense is, for me, the one that involves the heart. It’s one that makes us sigh when we read a beautiful piece of prose, or laugh out loud when the character’s voice rings so true that we are right there with them as they sail through their adventures.

I am currently reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, by Jack Gantos. This writer has the mystery sense dead to rights. Fell in love with the voice right from the start. The moment when I lost my heart to this novel was when Jack was standing on a picnic table about three miles away from the drive in movie theater, watching a WW II movie with his father’s old war binoculars. His mother catches him playing with the war souvenirs and scolds him…and then literary magic happens…

“Jack!” my mom called, and reached forward to poke my kneecap. “Jack! Are you listening? Come into the house soon. You’ll have to get to bed early now that you have morning plans.”

“Okay,” I said, and felt my fun evening leap off a cliff and she walked back toward the kitchen door. I knew she was still soaking the dishes in the sink so I had a little more time. Once she was out of sight I turned back to what I had been planning all along. I lifted the binoculars and focused in on the movie screen. The Japanese hadn’t quite finished off al the marines and I figured I’d be a marine too and help defend them. I knew we wouldn’t be fighting the Japanese anymore because they were now our friends, but it was good to use movie enemies for target practice because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaking into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack. I put down the binoculars and removed the ammo clip on the sniper rifle then aimed it toward the screen where I could just make out the small images. There was no scope on the rifle so I had to use the regular sight — the kind where you lined up a little metal ball not the far end of the barrel with the V-notch above the trigger where you pressed your cheek and eye to the cool wooden stock. The rifle weighted a ton. I hoisted it up and tried to aim at the movie screen, but the barrel shook back and forth so wildly I couldn’t get the ball to line up inside the V. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath. I knew I didn’t have all night to play because of Mom, so I gave it another try and the Japanese made their final “Banzai!” assault.

I lifted the rifle again andwhen I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.” — DEAD END IN NOVELT, Jack Gantos, 2011 Farrar Straus Giroux

And, you guessed it, there was a round still in the firing chamber. And then an ambulance pulls up to the next door neighbor’s house and Jack is sure he’s killed her. Did he? Go read the book — you’ll love it.

Why I fell in love with Jack has something to do with the fact that he reminded me of a favorite great-uncle who, as a child about Jack’s age, once blew out the windows on the undertaker’s barn with a homemade cannon. More importantly, however, it also had to do with how the writer has drawn Jack’s thought processes. He has not only shown us how Jack misbehaves and justifies his actions, but he provides the means for us to LIVE it as we read.

So how on earth does a writer draw what is in the character’s heart? The answer, sadly enough, is not found in Diane Ackerman’s wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, the book I used as a text for my class Writing That Makes Sense. She covers, Hearing, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste with abandon, but this last sense deserves to get the same coverage.

How to make your Point Of View character’s heart shine through?

1) Know your character. Backwards, forwards — and everything in between. Do a character sketch. Interview them. Have a conversation with them. Take them on trips (Grocery store: do they have a routine there? Are they OCD — or hopelessly forgetful when it comes to getting home with everything on their list? Going to bed routine: Do they brush their teeth while looking in the mirror or while sorting their mail?)

2) Discover their speech pattern. Do they have a trademark phrase that can tell the reader when they’re truly upset, startled, sad, angry? Winnie the Pooh uses “Oh, bother!” Jack’s is “Cheeze-us-crust!” Instructive difference between Pooh and Jack.

3) Look at your sentence structure. Long sentences usually mean slower action. Short sentences make the reader’s eye go faster. (I know. With Jack’s story, it’s the tumbling longevity of the sentence with so many thoughts pressed in between punctuation that makes for the hectic pace. He’s broken the rule. Once writers know the rules and can follow them, then and only then can they effectively break them and make it work.)

4) How do other character’s react to your Point of View character? Are they fully realized? Did you do steps 1 – 3 with them? You should with your main characters. (Just make sure that you don’t give too much air time to those characters who are so minor they don’t even have last names.)

5) Are you using speech tags to demonstrate emotions rather than having your action or dialogue convey that to the reader? Not a good idea. (An exercise you can use it to completely remove the tags from your dialogue and see if A. Can you tell who spoke and B. Does the dialogue convey the sense of emotion and the message you wanted to get across.)

6) How do you feel while writing the passage? A difficult scene may also be difficult to write. I’ve cried while writing scenes where the character feels despair and laughed out loud when the character has a good moment. This does not guarantee that the writing will convey what you want it to convey to a reader, but it’s a clue that you are headed in the right direction.

7) Do your word choices match the tone you want to convey? Do you use slithery, slimy, and slumpy words in a scene that is supposed to be about heartbreak? You might want to rethink. The disconnect between the words you use and the emotion you wish to evoke may sabotage your work. Contrast is one thing. (Think Irony or Sarcasm.) But having words come out of left field is another thing altogether.

8) Journal. I know. This is out of left field. Or is it? When you are in the grips of a particular emotion and journal about it, you are far more likely to capture the language of that emotion — and then you have a reference to use for your own writing.

9) Make lists. One of the exercises we did in my class was to come up with lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with the different emotions. Corny, but effective. Once we had the lists it isn’t so much about going back and pulling Word 3 or Word 14 from the list like interchangeable cogs. It is more like recognizing and internalizing the vocabulary of the heart.

10) Practice. Yeah. I know. This one goes for all writing.

11) Read. There are some outstanding books out there — study them. Take your favorite stories apart and see how the author got you to buy in so completely that you were swept away.

Happy Writing.

Holy Snow

red oak from scifun/chem/wisc/edu
red oak from http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu

I was recently back in Kentucky for a Pony Club Board meeting, and enjoyed something we don’t often see in Houston — frost.

Color is one of the beautiful effects that fall brings to the landscape. Kentucky trees have turned brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, something we don’t get to enjoy along the Gulf Coast. All this is thanks to a substance called Carotenoids and Anthocyanins.

All tree have them, even those on the Gulf Coast. We just don’t get to enjoy them the way New Englanders and Kentuckians (and everyone in between) do. In Houston all I get to see is the fading of leaves from green to brown — and then all the leaves fall off. My childhood memories had me associating the brilliance of the fall color with the lowering temperatures. (Gulf Coast weather is still warm long into November.)

Turns out that the frost I was thinking necessary for fall color isn’t wholly responsible — it’s also the light.

 

According to http://scifun.chem.wisc.edu/chemweek/fallcolr/fallcolr.html

“The range and intensity of autumn colors is greatly influenced by the weather. Low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, and if they stay above freezing, promote the formation of anthocyanins. Bright sunshine also destroys chlorophyll and enhances anthocyanin production. Dry weather, by increasing sugar concentration in sap, also increases the amount of anthocyanin. So the brightest autumn colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights.”

Who knew?

Does this mean if I take dry ice out and plunk it down in my woods I’ll get better fall color?

Yeah. I didn’t think so.

Happy gardening!

A Picture (Book) is Worth A Thousand Words

You gotta wonder if editors didn’t have that in mind with their suggestion that one thousand words or fewer would be the ideal word count for a modern picture book. New goal for word counts between 700 to 1,000 words, according to Liz Scanlon, author of, among other books, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes. Liz (If I may be so informal after just six hours of lapping up your wisdom about the world of picture book creation.) spoke during a special day-long session this last Saturday at the Houston Chapter of SCBWI.

I am not a Picture Book writer, but I have never attended a session where writing was a topic and not come away with Pearls. This was no different. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all who organized and participated in the day. I so enjoyed sharing your writing energy!

The following are my notes from the session, which culminated in my paying not one whit of attention during the end of the lecture because I was diverted by a truly pitiful (but oh-so welcome) inspiration for a Picture Book.

Picture books. The purpose

Meant to be read aloud…always adult and child or children…

Provides multilayered and multilevel experience. Textual, visual, adult/child

Offers exposure to new vocab, the concept of story and literacy in general

Provides a platform for connection, intimacy, and love

Picture books. The form

Usually 32 pages long

Less than 1000 words, most less than 700

Perfect marriage of text and art

Often contains tradition narrative arc

Ends on a note of hope.

First the words.

Writing

Revising

Look up Picture Book Dummy for a notion of what to expect your words to wind up looking like on the page — plan for this. You have X=~25 pages and Y=12-14 scenes. (Which are picture opportunities) Make the most of them.

If you look at the grid on the Dummy, you notice that the first and fourth lines are short, about 4 – 5 pages, vs 8 pages on the middle two lines. Story blocking goes thus: First line: intro characters and problem Second line and third lines are the middle of the book, develop characters, action and story. (try and fail, try and fail, try and fail.) The fourth line is Crisis and Resolution. Voila!

I hate a closed heart. I know that when I have an unsuccessful day at my desk it is because I simply have not loved people and books and pictures enough…Ursula Nordstrom, editor

(Please, please rise from the dead and be my editor! -j-)

Interview with Maurice Sendak on fresh air last week. Listen!!!

Picture books are just a new way of looking at things…a childlike way of looking at things.

Coloring in the lines quiet…crayon escaping the lines energy…pb concept?

A sock is a pocket for your toes… Concept book

If want a successful PB explore a new perspective about…friendship, pockets, gardens, dogs, clouds…

Ask yourself: What is my fresh angle on the subject?

Two frogs down at the pond. Does one want to be a fish? A bird? Tell from pov of the fish under the lily pad…

Traditional narrative arc, aka plot pyramid aka Aristotle’s incline

  • Inciting incident, rising action, falling action, resolution

The Hero’s journey

  • Departure, initiation, return

Seven basic plots

  • The quest, voyage and return, rebirth, tragedy, comedy, overcoming the monster, rags to riches

Rules of threes

  • Try and fail, tray and fail, tray and succeed

12 – 14 illustratable moments

Page turns are the chapter breaks of picture books..dont miss the opportunity to tempt, satisfy, and keep ’em reading.

  • Q.a format
  • Complete verse forms
  • Mid.sentence splits…maruice sendek, where the wild things are
  • Build and thrill…one dark night, Lisa Wheeler…use of meanwhile…

The process

  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat
  • Write, revise, repeat

Special topics.

  • Tension and conflict
  • Characterization
  • Animal characters
  • Setting
  • Language, rhyme and rhythm
  • Revision

Non-fiction picture books are out there, wonderful, and creative. Gendre = creative non-fiction, written in the form of story…everything from here applies…tension and wonder. exceptions for length, can be, but not always, a bit longer…maybe 1200 words max.

Tension and Conflict:

  • illustration of the pyramid inciting incident, climax, resolution
    • The Carrot Seed, Ruth Kraus
    • Tension pulls you through the book, discovery process
  • Even in a picture book, we need:
    • Multiple uh-ohs
    • dream, frustration, resolution
    • who wants what from whom what’s standing in the way? what is the character willing to risk to get what he/she wants. how will the character, under his or her own power, solve the problem?

Characterization:

  • Memorable
  • Authentic
  • Sympathetic
  • Complex
  • Detailed

How do you achieve all that?

  • Character Backstories
  • Meaningful Names
  • Deep Desires
  • Flaws
  • Character tags and catch phrases

animal characters:

  • why is my character a worm or a bird?

Use the essential animalness of your animals — or play against type

  • Puns and animal-appropriate language
  • it’s your universe, but your universe has rules
  • look for the perfect balance between humor and tenderness

Setting:

no Headless Horsemen – Anchor your story in time and space!

Inside all of us is a wild thing.”

–where the wild things are

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short easy words like ‘how about lunch?'” — Winnie the Pooh

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” — Horton Hears and Who

Rhyming Dictionary: rhymezone.com

“This is not cheating. You know all the words in there, you just forgot it for a little bit” – Liz

The Synonym Finder — great thesaurus. edit Rodale

Language:

Watch out for too many adverbs and adjectives

Activate Verbs

Avoid crazy dialogue tags

Show don’t tell

Wordplay?

Rhyme, Rhythm and Reading Aloud

The story is the queen, the rhyme is her pawn

the story is the driver, the rhyme is his carriage

the story is the house, the rhyme is the wood

the story is the soup, the rhyme is the pot

(You are the boss of the story, not the rhyme)

  • Do not sacrifice the story for the rhyme!!
    • is there a reason to write it in rhyme?
    • could you use internal rhyme, repetition and rhythm instead?
    • Use natural syntax
    • don’t forget syllabics and meter
    • Read it aloud
    • Ask someone else to read it aloud.

Revision:

“The most important quality in writers is the ability to be dissatisfied with what we have written. Dissatisfaction creates the essential discomfort that will eventually lead us back to the manuscript to attempt yet again to craft our work to perfection. The least effective writers are the most immediately satisfied writers.” Mem Fox, Author

Revising is…

  • making decisions to improve your writing
  • looking at your work from a different point of view
  • identifying places where your writing could be clearer, more interesting, more informative or more convincing
  • Revising IS NOT copy editing

Potluck of Pointers:

  • Read, read, read ,read ,read
  • Read Aloud, read aloud, read aloud
  • Emphasize truth over fact
  • Use rhyme with caution and reason
  • Use verbs instead of adverbs, nouns instead of adjectives
  • don’t preach — or dumb down
  • submit manuscripts without artwork — unless you’re an author-illustrator

All Strays Apply Here

Cats in a crate
Peaches and Minnie on their way to Austin

I miss the redhead from Chapter Three. She was a dynamo in riding tights, whose dialogue sparkled and forceful nature promised much in the way of future interesting conflict.

Pity she didn’t fit the story line.

She charged onto the page in Chapter Three, well into the action of the book. Bright, sparkling dialogue, an outspoken personality, and enough sass to intrigue. You’d think she was a gift I’d want to keep. Sadly though, once I got further along in the book, I realized that she was a one-scene character, and that having her spend that much time on the page during that one scene left a ghost behind. If I as the writer was still wondering about her, then the reader probably would too. Painfully, the truth is that she didn’t move the plot of this book along. So I whittled her part down to one line and moved the rest of the scene to a secret location.

Well, it was a secret, but now I’m telling you. I have a special file on my computer called Not_Now_Stuff.doc, a wonderful file filled with characters and scenes that didn’t fit the work-in-progress, but with which I was sufficiently intrigued not to simply delete them out of hand.

I think of it as a no-kill shelter for stray ideas. This way nothing is ever lost. If they keep bugging me, I already have something to start with when I pull them out of the file to play.

Who knows? Ms. Redhead might get a story of her own some day. She’ll still be all sparkly, conflicted and sassy, because I’ve got her tucked away safely.

Happy Writing!

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.

 

Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!

 

Happy Writing.

 

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.

 

Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!

 

Happy Writing.

 

Aging Gracefully

While cleaning up my library the other day, I ran across a book published in the 1970s. I purchased The Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent, on the recommendation of a dear friend, Dean James. “Her” books are those I will keep in my permanent collection. (Like Dean, who writes as “Miranda”, “Madeleine” was actually male.) The prose didn’t scan at all like a novel published today. But, once I adjusted to the pace and language of the story, I could not get it out of my mind.

Like so many of my octogenarian relatives, these books have aged gracefully. I think the relatives owe their vigor and indeed their current happy frame of mind to the fact that they have the ability to connect with the younger family members as easily as they did friends and family their own age. In other words, they kept themselves contemporary.

Evidently books can do this too. When I was young, my dad would go through a dozen or so pulp novels a week. Once finished, he would pitch them in the trash can in his study. There, enterprising young reader that I was would fish them out, shove them under my bed, and read them after the lights went out. (Ripping through Mickey Spillane at age ten probably wasn’t the formative experience my parents had in mind when they encouraged me to read before going to sleep.) Those seedy pulp novels now seem quaint in comparison to today’s fast-paced language-laden dystopian novels that are currently marketed for young adults. Has Spillane’s work aged gracefully? My opinion; not so much. Will these world-changing YA novels last? Harry Potter – yes. Twilight – no.

That brings me to a pretty scary question for a writer: will my work stand the test of time? The short answer, that I don’t know, isn’t helpful. I’d like to think that themes of friendship and what the bond requires of the people entwined within it is one that will stand the test of time.  That’s what I had in mind with the Three Dirty Women series. One of these days I may reread it and see how it stood up to the decade between publication and now. (And if I ever revise them, I’m putting the gardening stuff I had to pull out back in!)

The current Work in Progress’s underlying theme is the bond’s strength between a girl and her horse — and the ability of that bond to sustain this girl through a horrible period in her life. While I’d like to think that theme is eternal, the execution is key. I’m only on the third draft so it’s not timeless just yet.

So good luck to all you writers out there who are wishing for longevity in your work’s appeal, and good luck to me as I round the bend toward The End of the current WiP. Fingers crossed that it works.

Happy Writing!

Miss Spelling

When I was young, I would ask, “How do you spell, *****?” My Dad’s response, bless his little cotton socks, was always, “The Dictionary is in the  sunroom. Go use it.” Ungrateful wretch that I was, my first thought was always, “But I don’t know how to spell the darn thing. How CAN I look it up?”

I have typing dyslexia. In addition, my eye for spelling, and more importantly: misspelling, is horrid. (Although that sentence is demonstrating my lack of skill with punctuation.) Give me a word that looks like, sounds like, is even close to the word I wanted for that spot, and my eye thinks it’s okay, fine and wonderful. And to top that off, lately, when I begin a word that has more than four letters, it seems as though my fingers only get the first three right, and then substitute some alternate word in place of the one that would fit the bill.

I am stumped. No reasonable explanation explains the steady downhill slide of my spelling ability. How do I get past this affliction?

For now I’m using spell check and reading the piece out loud. Any suggestions will be gratefully received! (At least those not involving chalk and repetitive writing…)

Help!

How To

Our critique group had an interesting discussion on how you learn to write. I opened my browser to check my bookmarks and share them with the group, only to find that I hadn’t actually bookmarked the sites that I find most helpful. Time to fix that. As long as I’m out there looking, thought I’d share them here too.

Grammar:
My favorite site by far is the Grammar Girl site. Mignon Ballard has a good sense of humor and a way of explaining things that make the rules clear — and that stick with me. I subscribe to her podcasts and listen to them in the car during short trips. If I have a question about a particular rule, I can scroll to the correct podcast and, voilà, instant clarification.

Another site that comes up often when I do a search for a particular rule is the Purdue OWL site. This is more scholarly, but again, a solidly helpful site.

Spelling:

Hello? Spell check exists on most word processors. Just make sure you read it over to eliminate sound-alike/look-alike words.

Sentence Structure:

Nothing like knowing how to diagram a sentence. I cringed while typing that last. Never, ever thought I’d wish that I’d paid more attention during eighth grade English class.

Infoplease has a good basic page about structuring sentences.

VirtualLit has a series of good articles about writing, including one on sentence structure.

Plot:

Just found a video series by The Plot Whisperer. I must give these a viewing as the point she makes about reworking the beginning of a novel a hundred times while the end only getting a rough go through strikes horribly close to home with me.

You cannot write a novel without understanding the basic structure which underlies most of Western fiction: The Three Act Play.

Then there are classes. Nothing like taking a class — and doing the homework — to really get the understanding of the lesson firmly implanted in your fingers, heart and mind.

The Houston area is rich in opportunities:

InPrint – affiliated with the University of Houston’s outstanding English department

Houston Writer’s Guild – outstanding workshops!

Rice University Continuing Education

Leisure Learning – particularly Kathy Buck’s Grammar Class!

Women’s Institute of Houston — Chris Rogers is one of the best fiction teachers bar none.

While not styled as how-to, the Jung Center of Houston offers classes that bring insight to your writing.

And of course, you can always subscribe to my blog for more information about both gardening in Houston and writing.

Stay well — and send some wishes for rain in Texas this week. We have several large fires as yet uncontained. Rain would be most welcome!