Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Go Ahead . . . Try It!

It’s not that bad, right?  Some people just want to do it and get it over with.  Some look forward to it eagerly.  Adding details to our writing is like decorating for the holidays.  Once you immerse yourself into it, you are hooked – and so will be your readers. 

 C.S. Lewis said,  “Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we ‘ve read the description.  You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”
If you add the right detail, just a tiny word or two, you can make the reader laugh, or cry, or catch their breath.

Finding those perfect details isn’t as hard as it sounds.  Try to notice the little things around you.  What is that man doing in the car next to you?  Is he texting?  Is he weeping?  Is he picking his nose?

When you add details to your story, it becomes personal.  It goes from being any old story to being personal.  That’s when it becomes real.  

Maybe you are writing about the lady next door taking her garbage out in the morning.  Get nosey with those characters.  Ask yourself those impolite questions.  What’s in that garbage and why does she have to take it out every morning?  What’s that stain on her robe?  Are her curtains open or closed, and how come she keeps her curtains closed in the daytime?

Try to notice those little details—I call it thinking like a poet.  My favorite poets use very spare language to make the story come to life in the poem.   They make every word count.  They pay attention to subtle things, like the way someone’s voice goes up or down a little when they say certain things.  Or the way their voice catches. 

Don’t be afraid to channel Gladys Kravitz.  Spy on those people in their stories.  What’s out front of the house?  Why are all those cars in the driveway all of a sudden?  What’s going on over there?
Is there a death?  A birth?  
The cars are coming and going at all hours of the night.  Are they drug dealers? 

Don’t be satisfied with just steps.  Make them creak.

Don’t be satisfied with just a classroom.  Jazz it up.  Put some contraband in there.  Make someone throw up or want to throw up.  
Details can be deceptive, too.  They can trick us—they can trick the reader.  You can drop a tiny detail in and see if the reader notices—a bit of foreshadowing.
I leave you with some holiday cheer from Mark Twain:  “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning-bug.”

Now get back to your decorating!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What's it Doing in the Back of Your Refrigerator??

Annie Dillard says,  “ . . .  spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.  Do not hoard what seems good … give it, give it all, give it now.  Something more will arise for later, something better.”  This wisdom has become one of my favorite recipes for writing.

I love this, because I am guilty of saving my writing.  But really, for what am I saving it? A perfectly good idea can end up like back-of-the-refrigerator food--something that was perfectly good on Saturday, but ended up getting stashed away and wasted by next Friday.  I have a million little notebooks—I always have one going, as do most of the writers I know.  But if a good line comes to you—or a great character idea—or some fantastic setting details, find a way to put it in right now.  Don’t let it disappear forever into the pages of your journal; get it down on a page of your book.

H.G. Wells had another great writing recipe.  He said, “If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise; attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.”

I am a big proponent of writing at the same time every day.  It may just be a mind game that I play with myself, but I truly believe that my body and mind get used to this 5:00 a.m. time.  The words automatically start trickling out after I’ve had my first few sips of coffee.  The routine of it all works for me.  However, we have all gotten to a point in our story where either we, or the story feels stagnant.  So try again.  Try it at 5:00 p.m., instead.  If you are too tired at this time, because your first writing time of the day was at 5 a.m., go for a walk.  Let the ideas start to flow.  Do what makes your mind wander to your story.  Walking, running, riding your bike, cooking, baking, knitting…be open to it, and your characters might just start talking to you.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Trick . . . or Treat . . . ?

It's easy, right?  Just treat your readers with your tricks.  We beat ourselves up and rack our crazy writer brains trying to come up with the latest wowing trick.

Writer, Merrill Markoe says she struggles with her tendency toward “contrarianism”.

“If I know there’s something I’m supposed to be doing or saying or wearing, I feel compelled to resist—particularly with creative endeavors like writing.  If I see an obvious punch line or plotline driving toward me, I can’t help but make a sharp left turn into the unexpected.  I don’t like to replicate what I’ve seen done before—I don’t like to give people what they expect.  I think it’s my job to come up with a surprising angle or add some personal twist.” –Merrill Markoe

She made me think about how some people are trying to follow the market and write what they think is “hot” or selling right then.  Of course we all want to sell our work, but if we aren’t writing from our gut and our heart, it shows in our work.  It ends up feeling derivative.  We need to make our work our own, with our original, distinctive voice.  

In comedy, I think one of the reason’s that David Letterman has had such success, even early on in his career, is that he felt a strong rapport with his audience, making them feel as if they were in on the joke.

As a fiction writer, that’s exactly what you are doing.  You are making the audience feel as if they are in on the story.  –You are sucking them in without their even knowing it, from the very first page—even the very first line.

Nobody likes to feel as if they are on the outside, looking in, and not a part of things.  Remember how you felt as a kid, or even as an adult, when you were at a party, or on the playground, and you weren’t included in a conversation.  Or you felt as if you had entered in the middle or towards the end and you didn’t have the details to jump in.  Sometimes, the people were doing that on purpose, hoping that you would go away, or wanting to control the group, giving them the upper hand.  When this happens in a story, the reader never gets a chance to connect with the characters, and may, in fact just put the book down.  

One of the ways you can include your readers in your story—letting them feel as if they are “in the know”—is to give them things to which they can relate.  You have to dig deeply in order to do this.  This doesn’t always happen for me until I’m heavily into my revision process.  Again, you have to climb into the minds of your characters—not just your main character, but all of your characters—and figure  out how they would feel and react to each situation in which you put them.  What you are shooting for is for your readers to think, “I’ve felt like that, too.  That’s just like me, or that’s just like when I …”

So dig to the bottom of that plastic pumpkin.  That's where the best treats are hiding out--waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to LaGuardia

I believe it was the brilliant John Irving who said,  “You don’t initiate a story until you know how you’re going to end it.  You don’t start a dinner party conversation—‘A funny thing happened on the way to LaGuardia’ –and not know what happened in LaGuardia."

I used to use the “fly by the seat of my pants” approach.  Sometimes it worked—just by fluke, I think.  But more often than not, I would dig myself into a hole and get stuck.  Now I think I tend to agree with John Irving.  I try to tell myself the story.  I don’t like to tell other people the story, because, maybe it’s just Irish superstition, but it feels as if it loses some of the magic for me when I talk it out with someone.  I’ll write little notes to myself –when I do it that way, it’s as if the story unfolds on its own.  As soon as I have a general idea of where it's going, then I start to work—and I work out technicalities and logistics along the way.
But the big, meaty question I try to remember to ask myself is, What has to happen?  If you have an impulsive character up on a rocky ledge, or if you have a nervous, self-conscious character fumbling in a mud pit, what absolutely has to happen?  I don't always know, but it's always an adventure to see where this question takes me.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Duct Tape, Chocolate and Walter White


Write two words. 

Get distracted by something shiny.

Two more words.

Cross them out.

Write three more.
Sneak peek out the window.

Stop.  Sniff the air.  Is that charcoal with a hint of cheeseburger?

Lean closer to the window.  

Shut the window and duct tape yourself to your chair.

Five more words.

Cross out three.

Write eight more.

Is that a sentence you see?

Give the sentence a friend or two.  

Don’t stop now.
You have a page.

The window has darkened.  The charcoal is gray.

But you’ve done the work.

Now celebrate.

Unpeel the duct tape.

Eat some 


See what Walter White is up to.


Wake up and repeat.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Painful and Embarrassing

Paula Danziger definitely had it right.  She knew how to create a truth-telling world.  This is the draw-you-in-immediately-make-you-laugh-sob-and-wet-your-pants-all-at-the-same-time kind of telling the truth.  

Wonderful to read, but not so easy to write.

But once you actually get down to adding that emotional layer--once you are actually laughing, sobbing, and wetting your pants while you are typing, it's going to be the most satisfying kind of work you can do.

My editor, Reka Simonsen, used to say to me, "Dig Deeper."

So that's my challenge for you this week.  Think of things that make you cringe and write down exactly what you are feeling.  Then give that feeling to one of your characters.  Drum up that embarrassing moment--you know which one.  Then pass it on to one of your characters.  Go ahead.  You got this.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is Your Character Driving the Bus?

 “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.” --Alice Walker

With your first few lines, you are inviting your readers into the lives of your characters.  You want your readers to feel as if they’re eavesdropping and somehow getting privileged information that no one else has.  You’re allowing them to sneak into the house with you --to hide in the corner or to be a fly on the wall.
Now you as the writer need to be the fly on that wall.  Listen to your characters.  What are they saying to each other?  Are they angry?  Afraid?  --Maybe even terrified?  And, of course, ask yourself why?

What are your characters worried about?  Has someone in the room caused those worries?

What does your character truly care about?  It has to at some point in the story seem almost unattainable.  Almost. 

I leave you today with a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:  “Many people believe that stories are told to put people to sleep.  I tell mine to wake them up.”

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Razor Blades and Pencil Sharpeners

Lewis Carroll once said, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?”

As middle-grade and young adult writers, we owe our readers those pictures and conversation.  They are the toughest audience around.  Right around third grade, they start to form very strong opinions.  Each day in my third grade class, I would get a round of critiques, with their observations, all of their up-and-downs.  They would watch to see what I had on my desk, what I’d put around the room, how I might be reacting to the fact that Owen is taking all the razor blades out of the pencil sharpeners, and Anna has brought her cell phone to school and is showing it off in the cubby room. 

Kid readers see and hear and feel everything with the sharpness that hasn't yet had the edges buffed or smoothed.  So it is our job to make them see and hear and feel every last bit of our story.  We have to provide the pictures and conversation.  We have to drop those kids into our book from the first page, from the first sentence, or they are going to turn around and leave.  Remember, we’re not there to teach; we’re there to entertain.

They need an equal amount of action, description, and dialogue.  Not one word should be there that doesn’t drive the story forward.  Give them something to wonder about on the first page.  Give them someone to worry about or cheer for.

Novelist Andre Gide said, “The poor novelist constructs his characters; he controls them and makes them speak.  The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them.”

So today, go do a little eavesdropping.  Watch, listen, and wonder.  Color a few pictures.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Where in the World Are We??

I have always been partial to anything that is broken-down and decrepit or unusual, because such things always spark a story for me.  I can't help but imagine:  Who lived there?  What went on in that place over the years?

Some people feel that in order for a place in a story to feel authentic, it has to be a very familiar place -- a place the author has experienced in great detail.  But I don't necessarily agree.  We can add details in a such a way that it becomes real and familiar.

And I think that setting is very subjective.  We experience setting in the same way that we experience people.  We all see and notice different details around us.  Think about giving someone directions, for example.  Some of us will deliver what I call the MapQuest version, using strictly mileage and left and right turns, while most of my writer and illustrator friends will use color, shape, and landmarks.

The details of settings add emotion to the story, because we can actually have strong emotional reactions to places, especially when we have our own history there.  Certain elements may spark vivid memories, both good and not so wonderful--your childhood home, for example.

The setting is the holder of the large details, and more importantly, the tiny, sharp details of the character's world.  The writer is coloring the picture for the reader.  I always hope that my reader will feel as if s/he is eavesdropping -- as if s/he is a fly on the wall of the setting.  Your unique setting allows the reader to crawl into your story.

My invitation to you writers out there:  Notice a detail of a place as you are out driving or walking.  It stands out to you in some way, but you may have no idea how or why this is.  You do know that you can completely picture your character there.  Write it.  Do it now.  See where it takes you...

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Talk to Strangers

I am cross-posting over at Smack-Dab-In-the-Middle today ... and I am looking at the frozen New England tundra of my back yard, with serious doubts that anything will ever grow there again.  I'd much rather think about growing characters.  I can't make the dirt-streaked snow melt, but I can do whatever I want with my characters.

E.B. White said, "Don't write about man.  Write about man."

I love that quote, because it reminds me that a well-drawn character takes a story to a completely different level.  If a reader does this well, she can make her reader laugh, or cry -- or both.

By creating real characters, a writer can bring out raw emotion in the reader.  I'm not only talking about realistic fiction, either.  I'm talking about creating a character so real, that without even noticing, the reader invites that character into his life.  Well after he has put the book down, he is quoting the character, or saying things like, "That sounds like something Bilbo Baggins would do." ...or..."I'm more of a Gryffindor than a Hufflepuff."

So to create real characters, you have to go out and look at real people.  Eavesdrop and study mannerisms and quirks.  Don't keep to yourself.  (Change out of your pajamas and get out from behind that computer screen.) You need to mingle--to be nosy.  You need to talk to strangers.  Strike up a conversation with the least likely person.  I'm not asking you to go chat up the meth dealer on the corner, but talk to someone who you think is the least like you.

Then write down what those strangers say-- and not just what they say, but how they say it.  How do they stand, sit, move?  What are they doing with their hands? 

Write it down.  All of it.  Take a piece of one person, and a phrase from another.  Add.  Water.  Prune.  Your characters are beginning to grow...I can't wait to meet them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Beware the ides of March


Watch out!

Heed my warning!

We can always exercise a little caution in our lives.  But can we be too cautious as writers?

Sometimes we need to ignore the caution flag and step out of our comfort zones.

I'd be willing to bet that you have at least one idea that's been lurking around in a back out-of-the-way mind cavern.  It may have been stashed away eons ago, because it's a little out of the ordinary or too away from the mainstream.  Maybe someone tried to convince you that nobody was buying/reading (blank) right now. 

Ignore the soothsayer's warning and uncover that idea.  Peel off the layers and let it grow into a story.  It's hung around for so long for a reason, don't you think?

Monday, February 2, 2015

One Letter at a Time

Amira, just twelve years old and in the midst of civil war-torn Sudan, wants nothing more than to learn to read and write and to attend school.  I fell in love with little Amira from Andrea Davis Pinkney's first word in her stunning new novel, THE RED PENCIL.

I was reminded of how words and teachers have made me who I am as a person, as a third-generation teacher, and as a writer.

I most likely wouldn't be here if my grandmother hadn't been allowed to stay in school.  She was born to a family of several children and would have been required to quit school early on and help on the farm and care for her younger siblings.  An education wasn't considered important for a girl.

She was born without fingers on her left hand.  Her father thought she would never marry.  He knew she would need to be able to support herself, so she was allowed to go to school.  She graduated and became a teacher.  She and the man who would become my grandfather wrote long letters back and forth before they were married.  He had lost one of his legs when he was run over by a cart in Ireland.

I wish I had those letters, but I was lucky enough to have my grandma in my life until I was twenty.  I loved that hand of hers, especially when I was a little girl.  Instead of holding my hand, I held hers.  It fit perfectly in my kid-sized hand.

I remember exactly what her watch looked like on her narrow wrist.  But what I remember even more clearly is her voice.  She couldn't carry a tune at all, but she sang out loudly from the church pew.  I can remember the rise and fall of that wonderful voice as she recited her favorite poems to me.  Poems she'd learned in school.

Thank you, Grandma, for teaching me the power of letters and words.  And thank you, Andrea Davis Pinkney, for the power of The Red Pencil.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Everyone Loves a Challenge . . . Right?

"It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver." --Amy Poehler (on writing her book, YES PLEASE)

Resolve is not only the perfect blog theme for the beginning of 2015, it is also the ideal theme for writing, especially in the verb sense of the word.

It means to sort something out, to fix it, to straighten it and find a solution.  It means to decide firmly on a course of action or to figure it all out.

As writers, and as human beings in general, we are constantly trying to step over that slippery puddle that has the word, FEAR hidden beneath that thin layer of precarious winter ice.

So . . . I CHALLENGE YOU THIS MONTH.  Whether it's your novel, your first marathon, that mysterious stain in the upstairs bathroom . . . maybe it's that dream job you've been dying to make your own or that intimidating volume of Proust you've been wanting to tackle . . .

Get your resolve on and make it happen.

I leave you with one more Amy Poehler quote (because I kind of want to be her when I grow up):

"So let's peek behind the curtain and hail the others like us. The open-faced sandwiches who take risks and live big and smile with all of their teeth.  These are the people I want to be around.  This is the honest way I want to live and love and write."