A Little Pick-Me-Up for 2012

Every once in a while, I hear from readers who inspire me to see the bright side and feel wonderful about the creative work that we all do when we sit down to write. 13 year-old writer M wrote just such a letter. Since I know I always need a creative pick-me-up, especially as I crank on a soon to be revealed very secret project (cue mysterious music), I wanted to share the exchange between M and I, in the hopes that it will get you to care about your own craft as the New Year gets underway.

This is what M wrote to me a week or so ago:

I’m a beginning novelist (if that’s the proper term) and I’ve been writing since second grade to my current age of thirteen. I’ve always known what I wanted to be an author. Unfortunately, I’m a very nervous writer. Whenever I’m writing a “non-serious” story, the words flow so easily, but whenever I’m working on a story that I’m serious about, the words only come in short spurts. It’s so frustrating, mostly because the story and the scenes are laid out perfectly in my head, but I can’t translate them onto paper without worrying myself to death.

I’ve also read a lot of your blog, which has been an amazing source of information for me, and one of your blog posts really jumps out at me: That one about making readers care. I totally get where you’re coming from, mostly because I’ve read a few books that really have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster ride. The thing is, I’m terrified that I won’t be able to do it right. Is there such thing as a writer that just isn’t able to make the reader care about the character no matter what they try? Or is it just a matter of practice and revision? Do you have any tips for manipulating the reader’s emotions? What about making my inner editor shut up? Is there a significant difference in the quality of manuscripts written by older and younger people?

Well, thank you in advance. I just wanted the chance to ask you some questions and tell you how much I admire you. (And here I am, worrying about whether or not this email makes me seem too formal, or- God forbid- obnoxious.)

Sincerely,
M

Immediately, I could see so much of myself in M (and no, M isn’t code for “Mary,” this is a real letter, not one of those “well, my, uh, friend really wanted some writing advice” type of situations, hehe). I mean this in the most loving way possible — the girl’s neurotic. But so am I! And so is almost every other writer I know. There’s a lot to love about being up in one’s head all the time, but there’s also a downside to thinking and caring so intensely. This was the core of my answer to M, which you can read below:

M,

Thank you so much for writing in. I love hearing from writers, and young writers especially. Now, I know exactly how you feel about being creative even under pressure (a serious story vs. a non-serious one). Here’s the thing…you can’t do anything well when your brain is getting in the way. When your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never get down on the page what you have in your head. When you start worrying whether people will care about it or not. That kind of anxiety is the absolute enemy of creative work.

It’s easier said than done, but I would tell you to write something “non-serious” and then part of your “serious” work EVERY DAY. Get yourself in the mood by doing something that’s just for fun, the push through to the real stuff you want to accomplish. And as for making your readers care, I have a feeling you won’t have a problem there. You obviously care very much about your writing, that’s why you’re worried about it so much. We don’t worry about things we don’t care about.

When a writer has emotions about what they’re writing, then they’re likely to stir up a sense of caring in the reader. However, do keep in mind that the best way to make a reader care is to create a character who cares deeply about something — a goal, a person, an outcome — and then take it away from them or put obstacles in their way. Think about it like this: We don’t care about a story that goes, “They were together and happy, with no problems in the world.” We care about, “They were separated from one another by the worst luck on the planet and moved mountains to be reunited.” We like to read about struggle, we like to read about accomplishing the impossible goals, we like to read about characters who would do anything in the world to get what they want. Why? Because we all know what it feels like to yearn, to want, to hurt, to be frustrated, etc. Give your characters something they want, then get in their way. I think that’s central to making a reader care.

Nobody’s inner editor will ever shut up all the way, but you have to keep going through it. You said some very nice things in your email about my blog. You probably think I have it all together and just cruise around, inspiring people and being helpful. But you know what? I have to write it almost every day and almost every day I have those nagging voices in my head that I’m going to run out of stuff to talk about or that the article I’m doing isn’t what writers need to hear, etc. So it’s not something you can ever get rid of, but it’s something you can learn to deal with. The worst thing you can do is worry yourself so much that you become creatively paralyzed.

Finally, stop worrying about whether younger writers or older ones make better manuscripts. I’ve read wonderful things from young writers, awful things from older writers, and vice versa. When you have the right story and you tell it in a way that only you can, you will find your audience and your success. Don’t let anything else obsess you in the meantime. In a word, make it your New Year’s Resolution to quit worrying so much and focus on the writing. 🙂

***

Sorry for the slow start to posts in 2012. There are just so many events that I need to promote as the year gets underway. Watch this space for more focus on craft…and that big announcement I promised…(mwahahahahahaha).

Big Revision

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page.

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective.

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency.

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic. Whether a writer has a bolt of inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards.

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

Some Thoughts on Revision

As NaNoWriMo draws to a close, you’re no doubt thinking about revision. Let me address a question about it from DHE:

Lastly, I’m wondering a bit about aspects about the revisions after getting an agent process, namely how much time is okay to spend on revisions. If someone has little free time and knows it’s going to take them awhile to get revisions done, is that troublesome or is that okay?

My answer is going to apply just as much to people who have an agent as it will to people who are still looking. Whenever I visit a conference, I always get asked questions about revision. In essence, how long is it okay to revise. Should you rush just because you want to get out on submission or because an agent/editor requested the work. Etc.

In terms of the latter question, I’ve addressed it here. In essence, I prefer a slow-cooked, gourmet meal to fast food. No writer should ever sprint on my account, and I want to reiterate that here. Just because someone asks to see more work doesn’t mean you should dash off and hurry to show them subpar, rushed work. That just doesn’t make sense. If more time will let you turn around a stellar revision, by all means, take the time.

There’s also the issue of the nature of your revision. I’m sad to say that I’ve parted ways with more clients on the issue of revision than I have on any other grounds. When an agent takes on a writer, they see the work in front of them but that’s it. They can hear the writer’s ideas for future projects, they can guesstimate the writer’s writing and revision skills based on the manuscript at hand, but those are all just guesses. In my experience, a writer’s ability to revise is usually the biggest — and most important — mystery as a writer and agent embark together in their relationship.

Some writers I’ve taken on have turned out great revisions and sharpened their editorial skills. Others have floundered, turned out hasty revisions, failed to go deeply enough into the work, etc. Sometimes, it is possible, as Ian in the comments said, to revise a manuscript to death. It happens when you stare at it too hard — or not hard enough — and cut out all the voice, the freshness, the spontaneity of the thing. This usually happens when you’re in too much of a hurry to just turn it around and get published now now now now now now now.

Here are more thoughts on the issue of quality in revision to round out these thoughts. First, an answer to the question of “How much revision is normal?” Next, a reminder about the Million Bad Words. In essence, you have to revise more than you think. Then put it away. Then come back to it in three months and revise again. I find writers often have the problem of too little revision, not too much. It is possible to become completely sick of your manuscript or hack out your frustrations on it. If that’s the case, I’d try cheating on it with a new project. That spark and excitement of working on something new could easily answer the question of whether you should go back to your old manuscript at some point for another or put the old ball and chain in the drawer for good.

Boiling It Down

Recently, I’ve posted two things that I firmly believe are the cornerstones of my fiction philosophy. First, writing must make me care. I need to care about character (most important) and then about their story. If I don’t care, you’re dead in the water. If you aren’t thinking about the emotional impact of your story, good luck to you in someone else’s inbox.

Second, fiction is a balance of action and information. Too much action and we don’t hook into the character or situation. (Especially if the breakneck action is at the beginning of your novel, like if you start with a hectic chase sequence, for example, we have a really hard time figuring out what’s going on or why.) Too much information (a first chapter where your character sits in their room thinking about his life, for example) and there’s no action, no plot, no forward momentum, and the whole thing drags. The two elements must always be in balance. In times when there’s a lot of information being introduced, you must also keep your characters moving. You can’t indulge in an info-dump. In times of action, you must also work hard to keep us invested by giving us context and information (later on in the novel, once character and situation are established, this usually means emotional context, ie: interiority).

I was at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference this past weekend, in a roundtable discussion with super agent Tina Wexler from ICM. We were talking about novel beginnings and, of course, I sprouted off my “action vs. information” line. Then Tina put the missing piece together and it fit perfectly: “But it needs to have emotion, too. Emotion is the third point of that triangle.”

I made a joke at the time about really working a metaphor to death, but a lightbulb definitely went off because of her comment, and now I think I have the perfect image for my two most important tenets of writing.

If fiction is a balance of action and information, the axis of the scale, the part that holds everything else together, is emotion. Without emotion to lord over the work and to keep everything else in check, your whole manuscript falls apart. (And you do not get to hold the Sword of the Awesome Manuscript.)

We should always be in touch with your character’s emotions (especially if you are writing in third person, as that is a challenge for many) and they should be legible and resonant for readers. Whether you’re writing a scene of action or dropping information in your manuscript, keep in mind your characters’ interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) near the surface. You can even indulge in some strategic Good Telling.

How to Write Fiction a Reader Cares About

How to write fiction a reader cares about is a huge question many writers have. This post will be a short one but it strikes at, I think, the very heart of writing great fiction. What is your number one objective as a writer?

To make your reader feel.

Whenever I speak about queries at conferences, I always have one request: Make me care. This is the same idea. I want to feel my interest piqued with the query. I want to feel something, even if it’s just a stirring of feeling or concern or nervousness or longing. Most queries fail to elicit even one feeling (other than boredom).

how to write fiction, how to write emotion, how to write character
How to write fiction that will make a reader care and feel.

How to Make a Reader Care

The manuscript itself, however, has to do much more than just make a reader care (though that’s an excellent starting point, and it will set you apart from most readers). When your character  — who is the focal point of our feelings and our gateway into the story — feels hurt, the reader should ache. When they fall in love, the reader should feel her heart quicken. When they think all is lost, the reader should reach for the Ben & Jerry’s.

If you’re not going to be manipulating your reader’s emotions and taking your audience on a journey of feelings, thoughts, and realizations, what’s the point?

How do you make your readers feel emotion? You do it through crafting a character with feelings and goals, and also by knowing your own feelings. At the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency I attended this July in Vermont, COUNTDOWN author and master writer Deborah Wiles said the following:

Allow your character’s heart to break. How? Know thyself. Feel what you feel. Allow yourself your heartache. Share it with your character. Heal together.

What Does a Reader Care About?

As your character encounters a thrilling roller coast of emotional ups and downs, of victories and disappointments, you must always be thinking of their emotions. How are they reacting to this event? How are they interpreting it? What is the emotional context? Where do they think they go from here? Use your character’s interiority.

More importantly, use your own emotions and thoughts as guides for what your character is going through. That will lend your writing truth. Pour your heart out a little bit. Always think of the character’s feelings (usually a version of your own) and the feelings you want to evoke in the reader.

Readers expect to pick up a book and be transported and transformed, not only to another world or time or unique point of view, but to emotional places own hearts, minds, and lives.

How to Write Fiction That Elicits Emotions

Last week, I watched The Notebook for the first time, just because it was so wildly popular and I wanted to see how it was put together. (I didn’t much care for it but that’s beside the point.) Has anyone ever recommended this particular movie to you? If you’re a woman and you have girlfriends that are crazy about it, what did they say to convince you to watch?

I bet it wasn’t, “You’ll really love the dialogue” or, “You should see how the filmmakers introduce the complication of the rich fiancé.” It could just be my own experience here, but the only thing anyone ever told me about The Notebook (and this came from about ten different people) is:

“It will make you cry your face off.”*

Readers couldn’t care less about the craft and framework behind a tale when emotions are in the mix. (You, of course, have to care very much about it, as the writer, but that’s another story.)

Emotions and Writing Good Fiction

Emotion is going to be your reader’s biggest takeaway…and their biggest expectation when they’re considering reading a book. And if you do it right — if you write a book that’s not only cathartic for your character and your reader but for you, too — you will definitely give your readers a journey they won’t forget.

* My eyes stayed dry and my face intact, unfortunately. Incidentally, some things that do make me cry: Swing Kids, Titanic, the second half of the BBC Office Christmas special, the last scene in The Royal Tenenbaums (happy tears), “Levon” by Elton John, BEFORE I DIE by Jenny Downham, IF I STAY by Gayle Forman, LOVE, AUBREY by Suzanne LaFleur, WHEN BLUE MET EGG by Lindsay Ward, THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the scene with Harry’s family near the end of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, etc.

Is your manuscript hitting the right emotional notes? Hire me as your developmental editor and get an expert second pair of eyes.

Workshop #4

The penultimate workshop for this series comes from Darcy.

“So? Have you thought about it long enough yet?” The question startled me so much I dropped my spoon full of granola into my bowl. Soy milk splashed up onto my chin and the front of my sweater, and Pepper barked from where she was sitting under my chair. Peter had a habit of slipping into a room without anyone noticing. He was stealthy like that. I made a face Poppy would have called “The Evil Eye” and threw it at him.

This is a classic jarring beginning that I see a lot. Unattributed dialogue to begin is always dicey, since we don’t know the characters. And we could literally be anywhere, talking to anyone, about anything. It does nothing to ground the reader. We learn nothing about the character from her reaction, either, as she is just startled. We get the soy milk detail and the little puppy with the preppy name. We also get some attitude, but we don’t get the main character and Peter’s relationship, which is a weakness for the rest of the scene. Also, the Poppy/Pepper names are too close for me. For a second, I thought, “Wait, how does she know what the dog is thinking?” There’s so much and it’s so disorienting that I don’t even have enough bandwidth left over to focus on what the “it” in the first sentence is, which the writer is trying to set up as the source of tension.

“Woah. What’s with the Evil Eye? This is your Primary Present we’re talking about,” said Peter.

Perhaps I was a bit hasty with the Evil Eye look. I quickly tried to make it up to him.

She knows what he’s asking about, so I don’t get why she gives him the Evil Eye and then recants. The “Primary Present” line, as a result, seems like it’s for the reader’s benefit…to introduce the idea to the reader instead of aim for organic dialogue. Please also notice how old you think this character is…

“Sorry, Peter,” I said. I got up from my seat and retrieved my super special bought-it-with-my-own-money chocolate granola from the pantry. “Would you like some granola for breakfast?” I asked sweetly.

Peter laughed. “That,” he said, pointing to my Delightfully Chocolate-y granola, “is not breakfast. This is breakfast.” He grabbed a package of whole wheat bagels from the fridge and held them high like he had just caught a 30-pound salmon and was showing it off. I shrugged. He had a point. If I ran out of my chocolate granola I would probably take a whole wheat bagel instead.

We get no information about what their relationship is. As I’m reading this, with an eye trained by tens of thousands of kidlit novel beginnings, I’m thinking she’s a 14/15 y.o. snotty (and a bit manipulative) teen and he’s her obnoxious older brother, who’s your typical carbo-loading dude. Plus, why does the writer spend so much time gloating over the granola if the character would just as soon ditch it for a bagel? It told me something about the character, at least, until she was like, “But it doesn’t matter because I can do a bagel, too.” What’s the point of establishing it and then devaluing it right away? Now it is a meaningless detail.

Having settled the breakfast food question I returned to my granola while Peter poured himself a cup of coffee. “You still haven’t answered my question, Beatrix” he pointed out.

Rats. I had been hoping the Great Granola vs. Bagel debate would distract him. The fact was I had not thought long enough about my Primary Present yet. I wasn’t any closer to a decision that day than I was a month earlier and I had to come up with something quick. My deadline was just around the corner.

I’m confused as to what this Primary Present issue is. Is it just a present? Seems that way. (You never know with all the dystopian plots going around…it could be something more serious.) But, for now, I really don’t get what the big deal is. Someone is trying to do something nice for Beatrix…so why is she acting so weird and cagey about it? Those stakes are extremely low. Even saying something like “The Great Granola vs. Bagel debate,” an attempt at high stakes language, doesn’t raise stakes because we saw the debate…and it wasn’t that big a deal. Giving us a sense of why she’s avoiding it, and giving her a specific deadline (not the vague “just around the corner”) would give the writer a stronger position but I’m still not sure the premise is tense enough. Also, do a comma between “Beatrix” and the end quote in the first paragraph.

Each year for My Birthday/Christmas Peter always bought me a lot of nice presents: books, art supplies, music CD’s. He would buy them all year round and then give them to me on December 25th. That was the day we celebrated my birthday and Christmas too, of course. Those small things were all my Secondary Presents. Then there was my Primary Present. The Primary Present was always something super special. I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped. Every year I tried to stump Peter and see if I could come up with something that he couldn’t pull off, but he always came through.

Now it seems like Peter is a parent figure? Still very unclear, because he acts like a macho teen boy. The presents he’s bought are vague and missed opportunities to provide character details. I’d also quibble with “music CDs”: first, you don’t need the apostrophe, second, it’s redundant, just say “CDs,” third, CDs aren’t as popular/relevant these days. Again, it sounds like what Peter does is really nice, so I have no idea why she’s avoiding the issue. It’s like me refusing a spa treatment. Really?

Last year he took me and my best friend Poppy to New York City for the day and we had high tea at Bergdorf Goodman and tried on shoes we could never possibly buy. Then we went on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. That one was extra special because it was my tenth birthday. This year, my eleventh birthday, doesn’t seem so special on the calendar, and I’d already tried everything I could think of up to this birthday to try as a Primary Present.

Aside from two mentions now, we haven’t really seen Poppy, so is she really necessary to cram in there right now or can she be introduced with more context later? The biggest shocker, to me, was the character’s age. Her voice right now is a bit like GOSSIP GIRL meets Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City. She’s jaded, really self-aware (a more adult trait), manipulative around men, and loves a good pair of Manolos. And I’m supposed to buy that she’s ten? Sure, maybe in the world of Toddlers and Tiaras but I read too much middle grade to really have this voice for this age ring true. And know that readers for a 10 y.o. character will be younger (since kids always read up), so an 8 y.o. from the general reading pool wouldn’t really bond with this character, I don’t think.

So here we have some voice issues, some stakes issues, some characterization issues, and some context issues. Overall, I would take another run at this beginning with clarity in mind, and, depending on the plot, age the character up to 15 or 16. It would be much easier to write to your voice instead of trying to change your voice to fit the character…here, it’s clearly a much more adult voice than the writer is aware of, I think. This is not a glowing workshop, I’m afraid, but there’s a lot to take away here, and I applaud the writer for volunteering!

ETA: Deleted the present could/couldn’t be wrapped note because I missed it! Sorry all, and thanks for your eagle eyes!

Workshop #3

This workshop piece comes from Michele Tennant. Enjoy!

Dylan pushed off the sidewalk with his black Converse high-tops. Beneath him the wheels on his skateboard whirred. Tiny bumps on the concrete beneath sent vibrations up his legs. The only voice in his head was his own.

The Converse shoe is a “hi-top” (and they often call them Chucks…as a former punk kid/skate rat, I try to be aware of these things). The second sentence reads awkwardly. There’s a simpler way to say it, and the syntax is off. Not sure why you need to say that “The only voice in his head was his own.” I should hope so…whose else is in there? Doesn’t need explaining.

“Okay, folks you’re in for a treat,” Dylan mumbled under his breath. He mimicked the roar of a crowed stadium. “thirteen year old Dylan Davis will now be attempting the laser flip. Let’s hope he doesn’t scrape any freckles off on the pavement.”

Capitalized “Thirteen” here. When I talk about mimetic writing, I want you to be aware of what the character is doing. If he’s skating, he’s working out. The freckles/pavement line is too long for someone out of breath…

Another push and Dylan picked up speed. The crisp morning air stung his eyes making them water. Dylan breathed in the smell of damp pavement and lilac blossoms and saw a flash of red across the street. Katie Jordan had stepped off the curb. She was fresh and clean and dressed for work.

I’d put a comma between “eyes” and “water.” Good smell detail, though. We usually ignore that sense. “She was fresh and clean and dressed for work” is not something I’d imagine a 13 y.o. skate kid saying about a woman. The voice is too adult and too female. I would’ve also loved more context for who Katie is…a teacher? A neighbor? Mrs. Robinson?

She smiled and waved, and a breeze blew her flowing red skirt up just high enough for Dylan to get a glimpse of the black lace on her slip beneath. He waved back. Still following her with his eyes, he pushed off the ground again. One of the wheels struck a pebble. The board wobbled precariously causing Dylan to flail his arms as he steadied himself.

Would a 13 y.o. boy know what a slip is? This lacy peek is a bit sexy in this context, and we still don’t know who Katie is, so I don’t quite understand it yet. That description is not in voice, again, and the first sentence is overlong. I’d also use “underneath” here. We’ve got a bit of play-by-play narration going on here…you’re tracking what’s happening very closely, but I’m not sure we need all these details described so thoroughly. “Causing” is a very dry voice word, esp. for a 13 y.o. boy narrator. “Steadied” too.

He glanced back, hoping Katie hadn’t seen. Thankfully, she had bent to pick up the Sunday newspaper.

Up the street Dylan heard an engine rev.

Come on focus, he told himself. A little faster now . . . What did Jason say? Push off, jump, flip and land. Landing, that’s the part I’m worried about.

Is he just skating for the sake of skating or is there something coming up that he’s practicing for? A competition? The Impress The Older Lady Olympics? You could frame what he’s doing and why to give us more stakes for this practice session. “Thankfully” not in voice here. Overall, I’m really not getting a 13 y.o. boy sense from the prose. Try reading it aloud. Really get into your boy’s character.

A black SUV sped past Dylan. He turned to see it bump up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. There stood Katie, hand in her open mailbox, frozen, her eyes wide.

We don’t really get the danger in this description. Is it weaving? Does it narrowly miss him? One moment it “sped,” the next moment it is on a rampage. You could build up this moment more so that it’s not a jarring surprise to the reader, who wasn’t expecting this. It’s an issue of tone.

The newspaper dropped from Katie’s fingertips. Dylan opened his mouth to warn her, as he did the skateboard stopped abruptly. A jolt shuddered through Dylan’s body. He was propelled forward like a test dummy. The world flew past; Katie’s frightened face, the SUV, houses, trees, picket fence, sidewalk, sky.

The second sentence is clunky and an awkward transition. The test dummy image is a bit of a cliché. Like the snatches of images…they’re mimetic of what’s going on.

Dylan found himself on his back in the damp concrete culvert. All he could hear was the whoosh, whoosh, whooshing of the blood rushing through his veins. His body felt disconnected, numb and cold and a salty, metallic taste filled his mouth. He spit a mixture of blood and saliva onto the pavement beside him.

“Found himself” is a rather mild way of putting it. I’d switch out something with more impact. (Get it? Because he just hit the ground?) These sentences are a bit dry for something so intense. The syntax of “numb and cold and a salty” is off to me. Also, there has been no interiority in terms of his thoughts. Have your character react to what’s going on…a lot has just happened…where’s his head in all this?!

Taking a deep breath, Dylan struggled to lift his right arm. It wouldn’t budge. With his left elbow he managed to army crawled up the muddy, moss covered concrete to the sidewalk. There on the blacktop lay Katie’s mangled body. Her arms and legs stuck out at odd angles and a puddle that matched her skirt was slowly spreading around her. A dull hum filled his ears. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button for the whole planet.

Could use more thoughts. Like the last image very much. If we knew more about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Katie, we would care a lot more when she gets whalloped. It’s all about context. This might be a bit graphic, depending on the rest of the story, for MG. Also, good job starting right off with some action!

Beginning Workshop #2

Today’s workshop comes from S.E. Sinkhorn. Let’s just dive right in!

Two hours before I learned my father had been found dead by the side of the lake, I sat on my favorite park bench and sketched an eye. A beak. A crest. The pages of my book were bronze in the autumn sunlight.

Like the bronze image. The first sentence packs a punch but is perhaps too long to really focus us. The writer throws a lot of information into that one and I don’t know where to really look. Good tension, though, but could it be more specific? “Found dead” is vague. Murdered? Found dead by his own hand?

No indication the hopeful lantern I’d kept burning inside me for four years had gone out. Only feathers attached to skin fused to muscle stitched to bone. My pencil didn’t even twitch as my entire world shifted. I just couldn’t feel it yet.

“Hopeful lantern” sounds very lovely, but is vague. Does this refer to the dad? Or another hopeful lantern about something else? Be more specific, as it’s too ethereal now.  I like the idea of something happening that’s huge, but the character not knowing it yet. This does tell us, though, that she’s relating this story from some future vantage point and I wonder how far back she’s looking…I’m wondering why birds are so important.

So I continued as I always did, enjoying my small patch of life between the lifeless brown buildings, and waited for my brother to meet me. The L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop. For a moment, I could pretend to be somewhere else. Someone else.

Not sure about “the L-train’s sooty air was a distant backdrop,” there’s something off to me about it. Maybe something like “a cloud of soot rose from a passing L-train” or something. Air being a backdrop stopped me. I was probably also thinking of the L train subway that runs from Manhattan to Brooklyn, which doesn’t emit soot. 🙂 Maybe it’s also because I don’t quite know the time setting. The fashion details below hint at like turn of the 20th century, but “lifeless brown buildings” seems too reminiscent of mid-20th century urban architecture. The idea of a city being lifeless is also a bit modern in tone.

The moment didn’t last long.

Heavy footfalls clacked their way up the path toward me, startling the cardinals I’d been drawing into a flurry of red wings. A pair of expensive leather boots filled their place in my field of vision. I sighed and snapped my sketchbook closed. My gaze followed the boots up to find their owner clad in the height of Parisian fashion, down to her ebony-colored walking gown and gloves trimmed with pearl buttons. An emerald and gold choker winked at me from her pale neck, clashing horribly with the black.

This description really doesn’t work for me. It gives the character’s eyeballs a video camera feel. They are zooming and panning in on parts, not the whole. That’s a very cinematic description but I’d rather see the whole picture than just boots, then ankles, then gown, etc. It’s fragmented and uses a visual technique that doesn’t carry across well on page as opposed to screen. I want to see Mirabelle as much more whole when we first meet her. We also get no interiority. I can tell the two girls don’t like one another, but a thought or a reaction to this girl showing up could add another layer. I’m also not crazy about footfalls clacking. It’s a sound, and the writer is giving it almost a physical presence which it just doesn’t have.

“Hello, Mirabelle,” I said.

Her smile curved like a scythe as she brushed a cinnamon curl behind her ear. A set of parasols twitched behind her, attached to the day’s pair of sycophantic companions.

“Clara, darling. Playing with your friends again?” Mirabelle said. I imagined her circling me like a pack dog.

The antagonism between Mirabelle and Clara is thick here, but overwritten. We get the scythe image, then circling, then dog. The writer is working a little too hard to make sure we GET IT. No need to be overwrought. The line about “sycophantic companions” is great but it also sounds really modern-sarcasm to me. Like, I’d imagine Daria saying something like that (yeah, that’s right, I just pulled “Daria” out of my hat), so it adds to my confusion about time period and period voice.

“I was enjoying the company of creatures I didn’t have to bully or buy, yes,” I said.

One of the other girls gasped in exaggerated offense, but Mirabelle scarcely batted an eye. “Oh, my dear, you must do better than that. Sharpen your tongue for my father’s gala this evening, for I expect far wittier repertoire.”

I bit the inside of my cheek and didn’t respond.

I’m getting much more authentic period voice in the dialogue. It’s still catty, sure, but the syntax is more stylized than the prose/descriptions. Like the bully/buy line.

Mirabelle put her hand to her chest and painted her face with a near-convincing expression of concern. “But you must have received an invitation! All of Chicago’s finest will be there. Surely it’s been long enough since your father walked out that the scandal has died down.”

A slow eruption of nervous laughter swelled behind her. There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation. Familiar heat began to creep up my neck.

“There’s never anything quite like having an audience to one’s humiliation” is great period voice, and it’s also great interiority. The dialogue is a bit for the reader’s benefit (a way to introduce the father detail) and it reminds us of the opening, but I might let it stay. (My objection would be that characters who know one another this well don’t usually repeat such basic biographical details in conversation…it’s not organic.)

“I’ve no interest in attending your father’s garish parties. If you’re quite finished, I’m meeting my brother at four o’clock, and I’ll take your leave.” I stood and walked past the she-wolf and her lapdogs.

When I was a few steps away, she called, “Perhaps your mother might like to attend. She could finally admit her infidelity and beg a proposal from whoever sired your sister. It would be the highlight of the evening.”

Working too hard again on the “she-wolf and her lapdogs” line. Also, this clashes with the similar-yet-different “pack dog” image earlier. Love the last diss! It’s so catty it reminds me of THE LUXE series.

Overall, some strong writing, but the first two paragraphs don’t match the rest. There’s some tension there, but I don’t know if it’s specific enough or, yet, how it relates. I hope she finds out about the dead body soon. The period was also confusing. The character’s sarcasm and observations struck me as very modern, but the style of dress and some of the dialogue was obviously period. For historical, if this is indeed historical, this is a crucial voice issue to nail.

Beginning Workshop #1

The first beginning workshop comes from O’Dell Hutchinson for a WIP called “The Weeping.” Without further ado, here is my feedback on O’Dell’s beginning!

It was hot. The acrid smell of smoke filled her lungs, singeing them with every breath. Her head was spinning. She could hear people screaming. A man with a deep, booming, voice was yelling, telling everyone to stay calm and move toward the exit.

“It was hot” could be a first line to anything. A breezy summer beach read. A Southern gothic. It’s a fire, of course it’s hot. I’m looking for a first line with a little more bang here. There’s also a passive voice issue.

“Phillip?” she choked out.

“Phillip!” she screamed again.

The dialogue tags are overwritten here. We don’t know who Phillip is, also. Maybe some context.

Had he managed to get out? Was he searching for her? When the smoke started billowing on to the stage, everyone scattered, knocking her to the ground. It barely took any time at all for the smoke to take over, and the screaming to start. She pulled herself up and walked to what she thought was stage left. There was an exit backstage. If she could just get to the exit.

The writer does a great job of starting in action. We also get some interiority about Phillip here, which is good. But I’m missing a lot of context, ie: who is Phillip, how did the fire start, etc.

She pulled the skirt of her costume over her nose to help block the smoke, but it wasn’t working. The air around her swirled in misty curtains of black and grey. She couldn’t see where she was going. Her eyes stung and it took everything she had to keep them open. She tripped over something. Was it a set piece? A body? She couldn’t tell; the smoke was too thick.

Now we lose the interiority. What if it was a body? What thoughts would cross her mind? Does she think about dying? What does it feel like to not be able to breathe? There’s action and a very visceral setting but I’m not quite feeling what I would imagine it feels like to be in a hot, hot fire yet.

She inched her way toward what she thought would be the exit. She closed her eyes and followed the screams of the terrified people scrambling to get out of the theatre. They seemed to be coming from everywhere.

Multiple mentions of screaming already, getting redundant. Also, screaming people are usually terrified, so there some overstating of the obvious.

There was a sudden burst of heat in front of her. Unbearable heat. She took a step back, away from the flames that were closing in on her. She was afraid of falling off the stage and into the orchestra pit, so she got down on her hands and knees and crawled. She pulled herself forward with one hand, the other clutching her dress to her nose.

Not getting a true burst. The narrative voice is even-handed and calm and the sentences are long…not exactly what you’d expect during a scene that describes someone fleeing for their life. Check out the post on mimetic writing

The screams had faded and now seemed to be coming from outside. They were mixed with the sound of sirens. She felt a touch of relief. The firemen were here. They would put out the fire. They would save her.

Again, the interiority and almost nonchalance of the narrative voice don’t add up to a lot of tension for me. If I was about to be rescued from an inferno, I wouldn’t exactly feel just “a touch of relief.” By now, also, I invite you to note that we haven’t learned a single thing about this character other than she does theatre and she’s currently in a fire. There have been no characterizing details that reveal her to us as a person.

Something cracked and was followed by a loud crashing sound. The stage shook beneath her as whatever it was hit the floor. She started to panic again. The building was coming down. She quickly crawled forward, feeling her way around the stage, doing her best to maneuver around set pieces and fallen props.

Throughout the piece, we also have some play-by-play narration that is contributing to the passive voice. We don’t need every single movement described here.

The stage lights above her started to pop, sparkling through the smoke as they briefly lit up before shattering. It was as if she were being photographed by a swarm of photographers. Paparrazi documenting the every move of an eighteen-year-old girl as she fought for her life. She felt a sharp pain shoot up through her hand as she crawled over shards of glass from the broken bulbs.

An interesting image that fits in well with the performer part of the story so far.

There was another crack, this time directly above her. She looked up in time to see a beam, lit with flames, falling toward her. She tried to roll out of the way, but it caught her ankle, trapping her as it ignited her petticoat. She let out one more cry for help as the flames danced up her legs. She tried to move, but the beam held fast. She was going to die. The heat enveloped her and she did the only thing she could do. She wept.

The thoughts, memories, and prayers going through her head at this point would be extremely telling in terms of character. Not giving us interiority here is a huge missed opportunity.

Overall, there are some definite strengths: starts with action, a visceral scene with lots of tension. But there is also room for growth: we need a lot more about the character, we need interiority, we need some more action in the writing voice itself, and less static description. It’s not that the writer isn’t describing action–there’s a lot of stuff going on–but it’s the style of the description that’s passive and a bit flat.

I hope that seeing how I think about this beginning as I read it will help you look at your own beginnings and your own writing craft. I look forward to posting more beginnings this week and next!

Physical Emotion Clichés

I understand why writers use physical emotion clichés. In an effort to dodge the “show, don’t tell” bullet, a lot of writers have taken the external route in conveying the emotions of their character. As I’ve said before, there’s Bad Telling, and there’s Good Telling.

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Hearts and stomachs and butterflies and releasing breaths you didn’t know you were holding… So many physical clichés!

Bad telling deals with you just stating a fact about your character and then taking all the fun out of reading for your audience. Good telling involves using story context and, more importantly, interiority, to paint a three-dimensional picture where you make your reader feel like a savvy part of the story experience, but you don’t exclude them from participating, either.

An Example of Bad Telling in Action

Here’s an example of Bad Telling:

It was the last night of the play. Moxie felt sad as she lined up for the final curtain call. There would be no more stolen moments with Tobin. No more excuses for her to look at him as he performed the role of Hamlet. Just like the real Shakespearean Hamlet and Ophelia were doomed, so was Moxie’s crush. Tears sprung to her eyes. She didn’t know what she’d ever do tomorrow night without all this.

How to Apply Interiority to Telling

Here’s an example of Good Telling, using the principles of interiority:

The heavy red curtain cut them off from the audience and the lights. Moxie stood, feeling heavy and rooted to the stage, and looked around, her eyes adjusting to the darkness as the clapping started in the house. This was it. The last curtain call. The last time she’d teeter on the brink of insanity as Ophelia. The last time she’d peek out from the wings and watch the audience nod along and mouth the words as Tobin, with a deep, slow breath, launched into the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The last time she’d get to tape the fake blood packet into his vest backstage, right before he went off to his fateful last duel scene. Moxie snapped to attention as the curtain swung up again. Tobin materialized beside her and grabbed her hand. The last time for that, too. When would she ever have such a perfect excuse again? The audience beyond the footlights, clapping and shouting, blurred, and she threw on her most dazzling smile, blinking away the tears.

Now, whether you think the sample itself is “good” or not, you can see that you got more insight into Moxie’s character, into the context of her situation, and into the specifics of her emotions with the second example than you did with the Bad Telling snippet.

An Example of Physical Emotion Clichés

Let me introduce you, then, to another version of Bad Telling: Physical Telling.

The drape lowered on the scene, giving Tobin enough time, Moxie knew, to get out of his royal casket and join the rest of the cast for curtain call. She wiped at her eyes, hoping she wasn’t smearing her make-up. Her heart hammered, but it wasn’t the rush of finishing the show. Not this time. She hugged herself, her arms crossed tight. Tobin jogged up, fixing her with a dazzling smile. He tilted his head. There was a twinkle in his eye, something she couldn’t quite read. She relaxed her arms. Her hand grabbed his. The curtain swung up again and she felt a flush creeping up her cheeks.

Now. This is more subtle. There’s nothing technically wrong with this sample. Some might even find it well-written. Well, this is my blog, and you come here to hear what I have to say about stuff. And I am sick of Physical Telling. Over it. If you disagree, another blog is just a click away. (Don’t worry, this isn’t just a rant…I will also explain my reasoning.)

Why Physical Emotion Clichés Are Lazy Writing

First, the above is full of physical clichés. “She wiped at her eyes” isn’t telling per se, but it is such a cliché gesture for “Alert! Alert! Moxie is crying! Get it?!” that it might as well be telling. If I was to go on an actual stage and wipe my eyes to convey that my character is sad, or check my watch and tap my foot to convey impatience, a director would yell at me for being way too obvious. Instead of a director, you have me to yell at you.

Per my earlier post about physical clichés, you’ll also know that what hearts, mouths, lungs, stomachs, and hearts do on the page is also, more often than not, a cliché. Hearts hammering, guts rumbling, smiles half-creeping up faces, eyes twinkling, all of that. Ugh. So if we can’t “show” a character tapping their foot with impatience, maybe we can tell the reader that their stomach is tightening in anticipation of being late. Maybe that will be better!

How to Handle Emotions in Fiction

Wrong. Because someone was once told “show, don’t tell,” and then was told “don’t use cliché gestures,” they have now started telling readers about the status of their main characters’ internal organs. Awesome! Except I’m not a doctor with a chart. I don’t care about the status of each little hunk of tissue on your main character’s body.

It’s when a writer starts telling me about guts and hearts and lungs and eyes that I most frequently highlight that section and write, “Interiority instead!” in my notes. Put that on a notecard and tape it to your monitor if you have this problem: Interiority instead!

This brings me to another specific subset of Physical Telling (you can read about another post in this vein, Putting On Airs, from earlier). It’s when writers realize that stomach- and heart-status is cliché, so they move on to looks and gazes and twinkles of eyes and other body language cues.

Romantic Moments Are a Minefield for Physical Clichés

People writing anything with a romantic connection, listen up! Moments where you have your two romantic interests together are prime offenders in this vein. How do you convey chemistry without describing eyes lighting up and blushes and tilts of the head? I don’t know. You’re the writer. But don’t resort to the tired old fallbacks.

Why are we so good at these descriptions? Think about where we see them (key word here: see). That’s right. We’re visual creatures. When we watch movies or TV or interact with other human beings, these looks and tilts and subtle shifts in body language are glaringly clear. “Ah, he’s tipping his head ever so slightly when he talks to the girl he likes, that must mean he likes her, too…squeeee!”

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

But what works well on the screen doesn’t always translate to the page. Those looks that we’re so good and so hardwired to interpret when we see them don’t necessarily convey the same information when we read them. Sometimes things are hard to read when we’re reading, yeah? And sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and we don’t have one thousand words to spill on describing a lovelorn tilt of the head.

Some things work on the page, others not so much. And the page is not a physical realm. Sure, some writing can be very visceral, and we can describe lots of action, but I don’t personally believe that the seat of emotion – as it is conveyed in writing – lives in the physical body of your characters. I’m always a fan of “interiority instead!” and of mixing the character’s inner life (and not their organs’ inner life) with what’s going on, plot-wise.

This is just one way to convey emotion. I happen to think it’s the right way. But, as such, I’m thrilled to start the conversation about Physical Telling and how it relates to “show, don’t tell.” What are your thoughts? Taps foot, checks watch, tilts head and glares.

ETA: JH’s point well-taken, I’ve added to the example of Bad Telling. Thanks, JH!

Characters need to be believable and relatable in order to hook readers. Hire me as your book editor and we can make hone in on your protagonist together.