it’s a trip . . .

tips, quotes, insights, and lessons about writing and publishing learned the hard way

Archive for September, 2008

you can be too close to what you write

I won’t argue with the guideline that you should write what you know. Nobody likes poseurs unless (of course) you make them into unreliable narrators to lift your writing out of the ordinary. I’m asking you to consider that sometimes you can be too close to a personal experience to write about it well.

too painful for readers?

your pain: too painful for readers?

Your lack of distance can be a trap that snags up your storytelling, your pace, your plot, your character development. In other words, it can sabotage the book in your head you’re dying to write. It can and often is the dealbreaker.

When trying to write a fictionalized account of something that really happened to them, writers feel an unnatural and ultimately limiting responsibility to faithfully represent everything that really happened. You provide too many insignificant details–many more than the reader needs. You fail to use the old flash forward–jumping the timeframe of the story–because flashing forward is not true to your precious memory.

Memory isn’t always your friend.

I learned this lesson firsthand in writing my first book–a fictional account of a major midlife reckoning. It was gratifying for me to recount every detail of the viewpoint character’s meltdown for the reader. It was my life, I felt violated, I was writing this book to eke out some poetic justice for myself and those who suffered what I did–my motives were pure. It was a formula for an unsuccessful novel that would have held little interest for most readers.

I tried valiantly to recreate the characters in this autobiographical tale faithfully; I see now how that limited me.

Did I learn I from my mistake? Absolutely. In fact, I approached the same theme again in a short story a few months later, this time taking quite a bit of poetic license with the protagonist and antagonist.  The protagonist even became a ghost, coming back to haunt the man that drove her to self-destruction. I changed up lots of small details. And it was very freeing. I felt unshackled from my own history and finally able to tell a story, and I did much better job of it. It won a short story contest, and I made my first ever money from writing creatively–at 3 cents a word, that story earned me $90-some bucks.

Now that I’ve committed the I-was-too-close-to-the-story-I-was-writing offense, I recognize it in others. When I point it out, however, people most often balk at the observation. That includes memorists and essayists, too.

“Well, I have to say what really happened,” one writer said, when I told him he really didn’t need to share every detail of his motorcycle ride across New England. He disagreed with me. He won a battle but lost the war–he lost a reader.

This topic segues nicely into the next lesson-from-friends segment I’ll be posting, one that has to do with control, discretion, and writing about something very painful with a healthy amount of emotional distance, which is necessary for exquisite memoir or autobiographical fiction.

But some people can only learn this lesson the hard way. At the time I wrote my first book, I didn’t have a circle of writing friends as resources. I had a burning passion to pour out my story, my keyboard, and my unflinching memory.

In the instance of autobiographical fiction, two out of three would have been better than three out of three.

I should have flinched a little.

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my works in progress . . .

I’m posting the novels I have started as motivation or electronic thumb screws–take your pick–to finish one or two or all. I compare it to someone who goes public with a weight loss goal. Well, I now have gone public about all the work I need to finish. Feel free to prod me on my progress. Or tell me to get to work.

Because as I mentioned in an earlier post, nothing starts until you finish. And by the way, if you like any of these progress meters, the links available in the third sidebar of this blog under Resources for Writers.

COSMO GIRLS

Women’s Fiction


DIME STORE DEBUTANTE

Women’s Fiction


WHO KILLED TOM JONES?

Cozy Mystery

LEARNING TO SEW

Young Adult Mystery

RACE CARD

Suspense/Woman-in-Peril

lessons from friends #2 – Lori Bentley-Law

"Orange Crush" One of the things I learned from writer Lori Bentley-Law is the value of digging deep for an original story line in fiction. In at least two of her books, MOTOR DOLLS and THE UNDERGROUNDERS, she pushes herself, never settling for the comfortable or easy premise. As a result her work has a freshness and a creative abandon to it I have tried to emulate, a quality that will surely lift her work above the cliched stuff glutting agents’ in-boxes.

The first chapter of MOTOR DOLLS, entitled “Orange Crush” opens up with one of the protagonists, an artist with an irrepressible joie de vivre, jumping into a vat of orange dye just to see what it feels like.

“In perfect form, Jeda raised her arms and bent at the knees. With one more deep breath, she sprang from the ledge, executing a swan dive into the vat of swirling orange dye.”

Perhaps because Lori is an artist herself, a videographer by profession, she has the artist’s worldview that makes artists so engaging when they turn to writing.

Since I am more familiar with THE UNDERGROUNDERS, her YA novel, I’ll pay special tribute to that one  in this post. I have a YA novel, too, but mine is grounded in (or maybe I should say weighed down) by my own experience and limited by my preconceived notions that I have to represent life as it is. However, consider Lori’s premise for THE UNDERGROUNDERS:

“Weird stuff is happening to thirteen-year old Viola DeMarron, and it sure the heck isn’t puberty—unless puberty consists of getting sucked Underground to have deep and meaningful conversations with the roots of vegetables and the Tenders who care for them. After waking to find mud on her feet, it dawns on her these episodes must be more than freaky dreams.”

Viola has a nose like a potato. While underground, she chats up a gregarious carrot and consoles a grumpy turnip, that is, after she diagnoses him with club root.

One of Lori's clever characters

one clever carrot!

This past summer, I wrote my strongest short story ever. It was based on a woman with a hen’s nose and elephant ears–a woman who looked like a Dr. Seuss character and had a Grinch of time meeting men because of her frightful face.  Had I not admired Lori’s work and spent so much time enjoying it and happily studying it, I might never have ventured out of my own comfortable art-is-life skin and into a more fantastic story line.

Thanks, Lori, for showing me that when something feels so comfortable in one’s writing in very little time, it may be because the writer has seen it or done it before.  Lori’s storytelling shows me what is possible when a writer really pushes herself not to settle for what is comfortable and familiar in one’s writing and how successful one can be as a result.

P.S. Lori also (informally) tutors her friends in the craft of writing by lesson and by example–look at this week’s craft tip, which Rachel Greenaway shared with me, something she learned from Lori (aka Modobenny).

rules are good until they rule you

Earlier this evening, I read an online article from an online digest for writers that included submission tips for querying an agent, most of which I had heard many times, including this one:

3. Make sure your work is edited, revised and polished. Rewriting is a crucial step to bettering your work, so be sure to have trusted peers give you an honest critique, or consider seeking a professional freelance editor to evaluate it. And never query an agent for a novel until the work is complete.

A good rule to follow, on average.

However, sometimes hard and fast rules can be too hard and fast. Often newer writers, myself included, cling to rules so steadfastly that it’s just plain silly or shortsighted to do so, and we end up cutting off our noses to spite our faces in the process.

Here’s an example.

I had some back and forth conversations with an agent who expressed an interest in my writing though he passed on the work I was pitching. He encouraged me to try writing something he could sell, for starters, citing a few writers for me to read, perhaps to emulate.

So even though he didn’t pick up my romantic comedy, I was hardly discouraged. I was encouraged. And I got an idea for a book in the genre he said he could sell and pitched it to him with only three chapters complete, fueled by a  tremendous fire in my belly for the theme of my book.

He wrote back to me thusly:

“I’d be happy to see it when you have a substantial portion completed. Say 100 pages?”

When I mentioned that I had a 100-page partial ready to send an agent on another writing site, everyone flipped out like I had just confessed to freebasing cocaine.

“NO!!!! Don”t do that! Never send a partial if your ms isn’t finished. Learn to listen to people smarter and more experienced than you (you pewling spawn). Agents never request partials of unfinished manuscripts from unpublished writers. Learn the rules. Follow the rules. Blah, blah, blah.”

(I added the ‘pewling spawn’ part because ever since Captain Hook said it in Peter Pan I’ve wanted to use it–you get the idea.)

gakk!

gakk!

I was shocked that this torrent of censure was unleashed on me without anyone bothering to ask me what exactly the agent had requested.

Unbeknownst to these folks, I heard that rule at least 50 times since I began writing creatively, and I said, in my defense, “Well, just a minute. The agent said, (and I quote) that he’d like to read my partial.” And referred them to the response he sent me verbatim, listed above.

Still they expressed their incredulity at this request.

Funny. I had taught English for ten years and reading comprehension for five, but I wasn’t smart enough to interpret the meaning of sixteen words in two sentences?

Can you spell condescension?

I’m a rule-following gal for the most part and especially dutiful when I’m trying to get something I really want. I’ve broken some rules in writing (though not deliberately–sheer ignorance), but I’d never do something deliberately to jeopardize my success as a writer.

Nor will I follow a rule blindly when it would absolutely be of no advantage to me to do so. If agents make the rules, aren’t they at liberty to relax them when it’s in their best interest? Isn’t the writer at liberty to respond accordingly when it’s in her best interest to do so?

Only a complete and utterly gutless moron would decline to send 100 pages of a unfinished manuscript if an agent (gasp) broke his own rule or bent the industry standard and requested it.

Though I have my flaws, being gutless isn’t one of them.

In fact, I had read on other sites that this agent really likes to take on a story, which some writers may not appreciate, but I certainly would. Coming from him, such an overture makes sense. I did my research, which suggests I’m not a moron either.

I thought we all read enough allegorical dramas (The Handmaid’s Tale, for one) about what happens when people or a society becomes more concerned with following the rules for rules’ sake than about thinking logically and independently about their allegiance to certain rules. Well, at least I have.

No, I haven’t sent off that partial yet even though I have more than a hundred pages because I don’t think it’s strong enough. But if I get 100 pages where I want them, I intend to send them.

Because an agent asked me to. Because rules are great until they need to be overruled.

lessons from friends #1 – kirk ort

THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING by Kirk Ort

THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING by Kirk Ort

Tonight marks the first post in a series called “Lessons from Friends.” Through various online writing sites and competitions, I’ve been exposed to others’ writing, have reviewed their work, and, of course, tried to learn from their example. In my case, I’ve wisely befriended most of these writers.

For my first “Lessons from Friends” post, I’d like to begin with an extraordinarily talented writer and my most stalwart and longstanding writing partner Kirk Ort.

Kirk specializes in historical fiction. Unlike me (I write contemporary stories), he has the particular burden or pleasure of transporting the reader to a wholly different place and time. One of the things I like about Kirk’s writing and the thing he does almost better than any writer I know is place the reader in the setting seamlessly. No long drawn-out Michener-esque descriptions in any of Kirk’s historical stories (in the 21st century, who among us has the luxury of indulging in description to the extent Michener did? And I liked James Michener. I read many of his books). Instead, Kirk pulls the reader into the scene efficiently and effectively via character’s actions. Take a look at  the opening paragraph to his newest book: THE ADVENTURES OF KATE DARLING.

“With a creak and a bang the hatch cover was thrown open and sunlight streamed down into the fetid cargo hold. Kate Darling, lying in a heap atop a bale of trade goods, raised her head and squinted into the dazzling light.”

The first sentence of his novel transports us to a castaway’s world on a sailing ship. In one sentence, through his careful choice of nouns and verbs (and two adjectives), he’s done a wondrous thing. Does anyone reading this not have a clear picture in his/her head of when and where this novel takes place within forty words?

A few paragraphs later, he combines action and description following direct dialogue, evoking Kate’s surroundings and Kate’s appearance herself in a sentence.

“All right, Mr. Smithers, I’ll go quietly,” said Kate. “And I do thank you for your many kindnesses.” She shook some of the dust and bits of filth from her skirt and adjusted the bodice of her frock to better accommodate its fulsome cargo before pulling herself onto the first steps of the ladder.”

I don’t think there are many readers among us who would say, “Gosh, you conveyed the setting while describing the action. I’m so bummed. I was looking forward to reading lots of exposition.”

Kirk’s writing taught me the value of conveying description without stopping the action, rather by incorporating it into the action.  Is it any wonder he won second place in our writing site’s strongest start competition.

Thanks, Kirk, for an exemplary lesson that I strive to include in my writing more than you know.

ten good craft tips

craft tips

craft tips

Today I’m sharing ten tips I’ve picked up in the last three years learning the craft.

  1. To make your prose more graceful, in a series of items, put the longest item last.  Example: wide eyes, a pert nose, and lips as tempting as a ripe peach.
  2. In describing someone follow the natural path of the eye (unless of course your viewpoint character has a strange optical tic) from top to bottom, bottom to top, near to far or vice versa.  Example: She wore pink lip gloss, her curly dark hair fell to her shoulders, and a low-cut cashmere shell showed just enough cleavage to distract any man she happened to want something from.
  3. Lighten up on the -ing verbs and the participial phrasesExample: Crashing into the Christmas tree, she began spinning around the room. It would be better to say: She crashed into the Christmas tree and spun around the room.
  4. Drop “began” and “began to” phrases wherever possible (see previous example). People don’t “begin to.” They just do.
  5. Most adverbs can and should be written out of your prose. Look for -ly words: hauntingly, hurriedly, calmly, briskly, etc.  Only keep an adverb if you’d pay $100 for it.
  6. More than one or two adjectives (modifiers) weakens rather than strengthens the writing. It dilutes the power of all the others.  Example: The sad, tired, old woman rested on the park bench. Now none of the modifiers–sad, tired, or old–makes an impact.
  7. Description can be too lush. If you describe every detail in a scene, there’s nothing left for the reader’s imagination to fill in.  Painstaking description can be painful.  Example: The quarter inch gold plated locket on the 20 inch 14-karat gold chain with feather weight links was perfect for a cameo about the size of a small child’s middle fingernail. Aren’t you in pain already?
  8. Adjectives, if used, are always stronger without qualifiers. Forget the really happy’s, very well-off’s, too beautiful’s wherever possible.
  9. Most writers have habits or idiosyncracies such as overusing one or two words. I slip the word “just” into many sentences. Now I use the find function in word processing software to take it out.
  10. Words are diamonds. Showcase their beauty by sloughing off the carbon around them. Or as one of my writing teachers put it, “Words are stones. Feel the weight of them.” Diamonds, stones–you get the idea.

If you have a craft tip to share, feel free to leave it as a comment. If you send me enough, I’ll post them as my tip of the week.

meeting triumph and disaster

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same . . . ”

–an excerpt from “If” by Rudyard Kipling

the writing life is defined by ups and downs

the writing life is defined by ups and downs

I got a piece accepted. I got a partial rejected. The judge gave me a 52 out of 100 on my short story; if I were in school, that would be an “F.” I won fifth place in a national novel competition with scores of 90 and 92 out of 100.

Sound familiar?

The writing life is often a string of contradictions: positives/negatives, acceptances/rejections, “I like your work”/”I hate your work.” At present the only entity with more ups and downs than a writer’s career is the stock market.

What was that lyric Mary Chapin Carpenter used to sing: “Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug.”

Writing is subjective (though it is curious to me how many people think something is good only when others like it, too–case in point THE DA VINCE CODE, a well-plotted vacuuous book that made a ton of money). It’s like rhythmic gymnastics–your work is subject to expert assessment. Yes, there are mechanical standards that must be met. Assuming you’ve met a modicum of competency, your work will advance or fail to based on someone’s subjective opinion.

When writers are rejected, because writing is such an extension of oneself, often we take it hard–too hard. I know I have. But I keep trying, keep getting back on that horse. Because there’s no way I can get a book published if I don’t get back on that horse–no matter how many saddle sores I’ve accumulated.

It really distresses me when writer friends/acquaintances have taken rejections too hard, threatening to give up writing or tear up a manuscript or tell a gatekeeper something that might compromise any future acceptances. I can see it so clearly that they are over-reacting to one person’s subjective opinion (much less clearly when it’s me.) If writing means that much, how can anyone consider giving it up so easily?

Also, writers really want to stay far away from their work when mired in self-destructive cycles. Let the bad feelings sink in. Feel the pain so you can let it go, but don’t go after your manuscript. Give it a day, a week, a month. I promise you, you’ll feel differently.

Sometimes I get down on myself. Most of us do at some point.

But give yourself permission to get back up. And fix your eyes on the prize, and keep your head out of the clouds. Believe in yourself but don’t get carried away with yourself.

On fewer occasions, I suppose because many of my writing friends aren’t published, they are tempted to let themselves become complacent with that occasional endorsement.

Writers striving to be published have to learn to weather the bad and the good. Some of you might be thinking, did you just say, “Weather the good”? What’s to weather when things are good, you may be thinking. However, if old Rudyard Kipling has any cred, he contends that triumph and disaster are both imposters.

So, what happens to the person who “meets with triumph and disaster just the same”?

A product of his day, Rudyard Kipling says, “You’ll be a man, my son.” With apologies to Mr. Kipling, we can  consider that his use of the word “man” applies to “women,” too.

I’ll go a step further in suggesting that his couplet applies to the writers among us if we “have ears to hear.”

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.
    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.