Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing lessons learned from TENDING TO GRACE

I recently finished TENDING TO GRACE, by Kimberly Newton Fusco. Here's a brief summary from Amazon:

Lenore is Cornelia's mother--and Cornelia's fix-up project. What does it matter that Cornelia won't talk to anyone and is always stuck in the easiest English class at school, even though she's read more books than anyone else? She feels strong in the fixing. She cooks vegetable soup so Lenore will eat something other than Ring Dings; she lures her out of bed with strong coffee and waffles. She looks after the house when Lenore won't get out of bed at all.

So when Lenore and her boyfriend take off for Vegas leaving Cornelia behind with eccentric Aunt Agatha, all Cornelia can do is wait for her to come back. Aunt Agatha sure doesn't want any fixing.

Here are some writing lessons I learned from this poignant book:
  • Create a sympathetic narrator. I know, I know. Obvious, right? But it bears repeating. Cornelia has a speech impediment, and right away the reader feels her shame. She's smart, but only the reader knows that, and we root for her from page one.
  • Create a quirky sidekick. In some scenes Aunt Agatha could be labeled the opposition. Her goals conflict with Cornelia's goals, but she does it with flair and good humor. She wears a giant purple hat and moccasins, no matter what the season. She eats fiddleheads, munches on sugar cubes, and drinks sassafras. You can't help but love her, even when she's not being nice to Cornelia.
  • Bind the two main characters together. Cornelia's mom has dumped her off with Aunt Agatha, and she has no choice but to live in a dusty old house with no bathroom. She struggles to speak, but is an avid reader. Aunt Agatha is strong-willed, but illiterate. They're bound together by circumstances, yet they find a way to help each other.
  • Postcards can add backstory. Cornelia's mom sends postcards from Vegas. Even though her messages are short, the reader understands that mom is a flake, she makes terrible choices, and Cornelia pays the cost.
  • Less = More. With her sparse style, the author created chapters that were sometimes only half a page long. One and a half pages at the most. But each small chapter is packed with voice and character. It made me wonder how much fluff was left on the cutting room floor.
Have you read this book? And what's a writing lesson you recently learned from a great book?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Writers--How to Entertain Your Future Self

Reading through a first draft can sometimes be painful. I mean, some of it's ok, but some of it ...wow. So I've made a habit of doing something to entertain my future self. Maybe you'd like to give it a try!

I've mentioned before that I'll leave reminders to myself to (research) something later, so I don't slow my momentum. But I'll also leave snarky comments to myself, just for fun. Some examples?

(seriously? that's the best you can do?)
(lame. rephrase)
(boring! Ambien alert!)
(too vanilla. add sprinkles)
(show, don't tell. Doh!)
(clunky sentence)
(what were you thinking?)

My goal is to have fun with it, and try not to take myself too seriously. When I go through it the second time, I'll at least have a good laugh while I'm trying to clean up the mess.

Have you ever done anything like this? How do you soften the sting of a read-through?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

4 Reasons for writers to be thankful

At this time of year, a lot of people reflect on what they're thankful for. As a writer, I'm thankful I have a certain amount of skills. That alone is worth being thankful for. But these days there are other reasons why writers can be thankful.
  1. More opportunities. The publishing world is shifting every day, and it's tough to keep track of what's up and what's down. But all this change is good for us. Writers have more opportunities than ever before. If Plan A doesn't work, try Plan B. If plan B doesn't work, come up with a Plan C. We have choices, and that's something to be thankful for.
  2. Mountains of information. If our hearts are open to learning, there's an abundance of teaching material available to us--most of it for free. Authors' blogs, ebooks and paper books about craft, and links via Twitter. Sure, the amount of information out there can be intimidating, but if we sift through it all and find what works for us, we're connected with unlimited learning potential. Great places to start are The Bookshelf Muse and Writer's Knowledge Base.
  3. Readers. If you're published, you already have them. If you're pre-published, those readers are out there, waiting for your work. Let's give them our best!
  4. Each other. Writers are generous, friendly, and supportive. Being a part of this community is priceless. Feeling down? Need encouragement? Need advice? Throw your (edited) thoughts out there, and fellow writers are sure to offer just what you need. There will be days when you can return the favor.
What else can writers be thankful for? Feel free to add anything that I've missed.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

String Bridge--A Book Review

I recently finished "String Bridge," which was written by our fellow blogging buddy, Jessica Bell. The beautiful story, with all it's twists and turns, is still on my mind. Here's a brief description from Amazon:

Greek cuisine, smog, and domestic drudgery was not the life Australian musician, Melody, was expecting when she married a Greek music promoter and settled in Athens, Greece. Keen to play in her new shoes, though, Melody trades her guitar for a 'proper' career and her music for motherhood. That is, until she can bear it no longer and plots a return to the stage--and the person she used to be. However, the obstacles she faces along the way are nothing compared to the tragedy that awaits.

What I loved most about this book was how textured and real these characters were. Melody, Alex, and Tessa became real people to me, and I cared about what happened to them. Tessa, Melody's daughter, was a spirited little girl who added comic relief to the serious story, and provided a compelling reason for Melody to stay in her current life. Alex was the hubby I wanted to smack across the head while at the same time make him a sandwich. Their family life was complex, and there were no easy answers to their problems.

Most women can probably relate to Melody's feelings of love, loss, and regret. She compared the life she thought she'd live vs. reality, and experienced days when she didn't quite measure up. The author captured these emotions beautifully, and without giving anything away, she also did an amazing job of throwing in some wild twists. Like the ending...I didn't see it coming, and I absolutely loved being surprised.

Have you read Jessica's book? If so, what did you think? And if you haven't read it yet, here's where you can get a copy:

The soundtrack is on iTunes and Amazon

Jessica can also be found on Facebook and Twitter


Jessica Bell is a literary women's fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, to two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the 80's and early 90's.

She spent much of her childhood traveling to and from Australia to Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide, such as HarperCollins, Pearson Education and Macmillan Education.

In addition to String Bridge, Jessica has published a book of poetry called Twisted Velvet Chains. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found under Published Works & Awards on her website.

From September 2012 Jessica will be hosting the Homeric Writers' Retreat & Workshop on the Green island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Writing lessons learned from HATE LIST

I recently finished "Hate List" by Jennifer Brown, and I have one word for it...wow. Here's a brief description:

Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.

Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends, and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.

I learned several writing lessons from this amazing book, and here's a sampling:
  • Create a sympathetic villain: this is possibly the best example I've ever read. Nick brought a gun to school and shot other students in cold blood. Students who begged for their lives. He was a monster...we should hate him. But this author did an amazing job of showing Nick's pain, and how bullying transformed his life.
  • Use newspaper articles to provide plot and character details. Sprinkled between the chapters were newspaper accounts of the shooting. It was a clever way to add details without an info dump, and without taking away from the story. And each of the shooting victims was memorialized in the local paper, familiarizing the reader with the teachers and students that lost their lives on that fateful day.
  • Use old emails instead of flashbacks. During the police investigation, Valerie was forced to defend the email exchanges she'd shared with her boyfriend. They told the emotional story of frustration, bitterness, and hate without boring the reader with long, detailed flashbacks.
  • Mixed-up timelines can keep readers guessing. Sometimes I'm frustrated by a mixed-up timeline, but in this book, it kept me interested. It doesn't open with the shooting--it opens on Valerie's first day back to school. But little by little the author deftly went back to the day of the shooting, then back to the present. I was hooked.
  • Introduce characters, clues, and details slowly. A lot of victims. A lot of survivors. A lot of clues and details. None of this was dumped on me as I read the story. It drip, drip, dripped in, and I was able to absorb it all as the threads came together.
If you read YA, and you like contemporary stories, I highly recommend this book. Although it involved a school shooting, it was mostly a character story, and the author handled the violence well.

If you've read this book, what was your opinion? And if you've learned any writing lessons from a great book, please share!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Patience--A Writer's Elusive Virtue

Are you out of the closet as a writer? And if so, are there days when you wish you could jump back in the closet and board the door up from the inside?

Some days I feel like that. Why? Because now that people know I'm a writer, they expect certain things. Like, a published book. Well-meaning people often ask me, "So how's it going with the book? Is it published yet? Where can I buy it? And don't real writers have books out already?" (Ok, I made up that last part)

Times like this can be tough for writers, but it's also an opportunity to don our wrinkled, dusty "patience" hats. Here's three things we can remember to do:

Be patient with others
Most people who ask about our writing progress are showing genuine interest and are being kind. People that aren't a part of the publishing world don't usually understand how s-l-o-w it is. Just like I don't know how engineering or manufacturing works, most people outside the bookish loop don't know how publishing works, or the arduous steps we must take to reach our goals.

Be patient with the publishing industry
Agents, editors, and interns are hard-working folks, just like you and me. Reading through queries and manuscripts takes a long time. Heck, we know how long it takes to revise our own manuscripts, and these people do it all day every day. We don't want them to rush past our manuscript as if it doesn't matter. If they're taking their time with other manuscripts, hopefully they'll take their time with ours.

Be patient with ourselves
If we're constantly focused on all that we're not, we're ignoring what we are and what we've accomplished so far. Learning a craft and working hard to improve it takes a lot of time. Like, months and years, not days. So even though the process is maddeningly slow, and being patient is sometimes difficult, it's a good virtue to strive for.

Do you find yourself becoming impatient with non-writers, the writing industry, and yourself? If so, how do you handle it? And if you're already published, did you have your own moments of impatience?

And on a kind of/sort of similar subject, you might want to check out this post at Write It Sideways: Can You Really Call Yourself a Writer?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Love Affair...With Index Cards

Writers love office supplies, right? We geek out at rows of bright highlighters, colorful pens, and blank paper. One of my favorite supplies costs less than $1.

It's another old school tool that I use with each project--index cards. You know, the kind you buy for $.50 at Wal Mart. James Scott Bell talks about them in Plot & Structure. I've become an index card disciple, and here's why:
  1. They point to what's missing in my plot. Bell suggests that we write the following plot points on index cards: opening scene, doorway #1, doorway #2, climax scene. Spread them out on a table in this manner: opening, then a little bit of space, doorway #1, then lots of empty space, doorway #2, a little space, and then the climax scene. Doing this low tech visual trick showed me where I needed to insert scenes.
  2. They're flexible. Want to move doorway #1 closer to the opening? No problem. Want to switch scenes around in the middle so that you're ratcheting up the tension? No problem. Want to add a scene? No problem. Using index cards makes switching up scenes an easy task.
  3. They store valuable information. I not only add a one line description of the scene, but I'll also add the setting, conflict, emotion, and scene purpose. This reminds me what I need to accomplish with each scene.
  4. They help with pacing. When I'd completed my cards and spread them out, I noticed I had too many scenes before doorway #1. This is only one pacing problem I encountered, and I'm sure there's plenty more, but visualizing each card as a scene reminded me that I need to get to the guts of the story quicker.
  5. They travel well. I don't have to worry about WiFi or battery power with my index cards. I store them in a baggie and carry them with me while I'm in the plotting stage.
Those are my geekiest reasons for why I love index cards. If you use OneNote or Scrivener, you're probably laughing right now. I know, I know, it's so old school!

What's your favorite office supply? Have you ever used index cards? If not, what do you use to help you plot? And if you're a pantser, how in the world do you organize all that information in your head? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Not Easy...But Possible

My family recently watched Soul Surfer. Based on a true story, this inspirational movie is about Bethany Hamilton, a young surfer girl whose arm was bitten off by a shark.

Bethany fought insurmountable odds, but battled her way back into the sport she loved and became a pro surfer.

Bethany spoke a line in the movie that resonated with me:

"I don't need easy. I just need possible."

It reminded me that we writers have chosen a goal that isn't easy. Our goal involves a tough industry that's constantly changing. It's based on the subjective opinions of other people. Are we crazy or something?

We're no more crazy than the people who thought we could walk on the moon. Putting books in the hands of eager readers is a bold and vital goal. It can be exciting, but it's also frustratingly hard.

But writer friends, we don't need easy. We just need possible. After all, if Bethany could surf with only one arm, surely we can handle a mountain of rejection letters.

Have you seen this movie? If so, what was your opinion? And do you ever feel like this business is just too darn difficult? If so, maybe these quotes will help:

"The trouble with doing something right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was." --Walt West

"Man needs his difficulties because they are necessary to enjoy success." --Abdul Kalam

"Where there is no difficulty, there is no praise." --Samuel Johnson

"Storms make the oak grow deeper roots." --George Herbert

"Difficulties are things that show a person what they are." --Epictetus

photo credit

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Writer's Notebook Trap

I love to peek at the creative process of other writers, and I've even incorporated some techniques this way. I thought I'd give you a glimpse into something that I rely on...my writing notebook.

I put one together with each project. It's old school, unlike Scrivener, but I prefer something I can hold on to. I buy a simple 1" three-ring binder, and dividers. I take notes on a spiral notebook, the kind with the tear out sheets, and then sort those notes within the three-ring binder. It keeps me organized, even when my thoughts are all over the place. No idea can escape the notebook trap.

Here are some samples of divider tabs:
  1. Characters--this is where character worksheets, character quirks, and character notes belong. If I forget what eye color my main character has, this is what I refer to. The name, age, and physical description of each character goes here, and keeps confusion to a minimum.
  2. Plot/Scene Ideas--when these ideas pop into my head, I jot them down. I may never use them, but at least I've recorded them for future use. As I'm plotting, I pluck my favorite ideas out and expand on them.
  3. Plotting Notes--each time I plot a new project, I refer to James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. Inevitably I end up taking notes, and this is where I keep those scribbles. These are free-form notes, but I want to keep them in a safe place for future reference.
  4. Clues--ah, this is a biggie for me. With each story, as I plant clues, I keep a running list in this section. Same with story threads. As I near the end of the first draft, or as I work through the second draft, I make sure to refer to this list, so that clues and story threads don't get lost in the shuffle.
  5. Research--notes from books, or printouts from web sites, go here. Easy peasy.
  6. Sample Lines--if an opening line comes to me, I'll jot it down here. Same with my sample log lines. It's helpful to see the sample openings or log lines morph from one version to another, tightening up along the way.
  7. Agents--before I signed with my agent, I kept a section in my notebook for a list of agents. As I heard about agents that might be interested in my type of book, I jotted down their name, agency, and web site. When it was time to query my manuscript, this narrowed down my research phase.
So that's my notebook. What do you think? Not organized enough? Way too organized? Too low tech? Can you share a nugget or your process with us? It's fun to compare, or to borrow/steal ideas!