Posts Tagged ‘writing craft’

Thoughts on Writing

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

I’ve been in correspondence with some young writers lately, met through various methods. MySpace, emails to me, the Little Owl Mentoring program, contest judging etc. Which is why I think I’d be really happy teaching one of these days. I seem to do a lot of that. Be that as it may, as anyone who’s had the opportunity to read work by writers working toward publication knows, there are a lot of writers out there who need to read more and study more about writing. The case is somewhat different with younger writers as they are still learning the building blocks of fine writing, not to mention building up life experience so you’d naturally expect their work to have some issues. All of which is a long way of saying I read a lot of work that needs work.

One of the biggest issues (after plain grammar and language skills) is a story that is being told rather than revealed. There’s a big difference between rough writing in which the story is being told to me and rough writing in which the story is being revealed. The second case is rare and it’s exciting when you come across it. Grammar can be learned, typos can be fixed. You can teach someone how to identify Point of View problems. But it’s really, really hard to teach someone to start their story smack in the middle of something tense happening to a character.

But today, I did read something like that. The talent is there. And it’s really exciting!

Now I have to go back to work on Scandal. I hate first draft writing. Hate it hate it hate it hate it. But now I have to go do it.


random crap

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

I now have my own 128-bit integer1. Here’s the little beauty for you to admire:

37 3B BB 00 92 3F 96 32 92 8E C6 2D 99 85 60 32

What else? I cooked trout tonight. The neighbor caught it. Came out good.

Magellan’s Witch is boring, I’ve decided. I need to re-work the opening few chapters. My heroine needs more backbone. I’m going to work on that tonight.
Here’s some Columbine:

1. If you followed the geekish ho-ha over DVD encryption keys, this is very funny.
And here’s a really pink rose:

And now I’m off to do some surgery.


More poetry — with a mystery at the end

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Since it’s still National Poetry Month, here’s another favorite poem of mine. My Last Duchess by Robert Browning (1842). When I read this poem (for the Brit. Lit survey I took right before grad school) I immediately saw this poem as a nice compact lesson for fiction writers. My analysis of that below:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
"Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps
Over my Lady’s wrist too much," or "Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat": such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men, — good! but thanked
Somehow — I know not how — as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, "Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark" — and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
–E’en then would be some stooping, and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

OK, so what do you think? Did the Duke murder his first wife? And what’s going to happen to the next one? If you care about such things, Wikipedia has a pretty good article about the poem.

Browning never once mentions murder or evil intent, and yet the Duke is simply not a nice man. He chills your blood doesn’t he?

When you’re writing fiction, you need to do what Browning has done in this poem. Make the reader know someone is a murderer without actually telling. Well, yeah. If it were easy, we’d all be Robert Browning, right?


Why I write novels not short stories

Friday, March 16th, 2007

As previously mentioned, here, here and here, I’ve been working on the synopsis for Scandal. I sent the chapters and synopsis off to my wonderful agent who had me revise the synopsis. I did that. She sent it back again with some astoundingly spectacular edits and two questions for me to address. I have done that, and sent it back. Monday, unless — no, it’s too horrible to contemplate– Monday Scandal goes to editors.

People, her edits were amazing. I think she read the thing and just shook her head and said, ok lookit, the girl can write a novel but she’s effen hopeless with the synop. She didn’t make huge changes at all, I fixed the really bad bits, but she tweaked little stuff that totally made it awesome. Short writing is way different from long writing. But, gosh, I wish I weren’t so darn synopsis impaired.

What else? I’m tired. I had a fabu idea for a scene in Magellan’s Witch at the gym this morning. I had this scene that was only doing one thing and even worse, it was doing only one thing that did little, if anything, to complicate the story. A classic warning sign that the scene is boring and thin. Uh oh. Without help, that’s a scene that will need to be deleted or sent to the prose-surgeon later. And then your writer’s insurance premiums go way up. So I applied a little preventative medicine and as I pedaled away, asked myself what else this scene could do for me that would introduce both conflict and complication.

My hero is in an all night pharmacy trying to get a refill of a prescription for my heroine who is outside in the car very very ill. Goal of the scene: get the refill.

Let’s analyze. The hero and heroine are apart. He’s in a pharmacy getting a prescription filled. She’s in the car. He gets the refill, then he leaves, gets in the car and drives away. Ohmygawd. Yes. really. That’s how I wrote it. And I had like three or maybe five pages about that. Oddly enough, putting a wall of condoms in the store did nothing to sex up the scene. Rats.

But I knew this was not right. Here’s the notebooked changes:

The guy filling the prescription isn’t human. Ooohhh. And he works for the bad guys. Ohh. He knows my hero isn’t supposed to have the refill. And my non-human pharmacist is compelled to tell his bad-guy boss what’s going down.

Later in the day, as I was driving home from work the second time (don’t ask) I suddenly realized that my pharmacist recognizes my hero for what he is and gives him a traditional greeting of non-human respect. And proceeds to betray him, as indeed, he is compelled to do.

Then my heroine comes in the pharmacy, just as the two guys are going to do the non-human equivalent of throwing down. She’s ill. She’s not sure what’s happening to her (something major, I promise) and she then breaks the pharmacist of his enslavement to the bad guy. Totally unexpected by all, let me assure you.

I think there’s going to be some cops or something in there. Maybe. Then the ex-pharmacist drives the hero and heroine away, while the heroine reveals something to the hero that totally changes everything.

So, yeah, a non-human guy rescued from being a pharmacist for the bad guys. Now that’s exciting stuff.

Tomorrow when I actually write this, who knows what the H will happen. But it’ll be way more exciting than standing around in a Pharmacy.


On Being a Pantser

Monday, February 5th, 2007

Last night I printed out the Work In Progress (WIP) so I could take it to the gym with me this morning to keep working on it. Since the MS is in a binder, I tucked my trusty notebook in the inside pocket of the binder, along with two red pens (in case one runs out). Good thing I stuck in the notebook. While I like the general direction the WIP is going, I’ve had some gut-level concerns that weren’t getting addressed by looking at it on the computer and/or continuing to write and/or expand scenes. Now, none of what I’m about to say are rules. OK? Keep that in mind. I’m an anal-retentive pantser. You’re warned. Proceed at your own risk.

For example, Chapter 1 is 14 pages. My gut knows that this is too long. And that dang chapter just keeps getting longer. But what to do about it? I haven’t been sure. I do know that with rare exceptions in the interior of a book, my chapters are 8-11 manuscript pages. That lengthens during the polishing phase. But any chapter that’s 14 pages this early in the writing typically means there’s too much going on. It means I don’t have the opening 3rd of the book right.

Another example: My gut keeps telling me Chapter 7 or 8, I forget which right now, is really an event that should happen MUCH later in the book. But I don’t have anything written or plotted that would make this say, Chapter 15 or something. Or maybe even Chapter 20.

Example 3: One of the editors who passed on the proposal said she felt the heroine (Carson) trusted my hero too soon. Now, obviously, this wasn’t a concern for the editors who didn’t pass, but all this time my gut has been saying, ya know, that seems like a really valid criticism. I have attempted to address that without, for me, any feeling of success. I’ve been piling up words to fix it and for me, that is a classic sign that the scene is somehow inherently flawed.

Example 4: There’s this scene I’ve been wanting to write but I can’t find the right place to make it happen. Very frustrating. I was wrestling with everything back and forth on the rickety old bridge, saying, here, I’ll put it here. No, here. Not there, here. Sheesh! The poor scene has been homeless a really long time.

Soooooo, last night as I was falling asleep, not very happy with Chapters 1 and 2, this little voice says, Carson should run away from the hero. And then I woke up just enough to say, yeah, that’s right, Carolyn. Don’t forget that in the morning. And then I fell asleep.

So, this morning as I’m reading Chapters 3 and 4 at the gym and not feeling very happy about those chapters either, I remembered the voice from last night and I thought, hey! That works!

If I were Archimedes, I’d have been in the bath shouting Eureka!

Yes. My heroine runs away from my hero at the end of chapter 2. She meets another character whose very nature exactly lends itself to the placement of my formerly homeless scene. This will put my heroine in contact with the story’s antagonists, and make her think differently of the hero. Sections of chapter 3 will move to chapter 2 (which is too short) and parts of chapter 1 will move, too. It’s a good thing I had my notebook with me because 1) there was no point in reading further and 2) I needed to brainstorm the idea so I’d know what to move here. Which I did. Then I was able to wield the red pen through the pages, marking what moved where. Pretty good for 45 minutes work.

Anyhow, off to work and all that. Then I had to go grocery shopping after I dropped my son off at Aikido because there wasn’t anything for dinner or lunches tomorrow, then drop of said groceries, then pick up son, then make sure said son was, in fact, caught up with the homework he missed after being home ill for a week. Then dinner, etc.

Now I have to go make that happen…


Fill in the Blanks

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

OK. Right. Blah Blah Blah, Yadda blah. Etc. Got a little writing done (I worked on the Scandal synopsis) but then had to go to a Junior High orientation thing, for parents of Jr. High School students to be, which shot most of the evening.

Moving right along to the point of this post. I am reading a book to my son in which just about every bit of dialogue is in this form:

"Blah blah yadda yadda," pronoun verb, gerund phrase.


"Stop that, you twit!" he complained, turning to the talking monkey.

This is invariably followed by yet another gerund phrase. Ohmybutlerjames! Save me from weak lazy-ass writing like this. I’m dying reading this book. Seriously, it’s killing me. Sigh.

Lookit – the gerund has its place. (In the example above it’s the word "turning") It can even been effective. But I am here to tell you I wholeheartedly agree with John Gardener when he said, and I paraphrase, that the gerund is the sign of a writer who does not have command of her craft. The gerund makes transitions too easy. It’s so simple to slap in that gerund phrase to get you to the next bit instead of putting a period after "said" and thinking up some detail that provides depth and complexity to the moment and also lets the reader make her own conclusions about what’s going on.

Really. It’s absolutely true. For one thing you should never ever put your reader in a place where he knows well beforehand the rhythm of the coming sentences. The minute he’s thinking, Yadda yadda blah blah instead of "what is that talking monkey going to do next?" he’s out of your story.

This is a draft-itis problem and if is the writer’s job to edit it out. Search your MS for words ending in ing. How many are gerunds?

OK, off that subject. I’m going to bed.


Another Victory!

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

My cold and I stayed home from work today. I slept late, had breakfast and then a long nap and after that I felt a lot better. I’m not 100% but I’m well enough to go to work tomorrow. Sigh. Tonight, I got some good work done on Magellan’s Witch and I exceeded my target word count for the day. I followed through on a few things I thought might be a total bust, and I don’t think they were at all, which is good.

I finished The Historian last night. I confess that toward the end, I was pretty enthralled. I recommend the book for sure. Kostova handles some pretty challenging structural issues with ease. The story is revealed through a combination of conversations recalled at second and some third hand, letters and documents, and very little direct experience. I think most writers would have gone splat trying to pull that off. She establishes her fiction of structure and then sticks with it. I loved the way the title became ambiguous. For me, that was the high point of the book. Who, exactly, is The Historian? There are multiple answers. The history, by the way, was fascinating. I never once even thought of skipping the history. I love books that sweep over history like this one and make me see the past as alive and vibrating. At the end, however, I said, "What?" Things ended far too easily for me. Bram Stoker did it better. And now I’ll make a strange comparison:

The Historian does not compare to Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons. When I finished Walk Two Moons I knew I had read a great novel. Yes, I am aware that Walk Two Moons is a YA novel and not a vampire novel either, but I was wrung out and crying at the end. Creech transported me with a story that continues to resonate with me. That’s what literature does, regardless of genre. Walk Two Moons is a book no one should miss.

I strive for that. Yeah. I have a long way to go.


Cranking it up to bigger better faster

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

I am reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass to my son. It started out, you know, pretty good, but for a while I was wondering what all the fuss was about. And then, very sneaky-like, you’re hooked so deep it’s too late to do anything about it.It’s wonderful, and we’re having a fabulous time reading it.

As a writer, I say read this book to get an example of what Donald Maass means by a breakout book. I’m hanging my head in despair. Why hadn’t I already thought of something bigger and wider for my Work in Progress? OK, well, I’ve been thinking about that and I’ve thought of something. I’m going to go to bed and notebook it for a while before I sleep.