Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ready, set, ACTION--or maybe not.

Today's Mood: low level stress. Today's Music: New Moon soundtrack. Today's Writing: Black Dragon Queries (again). Today's Quote:
"Every good novelist knows how to pump up the action in high-energy scenes. Every best-selling writer has an instinct for building pace, then letting off on the gas, then racing to the finish of a novel." -from The Writer's Little Helper by James V. Smith

I was re-reading a few chapters from City of Glass by Cassandra Clare, and--as most things are prone to do--it got me thinking about the novel I'm working on. Specifically, it got me thinking about the amount of action in my story versus published works. Now, for those of you not fortunate enough to have read City of Glass, let me note that it is a fantasy that boils down to saving the world as we know it. So yes, lots of action. I mean, when you're talking demons and vampires and shadow hunters, there's going to be action.

In my book, the fate of the world is not hanging in balance. No one has to save the planet from being over-run by demons. Maybe the main character has to save her own soul, maybe even save her dad, or at least try to keep her family intact, but no world saving going on here. So how do I make sure there is enough action? I mean, sometimes it feels like ordinary things such as family, friends, high school (okay, so maybe that is a more life-hanging-in-the balance kind of thing), and dealing with the opposite sex (ditto on that) are just too mundane to build up huge amounts of action/tension. Look at my life--not all that exciting. (Well, okay, the lost Nintendo got dicey for awhile--lots of screaming involved. But no one was going to DIE because of it (contrary to some little person's belief.))

So for those of us not writing horror, fantasy, or suspense/mystery, how do we build in tension and action? I dug out my copy of The Writer's Little Helper and took a look at the chapter called "the ACIIIDS Test for evaluating scenes." ACIIIDS stands for Action, Conflict, Imagery, Invention, Irony, Dialogue, and Suspense. The author argues that every important scene should contain each of those elements--although ONE of those elements should dominate the scene.

In the book, there is a handy chart for the writer to evaluate the intensity of each of these elements. Action, for example, goes from impending, to incidental to overt to urgent to frenetic. Suspense = invisible, subtle, cheap, chapter show, awesome, and nail-biter. I liked the one for dialogue (which I always seem to have a lot of in my books) because it shows you can build intensity into a scene that way as well. Dialogue = internal, monologue, debate, argument, and imbroglio (I had to look that up. It means an embarrassing or serious misunderstanding; a complicated situation. Personally, I would have used screaming match or fight or something like that--but then, I work with middle school kids all the time.)

I find it interesting that the author of this books deals with readability/reading ease/words per sentence type stuff when it talks about how to evaluate and adjust your pacing. He suggests using the word processing tools to help you figure out the reading ease of your scenes, and then plot that on a graph. That way you get a good idea of the ups and downs of your piece--as well as an overall look at the readability of your piece. He suggests that if you have a scene that is supposed to be high action/drama/conflict, that you make sure it reads at a faster pace. "Remember, the quickest way to pick up the pace in a scene is to cut. Cut long sentences down to size. Cut long words from the piece. Use short words instead. Cut the passive voice to 0 percent. use simple declarative sentences, active voice, short paragraphs."

Granted, some books might just be more the page-turner type. Still, it sounds like any story can be ratcheted up by working on concrete things. I can include more intensity in the action, conflict, imagery, invention, irony, dialogue, and suspense in my scenes. I can adjust the pacing by paying attention to the readability of the scene--playing with sentence length, word size, and active vs. passive voice. All of these are do-able things.

Still, maybe a body or two thrown in for good measure....
What do you do to make sure the reader keeps turning pages?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Writing amid the hustle and bustle

Today's Mood: Introspective. Today's Music: U2. Today's Writing: IFFY (2 pages) Today's Quote:
"Understand you're asking the reader to slip through a tiny keyhole--to enter your room of suspended belief." -James McBride
Holiday shopping amidst insane crowds of people; holiday party with a whole bunch of people I don't know; children fighting over the computer, the cat, the amount of attention they get from me--it all makes it hard to find a quiet spot to think, much less write. But somehow I have to crave out some space, just enough to find the doorway into that other world, that world I'm creating.

I have a spot behind my dresser, leaning against the full-length mirror, next to the cold-air return. That is where I've been hiding out to write. It works because someone just glancing into my room doesn't see me right away. It works because there really is no room for anyone else to sit next to me (other than the cat). And maybe best of all, it works because I feel like a kid again--sneaking off to play when I should be cleaning my room or something hopelessly boring and mundane.

The two-page-a-day has been good for me in a couple of different ways. First off, I have to crank it out, so I can't over think things (at least, not too much). And second, when I say "I have to do my two pages, " it turns it into homework, a job, something that I--and my family--sees as important (maybe even more important than housework or laundry--unfortunately, not cooking. My family still won't forgo a meal so I can write--ungrateful wretches. : ))

Still, having said all that, I have to confess I'm now in the hole 6 pages. But how cool is that? I have to make it up. I can actually get away with saying--I need to write all day because I'm 6 pages behind!

So I'm going to write tomorrow. The kids are going to daycare and I'm going to sit in the hospital waiting room and write. What better place? I can't go anyway and it's always quiet and boring. The doorway between worlds can be anyway. You just have to find it.

Where do you find space in the holiday madness?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Page by page

Today's Mood: Determined. Today's Music: Robert Pollard. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
"Understand you're asking the reader to slip through a tiny keyhole--to enter your room of suspended belief." -Tennessee Williams

I was reading the latest issue of Writer's Digest this past weekend. There was an article giving tips on finishing your novel--always an interest of mine. One of the tips hit home. "Finish your rough draft as fast as possible. It tends to keep the story--the plot--more linear, more focused."

And how do I do that? I wondered. Especially when I don't have time to write this year. Especially when I've been working on the same paragraph for the last 2 weeks.

The author of the article went on to talk about how she made sure she wrote 2 pages a day. It kept her moving forward, not getting caught in the rut of endless revising.

Hmmm, I thought, 2 pages. I could do that if I just wrote and didn't overthink everything. After all, it's not like I don't know where the story has to go. I have a basic idea of what scenes I need to include. Maybe I should try it.

So the next morning I wrote faster. I made myself write--and keep going even when I wasn't totally thrilled with what was coming out on the paper (computer screen that is). I didn't quite finish the 2 pages, so I grabbed a little more writing time after school. And then a little more after the kids were in bed.

In an effort to keep myself accountable, I emailed the two pages to a writing friend. Told her it was my goal to write 2 pages a day. Told her she didn't have to read it/probably shouldn't read it. Just to look for the two pages and bug me if I didn't send them.

Next night I had to stay up a little later to finish the 2 pages, but finish I did. Emailed them off before mid-night.

Best part is that the story is getting hotter. It's running through my head again at all hours. I'm wanting to get up at the impossibly early crack of dawn to write (and that is just not normal!)
So maybe the writing isn't steller. It's a rough draft. It's okay. Really Sarah, it's okay. You can go back and revise after it is done. Come on, just another page to go....

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hunting fresh images

Today's Mood: Laid back. Today's Music: U2--Rattle and Hum. Today's Writing: nil, nothing, zip, zero. Today's Quote:
Some people change because they see the light, others because they feel the heat.
- David Thornburg
How do you go about finding/thinking of fresh images? As writers we are supposed to avoid cliches, but finding GOOD fresh images is hard. I swear my mind gets in a rut (kind of like I do making dinner) and I can only think of certain things.

I picked up a new book of Billy Collins poetry--Questions About Angels--and as I sit reading it, I'm struck by what great images he comes up with. I suppose all good poetry is made up of images that help the reader see the world in new ways, but at the moment I am extolling Billy Collins. I'd love to see his notebook; does he have lots of things crossed out? Take this stanza:
"Clouds that once toured the air in the style
of dirigibles now gather helplessly in the kitchen
and stare at me across the long wooden table."

Might he have first tried: Clouds that once traveled above like race cars? Or maybe Clouds that flock together like sheep/ now huddle together in the pen/ and stare at me across the iron railing?

Do poets or writers as good as Collins work through a number of images, trying them on like hats until they find one that fits, that brings out their inner persona, be it a cowboy or a gangster? Or maybe they just see the world in fresh ways right from the start. Am I too jaded, too stuck in the deep muddy ruts on the main road to find the small deer path leading off into the forest?

Am I asking too many questions for this late at night? Probably, that's what poetry does to me.

So what do YOU do to come up with new images, metaphors, similes? Do you brainstorm? Make a web--kind of like Fleda Brown had us do at the fall retreat. Do you keep a journal with lists of possible metaphors/similes? Do you ... I don't know, read a lot? Try to connect new things and see if it works? Obviously I could use some help here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Word Stealing

Today's Mood: Tired. Today's Music: Foo Fighters--The Color and the Shape. Today's Writing: IFFY--chapter who knows what, but I'm getting closer to the 65,000 word count. Today's Quote:
"Don't talk unless you can improve the silence." -Jorge Luis Borges

I was word stealing with my creative writing students yesterday. I should do this on a regular basis. I had a stack of poetry books that we paged through, finding words that appealed or that we didn't use on a regular basis, and writing them down. We did this we Fleda Brown up at Glen Lake. I looked back at my words from that session, and then added a whole bunch of new ones (from a book of Walt Whitman's poetry)

Today when I was writing I tried to include at least one of those words. It's funny how even just using one word that you don't normally use can take your writing in a different direction. Really cool.

Some of my words: halo, aria, dusky, latent, dallying, mystic, sullen, flock, prong, murmur, swathed, candid, brine, enamoured, ample, capricious, cosmos, inception, glide, mania, prickling, gallant, strut, seething, withered.

How much fun are those? Feel free to steal--I did.

Friday, November 13, 2009

In the world of a writer

Today's Mood: Relieved (read that as TGIF) Today's Music: I'm checking out the Trans-Siberian Orchestra CD a friend lent me. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
"It's not what you do once in a while. It's what you do day in and day out that makes the difference." -Jenny Craig

I dragged my sorry butt out of bed only minutes before 6:00 a.m. That meant I had less time than ever to write this morning. And of course, I was just getting into it, just feeling the first faint stirring of the flow, like the second or third step into the river when the current starts to lap at your legs but isn't yet a constant pull, when the phone shrills and someone needs assistance.

The day progressed, troubleshooting about the building, cataloging books--and deciding that one needed to go to the high school since it was too racy for middle school, picking out books for Monday's classes, teaching my graphic novel class, and then finally, my creative writing class. The sixth graders, all ready to write, and me, excited about some more writing time. But then one needed help using the thesaurus and another wanted a starting line, still another had questions about what I was writing. And before I knew it, the hour was done, kids needed to check out, and a teacher wanted help with his voice enhancement system.

I vow to write this weekend. I want to. I need to. But I also know full-well what happens on weekends. Marisa wants to get her ears pierced having finally screwed up her courage, laundry is overflowing, the house could use a cleaning (really, you have no idea how much it could use a cleaning. We should fire the damn housekeeper--oh wait, that's me), and I suppose we'll have to eat as well.

BUT I WILL WRITE. somehow.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Romancing Reality

Today's Mood: Scattered. Today's Music: Simon & Garfunkel. Today's Writing: Black Dragon. Today's Quote:
"Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible." -Paul Klee

How do you romance your characters? Or your subject for those of you without characters. Do you immerse yourself in it? When I was writing Free Lunch I took up running because my main character was a runner. I decided it was much easier to write about running and the love of it than it was to do. My character in IFFY is into yoga. I've joined a yoga class--which I'm happy to say I enjoy much more than running. Wasn't hard to immerse myself in Black Dragon. Dangerous, yes. Hard to un-immerse, yes.

Listening to music is probably one of the best ways for me to romance my character--draw her closer, find out all about him, learn all his little mannerisms, likes and dislikes. I also like to paint or draw the character--or cut out pictures from magazines. I even cut out clothes that I think he/she would wear.

But most of all I need to think about him/her all the time--like if I was (to use my students' term) "crushing" on him/her. I invent conversations, I put him/her into different situations and try to imagine how he/she would react.

It's on my mind right now because I need to get to know Tobin better. He seems a bit shy--either that or I don't want to "ruin" him so I keep him nebulous. Self-defeating behavior, I know, but I'm not sure what to do about it--other than the things listed above. Maybe it really is a bit like my roommates idea of impossible lust. She insisted we all need to have AT LEAST one impossible lust--someone we lusted after who we would never-in-no-possible-way-ever connect with. (For example, one of mine is Johnny Depp) The joy of this was that you would never find out that they snored, had a terrible temper, were racist, or had a flatulence problem--none of that real life stuff. I think maybe I'm doing that a bit with my character. I want him to be perfect, and if I start writing about him, maybe I'll find out he's not.

Hmmm, I started this thinking about romance, and now I'm thinking I need a dose of reality instead of romance. Nobody is perfect. It's okay if my character aren't either.

Anyone else as neurotic as I am? Stand up and wave your hand. Reality--gotta love it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keeping the flow

Today's Mood: excited. Today's Music: Was listening to shuffle most of the day--am looking forward to listening to Sting's new album (heard about it at book club last night--the source of many good things). Today's Writing: Black Dragon--1st chapter (again...) Today's Quote:
I've been busy lately. Way busier than I've wanted to be, although maybe that doesn't say much. Sick kids, sick husband, furiously scrubbing the house to prevent sick me, doctors, dentists, work, book club--it all takes time. And being busy and stressed means I don't have much time to write but I really need to write. So I got to thinking about how I can still spend quality time with my novel-in-progress even though we cannot always be together (in the flesh (leer)).

I like to spend some time every day at least thinking about the story or characters. Usually this is in the shower since that may be the only time I don't get interrupted--or at least rarely interrupted. But driving in my car is another place I do deliberate, purposeful daydreaming about my story.

Does anyone else have any great ideas on how to stay in touch with your writing project when you don't have time to actually write?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Promises, promises

Today's Mood: Hmmm, tired but relaxed. Today's Music: Coldplay--Parachutes. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
Let's talk about the promise of the first page or the first paragraph. At the SCBWI conference, one of the speakers talked about the promise that the first page--paragraph--made to the reader. Stories can start in many, many different ways, but they all make some sort of promise to the reader. As writers we need to be aware of what promises our stories are making. Does the book fulfill those promises?

So maybe the way you start your story promises it will be dark and scary, or maybe it promises it will be educational, or funny. The agent who critiqued my novel thought the first chapter promised that it was going to be a fantasy--and it really isn't. As a writer, I need to do something with that chapter to make sure it makes a promise it can fulfill. I need to change the chapter to make it clear it is realistic fiction story or problem/solution.

But I do wonder where the line is. I mean, don't you want to leave a little mystery? A little I- wonder-what-this-is-about-so-I'd-better-keep-reading-to-find-out? So it's a matter of setting it up but not giving it all away. Guess I've got a little work to do.

What promise does you first page/paragraph make?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Today's Mood: Tired. Today's Music: Jazz--thanks to Mike S. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:

I've managed to get up at 5:30 in order to write every morning. Now I just wish I had more to show for it! It's driving me crazy; I'm so overthinking things, but I don't know how to stop. My poor characters are dang sick of hanging out in the parking lot, but I just can't seem to get them to go in. They're going to be late to class--serves them right for being contrary.

Doesn't help that my brain is shifting through way too much crap. Start of school is always cluttered up with open houses and stuff that isn't working, problems that need solving yesterday, and tired kids. Oh yeah, and tired me too. Really tired. Deep down, disintegrate my bones tired. Snap at the kids when I have to tell them to do something 5 times--oh wait, I do that normally. Anyway, I'm tired.

End of next week I head up to Glen Lake to write. Glorious wonderful days of writing. Granted I might have to kill off a few characters if they don't manage to head into the building, but at least I get to spend more than 1/2 hour at a time, coaxing them along.


So that was a month ago, and I never managed to get back to finish it until now. How sad is that? I did get my characters out of the parking lot (yea!), although now they seem to be stuck in the stairwell. Still overthinking things.

The SCBWI conference was ... awesome, tiring, fun, helpful, inspiring... It is so different than PW. Much, MUCH more focused on getting published. I think it's really good to have both. I'd certainly get depressed if I didn't have PW to help balance out, help remind me of why I like to write--and it isn't because of publishing.

Very interesting critique I had with an agent. She talked about what the first page/chapter promised and how it seemed different than what the synopsis said the book was going to be about. Then We had another speaker who talked about the promise of the first few pages. Every book, every bit of writing really, makes a promise to the reader. As writers, we need to be aware of what promise is being made, and be sure that what follows fulfills that promise.

So I'm revising Black Dragon again. Not huge things, but first chapter things. Promises made.

Hope that all you out there reading this (or not) are writing. Comment if you get a chance. Tell me to do a better job posting on this blog. I will definitely try. Sometimes there just doesn't seem to be enough time/energy/motivation in the day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Perceive, believe

Today's Mood: Harried. Today's Music: Rilo Kiley - Better Son/Daughter. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
"I've been reading accident reports of various kinds for thirty or more years. Call me callous, but to me they're like silent comedy movies. People do the strangest things and get themselves into the most amazing predicaments. You want to go wake up Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and say: Hey, you think your characters are crazy...." - Laurence Gonzales

Man, oh man, getting up at 5:30 a.m. when you are used to 9:00 a.m. is harder than a one-legged lady dancing a jig--on her missing leg! And writing at 6:30 a.m. is just as hard--but sorta awesome too. Back to the routine. Back to the chaos. Back to the not-so-creative writing process that occasionally churns out some pretty creative stuff.

So okay, we were talking about survival (which does seem relevant given the chaos of the first day of school in a middle school). Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival talks about a certain uniformity in survival cases. He comes up with 12 points that seem to "stand out concerning how survivors think and behave in the clutch of mortal danger."

First off, survivors perceive and believe. In other words, even in a crisis, survivors perceptions and thought processes keep working. They pay attention to details and even find humor or beauty in the situation. But they are aware of and accept reality. Gonzales says they "move through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance very rapidly." (Kubler-Ross stages of grief.)

I think in order to survive as a writer, one definitely needs to be able to perceive the reality that few get rich at this job--in fact, one might never even manage to get published--and yet one still has to believe it is worth trying. Rejections used to rock me a lot more than they do now. Not that I like them, but I have come to an acceptance that they are part of the situation, the job.

Think about the jokes and one-liners that get thrown around at the PW conferences. It's all a way of using humor to deal with the stress of the job (so to speak). Those that survive accept that writing is hard and often has little public/monetary reward, but they also believe it is worth writing.

I have to think about this a bit more. Maybe the perceive/believe fits with revision as well. Right now I perceive that I have to go to bed or I won't be able to do the one-legged jig tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. Happy Writing!

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Today's Mood: Relaxed. Today's Music: Robert Pollard--Suitcase. Today's Writing: nothing--just reading. Today's Quote:
We think we believe what we know, but we only truly believe what we feel.
-Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival

I spent the day reading the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. I have read accounts of people who have survived against incredible odds--personal narratives of Holocaust survivors, stories of people trapped, broken in the wilderness who still manage to keep going--and I always wonder why it is that some people survive and some don't. What makes the difference? What is it that keeps people going even when there seems to be no hope? And of course, my own history of battling the black dragon has made me doubly curious.

The author of this book has spent his life seeking the answer to that very question: what makes some people survive and others not? What makes a survivor?

I need time to process the book more, but I have been struck by how many things about the way the brain works, how many things that help/hinder people in life/accidents can be applied to writing--and maybe specifically to being stuck in one's writing. Stay tuned for more discussions on survival--and surviving writing.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Word count

Today's Mood: determined. Today's Music: Office of Hearts by Guided by Voices (at the moment) Today's Writing: IFFY (new chapter)

My word count for the day: 892. It felt like more. It even looked like more. But at least I finally got going on this chapter. Might be easier tomorrow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Better than poetry

Today's Mood: Amused. Today's Music: Nothing--no power. Today's Writing. Nothing--I was dealing with downed trees and and spoiling food. Today's Quote:
The rational pride of an author may be offended rather than flattered by vague indiscriminate praise; but he cannot, he should not, be indifferent to the fair testimonies of private and public esteem. - Edward Gibbon
Today, amidst the storm debris, came a self-addressed sealed envelope in the mail. Goes to show you never know what sea treasure a storm leaves--or that the mail really does get delivered come rain, shine, or high winds and lightening. Anyway, I opened it with some degree of angst (don't you just love that word? Angst.) It was the paid critique for the SouthWest Writers Contest. I had submitted in the Young Adult Fiction category, a synopsis and the first 20 pages of Black Dragon. The critique sheet looked professional, specifying hook/opening, protagonist, setting/descriptions, plot line, antagonist, dialogue, voice, secondary characters, manuscript presentation, synopsis, and then suggestions for the author on a separate sheet.

I started reading the sheet and was gratified right away with the critique's first comment--"Excellent opening. This person seems to have built in tone and pace. Something one usually has to work hard for." The review went on in a similar, very gratifying manner, right down to the comment under synopsis (remember me bemoaning how hard I worked on that? And what headaches it gave me?) "The synopsis is clear--makes the reader hurry to read the manuscript." Excellent! Exactly what I wanted it to do!

Then comes the suggestions for the author. It says "See typed page." Okay, I turn to the next page. Here is what it said:
Dear Entry #31;

I am floored (cliche) with this manuscript It not only tells a great story but is so well written that I had to catch my breath at the sheer beauty of the written words.

You not only know how to write but how to keep the reader turning pages. It appears that your style is not something you have struggled with but is a natural God given talent. I do not believe you could write badly even if you wanted to. Your work is even better than poetry.

If you are not already a recognized published author you should be. There has to be many awards out there waiting for your work

Good Luck

I admit it; I laughed. In fact I laughed hard. Especially at the lines I had to catch my breath at the sheer beauty of the written words--and Your work is even better than poetry.

Now, I believe in my writing. I believe in my novel. I think it is a story worth telling, and I think I tell it well. However. Writing is something I struggle to do well. I work hard at it. And I can DEFINITELY write badly--even when I don't want to.

When I brought the critique to my writing group tonight, I had a hard time reading it without breaking into laughter--and they were almost annoyed with me! They couldn't understand why I would react the way I did. So am I just "uncomfortable with someone praising my work"?

Maybe. But I did okay with the page that had the specifics. I could buy that page. Granted, it was ALL good--nothing I needed to work on. Well, except the suggestion to write it in third person past tense (which I DO NOT agree with by the way). The only other suggestions for improvement included not using bold typeface for the title and putting in page numbers.

When praise seems too over-the-top, too extravagant, I have a hard time believing it. I get that the reviewer liked it. I'm GLAD that she/he liked it (and they didn't even know me so they didn't have any reason to pretend to like it). But the cynical part of me just can't buy the "take my breath away" and "better than poetry". After all, I've sent it to over a dozen publishers/agents and not one of them had that reaction.

So while I can take hope from it, I don't think I'll quit my day job just yet.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Building connections

Today's Mood: Happy. Today's Music: Linkin Park: Meteora. Today's Writing: This post--but oh happy day, tomorrow I have the whole day to work on IFFY! Today's Quote:
When I can't write, I feel so empty. -John Steinbeck


How do you decide what conference to go to? SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) has a fall conference. Do I go to the PW conference which definitely emphasizes writing time, or do I attend the SCBWI conference, which does much more in the way of workshops? One is more about writing and small group feedback, and the other is more about making connections and learning the industry ins and outs.

So how do I know which is best for me right now?

The other thing I'm playing with in my head is the idea of looking into getting an MFA from Vermont College. They have a program that focuses on writing for children and young adults. Right up my alley. Is there any benefit to having an MFA? I tend to look at it as making connections and lending my writing weight, priority.

All these things in my head and what I really need to do is write. Tomorrow I have the day free to write. Jane has to go back to school in this next scene. I can't wait to find out what is going to happen!

Happy writing to you all--and if you have any words of wisdom for my dilemmas, let's hear them.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Today's Mood: Upbeat. Today's Music: Tori Amos at the moment. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
Successful writing means having a great story and telling it beautifully. Word choice lies at the center of beautiful story-telling. Put another way, it's hard to tell a creative story in boring words. - James V. Smith, Jr. The Writer's Little Helper.

Let's talk about imagery. Poets may think they have the corner on the market, but all good writing employs good imagery. I was reading Through the Tollbooth, and today's post was all about similes and metaphors. Kelly Bingham does a great job talking about the differences between the two. Check it out here.

Imagery is all part of showing not telling. It is about word choice, and about creating powerful images rather than describing. Simile and metaphors are part of that--and using them effectively is worth practicing. I love it when I'm reading a book and the author comes up with comparison that surprises and delights me--the kind that makes me go, "yeah! That's it. I can totally picture that."

In the book The Writers Little Helper, there is a creative writer's bracketing tool that helps writers reach for the unexpected, the creative words and imagery. The author talks about revision being the place to search for ways to be more concrete, more specific, more inventive in your word choice. I want to really work at this in my writing. I'm thinking a journal would be a good place to jot down images that strike me. I need to myself to reach, not just grab for the first word that comes to mind. And that is the absolutely great thing about writing. I don't have to be inventive in the first draft; I just have to be able to work at it to the point where I come up with the creative, inventive stuff. Be persistent. I can do that.

Do you find yourself using simile and metaphor in your work? How do you go about creating unique, satisfying images in your writing?

Monday, July 27, 2009


Today's Mood: Optimistic. Today's Music: U2. Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
A possibly apocryphal story has it that Voltaire did at least some of his writing in bed, using his naked mistress's back as a desk. -Robert Hendrickson
I wanted to talk about how one goes about writing, in part because I haven't been doing much writing. For me, summer has a great lack of structure which doesn't help. It takes discipline to sit down and write. Sometimes, when I'm very lucky or blessed by God or whatever you want to call it, the story pulls so strong that I cannot resist it. It is a siren's song, a drug's addictive call, a wave that sweeps me before it. But that happens rarely. Much more often, writing is a slog through mucky ground hampered by tall, wet grass. At least, that is how my mind often sees it --and who wants to leave the comfort of their bed for that? Thus I sleep in, or read a book, or peruse Facebook, or read blogs. And the summer slips by.

In Stephen King's book, On Writing, he talks about his writing process. "If you're a beginner [ ] let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open. With the door shut, downloading what's in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable."

This process appeals to me in a lot of ways. Other than a general idea, I'm not sure of my story right now. Still meeting the characters and getting to know them, still learning the "rules" of this world where there are extra-sensory powers, still finding out where everyone has been and what they are capable of. Sometimes the comments in group stop me up too much. Make me think too much at this stage about little things that are liable to change through the course of writing. But yet, if I wait to bring it to writing group until I am completely finished with a rough draft, it could well be years.

I suppose ideally I'd be bringing stuff that needed revision to the group, and working on my novel behind closed doors. However, I don't have enough writing time to do both, so I need to find a writing process that works for me. The loves to sleep working mother of two young kids style.

The quote above suggests that I could write in bed. A couple of problems with that: first, I doubt my husband would allow me to use his back as a desk, and second, my brain is lazy. I'd rather sleep and dream than write while I'm in bed. (not to mention... oh never mind. I won't mention it.)

It occurred to me while I was at Glen Lake (with lovely hours and hours in which to write) that I must seek out the pockets of silence in my life and write in those. Maybe it all really is just mind games, but I need to start thinking of half-hours as being plenty in which to write. After all, if I travel through the bog every day--even for a short while--I'll beat down a path through the mucky tall grass.

Next I'll think about where those pockets of silence can be found.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Today's Mood: Benign. Today's Music: Nothing yet--though I'm in the mood for some jazz. Today's Writing: nothing yet--though I hope to work on IFFY for awhile. Today's Quote:
Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. -Truman Capote

This summer I have been taking a watercolor painting class. I've dabbled with paints for a year or two, and sometimes things work. But on some paintings, I'll know something is wrong, isn't working, but I won't know why--and thus cannot fix it. My husband suggested I take a class. "Learn the techniques, and then you'll be more equipped to fix the paintings--or maybe won't even need to anymore."

One of the big things I have learned so far: with watercolors, it's all about layers. Layers and layers of paint. At first, you work fast--don't over think things. A light background wash gives you the general parameter of where things are. Lots of water. Then you start adding more color. More detail. Maybe the work goes slower, but things start to come into focus. (hopefully) The main focal point is the most detailed, usually the most vivid colors. You definitely don't want your background to overwhelm the important foreground (like my absolutely hideous chartreuse green on the last landscape I did.) Oh, and every now and again, take time to stand back and look at it from a distance. It helps you see things you didn't when you were all up close and personal.

The process is not so different than that of writing. On my last camping trip I finished reading Stephen King's book On Writing. His creative process is get it down fast with the doors closed, and then layers of revision (doors open--getting feedback). And at some point, a bit of distance. And there are different techniques, tools to put in your toolbox. How you use those tools is the craft of writing. How so you mix colors, how do you write dialog, how do you add shadows, how do you add depth to your characters.

I was worried that taking a class would make painting bland, mechanical instead of the gut-level play that I was doing. The interesting thing is that even when every person in class is working on the same still-life, each painting looks different. Everyone brings a unique approach to the painting. So yeah, we might all be applying the same tools and techniques--even the same process, and yet there is individuality in the way we use those tools and techniques.

I'm a prepared sort of gal (think control freak), so it fits that I like to have a lot of tools at my disposal. I like to know how to use them effectively as well. But I don't always like someone telling me what to use when and how. That part I like to figure out myself because that is the part that makes it my own. The teacher of the watercolor class told us at the start, "you will make mistakes, even the best artists do. What matters is if you know how to 'fix' them, how to plow through and make it work."

So how have you learned the craft of writing? Or at least what are some of your best lessons in craft since I don't suppose the learning is ever really done. Which tool do you consider one of your most well-used?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sure is quiet here.......

So here's another epic example of creative writing, this time an obituary. We suspect she might have written it herself.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Writing Vitamins

Today's Mood: Relaxed. Today's Music: Augustana. Today's Writing: Revisions on Ch. 1 Free Lunch. Today's Quote:
"In ordinary life, sounds and words are cheap. Paying attention almost makes one a pariah. To steal silence [ ], one develops outlaw strategies (hiding, white-lying, disappearing). Monks and poets (America's archetypal outcasts) recognize the transformative power lurking in simple things (like words). "Let words work the earth of my heart," they pray. Perhaps culture as a whole no longer feels safe with such potentially dangerous toys." - Gail Sher The Intuitive Writer: Listening to Your Own Voice.

I had writing group last night. I was both eager and dreading it at the same time. Writing has been hard for me lately--like shoving shit sitting down (to borrow Stephen King's words). But it was GREAT! What a boost I get from being recognized as a writer. They take me and my words seriously. They listen, they suggest, and they praise. Sometimes the praise is the hardest for me to hear, but the most needed and appreciated. I am learning that I cannot always trust my own feelings about my writing. When it is hard, like chipping away at solid rock, I start believing it is bad--flat, uninspired, uncreative. Writing group helps me know exactly what isn't working so that I can see what is working. Yup, there's most chiseling to be done, but how exciting it is when they see the shape emerging.

So this is a shout out to them, wonderful muses all. Do you belong to a writing group? If not, what gives you a boost? What helps you go back to the computer (or paper and pen for those who still do) day after day, putting down words that occasionally (or often in my case) seem shriveled and dry like month old mushrooms?

Oh, and how do you like that quote? It comes out of a chapter titled "Poets are never mad - Everybody else is."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Today's Mood: a bit blue. Today's Music: hmm, I had it on mix earlier. Nothing now. (Although the damn furnace fan has a rattle that drives me crazy if I think about it.) Today's Writing: Revising 1st chapter of Free Lunch. Today's Quote: I should have one, but I am sitting in bed and really don't feel like getting up, stumbling down the stairs to get the book, and then climbing back up here again. So... just do it. (take that as you will)
Delving further into Stephen King's book, On Writing, I continue to be intrigued. In a section he calls "Toolbox," he talks about the tools writers should carry with them at all times. And mentions the fact that most of them are things we already have. Let's think for a moment about the top level--vocabulary and grammar.

One of my best grammar lessons came from working with Tricia on my Black Dragon manuscript. She would read a section and get it back to me all marked up with purple ink. She crossed out the adverbs (those pesky ly words), and marked any passive tense. Often she suggested changes that when I read them, I thought "oh yeah, of course. Why didn't I see that?"

Now, as I start revising Free Lunch, I find I have incorporated her voice, those grammar lessons, into my head. Today I got rid of several adverbs (and Steve King would be especially proud of me for getting rid of the ly word in the dialog tag.), and made sure every word mattered.

Vocabulary I don't worry about a whole lot. I do try to make sure I am using words that fit my characters, and since I write about and for teenagers, every once and awhile I have to go back and change things. If it sounds like a mom (me) saying it, it's got to go.

One more point of note from my reading today. King talks about the paragraph being the building block even more than the sentence. The way the text looks on the page, the white space, the chunks of thought (my words, not his. His were more eloquent by far). I've seen some interesting things done with this in YA fiction. There is a book I read to my eighth graders called The Children's Story by James Clavell. It is a little book, but powerful. We read it to introduce a unit on Anne Frank and the Holocaust. In the book, there are full pages of text, as well as pages with a sentence, or even just a word or two. It is all about pacing and the impact of the words on the page.

So as I read Stephen King's advice about paragraphs, that is what comes to my mind. It makes me look at what I am writing in a different manner. Chunks of thought, not just words.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


Today's Mood: Relieved. Today's Music: Random mix--Sarah McLachlan at the moment. Today's Writing: this blog, a flyer for the summer retreat, and hopefully a bit of IFFY. Today's Quote: "Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around." -Stephen King, On Writing.

I am reading Stephen King's book, On Writing. I know, you're shocked I haven't read it sooner; it's only one of the most lauded books out there on writing. But you have to understand that while I think King is a gifted writer, I don't like his books. Because he is a good writer, his stuff stays in my head--forever--and I don't like that kind of stuff in my head. It makes me scared of the dark. It makes me afraid of vampire, aliens, and psychotic nurses as well. So I picked this up more as a "should read" than an "I want to read."

I LOVE this book. I hope it stays in my head as well as King's horror stories have because his advice on writing is wise. Funny how I find Steve King the writer so much more approachable than Stephen King the horror story teller. In this book, he comes across so approachable, so "I've been there." And he has; he's been all the same places (and then some) that I've been as a writer. Those best sellers didn't just appear. There was a lot of rejections first. And maybe best of all, he doesn't make it sound like it is any easier for him than it is for me. Granted, I only dream of going where he is now, but he makes it sound possible.

You'll be seeing more posts come out of this book, but in this post I want to ponder his first piece of advice about writing.
"Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around." -Stephen King, On Writing

As I might have mentioned, my desk is tucked between the dryer and the cat litter box. So when I read this wisdom, I laughed, because all of a sudden it made sense. He's right. I do have to fit writing in between loads of laundry and taking care of the cat. I used to rail at that, wishing I had more time to write. Wishing I had a life that was more conducive to writing. Even wishing I had a more exciting, dangerous life just so I had more to write about. (Truth be told, I even thought about having another kid to provide more writing material--I mean, just look at how many people tune into Jon and Kate plus eight! But that very, very wrong, I know.)

My desk isn't in the center of the room, but King reminded me that it shouldn't be. Writing isn't my life; but it does support my life. It got me through depression, it got me through babies that didn't sleep, kids who threw up (occassionally on me), and my mom dying of cancer. I don't know what is going to come in the future, but I do know that writing will help me process it and deal with it. Writing helps me appreciate those moments of gold, the humor in situations that--at the time--seem world-shattering.

How about you? Where is your desk located?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ultimate Retreating

So as much as I will miss it, I'm going to take a pass on the Glen Lake Writing Camp Heaven Summer Retreat this year. Instead, I'm going to spend the week in splendid isolation (or incoherent mindless mental meltdown) at a "camp" in da U.P. I will miss the socialization of Glen Lake, and yet I will be free of it and the group meetings that take up much of the days there. The third week of June (more like the fourth week this year) is pretty much my only really productive writing time of the year. I need it all, every minute of it.

I did this a few years ago. The week is mine, and now esp. with a wife, an 86-year-old mother, and a increasingly senile geriatric cat, it's the only week I get for this kind of activity. So the last time I went up on Glen Lake Saturday, settled in at the camp, and within four days I'd pretty much lost all my (admittedly limited) social skills. It took a trip to Houghton and Calumet and a visit with a friend (and some heavy drinking) to get some of them back. If I don't visit with Duane this year, I may be a drooling, unkempt, incoherent schizophrenic by the time I (hopefully) drop in on the regular retreaters at Glen Lake for a Friday night reintroduction to civilization.

While there, writing in the old shack on the edge of Lake Arfelin, I will probably be hunkered down with drinks, snacks and tunes. How does that jibe with anyone else's personal writing styles? Total concentration, or are occasional distractions tolerable? Do you need open-minded friends close at hand as sounding boards ? Total silence, or heavy metal hammering the ear buds? TV on or off? Sugar, caffeine, or alcohol? None of the abo

Friday, April 10, 2009

What's in a Name?

Today's Reading: not much. Listening to: Sarah Bareilles' Little Voice. Today's writing: you're reading it. Today's Quote: "You're never completely ready, it just becomes your turn." --Ty Murray

I always struggle with names. I need the right name to get inspired. (Mumble) years ago I wrote a vampire story set in a fictional Upper Peninsula town. Grabbing a name essentially out of a hat, I called the town Seymour, at least until something better came along. Over the years, and after writing a second story in the same town, I've considered and discarded a dozen other names, from Purgatory (accurate and appropriate, but obviously an overused cliche) to Kiirastuli (Finnish for Purgatory) to Devil's Elbow. None felt right.

Then I read George Hamilton's fun autobiography "Don't Mind if I Do," and he mentioned someone named Earl Deathe. Deathe! Now there is a name that provides opportunities for confusion, obfuscation, and mispronunciation-- always great assets in a supernatural mystery. So considering the benefits, I googled Deathe on the Internet and came up with.... not a lot. The big geneology sites came up blank, although there were a few listings of people scattered around England and Canada, mostly on Facebook (I don't have an account) or posting job resumes.

Some 13 pages into Google links, I discovered Andrew Deathe, a museum curator in Wales, who offered an email link. I wrote him a tentative note, and he responded promptly and with great enthusiasm, telling me that his name ryhmes with "teeth," and offering delightful stories of his experiences over the years with his name, plus, and this is the best part, the history of the name Deathe. No, it has no association with death, or funeral directors, or grave diggers. It seems that it actually comes from Wallonia, the French-speaking area of Belgium. There is a town there called Ath and the name simply means 'from Ath', in French 'd'Ath'. "Deathe" is the rarest variation of the (still very rare) name D'Eath or De'Ath, forms which are more often pronounced 'Day-aath'.

So I have a new name for Seymour, Michigan, and new inspiration.

Can something as simple as a name or a word send you off on flights of fancy, spur you on to new insights and inspire your writing? For me it can. Now I just have to apply fingers to keyboards and attempt to make magic.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Thinking too much

You're right. Sometimes we all think too much. That chatterbox in my head keeps me so busy thinking about everything else but writing. When I finally can get quiet enough, usually in the woods, I somehow manage to feel the deeper undercurrent, and can sometimes even pull out some words.
Keep listening - but try to tune out that Chatterbox.
Try rocking!
Good luck.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Shy Characters

Today's Mood: On hyper-drive. Today's Music: Halifax. Today's Writing: Iffy. Today's Quote:
Learning to write is a slow-growth process. -Ralph Fletcher in Craft Lessons

I have a shy character. Well, he may not really be shy, but he hasn't been terribly forthcoming when it comes to revealing who he is when people are watching (including me sitting there with my fingers poised over the keyboard) I've tried to sneak up and catch him when he doesn't think I'm paying attention--you know the writer tricks: take a shower, take a walk, drive the car somewhere--anywhere as long as you don't have kids in the car with you. But so far I've only caught glimpses; he wears t-shirts with funny/profound sayings on them as his way of flipping off the kids at school; he still struggles to control his/others emotions; he pushes the boundaries when it comes to when he should or shouldn't use his talent; he is a voracious reader; he sings slightly off-key.....

So far I haven't managed to overhear to many conversations though. I still feel like I'm not quite sure how he'd react in certain circumstances, what he'd say, what he'd do. Maybe there are certain techniques that writers use to get to know their characters. Maybe other writers just keep stumbling along like I do--writing, deleting, erasing, scrawling words down in a journal, snatches of conversation that I seem to hear in my brain. I keep reminding myself that no writing is a waste of time. Even if I don't use it in the novel, it still is needed to get me there. A diving board, starting blocks, a warm-up lap--it all makes a difference in the final run.

Does anyone else have any tricks they use to get them into a character--or to figure out the "voice" of a piece? How about the feeling like you don't want to waste precious writing time writing stuff that you might not use in the final draft? I have too dang much work ethic! It's a constant battle of reminding myself it is okay to play, to explore, to create just for the fun of it. And maybe, in the end, I really do know more about my character than I think. I just think too much.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Priming the pump

Today's Mood: a little wild. Today's Music: Alison Moyet (in the car anyway.) Today's Writing: IFFY. Today's Quote:
All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath." -F. Scott Fitzgerald
Sorry for the lag in posting. I've been massively busy with helping direct a play, and organize birthday parties for my daughter. Unfortunately it seems that one kid somehow generates the need for multiple parties. I'm sad about this because my mothering skills have never much tended toward the party organizing. Nonetheless, I managed to pull off a 1st grade bowling party in the same weekend as a party with my side of the family (which is, at the moment, populated with many small children).

On the writing front, I managed to finish my big revision of Black Dragon and sent it out to agents--which left me at loose ends. What to do next? After a lot of thinking (and probably driving my friends and family crazy by constantly gnawing on the problem out loud) I decided to get back into IFFY and see if I could pound out a rough draft. Then I can give it breathing room while I revise Free Lunch.

So for the last two (very busy) weeks I've been trying to immerse back into the story. It's been a bit like getting into cold water though. I dip in a toe by reading what I've written. Then I step in up to my ankles and study the character profiles and pictures I've drawn of those people. I wade deeper and look over my notes. I'm up to my thighs, revising a little and listening to my IFFY playlist. But only in the last few days have the characters started to play in my head again. Yesterday I found myself thinking about the MC (main character) while I was drying my hair. And when I was getting ready for work today, a whole scene played out in my head. Yay! The story hasn't completely dried up!

Prime for long enough and the pump will produce water. Now I just need to find ways to keep working the pump, and keep those writing waters flowing. What do you all do to keep spinning your story? Especially when you can't spend all day on it (or even much of the day at all on it)?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Play Time

Today's Mood: Relieved. Today's Music: Alison Moyet. Today's Writing: Queries. Today's Quote:
"Many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a [SASE] big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor." -Ring Lardner, How to Write Short Stories.
I am basking in the glow of having just sent off seven query letters. Yea me! Since June I have been worked on revising BD (several times in fact). And then I worked on creating an intriguing query letter. THEN I researched, and researched, and researched who to send it to. AND NOW I GET TO PLAY!

So what should I play with? Free Lunch? IFFY? poetry? an essay? The writing possibilities stretch out limitless in front of me like the Kansas highway. Only problem is I want to do it all. And paint. And draw. And and and....

What have you all been up to? Any exciting writing going on? Any advice on how to pick the next project?

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Today's Mood: Dizzy. Today's Music: singing in church. Today's Writing: this blog. Today's Quote:
Do you suffer from blogaholism, Twitteritis, RSS Dependency, or Status Update Disorder? Then this is the seminar for you... -by Polly Frost
Okay, I just had to share this since I am definitely one who spends time in the blogosphere when I should be working on that query of mine. Check out the Polly Frost's article Reblock Yourself the Polly Frost Way. The truth hurts--and is also hilarious. My only complaint is her characterization of librarians. Hey, we can fracture and fragment the English language with the best of 'em!

So get to work and reblock yourself. Hopefully you can agonize over your real writing then.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Hunting Season (for an agent, that is.)

Today's Mood: Upbeat. Today's Music: Neil Diamond (I know--but hey, I was a teenager in the eighties after all!) Today's Writing: Query letter for BD. Today's Quote:
The amount of time you spend formatting, coloring, bolding, italicizing, and adding pictures to your query is inversely proportional to how professional it looks when you're finished. -Nathan Bransford
Agent hunting season has officially begun! I'm dreaming of bagging one early, but just in case, I'm working to locate several different hunting grounds. And, of course, I'm making sure I have all the right permits and weapons. I bought the 2009 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, I have perused many writer, editor, and agent blogs looking for tips on query letters and searching for suitable game. Nathan Bransford has several informative posts about query letters (including a mad-lib style query letter format), and Cynsations has several interviews with agents that give greenhorns like me insight into the business.

I have to admit, I'd probably rather write a whole novel than a query letter. It seems like there is so much hanging on one page. I always like the agents that want to see several pages of the novel as well. Gives me hope. And the other thing I dislike about query letters is that even writing them forces me to think about what if. What if he/she doesn't want it? What if no one wants it? And maybe even a little bit of what if he/she DOES want it? That has a fear element in it as well. (granted, a more exciting, pleasant fear element, but still scary in its own way.)

Of course, I want to send my manuscript off to the person most likely to love it as much as I do, but who is that mysterious person? I find a dozen potentials in the Market, and then I search them on the web. Should I go with the one who is well-known? The one who represents several big time young adult authors? Or should I try one who is more actively seeking clients? I want the best. My novel deserves the best. But, in the end, a small trophy is better than none at all, right?

The query letter itself is stressful. Sure I know what my novel is about, but what tone do I take when talking about it? Light and humorous? Serious and professional? Like I'm talking to someone I know--except I don't know that person and THAT is the problem. I'm not a good social chit-chatter. It is hard for me to do anything other than serious with people I don't know. If I'm teasing you--then you can be sure I like you and feel comfortable with you.

So it goes back to research. I have to find out as much as I can about these agents in order to feel like I know them (even a little bit) so that I can write in my own voice--and not some stilted, fill-in-the-blank letter.

I guess I need to develop a stalker mentality. Notice all the little details, look up their myspace and facebook accounts and check out their friends. Read the books they like. Listen to the same music. Ewwww, I'm creeping myself out! Besides, I really don't have enough time to be a stalker. Guess I'll go for serious and professional.