Writing

You are currently browsing the archive for the Writing category.

An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. :P No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)

Tags: , ,

With the proliferation of fantasy and paranormal on the market, I need a lot of clues when I start reading a manuscript about whether or not I’m in the real world or an augmented version. Most readers will not have the benefit of a query letter or synopsis when sitting down to read. They may also be picking up an ebook or library-bound version where the cover (often a reliable source of hints about paranormal content) isn’t going to be front and center. (Note: I’m using the terms “fantasy” and “paranormal” interchangeably here to mean “story elements that do not usually exist in realistic fiction.”)

For example, imagine that speaking dogs are the paranormal element. You’ve read advice (perhaps even mine) about introducing the fantasy aspects early on so that the reader knows they’re there. Excellent. So in the first chapter, you have a dog open up and say something in perfect English. Your work here is done, no?

Well, there’s a lot more to it than simply introducing the fantasy part of the story. Now that the reader’s antennae are up that there’s something odd afoot, you have an opportunity to worldbuild. Most writers miss this opportunity. The missing piece is often what happens immediately AFTER the introduction of the paranormal element. That’s what actually teaches us about what kind of world you’re creating.

The two most common types of world are: the kind where something strange is possible and happens all the time and the kind where something strange is possible but happens very rarely (which is often what launches the story). In HARRY POTTER, for example, the Muggle world is flooded by owls and everyone freaks out! It turns out that a world where the paranormal is pedestrian is finally meeting the world where nothing strange ever happens. All because of one boy.

In our dog example, here are two reactions that correspond with the types of worlds listed above. For a world where something strange is pedestrian, it’s:

Dog: You know, I would rather fancy some of that bacon you’re cooking.
Protagonist: Oh, shut it, Scraps. I’m sick of your begging.

For a world where something strange is an unexpected event:

Dog: You know, I actually detest belly rubs. That spot behind my ear, however…
Protagonist: (jumps back, looks around, looks back to dog) Scraps? Did you just…talk?

The reactions here are key to the reader’s understanding of how widespread your fantasy twist is. Once you’ve gone ahead and introduced the paranormal element, the reader’s next question is going to be, “Okay, so is this a big deal or just part of everyday life?” Go ahead and answer so that you can ease them into your world in a way that follows, naturally, what they want to know about it. Proper worldbuilding often means anticipating a reader’s questions and answering them so that they’re not stuck wondering something important and, as a result, pull themselves out of the narrative.

In unrelated news, my book was written up along with a slew of other writing guidebooks in the D.C./Virginia Mid-Atlantic SCBWI newsletter by Dionna L. Mann. SCBWI members who are logged into the SCBWI website can access the wonderful newsletter here.

Tags:

I’ve written a lot about dialogue (start here and here). Now I want to introduce the idea of keeping a scene going and picking the right time to interrupt the flow. What’s the best time to insert information, description, dialogue tags, or action?

If your answer is, “Uhhhh, whenever I think of it?” then congratulations, you’re like most writers. But just because you think of inserting something into a scene at a certain moment doesn’t mean that’s the best moment.

We’ve all had the experience, I think, of reading a manuscript (our own or a critique partner’s) and getting involved in a scene. Great! We’ve all also gone with the writer on a tangent when they interrupt the scene to insert some kind of block of text, right? Then the scene restarts with a rejoinder or response–”I completely agree with you,” she said–and…wait a minute! What were they talking about? You scroll up madly to reconnect the conversational thread.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: scene is about the dialogue. It’s not about the dialogue tags. It’s not about the actions or gestures that accompany the speech. It’s not about the description of the cafeteria around the characters who are speaking, unless it just so happens to break out in a food fight and interrupt them. It’s about what’s being said. Or at least it should be.

Whenever you interrupt the flow of dialogue, you best have a good reason. This is not the time for big blocks of text that derail the reader’s attention and train of thought. This is not the time to establish part of the setting (which you should’ve done as we were entering the location) or reinforce a character’s personal appearance (which you should’ve done when we were meeting them the first or second time). When we hunker down for a scene, think of it as an express train that makesvery selective stops. It should stop for things that are important to the plot, first and foremost. If that food fight is going to happen in the middle of the scene, then, yeah, by all means stop the dialogue. If the mean girl comes to harass everyone, then include it.

But there’s a time and place for all sorts of other distracting information, and in the middle of a scene usually isn’t it. By being selective and figuring out the right time to drop information on your reader, you are gaining control over your prose. The more writers practice, the more organized they become. They realize that there’s a natural ebb and flow to good writing and that it’s perfectly fine, desirable even, to be strategic in handling where and how you introduce different character and plot elements. For now, you should be vigilant about not disrupting a piece of dialogue’s train of thought. That’s an easy fix and it helps instill good writing habits.

Tags:

This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

Tags: , , , , ,

Worldbuilding is tricky business. You need to convey the unique fictional world you’ve created without dumping a bunch of information inelegantly in your reader’s lap. You have to give them enough context to understand what’s going on and to make sure that the framework, boundaries, rules, and unique qualities of your universe are conveyed clearly.

Let’s say that people can fly in your world. This isn’t a unique premise but it is your premise, and that’s what matters. Now, let’s say that you choose to hold off on this fact and use it as a reveal at the climax of the book. The character has no idea that people can fly in this world and only learns it at one of the last moments. Thrilling, right? Well, maybe. If it’s done right. But if this is a world where people can fly, why save that unique tidbit until the very end? Why not blow your character’s mind right at the beginning and get more mileage out of the flying than you would if you hid it away?

Your job is to attract readers to the world you’ve created by giving them something that will get them interested in your unique idea. You certainly can tease and hint and withhold things about your world, but I would do this sparingly. Instead of counting on a big surprise to raise stakes and elevate tension, get the coolest stuff about your idea out in the open early.

Instead of hiding your world, SELL IT to your readers by dropping clues for them to follow or exposing the elements that made you fall in love with your story and pursue it. This is a great way of drawing in your audience. It’s saying, “Sure, you’ve read a lot of fantasy before but MY fantasy world has people flying, and glittering unicorns, and a giant who only falls asleep while guarding his cave of precious treasure once every hundred years.”

The more we’re in that world and understand how it works–all of which takes information and revealing these elements in a timely manner–the more we can focus on the other elements of your storytelling. Compared to a rich world full of interesting elements, the cheap fizzle of a last-minute surprise starts to feel like a bummer.

Tags:

A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with Gabriela Periera who runs a wonderful writing website called DIY MFA. I love this idea. As someone with a traditional MFA, I certainly advocate for getting into a program, but I also see the benefits of structuring your own course of study with resources like this one. It’s a really great idea and I’m very glad that someone is out there in the world doing it.

You can check out the video and write-up on the DIY MFA website, then stick around and learn more about it. Or you can watch the interview below. Gabriela has been kind enough to let me embed the video right here on the blog.

 

In other news, Cristy Zinn was kind enough to do a blog review of my book and my client Bethanie Murguia’s new release, SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER (Knopf/Random House) was reviewed by the talented Michael Ian Black in this past weekend’s New York Times. You can read about that here.

Tags:

Everyone knows the feeling of loving a joke so much yet having it fall flat. Then, instead of accepting defeat, explaining to everyone how the joke works and why it’s so brilliant. If you’re me, you might also strongly imply that your audience is somehow deficient for failing to laugh.

If any of you have heard me speak or taken one of my MG/YA webinars, you may remember the lame Twilight vampire/”high stakes” joke that I try and shoehorn in every time. It has met with a tepid response from Idaho to Japan but I keep on trying because, well, I’m convinced that one day I’ll fall upon the perfect audience that willget it.

If you’re in this boat with me, we all need a wake-up call. Sometimes a bit of cleverness or specificity doesn’t have the payoff you’re seeking. This doesn’t just apply to jokes, of course. I see this phenomenon at work especially with imagery in people’s writing.

An example from the actual literary canon  (rather that some stupid made-up thing that I wrote last minute) that has always bothered me: “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich. This has literally vexed me FOR OVER A DECADE.

Adrienne Rich is a wonderful poet, may she rest in peace. And this is poem reproduced widely in many school texts and taught all over the place, which is a testament to her talent. But the work itself is rather–please excuse the obvious pun–heavy-handed. I’ve included a link so you can read it, above.

Uncle’s wedding band is heavy on Aunt Jennifer’s hand. Her hands are ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. She’s desperately stitching a bunch of tigers. The tigers are not afraid of any men. The tigers are free, ironically, while Aunt Jennifer is caged. Etc. etc. etc.

Here Rich explains the images over and over again, in case you didn’t get it the first three times. She works very hard to make sure you know exactly where she’s going with the poem. In this case, I can let it go (I guess!) because the image works with the story that the poet is telling. Wedding bands, hands, etc. all tie into the symbolism of a woman feeling trapped in a marriage.

There are times when writers are just as insistent about images, however, and the image isn’t successful to begin with, like my lame vampire joke. This is something to watch out for in your own work. If you catch yourself trying a little too hard to CONVEY THE PERFECT-EST THING EVER to the reader, you may be picking either the wrong image or something so specific that it’s not going to be  resonant enough.

Some less-than-graceful examples would be these stupid made-up things that I’m writing last minute:

The sound of the children’s laughter bounced down the hallway like a tin can full of quarters bouncing down a concrete staircase.

It was her turn to go up and give the science presentation. Nerves shot up Nellie’s spine like that feeling she always got when breaking down a cardboard box and feeling the brown paper surfaces rasping against one another.

These are not successful images to me. The first one is off because the two things being compared have very little connecting them. The writer may have once heard the perfect tin can full of quarters and it could make total sense to her to compare it to children’s laughter, but it’s more likely that the link exists only in her head. The same idea goes for the second image, and here it’s like the writer is trying very hard to describe exactly what this type of nervousness feels like but it’s too specific to have that frisson of recognition or universality. I happen to hate anything the results from pieces of cardboard touching one another, but that’s me, and my personal biases may not belong in the scene about Nellie’s science presentation.

The examples convey a feeling of jamming a square peg in a round hole. The writer is working hard. Sweat is blooming on her brow. She really wants you toget it. Oftentimes, though, the best images, jokes, turns of phrase, etc. are more simple and organic than that. Keep an eye out for instances where you might be explaining the joke at the expense of your true meaning and goal in the moment.

Also, a round of applause to Bethanie Murguia, whose SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER was reviewed in the New York Times yesterday!

Tags:

You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

Tags: , , ,

Situation Queries

One of my favorite notes to give because it make so much sense to me is “A situation is not a plot.” (Though Stephen King is quick to absolutely disprove me by giving the opposite note here, ha! Proving once and for all how subjective writing advice can be. As the author of a book of writing advice, I’ll be the first to admit it.) This note applies especially to queries and I wanted to remind everyone to concentrate on specific plot points in their pitch letters as 2013 and all the make-your-dreams-come-true querying gets underway.

Here’s an example of a query letter that relies overly on situation instead of plot:

Emma wants to be normal so badly, but she can’t. Between a cheating boyfriend, an abusive father on his way out of the family, and a rivalry with the most talented softball player in school, she has no time at all to discover that the tattoo she got over spring break is giving her secret powers.

Sorry for the lame example, but I rather like the idea of a tramp stamp giving you a little more than you bargained for. Maybe it’s my childhood memory of that one episode of the X-Files when Scully gets that snake tattoo and all hell breaks loose? Wow. Blast from the past. Anyhow…

This query is fine and I see it a lot in the slush. But it’s not the best it can be, and that’s why I’m calling it out here. What’s missing? A specific sense of plot. This query gives us a fine idea of everything that’s going on in Emma’s life, but it doesn’t really do any of the heavy lifting to connect the dots. It’s like dumping the jigsaw puzzle of your plot in front of your reader and saying, “Well, there it is.” In a pitch letter, you’re not just selling the reader on the hook of your story or how marketable it might be, you’re also selling them on your story itself.

Here, we don’t know if the father is going to be the main secondary plot (giving it a darker, more contemporary realistic shade despite the tattoo element), or the boyfriend (giving it a more romance flavor), or the softball rivalry (making me think it’s going to be a school-heavy story). If I’m left to reassemble the pieces of Emma’s situation in my own head, I could find three very different books in there.

That’s a problem. You want to not only give us the elements of your story but arrange them in such a way that your plot shines through, guiding the reader even more into the specific world and events of your unique novel. Something that’s more specific would go like this:

Just as her abusive father is on his way out of the family, Emma discovers an uncomfortable secret: that tattoo she got over spring break is giving her the ability to see people’s futures. And she doesn’t like what it forecasts for her relationship with Rufus when she predicts his cheating on her at prom. From there, it’s one catastrophe after another, especially as she races against time to best her softball rival before the last game of the year determines who gets a coveted scholarship. As her power predicts doom and gloom for everyone around her, Emma has to do everything she can to secure her own future.

Okay, now I know that the father isn’t really going to be a big part of it, and the boyfriend’s cheating is more of an incident for the first third. The main thrust of the plot will probably be the rivalry, ending in a championship at the climax. The story feels much clearer to me now that the query is guiding me along instead of throwing me in the deep end of situation. This is a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

Tags: , ,

As a plot moves forward, your characters will gather events, relationships, and memories that will transition from the novel’s present to the novel’s past. Make them matter by making them dynamic. If an event or relationship doesn’t progress from what has already been established, you are not using it to its full potential. For example, you present your reader with a contentious relationship between your protagonist and her main competitor on the track team. They make snappy remarks at one another and always vent their aggression on the track. But if their relationship doesn’t progress from this dynamic (by either getting better or worse), this story element will plateau. It becomes something in your character’s past that drags them down.

By having events and relationships change and evolve and grow in importance over the course of the story, you give each story element a trajectory in the plot. Give things a sense of future direction so that they don’t stagnate. In the track rival example, above, I’d find a way to work this relationship into the plot so we know that this dynamic is going to matter in the future of the story. To use a cliché example, maybe I’d work in an upcoming competition to really put the pressure on their bond. This way, the girls aren’t just snarking at one another in limbo, the relationship is also in forward motion toward something more climactic than we’re seeing in the novel’s present.

Think of every important story element as a line that’s climbing toward your climax. Any plot developments or relationships that plateau (especially in the middle of the novel) are shortchanging the future of your story by staying in lockstep with the past. Why is this such a bad thing? The reader is already familiar with what you’ve established. Without a sense that these elements have a future and are going somewhere, a reader’s investment wanes. Remember, a rising line trending toward the climax, with all elements growing, changing, and weaving together.

Tags: ,

« Older entries § Newer entries »