Monthly Archives: August 2010

Writing Lessons from a Mannequin

While in Chicago, DH and I awoke one night to a very loud, bothersome and still-unidentified vibration.  It was 4:30 in the morning.  My courageous DH braved the boogey man and opened our hotel door. 

“You have to see this.”

I braved the hotel hall in my nightie only to be confronted by a slim porcelain leg.  Actually four.  I would post a pic of the mannequins outside our door, but they were lounging in a rather compromised position. 

Needless to say, we giggled ourselves back to sleep and shared the hysterical pictures of the motionless mannequins that soundlessly made their way throughout the hall (and poses) over the following days.

Then I got to thinking about characters. 

To me, they are the essence of a great book.  I would rather read a dull plot with exciting characters than an inspiring plot with motionless mannequins. 

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin’s Chicago antics.  I just don’t want to read about them for an entire novel.  In fact, following lifeless, expressionless characters through the twists and turns of a riveting story is the fastest way to get bumped from my TBR list.

And so I give you:

Lessons from a Mannequin

  • Give your characters a head.  Seriously, Mister and Missus were headless wonders.  I suppose it’s so we don’t get freaked out by finding our neighbor’s mug on an overgrown doll, but still.  In real life, MCs need to have the tools to succeed.  They shouldn’t necessarily utilize them or even realize they have them immediately.  But they should possess some sort of strength that gives them an edge.  As an FYI, brains come in handy.
  • But, if you want to go brawn, I ask that you give your characters some flaws.  The perfectly sculpted creatures in the hall were a bit nerve-wracking.  I mean who wants to gaze at flawless wonders?  No scars were visible.  No wrinkles or stretch marks or love handles could be found.  Not a single mole or ingrown toenail existed between the lovely couple.  Ugh.  Make your MCs real.  
  • Don’t forget the details that make your MCs unique.  Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin were barely distinguishable from each other.  Granted Mister had more muscle tone and Missus had larger…pecs.  But all in all, a slimmer build doth not set characters apart.  Nothing about Mister indicated his penchant for scotch and water, and we had no clue that Missus was a bit capricious with a loyalty stronger than our aging black lab’s.  All we knew was that clothes were hard to come by and they enjoyed frolicking in the halls of a very prestigious hotel.
  • Throw in a little intrigue.  Aside from obvious character traits, it’s fun to give your MC a bit of mystery.  Provide a quirk of some kind that plays into the larger picture.  One that subtly speaks of the past and promises interest in the future.  Yep, our otherwise silent friends did have one quirk that made DH and I scratch our heads in wonder.  Mann E. wore a hard hat.  One day it was yellow.  Another day it was white.  Sometimes there was writing on it and other times it was blank.  Intriguing to say the least.

I hope you enjoyed this lovely tutorial.  I only wish I could illustrate it so you could truly experience the humor behind this post.  However, as I do write for younguns, I’ll leave the pictures to your imagination.

What other tips do you have for building strong characters?  Or, if you feel so inclined, please share your mannequin moments with the rest of us.  We could all use a good clean laugh. 

Return of the Zombie Writer

I’m tired.  Land of the Living Dead tired.  But I’m also thrilled to be back home, back to real life and back to my computer screen.

The last two weeks were filled with the good, the bad and the ugly.  In no particular order or chronology. 

  • My computer died.  I all but had it buried when the Computer Tutor sat up until 3:30 in the morning last Tuesday breathing new life into it.  Thankfully he was able to save my writing–heading to Mozy now–but everything is in read only now.  Should be fun retyping…
  • I went to Chicago with my DH for his work.  We were wined and dined with dinner cruises, champaign carriage rides, museums, botanical garden tours and sailing.  It was my first trip there, but definitely not my last.  The architecture was amazing and the fact that our last name is a famous street name had a cool factor all its own. 
  • While gone, my DD got in a car accident in which the car was totaled, the airbags deployed and whiplash abounded.  Nothing like being states away and completely helpless.  I didn’t have the ability to hug her and hold her close while simultaneously beating her for being on the wrong road at the wrong time.  Everyone is okay and seatbelt safety has been reinforced.  The windshield in front of DD was cracked even through the airbag and her seatbelt.  I shudder to imagine what could have been. 
  • Two days later, Eldest’s wallet had a run in with the lawnmower.  He lost it on the golf course.  It was found after credit cards, driver’s permits, money and leather spewed out onto the green.  All as finely chopped as a specialty salad in one of the fancy restaurants we ate in.
  • Because of the above two items, my little sister (who kindly watched over our angels) will never need birth control.   
  • I read Mockingjay, the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy.  If you haven’t read them, get cracking.  Now.  Suzanne Collins is firmly planted at the very top of my Favorite Author list.  When I grow up, I can only pray to be just like her.  Even a little bit.
  • I have tons of catching up to do on my computer–sorry for the absence–and a new schedule to figure out.  Starting next week, I will open the doors of my new business.  I finally have pictures up over there if you want to check it out.
  • Lastly, my women’s group decided on our 2010/2011 program.  As I am on the committee, I had the pleasure of helping plan our year.  Our theme is Bridging the Gap.  Because of this, we will get to learn all sorts of ways to move from possibilities to practices.  Subjects of interest: literacy, socio-economics, health, technology, safety, environment and culture–to name a few.  Exciting stuff.

Life is good.  My novel fodder folder is overflowing and blog posts tumble around in my head.  All I need to do is hop on over and visit all of you before I fall asleep…

New Driver On Board

One year ago to the day, Oldest took his driving permit test.  He seemed completely unruffled even though he hadn’t studied.  And with his dyslexia, I worried about him reading the questions wrong.  By the time we got to the courthouse, I was sick to my stomach.

I guess I should have just listened to him.  He passed as easily as if he had written the handbook himself.

Today is his 16th birthday.  For the past two days, I have been trying to get him to practice parallel parking in the car he would be driving for his test.  No dice. 

“I know how to parallel park.”

Not in this car.

“I’m fine, Mom.  I’ll pass.”

Egads, to have so much misplaced confidence.  No practice, no worrying, no obsessing. 

I know I don’t have to say it, but submitting our writing is waaaaaay different than this.  We do practice.  We write, we hone, we edit, we critique, we cringe, we rewrite, we re-edit and we cringe some more. 

Then, we sit anxiously by our e-boxes and gnaw our fingers to the knuckles.  Unless that’s just me…

Needless to say, Eldest passed his test with a stellar score.  He missed only five total points.  Not bad considering that he forgot to start the car on the way up to the courthouse and couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t shift out of park!

What is your state of mind when you submit a query?  Do you have confidence that your manuscript is ready to go, or are you afraid of knocking over a cone?  How do you prepare for submission?  By working extra hard or simply knowing that if you don’t have it figured out now, it’s never going to happen?

Caution, perceptions not always accurate!

“Mommy, please print me a blank piece of paper.”

I reached under my desk, pulled some unused pages from my printer and handed them to Youngest. 

Let’s just say I made the top of his most-awesomest-mom-ever list by “printing” his special paper. 

This magic trick is one I strive for when writing.  I want my readers to experience the awe of a great story without seeing the reality behind it.  I don’t want them to watch my struggles to make a character believable or do a half-baked job of muddling through my story arc.  I don’t want them to know the sweat and tears that went into editing. 

Instead, I want them to walk away from the last page of my books and believe the story was printed just for them.  Magically, effortlessly, awesomely.

So how do we accomplish this as writers?

I don’t know.  You tell me.

Death of a Computer

Friday morning I hopped on the net and began searching for a Garmin and key fob homing device for my dyslexic son’s, impending sixteenth birthday.  You know, so he can find his way back home after driving up town to get some milk? 

I walked away from my computer for the briefest of times (about 35 minutes) and when I returned, my computer screen had a Death!  Corruption!  End of Life as We Know It! message. 

Love when that happens.  All my blogging.  All my writing.  My emails, my work and my keep-for-seven-years-under-punishment-of-death files are gone.  Along with the heart and brains of my computer.

All I have left is a black screen with my Death Message.

Insert CD and restart your computer from the set up menu.

DUH, my computer doesn’t have a CD rom.  You would think a computer would know this about itself. 

And my dinosaur computer can’t be moved because I fear disrupting the delicate winding of the cord around the base so it can have power.  Nor can it be moved to actually function on any time remotely like the kind that real humans must operate on.  Some days it doesn’t boot up at all.  Other times I takes an entire day just to pull up the internet.  Typing can drain the patience of a saint, as only some letters show up sometimes. 

So, I will keep posting as often as my dinosaur allows until I either replace my new-old computer or get to the bottom of the death message.

Til then, hugs and may your muse be with you!

Scooch Over, Dictionary!

Whenever I use my spell check, I almost always have a made up word or two in my writing.  I can’t help but to write the way my brain thinks.  And since I write for kids, my brain doesn’t think on a very adult level sometimes.

Do you ever make up words for your manuscript?  If so, what genre do you write for?  If you’re a stickler for dictionary words, does finding a made-up word bother you when reading?  What are some of your favorite fake words?

Lynch Mob

The other day I read through the comments left on a news website regarding the two missing 2 year olds.  Some were heartfelt prayers to the family.  Others bordered on abuse toward the parents.

At one point a commenter got particularly nasty.  Subsequent comments condemned the mothers–each one worse than the last.  Then, a brave soul chastized those for their behavior toward a grieving family and the tides turned.

I am not going to pass judgement either way, nor do I want to discuss the horrors that awaited those little boys or the parents who are left to bear the lifelong pain of their losses.

I do, however, call attention to the lynch mob mentality and how easily people are swayed by their own anonymity and someone else’s vocalness. 

This is a gruesome trait of human nature that helps no one and hurts many.  However, it is one we experience on the playground, around the lunch table, at the water cooler and in the break room.  We aren’t too old or too young to fall victim of someone else’s convictions.

A prime example of using this tool for literary purposes is The Oxbow Incident.  I haven’t read the book since highschool, but it made such an impact on my life and how I viewed the way we control, or don’t, our own emotions and convictions that I have never forgotten the story and the vigilante mob that persecuted innocent people. 

I often wonder how often our civilized world is guilty of perpetuating this behavior.

What literary examples have you read that tap into the mob mentality?  Have you used this trait in any of your writing?

Another Sad Day

Today our little community buried another parent of a high school student.  Two in two months is more than enough.  Sadly, our children are learning that life is not fair, that mistakes can be fatal and that supporting each other can be a much-needed gift.

I hate how fast innocence can be stripped and how quickly life can irrevocably change.

My heart aches…

Query Bio Mistakes

While googling my name to see if I ousted famous rodeo star of his search engine slots I ran across an ad for a dating service in my hometown.  On it were three pictures of local singles wanting to hook up with local lurkers lookers.

One pic was of a handsome guy dressed in fancy duds and was likely taken at his BFF’s wedding.  The only problem?  His left side was cut off at the elbow and a feminine arm circled his waist.  Yep, Dating Genius’s pick-up picture had another woman in it.  Barely, but still…

In my writing world, the pick-up picture is our query letter.  It’s our first, and sometimes only, chance we get to land a first date.

We should look good–polished and captivating.  Hot in our tux with our hair styled just right and a crooked grin that makes our whole face light up. 

It’s easy to spiff up our pitch (though some might disagree), and it’s a snap to provide details–42k word,  YA paranormal romance titled You Know You Wanna Read Me.

But sometimes we get tripped up by our bios.  We forget to photo shop our pictures and leave in little details that usually turn off potential dates.

Biography Paragraph Traps 

We’re too handsome for words: My grandmother says it’s the best book she’s ever read.  Ever.  And Granny is the most honest person I know.

We’re drooling like a black lab after pheasant scent: I just wrote the end yesterday and I just know you’ll love it as much as I do, so please read it today and I’ll get back to you tomorrow, oops, that’s me calling now.  TTFN.

We’re Freud’s couch patients: I would be eternally thankful if you would just humble yourself enough to read my lowly book which you probably won’t like anyway because it’s been rejected by every other agent in the world.  But here it is.  If you’re still interested.

We have bigger egos than Arnold Schwarzenegger has biceps: Listen here, Mr. Agent, this is the best book you will ever read.  If you pass on it, you’re missing out on millions.  Millions, I say.  And I won’t be back.

We put the proverbial sock in our trousers so we look better than we actually are: My poem, Willy the Worm, was published in our fourth grade keepsake book from Mrs. Robbins.  I also wrote a letter to the editor of our local farm newspaper about the gestation period of elephants.  Please consider my murder mystery which has no poetry, worms or elephants in it.

We have the Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon Syndrome: My best friend’s, cousin’s, uncle’s dog was trained at the same facility as the dog owned by the next door neighbor of Suzanne Collins’ pool boy.  (Not that Suzanne even has a pool boy, but if she did, how cool would that be?  For me, not the agent.)

We’re hopelessly all brawn and no brain: Dude, call me.

We could play the leading role in a Stephen King movie: I noticed by the book on your nightstand that you like middle grade fiction.  And since your bathroom had an African theme, I can only assume that you will love my book which is set in the Serengeti.  Oh yeah, and all those old pictures in the photo albums beside your 60″ tv, the ones with your great grandma beside the horse?  Yeah, my novel has an old lady in it too.  And might I add that you looked hot at your sweet sixteen?  Anyway, for your convenience, I left my entire manuscript on your kitchen counter beside the fresh-baked cinnamon rolls (your favorite) and a pot of hazelnut coffee.  PS. I locked the door on my way out.

My advice to you is this: introduce yourself, simply and honestly with relevant information only

I’m an SCBWI member.  My article, “Into the Wild” was published in Boy’s Life (July 2010).  For the past seventeen years I have worked as a guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  Each summer we take at-risk kids on a two-week trip where they can learn life skills and gain self-esteem.  These experiences are the basis for my adventure novel, Tales of a Teenage Screw Up. 

I look forward to hearing from you,

Bob Good Bio 

What other bad bio mistakes can writers fall victim to?  If you’re brave enough to answer, have you every made any of the above?  I have! 

Worst Sales Pitch Ever

My DH was a Kirby Telemarketer back in the day.  He rocked the house, often securing more “free” carpet cleaning appointments than his co-workers.  He’s a charmer, my DH, and a natural-born salesman.  He could charm a snake out of its skin, then sell it back for a profit and have the snake thanking him in the process.

The telemarketer who called me yesterday couldn’t sell a fishbowl of fresh water to a dehydrated guppy in the middle of the Gobi Desert.  

**Here follows a shortened version of our conversation for the sake of clarity.  These lines are verbatim without the extra condescension smack in the middle of the phone call.**

Him: Can I ask why you don’t want to renew warranty on your 2008 vehicle?

Me: Because it’s still under warranty.

Him, sarcastically: It’s expired.  A vehicle is only under warranty for three years.

Me, losing patience, of which I have times infinity: I would appreciate if you wouldn’t talk to me like I’m stupid.

Him: Well apparently you are.

Yep, he had me.  I simply could not subtract 2008 from 2010 and come up with three years like Boy Genius did.  Thankfully he pointed out the error of my thinking and charmed me right into renewing my warranty.  Not!

Just sayin’, but it might behoove us writers to learn a trick or two before peddling ourselves and our novels to the reading public.

Are you a natural-born salesman or does it take a concerted effort to put yourself out there?  How will/do you handle self-promotion when it comes to marketing yourself and your book?

Got any more What Not To Do stories for our learning pleasure?