Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tips: get outa my head

Attention nonwriting public: we don't want to talk to you about our book.

Talking to non-writers about your project is like telling a stranger about the dirty dream you had last night, except not only did you have it, but you're so proud of it you want to charge people money to read about it. 

Why do non-writers care so much about a profession that has nothing to do with them?

1. They think writers are wizards. They want to see a trick.

2. Like all Americans, they believe they could be a writer, if they had enough time or took the right memoir writing class at the learning annex; talking to you is a servicable substitute.

3. They're bored and assume you can entertain them with your book idea, because all stories start out as brilliantly as the end-product they check out of the liberry on DVD.

4. They don't understand that creative people often don't talk about their process because to them, the creative process is exacly like baking a cake. From a box. Who doesn't love showing off their birthday cake? (Don't get me wrong, this is not about the cake. I am not dragging cake into this.)

So you tell them to be polite and you get that look: 'Oh. That doesn't sound anything like [insert favorite hack author].' 

So what do you say when a non-writer has put you on the hot spot?

1. Rattle off technical jargon like pacing, branding, genre, ouvre, feminist menstrual journey.

2. If you have an MFA, recite the plot of The Faerie Queene or Remembrance of Things Past, as you interpreted it from the Spark Notes.

3. Retell your latest office gossip as set in 1066 England, Mordor, or a space ship, as pertains to your genre.

4. After ten seconds of listening to you, they will be feeling jealous and wish to dominate the conversation again. So, claim the book is about crochet or scrapbooking so they can naturally segue the conversation back to their own creative efforts.

5. Ask them about their kids.

Photo credit.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ways to Grab An Editor

5 Ways Your MSS Can Grab an Editor
(And avoid the slush pile.)

Editors have literally piles of manuscripts lining their halls and no time to read them. They will only read the first three pages of your work, and if it grabs them, they'll try the next 20 pages. Maybe. 

Here's some tips to to keep them reading.

1) You should be spending weeks crafting your first sentence, first paragraph, and first chapter. Go back to it often as you write your book. It should be quick, show action, and have dialogue.

2) Don't info dump in your first page. Do not open your book with a description of the scenery, the character's life, or anyone's relationship. Jump straight into the action. Use dialogue, props, clothing, the 5 senses, and other details to suggest information. Readers want to figure things out at the beginning, not be told.

3) Cut your introduction, prologue, preface, preamble, or whatever you're calling it. These chapters are the thing you write when you are new to the world. Later on, as you worldbuild, everything you've put in the preface comes out in the main story, making the preface an unnecesary info dump. So get rid of it. I'm looking at you, fantasy writers: You don't need it.

4) Edit judiciously. Do you really need three best friends, three villains, or three towns? Consider combining similar elements into one. Make the prose move faster by cutting out unnecesary words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters. How many times do you reiterate your theme, conflict, or point? Say less and it makes the telling more powerful. 

5) Read your first chapter aloud. Mark where you trip over the words or have to reread to make a sentence clear. If you can read it aloud clearly without a hitch, then a stranger will read the prose as smooth and elegant.
Photo credit: Old typewriter by Petr Kratochvil  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prompt 9: round and round

Prompt 9: A child watches a black car pull up in front of her house.

So sorry it's been a while! I've been working on a larger project. This is a bit of it, as a prompt response (because I was stuck.)

As always, I encourage you to respond to this prompt in the comments, your own journal (please link back!) or the privacy of your own imaginations.

PhotobucketIt is so hot you breathe in mosquitoes and breathe out oven air.

Elyse was five and she had been sitting in the wine cellar for an hour watching her sister Beatrice "get a tan." Bette, as they called her (because "Grandma's name is 'Bea' and I'm not some old lady"), is turning pink and Elyse has predicted she will throw up like she did the last time they went fishing and sat on the lake for hours and hours and Bette was the only one who wouldn't cool off with the wet towel dipped in delicious lake water. ("We've got enough trout for a feast, Gary!" "If she's too stubborn to stick her head in perfectly clear lake water, then she'll learn what the consequences are.") Baby Wade bobbed along next to Ma in the innertube with a cloth baby seat stitched into it. He didn't throw up, but he did make a poopy. No one seemed to notice that Elyse hadn't needed any special cleaning crew.

Elyse felt prickles as her sweat evaporated in the slightly cooler cellar. Dust was sticking to all the little hairs on the exposed parts of her and now she was beginning to itch. The stone window sill felt sharp and dirty under her chin where she'd propped two big Mason jars of canned blueberries on either side of her head. She drew them hard against her skull. The liquid inside was endlessly cool and pulled the head from her face. She did a naughty thing today, though she hadn't meant to be bad. She ran up back into the woods after Gordon and Frankie Gellert. Ma told her it was too hot to run and the woods were dangerous and besides, she was too little for boys. But Frankie had built a treehouse with a real zipline.

But they were bigger than her and she had to run fast to keep up with their bikes on the dirt paths. But they never intended to take her to the zipline -- when they got up to the part of the woods with the big hills, they swooped ahead on their fast, heavy bikes, laughing as she fell hopelessly behind.

So Elyse ran home. She was afraid if Bette saw her sweaty, she'd know that Elyse had gone into the woods alone with big kids and Bette would tell Ma or worse, Daddy. Ma had the hairbrush but Daddy yelled louder and Elyse would rather take the smack and have it over with than Daddy's shouting. His "Irish temper," Ma said.

Presently, through the syrupy muck of the blueberries, Elyse was watching Bette do her handstands and cartwheels in the dusty side lawn. Bette was six-going-on-seven and had been deemed old enough to start first grade early last year. Ma sewed red stripes on her white shorts, and she wore her blue bathing suit with the white stars, so she looked like a real majorette. Bette was very seriously training to be a cheerleader in four years when she entered junior high -- if not sooner, because she might skip a grade, seeing as first grade had been so easy for her. Elyse thought Bette was going to get a smack if Ma noticed she'd gotten yellow dust all over the seat of her white shorts, doing tumbling on the dry grass like that. Maybe Ma would notice Bette before she noticed Elyse's red, sweaty face and loosened pigtails. Maybe Elyse would help her notice.

It was then that Elyse noticed a black car in the driveway. It was an old car, huge like Pop's, a monster with pretty silver trim. She blinked and it was just there, but now she felt like it had always been there. It was dusty and the white donut parts of the tires were dirty, and the wheels were half sunk into the gravel driveway even though the ground was hard packed. Bette didn't see it. She was cartwheeling closer and closer to it. She finished one cartwheel and then dove right into another one, over and over, like a runaway red wagon. Elyse gasped. If she called out, her hiding spot would be given away!

Someone was breathing in the basement. Elyse breathed slowly. She heard her own breath, in and out, echo against the cool wall. She held her breath. A long breath was let out behind her. Hairs prickled on the back of her neck. She wasn't afraid like she was afraid of getting caught by Ma or Daddy, or when the boys left her alone at the top of the hill or when Bette decided to be mean to her. This was the kind of fear she had at night when the floorboards creaked because there was a witch in the closet or a monster under her bed. This was the fear she felt when she didn't know what to expect.

Elyse squeezed her eyes shut and flattened herself against the bumpy wall. The old rocks scraped her knees but she didn't care. The breathing in the room grew quicker and more specific. She knew where he was -- knew that it was a boy, and a little boy. Someone her height or smaller. He was right behind her.

A car door slammed. Elyse squeaked. She clapped her hand over her mouth. If the ghost saw her, he'd eat her. If he moved any closer, she'd faint. If he did anything except breathe at her, she'd die.

Please, he said.

Elyse jumped. She opened her eyes. The black car was still in the driveway. Bette was still turning cartwheels, unaware or uninterested. Worse than everything except the talking ghost in the basement was this: a man stood next to the car now. She could only see the bottom parts of him, brown shoes with black pants. He was facing the house, not Bette and her majorette-ing still going on despite the stranger. He bent at the waist and Elyse could see his face. It was wrinkled and he wore a hat and his eyes were dark dark dark. He was looking at the house. He was looking at the basement window. He was looking at her.

Elyse whimpered. She jumped down off the crate and sat on it. She had no choice now but to look into the dark basement.

Please, the awful boy said again.

Elyse looked. She didn't want to, but she did want to, sort of. Like when the wolfman jumped on the screen and she covered her eyes but she looked through her fingers just a little, too.

She could see him even though he wasn't completely there. Looking at the ghost boy was like touching a cloud, which she thought would be like holding a cotton candy but Ma said was actually just air.

"What's wrong with you?" Elyse said. "Go away."

The boy showed her his back, except he didn't. Instead of telling, he showed it to her in her head. And she just knew that the man outside by the car had hit him with a stick when he was bad. That made her stomach hurt; Ma never punished her with a stick.

If you won't tell, the boy said, I won't tell.

He held his misty hand out before her. Elyse watched it hover, sort of a whole hand, sort of see-through, like the cloud she imagined when she pretended she was flying in an airplane. She put her hand out. Something cold dropped into it. She jumped.

For you, he said.

Elyse held her cupped hand in a ribbon of sunlight. The thing she held glittered very prettily. Fascinated, she held it up pinched between her two fingers. It was a little gold chain with a green diamond in it and three sharp holes that looked like flowers, sort of. The gold chain was decorated with little creamy beads that made her think of the man on the moon. It must have been a very expensive piece of jewelry, even if it didn't seem to have any way to put it on. (There was probably some grownup secret to wearing it.) She didn't have anything with this many pretty beads.

"Thank you," she whispered. "I'll keep it very safe and won't let my sister see it."

It's from there. The boy pointed.

Elyse looked. She saw, clearly in her mind: the center of the basement. A dirt floor that existed before Daddy laid cement. The boy's grave, where his body broke down like the dead animals on the sides of the road.

Elyse ran screaming up the stairs.

Later that night, after dinner, after being scolded for going to the woods alone, Elyse undressed for bed.

In the pocket of her cut-off jeans, she found the gold chain, just as real as it had been in the basement. She hid it in her hand before Bette saw it and jammed it under the satin lining of her jewelry box.

He was her ghost.

*Prompt source: The Writer's Book of Matches, by the staff of Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2005.
Photo credit

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tips: Novel writing


In my writing program, we had writing partners each semester, whose work we shared and critiqued each month. It was always a learning experience to find out what we all had been doing all along was very annoying to the reader, or simply didn't make sense.

Here's some unconscious common habits a lot of writers have that put a wall up between their work and their readers -- or worse, a potential editor.

1) Type dot dot dot when your character's thoughts or speech go off into space. Type dashdash when he is interrupted. Type four dots when you want a long pause that follows a complete sentence. Read other common errors in English you don't know you're making.

2) You know how college taught you the high art of the semicolon? Forget all that. Semicolons in fiction are very expensive, don't use too many on a page. Also, remember that. Short sentencs. Equal. Action!

3) You might not be an outliner, but I don't know any novel writer who doesn't have to do some written down prewriting. Read books and websites about structure and plotting until you find the outlining/worldbuiling method that works for you, because nothing is worse than your plot going nowhere, or your villain's name or species changing every 50 pages. Some people use writer's software, some do an encyclopedia of their world in Word, some use Q&A format in Excel, some hang up poster boards using actors and magazine landscapes. You need something other than your mss to keep you on task.

4) Join a professional guild and consider attending conferences. It doesn't have to be exactly what you're into -- ie, your average romance writer's group will welcome fantasy and women's fiction writers. It's invaluable to know what's new in you genre and, perhaps more importantly, what's so old it's unsellable.

5) "Said" is fine as a dialogue tag.  "Blah blah," Beatrice said is fine to put down 50 times in a conversation. "Said" is one of those words that readers skip over, almost like a punctuation mark. Similarly, do not use 10 synonyms for "said" because repeating "said" feels repetitive to you. Of course it's repetitive - that's why readers skip over it and pay attention to the dialogue. Do you want your prose to be awkward and obvious?

6) More on dialogue: Character voice is the most important element of your book to lending personality to your characters, but unfortunately our TV culture has corrupted how we "see" conversation in the written format. Find other ways to convey your character's mood than using adjectives to describe their voice, because that way leads to talking heads; you are not writing a script, there will be no actors putting life into your scene, pages of dialogue and "-ly" lead to boring talking heads.

7) Consider every single bit of concrit you ever get. Humble yourself. Find other author friends and solicit their opinions.Take classes at adult education centers or libraries. Read books on writing and do the exercises. Write something every day.

7) Keep your first rejection letter. Frame it. Throw it a little party. It means you're a real writer. 

Photo credit: Old typewriter by Petr Kratochvil  

Monday, February 1, 2010

Prompt 8: where you go

So sorry, dears! Life interrupted my posting schedule; plus, I was working on this longer piece.

Prompt 8: Due to the ___ that follows ___ wherever s/he goes, a ____ is convinced that something terrible is about to happen.

As always, I invite you to respond to this prompt in the comments, your journal (please link back!), or the privacy of your own imagination.

PhotobucketRed saw the wolf before she set out. He crouched high on her father's rampart, etched in stone, hunkering beside the little watchtower in which Father passed the nights before battle. It was tradition in this township for a bridal bed to be sanctified with wolf teeth or laid with a pelt, but Red's mother had given her king the whole animal in permanent form. Grandmother lived in the hunting chateau a day's walk away. No one was left to go fetch her at the little, abandoned cottage and she was needed because God would not release Stepmother's baby from inside her.

Red's basket of provisions from Cook slapped her hip as her feet slapped and clopped through the mud of the newly cleared path. The air was cool on her nose but too weak to penetrate her warm woolen underclothes. She had all day.

A shadow fell across the path. Red looked up, squinting, at the suddenly grey sky. A dark cloud had covered the sun. Piercing light shone like eye-dots and just below, a triangular maw hung open, lighter clouds surrounding a dark gullet. Red reached into her basket and found the hard, cold, rough stone she had placed there as she had passed the castle wall. She pressed it into her palm and squeezed, hard. The wind whistled far away over the mouth of some unseen cave in the hills beyond. A spiky line of ducks passed at the jaw.

Father was an old man, his son would need a proxy, and a full blooded mother had more claim than a half-sister.

Grandmother could fix things.

Red knew when she stepped on the edges of Grandmother's property by dint of the elegant, manicured trees. Grandmother kept a tree surgeon who knew the ways of maple and pine, oak and dogwood, and could coax a lilac and a holly to bloom in the same month. Red delicately stepped through the tree branch gate in the woven fence of dense pine trees and a stepped into the kitchen garden marred by neither boar nor gopher.

The sky was pinking as Red left her boots at the door and entered Grandmother's cottage. There was no servant to announce her because Grandmother did not like being made a fuss of, so the scullery took Red's basket and overthings and made herself invisible.

After Red had freshened up in her room, she came down the front staircase to the only room she knew would be lighted, the hunter's parlor Grandmother had made into her little den. A wolf's pelt lay in front of the enormous hearth, and Grandmother sat in her enormous chair. Grandmother's hand beckoned and Red sat on the soft, thick fur and laid her head on her knee like a child, while Grandmother worked out the snarls the wind had blown into her hair.

"What shall we do, Grandmother?" Red closed her eyes and breathed in the damp wool and woodsmoke from Grandmother's serge skirt.

Grandmother reached into her knitted vest and handed Red a vial. Red shook it and the contents mixed up green.

"For whom?" Red asked.

It was then she looked up at her Grandmother, and reeled across the wolf's pelt in horror. The dear woman's face was criss-crossed in deep gashes. Of her eyes were two dark wells made. Her grandmother's head bobbed low so that what remained of her chin pressed to her chest. The whole front of her dress glistened brick-red.

"Grandmother, what has happened to you!"

Beneath her, the fox pelt rumbled and roiled and took on the form of a man. Horrified, Red pressed herself against the wall. Before her, nude, stood a tall and handsome man with that same smile she'd seen in the rainclouds as she'd walked from the castle. The smile of one who had caught his quarry.

"Have you eaten my grandmother?" Red found her voice at last.

"Do not fear him," said a voice from the chair.

"Grandmother!" Red gasped. "I thought you were dead for sure."

"Not completely." Grandmother's head lolled so that her empty sockets pointed in the direction of Red and the strange wolf-pelt man.

"What is this creature?" Red asked.

"Take the foxglove," Grandmother said, "and this bit of poppy seed. A bit in very sweet chamomile tea will not be detected. The young man is my tree surgeon, and my living room rug. He has served me well and has earned his reward. I told him many years ago that when my life was over, he would be king."

"I grew impatient," the man said sheepishly.

Red reeled on him in shock -- to find the man arraigned in vestments to befit a prince.

"I will not have this!" Red said. "It is my turn, my time. Who served my father for sixteen years? Who advised him, who learned the languages of all the local chieftains in this patchwork country? Who sat at your table and learned composure and debate? A woman cannot not rule when a man is there to usurp her!"

Grandmother's leathery skull bobbed. "Don't you bark at the wolf, missy. He's been a good tree surgeon and my rheumatism hasn't felt so good in decades."

"That's because you're missing your hands," Red said to the embers.

"You will have your kingdom, Red," Grandmother said. "The werewolf can turn himself into any creature it wishes, from dragon to the smallest of unborn babes. You will return home and soon a foreign suitor will come to claim you. Your father will agree if you press the poppy into his pipe first, especially in his grief over the sudden death of his second wife and only son."

Red stared at the way the shreds of tongue in Grandmother's tongue ululated as guttural words burbled up from her slashed throat.

"Soon after the wedding, your father will die similarly, and then your husband will go on a hunting trip and never return. But a peddler will come to sell you a vial which you much take with you to bed. And then -- ah! You will be with child."

Red slumped onto the coal scuttle, thinking. "I will have my kingdom . . ."

"And when you are ready to give it up, your son will have his."

"Mind you don't wait too long," the wolfman said.

*Prompt source: The Writer's Book of Matches, by the staff of Fresh Boiled Peanuts, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2005.
Photo: Gargoyles at Notre Dame, Paris, by Viollet-le-Duc and Eugene Emmanuel (1814-79). 
More on "to see the wolf": French folklore and virginity.