Monday, October 25, 2010

To NaNo or Not to NaNo -- That Is the Question

How can you resist an endeavor that brands itself as "thirty days and nights of literary abandon"? Such is the madness of National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as Nanowrimo.

Already I see blog posts popping up that give you in-depth breakdowns on how to prepare for the month, tips on how to smash through that tough third week, the dangers of pantsing it all (usually offered by die-hard outliners), the dangers of outlining (usually giving by die-hard pantsers), and so on.

I haven't done Nano in a few years, usually because I was either already writing a novel or trying to edit it. I felt that I was "past" doing such a thing as Nano, as I already knew I had the capacity to complete a novel without the prompting of the Internet.

And yet, I think I need it this year. Not because I need to prove to myself that I can write a novel but because I need to blow out some creative cobwebs. A hectic summer gave way to an exhausting fight with mononucleosis this fall. I've barely had enough energy to wash a dish some days, let alone write.

The novel I've been working on has remained untouched, waiting for me to get back to it. Yet the allure of a 30 day writing exercise to limber up the rusted machinery of my writing side appeals to me.

Would it be a waste of time? Would I be better served getting back to my current project? Anyone else doing Nano? What do you think?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Flirting with Time

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...."

Thanks to Dickens, I have a pretty succinct way of summing up this summer. It began with a devastating flood, hobbled through some tricky situations, and has ended on a wonderful, it-came-out-of-nowhere romance.

Come to think of it, it sounds rather epic.

The writing, though, has come in fits and starts. It's still there, simmering under the surface. It's easy to lure myself into thinking that because I write every day for the day job that I'm keeping ye olde creative pen fresh. Not quite.

But I'm through with beating myself up about it. Regrets, I've had a few, but guilt I can do without. With my Facebook newsfeed lighting up with precious back-to-school photos and the store aisles stocked with fresh notebooks full of promise I'm inspired to buckle down and carve out a better consistency in my writing schedule.

If you work a day job, where do you find the time to write? Do you do it every day? I'm curious.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Writing Inspiration: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk

Earlier this year my brother pointed me toward Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) giving a TED Talk about creative genius. I love to hear other writers expound on the intangible subject of inspiration and fears and she does a fantastic job here.  Whether you are a writer, artist, composer, or any other creative that doesn't quite fit the cube farm world, you'll get something out of this. It's well worth watching and definitely inspiring.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Learning to Use a Document Map Saved My Bacon

When I first started writing a novel, I simply wrote. I had no idea of where to put chapter breaks, formatting, or such stuff as that. It all flowed into one long, frightening Word document. All 250+ pages of it. When I finished and printed it out I wanted to cry. How on earth was I supposed to edit this? I didn't want to make each chapter its own file. At that point, I didn't even know where the chapters began and ended.

That was four manuscripts ago, and while I know I have much to learn, I have picked up a few tips along the journey. Sometime last year I stumbled upon a great tutorial via Iain Broome over at the Write for Your Life website. He explained how using the Document Map feature in Word can help you organize your book. It was a revelation for this very basic Word user.

I can't afford fancy writing software at the moment, so I pretty much do everything in Word. Learning to use the Document Map feature has kept me from endlessly scrolling through acres of pages, trying to find out where a certain clue or character was introduced.

I find it also works well for my daily job. I've been able to organize 20 pages of a transcribed interview into a coherent white paper and wrestle a tangle of testimonials into a navigable document. I only wish I knew about it when I was writing my master's thesis. That would have saved me from several panicked moments. If you're a newbie like me trying to figure out how to organize your manuscript, I highly recommend heading over to Write for Your Life and checking out the video.

Do you use any special editing software? Have you learned any other tricks in Word that would help a writer out?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Putting Structure into the Self-Editing Process

Once I finished the novel, I outlined how I wanted my editing process to go:

1. One big read through of draft--general notes made on continuity, plot holes, characters, clues, etc. I also write a brief synopsis of each chapter for quick reference.

2. Substantive plot edit--fixing plot holes, research questions, making the whole thing make sense.

3. Character edit--putting the "paint" on the structure, if you will. Ensuring they drive the plot and their reactions are consistent.

4. Line edits--a tough look at syntax, cohesion, flow, etc.

5. Proofreading--check on basic grammar, punctuation, formatting, etc.

At the moment, I am supposed to be concentrating on #2. What is taking me so long, though, is that I keep trying to roll it together with #'s 3, 4, and 5. Which means the pace of the editing is going super slow. It's also unwise, I think, because I'll spend a lot of time crafting a character's reaction to a scene that might get cut.

I think I need to set some more concrete goals, time-wise, for getting through the plot edit. Any suggestions? What process do you have for editing your novel?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hearing Voices

Last week I wrote two pieces of copy. When my boss handed them back to me, he said, "They're both good, but I enjoyed this one more." I knew which one he meant before he told me.

Why? I think it came down to voice. On the one piece I had a clear picture of the audience I was writing for and exactly what kind of tone I wanted to talk to them in. I could hear it in my head. If I was speaking with them on the street, this is how I would say it, I thought. And I went with that.

For the other piece of writing, the voice was murkier and more technical. I wasn't as sure-footed in what  I was going to say. It was still a solid piece of writing, but it lacked the punch of the other copy.

I'm noticing this a lot in my revisions. I see places where the writing picks up and zips along compared to places where it's all a little flat. A lot of times it comes down to the fact that I couldn't see the story in my head at the time or even the characters. I have to readjust myself and get back into their world. This just happened to her, how would she react to it?

It's often why, before I sit down to write, I have to start thinking about the world the characters inhabit. I have a hard time sitting down "cold," if you will, and immediately picking up their voices. Even if it's just on the drive to the coffeeshop or while I'm loading the dishwasher before I get into the writing, I try to warm it all up in my head.

What do you do to grab that voice that is so important? Can you sit down "cold" or do you have to warm up to your writing?

Friday, June 25, 2010

What Charlaine Harris Reminded Me About Fun

Last summer I briefly met Charlaine Harris, creator of the Sookie Stackhouse novels (see also HBO series True Blood) at the Anhinga Writer's Conference in Florida, where she was the featured speaker. She was a delightful speaker and, while she signed a book of mine, asked me what I was working on. I mumbled something about this little mystery I was writing and she smiled and said, "Well, don't give up. Don't ever give up." It was a nice encouragement from a woman who had well over 100 people in the autograph line behind me.

So when I snagged the recent issue of Writer's Digest, I was delighted to see an interview with her. And the one thing that kept jumping out at me in her answers was the fun she has in writing. She mentioned it a few times, I believe.

It reminded me that I often drain the joy out of my writing by stressing too much about it. I must write today or I'm not a serious writer. I must make this chapter sing. I must.... It goes on and on. Yet one of the main reasons I write is because I enjoy it. I love those golden moments when I can barely keep up with the ideas and words that are flowing out of my head. When I look up and realize I've been in the coffee shop for three hours and they've completely flipped their clientele.

I need to keep remembering why I do what I do on this journey.
What about you?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Mini Mystery Writing Workshop

I'm always on the lookout for great writing resources, especially for mystery writers, so I wanted to pass this find along.

Several years ago my brother gave me the gift of Writing Mysteries, a handbook published by Writer's Digest. It's edited by Sue Grafton. I read it when I wasn't very serious about my writing.

Recently, I picked it up again and realized what a treasure chest of advice is contained in its pages. I just finished an essay on characterization by Michael Connelly and am looking forward to the one about writing a series character by Sara Paretsky. It's chock full of great advice about writing from authors such as Tony Hillerman, Tess Gerritsen, and Ann Rule.

The essays are arranged in sections: Preparation, Process (split into Beginning, Middle, and End), and Specialities.

It's kind of like going to a very good writing conference, but for less than $12. Not too shabby.

What books have you found to be invaluable in your writer's toolkit? Which ones do you turn to again and again?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hooking the Reader: How Rowling and Others Pulled It Off

In an effort to understand the art of hooking the reader, I decided to take a peek at a cross-section of authors in my library to see how they managed those first few lines.

I'm interested in seeing if they have anything in common, what magic they bring to the page, and perhaps if they can inspire some direction for those of us who are struggling with revising that first chapter. Just so you know, I didn't have any strategy in picking these authors. I just grabbed some books off the shelf that I knew held my attention.

For time constraints, I'm just including the first few lines. As a note, some of these books have prologues or a note to the reader in the voice of the book's character. I'm going to include that because that's the first encounter a reader has with the book.

First up, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. This one begins with a note to the reader from the point of view of the main character:

The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper. Recently, however, a shock of sorts has prompted me to look back over the most troubling episodes of my life and the lives of several people I loved best. This is the story of how as a girl of sixteen I went in search of my father and his past, and how he went in search of his beloved mentor and his mentor's own history, and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history.

This is pretty much straight up narrative and sets up what will be an epic (and I do mean epic; this book is 642 pages long) story. But it's very intriguing. Check out what is happening in those sentences—she never intended to tell the following story, so we already know that this is a letting out of a secret. Then Kostova uses words such as "shock" and "troubling" to give little hints as to what may be in store, pumping up the premise with "one of the darkest pathways into history." Not "in" history but "into." Interesting word choice.

There's no dialogue or action.

Next up is Aldous Huxley's Brave New WorldI'm going to include some of his foreward and his first chapter.

Foreward: Chronic remorse, as all moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

And the first chapter:
A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, Community, Identity, Stability.

I'll admit, I haven't picked up Huxley since I probably had to write a report about him in high school. It's fascinating coming back to it as an adult. In the foreward, we get a sort of reminiscence from someone who is trying to move past something that happened, something he is responsible for? Trying to justify it? And what a fantastic visual sentence, "Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean."

His first chapter begins with a world-building that is immediately intriguing. What is a hatchery and conditioning center? Who is the World State? In those first two sentences he raises a ton of "what-if's" that keep reeling the reader in.

Let's turn now to J.K. Rowling. Whether you are a Potter fan or not, when you consider what these first few sentences launched, it's worth looking at how she did it. From Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

Again, this starts with narrative, and it isn't until the third paragraph that Rowling starts any action. Yet she sets up a premise here from which seven novels and a world so enchanting they actually built a theme park around it. Worth taking note. She doesn't start in the middle of a spell or a fight with a dragon or the Great Hall of Hogwarts. She starts with a very ordinary suburb, in a family that wants, above all, to fit in, and twists it. I like how she puts the "thank you very much" on the end of that first sentence. It gives a nice flavor to the Dursley's personalities.

Finally, I'll end with  Alan Bradley's The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie:

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness.

Bradley doesn't mess around; he drops the reader right into some major conflict (as we perceive it). The first line is quite a simile. Old blood? It's jarring. In the next line we understand this person is in captivity, and in the next line she's trying not to panic. Because of that first line, it's as if the reader is in there as well, seeing nothing, confined. So there is a vested interest in seeing if this person gets out. It certainly kept me reading.

So what is the common thread from these very different authors in how they started their stories? For me, I'm seeing how they kept crafting the those "what-ifs" and spinning them out. Each sentence works hard, but there is also a great variety in how the stories are launched, some of them breaking "rules" that get hammered at us writers as no-no's: telling, prologues, internal monologues, etc. But it's the way that they are handled that makes them intriguing.

What about you? What do you notice in them? What books do you think have a great beginning?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Taming the First Chapter

I want to kill my first chapter.

I know that's harsh, but I've lost track of how many times I've rewritten it. I'll take off in a direction, certain I've finally nailed it, only to read those words days later and wince at the flat characters and stilted dialogue. I walk away in silent self-condemnation. (Writers tend toward the emotional. At least, this one does.)

I have all the pressure of knowing the first chapter has to be IT. It has to have the hook that grabs the reader by the throat and throws that person onto the couch, never to rise again (at least until they've finished it). Characters must shine. Dialogue has to snap. It must be well-crafted, seamlessly showing (never, ever telling) the Main Event. And it must have voice, that elusive ingredient that no one quite defines well, but you know it when you read it.

My biggest problem is that I feel like so much of the chapter is simply a set up to the Main Event, which happens at the end of the chapter. It pretty much reads that way, too.

So today I made a list of what the reader needs to see in the first chapter. It boiled down to this:

1. Stick Main Character in Main Event

That's pretty much it. Everything else can be woven around that. Of course, this means that my first chapter is now cut by two-thirds. Perhaps this means that my Main Event was not nearly big enough, and I still have to pull off the high-wire act that a first chapter must accomplish. I only hope that a couple days from now I don't pull this iteration out and wince again, but I think I might be getting a little closer to where it needs to be.

How do you handle revising your first chapter? Any tips?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Two More Don't Miss Posts about Editing and Rewriting

As my plane soared into the air toward St. Simons Island, I reached into my laptop bag and, surprised, pulled out a sheaf of papers. What were they? Printouts of two of the best posts I've read about rewriting and editing. Yep, these two posts are ones I found worthy of actually printing out and they didn't make it into my last post. I apologize because they are really quite good.  

Top Ten Things I Know About Rewriting
By Alexandra Sokoloff. What's unique about this take is that she breaks down the process from a screenwriter's perspective. Make sure you read the end, where she lists Story Elements in each Act.

Ten Mistakes Writers Don't See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do)
This is from Pat Hold over at Holt Uncensored. The article uses excerpts from published books to point out 10 mistakes that most writers don't see. Very intriguing.

The only reason I'm updating the blog at the moment is because I came down with a lovely sinus infection, which gave me some time in the cottage. Here's to hoping the Atlantic ocean air helps.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Editing Your Novel? A Round-Up of Some Good Advice

I'm always fascinated with how other writers revise, edit, and otherwise beat their manuscripts into submission. Trying to make more than 80,000 words all make sense is a tough task indeed. If you are looking for a little help, don't miss some of these great posts about editing:

Three Stages of Revision
This excellent post is by Natalie Whipple, a YA writer. It was a huge relief to read this and realize I was trying to do way too much in one round of edits.

Line Editing in 10 Easy Steps
By David Louis Edelman, if you want to really sharpen your prose, check this post out.

Dialogue is Not Necessarily How We Talk
By Heidi Thomas. Great breakdown of what to watch for in writing dialogue.

A Critique on Keeping Verb Tenses Consistent
This is an actual critique by D'Ann Mateer of a piece of writing. It does a great job of showing how writing can be strengthened, rather than just telling you how to do it.

Oh, That's Subtle
This post by Janice Hardy points out how just one word can mean the difference in a piece of writing that works or falls flat. Complete with examples.

Three Simple Stages of Self-Editing
By Jody Hedlund (whose blog you should definitely follow, btw). She explains the difference between substantive edits, line editing, and copyediting and what to look for in each one.

Use Wordle to Check for Meaningless Words
By Carrie Heim Binas, this explains how using a Wordle "word cloud" on your writing can reveal which words you prominently use. I found this technique pretty fascinating.

On a personal note, I'm happy to report that I'm diving back into my novel again. It requires me getting up at 5:30 a.m., but if that's the only way to keep it going then that's what has to be done. I'm also headed off to St. Simon's Island for a much anticipated vacation. I love Nashville, but I need to step away for a bit and reset everything. Have a great Memorial Day!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Keeping Your Book Fresh When You Aren't Writing

On deck right now:
--Six articles to write
--6-8 storyboard scripts to complete
--One freelance book proofing project to wrap up
--One gratis article about the recent flood

I'm not listing this out to be a look-at-how-busy-I-am whine, because I think most writers and creative types end up with a lot going on. But it's more to point out that there's one thing missing on this list. Do you see it? Yeah. My book. Where is that?

Like the half bag of lettuce that got stuck in the back of the produce drawer, it's wilting beneath the other projects. Good projects. Needed projects. Welcome projects, even. But my favorite thing to do is work on that book, and time has not been in abundance.

So how can I ensure my manuscript stays fresh? How can I keep my characters from, as Stephen King put it, "going stale" until I can dive back into their world?

I once heard a writer say in an interview that if the only time you spend with your characters is when you face the written page, then you don't know them well enough. So, in the midst of other writing demands, I'm trying spend some time with my characters.

How would they react to the traffic I'm sitting in?
If I had lunch with one of them, what would it be like? What would they order?
At this time of year, what kind of clothes would they be wearing? Where would they shop?
Would they have let that man cut in front of them?

All kinds of little things. Frankly, when I get far away from my work in progress I start to forget sub-plots and the sequence of clues and timelines and all those other really important things that you shouldn't lose track of. Fortunately, I've got those written down for reference. But it's the voices of the characters I don't want to lose. So I try to spend time some quality time with them in my head until I get to sit down with them once again.

What do you do to keep a project fresh when you can't get to it?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mystery Review: Grace Under Pressure by Julie Hyzy

Ever since Olivia Paras whacked an intruder over the head with a commemorative skillet in State of the Onion, I've been a fan of Hyzy's work. So it was with a lot of excitement that I received an ARC for the first in her new Manor of Murder mystery series, Grace Under Pressure.

In this book, Grace Wheaton, assistant curator at the magnificent Marshfield Manor, must untangle the web of deceit and intrigue that surrounds the shocking murder of her boss. The trail leads her down a unexpected road into her own family secrets and puts her in the path of a killer bent on revenge.

I thought Grace was a satisfying heroine who is fully capable of running the estate but with plenty of cracks that threaten her composed surface. From a past that just won't lie down to an office assistant who irritates and helps in equal measure, Hyzy has an ability to layer her characters with plenty of conflict without seeming contrived.

The plot was carefully crafted and delivered an ending I did not see coming. I also enjoyed the setting of Marshfield Manor. It takes a skilled author to make the setting almost a character in and of itself, which Hyzy does well.

I'm looking forward to the next one in this series and especially some more face time with Jack Embers, the landscape architect at Marshfield. In my opinion, there wasn't enough of him, so props to Hyzy for leaving the reader wanting more. Grace Under Pressure is set to release in June.

(A Manor of Murder Mystery #1)
Berkley (Prime Crime), June 2010
ISBN-10: 0425235211
ISBN-13: 9780425235218
320 pages Paperback

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sneezing Gypsum

After a week spent driving to work through my devastated neighborhood, I finally got the opportunity on Saturday to do something about it. I, along with hundreds of other volunteers, helped clean up flood-ravaged homes.

Our job was to stabilize the homes and get the homeowner in a position to begin rebuilding. This meant demolishing and removing everything—right down to the concrete slab and the wooden studs. Then the home will be sprayed and disinfected. After that, rebuilding begins.

It was hard work, but it was rewarding. I tore out drywall (my new nemesis), popped out window sills, and pried up carpet tacking. Collectively, we were able to accomplish what would have been a monumental task for a family or an expensive one for a contractor.

I was impressed by the spirit in the neighborhood. Individually or with a company, people streamed by offering water, free food, and free supplies. Children would tote a wagon full of trash bags and alcohol wipes. The Purity Dairy man carted around a cooler full of ice cream and popsicles (he was popular).

It was hard to hear the homeowner's stories, but sometimes that was what they most needed. Many of them are older and have a lifetime's worth of memories in pictures and letters that are now gone. Carrying bits and pieces of their home out to the huge debris piles was tough. One lady stopped us as we carried out her fireplace mantel.

"Can't we save this?" She ran her hands over the top. We turned it to show her the other side so she could make her decision. The submerged wood had dried and split; the back was black with the beginnings of mold.

She sighed. "I guess not. Throw it away." There were many decisions like that one throughout the day.

On Sunday, after a 6:30 a.m. worship service , we returned. Another house. Another tear out job. My body aches, but every bit of me that is sore is worth it. It was a massive reminder that I am so incredibly blessed. Not just in having my home, but in every possible way—spiritually and emotionally, I am rich in faith, in family, and in friends. If this had happened to me, knowing that people care so much would make all the difference in the world to how I would get through it.

To see this unfold on my doorstep is so different than just reading about it. It tends to stamp out a lot of pettiness and materialism. It has also shown me that we are capable of so, so much more than we realize. I've probably never had quite a work ethic as I brought to the table this weekend. It's incredibly motivating.

There is still much to do, however. Nashville is still bleeding. Clean up and rebuilding is an ongoing process, and we need to ensure no one falls through the cracks. If you can volunteer your time, Service International is continuing to send out crews from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. from Bellevue Church of Christ until further notice. You can find more information here, or just shoot me a comment.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When the Words Won't Come, Do the Next Thing

My momentum is shot. If you read the previous post it's pretty obvious why, but it bothers me just the same. I can't concentrate on anything other than the flood that poured into my world on Saturday and is slowly receding.

There is so much to do to clean up what is going on around me, and at some point I'm going to have to put my own internal house in order. I'm not quite sure how that is going to happen.

A while back I remember reading a book by Elisabeth Elliot, a woman whose missionary husband was killed in the jungle in Ecuador. She made a statement about how, when you don't know what to do, do the next thing. It may be a little thing, but it is the next thing. It's where you begin.

Looking at the monumental tasks that surround my community, it could be very easy to give in to a sense of hopelessness and frustration, but we need to do the next thing. I need to do the next thing.

A note: I realize my purpose for this blog is to talk about writing, and I apologize to any writerly readers that have landed here lately from other links and wonder if they are in the right place. You are, and I thank you for stopping by. Life intruded quite a bit in the regularly scheduled focus of this blog. I'll get back into the writing groove soon, I promise. Until then, please keep Nashville in your prayers. If you want to know what you can do to help, please scroll down to the bottom of yesterday's post.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I don't know how to process what happened this weekend. Writing has always been my outlet, so I'm hoping that updating the blog and sharing some of this will help me through it. When I leave my ultra-connected office in one part of Nashville, I will drive home into a neighborhood that has been devastated by flood damage.

This is River Plantation in Bellevue, on the western edge of Nashville. We were one of the areas that was hardest hit by the flood that has swept over the city.

Incredibly, I live across the street from this photo, on the "high" side. I was spared. I am blessed. We still have water and electricity. My home is safe and dry. We have no phones (including mobile) or Internet, but we can live without those for a while. Just across the street it looks like a war zone. On Sunday, with rain pelting down, the end of my street turned into a command post for water rescues.

An elderly couple trying to drive across this intersection got caught in the water and drowned. We saw the fire crew trying to revive them on the lawn across from my house. I can't get that image out of my mind, and I don't know how to unpack all that I've seen. 

This is the main road I drive on to get to the grocery store and the YMCA. Normally, there is a driving range on the left. There's a bridge in there, too.

More of the neighborhood. See where the water is eddying next to the bank? There is a car under there.

If you've never seen what it looks like normally, it's hard to gauge what happened here. The above picture is the main road into my subdivision. On left there are shops, including a hairdresser and a pub. In the middle of the picture there is a bit of metal sticking up out of the water. That is the light on top of a police car.

There are other areas of Nashville that have been greatly affected by what has happened. This is just my corner of it all. Because of other big events, this has not really been covered much by national news outlets, which is a shame because it is going to take a lot of support to get the city back on its feet.

If you'd like to help, you can make an online donation to the Churches of Christ Disaster relief. This is reputable organization, right here in Nashville, that can get aid to those who need it the most. I've volunteered for them before. You can also text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Most of all, we need your prayers to get through this.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Dialect Dilemma (or I dinna ken fit tae dee)

One of the things I learned when I lived in Scotland was the incredible differences in regional dialects. Just as a New Yorker sounds different than a Californian, a Glaswegian sounds different than an Aberdonian. Really different.

I lived in Peterhead, a fishing town that sticks out into the North Sea, and they speak in a Doric dialect that was unintelligible the first time I heard it. If they didn't want you to understand what they were saying, it was no problem. Combine that with the fact that I worked mainly with youth and teens and you can only imagine some of the texts I used to receive. Fit like? Far r u? (How are you doing? Where are you?)

Keeping that in mind, I knew when I set my novel in Scotland dialect would be a bit sticky. I've heard a lot of writing advice that suggests you don't do it, for several good reasons. But I ignored that advice and had to figure it out for myself. I lived there, I thought, I can handle this. (This is probably when more experienced writers starting laughing.)

The result?

Well, after wrestling with several rounds, here are two reasons why you won't find my novel covered in dinnas, verras, havenas, and the like:

1. It's a mess to read. My readership (hopefully, one day) will mostly be American. I don't want my reader constantly having to Google my dialogue or, worse, hitting a frustration level where they give up on the book altogether. This doesn't mean that my characters need to sound American. There are phrases and words and inflections that can show dialect yet be readable enough to keep the story rolling.

2. It's hard not to make everyone sound like a caricature. Having lived there, I'm sensitive to the fact that regional differences are big, and nailing nuances within the dialects is quite difficult. Every Scottish person does not sound like he or she popped out of the cast of Braveheart. 

What I'm doing now is dropping a few references in the text that hints at the way something sounds, as well as paying attention to speech patterns. I've learned I don't have to phonetically spell every bit of dialect to give the audience a strong sense that a character is a different nationality. Inflection and syntax go a long way.

Anyone else out there work with dialect? How to do you handle it in your characters?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Herding Characters To and Fro

Straight out of college I worked as a staff editor for a small publishing company. We put out a bimonthly women's magazine, which usually had a short fiction feature. One thing I remember being a major pain in editing those stories was how an author (who was often just dipping her toe into fiction writing) felt the need to explain everything her character was doing.

For example:
Mary got up from the breakfast table, opened the front door, and walked down her sidewalk, admiring the new pansies. She reached her mailbox and opened it but found nothing but bills. She walked back up the sidewalk to her house....

Unless Mary met the love of her life on that sidewalk or encountered a dead body, it's not necessary to put all that information in there. Yes, there is a certain amount of setting that is needed to ground a character, but sometimes less is more. Often a few brushstrokes are all that is needed to convey an action. 

Example: Mary checked her mail. Bills, again.

I'm especially sensitive to this at the moment because I'm eyeball deep in editing my novel. To my horror, I'm guilty as well. For example, consider this passage where I'm trying to describe my main character entering an old library:

A plain wooden door with no handle was open. Ana walked through it into a small vestibule that had another glass door that she pushed through.

Frankly, that's pretty clunky and doesn't make a lot of sense. Trying again:

Ana pushed open the wooden door and found herself in a small vestibule.

Not terrific but certainly easier to read. The reason the first take was so convoluted was because I had an actual library in my head and envisioned how Ana would walk into it. But I need to be careful that I'm not insulting my reader. They know that to get into a room you have to walk into it. I don't have to spell that out for them every single time. 

I'm curious if other writers run into this also? What are your fixes?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Stuck in a Story? Take a Walk

Nashville is a not a city that is friendly to walkers. In my opinion, if I have to drive somewhere to walk, it somewhat negates the entire point.

But when the characters in my novel go a bit stale, or I'm desperate to be reminded of humanity, I have to walk. Why? Because out there is where all the interesting bits of life happen. I like to imagine a person's backstory based on the little clues that give away points about their personalities. Take the following characters:

  • The neighbor who walked her cat on a leash and always wore a sundress. This was when I lived on the northeast coast of Scotland, mind you. There I was, bundled in my Land's End Squall Parka, and there she was, in a straw hat and strappy dress. How did she do it? Why the leash? How did she get the cat to cooperate? (I'd actually really like to know the answer to the last question.)
  • The man who constantly hung laundry. Every day, without fail, he put out his washing and then took it back down again in the afternoon. He was single. How did he generate that much laundry. Did he take in washing for other people? Was he running a business?
  • The woman who walked with a shower radio. You know the kind with the great big hook? She walked with it held up to her ear. Did she get tired of holding it up? Is that all she can afford?
  • The man on the tricycle with the pennant flag. I think every city I've ever lived in has one of these fellas. How long has he had the tricycle? What is in his bicycle basket?
  • The woman who sits in shrubbery. There's a woman near my workplace who wanders the sidewalks every day. Sometimes as I drive by she will startle me by sitting in the middle of some business' shrubbery. Right there on the mulch. What is she thinking about? Who is she waiting for?
  • The man who jogs in a chicken suit. Yep, in a full blown chicken suit. He lives in my parent's hometown in Oklahoma. Maybe living so close to the Panhandle got to him; I don't know. But I want to know why? It can't be comfortable.
These people are tipping points, little glimpses into the "what if" that can start a story or revive one. There's a rich, rich pageant out there that feeds the written page. What do you do when you're stuck in a story?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How Often Do You Write?

A nutritional counselor once told me to never go more than two days without exercising. She emphasized that it didn't have to be the full-on workout gear/water bottle/appointment at the gym type of exercise. Even 10 minutes of walking around my block was a good start. Some days I could go full out, other days it might be just a little, but above all, frequency was key.

It's a rule I'm trying to implement in my writing. Because I write so much at my day job, it's easy for me to talk myself into thinking that I've "written" for the day and kept my craft sharp.

It's a dangerous assumption. If I leave my novel for too long, subplots get forgotten, I lose track of clues and emotional arcs, and my poor characters hang frozen in time. I once left my heroine stuck halfway through a window when I went on vacation. When I revisited the scene, I had no idea why I put her there. I got her out, but trying to recapture the initial intensity of the scene (as well as the why?) was tough.

It's as hard as trying to get back into some kind of exercise after you've taken time off. Muscles are sore. Motivation is at rock bottom. The entire process is painful.

We all need a break now and then, but I'm trying not to let more than two days go by without digging into the manuscript. So far, it has really helped keep things rolling along. Now, as for the exercise...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

If Snow White Wrote a To Do List (or Why Your Character Needs One, Too)

When I'm stuck in my writing, when a character has drifted into the doldrums, and when I'm not sure of anyone's motivation anymore, I find making my characters write a "To Do" list is a great prompt to get things back on track. Not only does it give me a course for what needs to happen next with the plot, it can also help flesh out the character as a whole. The fact that my heroine is out of tea bags might not need to be in the final novel, but I now have a greater sense of her character just by peeking at her list and seeing her preferences (she likes Tetley, for the record).

To Do lists are helpful for villains and secondary characters that have a tendency to become cliched or lifeless. They can reveal their motivations and ensure everyone in the manuscript has an agenda.

For example, let's look at the simple story of Snow White & the Seven Dwarves.

Snow White's To Do List:
-Laundry detergent
-Facial moisturizer
-Ensure I stay hidden from evil stepmom
-Continue kindness to strangers on my doorstep

Evil Queen's To Do List:
-Research poisons (apples viable option? check)
-Brush up on disguises
-Buy new mirror

Handsome Prince's To Do List:
-Give the horse a run
-Look for beautiful maidens to rescue (forest might be good? check)

I'll save you from each Dwarf's individual list, but you get the idea. Character To Do lists are especially helpful if I've just ended a big scene, or I've reached that dreaded spot where I have no idea where to go next. Just a little tip to help keep things rolling along. Happy writing!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why I Broke Up with My First Three Novels

Novel 1:
This one was more of a junior high level relationship. I never thought I could write something novel length, but my younger brother challenged me to Nanowrimo. I wrote 50K words. There may have been a plot in there; I don't remember. But this was where I fell in love with writing and got the courage to do it.

Novel 2:
This was a bit more serious. I was reading a lot of Maeve Binchy at the time, and her style of storytelling was in my head. I started writing about a little Scottish town and the lives of the people there, loosely based on my experiences living in Scotland. Halfway through the manuscript a dead body showed up, which presented a real problem. I didn't set out to write a mystery, so the first half of the book was a little weird.

I attended Killer Nashville and learned a ton, such as the fact that if you are going to kill someone in your book, sooner rather than later is probably good. I also got to know some fabulous women writers, such as Tasha Alexander and Bente Gallagher (pen name: Jennie Bentley). They were (and are) huge encouragers.

Novel 3:
This was a very grown up, serious relationship. I completely rewrote Novel 2, so I'm counting it as Novel 3. I spent a couple of years editing it, but I couldn't seem to make it work. The answer to our future together occurred at the Anhinga Writer's Conference last summer.

I sat in a class led by one of my favorite author's, Rhys Bowen. She had us fill out a worksheet that outlined some basics about character, motivation, etc. Right there was when I discovered why Novel 3 and I weren't working out—my main character didn't want to solve a mystery. She had no motivation to and, worse, no reason to either. There were no good reasons for her to find out who did it. The police were more than adequate.

This was reconfirmed when I sat down with a literary agent and outlined my pitch. Her take on the whole thing: "Jack up the premise." We also discussed POV's and the fact that I probably needed to stick with just one. That would mean chopping half the book and pretty much rewriting the other half.

I'll admit I returned to my hotel room that night a bit sick at heart. I'd put so much time into Novel 3, but it was clearly time to let go. I'd learned a lot. I got out a notebook that night and started writing a kind of journal for a new mystery—just some backstory—but it was a start.

Novel 4:
We're about five months into our relationship now, and I'm crossing my fingers that this will be the One.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fixing Characters Who Cry (AKA The Tough Love Edit)

I'm about two-thirds of the way through my first big editing round on the first draft of my novel. At this point, I'm only interested in the bigger picture of if the plot holds together. Despite this plot-centric focus, though, something keeps cropping up that I can't ignore.

My main character cries. A lot.

Granted, if I were in her shoes I would cry a lot, too. It is a mystery I'm writing. She doesn't have an easy row to hoe, so to speak. But good grief, this woman is a waterworks. I went back and did a Find in Word on how many times the word "cry" appeared in the entire manuscript. I'm not going to confess to the number here.

The thing is, I would never describe my character as a weepy kind of gal. I consider her pretty resilient, all things considered. That, however, is the problem. Her resiliency still exists in my head; it never quite made it to the page. So while I'm going ahead with the plot edits, I'm flagging the script every time this gal falls apart. Sometimes I'll let her, but most of the time she's just going to have to take a deep breath and get on with it.

This little exercise, though, has heightened my awareness of other annoying character traits. My police sergeant sighs quite a bit. I meant to show that he was tired or frustrated, but it's coming off as exasperated. Flag, flag, flag, cut, cut, cut.

I also have several characters tapping pens, drumming fingers, and thumping a staccato beat on every piece of furniture that exists. That particular action was meant to convey that a character was thinking, mulling over, or sorting through clues mentally. There are better ways to show that, so I held a mini lottery. Only one character gets to drum his fingers against a desk, and he only gets to do it once.

I'm now on hyper alert for excessive shrugging, smiling, eyebrow raising, and chewing. We won't go into how many cups of tea are made. It is set in Scotland, after all, and it's cold there. My characters need their tea.

In the end, I hope this will make for a much stronger manuscript. Otherwise, you'll probably find me over here crying, sighing, and tapping my pen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

7 Things a Marketing Agency Taught Me About Writing Fiction

I used to draw a hard line in the sand between my day job – a copywriter for a marketing agency – and my fiction writing. I don’t know why. They both require creativity, focus, and craft, but it took me a while to see that they really do complement one another. Here’s a list of what I’ve learned so far:

1. Don't wait for inspiration. I show up; I write. Period. Sometimes I feel like it, and sometimes I don’t. I can’t imagine telling my bosses or a client that the muse didn’t visit me that day. Whether the creative spirit is hovering over my keyboard or not, my job is to show up and do the best I can do. Frankly, this mindset was the only way I managed to finish the first draft of my mystery.

2. Sometimes the best thing to happen to your writing is to have someone say they don’t like it. It’s frustrating, but you learn to kill your darlings quickly in the marketing world. If it doesn’t hit, it doesn’t hit. Trying to figure out what went wrong and then doing redoing it can make for a much stronger end result.

3. Don’t take it personally. This is a tough one, because my words are an extension of my talent and myself, but a critique is not about my talent and it’s not a reflection on my personality. It’s feedback about words. I have a whole lot more. They can be changed, usually for the better.

4. Make every word count. People don’t read marketing materials – they scan them (if you are lucky). If I’m writing copy for a tradeshow booth, I have three seconds to catch an attendee’s eye. For a banner ad it might be even less. Every word I write has to pull its weight, and the same goes for the novel. In my mystery, I had a lovely chapter where the heroine and her romantic interest go on a date. It was quirky, human, and I was happy with it. But nothing happened. It didn’t advance the plot, and I’m not writing a romance. So out it goes.

5. Don’t miss deadlines. Just don’t.

6. Writing and editing are not the same craft; both require work. This was a revelation to me. When writing, I have to turn off the Inner Editor, or I get incredibly blocked and nothing gets on the page. I look for different ways to play with words and images, characters and storylines. Yet when I’m editing, it’s the opposite. I hack and slash until a body count of listless scenes, useless characters, and terrifying plot holes litter the landscape. There’s a reason people edit with a red pen.

7. Never assume. In our agency, I’m usually the last line of defense before something is published on the Web or hits the printer. That alone strikes enough fear into me to be detail-oriented. It pays off in other writing as well. Never assume someone will “clean up” your writing if you know it isn’t good enough. Put the best you possibly can out there.

So what about you? What in your day job has helped you in your creative pursuits?