Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Roundup

I haven't done a Friday Roundup in a longish while. But the folk in my blogging circle have been particularly profound and insightful this week, so cue the Rawhide theme music, and here goes!

Agent Rachelle Gardner did a repost about the value of silence, and everyday mundane tasks, as necessary components of a writer's life (and I would add, in anyone's life). I couldn't agree more, and Rachelle has a great idea for weeding out some of the chaos in our lives.

Over at Novel Journey, debut novelist, long time blogger and editor Gina Holmes has launched an editorial service.

Another great repost from Rachelle Gardner, this one about the need for voice in fiction, and exactly what that is.

As always, the writers at Novel Matters have had a great week of discussion. The topic this wee has been encouragement (which inspired me to share a story from my childhood about a special grade school teacher) and validation, ending with Sharon Souza's post about where validation needs to come from.

And I've save the best for last. Best blog post I read all week, that is. Agent Chip MacGregor answered a reader's question: How do you define success? There is so much good stuff in this post I won't begin to list it all, or spoil it by a snippet because the flow of thought needs to build up to the points that are made, and yanking them out of context will only dilute them. No matter what path we've chosen in life, we are born with a desire for success. But do we even know what that means? And are we only chasing after the wind? Is there something more lasting to try for? I'll say it again, don't miss this post.

Wishing all who stop by my cyberspace corner a blessed and restful weekend. Or a productive one, whatever your need may be (thinking of my writer friend Kaye Dacus, busy finishing her latest Ransome novel. Go Kaye. I'm praying for you!).

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Happened in 5th Grade

Over at Novel Matters there's a discussion going about encouragement, and the question was posed who is that person, or persons, who stand out in our memories as those who encouraged us as writers. I was immediately reminded of the first time someone (unsolicited and not a family member), made me believe that I was a good writer.

Mrs. Baird was my fifth grade teacher at Tanglewood Elementary. I loved her class. It was one of my favorite years in grade school. Something strange happened to me that year. I'm a shy person, an introvert, and not at all comfortable being in the spotlight. I can get flustered if more than one or two of my closest friends are listening to me tell a tale that takes more than 30 seconds to relate. I was like this, and probably worse, as a child. But somehow Mrs. Baird made that fifth grade classroom such a comfortable place, I actually opted several times to stand in front of the class and give my book reports orally rather than written, when given the choice. I wish I'd been able to build on that, but it seems it was a special dispensation of grace for me.

But something else Mrs. Baird did for me has lasted lifelong. It was to do with another book report (we must have read a lot in her class, since my abiding memories are of doing book reports, and making a paper mache easter bunny, (but that's another story....)). So, this particular book report we did in class, and the only option was written. Groans all around me, but I always got a little leap of eagerness when faced with a written assignment, so I got down to business quick. I'd already returned the book, Silver Wolf, to the school library on that day we sat at our gum-sticky desks and wrote our reports in class, to be handed in after a certain amount of time. I'm not sure why we did them in class, instead of as homework. Maybe it was a sort of pop quiz, only in essay form. That I didn't have the book with me was no bother. I'd read it several times and knew it inside out (I had a fascination with wolves then and devoured anything on the subject, usually coming back for seconds.).

Anyway, I wrote the report in the allotted time and handed it in with the rest of my classmates'. When they were handed back, graded, I saw I had an A, but Mrs. Baird paused beside my desk and studied me a moment longer than seemed necessary, then she asked, "Did you write this yourself?"

Shy blond mini-me nods, thinking, "Of course I did. I sat here in class and wrote it. Didn't you see me? And I didn't even have the book with me." But I couldn't get a single word of this to make it from my brain to my lips, so I have no idea what she might have said had I spoken my thoughts. Content with my nod, she moved on with her stack of graded book reports.

Her statement might have been taken one of two ways. Either she was subtly accusing me of cheating, which didn't make a bit of sense because she gave me an A, she was smiling, and I'd written the paper practically under her nose. Or else she was subtly telling me she thought my writing was good enough to be remarked upon in such a fashion.

It's never taken a lot to encourage me when it comes to writing. I took her meaning in the most positive light and soared on its wings for many years. In fact I think there's a quiet little blond-haired girl inside me that's still sitting at that desk feeling her teacher's approval, and turning over and over in her heart this shiny new notion of herself as A Good Writer, amazed that it's just been handed to her--and it not even her birthday.

Thank you, Mrs. Baird.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Saying Good-Bye

Or: On The Art of Writing Emotional Parting Scenes.

Since last week I've been working on two chapters that lead up to and end with one of many parting scenes I'll need to write in Willa. These scenes have made me shed a few tears, wrenched my heart, and generally sent me into an emotional tail-spin right along with my characters.

But there's an art to writing these types of scenes--in hope that a reader will feel what I felt in the writing of them--and it doesn't come easy for me. That art is called restraint. Most of what I know of it I learned from writer Diana Gabaldon, who has often given the advice "use a lot of emotional restraint when you write a deeply emotional scene." We've had many a discussion on the subject at the Books & Writers Forum over the years. Here's some of what I've gleaned, in a tidy list:

~ Hold back on telling the reader how the character is feeling. Instead show their response to what's happening, what's being said, and trust the reader to get it.

~ Use sparse and simple language. The emotion should be evoked by the characters and the situation, so the writing itself doesn't have to force it on the reader. 

~ Don't drag the scene out. Let it pack a quick punch. Otherwise it will exhaust the reader.

~ Stay focused on what is most important. This is not the time for too much detail, or trying to focus on everything (sensory and visual detail, extraneous goings on, memories, or thoughts that might dilute the scene's impact).

~ Most importantly for an overwriter like myself: write the scene and let it cool off (overnight, or a week, or while you write another scene), then come back and edit it. Read it out loud. Edit it again. Repeat as necessary.

Any writers out there have additional tips for not laying it on too thick during those scenes of high emotion? Please share!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Super!

Okay, the deal is you can have one super power. Anything at all. But only one. What do you choose?

Being the language geek I am, I choose to be able to instantly speak the language of anyone I meet, anywhere, anytime. Sort of like having a specialized Language-Only Intersect in my head, and when I meet someone who doesn't speak English (the only language I know) as soon as I hear them say something I would "flash" (ala Chuck Bartowski), and there it is, their language in my head. And we talk. Cool.

And while I'm immensely grateful for all the folk who have translated phrases for me over the years and don't know that I would have attempted some of the characters I have without them, it would also come in handy when I want to write a line of dialogue in French, or German, or Gaelic, or even Broad Scots, which I don't seem to be able to stop myself from attempting for some reason.

Anyone else got a hankering for a super power on this crazy-hot (at least in my town) summer day? Leave a comment. Let's play "what if."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Strong Story Openings

I should be on the road to my family reunion, down in sunny CA, but our car decided it would rather not make the trip. "It's such a hot day," it whined (and I mean literally, it whined). "Are those mountains up ahead? You want me to cross them? Um... no."

Several hours and two tow trucks later, I find I have time for another blog post this week, and I do have some neat writerly sorts of things to share. First is a post from the Compuserve Books & Writers Community, lifted from the Research & Craft folder thread discussion called The First Five (pages, that is, and what makes an editor or agent sit up and take notice of them).

The following was posted by Barbara Rogan, writer, editor, former agent, current writing instructor. I believe it's an excellent distillation of what makes for a strong opening page for any novel, and I share it with her permission.

As an editor and teacher, and formerly as an agent, I've read more openings to novels than I could begin to count. There's actually an offer on my website similar to what you're doing here, a chance to submit the opening of a novel and get detailed feedback, so they keep on rolling in. I agree with others here who've said that the first impression is voice. It's just like music. If Yo Yo Ma plays a few notes on a cello, and a high-school music student played the same few notes, any musician would recognize the difference instantly.  So too any professional agent or editor---it doesn't take five pages.

Strong openings create solid settings from the start. If readers can't see that setting clearly, if they don't fully believe in it,  nothing that happens there will matter much.

Writers who excite me have a note of authority in their voices, or maybe it's confidence. It says, "This is my story and by God I'm gonna tell it." There's a comfort level for readers in that note of authority. We feel better being driven by people who show from the moment they take the wheel that they really do know how to drive. Strong writers don't tiptoe into their stories; they dive head first.

That doesn't mean starting with a climactic scene, or plunging readers straight into intense action. As you point out, readers will feel more for the character's travails if they know the characters when the troubles begin. That doesn't mean, as some here seem to fear, writing a bunch of boring background stuff before getting to the fun stuff. Rather, it's a matter of writing an opening scene dense with characterization, setting, and context (not backstory) that gives us not only a sense of who the character is but a reason to care about the character. That's hardly a given; it has to be earned, and earned quickly, or the reader will feel less than compelled to continue.

You can find Barbara at her website, or at her Next Level Workshop (writing course) site:

And while on the subject of strong writing, I also wanted to share a writing craft book I'm currently reading. It's The Scene Book, A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield. I'm halfway through this little book and thus far have made good use of my highlighter. Always a mark of a good craft book, that I'm thinking ahead to the need to find certain passages again at a later date.

In this book you'll learn about the pulse of a scene, and how that pulse carries action and emotion. The focal point, or where the scene converges and turns. How a strong central event can be broken down into beats. Scene openings, and Big Scenes, those that contain many characters. But wait, there's more! Lots more really. I've read a lot of craft books, even quite a few that focus primarily on scene structure. This is a good one.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Speaking of Chuck....

Happy Wednesday! I like Wednesdays. Actually I like all the days of the week, even Mondays. Poor Monday gets so little love, but the days I like best are the days when there's little to distract me from writing. Mondays are good for that.

And speaking of writing, yesterday was the most prolific day I've had since my BC (before chemo) days. I usually write in the neighborhood of 500-1000 words a day. That's a respectable  amount of first drafting for me. Yesterday I clocked in at 3117 words. Those three or four scenes were high action, high emotion, high romance, and high pain. They left me wrung like a dish rag, but I love that. It's quite the ride to go along with my characters and be in the grip of their emotions. And I have to sustain it far longer than they would, were they real and really living out these scenes. Because I don't write at the speed of life, and I do draft after draft, even to get to the point of what I consider is a "first draft." And I wonder sometimes if this is what actors experience, television actors, for instance, doing take after take of the same scene, and say it's an emotional scene. Do they feel it every time? Some takes more than others? Does it utterly drain them by the end of the day like yesterday's 8-9 hours of writing drained me?

And speaking of television actors, I know I've been saying that my male MC from Willa (my WIP) looks a lot like Josh Groban, only with blue eyes, but Josh, as close as he is, was never exactly Neil MacGregor for me. Close, very close. But I've gone and found an actor who is even closer. His name is Zachary Levi. He plays Chuck, on NBC's Chuck. I've come late to discovering this show, and am working my way through seasons 1 and 2 and soon 3 when it's released, because season 4 will be starting up this fall. One thing that instantly endeared me to this character of Chuck Bartowski is that he is Neil MacGregor, if Neil wasn't born in the 18th century--a sweet, big-hearted, caring, intelligent nerd of a guy who is one moment awkward, the next adorable as a puppy dog, still the next startlingly handsome, and only needs to be thrust into the right (or wrong?) circumstances to bring out the latent hero qualities he doesn't know he possesses, that have been buried deep due to a devastating loss and wound to his self-image that he just can't quite get over. That's Chuck. That's also Neil. If only he had blue eyes (and thank you to Kaye Dacus for providing even that for me).

And speaking of Wednesdays and Chuck, tonight at my church (Applegate Christian Fellowship) we are hosting Pastor Chuck Smith from Costa Mesa, CA, and the band Lovesong. Flash from the past (a little Chuck humor for your day)! If you'd like to tune in you can, via the KAPL link over in my sidebar. Service starts at 7pm, left coast time. Can't wait to finally see this wonderful Bible teacher in person, a man who was instrumental in the 1970's Jesus Movement, and who I've been listening to on the radio for over twenty years.

But first, speaking of the past, that's where I'm headed now. New York, 1784.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Writing Apprenticeships

Good Monday! I'm heading back to the New York frontier to send Willa and Neil into a heated situation--heated in more ways than one--but first, while the coffee is brewing I wanted to share that my agent, Wendy Lawton, mentioned me on her blog today, talking about writing apprenticeships, and why it's so important not to try and skip over this step in a writing career.

You can read about it here.

Some apprenticeships last longer than others. Mine has been an unusually long one. But I've found that patience comes easier when I remember Who is in control of this whole writing gig (that would be the gracious God who loves me and has good plans for me). If the next step is meant to happen, it will happen, in His time. All I have to do is do what I know to do. And that is, very simply... write.

Okay, coffee is brewed. Time to practice what I preach!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Switching gears

Kindred underwent another edit this past week, and it's now back in my agent's hands. I got the word count down to 128,000. May seem long still, but not to me. It's positively petite. Dainty even. But my perspective's admittedly a little skewed on this subject.

I'm currently listening to an audio book, and the length of the book is at least 300,000 words (probably more). How I love the tapestry of action, dialogue, setting, description, rich and lyrical language (and the light... oh, the descriptions of what the light is doing in so many scenes!), and the freedom this author has to linger over a conversation between characters that isn't absolutely vital to the plot, but is a study in character and enriches the whole.

I know. More pages make the book more expensive, but this author is one of the few I will shell out as much as they want to charge me for a first edition hardback of her series, the day it is released (which only happens every three years or so). I know I'm getting my money's worth, and then some. I know her book will be so multi-layered I can read it over and over again (or listen to it) and pick up things I missed the first time through. I want to revel in that world, live there with those characters as long as I can. When I'm not reading her books I remember them like I remember the places I've lived, the people I've known.

I'm sure we all have those books or series that appeal like that. For me, it's the Big Fat Historicals, for the most part, that I come back to again and again. Not sure why I'm going on about BFHs that are written over a span of years. Just me geeking out, I guess. They're a passion of mine. I could wish there were more of them.

Transition back to that edit.

So, I finished this edit, shaving another 8000 words off this manuscript that once qualified as a Big Fat Historical, by lunch time. Then I took the rest of the day to get caught up on things like buying groceries, vacuuming the carpets (Ugh. I don't think I've ever let them go a week like that before. With a big hairy walking carpet of a dog in the house... let's just say it wasn't pretty), saw a movie, wrote some emails, made a nice dinner for me and Husband that wasn't thrown together at the last minute. Regular old, boring, precious life.

Tomorrow is Saturday, but I miss my Willa characters so much I'm going to spend a few hours getting back into their story while Husband spends the morning with his Scout troop. It's only been a week, maybe ten days, but it feels like months since I left Willa and a little girl racing down a wagon track, smelling smoke where there shouldn't be any smoke. Time to dive back into that action!

Highs and lows, plunging uncertainties and soaring confidences, difficult edits and all, I love being a writer.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

It's a cinch

Can a novel that once came sprawling in at 325,000 words ever drop below the 130,000 mark? Stay tuned....

This has been a tough edit, and fast, and I've fallen asleep over the pages more than once in the past week. My brain is a bit mushy, and the most I did to celebrate the 4th was here on this blog, but by golly I'm about 2/3 of the way through this manuscript for the... I don't know, TWENTIETH? time, and I'm terribly, happily excited to see Kindred about to go below 130K!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Happy Anniversary

I've been quiet this week, I know. Right on the heels of Monday's interview, which was a delightful and fun experience, I found myself required to do another fast, furious and major edit to my agented novel, Kindred. So that's what I've been doing this week, and not a whole lot else. That word count is going to drop into the 120ks, and I'm taking my holiday weekend to do it.

I did want to share a writing blog I just learned of, Linda Claire's Writing Tips. I took a look at it this morning and believe it would be a help to many writers, especially those still finding their writing legs. Linda also does book reviews and author interviews. So check it out!

Last night I watched the last installment of the HBO miniseries, John Adams, for the third time (our library has a copy, so I'm blessed to be able to check it out now and then when I want to ogle the wonderful 18th century costumes and settings), my reward for knocking a couple more thousand words off Kindred.

How many of you learned late in life, as I did, that the last surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both lived to see the 50th anniversary of that momentous date of July 4th, 1776... and that both men died on that day, July 4th, 1826, within hours of each other?

If it was written that way in a novel I think it would be hard to swallow. And it is a wonder to me that it should have happened so, that these men, once friends who helped forge a nation, then divided for decades by politics and hurt, should have rekindled their friendship through letters in their last years on earth, and died on the anniversary of that nation's birth, one with the name of the other on his lips. To me it's one of the greatest human stories in our nation's history.

Wishing you a Happy Fourth of July!