Monthly Archives: December 2010

Weak Writing–when it all crashes down

Diehard football fans already know that the Metrodome in Minneapolis caved in last weekend.  Others married to diehard football fans are likely in the loop as well.  The footage was amazing and if you haven’t had the chance to see it yet, I recommend checking it out.

Not necessarily for the historical value, but rather for the writing metaphor that it captures.  This decades old sports arena simply could not uphold the weight of the snow storm.  Whether the construction had a flaw or the integrity had simply deteriorated over time, the pressure of the accumulating inches  was too much.

Often we construct stories based on a character, a theme or an inciting incident.  We may fail to truly consider the intricate structure needed to support an entire, cohesive body of words.  Topping it off may be poor mechanics, poor character development, gaping plot holes or any number of flaws that can create the roof of our story to cave in under the pressure of close scrutiny.

This past week, volunteers were paid to shovel the heavy snow that had filled the arena.  For those unfamiliar with shoveling snow, it is back-breaking work.  It makes you sweat.  Your nose drips.  Your fingers freeze and your toes turn to blocks of ice.  Sometimes when I’m done shoveling I want to vomit.

I feel that way with editing sometimes. 

Do you?  Have you ever written a manuscript that can’t stand up to the tight market?  If so, have you shoveled out the slush, cleaned it up a bit and pushed forward with the shell?  Or, have you trunked the whole thing and started on a new manuscript, leaving behind the rubble of hard work and dreams?

Board Games or Bored Games?

We are smack in the middle of a blizzard.  Six to ten inches of snow and 40 mile per hour winds.  No visibility and gusts that push semis off the road.  Super fun–but only because I just grocery shopped and we won’t have to gnaw on last night’s roast bone for the next three days.

Anyway, when the weather keeps us in, our family usually breaks out board games.  We all have our loves (yeah, I kick hiney at Scrabble) and dislikes (I’d rather pluck out my armpit hair with a tweezers than play Monopoly) and a very few games that everyone enjoys (try getting six people to play the same thing and not break out the brass nuckles.)

In one of my manuscripts, my MCs are playing a game.  Right now it’s the dreaded Monopoly.  I figured it was a game everyone and their grandma would recognize and relate to without having to actually address how the game is played.  The actions are interspersed between dialogue. 

“Have you heard about the ghost?”  Jenny slid her boot onto Boardwalk.  Everyone turned to her…blah, blah, blah.

It wasn’t until later that I realized she never paid me rent.

Okay, not exactly, but you get the picture. 

And so I’m doing a little research.  What is the most popular game in your house? 

Which game makes you stand on the table, rip open your shirt, pummel your chest and declare yourself King of all?  Which game would make shoveling raw manure on a ninety degree day appear fun?  And which game simply bores you to the point of picking belly button lint?

And when you play, what kind of player are you?  The kind that pouts when someone scores more points, the kind that holds a grudge to the point you refuse to lose, or the kind that flings your money across the table and storms away only to curl up in the fetal position until someone soothes your wounded ego?

Consider this research.  Seriously.  I want to make my passage realistic and interesting.  To the point where, if you have any great game-playing anecdotes, I’d love to hear them.

Thanks in advance.

Character Names–too much of a good thing

Once upon a time, I had two novels running parallel to each other.  The general premise was the same–in a dystopian kind of way.  The MC’s ages almost identical.  In one, the MC found herself part of a clone project.  The other MC a victim of personality testing that would force her into an unwanted future. 

When I hit that “and now what” moment with the second MC, I realized she was the other MC’s sister.  The one I hadn’t yet met, but knew was an integral part of the first story.  So far, the marriage between the two ideas has been seamless.

Except the names.

I like unique character names, and I’m sucker for fun girl names in particular.  This meant that I had four wonderfully unique names for my characters–two male and two female.  When I put them together, it became apparent that I the parents of these kids had lost their ever-lovin’ minds.  The combination–which had worked well singularly–was suddenly bizarre.

A little like my family tree.  While doing DD’s project, she wondered we hadn’t named her after anyone like we had with the boys.  When I ran down the choices (Florence, Dovie, Vinie, Myrna, Elvira, Pearl and–way way back–Sindervilla) she understood.   Sometimes a normal name is the unique name.

Same with naming our characters.  When we try to cram too many unique names into one manuscript, it becomes cumbersome and distracting. 

I have since taken my young MC’s to court and petitioned for a name change.  While I lament the loss of some pretty cool names, it had to be done.

How about you?  Do you find yourself drawn to traditional names or unique names with funky spellings?  Do you do this across gender or are you more girl-centric with offbeat names?  What’s the most bizarre name you’ve come across in your life?

Delete Keys–a writer’s best friend

Over the past few months–since AQC started its new site–I’ve noticed an influx of new writers.  It is fun to see all the fresh ideas and ride the high of their excitement.  However, that excitement only lasts so long.

After a few swipes at their queries, they become frustrated by the sheer volume of rewrites that it takes to create the “perfect” query.  Even those who can provide amazing feedback to others will make the same rookie mistakes in their own letters (don’t we all?).

In the wake of watching others follow the query journey, I’ve been able to pinpoint (totally unscientifically, of course) three kinds of writers–nay, three editing styles.

  1. The practice of ignoring all commentary in a rewrite.  These writers will kindly thank others for their time and repost a query almost identical to the one they initially posted–without heeding any of the significant feedback that had been provided.  Writers of this editing style typically don’t stay long on AQ, and I often wonder how long they stick to writing in general.
  2. The practice of taking absolutely every comment and squishing them all into a revised query.  Writers who do this kindly thank others for their time and repost a query chock full of every last feedback tidbit within a span of five minutes.  The result is a query that has lost all individuality.  These dedicated souls will remain on AQ, diligently reposting query after query, month after month.  Some eventually move on to the third editing style.
  3. The practice of hitting delete and starting from scratch.  These writers kindly thank others for their time and seemingly go on hiatus for a week or two.  Suddenly, they reappear with a sparkling new query–one that goes in a completely different direction and has hints of feedback weaved nicely between the lines.  Even if these revisions need revised, they always come back substantially different–at least until all but the minor nitpicks are left.

I’ve found myself doing each of these things over the years, depending on the  project, my mood, the feedback or the alignment of the stars.  The point is, editing is an art, just like writing.  Yet as writers, we don’t always understand the sheer energy and focus that a good edit requires–or the mindset that goes into it.

Oh yeah, those and a willingness to hit the delete key.

Over the past year and a half on AQ, I’ve unofficially noticed that the majority of writers who stick around and eventually nab an agent are the ones who can kindly thank others for their feedback and walk away–only to emerge a week or two later with something new and fresh. 

The practice of deleting has made them stronger, more resilient writers.  They are not afraid to consider a new perspective.  They are confident enough in themselves to apply feedback artfully, not just as a whiplash reaction.  And they certainly realize that changing more than a word or two is what editing is all about.

Delete keys can be your friend.  In fact, they can be your best friend if you’re not afraid to use them.  Kill your darlings.  Forge a new path into your MC’s world.

Go ahead.  I dare ya!

What kind of editing style do you practice?  How do you incorporate the delete key into your writing life?  Are you so afraid of losing a beloved passage that you carry them around in your manuscript like a Sherpa toting water?

And in case this post makes you feel edgy, uncomfortable and a bit unworthy, know that I’ve been nursing a manuscript for VERY long time.  While the feedback has only been my own, I’ve been tentative at best about getting into the meat of my edit.  Not until yesterday’s Story Tree did I actually remember my long lost friend, Delete Key.

Trust me when I say it makes a difference.

Story Trees

Last night Dear Daughter finished up her family tree project.   When we went to bed, we were stupid tired from all the work she put into this and another uber-crafty project.

When I woke up this morning, an epiphany struck. 

Hello!  Why not a Story Tree?

I’m a highly visual person and informally creative.  Plotting and planning and outlining makes things lose their magic for me.  Yet sometimes we desperately need to keep track of details while writing.

Enter the Story Tree.

In my DD’s version, you can see the branches that make up her genetic history.  The leaf puffs provide the genetic traits and family traditions she has collected from the generations that came before her.  The two teepees beside the tree represent the Native American ancestry–a tribe from each side of the family.  Each teepee is decorated with facts from each tribe.   As I was adopted by my dad, the clouds at the top provide a loose connection to the physical traits passed down from my biological father. 

So, what can a Story Tree do for us as writers?

I picture it in context of the story.  The trunk is the MC and his goal, while the two main branches would indicate the internal (right branch) and external (left branch) conflict that my MC faces.  The smaller branches would provide a nice visual of the obstacles my MC must overcome.  And each leafy puff would record the outcome–or rather, the impact of each obstacle on my MC and his goal. 

Now, I didn’t just visualize this, I actually sketched it–at 5:22 this morning–and the theory holds beautifully.

My Story Tree lays out all the elements of a manuscript in a very simple format.  It’s easy to see at a glance where one plot line dies and produces no leaves.  It’s easy to pinpoint the cumbersome plots that threaten to topple the unbalanced tree.

And for all you story arc fanatics, my Story Tree shows this as well.  Look again at DD’s family tree project.  See how nicely the leaf puffs round out at the top?  A good Story Tree does this as well, because ultimately if the external conflicts are met in a way that impacts the character, the internal conflict has a nice resolution at the end of the novel.  Right where it should be.

In addition, each teepee (if you want to make one) can flesh out the protag and the antag with all the quirks and details that need recorded and remembered.

The clouds?

We all need to dream right? 

How do you keep track of your manuscript as you write?  Do you meticulously outline every detail or do you scramble during rewrites to see how everything flows and fits together?  Sketch out a quick tree and let me know what you think!

Newbie to ?–crossing the great divide

The responses I received to Thursday’s post were wonderful and eye-opening.  They brought up a bunch of questions in my mind.  Namely, what is on the other side of newbie?

A while back, one of my dear writer friends was surprised to learn that I had joined Agent Query Connect at the same time she had.  Her reason, “You just seemed to know so much, like you’d been doing it forever.”

To clarify, I had.  Not on AQ, but in general, I had been writing, researching and learning the business for what felt like forever.

There’s a lot to know about the craft of writing and the business of publishing.  What I know can fill a thimble.  And yet, it is substantially more than I knew when I started out–back in the day when the mail was still delivered by snails and submission guidelines were requested via a SASE. 

The technology explosion has changed the landscape of the writing arena tremendously and writers are coming out of the closet much sooner and with less experience/understanding/practical education/practice under their belts than when I emerged. 

I had long ago “just finished” my first novel.  I had already read countless renditions of how to write a query and practiced 1001 times in 1001 ways to learn what worked and why.  I’d attended conferences, been critiqued by agents and editors and had worked over my manuscripts to the point of nausea.  I had also long since ceased believing that an agent would care if I had a dog, four kids and lived in a rambler.  In short, all those rookie myths and mistakes had been debunked and made years before I knew AQ existed.

Yes, I am agented (July 2010), and yes I have published (magazines, newsletters, articles, short stories, poetry, columns, etc).  Yet I would still consider myself a newbie in a lot of ways. 

  • I have not published a novel.
  • I have not published consistently to even consider myself a freelance writer.
  • I have not published in the juvenile lit arena, which is the bench mark I hold myself to as being able to cross the great divide.

So what am I? 

And how do we, as writers, know when we move from newbie-ism to the next level?  What is that next level and what, if any, new responsibilities does that hold? 

Inquiring minds want to know!

Starting Somewhere

Two cyber conversations have me scratching my head and wondering what newbies are supposed to do.

I’m quite certain I’ve never met a single piano player who sat down and mastered the task in one day.  Nor have I met a professional singer who recorded a number one hit the first time she opened her mouth. 

Okay, I’ve never actually met a professional piano player or a top 40’s artist, but I have met lots of writers–newbies, seasoned, agented and pubbed–over the years. 

So, my question becomes this: does anybody owe it to a newbie to help them get started?  I don’t care what area of life we’re talking about.  I’m just pondering the concept as a whole.

Should an agent have the attitude that they only want to rep already pubbed authors?  Does a writer have the right to adopt the attitude that working with a newbie agent is something less than desirable?

Seriously, we all started out as newbies.  Every single one of us at some point was a novice to our passion/job/career/hobby.  Nobody started out at the top, and yet we sometimes look down on others who are just joining the fray.

Do you ever forget where you came from?  Do you ever remember the one person who gave you a shot to prove yourself through time and experience?  If you have a great story, please share it.  I’m really curious to see how people feel about this issue.

Moderation–live by it!

Minutes after leaving work today, I arrived at church to cook beignets (bin-yays) for our advent supper–and yes, this does have to do with writing. 

This past summer, our youth group attended a National Youth Gathering in New Orleans.  While there, we stopped by the French Quarter and had the famous French delights at Cafe DuMonde.

As a thank you gift to our congregation for supporting our youth on our trek, we made beignets as a dessert.   While everyone seemed to enjoy the yummy goodness, I’m quite certain we’ll never be asked to make them again. 

The reason: frying 150 doughey squares in under 90 minutes is the closest I’ve come to starting a building on fire.  The smoke burned our eyes and the air was thick with grease.  My hair stinks.  My clothes stink.  Heck, I stink.

Which brings me to the writing tie-in and the mantra to live our lives by.

Moderation is fabulous.  Excess is, well, excessive.  It can also be the beignet that burned down the church. 

  • Too many adjectives diminish the impact of the words around them.
  • Too many pronouns and we can easily lose track of who/whom/that which we are talking about.
  • Too many dialogue tags can turn our characters into whimpering, teeth-gritting, muttering, spluttering caricatures.
  • Too much detail can bore a reader to tears.
  • Too much…

You get the picture. 

One beignet is a treat.  Two might be perfect.  Three borders on the obscene.

Write with just enough flair to entice and delight, but not too much that your writing stinks. 

My shower awaits~