Writers’ Family Reunion

photo of welcome table at Writers' Family ReunionI had the opportunity yesterday to participate as a faculty member at Writespace’s   Writers’ Family Reunion. Writers of all stripes from all over Houston (and beyond) gathered at Silver Street Studios to meet, greet, and learn about the writing process — from how to get started, through how to keep going and included the multiple paths now available for publication.

Favorite things?

Meeting a writer new to Writespace, who was warm and wonderful. So glad to know you Hilda Davis!

Writerly foods!

Speed Dating for Writers: I am sorry I did not climb up on something to get an arial view of this activity. Michael put down a masking tape map of Houston on the floor of the warehouse, handed out a survey for everyone to fill out that would help them network. He first grouped writers by their home location to say “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Then he moved them to about five different groupings, including genre, experience level, and several other fun options, leaving them enough time to say again, “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Brilliantly done — and fun to boot.

Then on to browse the sponsor tables and play writerly games.

The neverending story was hilarious. Pull a slip out of a hat and write a sentence  inspired by your slip that builds on the previous line in the story. Try working “fern” into an intergallactic story that includes a squished alien caterpillar.

Poetry building included meg-size magnet words on a sliding metal door. Pretty soon we were scavenging each others’ haiku for enough words to complete our own verse.

First page critiques were a lot of fun. The energy of a new writer is something that fuels my fire for writing. Pam and Richard at our table both had so much going on that I really wanted to read more!  (There was one other woman whose name I didn’t catch who wrote a wonderfully evocative scene!)  K.J. Russell and I combined forces to provide critiques for these three aspiring writers.

Then on to breakout sessions. Over the next two hours, panels of local published writers discussed:

  • My Journey as a Writer: What I Wish I Knew When I Started
  • Writing Your First Novel
  • How to Create (Or Join!) a Great Critique Group
  • Publishing 101: An Overview of Options for New Writers
  • Reading Like a Writer
  • The Benefits of Promiscuous Art-Making: How Exploring New Creative Mediums Can Vitalize Your Writing

Now I can’t wait for Writefest the first weekend in May when I get to gather more fuel for my writing engine.

 

Chopping off the Fish Head

Fish Heads

I have been waiting for several months for the latest revision to perk a bit on the back burner before jumping back in.

Just before I turned in my manuscript for the SCBWI conference critiques, it hit me. I had it all wrong.

When my husband goes fishing, he has the presence of mind to gut the fish and chop off the head before he tosses the fish into the cooler. He knows how I feel about fish. I like them fried, broiled, sautéed, but never ever with the head on.

Readers like their books the same way. Appetizing, without a stinky dried up piece of inedible flesh hanging about on their plate.

Writers often have to know so much more than readers need  or want to know about what is going on in the background. Writers need that background noise to give us insight into characters motivations and history. When I write my initial drafts, there is so much extra information on the page that the book is often twice as long as it needs to be. (Still trying to figure out a more efficient way of figuring it all out!) Thus, writers often need to prune their manuscripts before it goes to agent, editor, and reader.

I was fortunate enough to get into a novel revision workshop a month before the deadline for my seven minutes of fame with a hot agent. I took my recently completed middle grade novel featuring a young girl who lives for horses. (Sound like anyone you know?) The workshop went like this. We were teamed up with three other writers. We sent out manucripts to each of the other three writers and they did a detailed critique. My results? All three people who read my manuscript picked the eighth chapter as the first strong chapter. That meant the opening of the book contained seven weak chapters in a row. Ouch!

Not all that many readers are going to stick it through to the eighth chapter just on the off chance that the book will get interesting . . . eventually. So I started reading the book at the first strong chapter, Chapter Eight. The story still made sense and moved quickly…yes there were some key things missing, but it was clear what had to be done.

Fish Head. Whack. First six chapters hit the NotUsedMaterial.doc file. Voila.

I reworked the first page of the Chapter Seven, aka new Chapter One, smoothed the rest of it a bit, then sent it in and began to work on another project. After all it would be another two months before I got to sit down and listen to the notes the agent had for me on the piece.

Of course I spent some of that time worrying. Had I cut it too close to the action? Six chapter off the front of a manuscript is an awful lot of material to cut. Would the characters and their relationships still be understandable?

Evidently yes, because when I sat down with my critiquer, she said it read well. Not well enough that she wanted to rep it, but she did give me loads of great notes to work from, but all in all a much more positive outlook from this than I got last year.

So now all I have to do is rewrite the rest of the story so that it 1) fills enough pages to actually be a book and 2) keep it exciting and satisfying enough that someone will want to read it all the way through.

 

Prompt me?

Last night’s SCBWI meeting was great fun. Pat Miller brought writing exercises from her favorite writing books. She sure can pick ’em – both the books and the exercises were terrific.

Her handout featured a neat quote:

Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.
– Norman Mailer

Her choices of Books for Writers?

30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein, Running Press, 2005

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, Little, Brown, 2006

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell. Writers Digest Books, 2009

The Write-Brain Workhook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. Writer’s Digest Books, 2006

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Harper Collins, 1990

Pat started her talk by sharing her favorite tip from book number one: keep a writing journal.

I carry a slim one in my purse at all times. Useful for longer pieces of writing, notes at meetings, musings, and stray ideas knocking at the door of my imagination. I also use 750words.com to do my Morning Pages. (Anyone who knows Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way knows all about these.)

Then we carried on with a writing exercise: Write a scene totally in dialogue:

“It must have been really hot in here for that to melt. I know, hand me that spatula.”
“You can’t use that.”
“What would you use?”
“A knife?”
“That would scratch the paint.”
“A spatula will scrape it too.”
“Not if you hand me the plastic one.”
“It’s a bookshelf, not a non-stick pan.”
“Fine, give me the knife. To hell with the paint.”

What does this sound like to you? (I meant it to be two people bickering about how to get a melted candle off a bookshelf.)

Book Two brought the exercise:

Take a character and outline three expected outcomes from the scene in question. Now outline three unexpected outcomes.

Pat suggested taking a groundhog and having him fall ill the day before Groundhog’s Day, and then the doctor tells him he has to stay in bed for two days.

Expected: stands up and falls down
Gives clothes to friend to have him imitate him
Goes under the covers and won’t come out.
Unexpected:
Dies (Okay, so I am a mystery writer. Deal.) As a ghost no shadow so winter goes on.
Pops up and is promptly sick all over the place. “Groundhogs aren’t green. Impostor!”
Hires a Honey Badger to take his place.

The room was really into it by this time, so exercise three was warmly received. (Frankly, this may be exercise four, but think of me kindly as I sit here typing madly away when the doc says I ought to be in bed resting my neck.)

Write the worst paragraph you possibly can.

We met by the tamborine band so I know you couldn’t have heard me when I told you about my book so I thought I’s write it all down and mail it to you cause this is the best idea I’ve ever had and I’ve had a few. I want you to be the one to discover me. The groundhog dies. Really. Dead as a doornail. So they can’t see him. Or his shadow. Get it? Anyway, read the book.

Pat showed us her No Thank You book, a wonderful compilation of Rejection or “No Thank You” letters received over the years. She filed them immediately into a folder (With page protectors no less!) That way when she got rejections she could feel like she was building a future prop to share with classrooms when she did school visits. Great hint: She files the version of the story with the rejection so that she can keep track of the changes as it goes along.

Fourth – or third, remember I was working on scratch paper because I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been and left my slim little book at home. Plus, see previous note about neck.

Write about a sunny May morning…..merged with slinky. Begin with: When I

When I hit the floor that morning, I found ricocheting back into bed. That had never happened to me before, but then I’d never turned 13 before either. Later, when I went to slapsh my face in the bathroom, the water bounced off my skin onto the mirror.
“Oh no,” Mom said when she saw me bounce my way across the kitchen to clutch at the chair by the table. “that spell must have ricocheted when I shot it at your father last night. Hold on,” she said, rummaging in the spice drawer. “Aha. Now hold still” and she blew ginger….

The last exercise was about putting a familiar character in an unfamiliar place:

The prompt she gave us was Goldilocks

Goldilocks stared in the mirror, green eyes stared back at her, a little white showing all around. Her gaze darted upward and another moan escaped her throat. Snow White would sure crow when she saw this. Who went to the Prince’s Ball with green hair?

 

It was hard to come down from the high of all those exercises to the mundane business of the chapter, but that has its place in the order of things and there was plenty of great news. Lots of new folks in attendance, so that was a nice thing to see as well. Welcome!

 

 

Reimagine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing that Makes Sense – part one – Sight

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

Here is the clip from the story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Writing!

Read It Out Loud

Microsoft stock clip art

Better yet, get someone else to read it for you. I was reintroduced to this wonderful practice last month when I attended my second SCBWI-Houston meeting. I was pretty excited about finding a knowledgeable critique group and really wanted to hear what they had to say about my Middle Grade work. I’m used to working for adult audiences, and kids “hear” things very differently. It is important to get the voice, subject matter, and characters just right so that the audience for which the prose is intended appreciates it. If I’m not going to do it right, then I don’t want to bother doing it at all.

 

I’ve been part of nuturing critique groups and critique groups inhabited by the devil incarnate. Listen first to any group, then run if you feel wholesale bad vibes. Most groups are a mixed bag of people, and chances are that at least one person in the group will give you some valuable insight. One thing you absolutely must be able to to do before sharing your work with others is to be able to listen without being defensive. If you start defending each and every point, then you aren’t going to learn a darn thing. They’re trying to help you. (Well, most of them are. Some, like my long-ago devil, are simply blocked writers shedding their misery all over your manuscript. That’s easy to deal with. Don’t keep the pages that person held and/or scribbled all over. Burn that set with some ritual sage to clarify your creative passages and move on.) I have learned more from good critiques than I got out of an entire How to Write a Novel course. Thank your lucky Muse for these folk and listen with your heart as well as your ears.

 

The SCBWI group was one of the good groups. Each set of pages was read by a different person, but never by the author. This was a variation on the theme from my last critique group where we read our own work. I liked it. Hearing someone else stumble through what you thought was witty dialog or over a name that is difficult to pronounce is informative. Plus it leaves your hands free to take notes! There was a wide variety of material being critiqued, as well as a wide variety of skills being brought to the table to render critiques. Not everything said applies wholesale to everyone’s work, but you never know which of the points being made strikes a resonating worry you didn’t even know you were harboring over a sentence or wildly diverging plot point you’d snuck in your piece.

 

Finding a critique group is the hard part, but you can always start by attending a local professional writing organizations meetings. Houston is fortunate to have many active writer’s communities: MWA, West Houston RWA, NW Houston RWA, Houston Bay Area RWA, SCBWI, Houston Writer’s Guild, Houston Ritual SF BreakfastBay Area Writers LeagueClear Lake Area WritersFinal TwistHouston Writers NetworkInprint,  Scriptwriters, HoustonWhite Oak WritersWoodlands Writers Guild, and  Writer’s Ink. This is not a comprehensive listing, but a good place to start looking if you live in Houston and write.

 

Now sit down and get to work!