Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Writing Lessons Learned from WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

I recently finished reading WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen, and loved it. As with any book, I learned a great deal from this one. Here goes:
  • Character development through interaction with animals. We instantly love two of the main characters because of their affection for animals. They sneak food to them. They risk danger in order to protect animals from the bad guys. On the flip side, the bad guys jump off the page with their viciousness. At one point a lit cigarette is flicked into the elephant's open mouth. In another scene, we suffer through the elephant's cries as she's beaten mercilessly.
  • First person present tense is not just for YA literature. Obvious, I know. But before reading The Hunger Games, I don't remember having read a book with this POV. YA literature is riddled with first person/present tense, and now I'm used to it. I thought it worked in this book, even though it's not YA.
  • Alternating points of view with the same character adds depth. In ELEPHANTS, the author deftly switches between two eras of the main character's life. One is in the 1930's, when the MC was a young man traveling with the circus. The other is when he's an old man, wasting away in a nursing home. It made me think of each person sitting in a nursing home now, and all the stories they must have bottled up inside them.
  • Brilliant words that add sound. Clatter, howl, nicker, screech, clackety-clack, clip-clop, snort. These sound words, and many more, added dimension to the story. I felt like I was there, listening to the raucous life of a circus.
  • Circus life sounds exciting, but it was a gritty business. I read the author's note at the end of the book, where she explained the depth of her research. Many of the circus scenes and ideas in the book sound outrageous, but they're based on fact. Wow.
Now that I've read the book, I want to see the movie. Have you read this book or seen the movie? What was your opinion?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Fear of Letting Go

I've been rewriting my manuscript for my agent. I've read and revised it countless times. It's ready. I think. I'm not sure. Fear is preventing me from clicking Send. Below is a list of my fears, and the pep talks I'm giving myself. Can you relate to any of these?

Fear the writing isn't good enough
My pep talk: the story is sound, and you've followed your agent's sage advice. The words in your manuscript are not carved in stone.

Fear of making a bad first impression on editors
My pep talk: you're submitting your best work. The rest is out of your control.

Fear of rejection
My pep talk: you're a writer, get over it. Harsh, but true. We all experience rejection, even pros like Jane Yolen. If you haven't read it yet, here's a great post about famous author rejections.

Fear I've overlooked mistakes
My pep talk: you've worked hard to catch each mistake. You've read published books with errors, even though they're written by famous authors and edited by pros at the big houses. It proves writers and editors are human, not robots.

Fear of failure
My pep talk: the only sure way you'll fail is if you don't try. Here's a great post about failing your way to success.

Fear of ridicule from friends, family, and peers
My pep talk: your friends, family, and fellow writers are not monsters. They are supportive, encouraging people. They'll have your back during the good and bad times ahead.

Do you experience these same fears, or are there any you'd like to add to the list? Do they prevent you from clicking Send or mailing your manuscript? And what pep talk works for you?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Creating Endings that Resonate

Resonate -- produce or be filled with deep, full, reverberating sound. (figurative -- evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions)

We've all read them--stories that resonate with us long after we've closed the book. The main character lingers in our mind, and once we finish the book, we feel like we've lost a friend. Oh, how I wish I could write a book like that.

How do we create memorable stories that linger in the reader's mind? Not only in the middle, during twists and turns and emotional turmoil, but in the end, through those final pages that seal the deal. As usual, I turned to James Scott Bell's PLOT & STRUCTURE for answers. He suggests we consider the following:

Each word is crucial in our ending, and we should choose them carefully. We must determine the mood we're aiming for. Is it clipped and hurried? Slow and sensual? Unresolved and frustrating? Hopeful and poetic? Or happy and satisfied? Word choice is important throughout our books, but the words we choose in the ending determines how the readers feel once they've finished the final chapter.

Is there a unique piece of dialogue between two of your main characters? If they've survived the story, consider using these distinctive words again in the end. Or dialogue could set up what's to come once the players are off the page, or even the screen, such as these famous movie lines: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," from Casablanca, or from Gone with the Wind, "...Tara! Home. I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day."

Bell suggests, "If there is a particular description of setting or character that is just right, this can make for a perfect ending." An important setting that has gone through its own character arc could work, such as a barren field sprouting fresh greenery, or cloudy skies clearing as a sign of hope. Perhaps an embattled hero finds his way home, or the next generation picks up where the previous victors left off.

A Summing Up
"There is a way to sum up the feelings of a character without making it seem like author intrusion," Bells says. A simple paragraph could work, such as this given example from Dean Koontz's MIDNIGHT:

Looking over Scott's shoulder, he saw that Tessa and Chrissie had stepped into the room. They were crying too. In their eyes he saw an awareness that matched his, a recognition that the battle for Scott had only begun. But it had begun. That was the wonderful thing. It had begun.

Do you strive for resonance in your final pages? And what book lingered with you long after you'd read The End, and why?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tips for Word Thieves

I have a new habit I'd like to share with you. Maybe it's lame, and maybe it's short-lived, but I'm loving it. It started with the nonfiction book FIRE LOVER, and now I'm doing it with WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. I've become a bona fide word thief. Here's my looting strategy:
  1. When reading a book, I keep a slip of blank paper tucked between the pages, and a pencil close by.
  2. When I come across an amazing word, one I would've ignored in a thesaurus, I jot it down on the slip of paper.
  3. I struggle with adding sound, so when I come across a great "sound" word, I add it to the list.
  4. If the word is used in an unusual context, I write down the entire phrase.
  5. When my slip of paper is full, or when I've finished my reading session, I transfer the words to a computer document. I've given them easy peasy file names, such as NOTES FOR FIRE LOVER.
  6. I type the words in alphabetical order, avoiding duplicates.
The pro of doing this is that I've unearthed amazing words that I'd normally ignore, and I've sprinkled them in my manuscript. As we all know, certain words evoke a specific mood, and if you're writing a scene with the same mood, you've got a supply of relevant words to work with. The con of doing this is slower reading time.

So tell me, are you a partner in crime? Do you steal words from amazing books, and if you do, what's your system?

(Funny side note...when I was searching for a photo for this post, I discovered there was a game called Word Thief. I had no idea! It sounds like fun, though.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

This is Doubt calling. Can you hear me now?

"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today." -- FDR

Does Doubt constantly beg for your attention? Sometimes I allow it to clutter my mind, like the pesky Verizon guy asking, "Can you hear me now?"

In my experience, doubt can fester, rotting our limited confidence. We allow doubt to win when we:

dream but don't try
write but don't finish
finish but don't submit
receive rejections and give up
compare ourselves to others and find we're lacking
achieve milestones but don't celebrate their worth
place unnecessary pressure on ourselves
lose the joy of writing

Writers from all stages of the profession admit to doubting themselves, so we're in good company. And the lovely Tahereh wrote an inspirational post On Feeling Inadequate.

Doubt is normal, and hopefully temporary. When Doubt comes calling, I think we should drop his call in a hurry. What about you?

In writing this post, I found great quotes about about the subject. If you're struggling with doubt, I hope this sampling helps.

"If doubt is challenging you and you do not act, doubts will grow. Challenge the doubts with action and you will grow. Doubt and action are incompatible." -- John Kanary

"Persevere and don't let any self-doubt distract you." -- Catherine Pulsifer

"Nobody becomes great without self-doubt. But you can't let it consume you." -- John McKay

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Over Editing

Is there such a thing as over editing? We're supposed to prune unnecessary words and crop useless scenes, but sometimes I wonder if I'm going too far.

During the polishing stage, I've likened my manuscript to a rose bush (it's a stretch, I know). I've chopped off the dead, ugly branches, but I've also come dangerously close to snipping off lush flowers. When our brains are on editing overload, how can we decipher the unsightly from the beautiful? Here's what I'm learning:
  • Listen to our readers. If our critique partners starred a line, or complimented a word choice, why mess with it?
  • Read each sentence in context. If we pluck a sentence out of the blue, it's possible it won't sound quite right. But within the context of a scene, it might work.
  • Read nonfiction books on our subject. In this post I outlined how this step helped open a treasure box of useful words.
  • Refer to a list of no-no or addictive words. Adverbs should be used sparingly, but a well-placed adverb sometimes makes sense. (Keli Gwyn wrote a great post about 12 Weak Words)
  • Step away. When every word, sentence, and paragraph looks like a tumbleweed, it's time to take a break. A walk, a movie, or a few chapters of a good book does wonders for a writer's soul.
We don't want a stark, brittle manuscript that we've whittled down to a colorless stump. We're striving for a bouquet of words, and should be careful not to clip too much.

Are you ever in danger of over editing? Or is there no such thing? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fueling Fiction with Nonfiction

My novel involves arson, and my agent suggested I read the nonfiction book, FIRE LOVER, by Joseph Waumbaugh. I'm not an avid nonfiction reader, and I approached this assignment with trepidation. After finishing the book, I realized how effectively nonfiction can strengthen our fiction. Here's how:
  • It goes well beyond the cursory internet search. Yes, we can gather information from Google, but a biography or real-crime thriller delves deeper into motive, personality, and childhood issues.
  • Word choice bonanza. Holy cow. This book was a treasure trove of unique words regarding my book's subject. I plucked out great words, and now I'm sprinkling them in my manuscript. I found slang, synonyms, and words with more zing. Clever words changed the whole tenor of the book.
  • World building. My husband is a firefighter, so I thought I knew all there was to know about arson and the firefighting world. I was wrong. After finishing this book, I realized I only knew surface information.
  • Nonfiction deepens character. What motivates someone to start a fire? Or rob a bank? Or abuse a child? Or commit suicide? Nonfiction explores the why, and helps a writer create complex & believable characters.
  • It teaches how to distribute important information. Nonfiction is full of valuable details, but if the writer did their job, it's layered, built upon, and interesting. FIRE LOVER read like a novel, avoiding information dumps. Even though I knew the outcome of the true story, I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes scoop.
Reading this book took precious time, something writers have little of, but for me it was time well spent. My hope is that it'll enrich my story.

Have you ever read nonfiction to support your fiction? Did it help?

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Interview with Nicole Zoltack

Today our blogging buddy, Nicole Zoltack, has stopped by for an interview. The third book in her Kingdom of Arnhem series, CHAMPION OF VALOR, released May 1st.

Me: Welcome, Nicole! Can you give us a summary of your book series?

Nicole: The Kingdom of Arnhem series (fantasy romance for young adults and adults) is about the final war between two kingdoms - Arnhem and Speica.

Book I - Woman of Honor is about a young girl who wants to become a knight. Aislinn is willing to give up everything for the kingdom of Arnhem - her childhood, her life, even her heart. No matter the pain it brings.

Book II - Knight of Glory. Geoffrey leaves Arnhem to find her allies for the war against Speica and finds secrets, lies, and rumors that could tip the war in Speica's favor. He also finds himself torn between two very different and mysterious ladies.

Book III - Champion of Valor. Selliki loves the mage Gabrael but she is a selkie and love has never treated her race kindly when they love someone from the land. The final war between Speica and Arnhem is threatening the entire world. Lucifer has aligned himself with Speica and wants nothing less than to bring about the Apocalypse before its time. Only one kingdom will prevail; that is, if the world doesn't end.

Me: You're a busy mom with two small children. How did you manage to squeeze in enough time to not only write one novel, but an entire series?

Nicole: It isn't easy being a writer when you have kids. Son #1 is 2 1/2 , son #2 is 9 months (he'll be taking his first step soon!) I write when everyone else is sleeping, either late at night or early in the morning. What's wonderful is that both boys nap at the same time, so I can get dishes and other things done during the day and I try to squeeze in some writing then too, although if I'm honest, I usually try to catch up on emails and blogs then.

Me: Yes, reading blogs is a familiar addiction! What is your favorite part about writing fantasy novels?

Nicole: I love that anything goes. I can have people throw fireballs at each other. I can introduce races like selkies and dwarves. I can show dwarven women (why are they hardly ever portrayed?). I can change trolls so they aren't so monstrous and have magic themselves - the ability to dance on the wind. The freedom is what I love most.

Me: What a cool job--creating unique characters and intriguing worlds. Can you give us a small glimpse into your writing journey?

Nicole: Sure! I first learned about Desert Breeze through a publisher chat on a yahoo group. As the chat was winding down, Gail Delaney (the EIC) mentioned that she loved series, especially for fantasy and a few other genres. I mentioned to her that I had an unfinished manuscript that would be part of a series and briefly described it to her. She said to send it to her when it was finished.

The story I had mentioned was a Nano story (National Novel Writing Month when authors around the world try to write a 50K in November). I abandoned all other side projects and focused on the novel until I completed it. After finishing it, I submitted to Gail and waited. Shortly thereafter, she emailed me an acceptance for Woman of Honor.

Desert Breeze is a non-erotic romance publisher, which is perfect for me. My novels tend to have crossover appeal. Woman of Honor is a coming-of-age fantasy romance, so it's definitely for YA and adults.

Anyhow, I had mentioned to Gail about the series during the yahoo chat, and we worked together to figure out the direction that the series could take so that the entire series was fantasy romance, each book centering on a different couple. And that was that. I had sold a short story or two before this, but this was my journey to novel publication.

Me: That was quite an adventure. What quick tip can you offer fellow writers?

Nicole: Even if you can't write every day, work on your story every day. Even if that just means thinking about the characters and what kind of ice cream they like. The more you know and understand your characters, the more they'll leap off the page.

Me: Thanks for the visit, Nicole. We all wish you success with your trilogy!

Happy Mother’s Day to Nicole and all the other Mommy Writers out there. Readers, be sure to leave a comment to be entered to win some signed post cards and magnets. Each comment during the Champion of Valor Blog Tour gives you an entry for the grand prize: a copy of the entire Kingdom of Arnhem trilogy - Woman of Honor, Knight of Glory, and Champion of Valor.

You can find Nicole here: Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter

Her books can be purchased on Amazon here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Keep 'Em Guessing

My son convinced me to watch "The Other Guys," and I had to admit it was a lot of fun. Here's the logline: Two desk cops get their chance to step up to the big leagues, but do they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the city's top criminals?

"The Other Guys" reinforced a valuable storytelling lesson: keep 'em guessing. This movie was like one long opposite day. Here's what I mean:
  • The tough, hunky NYPD cop (Mark Wahlberg) is drowning in insecurities. He plays the harp and dances ballet. Oh, and he's hated by all of New York because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter in the leg.
  • The goofy, awkward police accountant (Will Ferrell) is married to jaw-dropping, out-of-his-league Eva Mendes. And he's the one with an exciting, dark past.
  • A Toyota Prius, which is mocked early in the movie, becomes the kick-butt car that muscles through a chase scene with killers (while saving gas at the same time).
  • The mellow "Monday, Monday," by The Mamas & the Papas, is background music throughout the fast-paced chase scene. A fun contrast.
  • The nerdy captain quotes TLC lyrics without realizing it (or does he?)
  • It wasn't high-powered rifles that brought down the bad guy's helicopter. Nope. It was golf balls.
  • I expected another "the top brass is in on it" ending, but the writers didn't resort to that tired gag. Another surprise.
This story was packed with hilarious dialogue and fun twists that kept me guessing. Although I don't write comedy, I still learned important lessons about ditching stereotypes and surprising the viewer/reader by weaving in the unexpected.

Have you learned storytelling lessons from a movie? Please share!