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Showing posts from March, 2009

Talking about Talking

Both of my kids are grown. We’re blessed, though, that, so far, they've come home for Christmas. This past December, not only did both kids come home, they came Christmas Eve and spent the night. We broke a couple of traditions and started a few new ones. For Christmas dinner, we had the four of us, plus four more – my sister, her son, her husband, and her husband’s mother. That made it fun – eight of us around the table laughing and trading stories. With that many people talking, you end up sometimes listening to one person, sometimes breaking up into two or three simultaneous conversations, and sometimes trying to keep up with two stories at once. That makes for lively dinner talk. I’ve found, though, that it doesn’t work so well in a book. When you’re writing a scene with multiple characters, having that many people interacting is too confusing. More than about three people talking together is too many. If it’s a play, a movie or a TV show, you can do more characters – the a


In one of the creative writing classes I took, the professor told students to go through their stories and find every time they used the word “felt” and take it out. He equated the common use of “he felt” or “she felt” with passive writing like the use of the verb “was.” He later explained that he didn’t mean an author could never use a form of “felt”; he just wanted authors to be aware that 90 percent of the time the usage denotes weak writing. It is telling the reader, not showing the reader. For example: “Doc ran his hands over his face like he felt tired.” How much better that would be this way: Doc ran his hands over a face haggard with fatigue. He looked like a man who had been on call for two days. That example was taken out of a published book, and here are more from another book. These are from a Robert Crais book, and while he writes one helluva story, he does tend to misuse this feeling thing. “Talley felt uncomfortable whenever someone mentioned the nursery school.” Better

Character Dump

Not long ago, I had a surprise visit from my brother-in-law who lives in another state. He was in town to spend a few days with his brother. Since I hadn’t seen him in about a year, we did a lot of talking over coffee. I told him about my family and he told me about his. There was more to talk about with his family since he’s not only a father, he’s a grandfather and a great-grandfather! Gracious, I’m not even a grandmother yet. Problem is – and I hate to admit this – I got lost in all the kids and kids of kids. I couldn’t tell which kids belonged to which kids, let alone where everyone lives nowadays. Seemed to me, his grandkids should be adolescents, not having practically grown kids of their own. What I needed was a written family tree to look at and take notes on as he talked. I feel that way about some books I read. There are so many characters I get totally lost. I scan back through the book, trying to remember exactly who they are and how they’re “related” to the protagonist.

Can Openers - What Kind Do You Use?

Why do you use a can opener? To open a can. What kind do you use, electric or manual? Either will work. It depends on circumstances. If the electricity is on, it's easier to go electric. Otherwise, the manual will do just as well to get the job done. There are many ways to get a book published. Which method works best for you depends on your circumstances. If you can get to a conference and pitch, or if you can win a contest with the prize being an editor, agent or publisher reading your manuscript, the process will go smoother. If those options are not available, you can still rely on the tried and true methods of following guidelines and submitting a query, proposal or partial, depending on requirements. If you're talented and fortunate, you'll advance to the next round, which is submitting a full manuscript. Whenever I can, I go the electric route and pitch at conferences, such as this past February's Love Is Murder conference, where I pitched to ed

What Do Editors Look For?

 Story arc. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Does the protagonist grow and evolve? Is there a sense of narrative that flows smoothly, without gaps or requiring mountain goat-like intuitive leaps on the reader's part?  Point of view. Writer Greg Frost suggests that writers "tell the story from the point of view of the character who hurts the most," and there's a lot of wisdom in that approach. As a writer, you're looking at one of the worst moments in your character's life, and how he or she got through those moments and learned and grew from them. If your character isn't the most appealing person onstage, readers may stop caring about the story you're trying to tell.  Language. This isn't just about grammar. How's the writer's control of sentence structure and pacing? Do too many sentences sound the same? Are there quirky, overused words or phrases? Is the language too passive in places?  Dialogue. Do the characters s

Does an Editor Need an Editor?

Several months ago one of the editors in our group asked if and, if so, why an editor needs an editor for her creative writing. I’ve been mulling the question over and have a few ideas. Yes, an editor does need outside help. As an author, an editor is usually too close to her own story. She is living her story so intimately that she may not see either its strengths or its weaknesses clearly, like a mother with her child. When I write a poem I can generally edit its grammatical and stylistic elements almost immediately but am usually surprised at the various interpretations that my readers come up with. I have no intention of saying what many of them comment that they see in my brief creative works. The broader canvas escapes me because I’m so entranced by the smell of the honeysuckle I’m describing. The phenomenon is compounded when I write a novel. Sometimes I get sidetracked from my central plot and need someone to rein me in. Or I get lost in the details that I find so interes

What is Editing?

There are several different types: For example I was the editor of the Women Writing the West catalog for three years. Basically what I did, was to organize all the information and prepare it for the designer and printer. I didn’t do much, if any, changing of the copy that came in from the authors. When working on someone’s manuscript, you have basically two types of editing involved: line editing (copy editing) and conceptual (or substantive) editing. Line editing : making changes on a sentence-to-sentence level. Taking a look at grammar, style, sentence structure, typos, punctuation. (I can hardly read a manuscript without marking commas) Conceptual editing looks at the overall book to see what's missing, what scenes can be intensified, and what sort of story-level changes could be made to strengthen a work. Making a work better and stronger isn't just about fixing the things that don't work - it's about strengthening the best parts as well. My job as editor is to

Ask the Editor- Showing passage of time in fiction

Can you offer any tips on how to show passage of time when the narration is in first person present tense? Thanks for your help. Betsy Rosenthal My House Is Singing  It's Not Worth Making a Tzimmes Over! The sound of the rooster nudged at the edge of my consciousness, I reached across the bed--he had still not returned. The scent of the cooking fires drifted through the golden light of the sun falling under the western horizon and I knew I’d not find Refilwe today. Ding-ding-ding. That was it then, she said 2:00, I guess it means she isn’t interested. There are numerous ways to show passage of time in your writing. In most cases, time passing is a transition from this time to that one, so the most important thing is to give the reader clues as to what time of day it is. One way is with sounds. Depending on where your characters are, the sounds around them can reveal a lot about the time of day. For example, in a rural setting, or even an urban s

Details, Details, Details

Sometimes we get so caught up in the pace of a story we race along without considering the meanings of some of the details of the narrative. We write what seems to fit, and if an editor does not catch the little mistakes we probably won't. Most of the time as we are re-reading our own work, we again get caught up in the story and miss those quirky details. This came to mind recently as I was reading a book from a best-selling author. The pace was terrific, the story tension was high, but darn if some things didn't catch me up short. For example: "He wouldn't go down without trying." Trying what? It was like the author forgot something here. "He picked up one of the newspapers on his desk. The stack remained untouched." If he picked up a newspaper, the stack was touched. "Again, the light flashed, this time bringing only darkness." Is that not contradictory? "They rolled out of the doors as the barrage of bullets peppered the metal body lik


Yesterday, Heidi posted about sagging middles in your stories, and how to prop them up. That started me thinking about the various techniques writers employ to plump up their plots. One way to flesh out your story is through the use of sub-plots running along-side of your main story. In a mystery novel, these secondary plots are useful fixtures on which to hang a red herring , thus diverting the reader's attention and building tension before the resolution of the mystery. In any genre, the sub-plots lead the reader over and under the main story, keeping the action from becoming flat-out boring. Authors also plump up their stories by adding tangential information, not necessarily to move the story forward, but in a way that is somehow related. For example, the main character in a book owns a garden shop and has a special interest in flower development. Readers could also be interested in such information, or so the writer presumes, and using a deft hand, will add numerous par

Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles

Writing is a lot like building a bridge. Each Scene serves as scaffolding or supports for your entire story to rest on without sagging. Maybe you’ve made a great start. You have a dynamite hook (some of my favorites: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Ken Follet, “The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” Frederick Forsyth). You’ve gotten off to a good strong start. Maybe you know how your book is going to end, and even have the final scene written. Now, how do you get through the middle part without it sagging and possibly collapsing? First of all, you don’t need to write chronologically. You can write scenes out of order. (See my article Overcoming Writer’s Block) Pick out some highlights and write those scenes, then see if you can figure out what you might be able to fill in between A and G. Now, send your inner “nice guy” out for ice cream and figure out just how mean you can be to your character. Conflict is the key to keeping a story moving, to shoring it up. You’ve introd

Effect/ Affect

Last month I said I would write some posts about my own grammar challenges with the hope that I help a few writers who suffer the same fate. Today I thought I’d look at the troublesome words affect and effect . For years I had no clue about these words. To be honest, I just used them haphazardly. At one point, I put all of my bets on effect, and banned affect from my writing completely, and hoped that at least half of the time I’d be right. I write science textbooks. I’ve never done any research on it, but I believe that science textbooks use the words effect and affect at least 50% more than any other type of writing, so you can imagine the headache I became for my publisher. I’d looked up the words many times trying to get a handle on their use, but one day in my searching, I realised the thing that sorted it out forever for me. Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun. AHA!! Now I could say such things as- The effect of sulphuric acid on your hand is not something that you’re going to

Editing Techniques

We all know how frustrating, infuriating, depressing, demoralizing (did I miss any?) it is to pick up a document for the "final edit" and find silly things - the first sentence is missing a verb, the protagonist's name is misspelled on page 2, throughout the document the word "vile" appears when you meant "vial". At my latest critique group meeting, we exchanged ideas on different ways to view writing passages to identify all the items that need editing - the first or second time through, rather than waiting for the seventh round. This discussion was not about the long list items different authors read for during the editing process (everything from spelling errors to logic flaws), but rather the physical techniques used to get different views of the written word. Can you guess how many different techniques we identified? Here they are: Print the document and read it on paper Read it out loud Ask someone else to read it to you Have a software program r

Keep Your Salad Fresh

During the first draft of a novel, the writing can sometimes be pretty ordinary. We are intent on getting the story on paper and we write what we are familiar with. The challenge is to freshen everything up in the second draft. Here are just a few pointers that haven't been covered here in a while: AVOID clichés and shop-worn phrases. I recently edited a book and the author wanted to keep all the clichés, defending her stance with the fact that people use clichés all the time. She didn’t seem to understand that that is the main reason a good author avoids them. Give the reader something fresh and original. Another author tried to justify her clichés by pointing out how many books get published that have them. My response was that that doesn’t make it okay. How many times have you read something like: Her heels clicked across the hard tile of the floor? That is okay writing, but it could be stronger. Here is an example I just read: “Her exit was a castanet solo of stiletto heels.” (

Should You Go With the Big Guys or the Small Guys?

I have had books published by both large, international publishers and small, local publishers and I’ve found each have their advantages and disadvantages. Deciding who to go with will depend on what you want as a writer. Of course I’m operating from Botswana where we don’t have agents and approach publishing houses ourselves ( Gasp!) so some of what I’m about to say may be mitigated a bit by a committed agent who will hide the ugly side from you. First the Big Guys. Big guys have a lot of ammo at their disposal. They have clout. They have money for marketing and good editors. The have a well oiled machine in place that will take your tattered manuscript and turn it into a sexy new book. Also as a writer it’s nice to have a few of the big publishers on your list. But the Big Guys also have a lot of writers. You become just another one. Also big publishers have set procedures and set contracts, often with little wiggle room unless you too are a Big Guy. It’s often take it or leave it. A

Lift Every Voice: In Search of the Writer's Voice

In the Writing for the Media course I teach, we use the classic ON WRITING WELL by William Zinsser as our main text. To anyone who truly cares about the art and the craft of writing, it's a must read. One of my favorite chapters in the book is "The Sound of Your Voice." Zinsser begins the chapter by discussing a time in which he was writing a book on baseball and a book on jazz. When doing so, he didn't think to write either book using "baseball English" or "jazz English"; his goal was to use HIS English, HIS voice. In writing, our voice, our style of writing is what keeps us able to not only write, but also to SELL and to continue to sell. People are attracted to the types of stories that authors write and the way in which the authors write them. Toni Morrison is not famous because of her name, but because of the topics and themes that she is drawn to and how her unique style of writing attacks those topics and themes. Same for Mary Higgins Clark

Setting The Table

There is nothing more pleasurable than to read a book where the description and exposition is seamlessly woven into the narrative instead of an intrusion into the story. How many times have you skipped over the “grocery list” of description when a new character entered a room, or skip-read pages of “story set up” so you could get back to the action? A good piece of advice I received from a creative writing instructor was to never stop a story to describe a room or a character. Utilize the POV of one of the characters to introduce details of a room or a person, and let them notice a little at a time while something interesting is happening. Use description to show character, establish mood or somehow move the story along. The story should not stop for description or a set up. Some authors seem to think they need to explain a lot to the reader before they allow the story to proceed. That is often true in science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. It’s almost as if the author does

Dear John: Revealing Character in Epistolary Writing

Interested in developing the voice and style of your characters? Interested in fine-tuning your characters by focusing on how they relate to particular people? Interested in understanding your character's personality, his/her wants, hopes, and desires? Write a letter. Epistolary writing can add great realism and truth to a story, to your character; it can - in quick exercises - help you to decipher your characters and get into their heads. Recently, I made my media writing students write two letters - one to a parent and one to a best friend, in which they revealed the same secret. I was elated by how creative they became; some of them came up with insane secrets, purely hilarious secrets that entertained me to no end. But what was illuminated the most by their letters was the sender's voice and how the sender switched up his/her style and approach depending on the audience. More often than not, students revealed only partial truth to their parents; whereas, to their best frien

Ask the Editor - Should I Self-Publish?

My memoir, Someone Stop This Merry-Go-Round; An Alcoholic Family in Crisis is completed. The sequel, Please, God, Not Two; This Killer Called Alcoholism is being polished. My question is this: I'm leaning toward self-publishing because of my platform that I've built. I don't want to wait two years to get published, but I have my eye on an agent in California. In November 2006, my first memoir A Healing Heart; A Spiritual Renewal was published. I'm already doing speaking engagements at rehabilitation centers, Catholic organizations, etc. They all want my book. I want to be able to present it when I do the engagements. I also teach a writer’s workshop. Am I making the right decision to self-publish to get the book out right away and then query the agent? Thank You, Alberta H. Sequeira Website: http://www.ahealingheart.Net Alberta, thank you for your question and the run-down of your books. As an independent publisher, I see a number of submissions where the author has rec

Tip on Describing People

If you describe people, don’t just plop the description down in a long passage and pause the story. I see this a lot in novels. I will be reading along, enjoying the story, and out of the blue, a paragraph or more will fall that stalls the story and tells me - in pinpoint accuracy - the look of a character or what he/she is wearing. I either cut or suggest that a writer cut out some if not most of these descriptions because many of them are not integral to the story. There is no need to tell the height, weight, etc., of every new person that comes onto the scene, and if it is important, then you want to integrate it into the story seamlessly. There should be a “reason” why the material is pertinent to the story at hand. For example - bad is plopping a whole paragraph into the story in which you describe someone being overweight simply because that character shows up in your story. Good is while this character is sprinting like an Olympian, you tell us about that character being ov

We're Rich

NOTE* I got my start writing a weekly humor column for a suburban newspaper. Primarily it was about family, but occasionally, I would write about the joys of the writing life. Here is another one of the columns for your enjoyment: Whe n I sold my first short story to a magazine a few weeks a go , we were all happily playing Howard Hughes around he re for awhile. My husband was planning his retirement, the k i ds were picking out houses in the country and I had v is i on s of never having to look at another price tag " again be fo re I bought a dress. I suppose we're all entitled to our glory dreams and it sure was fun w hile it lasted. But now that the excitement has died do wn to a dull roar and the rejection slips have started to li tter my desk again, we have resigned ourselves to the fact tha t perhaps we'll have to wait awhile before we start r e ck l ess ly th r owing money around buying mink coats and hamburgers . A njanette has given up her dream of a whole new bed