Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

Let’s just not talk about how I haven’t blogged lately. You and I both know only two people care, anyway. And you are NOT one of those individuals.

Let’s talk about the new adventure keeping me busy: REVISION

(Look! I’ve included random John Williams movie theme awesomeness to inspire your revisions!)

As I write this, I am slashing my way through the deep, dark jungles of revision for my agent, searching for the lost Tiki of backstory & characterization. When I finally lay hands on this ruby eyed idol, I’ll be one step closer to submitting my project.

How to get through this jungle full of Indiana Jones sized pitfalls? I definitely have strategies for coping. Here are my three tips for survival.

1.) Embrace criticism. Exploit it for all it’s worth.

The revision process is a great opportunity to grow and develop as a writer, so when your beta readers, your friends, and even your agent share feedback, really listen with an open mind. Yes, I’m talking to you, the tortured misunderstood artist. In my experience, the person giving feedback is right more often than not.

Neil Gaiman on critique:

“…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Bottom line: Listen, then fix it already!

2. ) Don’t just write during revisions…read, too!

If something is not working, stepping away from your work and immersing yourself in something else might be helpful. When I struggle, I always pull up a pile of great novels and read excerpts with a critical eye. I notice the different styles and elements which make the stories work. I analyze the mix of narrative vs. dialogue, description vs. action, etc.

While I would never try to imitate any other writer’s voice, I think it helps to admire the artistry of good craft. If I read good stuff, it helps me write my own good stuff.

Honestly, show me a terrible writer and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t read.

2.) Write yourself a revision letter.

Tell yourself what you’d like to see in a new draft. Lay it all out there and take yourself to task. Make specific suggestions to your writer self. Then take your own advice and whip your WIP into shape!

3.) Take your time and be strategic.

I go over my manuscript many, many times, focusing on different issues each time. One pass for the protagonist’s voice, one pass for general world-building issues, etc.

And don’t forget what my friend Rosemary Clement Moore says, do overs are allowed!

Hungry for more?

If you are busy poking around on your revisions and pouring your heart into making it better, you might enjoy this recipe for Chocolate Caramel Poke and Pour Cake.

Binge!

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I’m honored to have author Scott Selby answer a few questions about his fabulous new book, FLAWLESS, which investigates one of the greatest jewel heist in history. For more on the book and its authors,  visit the book’s website

1. Your background as a scholar is impressive. (Scott is a graduate of UC Berkeley, Harvard Law School, and Sweden’s Land University, where he wrote his master’s thesis on diamonds.)  Can you elaborate on how your studies inspired and/or influenced FLAWLESS?

Thanks.  From law school, I learned about the importance of research. I worked as a research assistant in college as well as law school so that helped tremendously.  I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to such great schools.  My masters thesis in particular enabled me to study the diamond industry which was tremendously helpful in writing Flawless.

2. In tackling a book on the heist, what was your plan of action? In your investigation of the facts, which avenues did you pursue first?
The first thing was to write everyone who knew anything at all about the Antwerp Diamond Heist. Next, we tracked down each additional source of information that we could be it a document, court case, blue print, or person.

3. What aspect of the project do you find most irresistible or intriguing?
I loved the mysteries at the heart of the story. My co-author Greg Campbell and I had to work hard to dig up as much as we could to try to solve such mysteries and in the process we ended up finding out that things that originally looked straight forward were anything but.  For example, the more we found out about the combination dial on the vault door, the more of a mystery it became. The manufacturer and the locksmith who worked with it both explained in detail why it would be virtually impossible to film the combination being entered.  Before we did this research, we had believed like many others that it could have just been recorded surreptitiously.

4. The book does an excellent job of putting the reader in Leonardo Notarbartolo’s point of view. How were you able to grapple with such a difficult task, considering his reluctance to discuss the unadorned facts of the case?
My co-author Greg was able to meet with him face-to-face in a Belgian prison.  Unfortunately, Mr. Notarbartolo was not willing to discuss specifics without being paid, which we were not willing to do. He was however kind enough to permit one of his closest friends to accompany us during our research in Turin.

5. What tools for non-fiction writing do you find most helpful? Are there any resources you turn to again and again in your own writing?
I think the most important thing is to do your research and then once you have written something, continue to edit it over and over again. Greg and I, along with our editor at Sterling Iris Blasi, revised our book countless times.  The main resource I’d say are my friends who have been kind enough to read my work and give me much needed feedback. The track changes function on MS Word is a lifesaver.

6. Do you have any advice for writers (non-fiction or otherwise)interested in creating a flawless (or perhaps a less flawed) narrative?

Buy a few of the more popular books on how to write a proposal and how to write generally. Think about what you admire in others writing. And keep working on your own projects as long as it takes. If one book doesn’t work out, then start another one and try to learn from what you’ve done before. Good luck!

Oh, yes. I am well acquainted with the heartbreak of rejection.

 I mean the writing kind, folks. (Not the kind of rejection I got in fourth grade when I slipped a box of Russell Stover chocolates into my dreamboat crush’s valentine sack…that’s another level of pain altogether.)

 1. Rejection is a natural part of the writing process. Everyone goes through it. Rejection should be a motivator to persevere and grow.

 2. Rejection can nurture a healthy sense of humility. You thought everyone would love your perfect novel about sparkling zombie assassins? Think again. Learn to embrace honesty and work to improve.

 3. Rejection can be illuminating. Although even the most complimentary rejection is still a “no,” rejections with personal feedback provide the writer with valuable critique. If agents or editors take the time to point out flaws, some deep reflecting and/or revising is in order. Query, partial, or full request rejections with on target personal critique are golden. Each has the potential to strengthen future submissions.

 4. Rejection can measure progress. Most of my first rejections were impersonal form rejections. After much revision and critique, my rejections became personalized notes and partial requests. After more revision, my queries have been followed by full requests. Yes, I’m still getting rejected, but I’m getting a lot of detailed critique in the process. Bless those agents who offer scraps of insight to the hopeful writer.

 5. Rejection can be a much needed reality check. If you’ve revised two dozen times, queried 200 agents, and still get only form rejections, a gut assessment is needed. Maybe it’s your project, maybe it’s your writing, or maybe it’s the market. Maybe you stink like a three month old cabbage. Maybe it’s time to explore a career in dairy farming…

 6. Rejection separates the wheat from the chaff. Those who give up early and refuse to learn from rejection make room for others who will go on to publish wonderful (or not so wonderful) books. Keep your day job, but keep writing.

 7. Rejection is hard and fast. No amount of wishful thinking or elaborate rejectomancy can spin an acceptance from a pass on a manuscript. Deal with it and move on.

Dear Ones,

Although your rejection misery sounds very compelling, I’m afraid Imust pass on hearing more about it. I wish you future success in your psychothery sessions.

Best Regards,

Scarlet Whisper

 Hungry for more?

 Curl up with a steaming mug of my hot spiced cider. Pour in a little something extra, if necessary, but remember that the suicide hotline standing by twenty four hours a day, if you need to talk to someone. 

 Hot Spiced Cider

1 large can pineapple juice
1 quart orange juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 1/2 quarts strong tea
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons whole cloves
Cinnamon sticks (two or three)

Combine  juices and tea. In sauce pan, combine remaining ingredients with 1 qt cold water – bring to a boil, then simmer for five minutes. Turn off the burner and strain off the cinnamon sticks and cloves. Add hot mixture to tea/juice mixture. Heat and serve.

Binge!

Writing voice can be a tough concept to understand.

This year, my school is making a concerted effort to strengthen voice in our students’ writing. I’m working to help our kids develop in this area.  Digging deep into the components of an author’s unique tone helps me as an emerging writer, too.

What is voice?

Take a moment to listen to Garrison Keillor’s thirty second definition.

To me, voice is…

…the writer’s spirit on the page.

…the unique way we use words to communicate.

…the author’s fingerprint; unique and distinctive.

To help my students (and myself) understand some aspects of voice, I’ve come up with a mnenomic device:

Please Tell Me Who’s Speaking.

1. P is for Point of View

 1st person— “I walked outside and was hit by a bus.”

–Strengths: facilitates intimate narrative, often appealing for this reason

–Weaknesses: can be difficult to maintain POV with many characters and details.

Example: “Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood…” The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

 2nd person– “You walked outside and were hit by a bus”

 –Strengths: Can be interesting, may create sense of personal immediacy

–Weaknesses: Not appropriate in most cases, widely discounted

Example: “Within minutes, you are so deep in the ocean that little light filters down to you..” Choose Your Own Adventure: Journey Under the Sea by R.A. Montgomery

 3rd person: “She walked outside and was hit by a bus.”

 –3rd Person Omniscient: “She walked outside and was hit by a bus. Her life flashed before her eyes in a second. “There goes my license,” the bus driver thought.”

 –3rd Person Limited “She walked outside and was hit by a bus. Her life flashed before her eyes in a second.

 -Strengths: Most comfortable for many writers, can be extremely effective

–Weaknesses: Can lack tension and emotion if executed poorly

Example:  “Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling.

Tips for Students

 -Stick to one POV per story or scene.

-Choose the right POV for the right story.

-Experiment with different POVs for the same story. See which works best.

2. T is for Tense

  Past: “I was hit by a bus.”

 –Strengths: Most common, effective

–Weaknesses: Can feel less immediate

Example: “Harry moved in front of the tank and looked intently at the snake.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

 Present: “The bus hits me.” or “I’m being hit by a bus.”

–Strengths: Immediate, can be riveting

–Weakness: Can be annoying, may distract the reader

Example: “I sit still for a few minutes, breathing hard, staring at the back of my mother’s seat…” Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Future: “I will be hit by a bus.”

-Strengths: avantgard, unique

-Weaknesses: Weird, distracting 

1. M is for Mix of Dialogue and Narrative

Showing vs. Telling

 Telling: “She saw the bus and she was scared. The bus hit her and crashed into the tree.”

Showing: “Help me!” she screamed. Thud. Her body crumpled onto to the pavement. The tree snapped against windshield of the bus. 

Tips for Students

 -Show, don’t tell.

–Alternate action and dialogue

–Understand “Less is more.”

–Use action or dialogue instead of “telling” when possible.

4. W is for Word Choice

 Word Choice helps tell who’s speaking.  Is the narrator…. old or young, funny or boring, educated or not too bright, rich or poor, from another cultural background or just like me? (Resonance = Power of Voice)

 Word Choice is a big part of voice. Look at these distinctive examples:

“Tonight, the hay in the fields is already brittle with frost, especially to the west of Fox Hill, where the pastures shine like stars. In October, darkness begins to settle by four-thirty and although the leaves have turned scarlet and gold, in the dark everything is a shadow of itself, gray with a purple edge.” Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman

“Once there was a tree and she loved a boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest.” The Giving Tree by Shel Silvertein

“…When you’re walking away from a bus that’s just been attacked by monster hags and blown up by lightning, and it’s raining on top of everything else, most people think that’s just really bad luck; when you’re a half-blood, you understand some divine force is really trying to mess up your day.” The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

 Tips for Students

–Adverbs are not your friend. Often, adverbs are part of a weak sentence that can be strengthened by a stronger verb. Example: “She set the cup down angrily against the table.” vs. “She slammed the cup against the table.”

 –Choose active verbs over passive “to be” verbs. “She was being hit by a bus.” vs. “The bus hit her.”

–Use strong, exciting adjectives instead of boring ones. Use descriptors, but don’t go overboard.

–Watch out for clichés. (“It was a dark and stormy night.”)

5. S is for Sentence Structure

 Good complex, robust sentences intoxicate the reader.

“Even the bravest of them wouldn’t dare stray from the High Road after soccer practice at Firemen’s Field, and those who are old enough to stand by the murky waters of Olive Tree Lake and pry kisses from their girlfriends still walk home quickly. If truth be told, some of them run. A person could get lost up here. After enough wrong turns he might find himself in the marshes, and once he was there, a man could wander forever among the minnows and the reeds, his soul struggling to find its way long after his bones had been discovered and buried on the crest of the hill, where the wild blueberries grow.” Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman.

 Simple Sentences can just as effective, too.

“’Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and Rest.’ And the Boy did. And the Tree was happy.” The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

 Sometimes, good sentences break the rules.

“Sometimes when you are trying to think about something and it keeps popping back into your head you can’t help it you think about it and think about it and think about it until your brain feels like a squashed pea.” Love that Dog by Sharon Creech

Tips for Students

-Choose the right kind of sentence to match who is telling the story.

-Mix it up. Don’t use the same old boring sentence structures over and over

-Curtail excessive use of “As” and “Ings”  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ authors Browne and King state they are the tricks of the trade of “hack writers.”

These four components are certainly not the only considerations in writing voice, but I find they answer the question, “Please Tell Me Who’s Speaking?”

If you’re hungry for something unique and distinctive outside the pages of a book, you might try my recipe for “Not Just Another Chocolate Chip Cookie.” In this recipe, you can tweak a few ingredients to make your favorite gooey snack.

Not Just Another Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Ingredients:

4 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt 

3 sticks real butter

2 cups dark brown sugar

1 cup sugar

2 tbsp (yes, tablespoons!) vanilla extract

2 eggs

2 egg yolks

2 cups dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

2 cups milk chocolate chips

Optional ingredients:

You may substitute any of the following   for the chocolate chips. Or get crazy, and just add them all!

2 cups toffee bits

2 cups honey roasted peanuts

2 cups pecan bits

2 cups m&ms

2 cups Hershey’s kisses bits

 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

Melt the butter. In a large bowl, stir together the melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar. Add the vanilla, egg, and egg yolk. Mix in the flour, baking soda and salt. Stir in the chocolate chips and/or other stuff. Drop cookie dough in small balls (or big ones) onto heavy duty (Williams-Sonoma are best, but hchoc chip cookiesey, use what you’ve got) cookie sheets.

If you don’t have time to bake individual batches, spread all the dough in a jellyroll pan and bake for thirty minutes. Or you could just stop there and eat the dough. That works, too.

Bake cookies at 350 for 11 to 13 minutes. Let cool for five minutes before removing from cookie sheet.

Binge!

Last night was workshop night. DFW Writers’ Workshop meets in Euless every Wednesday night for announcements, readings, and critique.

http://dfwwritersworkshop.org/

After the critique sessions, many members meet up at the local IHOP to decompress, debrief, and de-stress. Lots of great advice is shared over hotcakes and hash browns.

 Thank Goodness. As a novice writer, I can use all the help I can get.

 If you give a writer a pancake, he might share these suggestions:

Please don’t tell me Dr. Wiggle-bottom is an evil but brilliant neurosurgeon with jet black hair and a penchant for mushroom and Swiss omelets. Let me discover Dr. Wigglebottom’s secrets through action, foreshadowing and dialogue. Build characterization and detail into your story.

Please don’t drop a big, steaming, stinky pile of back story info-dump right in the middle of my plate. Reveal world-building details in moderation at the appropriate time and in natural places within the story. Don’t describe the giant scalpel in Dr. Wigglebottom’s secret lab until he’s using it to perform a lobotomy; or at least wait until he uses it to cut his omelet.

Please choose active verbs over passive ones whenever possible. All those is’s, was’s, and began to’s leave a bland taste in my mouth. Check, please.

Please don’t drizzle too much description over the basic plot. Too many adjectives and adverbs overpower the flavor of a good story. When in doubt, leave it out.

Please don’t allow irrelevant facts or scenes interrupt the flow of your story. Syrupy vignettes about unimportant details slow the action. Molasses belongs on a biscuit, not in your pacing.

Please trim the fat on your dialogue tags. Stick with he said, she said; not exclaimed, chortled, snorted or explained. Too many embellished tags clog my arteries. 

I remind myself of these suggestions each time I rewrite. Utilizing the advice of experienced writers helps me a lot. I try not to turn my nose up at critique. Yes, thank you. More, please. Delicious.

 Oh, I almost forgot. Don’t use cliches or corny food metaphors. 

 

Here’s a recipe for gingerbread pancakes. These cinnamon infused flapjacks sweeten the sting of rejection.

 Gingerbread Pancakes:

 1 cup flour

2 tbsp. flour

1/3 sugar

1/3 cornmeal (yellow is best)

1 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. salt

1 tsp. ginger

½ tsp. nutmeg

½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. ground cloves

2 eggs

¾ cup sour cream

¾ cup milk

¼ cup oil (canola or vegetable)

1 ½ molasses

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cornmeal, spices and salt in a big bowl. Stir, stir, stir to distribute the baking powder evenly.

In another bowl, whisk the eggs. Add the sour cream, milk, oil, molasses and vanilla.

Combine the wet and dry ingredients. 

Set aside for 5 minutes. Heat the skillet or griddle while you’re waiting. Edit a few dialogue tags. Grease skillet or spray it with non-stick cooking oil. 

Use about 1/3 cup batter for each pancake. Turn pancakes over (about two minutes) when bubbles form on the edges. Turn only once. 

Binge.