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!

Spring is Sprung

I’m about to make Deb jealous again. I started my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and am about to stick the fledgling plants in the ground. Uh-huh. You heard me right. Second week in March. Tomatoes in the ground!

You see I garden on the Gulf Coast where the sea breezes coming from 100 miles away still reach my front pasture. (Where the kitchen garden resides.) Typical last frost used to be counted as Valentine’s Day hereabouts, but now it’s the first of March. I can tell it’s Spring by the blooms on the mulberry tree.

At least I thought I could. And then the temps went back down to the 40s. So much for my poor tomatoes in the ground. Thank goodness for freeze cloth!

Varieties planted in Spring 2011:  Vorlon, Carbon, Roma, Better Boy, Yellow Pear, Cour de Blue, Amish Paste.

Happy gardening!

Let’s Conference About That

 

Big Daddy 2011

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Happy Reading.

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!

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.

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