Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing lessons learned from ALONG FOR THE RIDE

While on vacation last week, I devoured "Along for the Ride," by Sarah Dessen. I realized that one of things I love most about her books is that they make me smile. Not because they're meant to be funny, but because she has a gift for turning a phrase, and for simple, quiet, emotional character arcs. (For more gushing about Sarah Dessen, see my post "Writing lessons learned from JUST LISTEN.")

Here's a brief description of ALONG FOR THE RIDE from Amazon:

Ever since her parents began fighting, Auden has been unable to sleep at night. Now, spending a summer at a charming beach town with her father and his new family, she has to find new places to pass the time she spends awake. And so she meets Eli, a fellow insomniac who becomes her nighttime guide. Together, they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she has missed; for Eli, to come to terms with the death of a friend. In her trademark blockbuster-style, Sarah Dessen creates a powerful and irresistible story of two people learning how to connect.

Here are some of the writing lessons I learned from this book:

  • Give characters unlikely traits: in Dessen's book, a BMX bike rider is good with babies. A ditzy Barbie-style girl is wicked smart. The sometimes cold and calculating main character longs for the simple childhood she missed--she'd never even learned how to ride a bike. This book reminded me not to stereotype.
  • Character voice through dialog: this is the second book I've read of Dessen's, and now I definitely recognize (and love) her "author" voice. But each of her characters also have their own voices, and this is mostly revealed through dialog. Demanding mother uses sharp, condescending language. Carefree brother uses "chill" language. People-pleasing main character uses serious language. It all matched the characters.
  • Use current life situations to add flavor and authenticity: in her acknowledgements and on her web site, Dessen explains how she wrote this book with a newborn at home. In "Along for the Ride," the main character spends the summer living with her dad, stepmom, and newborn stepsister. She witnesses and experiences the stresses of living with a baby, and the sensory details in these scenes were authentic.
  • Show character traits through action: Dad was selfish and clueless, but instead of saying "dad was selfish and clueless," the author showed us. One example is a scene where the main character goes to dinner with her dad and newborn stepsister. The baby goes ballistic. Dad acts helpless, and then hands the baby over the main character, goes inside the restaurant, orders his food, and eats in peace. *Insert looks of disgust from moms here*
  • Add something unique that binds the two main characters together: in this case, insomnia. While everyone else was asleep, Auden and Eli traveled around town together, doing childish things Auden had never done, and getting to know each other better.
  • Jump ahead, then fall back: I've noticed a device this author uses well. She jumps ahead to the next important scene, but if there's a mini episode from the recent past that matters to the story, but doesn't need a full scene, she refers to it in a couple of paragraphs to bring the reader up to speed. In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell refers to these short bursts as "back flashes."
So there you have it, my writing lessons learned from "Along for the Ride." Have you read this book, or any other books by Sarah Dessen? Are there any writing lessons you've learned lately from a great book? Please share!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Giving Thanks

Friends, instead of creating a lame Thanksgiving poem of my own (I'll save that for Christmas!), I've decided to post something short, sweet, and meaningful by Ralph Waldo Emerson.


For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

I'll return to the blog on Tuesday, November 27th. In the meantime, I wish you all a happy, safe, and blessed Thanksgiving.

Where will you spend Thanksgiving this year? With family? Friends? Volunteering? 

And...this is important...are you the brave soul who cooks the turkey? Or does someone else have the honor of reaching into the cavity and pulling out the parts? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Show & Tell in a Nutshell

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Friends, today we have a special message from author Jessica Bell about her new craft book, "Show & Tell in a Nutshell." Here's what she has to say...

Have you been told there's a little too much telling in your novel? Want to remedy it? Then this is the book for you!

In Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing you will find sixteen real scenes depicting a variety of situations, emotions, and characteristics which clearly demonstrate how to turn telling into showing. Dispersed throughout, and at the back of the book, are blank pages to take notes as you read. A few short writing prompts are also provided.

Not only is this pocket guide an excellent learning tool for aspiring writers, but it is a light, convenient, and easy solution to honing your craft no matter how broad your writing experience. Keep it in the side pocket of your school bag, throw it in your purse, or even carry it around in the pocket of your jeans or jacket, to enhance your skills, keep notes, and jot down story ideas, anywhere, anytime.

If you purchase the e-book, you will be armed with the convenient hyper-linked Contents Page, where you can toggle backward and forward from different scenes with ease. Use your e-reader's highlighting and note-taking tools to keep notes instead.

The author, Jessica Bell, also welcomes questions via email, concerning the content of this book, or about showing vs. telling in general, at showandtellinanutshell@gmail.com

“Jessica Bell addresses one of the most common yet elusive pieces of writing advice—show, don't tell—in a uniquely user-friendly and effective way: by example. By studying the sixteen scenes she converts from “telling” into “showing,” not only will you clearly understand the difference; you will be inspired by her vivid imagery and dialogue to pour through your drafts and do the same.” ~Jenny Baranick, College English Teacher, Author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares
“A practical, no-nonsense resource that will help new and experienced writers alike deal with that dreaded piece of advice: show, don’t tell. I wish Bell’s book had been around when I started writing!” ~Talli Roland, bestselling author

Purchase the paperback:
$4.40 on Amazon US
£3.99 on Amazon UK

Purchase the e-book:
$1.99 on Amazon US
£1.99 on Amazon UK
$1.99 on Kobo

About the Author:
The Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell, also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning.

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest.

For more information about Jessica Bell, please visit: 

Thanks, Jessica!

Do you tell when you should show? Do you know how to find those oops moments and make corrections? Do you have any advice you can share with the rest of us?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Writing lessons learned from JUST LISTEN

Guys, I have a new love. The object of my affection is Sarah Dessen's writing style. Dessen is the author of JUST LISTEN, and several other YA books. In YA circles, I'd heard Sarah Dessen this, Sarah Dessen that. Now that I've read JUST LISTEN, I can see why teen girls love her books.

A brief description from Amazon:

When Annabel, the youngest of three beautiful sisters, has a bitter falling out with her best friend--the popular and exciting Sophie--she suddenly finds herself isolated and friendless. But then she meets Owen--a loner who's passionate about music and his weekly radio show, and always determined to tell the truth. When they develop a friendship, Annabel is not only introduced to new music, but is encouraged to listen to her own inner voice. With Owen's help, can Annabel find the courage to speak out about what exactly happened the night her friendship with Sophie came to a screeching halt?

Here are some of the writing lessons I learned from this amazing book:

  • Keep secrets--I feel like I mention this all the time, but that's probably because I really admire authors who do this well. In JUST LISTEN, something bad had happened between Annabel and her best friend Sophie. Something bad had also happened with a guy. But we don't know what these Big Bad Things are until much later. 
  • If the protagonist does something out of character, set up the why--Annabel wasn't a rule breaker, but when her new friend Sophie suggests breaking a rule, Annabel crosses that line. Why? An older guy had shown interest in Annabel, and Sophie used that information to lure Annabel to the other side.
  • Show important character traits early--Sophie, the best friend, is insecure and controlling. This is shown, not told, very early. As a matter of fact, it's shown in a long flashback (which totally worked, by the way). We learn early on that Sophie is someone you don't want to cross, and her behavior with Annabel makes total sense.
  • Consider placing an important romantic moment in an unlikely place--Annabel and Owen don't share their first romantic moment with candles and soft music. Instead, it's at Owen's house, with five thirteen-year-old girls running around, having a fake modeling shoot. It was unlikely and took me by surprise.
  • No banging over the head necessary--JUST LISTEN had many layers of important emotions and issues. But Dessen didn't bang the reader over the head. Instead, she quietly and expertly wove a complex story, and she took her time doing so. It was beautiful.
  • Quiet books work--JUST LISTEN had zero explosions, zero car chases, and zero shouting. It was a real-life drama at its best and worst, and played out with memorable characters. Even in the quietest moments, something important was happening. Not all readers are fans of quiet books, but I am, especially when they're packed with strong emotion.

When I grow up, I want to write books that affect people the way JUST LISTEN affected me. As a reader and a writer, this book changed me.

Have you read any of Dessen's books? What did you think of her writing style? And what do you think of the above writing lessons? Please share!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Instructions For Life

My family spent the weekend in Mammoth Lakes, CA a little while ago, and the following message was hung on the wall in our rented condo. I hope you enjoy it.

Life's Little Instructions
(credit H. Jackson Brown)

  • Every so often push your luck
  • Never underestimate the power of a kind word or deed
  • Never give up on anybody--miracles happen every day
  • Become the most positive and enthusiastic person you know
  • Learn to listen
  • Think big thoughts, but relish small pleasures
  • Don't expect others to listen to your advice and ignore your example
  • Opportunity sometimes knocks very softly
  • Leave everything a little better than you found it
  • Don't forget--a person's greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated
  • Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them
  • Treat everyone you meet like you want to be treated
  • Make new friends but cherish the old ones
  • Don't use time or words carelessly--neither can be retrieved
  • Judge your success by the degree that you're enjoying peace, health, and love
  • Smile a lot--it costs nothing and is beyond price
I don't know about you, but sometimes I sweat the small stuff in life. It's nice to be reminded of these little instructions.

Have you seen these instructions before? Do you sometimes need to be reminded to appreciate the little things in life? 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


For Americans, today is election day. Rest assured, this is not a political post. Instead, I'd like to focus on the wonderful reality of choice.

My family lives in a small, rural town, and our son is a sophomore in the local high school. There are only about 110 students in his class, and over 400 teens in the entire school. Some parents have chosen to pull their kids from our small school and enroll their kids in large high schools in neighboring cities. We chose to leave our son in his small school close to home. He's doing great there, and he loves it. For us, an easy choice.

As writers, sometimes our choices are not so clear...

Publishing Choices

Do we go the agent/big publisher route? Do we go the small publisher route? Do we leap over the gatekeepers and take the self-publishing route?

I don't know about you, but I'm glad the traditional vs. indie battle has died down a bit. There are plenty of successful authors on both sides, and lots of authors who choose an all-of-the-above approach.

Me, I'm just thankful for the choice.

Artistic Choices

Setting? First person? Third person? Past tense? Present tense? Light and flirty mood? Dark and chilling? Who's the narrator?

A slight shift in any of these questions alters the story completely. I sometimes struggle with these choices because I want to make the right decisions up front.

But again, I'm thankful for the choice.

The Choice to Persevere

I don't know about you, but sometimes rejections or bad news is like a sucker punch that makes me doubt everything. If you've ever wondered why in the heck you continue to do something that brings such joy, but also such heartache, believe me, I know how you feel.

Thankfully, we don't allow those moments to last very long. After a bit of time, we come back. And if we choose to, we use those disappointments to fuel our desire to become better. No one holds a Nerf gun to our heads and forces us to create and polish and lay our hearts bare. Perseverance is a choice.

Whether it's leadership, publishing, artistic choices, or the decision to persevere, it's a beautiful thing to have a choice.

Are you intimidated by the amount of choices available to writers today? Do you regret any of the choices you've made as a writer? What's the best writing related choice you've made so far?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

How Writers Can Help Victims of Hurricane Sandy

(photo credit: livescience.com)

We've all heard about the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. We've seen haunting images of boats washed ashore, houses knocked off their foundations, and entire neighborhoods burned to the ground.

How can writers help?

Here are a few opportunities...

From Kate's web site:

What is KidLit Cares?
It’s an online talent auction to benefit the Red Cross relief effort for Sandy. Agents, editors, authors, and illustrators have donated various services to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, with donations being made directly to the Red Cross disaster relief fund.
Click here for more details, and for a list of all the amazing items up for auction. Guys, there's a lot of great stuff there for writers.

2. Not that we're geeks or anything, but Wired.com/GeekMom had 6 Ways for Geeks to Help with Hurricane Sandy Relief.

3. Donate directly to the Red Cross--Click here to donate online, or you can text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.

The full damage, physical and emotional, has yet to be tallied, and it's heartbreaking to see these folks suffering. For those of you who were affected by the storm, just know that a whole lot of people are praying for you.

Were you, or anyone you know, affected by Hurricane Sandy? Do you know of other ways we can help? Please share in the comments, and if possible, add links. Thank you!