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!

 

 

Writing that Makes Sense — Part 4 – Touch

Touchy Feely, that’s me. I love to plant things in my garden that have tactile attributes, so you’d think that putting things like this into my writing would be easy. Velvety soft lamb’s ear, the smooth crisp sides of the aloe vera, spikes and shoots of the red yucca. But it isn’t always that simple.

Let me start be looking at TOUCH and how our bodies interpret it. All objects have texture, be it the mustache on a dashing hero’s face to the feel of a breeze lifting the short hairs along your arm. In a way, it’s friction, or tactile tension, that you are feeling.

TOUCH is a complicated combination of the ability to sense heat, pain, mechanical pressure, and texture. We define TOUCH through the largest organ in our bodies, our skin. TOUCH includes more than just what you skim your fingers over, it includes your entire body. Some label TOUCH the somatic sense, because it includes the sensations produced by movement, both of objects around your body and the movement of your body itself.

While I’ve discussed in my previous posts on Writing that Makes Sense including language to express the different senses, I have not yet touched (sorry!) on what sensory detail can do for your character building. Each person has touch sensations that stimulate some sort of happy — or not so happy memory. This means that your reader comes with certain expectations of what each sensation of touch means to them. Your characters should as well.
One of my favorite plants is the fuchsia bougenvilla, a plant that thrives on the hot west wall of my garage — and which has long thorns hidden among its leaves. I’d never given that a second thought until an acquaintance of mine mentioned that when he was young, he literally skewed one of his eyes on a bougenvilla’s wicked thorns. Obviously the tactile nature of this plant means something very different to Jeff than it does to me.

Writing exercise:

Trifold your paper vertically to create three columns. List TOUCH adjectives, nouns and verbs in each of the columns. Stroke, velvety, slap, marble, embers, you get the idea.

Realizing that sometimes just mentioning specific nouns can evoke the sense of touch if there are memories attached, look at the list of nouns in particular. Make sure they are specific — Lava instead of stone. Jot down any memories associated with the nouns — or make them up — you are a creative writer after all!

Happy Writing!

Writing that Makes Sense – part three – Hearing

I talked about the benefits the Auditory sense brings to your writing when you read it out loud,  but there is value in adding this sense TO your writing.

I am not talking about, “It sounded like a herd of elephants running overhead,” although that too has a part to play in stimulating the auditory sense in your readers. What I find benefits my writing the most is using action or something that brings an auditory memory to life as part and parcel of the story. The best example of this that I’ve ever seen (heard?) is in Tensleep, a novel by Sarah Andrews, where the action takes place at an oil well drilling site. The author uses the sentence structure, the action, the dialogue to build a “sense” of the reverberation of the drill in the background. It is so skillfully done that I didn’t “hear” it until it went silent on the page — and then the silence echoed in my own mind.

That way of doing things is hard, and therefore pretty rare to find. Most of us use those pesky things like adjectives, nouns and verbs that have to do with hearing.

The sense itself is kind of interesting. Sounds strike our eardrum and set off vibrations which our nervous system interprets in terms of pitch, intensity, resonance, “color”, — if you don’t believe that sounds have color, then listen to Adele’s Ringing in the Deep and tell me her voice doesn’t color that song bluer than blue has ever been. Now that you’ve allowed me color, I’m going to add shape as well, because a round sound is not the same as a sharp sound. (Perhaps the word that I’m really searching for is length of sound, but I rather like shape as a descriptor better than length.)

Familiar sounds spark memory associations. A barking dog will have very different connotations to someone who was bitten by a dog than for someone who has always had good experiences.

So what sort of words evoke sound? Clanging, Bell, Ringing, Chime, Echo…on and one. Make your own list and see where it takes you. Writing in the Open is a wonderful tool for capturing sensory writing. Go to a playground, a forest, and a church and see what your hear, see, smell, taste, touch.

Next week I’ll work on Taste, recipes included!

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.

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!