Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category:
I think one of the biggest hurdles to get over as a writer is when you realize and accept that your work is not unique simply because you wrote it.
I’ll let that one settle a bit in case it’s news to you.
Although I live in a Midwestern tundra, my affection for cold weather is limited to the fact that I can build fires in the fireplace and put marshmallows in hot chocolate. So when I walked down the hall at just after six this morning to let out the dogs, and noticed, through an unforgiving bay window, that the ground and roofs behind my house were covered in snow, a familiar feeling washed over me.
It’s the same feeling I get until each year’s first snowfall — a combination of dread, hopefulness and gratitude.
Dread because I do not like the cold and snow means it’s really winter. Hopefulness that the snow means we’re one day closer to spring (which in Chicago, meanders in around mid-May). Gratitude because for the one minute between bed and sliding door there are no footprints or other dog accoutrements in the back yard scenery. I do love snow — when I’m in the house.
But when I opened the door and the dogs had a look-see, their ears went up and their tails wagged.
“What did you get us?” they seemed to say?. “Let us go see!”
It happens every year – they run around in the first snow like we’d just moved here from Tahiti. Their tails wag and stick their noses in it and then shake their heads to get it off like they can’t believe the stuff actually comes off the ground.
I don’t know if they don’t remember snow or if it’s the memory of snow that makes them so happy. It doesn’t really matter and I know that.
So even before coffee that started me thinking about books. And how even though you’ve read a zillion books in your lifetime, THAT is what you want when you read a book.
That dog-in-the-first-snow kind of feeling.
The feeling is familiar because you’ve read books before, ones you’ve liked and ones you’ve loved, but the feeling is full of anticipation because the book is new. When you read a book (or write one), those opening pages should evoke the same excitement as when Mitzi sticks her nose into the snow and then turns around and looks at me with a ‘this so cool’ kind of dog stare and tail wag.
It’s the cold wash of newness and the warmth of familiarity — at the same time.
OK, all niceness aside, now I have to go find my boots.
With the myriad of manuscripts on my hard drive, books in my TBR pile and TV shows DVR’ed I’ve noticed a trend. Writers like to talk to viewers and readers. You know the shows where the character turns to the camera and talks to you? Writers do that to. It’s a casual tone, like in a blog…only it’s not a blog, it’s a book. It can make you feel like you’re the only one reading or it can make you think JUST TELL THE STORY ALREADY, PLEASE!
I’m looking for what to call this trend, if it is one. It works for me quite often in TV and books — but more and more it’s not appealing to me. Maybe that’s because of the proliferation of it – maybe because like anything else it has to be done well.
Is there a name for it?
My tweeps (people on twitter) have offered some suggestions but I’m thinking it’s simply “when the author talks to the reader” makes the most sense.
What do you think?
When I think of a caricature I think of a guy or a gal, sitting behind an easel in a park or at a Bar Mitzvah drawing pictures that exacerbate willing models’ strengths and weaknesses. If you have a big nose, you can bet, in a caricature, your schnoz is going to take up the whole page. These artists won’t insult you per se, but they will take one thing about you that you just can’t miss that’s pretty innocuous and play off it so that the person on the canvas/paper is unmistakably recognizable to everyone who knows you.
It’s fun and it’s cute and takes skill, that’s for sure. But what’s missing are the details. The details that would make it really you. Really special and different from what everyone can see and everything that’s obvious.
Just like in a book.
I love to recognize a character in a book but I don’t want him or her to be obvious and predictable and without detail. I want the little things that make them special, stand out, different, unexpected, troubling – maybe even ridiculous or contradictory.
In various capacities I’ve been privileged to read a lot of full and partial manuscripts since September. What always raises a red flag is when a character is predictable or typical. I read and wait for something special, a spark, a flaw or quality that makes someone believable — even if it’s fantastical or supernatural. Woven well into the character’s being it makes him or more than the typical guy or the typical girl or even the typical werewolf, faerie or vampire. That’s when the person or being on the page becomes worth your time – when there are nuances to become vested in. It doesn’t matter if the book is adult, YA or MG. I read them all — and the same truth holds true. It’s the little something special that pulls you in, maybe after the familiar has piqued your interest.
As writers we strive to write relatable characters — but we can’t forget that while we want some bits to jump off the page like the recognizable nose — we want shadows and shadings, nuances underneath the surface that make one person special, different from the rest, that makes you step back and look at something close up to see one thing and step back to see something completely different — and everyone looking at it sees someone — or something — different.
Characters are open to interpretation, caricatures are not. They pretty straightforward, and after a while…boring. So if you’re writing about anything or anyone and the word “typical” crosses your lips…think of adding “except for” to the description to make the image a little more interesting.
One of the best decisions I made recently was to beg ask J to be a beta reader. You know why? Because she’s not a writer and because she and I have been online friends since the inception of my very first blog but we don’t know each other outside the blogosphere. While I have no doubt we’d chat for hours and find we’re compatible, we’ve not had the opportunity to do so…yet. Not only do I go to J’s blog any time I want to find a recipe I know I’ll like, but I love reading her thorough, thoughtful, honest book reviews. Therefore I thought she had all the ingredients to be the beta I needed because I just wanted someone to read it as a reader – not as an editor or writer (although she did heed my warning that there were errors in the ms and she caught a-plenty, for which I am grateful).
And, while my betas and my CP rock, they read like writers, which is different from the entire normal universe you should know.
I read for language and story. I want meticulously crafted prose. I’m no pretend literary snob, I’ll read just about anything because any genre can be well written within it’s own parameters. I also want story. I want a beginning, middle and end. I want a plot. I want characters. I want setting. I gauge pace as I read and my mind counts redundancies and dangling participles. I can and do like books that have glaring flaws – but overall I want a well-told story that uses words in a very special way. Not in a snooty way; not in a keep-the-dictionary-next-to-me way; not always in an academic or literary way — just in a way that means a special combination of the right wordsevoke vivid images and palpable emotions to go along with the story.
I reasoned recently that if I read like a writer it might behoove me to write like a reader. And then it hit me – yes – if I write and look at it from a non-writer’s point of view it helps me stay grounded. It allows me consider what a reader would want to know, what she would think. I factor in the holes she might fall through as she reads and what might take her by surprise. It’s a fine line between writing for writers and writing for readers, but it’s there.
It’s an exercise in multiple-writer-personalities I think, shifting focus, looking at the same work right-side-up and upside-down. It’s putting on the writer hat so that work passes all the tests that will help open the publishing padlock while keeping in mind that most readers don’t write more than grocery lists.
If you’re a writer have you discussed a book with a non-writer? It’s fascinating — and totally different than discussing a book with a writer. And I think it’s really necessary to keep our keyboard tapping fingers on the pulse of the reading public.
Then, of course, I go back to writing like a writer — which is how we give readers what they need to just read.
At the beginning of the week we found a mother cat and three kittens on the patio in front of the house. One of the dogs discovered them, I can only surmise, when she decided to jump up on back legs to look outside through the dining room window because she was finished looking out the other seven thousand windows in the house. Then it was the middle of the night when she decided to check on the cats and wake me up to tell me there were, indeed, still squatting on our property. Of course I was awake from then on, as he/we watched the kittens play in the dark amidst the withering flowers and plants succumbing to the fact that I stopped watering in July Fall. The next day he and mama cat had a staring match through the window. I then decided those tiny, wobbly kittens must be hungry and although feeding them would endear me to them for life, I was sure, I used my favorite plastic platter and spread a can of tuna near the rim so the kittens could reach it easily. That would have been great if the mama cat would have then let them have any. Which she did not. When I saw the tiny kitties licking an empty plate, well, what was I supposed to do? More tuna. More plates. I pushed the plates to the two spots where the kittens were hiding and then when I hid, they ate the tuna.
And we haven’t seen them since.
I had rigged the dining room curtain so the dog could not wiggle through where the two sides meet. I left the outside lights off so the cats would be harder to see. But they were gone. I thought mama cat would come back. My daughter and I decided on a place to feed them where the dog wouldn’t see them. I researched feral cats and called the local humane society. Heck, we even named all four of them. There was no way I was taking in 4 cats but we decided if one came back — well then our hand might be forced. No need for all the planning. The cats are gone. There are many cats in our neighborhood for some reason – we’ll often see a cat lying on our walkway as we drive off in the morning or walking across the front lawn. But for 24 hours these cats were our tenants and just as we’d written their story. They were gone but not forgotten.
You know, like a dropped subplot.
Dropped characters who have no graceful or dramatic exits and dropped subplots with no imaginable or actual ending are probably my biggest pet peeve in reading and writing. Everything in literature needn’t be tied up neatly with a bow, but I think there should be a reasonable explanation or an understanding of a character’s departure. If there’s a subplot we don’t need to read “the end” but we do need to know (or think we know) where something is headed.
A writer friend of my uses spreadsheets to do this. I’m not quite as organized. OK, I no way nearly as organized. I have scribblings on paper that say “Don’t forget about so-and-so” which is the writerly string on my finger. Throughout my WIP I try to weave different storylines that have beginnings, middles and endings that do not coincide with the beginning, middle and end of the novel. Some of those secondary endings leave the reason without question and some point to possibilities and allow the reader to surmise, wonder and think. I rely on my betas at this point to help discover nuances missed and threads that have detangled. Since I know what happens, what doesn’t and what I want out of the story I’m often too close to it all.
I have shelved authors who drop subplots. It disappointments me so much that I don’t read them again. No second chances with me – there’s too much out there to read.
I can only imagine it was that way with the cats. A big wide world to explore and without the lure of more than a can of tuna (it was albacore!) they were not sticking around for more. But like a book with elusive subplots – I do keep looking out the window hoping they’ll come back.
I woke up yesterday with a grand plan. Don’t you love those? I was going to read and write and hang out in whatever order suited me best. I took coffee to bed and pulled up the covers under my neck. It was still dark out so I turned on a flashlight that I laid across my chest so it illuminated a page at a time. Nothing worse than holding a book and a flashlight at 6 am when you’re trying to drink coffee and read a novel.
While I was reading I had a thought. Always dangerous. It was a character and a short scene. I did think to myself “that’s a good one” and then I went back to reading. I soon realized that it was on automatic replay in my head and I’d read the same sentence in the book four or five times. I got up, grabbed a notebook and pen and wrote the scene so I wouldn’t forget it. Then without thinking I hand wrote about seven pages. I’m not sure I took a breath, and I have no idea where it came from. I do know that I needed Spanish words for this bit of story so when I finally extricated myself from the bed and transcribed the story onto the laptop, I tapped my friend in Mexico for the right words for these characters. I then spent the next several hours writing about 2500 words over which I had no real control – the story unearthed itself as it appeared on the screen which is both exciting and unsettling. I have no idea if there is more – as it doesn’t end – or if the whole story exists on the pages and it needs to be rearranged in order to see it. Either way, it’s not my WIP which was my intended day’s work. I learned a long time ago that plans change, yet I am constantly surprised when they do.
But at least all those people and their problems are now living in a Word Doc instead of behind the brain door they tumbled out of yesterday. I’m thinking it was mighty crowded in there. It’s a whole city block worth of people! They’re now residents of the New Idea file — along with other wayward souls and cities and towns and problems and relationships.
And as much as I complain about the town I live in (and I do!) — I think if I lived somewhere with more to do — these folks would all stay hidden away because I’d be too busy.
And that is today’s silver lining for living in the suburbs.
We see typos everywhere — in the grocery store, on TV, looming over the highway on billboards and of course on the internet. They’re entertaining — they’re harmless — and most of the time I give them no second thought.
But the other day perusing a website I saw my new most favorite typo ever. It conjures up all kind of images that are hard to explain, although I’ll try.
Is this a place where they rebuild fireplace mantels or is it the place where they teach people how to build mantels? Perhaps after years of bumping their heads on mantels, it’s where old Santas go for a “rest”.
I do realize that we all make mistakes and it’s not nice to make fun of people. Blah, blah, blah. I’m funnin’ with the typo, that’s all.
Any ideas? What’s your idea of a ‘mantel institution?’
If someone asks me how I came up with a particular idea, I can usually say that I took something real and turned it inside out and upside, shook it, lopped of one side and there it was. An idea for a story.
But what about those ideas that seem to come from no where? They still come from somewhere. They originate within us and are there, original in some respects. (I say in some respects because we know there are really only variations on a finite number of themes, but the combinations and idiosyncrasies are endless).
I was thinking about this today – and luckily today – I also had a bout with ‘shiny new idea syndrome.’ I decided that before I forgot I would track where the inkling came from…it’s initial evolution…because I knew I would forget. I always do. It really doesn’t matter where the idea came from, it’s inconsequential. I just want to remember how it happened. The pages that follow the idea may eventually bear no resemblance to what they are today. Today was the burst – and I allowed it to carry me through most of the morning before I tucked it away.
1. Got email from local police station (I’m signed up for those) reminding citizens of my small town that unless you have a “no solicitors invited” sign or sticker on your front door or window, approved solicitors can indeed come to your door. Which sucks. But whatever.
2. I started thinking how I needed one of those signs.
3. Then I started thinking about the worst possible person who could come to try to sell you something.
4. I didn’t think about police revealing a tragedy – I don’t usually go there – I thought about just a regular person showing up at your door, uninvited, and your whole life changing.
5. Then I thought about how cool it would be if we could wear ‘no solicitors invited’ on our person and keep unwanted, toxic people out of our lives.
6. Then I went back to having someone show up at your door – with one of those enormous checks. Or a free puppy. Or maybe a family secret. Or anything that you know nothing about. I bet one of those signs couldn’t keep them away.
And then, thanks to my local police department – and something that had been knocking around in my head for ages with no where to go – I wrote this very rough first draft that has nothing to do with police or solicitors…although I did work in the sign. The subtext and details are yet to be discovered – it was stream of consciousness in action.
* * *
Daisy stood at the door. It was freezing outside, probably way below zero. She didn’t lick her dry lips, afraid they’d freeze together and she wouldn’t be able to talk. Before she knocked, the door clicked and opened about eight inches. She saw a sweaty woman in a pink T-shirt and fitted black shorts. They must have the heat at 80 in there.
“I’m here to see Elliot Handle,” Daisy said.
“He’s at work. What can I do for you, um, who are you?” The petite, brown bobbed woman opened the wooden door wide but stood behind the glass storm door holding the handle. Daisy didn’t know if she was unlocking it or holding it shut.
“I’m his daughter,” Daisy said. No need beating around the bush.
“Very funny, young lady, I’m his wife and we don’t have a daughter.”
“You may not, but he does.” The woman smiled with a closed mouth, looked at the floor and stepped back, pushing the door closed. Daisy held up a hand to stop her and talked fast. “I’m Daisy Cooper .” She paused. “Tammy is my mother.”
The woman stopped. Her eyes shot up and she stared at Daisy.
“How do you know about Tammy?” The woman turned and looked behind her before wrapping her arms around herself and faced Daisy again.
“She’s my mother.” Was this woman deaf ?
“Elliot hasn’t seen Tammy in…”
“About 22 years.”
“Right. And they didn’t have any children.”
“None that he knew about, that’s true. Look, can I come in? It’s fucking cold out here.”
“Watch your language, young lady. It’s a gorgeous, sunny, forty degree day. We’re lucky to get those here in the middle of January.” Incredulous, Daisy stuck her ungloved hands into the pockets of her obviously-not-meant-for-Michigan-in-winter fleece jacket.
“I have proof,” she said again.
“Yes, right, you said that, but if you don’t go away I’m going to call the police.” The woman tapped the “No Solicitors Invited” sign on the sidelight. “This means you can’t come to my door unless I ask you to.”
“I’m not trying to sell you something, lady. I’m your husband’s daughter.”
“Like I said, miss, Elliot never had a daughter.”
“Well he does now.”
* * *
Can you trace back to the initial signs of one of your new ideas? Do tell!
I’ve been reading a lot of online query samples lately — in addition to my everyday obsession reading of publishing industry blogs and websites. The deeper you dig the more you find, y’know? And while I am not a professional query-er, as a writer and editor I now have a theory.
Do not name your characters after food.
It makes the reader hungry and then he or she can really not focus on what he or she is reading. And the hunger is as distracting, if not more so, than the silly name. And I don’t mean an affectionate nickname that you drop into your ms once or twice – I mean – there are folks who, when writing books for adults, use food names. In my opinion these does not generate a warm, familiar feeling – just hunger pangs in addition to brain pains associated with the question “why”.
My thoughts? Perhaps these writers were hungry when they came up with the name. Maybe writing is like a trip to the grocery store — something you should never do when you’re hungry.
Nix the following if you’ve named your characters Gumdrop, Pumpkin, Sweet Tart, Pork Chop, Devil Dog, Applesauce, Lemon Drop, Shortcake. There were some less tantalizing selections as well — like Little Potato (I like me my potatoes, but it’s not as gastronomically alluring).
And yes, some of these were really used in real queries.
I know it worked for Olive Oil – but still!