Make it Short – I Got a Plane to Catch

planetocatchThe modern reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with significant character development and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss in the garbage disposal.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snobby Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just have dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a scene (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

One of my all time most favorite first sentences is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the yin and yang of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book in some bookstore, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety.

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with words. And those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing the noggins of your readers. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more attractive. The concept may still abide in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there on the Internet, you can find them for yourself. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our books at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those left, then breaking them into short reading bites. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Artwork courtesy Clip Art.

I Remember It Well

telephoneMy parents told me stories about their families when I was growing up. Stories about them when they were growing up, and stories about their own parents and extended family.

I wish I’d listened better, remembered more. I wish I could ask if I’ve remembered correctly and to fill in the details. How ironic that just as I wanted to know more about who they were before I’d ever met them, they were both gone.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease ten years ago. Seven years ago my father died. For the next eighteen months, as my mother and I struggled to construct an entirely new relationship based on her awareness of her illness, her widowhood, and my new position as her durable power of attorney, I also tried to help her resurrect her life’s memories. My mother now lives with a brain so fractured she cannot remember anything that happened even one minute before. My opportunity to question her about her childhood is long past.

Most of us know ourselves through our direct memories of the events that impressed us as we grew up, as well as through the stories other people tell about us. As my adult children age and my grandchildren grow up, the old family stories only I know are going to be lost. In fact, the incidents my parents told me so long ago are glimpses into lives so distant, their lifestyle is recognized as archaic and quaint. My grandkids, for instance, can’t imagine a time when everyone didn’t carry a cell phone. I’m not even certain when my parents’ parents would have gotten the first phones in their homes, but it’s a safe bet my parents would have ecstatically celebrated those old phones getting installed into their childhood homes when they were very young. I can only guess about the telephones, however, because neither of them ever told me about a time when their families might not have had a home telephone.

I remember from personal experience the telephones that were installed in our home in Trenton, New Jersey in 1954 because no one else was fortunate enough to have six phones with their own phone numbers. We were a very unique family.

My dad was a physician, starting his first private practice in part of our two-story Dutch Colonial house, converted to waiting, x-ray, and examining rooms, and his office. We needed two phones because one had to be dedicated to his medical practice, but the technology for putting more than one phone line on one device didn’t yet exist. In our kitchen, the two phones sat side by side, one for our family, the other for my dad’s practice so patients could reach him in an emergency any time of day or night, 365 days a year. Also for non-emergencies, but that’s another story. The double telephone system was also installed in my parents’ upstairs bedroom and of course in the medical office.

I am the only person left who remembers the wonderful day those phones were installed. My brother was too young to know how extraordinary our situation was, my sister wasn’t yet born. With my father now gone and my mother’s disease having long savaged her memory, only I recall the splendor of those two machines. None of the other kids at school had two telephones in their homes, plugged in side by side, with two different phone numbers, and in fact, we had six! I memorized the two phone numbers, one for our family, the other for dad’s medical office, which I was never supposed to use unless no other adult was near enough to answer. I can no longer remember the numbers but they were something like: MA (for Maple) 2-5873. Some folks still had party lines they shared with neighbors, where they could rudely listen to someone else’s phone conversation and save a few bucks for the risk of no privacy.

The few times I answered my dad’s office line, I used the professional voice and demeanor I’d practiced for just such an occasion, “Hello, this is Dr. Bonin’s office, can I help you?” I learned to write messages from people in distress, to get their names spelled correctly, to copy down their phone numbers, and to promise I’d have my dad call as soon as he came home. Big stuff for a six-year-old. Strut worthy. I saved lives. OK, maybe not, but I saved messages from patients.

Many families today don’t even have a land line. Instead, every member of the family has a cell phone with more technological intelligence than the space ship Explorer 1, launched on January 31, 1958 from Cape Canaveral. In the mid 1970s, the early days of mobile phones, owners looked exclusive walking around holding devices about the size of a quart milk box, chatting important information about plane flights and dry cleaning. Then phones became as small as a credit card, easily concealed and imparting status to folks picking up dry cleaning. Today they’re larger again but no thicker than a knife blade, and loaded with enough technology to sustain a computer, music, shopping lists, games, GPS,  movies, TV, personal calendars, Internet access, reading apps, a camera, and a – wait for it – cell phone. Sixty years after the installation of the six amazing, modern phones in our home, and today most people no longer need anything so clumsy and old fashioned. Archaic and quaint in less than a hundred years. Of course, no one talks on their phones anymore – they text. Too often while driving and ignoring present company.

As for me – I’m no longer the high tech envy of the kids at my school. I have an old fashioned flip phone, bought only because all pay phones were removed. It’ll be in my memoir someday.

 

 

Phone image courtesy Clip Art

Letting Go a Dream

dreamsI began writing The Inlaid Table the last week of April, 2003 and completed it in early 2009 – the first time. It was my first adult novel and it placed in the top 250 entries for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – ABNA – competition. Out of 5,000 entries I was thrilled to have done so well. Such heady achievement fortified me to continue to work on it, generate early readers, and to query. My critique group provided support along with suggestions for improvement and sometimes sharp criticism.  About two months ago I suffered a serious injury to my right arm (it’s healing) and used the downtime to undertake an absolute final edit. Nothing could deter me. The final final version satisfied me. Until a few nights ago when I tossed through the early hours of a new day, anxious and battling with my conscience and my brain, unable to sleep at all. I woke unrested and finally realized that I will no longer attempt to publish the book. Though I still love the characters and the idea, I’ve concluded that this one will live on my computer and nowhere else. Sometimes you just have to let things go, and for this book, with literally thousands of hours devoted to researching, writing, and editing, it is out of publication contention.

It was a tough decision but one I had to make. The premise of the book is overdone and outdated. Over the last eight years, while I worked on Table and also wrote two other novels, both now complete, the ground for this story turned swampy with politics and emotions. There won’t be the readers I expected, and the book will generate controversy I never intended.

Yes, I cried. Yet other people face more vital, more dire situations than having spent so many years writing a book that will never get ink. I wiped those tears off my cheeks. It was not a complete failure though I probably should have sensed the impending implosion years earlier. I learned a lot from the experience, all the things one should expect from such an undertaking and a few things I never anticipated. The wisdom learned in any endeavor can be applied to trying to write, then concluding it isn’t the right manuscript, it’s not the dream to pursue.

Two of the best attributes of engaging in competitive sports are learning to win honorably and lose graciously. Accepting rules and standards allow games to be played on common ground. Dignity and confidence at trying new challenges are gains measured outside the score board. Persistence regales effort even in the face of failure. Cheering for individual excellence surpasses fawning over athletic super stars. Standing up after you’ve been thrown to the ground reminds you to be grateful you can stand at all.

In the same vein, I’ve grown as a person and as writer. I listen better, think more clearly, share fairly, try harder. I know the value of staying up late to work and getting up early to do the same. My ABNA moment gave me the confidence to go back and do a better job on something I’d thought was finished. I spent my 10,000 hours honing my craft, and my current writing exhibits more mastery than when I started writing Table in 2003.

My biggest regret is that I won’t get to publicly acknowledge the many people who helped me travel the path of writing the first book. Those folks gave me their very best effort with no more expectation than a thanks from me. So here it is: Thank you, dear family, friends, and believers. You made it possible for me to fail with dignity and to stand up again.

While I’ve given up on this dream of publishing The Inlaid Table, I have others to pursue, and I will. I remain determined to see my books to publication, whether via the cachet of the traditional print houses or the more likely independent route.

There is value in letting go this dream. The next dream is still viable.

 

Clip art courtesy: end of a daydream by astridle

 

Such a Voice as That!

suchavoiceasthatIf you’ve ever heard my mom sing, you’d recognize her voice every time she blats out a song. It’s that unique. She brays, she’s loud, off key, flat, out of tune. Even the resonance of the shower stall does not improve her voice, and singing lessons would be about as useful as a water filter in the middle of the Sahara. Mom sings with gusto, like she can’t wait to get the words scraped out of the back of her throat and into the silence around her. Yet despite the fact that Mom has an absolutely awful voice, it’s truly a delightful experience to hear her sing because she exudes such joy of music. She beams, she glows, she bubbles with joie de vivre. Everyone who hears her sing cringes, but no one tells her to shut up because it’s fun to listen to someone create musical triumph out of singing so poorly.

Mom’s voice is so distinctive that everyone recognizes it. It’s terrible, yes, but distinctive. No one wants to sound like Mom. Except you, Writer, you really do want to sound like Mom. Distinct. You want your reader to grab your book and declare, OMG, it’s another exciting, wonderful book from Storyteller, the writer whose voice sounds like no other! Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

So exactly what is this business of writing voice? You know about the other aspects of writing: plot, character development, pro- and antagonist, conflict, suspense, crises, setting, time period, and imperfect heroes. You’ve got down grammar, spelling, sentence construction, dialogue, cliff hangers, and secondary plots. But voice – how do you define writing voice? It’s often linked to dialogue, though as unique as speech may be – Southern drawl, Hawaiian pidgin, or Yiddish inflection – it’s more than the slant of a character’s words. Voice shows up consistently, even without dialogue to drive it forward. It’s what happens when the way the words are slung together engages the reader as much as the suspense or mystery that imbues the story. The author owns voice.

John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces, exhibits a voice like no other. The story is told mostly through the character of Ignatius J. Reilly, a rotund ne’er do well who lives with his mother in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans. Read the opening paragraph of the story:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap, Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Who is this audacious character who exemplifies the worst fashion taste and yet seeks to criticize it in others like someone who doesn’t notice the toilet paper tailing from the back of his pants? It’s Ignatius, and his personality never improves. You might read only that first paragraph today but the author’s voice is so unusual and identifiable that, read another paragraph a hundred pages and two years hence, you’ll still know it: the raucous and farcical humor of A Confederacy of Dunces. It isn’t just the dialect or even the antics of the bumbling inhabitants of this forlorn part of the city. It’s that each character remains true to his internal compass, however skewed the arrows might be. Toole guides the reader through a New Orleans we’d all be loathe to visit in person but we bask in his words as he relates the hijinks of this motley group of social rejects. Readers who savor Dunces are in love with his original voice.

Voice must feel authentic and true to the story. Juliet and Romeo were doomed from the start, their love too sweet to survive the family feud. Readers sense from Shakespeare’s first line, Two households, both alike in dignity, that no dignified end bodes for the lovers. The Bard mastered voice in everything he wrote, and his audience remains loyal.

Stretch voice too far and a story, however clever and inventive, will read as unbelievable. It’s the lack of a sure voice that allows a character to do something counter to his nature. We’ve all thrown down a book as betrayed by a voice that’s wandered too far out of range. Disconnected or fragmented voice is not a new entity to you if you’re a member of a writing critique group or a lower division college class. Stop rolling your eyes – sometimes it’s your own voice singing off key.

Voice has history, and history must be honored. No matter how toothsome he looked in her Grandmother’s bonnet, Little Red Riding Hood’s Big Bad Wolf had to con the girl into settling onto his dinner plate. He was a wolf, after all, and wolves eat children, so the Grimm story goes. Any alteration to the original tale must provide insight into Wolf’s psyche. The reader must believe he has sincerely opted for pea soup instead of red meat. The writer must show that Wolf was understandable after all, his appetite for chewing up children based on his miserable childhood and the bullies that tried to eat him. All he ever really wanted was a friend willing to chop veggies with him when all he ever got was bigger wolves tenderizing his tail. That could be a credible voice as well, more heartrending than the original fairy tale. Yet it isn’t the change in outcome that showcases voice. It’s the tone and method of story presentation. A consistently distinguished voice can reveal poor abused Wolfie – not the big baddie everyone thought him to be, just a frightened pup in a shaggy costume. Ahwoo-o-o-o.

OMG, you hear that? You’d know that sound anywhere. That’s Mom singing off key. There’s a place for such a voice as that!

 

 

 

 

 

The Sympathy Vote

actorsObserve Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old hero of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attack on the Twin Towers and Oskar himself is just as shattered. Alone, he wanders New York for months, seeking the lock for a key he believes was left him by his father, keeping his profound terror at bay by wearing all white clothes and banging on a tambourine. Oskar is a diminutive child with immense impact. Safran Foer takes poetic license as his due and employs suspension of reality as a given. Yet I found Oskar, grieving and determined, completely believable. I’ve raised two sensitive sons who didn’t always do what was expected or take the easy route. They and Oskar remind me often how to be thoughtful of others whose condition I may have judged through my own harsh point of view.

My oldest grandson, hesitant, cautious, brilliant, and imaginative, could be Oskar. My oldest granddaughter, reckless, independent, creative, and fearless, could be Oskar. I’ve taught and mentored so many children over thirty-plus years, that I know the quirky kid whose lens is smeared, is the one who sees things accurately. Wearing white is a symbol of projecting peace while making noise routs the monsters under the stairs and makes them scrabble to darker corners. I read the book ten years ago and still recall many details, imprinted on me because they resounded with me. I care about Oskar enough to have remembered his story. He’s a sympathetic character.

We identify with sympathetic characters. Against the odds, we love these people. We ache for them, cry with them, wish they would wise up, and hope they prevail by the end of the book. They remind us that to be flawed is to be human, to cower is to yearn, to try to be heroic we sometimes end up an ordinary schlub.

Nothing ordinary about my next sympathetic character. It’s Death, usually portrayed in a hooded cloak covering his entire body, only his skeleton hand showing around the grip of his curved scythe, perhaps a ghoulish grin on his skull face. We all fear him. He has no mercy nor any compassion for the people he takes with a slash of his scythe, nor for the ones he leaves behind.

But this isn’t the Death in Markus Zuzaks’s The Book Thief. Death is a gentle creature who lifts the soul out of the body and carries it away in his arms. In his words:

I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see – the whole spectrum…It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax…

The smiling teddy bear sat huddled among the crowded wreckage of the man and the blood. A few minutes later, I took my chance. The time was right.

I walked in, loosened his soul, and carried it gently away.

All that was left was the body; the dwindling smell of smoke, and the smiling teddy bear.

…It kills me sometimes how people die.

This Death is an observer who lingers, one who is haunted by the humans whose lives he changes, for those who are left behind. He connects with the people who don’t even know he’s there. My mom lives in a residence for those who suffer with memory loss so severe they can no longer communicate in any familiar cognitive semblance. I hope that when my mom’s ravaged body finally lets her go, this is the Death who comes for her and lifts her soul gently. Oh, I hope it for myself as well one day. And because this Death is so tender and merciful, I feel kinship with him. What a terrible job he does so well, another sympathetic character.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is on its surface a story of the last generation of Chinese girls whose feet were bound, crippling them but making them desirable brides. Lily and Snow Flower are pledged as laotong, improvised sisters by the incidence of the constellations at the time of their birth. They suffer together the excruciating pain of the binding process. They spend hours with each other locked in the women’s room, and when apart send each other secret letters inscribed on the pleats of a fan, written in a poetic cipher called nu shu. Lily eventually realizes that she’s been duped into accepting Snow Flower as her better when it was Lily all along who deserved the most honored position.

Or was Snow Flower’s duplicity meant to protect herself from a terrible life while convincing Lily of their equal status? Each of these same-same friends looks in a mirror and sees a lie, but each also sees deception where perhaps there was only a miserable social condition thrust upon them by centuries of cultural restrictions so bizarre that little girls’ feet were broken to make them attractive to men. Bound feet, bound lives, secrecy, and social position enslave the girls while their fan hides their deepest longings. I kept a diary as a kid, a journal now, and I write stories that reveal aspects of my life. Couched as fiction, you’ll never know when I dissemble or lie or if I tell the truth. I’ve had best friends and left some of them behind, painfully, when the relationship changed too much for us to bear. I’m not always honorable, but nearly always beset by flaws. Noble and damaged, Lily and Snow Flower are both sympathetic characters.

Books about sympathetic characters are readable because we find ourselves on the pages, sometimes with a guide to redeem our own sorry selves.

See you on the pages in between.

All the Broken Parts that Chocolate Can’t Fix

brokenvaseIt’s a problem we all face: the extra words that contribute bupkes to our story. We need to get rid of them, killing them softly but surely. I’ve deleted sections and chapters I worked on for weeks but finally admitted they’d been the wrong trajectory for the work in progress. They just didn’t contribute to the story. I’m from the camp of write the details, all of them, except for the chaff you need to exclude.

Remove, delete, exclude. Less is more, more or less. We diffuse the vigor of our words when we overwrite, when too many words dilute the power, like overwatered punch.

Our writing critique group met last night. We discussed the work of a strong writer with varied interests and craftsmanship skills that make her stories a pleasure to read. Before the meeting began I’d chomped down a chocolate bar to give me the strength to critique her work. How could I have otherwise faced this woman who’d given so much of her effort to a story of her heart? Because: she has a tendency to find every possible way to describe things. Not a fluffy cloud, but a fluffy pink cloud filling the sky with gauzy shapes to remind us of childhoods filled with the wonderment of lying on hillsides calling out the attributes of various clots of condensed water vapor. Even though the story was about searching for evidence of political wrongdoing among the landed gentry, we got a description of clouds to beat all other descriptions of clouds. And we read similar expansive details about pocket watches, ship building, and the hidden benefits of secondary education, chunks of writing that broke up the story. That broke into the story and left a mess.

Sounds like the work of an amateur, which to a degree it is. She is not yet published but she, like me, is trying hard and has every intention of getting her work in print. We’re all trying to write the story readers want to read, the one that makes people stand in line to buy, even if it’s standing in line at Amazon. Every writer works to produce a saga extraordinaire, but many of us miss the target. Including me.

Yet I’ve read published books in need of a big pair of scissors and a pint jar of white out that I wonder, how did they do it? Get a book published that obviously needed an attentive editor and a round of intense rewriting? This past year I’ve read so many books that fell short on my love this book poll. Not only has not one of this year’s books excited me enough to recommend, but several have elicited my camel imitation: a huge spray of gloppy spit. I’ll talk about one, in a roundabout way. I have no desire to expose a writer whose work is in print, because that might create an enemy when all I want is to improve the quality of the written word.  I have no desire to thrash someone who labored to produce a book close to excellent but still short of the goal. So I’m going to be snarky about identifying the writer and the title of the book.

The book is historical fiction, one of my favorite categories. It’s about a culture rarely evident in novels, characters rich with life force, and conflicts that dramatically stymie plot resolution. Sounds like everything a story needs. Except the writer began with a prologue. I generally like prologues. Done well, they’re intriguing glimpses into the crux of an issue without giving away the whole story. But the prologue in this story did exactly that: gave away the ending. We learned in two pages what was going to happen so the entire book read like a flat aftertaste. Every moment of suspense was deflated because I already knew the outcome. Nothing hung by a thread, my curiosity was never piqued. And it was entirely unnecessary. The book is stronger without the prologue but I couldn’t unlearn what I’d read in those first two pages. Chocolate wrappers on the floor.

Lessons learned: Foreshadow but don’t expose the final ballot. Describe but let the reader fill in some of the blanks. Remove, delete, exclude, and generate a muscular story.

Really, folks, you have to help me out. I can’t eat any more chocolate bars. My scale is about to crash.

 

 

I Found It on the Internet

internetSurely you’ve heard the comment, “I found it on the Internet.”  You can write an entire book just by finding information on the web, trolling around Google Earth to discover how a location looks, and verifying historical references on Wikipedia. Search through a thousand images to describe the object of your dreams or nightmares. Write it all out in your own words, add a few intriguing characters, devise a dilemma, pop in several crises and red herrings. Spend three months or a year hanging out in Starbucks sipping your favorite wrappa-frapppa-chappa frothed with whipped cream while plugging away on a laptop. Title your production, apply for an ISBN, self-publish or try for the traditional format, and you’ve got yourself a book. Maybe not a great piece of literature, but a story of sorts. Flash fiction, a six word story, a screenplay or memoir. Perhaps a prospect for a serial looms, each relating similar hi-jinks and low brow appeal. Anybody can try. Everybody can be a writer.

My newest WIP is loosely based on my grandparents’ and parents’ lives early in the twentieth century. Of course I didn’t know my parents when they were kids, and the stories they told are bereft of the details I want. I find myself checking the Internet for the facts I need for my WIP. It isn’t that I’m too lazy to go look it up in a library among the stacks of real books. It’s that the library of today is a media conference room and cultural gathering space. Kids without after school care wait there for parents; the homeless find it a safe place to doze while appearing engrossed in pamphlets left by various businesses. The unemployed bring their dismay with them while searching job opportunities; the elderly gather to read magazines and newspapers, and to socialize. Books? Many of the shelves have been swept of books, the more room for videos and CDs. So I can’t peruse the stacks in search of corroborating information for whatever premise I’ve devised – the books aren’t there. It’s Internet browsing for me as well.

Ah, computer research. There I’ve located my childhood homes – seven of them, all posing for their photos, a few looking dated and worn, but most graciously maintained and remodeled attractively. One in Philly, one in Hawaii, three in New Jersey, two in California. I discovered that Trenton and much of New Jersey were very much the center of the Revolutionary War. I grew up mere miles from the places whose history made me American. How I wish I’d been properly impressed when studying it as a kid. I learned about the arguments defending many sides of controversial subjects, and seeking noble ground, found that everything is controversial. Unknown heroes  and unfamiliar words reveal their mysteries in on-line encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauri. (Yep, that’s the correct plural – I looked it up on the Internet.)

Several book titles related to my subject are suggested. I dare not read a book without first scanning reviews on Goodreads and Kirkus to assure I’m not wasting time on a tome I won’t like, and reading the reviews takes time. I get up to heat water for tea and remember the microwave is broken and not repairable. When buying appliances, I can find out the safety, efficiency, and value ratings before handing over my credit card, all of which I can do over the Internet and never have to enter a store. The entire world lies before me on the screen, seducing me away from everything else I need to do. Away from writing. Ah, but it’s all so interesting.

Fact is, I can find out nearly everything on the Internet, but I must write my own book. I’ve certainly heard that there are no new stories, only new tellings of old ones, and only a limited number of themes to explore. The fresh approach must be mine. Time to close the browser with all its attractive and tempting images, jingles, pop ups, cat videos, on-line personality quizzes, and links, and hie myself to my story files on my computer. I went looking for a few facts to put in my book and became distracted with a million (fascinating) excuses not to write.  But I am a writer.

I could be dipping a quill into ink, scratching a pencil in a journal, typing on my old manual Olivetti. Armed with ideas and information, my story is waiting to be told, and only diligent application of words to document will result in its continuance. So now I write. New document page please.

 

Three More Points about Story Craft

hourglassWriting a story takes skill, time, and work ethic. Here are three more strategies to apply to your work in progress.

1. Gather verbs

Verbs are action words and action is story. This one is so simple but it can’t be overlooked. Figure out exactly how your characters do everything they do and use the word, the single most perfect word, that describes just what that is. Render each action succinctly and accurately.

There’s always more than one way to write a sentence. Get a book of clichés so you know what has already been used and scrape all of them out of your story. He’s chomping at the bit was a great sentence with an action verb at its core when first written a million years ago. Gronk’s fans loved it.

Use your thesaurus carefully. Every word listed as a potential synonym is also a potential drop into the language sinkhole. Open the page of any thesaurus and choose a word.  How many of its attributed synonyms do you really know? If any poke awkwardly in your mouth, spit them out. Find another. The wrong word can turn a gripping mystery into a joke. If you don’t really know what the alternate word means or precisely how to use it, don’t.

Write the one sentence that provides the most sensory, physical but unique experience possible. The thrill your reader gets will make her turn the page, page after page.  Write the next sentence just as well. The craft of writing is in the construction of words into sentences and those into story. Verbs are the most important kinds of words at your disposal. Scuttle, cringe, bustle, gawk, flounder, prickle, notch, chasten, scorch – we react at the sounds of these words. Understand every verb intimately and get lots of outstanding ones into your book.

You know what the director said: Lights, camera, action! Yes, another cliché. Gronk’s fans loved this one too.

2. Try out your acting chops

Nothing helps an author sense the drama and intrigue of her story better than reading it aloud. You shout, whisper, cry, jump, and cringe at the words on your page. You wipe away tears, laugh out loud, and snort in derision. You wish the protagonist had more common sense and the antagonist had some decency. You try accents, speed, volume, and you hear the poetry, the power, the flow. Words repeated repeatedly are exposed so you can delete them. (Got that, didn’t you?) You catch the words are that out place of and the rung words that you meant two right – the stupid things we all do that Spell-Check didn’t catch. (Got that too, didn’t you?)

Most importantly, you will hear how consistent your characters sound, whether or not they speak in their own vernacular or have borrowed another voice. You’ll sense awkward scene shifts and unintended changes in points of view. You’ll spot what’s missing in action and what’s excess verbiage. Reading out loud especially while gesturing points out problems and skill like nothing else. And I have to admit: it’s pretty funny to see my husband’s reactions when I’m so engaged. Even Gronk guffaws to hear me and he doesn’t speak English.

Read your story out loud and you’ll know the drama, humor, and success of your creation.

3. Give it time

Let it ferment for a while. Ever try making beer? Bathtub beer, as my son and daughter-in-law sometimes make, boutique beer as specialty breweries make, commercial beer like the name brand companies make –  it all has to ferment or it isn’t beer, it’s dirty dish water. Coffee percolates. Stew simmers. Bread dough rises. Everything takes time while it gathers essence and establishes desirable qualities. (And the fragrances – ah, intoxicating.)

Writing is much the same. Write your story, edit, revise, rewrite, and then let it sit. For a month or so, shift your completed book to an unopened folder while you work on something else. Maybe you’ll try making beer.

Over the month you’ll forget a bit of the details. You’ll forget on exactly what page the lovers first made whoopee, what was the speed of the train wreck, who stashed the knife in the parlor. Then read your story again, beginning to end. It will have a fresh smell and you’ll detect aspects you didn’t observe before. Did you write the story you meant to write? Does the plot progress and excite? Did you end it as intended? Are the loose ends wrapped? Did the hero react according to character and in consideration of all she has learned? Is the story arc consistent and complete? Is there resolution to the original quandary? In this less familiar state, you’ll figure out what needs to be addressed further or deleted altogether. Like adding more hops to beer, salt to stew, sesame seeds to bread dough. Like realizing coffee doesn’t need raisins. Gronk figured this one out.

No point tasting the beer till it’s fully brewed. No point presenting your story till it’s truly done.

Ahhh, now that’s good stuff.

Three Points about Story Craft

StoryCraft1

Writing a story takes skill, time, and work ethic. Here are three strategies to apply to your work in progress.

  1. Write

Wait – isn’t this a blog about how to write? So what’s the deal with advising I must write if you aren’t going to tell me how to do so?

We all dream. I dream of winning the Olympics, in figure skating. I take the ice and complete the first five-turn salchow double-lutz back flip camel. Then I stand at the podium and beam through my victory tears as The Star Spangled Banner plays and I’m jeweled with the gold medallion. My friends who read this tumble off their chairs, laughing and hold their bellies as they imagine this fat old body out there on the ice, wearing not much more than a sheath of glitter (painful sight, that), twirling around on skates until my tush meets the ice – for the tenth time in twelve seconds. Yes, I dream of skating, though I can’t. But I write, and so must you.

Everything you write is an opportunity to practice your writing skills. Emails to your faves, reminder notes to your spouse, business reports for the boss, you write all the time. If your computer isn’t open to the rough draft of your latest tome, but is open nonetheless, you might be writing. Write the most dramatic, funniest, pithiest, compelling, mesmerizing sentences you can. Even if you are only telling your no-longer-BFF to pith off. Write and always write well. Better yet, turn the blank page into words, paragraphs, images, characters, plot, into the story that keeps you up at night, making that blinding white page active with black letters. Millions of them. Because if you can’t sleep you might as well write. And if your story doesn’t keep you up at night, how do you expect your reader to be too excited to sleep?

A writer writes.

  1. Put on your briefs

It’s cold out there. Writing is not about finding the longest way to say something but about finding the most memorable. You’ve done well if your fans walk around quoting you. They savor your story as they repeat it. They also promote it to your next reader. Isn’t that cool?

Remember when you were in fifth grade and your teacher told you to write a story with as many adjectives and adverbs as possible? That was terrible advice from someone who wanted to make certain you learned a vocabulary list. How many of those convoluted sentences do you walk around repeating because of their sustaining emotional impact? You might just as well open a big dictionary, list all the impressive words, and call that your book.

Get briefer. This is a tip for the well advanced story, the one that’s complete and awaiting (more) editing. Length does not equal quality. Edit by excising. Eliminate all the filler words that contribute nothing to your story. Very, good, nice, big, little, pretty, ugly, that, (all the extra “thats” that simply stuff a sentence,) bad, lots, many are among the blah words that say pretty much nothing at all. They lack pungency.

Saying the same thing over and over and over and over is, well, unnecessary. Repetitive sentences and paragraphs bore readers. Trust that your readers are bright, introspective, and have decent memories. They draw conclusions and recall most of what’s important in your story. Remove the chaff and let it blow away. It was garbage no one could swallow anyway. What remains will be powerful and gripping.

Get rid of the words that say nothing of merit, dump the sections you’ve written previously.

  1. Write from the stage, not the balcony

Put your characters in the thick of the story, not at the beginning of the history of mankind. (Though that could be a great book also.) Get up on stage into the active part of the plot. Don’t sit back in your chair and type sentences distant from the scene. Too far distant from the interesting moments, too far away from the characters to see their warts, and the audience will wonder when they’ll get anything worthwhile. If you haven’t been to Medieval England in the court of the king, close your eyes and imagine it. (Also crucial: research it.) Now tighten your cloak, pick up the sword, and seek the knave who’s stolen your beloved. Walk with your characters, speak through their souls, leap their mountains, weep their tears. Don’t tell us the black knight got his due. Hang the bastard.

You must be in the middle of your own plot to report it believably. If you can’t convince your reader you’re right there, how can you convince them they are? If you can’t draw your reader into an exciting, intriguing, mysterious section they want to know about, why should they bother being stuck with your book? And if they’re not in the thick of your story, they might as well be shopping at the mall. That’s something they can believe in.

Get into the center of your story where it’s interesting. This is where your story must begin even if the motivation began generations past. Trash the boring stuff. If a few background details are truly important, find a way to sneak them into the narrative, conversation, or internal dialogue of your characters.

Start where the action made you shout, where the characters made you cheer.

Now, go write, Wordsmith.

I Know the Guy in the Green Shirt

GuyInTheGreenShirtI know the guy in the green shirt because I birthed him. I named him Harvey Kipp. Harvey grew from the sparking nebula of my mind and entered my story fully grown, page 176. He’s based loosely, loose as in wouldn’t fit in a classic dictionary entry, on several boys from my high school. None of them paid me any attention at all so I was in the perfect lurker’s position. I could stand in any hallway and spy on the louts, watching their hands play grab arse with the girls, noticing their leers as others walked by, spotting their wicked hand gestures to each other indicating how high they’d scored. Didn’t matter whether they’d actually scored anything, it was their male mythology and the braggadocio that mattered. Old story of course, naughty teenage boys who likely grew up to become men worrying about the next generation of naughty teenage boys with eyes on their daughters. Twenty-five years will put that kind of wisdom on a person.

I listened to the Harveys in class as they showed off their mediocre interest in the scholastic aspects of high school and repeatedly asked the teacher annoying questions meant to steer the class off track. I grunted when they distracted everyone from a meaningful discussion of Jonathon Swift’s Modest Proposal by suggesting their own immodest proposals and generating laughs from fellow high school cretins. Sitting quietly in the second row afforded me a good view and acoustics for the daily procession of intelligence taking a back seat to arrogant bravado. So when I needed a memorable but loathsome character for my book, I had many doofusses to choose from and created an amalgam I named Harvey Kipp.

I get a bit bleary eyed when writers claim they allow their characters to tell them how they feel or what they plan to do. How’s that possible? A figment of one’s imagination giving directions – that’s fodder for the loony bin, folks. The people with clip boards start hanging around, making notes about your conversations, measuring time lapses between your wacko claims. Then they begin to approach you with syringes and long white jackets. Time to fess up, admit you’re a writer, the person you’re talking to is a character you fabricated. Whew, clip boards walking away. Isn’t that a nice change of direction?

However, Author Doe, I don’t think you’re really on the registry for admission to Far Country Psychiatric Residence if you talk this way. I just think you’re using the wrong metaphor for your act of creativity.  Unless you’re actively engaged in plagiarism, or if you write non-fiction, everything you write is an invention. It’s made up by you, you wordsmithing genius of the writer’s guild. So take credit and say in a proud voice, “Sibley Sussexford carjacked the Mercedes because I wrote her committing the crime.” Don’t tell me she talked to you, explaining she had criminal tendencies and loved to drive the fancy cars she couldn’t afford. Don’t tell me you watched her crack the window and hotwire the ignition and had to write what you witnessed. You made it up and it’s all good that you did.  Makes for a fun jaunt down the freeway with six highway patrol cars trying to round robin Sibley into a catchable corner.  And you made up that as well, even if you’ve watched a thousand freeway car chases on the five o’clock news.

Don’t attempt to convince me about Sibley’s self-sufficiency by her unbidden presence in your dreams, an independent haunt out to hijack your sleep. She shows up perhaps in your nightlife, but not mine, not your neighbor’s, because she’s a figment of your imagination, whether you’re awake or asleep. If she could manifest herself to you without your internal Ouija board beckoning her, I have to ask why she’d pick someone who drools and snores in their sleep when she could more happily inhabit my pristine and dainty evening slumber? Oh slobber and snort all you will, Sibley would recognize better lullaby digs were she able travel anywhere outside of your head. Alas and alack, she’s brain locked in your cranium, wallowing in your obsession with your book. I know because Harvey sometimes nudges me in mine. Believe me, if I could get Harvey to move over and make room for Sibley, I would. The guy’s a gorilla-handed lummox, and he isn’t any nicer because I didn’t make him Mr. Nice Guy.

The reason you can write about Sibley Sussexford and I can write about Harvey Kipp is because of all the actual, identifiable humans you and I have observed and interacted with down here on the blue planet. It’s our multiple experiences with real folks that allow us as writers to depict a three-dimensional person who carries the genetic code we wrote for them. Be proud of your imaginative mind. Take credit for your innovations. Tell it like it is: Sibley Sussexford never did a thing you didn’t direct, because you’re a writer. It’s one of your best assets.