Thursday, April 30, 2009

Making it a Mystery

I love when I read writing advice and can apply it right away. Usually I read an interesting tidbit in a book or hear an idea or experience something in workshop, then I tuck it away and months later, I’m like, “oh, that’s what they meant.”

But yesterday I read a piece of advice and immediately used it in my book. I wasn’t even trying, and I think that’s when learning is at its best. Since I do anything agent Janet Reid tells me to suggests, I went on over to writer Robert Gregory Browne’s website Casting the Bones. I liked the first post and poked around.

Then I stumbled onto this nugget: “I don’t care what kind of story you’re writing. EVERY story is a mystery story. And by mystery, I merely mean that you don’t reveal everything up front. You tease your reader, planting questions in his/her mind, questions that he wants answers to.“ (More here.)

This made a lot of sense, and, like I usually do with nuggets of wisdom, I tucked it away in my brain and let it marinate. Then I typed away, got stuck, twittered, read and then was ready to type some more.

This was the situation: Yesterday morning I had Sadie’s antagonist antagonizing her, but I couldn’t figure out his justification. The scene really helped solidify the story’s conflict, but it bothered me that it didn’t make any sense for Jack to do what he did. So then I decided to write a scene where Sadie conspires with a former co-worker to figure out what Jack was up to.

Well, smart girls as they are, they did figure it out. And it totally works. I was quite happy with myself and my characters, since they did all the thinking and all I really did was type some words. But then Browne’s advice flew right to the forefront of my mind. Sure, it was great that I, the author, knew my antagonist’s motivation, and what he wanted in that scene. But what if I didn’t tell my readers just yet? What would that be like? Well, it would be a little mystery, wouldn’t it?

Do you see how that all came together? I will replay it for you: read writing advice, write, forget about writing advice, read a book, write some more, (okay, twitter if you must,) then brilliantly apply writing advice just when it was the very last thing on your mind.

It doesn’t matter if these events happen within minutes of one another or months. The point is, you must actively seek out writing advice, you must always be reading, and you kind of always have to be writing, too. I think when you pursue these three activities, the learning will do its own thing behind the scenes. Then you get that aha moment and see what your brain has been up to when you weren’t even paying attention.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rewriting and Reordering

Remember how I said I created an intricate numbering system to keep track of my scenes? Well, I’ve moved some things around and that exercise sure came in handy. Take a look at the new order of the scenes:

1C (and some new stuff)

This is only up to page 34, but I bet you get the picture. And do you know what was buried in chapter 14 of the first draft? Only the inciting event, the crisis moment that invokes a conflict that starts everything out that makes a character’s story interesting to tell right now at this very moment in their life. Yeah, that part. I thought I had it right there in chapter two, but it was kind of weak. It was an idea of a conflict, but when the actual forces started competing against one another in chapter 14 – 100 pages into the book – oh boy did things get good.

And for the record, here are the scenes I’ve deleted so far: 1A, 2C (what I thought was my inciting event), 3A, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 5B-D, 6A, 6D. Okay, so maybe you could’ve figured things out by process of elimination, but I am here to make things easy for you.

My goal for the week (which you know already if you follow me at is to focus on getting the first fifty pages in shape to hand off for critique. For my first book, I wrote each draft linearly. I still absolutely believe in this approach for draft one. But the topic, and therefore structure, of this book is different from the first one and so the story feels more fuzzy to me this early on. I knew I really had to get a hold of what the story was about, what the main conflict was, what was at stake, etc. before I could write about the results of those things in the second draft.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Character Flaws

I finished marking up the entire first draft of the book this week. I’m not certain what my next step will be, so I’ve been thinking about the book a lot. This completely counts as writing, by the way, even though there’s no typing going on. I’m writing in my head, I swear.

I am clear on a few things in this book. What’s the main conflict? Sadie wants to get the big job. What’s the obstacle? The new boss promotes Sadie’s co-worker instead.

I also wanted to create a young, contemporary woman who was kind of the anti-Bridget Jones. Don’t get me wrong, I love that book, I just can’t help it. But it’s been done and sequeled and imitated. I wanted to create a character who wasn’t falling into goofball situations at work, who didn’t have credit card debt, who wasn’t obsessed with her weight struggles, wasn’t unable to maintain a normal relationship. So what if my character was smart, successful, ambitious and driven? You know, like most of the women I know in my life and who I can actually relate to.

So I made Sadie strong (but also sassy). I put her through the rigmarole at work, gave her lots of roadblocks, and never made things easy. After re-reading the first draft, I see I need a lot more of this, but the building blocks are there.

And lately, with all this thinking that’s been going on, I discovered a problem I had with the main character in my first book has potential to pop up in this book as well. Like Rebecca, Sadie is a little too good at everything. She’s sometimes too smart, too quick on her feet, too confident around guys, too unflappable.

I’ve realized that she needs a lot more flaws. One of the hardest to receive, yet really important to hear, pieces of feedback about my first book was that it was a little too after-school special. The story was perhaps too pleasant, too uplifting, too optimistic.

I can see the possibility of that happening in this novel. But now that I know this, I can work to avoid it. This is what writing the second novel will teach you. Can you imagine the stuff I’ll learn when I’m writing my seventh unpublished book? I’ll be like an unpublished book writing pro. Now that’s something to aim for.

But seriously, it’s interesting to see how much you can learn by just plugging away and practicing. It’s just like playing the scales on the piano or doing twenty math problems every night in seventh grade algebra. Eventually, things come easier, and you get a little stronger.

So in this situation, to get stronger as a writer, I have to make my characters a little weaker.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Fine, I Joined Twitter

I’ve been contemplating this for a while. It started with an article about all the twittering going on at a lousy SXSW publishing panel. Then Ellen got me all excited about it. Then Oprah joined and, honestly, it lost a little of its cool for me.

But here’s what did me in this morning. On Editor Unleashed writer Andrew Keen said, “Any writer not on Twitter should have both their hands chopped off.” I instantly went to Twitter and signed on. I mean, how much more pressure did I need?

Anyway, follow along at I don’t promise to only twitter about writing though. You’ve been warned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review: AFRAID by Jack Kilborn

Because I like to read and I also like to get free things, I signed up to receive a free copy of the horror novel AFRAID by Jack Kilborn in exchange for posting a review online. I don’t read horror novels. I’ve never even read Stephen King. But I’m making an effort to read outside the genre I write in, and this fit the bill.

I have to say I had no idea what the book was about, even after reading the back cover and lots of marketing materials. This was on purpose and effective, because let me tell you, this story was weird. I had an idea of what I thought it might be about. It was weirder than that.

I even hesitated to open the darn thing because I thought I’d get scared and have nightmares. The book arrived in the mail when when my husband was out of town and I honest to goodness wouldn't start reading it until he was back home. But after all that, I didn’t find it scary. It was super gross, but not scary.

The story was simple: “something” invades a small town in Wisconsin. Figuring out the “something” was pretty cool, and that’s what kept me reading. I didn’t need to see more gore (and really, I expected a lot more of it), but I wanted to figure out what the “something” was. Kilborn was tricky about this.

Even though I was reading gross scenes, I got through the book pretty quickly. I did get stalled in the end by some of the logistics. As I started to put the pieces together, I kind of wanted it to be over a little faster.

I have to give Kilborn credit for succinct description. There’s always just enough to paint a little picture in your mind, then he keeps things moving. But his best credit (also in his Lt. Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels thriller series, written under the name of J.A. Konrath) is his character development. These people have some serious back story. In a good way. Everyone has a motivation, a reason for being the way they are.

Joe Konrath (aka Kilborn) says he tried to stretch himself by writing a horror novel, something he’d never done before. I’d say he was successful. It’s a good book. But I’d love to see him go all MYSTIC RIVER on us and write something more (okay, maybe equally?) centered on character than plot.

Overall? If you like horror, I think you’ll love this. If you’re a fan of Konrath’s other books, I think you’ll like this, too. His breezy and compact writing style pulls you through any of his books, no matter the genre. Not a fan of horror? Read it anyway. It’s super weird, and that’s always interesting.

Monday, April 20, 2009

When Do You Quit Writing?

I’ll cut to the chase. The answer is never, unless you're a big wimp with no backbone, which, I must say, many writers are starting to sound like with all this queryfail and agentfail nonsense.

Anyhoo, check out this great post by Toni McGee Causey over at Muderati. It’s a moving read. The link comes courtesy of agent Janet Reid, who I learn from daily and will constantly adore, no matter how many people keep saying nasty things about her.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Back to the Book, Baby!

So last week I took the first draft out of hiding and printed it up for round two. My plan was to go through it with a red pen (okay, it’s green, but you get the point) and mark up weak spots, jot down questions, highlight sections that work. This was not a line-by-line, rewrite everything edit. It was a high-level analysis of what’s working and what’s not.

I also numbered every scene in the book. For example, chapter one now has scenes 1A, 1B, 1C, etc. On a separate sheet of paper, I wrote down the main point of each scene – just one brief line. This will help me keep track of things, sure, but it’s not the point of this exercise. What I’m doing with each of these chunks is questioning how each scene either advances the plot or reveals character. I would love if all scenes did both, but for now I’m just requiring one. And let me tell you, I already have identified many scenes that I can put right in the trash because they don’t do either of these things.

With my last book (you know, the unpublished one) I never really thought about the story. I was glad I was writing, I was glad I was revising, I was glad I wasn’t giving up. But now I’m really trying to actively think about how each scene affects the entire story arc. Am I maintaining tension? Am I creating setting instead of leaving it all in my brain where no one can see it? Do I use too much dialogue? How long has it been since there was some action?

I didn’t consciously think about these things with the first book, and let me tell you it makes a huge difference. I know exactly what my plot is. I know what my character wants. I know what obstacles are getting in her way. I know how it’s resolved in the end. Everything I write needs to support these things.

Now that I’m writing with these goals in mind, it feels a lot easier. And now I can focus on fun things like voice. I can experiment with point of view. I can spend time learning how to write setting. This is one of my weakest areas – at least that I’m aware of at this point – and I have no idea why I always glaze over it. But once someone pointed it out to me, I totally saw it.

So I have a sense of relief that the book is manageable. It’s all still very hard, I’m no expert on this, and this very well may be my second unpublished book. But, I can recognize that I’m learning and the more I know the harder I can challenge myself.

One last comparison, I swear. I think this is the difference between how I jog and how I run. I never consider myself a runner, but I jog three or four times a week. I put one foot in front of the other, quickly, and listen to music and look at the pretty trees. I don’t go very fast, but I get exercise and, until now, that has been enough. But now I want to think about running. I’m trying to time myself, use the incline on the treadmill, actually think about my stride.

My first book was a jog. Now I’m ready to run.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Notes on Rewriting

I’ve got rewriting on the brain. I started going through my writing books and reviewing sections on rewriting. For as much as everyone says “writing is rewriting,” writing books seem to have awfully small sections on revision. Anyway, I re-read parts of Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver recently, and thought I’d share some of my favorite tidbits. Back in the day when I started this innocent hobby (or so I thought) of creative writing, this was the first book on writing I read. It’s very helpful and a pretty easy read. Good starter book.
  • “Rewriting is not polishing.” So good to remember. You aren’t ready to get things perfect on the second draft. Continue to let yourself experiment and make mistakes. Don’t try to get every synonym down and every comma in the right place. Polishing comes later.
  • Cleaver suggests it takes, on average, about five drafts to get a story right.
  • When you’re starting out, don’t always try to get a story perfect. Get it as good as you can get it for where you are as a writer. Then start another project.
  • Cleaver refers to rewriting as “craft in progress.” Mmm. Love that phrase.
  • What to do when you’re lost? Go back to the main elements of Want, Obstacle, Action. He suggests that if you avoid these main points of the story “It’s like waxing your car when it needs a new engine.”
  • When you’re revising and thinking about your story and if it has what it needs, “don’t work in your head.” Find the proof on the page. If you can’t point to the exact words that back up how obvious it is, then they are only in your mind and will never be in reader’s. I am guilty of this a lot!
  • Resolution “is simply a matter of a victory or a defeat.” Did the character get what they want or not? Mini-resolutions occur throughout your story as your character faces her obstacle and chips away at it bit by bit.
  • Don’t forget emotion. This “is where the ultimate connection is made.”
  • “Showing is creating the experience.” Don’t just talk about what happened; write it so the reader can really experience it herself.
  • “Let nothing be easy for anyone ever.” Who wants to read about someone’s easy breezy life? No fun! Make things tough, always.
  • Use double duty: every little action and scene in the story has to reveal character. If you send your character to a cocktail party, this event better have some significant connection to your character. Is the person who’s creating an obstacle there and can help/hinder your character? Does your character have a drinking problem? Is your character socially awkward and full of anxiety about attending cocktail parties? Make it all count.
  • History and biography doesn’t develop character. “Your character is developed by the way he acts in the present, the way he deals with his problems.” Don’t rely on too much backstory. Show what’s going on now.
  • Ask yourself “why” about everything. Be specific. Why is this event relevant to this specific character? “In fiction, we’re looking for the root cause, the deepest level of the experience, the most personal and specific reasons.”