Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Well, friends, here it is. My last post of the year (unless I have some pressing revelation before midnight on the 31st) and my last post on this wonderful book which has occupied my thoughts for the past 8 weeks.

If I had but world and time, I would type out the entire epilogue of The First Five Pages for you. It is, quite simply, a love letter to writing. I want the final paragraph to be in my obituary, it is that good.

Do not be discouraged, Noah Lukeman tells us. We writers need to hear that every day, in what is often a laborious task with more rejection than glory. Noah Lukeman goes on to say,
If you stay with it long and hard enough, you will inevitably get better at your craft, learn more about the publishing business, maybe get published in a small literary magazine--eventually even find an agent. Maybe your first book won't sell; maybe your second or third won't either. But if you can stand the rejection, if you can stubbornly stay with it year after year after year, you will make it into print. I know many writers who wrote several books--some over the course of thirty years--before they finally got their first book deal.
(Thanks, Mr. Lukeman. I have another ten years to go!)

Noah Lukeman continues by advising the writer to make an effort to be social. ("While the craft of writing has little to do with being social, I can assure you the business of writing does... You may learn more about publishing from one party in one afternoon than from entire volumes.") He asks next about whether writing is the number-one priority in your life. (Did you know that Thomas Mann didn't even interrupt his writing to attend the funeral of his son?) He talks about Genet writing on toilet paper in prison, of Dostoyevsky's struggles, of how Conrad--without a word of English before the age of twenty--went on to be one of the great writers in the English language, and of how Faulkner toiled in factories and post offices. Then, he asks, If these writers could overcome such obstacles, how can you give up after a few rejection slips?

And now comes the final paragraph, the one I want read at my funeral:
The ultimate message of this book, though, is not that you should strive for publication, but that you should become devoted to the craft of writing, for its own sake. Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes.
YES, YES, and YES!

P.s. In these days of google alerts, I received a very nice e-mail from Noah Lukeman. In it, he told me about his blog,, where he answers questions about writing and the industry. You can also sign up for his free ezine, which is filled with tips for authors. And if you visit and click “FREE,” you can download over 100 additional pages of free information of help to authors. You can also find links to follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Noah Lukeman seems to be a generous soul, and eager to help writers. I can think of no better way to help your writing self than to read and study (again and again!) The First Five Pages.

See you all in 2011. I'll have a grand new writing book to discuss with you, one high on inspiration. All will be revealed the first Wednesday in January. Till then, it's Auld Lang Syne and Happy Hogmanay! Bring on the haggis.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Bird Brain!"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

Frankie thought his new joke was a hoot: "Why did the pigeon cross the road? To join the chicken on the other side!" Julian wasn't amused. (140 characters)

My youngest son, who is four, has been learning to tell jokes from his older brothers. So far, this is his mainstay: "Why did the (insert bird, animal, one-legged cyclops here) cross the road?" And the answer is always the same as old Frankie's above.

Hope you all had a good Christmas. I'm off to eat some cucumber sandwiches. As usual, I greatly appreciate your comments and will try to get back to you as soon as possible (on my new laptop, but who's bragging?!)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

I hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas Eve. Our house is abuzzing as presents begin to appear under the tree and the smell of baking fills the air. The kids are counting down the hours.

So, what better time to discuss Noah Lukeman's Chapter 18: Setting. No word of a lie, this is the one part of writing where I feel the greatest challenge. I tend to get wrapped up in what my characters are doing and saying, and setting gets left on the backburner. But, if Noah Lukeman is to be believed, I'm not the only one:

It is amazing how often setting is neglected, employed only as necessary. This is such a mistake because, when brought to life, good settings can add a whole new dimension to a text, a richness nothing else can... At its best, setting itself becomes a character, interacting with the other characters.

" settings whatsoever, settings described in a way that stops the flow of the narrative, settings that hardly change, settings that never come to life, settings with which the characters never interact, and settings that never affect the characters at all."
Among the solutions he lists are: bringing settings to life by the tiniest details; drawing on all five senses to describe a setting; using climate to define a setting; and having characters interact with a setting.

Lukeman ends this chapter by exhorting writers to train themselves to look for details in settings, everywhere they go. Go on, he says, "Practice right now, in the room you're in. Find ten unusual details--it doesn't matter how small--and write them down."

It's great advice, as usual. But, sorry, Mr. Lukeman; I've got to dash. Got a party at the other end of town. But I promise I'll look for those ten details at Uncle John's and Aunt Barbara's house. And who knows? If I do a good job, perhaps I can slip in some unusual detail in my new novel's first draft?

Happy Holidays, everyone. I hope you enjoy the company of family and good friends over the next few days. I'll be back on Boxing Day for Microfiction Monday, in between preparing for a "Boxing Day Tea Party," something we're doing this year to make my mother, visiting from England, feel at home. Till then, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Beautiful Poem by Suz

One of my finds this past year has been the blog Begin Again by Suz. We "met" through Microfiction Monday, and she has become a frequent commenter here. She has a wonderful way with words and I thought her post about this pre-Christmas week was wonderful. I am reprinting it here, with her permission. I hope you'll find time to visit her blog, too. (All formatting here is mine; it looks much better in the original!)

I suspect many of my fellow bloggers will be busy this week: baking,wrapping presents,
getting out more

chairs,adding one more decoration to the house...

preparing the way for Christmas. And for many it is a time of remembering good times

and family gatherings and for some a connection with the remembering of the Holy event.

But I have become increasingly aware of how many of you out there dread this week,

or disdain it. So much evil evidently has happened in God's name that some blame God

for the ache in their heart or the rage held inside..and Christmas has become a time of sadness

or worse

I cannot go back and right those wrongs for you and

I do not know what to say about the hypocrisy or betrayal you've experienced at the hands of a church.

I cannot erase a childhood of abuse,neglect,alcoholism,gambling,poverty,  loneliness,or coldness.

I cannot restore what is gone and who is gone,

and I cannot erase a broken heart or the pain of betrayal.

I cannot change the economy and find you a job or relieve you of the burden of debt.

I cannot know the emptiness that you feel as others tell of their gatherings

But what I can do is acknowledge you,

let you know that I'll save you a seat next to my heart on Christmas.

That I will remember the joy you have given me through knowing you through your blog

for sharing your beautiful artwork ,photography, writing, crafts, decorating, fabric and yarn skills,

for sharing your daily life with me.

For my life has expanded because of you

My life has been made better because of you

I see more joy

and beauty because of you

I have more faith because of you

in humankind's goodness

That despite everything, you chose goodness

as your first step in the day

no matter where or how you started

Thank you
and Merry Christmas

and may star light shine on you

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "A Literary Treasure Hunt"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

What the Dickens! "C us Forester's At wood," they call themselves. Shaw brings bacon Caroll, Eliot, and Jane Austen hold the Greenery. (137 characters.)

(My homage to 9 great writers, who visited me in the middle of the night while I struggled with this week's picture. Great company they were! In chronological order:
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
George Eliot (1819-1880)
Lewis Caroll (1832-1898)
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
C.S. Forester (1899-1966)
Graham Greene (1904-1991)
Margaret Atwood (1939-present)

Have a great week, everyone. Thanks in advance for your comments. I appreciate them and will do my best to visit you all in return.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

As I've read and inwardly digested The First Five Pages, it has struck me that I could just quote page after page of its gems. How's about this, for example:
Writing is like steering a ship: one will inevitably--and constantly--fall off course on the way to one's destination...
Or, how about this:
It is the writer's job to distance himself from his work and then to return to it with a merciless eye, an eye that ignores the beauty of the language, the brilliance of the characters' improvisation...
Throughout Chapter 17 ("Focus") I found myself nodding in agreement. For example, I am beginning a new novel as I wait for the ideal agent--I know he/she is out there--to snap up the novel I'm querying. I have written an outline for this new novel, a very flexible outline. I have launched into the first chapter, and immediately the ship is fighting my controls, telling me that it has its own idea about our voyage of discovery. (I have to keep reminding myself of Anne Lamott's chapter of "Shitty First Drafts" in Bird by Bird.)

In this chapter about Focus, Noah Lukeman talks about "broad" focus and "narrow" focus. "Broad" focus suggests a theme or image which starts out the book and which the writer returns to in closing, giving the reader a sense of deep satisfaction.

In its narrower sense, focus can "be applied to individual chapters, paragraphs, and even sentences." Lukeman claims--and I have come to agree--that "each chapter must be thought of as its own complete unit, ready to excerpt should a magazine want it." And each paragraph should feel like a unit of its own. Otherwise, Lukeman says, the writing will have an unfocused quality.

As always, Lukeman gives examples and solutions to problems at the end of each chapter. And again, I completely agree with his opening paragraph about solutions.
The most painful of all editing is when focusing a manuscript, as it often demands doing away with perfectly good writing. The edit's principle is this: No matter how good the writing, if it does not further the intention or progression of the work, it must be cut. (You can take solace in the fact that you may be able to use the stricken material in some other work.)
With the idea of solace, and giving praise to word processors, I wish you all a good run-up to the Winter Solstice and to Christmas, or whatever way you celebrate the slow reappearance of light in the Northern hemisphere. May your writing be full of focus.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

From an agent, in New York city, there's a contest goin' on...

To the tune of "My darlin' Clementine"

From an agent, in New York city,
there's a contest goin' on,
Lots of swag and lots of booty,
so please listen to my song.

If you blogpost or you twitter,
telling all your readers now,
you can win a Skype chat with 'er,
That's right, mateys, "Holy Cow!"

And she's Skyping with another,
Yes those agents are such fun,
But I wish I knew what Skype was.
Guys, I'm feelin' kinda dumb.

So please go now to her blog, dears,
Neverending Page Turner,
Or tweet to @KOrtizzle
And tell her you want to win.

(Sounds of banjo crashing to floor at the above horrible rhyme scheme)

Now my rhyming's shot to pieces,
So my spurs I will hang up,
But before I wash them dishes (oh c'mon!)
I will wish you tons of luck. ('Up' and 'luck'!!?!#$% Yuck!)

Hope you've survived that, dear readers. Get on board the TCUHBIP contest train and see if it's your lucky day with Kathleen Ortiz and Liz Jote.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "The Donald's New Reality Show."

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

I said I wanted a show about people washing their dirty linen in public.

Yes, Mr. Trump.

And you gave me this! You're fired.  (134 characters)

I have to admit that Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" is my guilty reality TV pleasure. It wasn't too much of a stretch to come up with a show about washing dirty linen in public!

Have a great week, everyone. Thanks for the comments. I appreciate them and will do my best to visit you all in return.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

When I lived in Japan one of my mentors introduced me to the phrase 師走(Shiwasu). It's the old Japanese name for December and literally means "teachers running." The idea was that December was so busy that even such an exalted personage as a teacher would be seen running about.

My December is certainly beginning to feel a bit 師走(Shiwasu). Which means that blog posts may be a bit erratic in the next couple of weeks. However, I do need to honor my promise to you all to press on with my examination of the Craft Book of the Month--and this week's episode is about Hooks.

Noah Lukeman is a tough taskmaster, and his chapter 14 (Hooks) is no exception. Here, in the clearest of terms, he shows that he is interested in showing the distinction between someone writing for money and a writer. After he points out that Ovid said one should wait nine years after finishing one's work before seeking publication, Lukeman asks:
Does the intensity of the hook end with one line? One paragraph? One page? Of course, an opening line is a special thing, and it is nearly impossible to maintain its intensity for an entire text--yet we can look to see if there is at least some sustenance, if some traces remain. I am often amazed by how many manuscripts begin with good first lines--and good openings in general--and then fall apart; it is actually rare to see the intensity found in a first (or last) line maintained throughout a manuscript.
Lukeman cautions us against thinking that a hook has to be an intense opening line. He claims that
what is impressive to the professional reader is not initial intensity but maintained intensity... I often find that manuscripts with more subdued openings tend to be the best... These writers don't write an opening for the sake of an opening, but for the sake of the story that follows.
In closing the chapter with his usual exercises, Lukeman asks us to
pretend the paragraph at hand, no matter where it falls in the book, is the opening of your novel; pretend the paragraph's closing is your book's finale.
Writing like this will allow for greater focus and intensity throughout the novel. For,as Noah Lukeman says, "everything in writing is cumulative."

I hope you are not running like a teacher this December. There will be more Noah Lukeman next week.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlefolk."

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

The merry gentlefolk rested, and nothing--not even Black Friday or Cyber Monday--dismayed them. They knew the real meaning of Christmas. (139 characters)

This was a hard one. However, I decided to continue my theme from last week--a curse on Black Friday and its new sister, Cyber Monday. I figured the folks in the ground would know what we're really celebrating at Christmas.

A happy writing week to all. Thanks for the comments. I enjoy and appreciate each one!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Late again! If blogging were a race, I'd be the poor helpless runner being lapped by the Ethiopians. I do, however, have two very good excuses. The first is that my mother arrived on Wednesday for a six week visit, and that occasioned a frenzy of cleaning that left time for little else. Second, I spent today with my father-in-law on what has become our annual hunt for the cheapest Christmas tree in North America. Fortunately this year he has a GPS, so we didn't spend too much time circling in the hinterlands. The most amazing part of the story was that we blundered onto a Christmas tree farm where you could just tell from the outset that the prices were going to be high. (You know, the type of place where Santa is sequestered in a back room and jolly elves pass around small cups of hot chocolate.) Indeed, the prices were high, but then the owner said he'd cut a deal. I could have a 6 foot Noble Fir for $10. The only catch: the tree had fallen out of a helicoptor while being tagged to go to Mexico... At that, I just knew I had to have the tree. I mean, how many people can boast that their Christmas tree parachuted to the ground on its way to a Mexican vacation? (And the tree is actually in great shape!) But I digress.

Noah Lukeman's chapter on Characterization is ace. In a mere fourteen pages he lists all the ills that can befall a writer's characters. I'll summarize them, and then urge you to buy/borrow the book for yourself so you can ponder it at your leisure.

Noah Lukeman's characterization sins:

  1. The use of stock, cliche, or overly exotic names.
  2. Launching into a story without stopping to establish any of the characters.
  3. The presence of stock characters or character traits (the Russian spy, the mad scientist etc.)
  4. The introduction of too many characters at once.
  5. Confusion over who the protagonist is.
  6. The presence of extraneous characters.
  7. Generic character description. ("We're all tired of being introduced to the man in his forties, of medium height and weight, with brown hair and brown eyes.")
  8. Characters we don't care about.
  9. The unsympathetic protagonist.
Lukeman ends the chapter with his customary end-of-chapter exercises and writes:
Characterization is a long, arduous and ever-developing process. Don't be discouraged. The longer you consciously work at it, the better you'll become.
He recommends that you
Reread great works of literature, carefully observing how various writers handle characterization and character description.
And that's it from me this week. I'm off to stare at my $10 Survivor of a Christmas Tree.
Happy writing to you all.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Bullish on Black Friday."

"Hubs, Uncle Ty: When I said "what a load of bull" about your silly costume plan for Black Friday, I didn't think you'd take me literally." (140 characters)

(For non-U.S. readers, Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving when consumer society goes into overdrive and we are exhorted to hit the mall and "Spend, spend, spend," therefore putting the merchants in "the black" for the year.)

Have a happy writing week, and thanks so much for all your comments.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Have Yourself a Snowy Little Book Fest

(This is a piece I wrote for my four-year-old's preschool newsletter. I am the bi-monthly book editor).

As I write this, Portland is in one of its snow panics. TV types shiver on the Sylvan Hill, school closures cascade along the bottom of the screen, and the weather guys look like Christmas has come early, for the entire broadcast is essentially about them. Meanwhile, my friends recently transplanted from Alaska laugh their heads off. Ah, Portland winter!

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that my first winter book selection is Axle Annie by Robin Pulver; illustrated by Tedd Arnold (Dial 1999). Axle Annie’s the best school driver in Burskyville. She does magic tricks, tells jokes, and sings silly songs. And whenever winter “packs a wallop,” the superintendent makes his school closure decision on whether Annie can make it up Tiger Hill. Well, “do tow trucks tow?” Of course she can! Burskyville never has a snow day. And even the villainous plot of a disgruntled fellow bus driver can’t slow Annie down. This is a fun read, with lively illustrations. The perfect present for the school superintendent in your life.

Another favorite in our house is Snow Day! by Patricia Lakin; illustrated by Scott Nash (Dial 2002). With a simple, repeating text and colorful pictures, it tells the story of four crocodile friends who love the snow. They get ready to play outside and then remember that they’re school principals. A quick telephone call later, they’ve told Croc-O-News that it’s a snow day. And off they go, sledding. Nicholas gave this his immediate “Read-It-Again” seal of approval.

I presented the kids with a whole stack of holiday books, but it’s like judging “Dancing With the Stars” at my house. Most of the holiday selection was deemed unworthy and, when the dust settled, only two titles remained. The first was Harry and the Dinosaurs make a Christmas Wish by Ian Whybrow and Adrian Reynolds (Random House 2003). This probably won votes on the title alone, since anything dinosaur is a smash hit where we live. Harry’s plastic dinosaurs (who come alive whenever Harry’s alone) want a duckling for Christmas. When Christmas morning comes, it looks like there’s no duckling under the tree. But Gran’s piggybank egg holds a surprise: a baby pterodactyl. This is a fun read, with a lot of dinosaur roaring. Grab a glass of egg nog and roar away.

Finally, Elsie Primavera’s Auntie Claus Home for the Holidays (Simon and Schuster 2009), is the latest in the fun Auntie Claus series. Young Sophie Kringle wants to be the Sugar Plum fairy, but she’s never in New York for Christmas. So Auntie Claus decides to bring the North Pole to New York. If you love saying “marvelous” and “rubbish” in an English accent, this book is for you. (It also introduced my kids to the phrase “red is the new black, darling!”) After I explained what that meant, everything has become “the new black.” So I’ll leave you with the words of seven-year-old Kieran: “Books are the new black, darling.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Truly Thankful

I started this blog in February of this year, so this is my first ever Thanksgiving post. I have a lot to be thankful for!

I give thanks for:

My wife, who has given so much of herself so that I can stay home with the kids and write. She herself is a magnificent writer and editor and a blogger extraordinaire (she has three blogs!), as well as a passionate, principled, strong, caring woman. If you'd like to get to know her, her blogs are Every Day is a Miracle, Marie's Book garden, and One Year to an Organized Life.

My children; despite their inability to sleep in on holidays--especially on holidays. (Why is it I have to drag them out of bed on school days, but on Thanksgiving morning they're up with the lark and wanting to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving parade?). They are all founts of enthusiasm and imagination and not a day goes by without them making me laugh and love life because of them.

My family across the miles. My mother (who will be with us next week to celebrate Christmas) and sister in England, and my brother in Australia. (It's bro and sis's birthday today, although they aren't twins. I think he's just about forgiven her for ruining his fourth birthday party.) I also remember my father, who died in 1992. His birthday was on the 20th.

My family in the States; my in-laws who do so much for us, from babysitting to home maintenance and repair. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law in Puyallup and their three boys, "The Cousins," whom my own three boys adore.

Church community, sharing a radical vision of discipleship and proving that God's got the most wicked sense of humour. C'mon, where else do Catholics and Lutherans worship together as one community and see that all this denominational bickering is such a waste of time and talent?

Friends, both virtual and non. This year I have been blessed, through the agency of this blog, to meet a number of wonderful people. Much thanks to Susan at Stony River and her community of microfictioneers. Susan's had some struggles this year but she continues to host Microfiction Monday. Through that meme I have "met" many wonderful writers, chief among them Sylvia K, Suz, Hope, and DanPloy, who are regular commenters on this blog. Their support means so much. I have also "met" Robert Kent, the middle-grade ninja, who has been inspiring.

My critique groups, who give me so much support and valued critique. I am a better writer because of you all.

Health; despite a currently bum knee, I am in the pink. Wealth; I'm not Donald Trump (thankfully!) but I have so many more financial resources than the vast majority of the world's population, and need to remember that. Happiness; if I'm blue, it's usually of the light blue variety and I snap out of it very quickly. I just need to stop and count my blessings for the world to change color.

My imagination, which never stops peopling my dreams, both waking and asleep, with amazing characters and events. I trust one day other people will share in the fruits of my creativity.

Paths not yet crossed, and the belief that the universe has great plans for all of us. (Okay, I appear to be channeling Julia Cameron right now.) I'll stop and let Julia speak for herself: "The universe falls in with worthy plans and most especially with festive and expansive ones." (The Artist's Way.) As we give thanks today and every day, may we remember to open ourselves to the power of "a thousand unseen helping hands."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Well folks, week three never did find its way onto the blog, and now it's week 4 already. So, I've made an executive decision. Seeing as there's much more to write about with this particular book, and seeing all the stuff happening around me (can you say "The Holidays"?) I'm going to extend my appreciation of The First Five Pages into the entire month of December.

Okay, with that out of the way, it's time to discuss what Lukeman calls "The Bigger Picture" in Part 3 of this book. This is where the rubber hits the road, where the advanced writer starts to show her mettle. The first chapter (Chapter 11) is about that hoary old chestnut, "Showing Versus Telling."

This is how Lukeman sums it up:

It is the writer's job to show us what his characters are like, not by what he says about them, or what they say about one another, but by their actions. A writer can spend a page telling us his protagonist is a crook, or he can show us in one sentence, by simply describing his taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone's pocket and letting the reader judge for himself.
By showing us the character's theft, Lukeman points out the advantage of leaving room for some ambiguity in the text and allowing the reader to interpret things.
If a writer tells us his character is a crook, then he is a crook. But if the writer shows the character taking a twenty-dollar bill, it is up to us to decide if he is a crook. Most of us will assume he is, but some of us may consider other possibilities: perhaps he is taking back money that is already his; perhaps he is taking the bill because it is counterfeit and was duplictously planted to entrap him; perhaps there is an ongoing game between the two characters to see who can pick the other's pocket and get away with it, and the money will be returned later.
(My note: I think this only works when a character is being introduced. One of the things a reader does quickly is make a judgement about who a character really is. We don't mind a character behaving a little erratically, or learning something and changing, but it is hard to always be guessing a character's motives. If I fail to "get a grip" on a character I feel unsettled, which is not a good reading feeling.)

There's also a good post about showing versus telling on the Greenhouse Literary Agency blog this week, written by the London agent, Julia Churchill. The link is here.

Next week, I will focus on describing Noah Lukeman's views on successful characterization. Hope to see you then.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Dear Deer Vampire"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

'Twas a wonderful disguise. NosFeratu, initials on jaunty cap, waited for unsuspecting coeds to pass by. A quick vampire bite, and "o deer!" (140 characters)

Feeling a bit punchy in a freezing Pacific Northwest, but had to compose this in honor of my 8th-grader who's just finished a run in "Dracula" in his middle-school play.

Have a great writing week, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Week 3: Delayed

What ever happened to week three, I know you're asking. Admit it, you're on tenterhooks waiting for the next in this crucial craft series.

Well, production is being delayed this week because of a number of things. First, and sadly, my uncle in Canada died on Tuesday and that's set us back a bit. He was a cheerful, gregarious man and he and my aunt were married 50 years.

Next, son #1 is in his middle-school production of "Dracula" and the running around getting ready for the shows is biting (like the pun?) into our time. Right now, I have to go get flowers for the concession stand and drive miles to pick up the donated programs.

So... I will try to get back to Noah Lukeman by the end of the week. Till then, happy writing!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

15 Authors

Robert Browning's Poetry (Norton Critical Editions)Notes from a Small IslandPride & PrejudiceJitterbug Perfume

Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Penguin Classics)I've been tagged on Facebook for the 15 Authors meme. It says: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first 15, or as many as you can recall, in no more than 15 minutes...

Here's mine. My criteria for choosing: I had to have books by them on my current shelves and had to have read more than one book.

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1)
Thomas Hardy, Agatha Christie, John Le Carre, Shakespeare, E.B. White, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Browning, Tom Robbins, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), Bill Bryson.
(I think you can tell I was an English major.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass)Charlotte's WebComplete Works of William Shakespeare. 154 Sonnets, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, King ... Cressida, The Winter's Tale & more (mobi)
Middlemarch (Oxford World's Classics)A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1)To the Lighthouse (Oxford World's Classics)
Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient ExpressSmiley's People

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Comment of the Week

I spotted these wise words in the comment box of agent Sarah Davies' blog. They are the words of Blythe Woolston, whose website can be found here.

Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I write to please myself, and it is only a happy accident when it pleases anyone else.

Amen, sister, from all of the writers who write from their hearts.

Microfiction Monday: Divorce, Cactus-Style

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.
Jorge was kicking himself. He never should've badmouthed Marta's cooking. Not when SHE was on the ponkey and they were 90 miles from home. (138 characters)

(Remember the ponkey from Microfiction 6/6/10? He's back!!)

Friday, November 12, 2010

The One Thing A Writer Absolutely Must Do

Okay, who thought I was going to say READING?


That's not to say that reading isn't necessary, important, uplifting, and thoroughly spiffy for a writer's soul. Every single writer interview you read will have the writer attesting to the singular importance of reading. But, for me, the one thing a writer absolutely must do is...


My wife will attest that I am the Michael Phelps of eavesdropping. Apparently, whenever we are within earshot of anyone else in a restaurant, say, a glazed look comes over me and she can just tell that I'm being a shifty-eyed snoop.

The thing is, I'm not being snoopy for snoopy's sake. It's all done in the name of research. For the continual honing of my writerly skills, I must listen to dialogue, how it's paced, the word choices made by everyone--from glamorous socialite picking at her arugula to arrogant tycoon tooting his business-acumen horn. I must understand the topics that exercise the minds of middle-schoolers as well as society matrons. I MUST LISTEN TO EVERYTHING.

I'll finish with a story. The other day I had my youngest in tow at the grocery store. It was near lunchtime, a fatal time to shop, and the wee bairn was eager for a corndog. I acquiesced, as the corndogs are near the sushi counter and I fancied sushi. We took our seats next to a couple of grungy, unshaven types who were deep in conversation. (At least the older one was. The younger one nodded his head in the way of a giddy apprentice whenever the mentor cracked open his lips.)

It soon became apparent that Mentor was retelling the plot of his novel. Genre: Fantasy. He rambled on about "she" who, as far as I could tell, had been captured and taken to the villain ensconced in The Darklands. (I would occasionally lose the thread of things because corndog-boy-who-must-have-father's-attention-at-all-times would tell a joke and expect me to guffaw. And why is it always the Darklands in these fantasy novels? Why can't it be Lollipop Land, where everything seems benign, but lurking beneath the placid and successful exterior is a horror that would turn your bones to a foul brew?)

Mentor rambled on. What did I learn? Well, I had front-row seating on how NOT to pitch your magnum opus. I also noticed how every time Apprentice tried to get in a word, Mentor would shuffle about in a bag and look thoroughly impatient and uninterested. (That is certainly a behavior I might one day give an unsavory and self-absorbed character.)

It wasn't my finest eavesdropping hour, but it did remind me how important it is for a writer to notice everything in his or her surroundings. So, eavesdrop away, dear writers. (And let me know if you hear anything juicy.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What a Great Idea for a Blog!

Now that I've launched myself screaming and flailing into the blogosphere, I find I'm making new friends and visiting interesting sites on a regular basis. One of my recent finds was this great blog, Books Dudes Will Read. A mother--who's a teacher and writer--and her middle-school son review books together.

This is a topic close to my heart. I write middle grade fiction. I have three "dudes" of my own. I want my novel to be read by dudes, and want to find ways to encourage dudes to read more. So, I am giving a high five and some huge thanks to the Dude and his mom for this awesome blog. I'll use it to expand the reading horizons of my own middle-schooler.

Oh, and they're running a contest right now to win a copy of S.A. Bodeen's The Gardener. Head on over, leave a comment, and become a follower. It sounds like a good book to try to win. (And keep fingers crossed for me!)

Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

Week 2: Dialogue

In my salad days, when I was green in judgement--and anyone who can tell me which Shakespeare play those lines come from earns a gold star--I belonged to a writers' group that had a very interesting modus operandi. Basically, any interested writer could show up at this Chinese restaurant. Newbies were put in groups of 3 or 4 and that was that. Talk about luck of the draw!

In my group that first night were two other young guns and one older woman. We all read a few pages from the manuscripts we were working on. The woman, who was obviously enthralled by her pages, read line after line of terrible dialogue. Of course I can't remember it verbatim but it was along the lines of "I just talked to John, who was best man at our wedding" and "I had lunch with our-daughter-in-law, Janey, who has blessed us with our three grandchildren..." It was awkward indeed giving feedback--I still remember the sensation of squirming in my chair while we tried to point out that people didn't talk like this. End of the story? The writer was disgusted with us and never returned to the group.

If only she had read Noah Lukeman's take on dialogue. Lukeman writes:
Dialogue is a powerful tool, to be used sparingly, effectively and at the right moment. Dialogue is to the writer what the veto is to the president: it gives you great power and authority. If you overuse it, people will have to submit, but they will resent you for it; if you use it wisely, they will applaud your control, your willpower.
Lukeman covers five common ailments in dialogue.
  1. In Between the Lines (Chapter 6), he talks of the use of "he/she said," how often to use it, and where to place it in the sentence.
  2. Commonplace (Chapter 7) warns against using everyday dialogue ("Hello, how are you?") in the mistaken belief that dialogue has to be "realistic."
  3. In chapter 8, Informative, he warns against using dialogue to convey backstory, which was what ailed the writer in my above-mentioned writer's group.
  4. Chapter 9, Melodrama, advises us to use silence or action to convey drama, rather than having a character rant and rave. (His example: "Jane could yell and curse at Frank for twenty lines after he tells her he's been cheating on her, or she can turn and take off her wedding ring and flush it down the toilet.")
  5. Finally, in chapter 10, Hard to Follow, Lukeman warns against overuse of dialect and writing that is cryptic.
Most of these dialogue mistakes, as Lukeman points out, are mistakes a more advanced writer knows how to avoid. So, if your first five pages have made it this far, The Bigger Picture awaits. This is sheep-from-goat-separation time--and what I will focus on during our two remaining Wednesdays.

Have a good week, writing dangerously!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Li'l Pink's Wolf Stew"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

Li'l Pink, I worry about the wolf. Be careful.

I'm not worried, Mama.

Why ever not, dear?

Who do you think was in yesterday's stew?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November's Craft Book of the Month: The First Five Pages

The First Five Pages  is a relatively short book. I knew within the first five pages that I was going to find it very valuable. And sobering.

Lukeman is an agent. In his introduction, he says he has read thousands of manuscripts. In doing so, he discovered that regardless of whether the author came from Texas, California, or Japan (or England, or Oregon) the same exact mistakes were being made. Furthermore, he realized that by scrutinizing just the first few pages, he could make a determination about the whole manuscript. As he says: "if you find one line of extraneous dialogue on page 1, you will likely find one line of extraneous dialogue on each page to come." And, in reality, it doesn't take the astute reader five pages to make an evaluation. In fact, Lukeman says, the book should have been titled "The first five sentences."

Harsh, you may be thinking. Lukeman's rationale is this:
Agents and editors don't read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript--and believe me, they'll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.
Gordon Bennett! This is positively Darwinian. But if you think about it, readers make the same evaluations. How often have you browsed in a bookstore (very often, I hope!)? You see a book your friend recommended. She usually has good taste, you think, so you read the flap, open to the first paragraph. Nope, the story didn't grab. You scan another couple of books. Same thing. And then: a book you've never heard of, but it has a prominent display on the shelf. You open it, start to read, and five minutes later you're still reading. Something has resonated with you, sucked you in. You may even hand over hard-earned cash for it.

Agents and editors are doing the same thing with manuscripts, except they can give you specific reasons why they connect or don't connect with a work. In Lukeman's opinion, this is not usually an issue of plot. ("A great writer can produce an amazing piece of writing with virtually no plot at all.") It is an issue of prose, of how you execute your writing. It is an issue of craft.

But first off, Part I talks about preliminary problems. Presentation is key. Don't come off as unprofessional. ("Agents and editors don't view someone who shies from the standards as unique or unusual. they view him as a nuisance...") Devote time to researching agents and editors, and make sure you're not sending your thriller to someone who only represents non-fiction. (Lukeman suggests you send a query via FedEx, but that sounds over-the-top to me. It also shows that the book was written before e-mail queries became almost ubiquitous!)

Lukeman spends a couple of pages talking about proper formatting, and then reveals that certain quirks will also signal an early dismissal: the overuse of question marks and exclamation points. Also, cliches. ("I can't tell you how many manuscripts open with cliches or have one on their first page. This is almost always an indicator of a commonplace sensibility and will thus lead to instant rejection.") Finally, in chapter 2, Lukeman shows how an abundance of adjectives and adverbs marks a writer as a beginner, and someone easy to reject. (The rest of Part I deals the sound of one's writing, the way one uses metaphor or simile, and stylistic errors. The end of each chapter also has a number of exercises. Very useful.)

Next Week: Part II--Dialogue as a revealer of a writer's skill.

Noah Lukeman is an agent. In addition to The First Five Pages, he's the author of The Plot Thickens.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

10/10 in my Rearview

October was a busy month. On the personal level, it's the month of my wife's birthday (as well as her sister's) and our family goes all-out for birthdays. I don't call it a "birth month" for nothing.

Then, it's been all-go on the Halloween front, with my middle son decoratiing the front of our house in his inimitable fashion. Let's just say that plastic flies in a puddle of fake barf is the least of it... (Costume note: Middle is going to be a vampire, and Youngest a Pirate. Oldest thinks this is all, at 14, beneath him.)

There was also a sad note. A 13-year-old girl at our church died on the 19th. She suffered from myotonic dystrophy, but was an amazing force of life. We have all been mourning Leona, while celebrating her life, these past couple of weeks.

Two writers who have died this month: Eva Ibbotson and Stephen Cannell. (Actually, I see that Stephen Cannell died on September 30, but it seems more recent.). Ibbotson was a tremendous writer whom I have long admired (she had a mysterious Kings Cross platform in one of her novels several years before J.K. Rowling made Kings Cross the most famous railway station in the world). And Stephen Cannell once spoke at the Willamette Writers annual conference. What struck me about him was that he was dyslexic and told (by a teacher, I think) that he wouldn't amount to a hill of beans, let alone be a writer. Yet he persevered and went on to have a highly successful career.

Perseverance is my key word as we head into November. I've sent out a couple of queries on my latest novel and had swift form rejections from two agents. I'm hoping that they just don't "do" my kind of stories, rather than it's my writing that stinks. But hey, I wouldn't be a writer if I wasn't prone to spiralling self-doubt and bouts of self-induced melancholy, would I? And it's all grist for the mill, eh?

Microfiction Monday: Pumpkin Attack and A Rocky Horror Query

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

She didn't hear the evil pumpkin flying in behind her, but Blackie did. What could he do to make sure her Halloween didn't end with a SPLAT?

I missed last week's MM because things were entirely crazy, but can't resist. After all, better a week late than a pound foolish, don't you think?

At the Writing Conference:

The agents and editors were waiting for their costumes to arrive. Then they'd show those writers a Rocky Horror of a "query."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:November's Choice Unveiled

So dull and dark are the November days.
The lazy mist high up the evening curled,
And now the morn quite hides in smoke and haze;
The place we occupy seems all the world.

- John Clare, November

O John Clare, were you with me and my second-grader as we stumbled through the darkness to the bus stop this morning? Fall has come to Oregon with a vengeance: wind, rain, and blowing leaves. And dark, dark mornings.

It's reading and writing weather. (Must be one of the reasons Portland has so many book stores and writers per capita.) And what better book to read in this dour month than... Noah Lukeman's amazing, astute, and indispensable The First Five Pages.  Join me next Wednesday and every Wednesday in November as I reveal what I learned from this terrific tome.

Anyone for leaf-raking?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Week 4: First lines, last lines

It's the last Wednesday in October already?! Man, it feels as if the month has just started, and now we're about to be overrun with candy-hungry ghoulies and ghosties (or, in my house, vampires and pirates.) But before that auspicious event, we have to get in my final post on the book which will set your fiction ablaze: The Fire in Fiction.

There is so much in this book, and I barely scratched the surface. It could be "Craft Book of the Year," were I so inclined. However, I have set myself a goal to introduce a new craft book a month, and I am nothing if not inflexible.

First lines, last lines is an important technique to improve your scenes. In Maass' experience, many authors don't bother to pay attention to the importance of first and last lines in their scenes. As Maass says:
That's a shame. Like a handshake, an opening and closing line can create impressions and expectations. They can set a tone. They can signal where we're going, or what we've done, or serve any number of useful story purposes.
Maass' examples include one by Meg Cabot. I'll recap what he says about her use of first lines and last lines from a scene in How to be Popular (2006).

The protagonist, Steph Landry, is an eleventh-grader with the reputation for being a klutz. With the help of an old book titled How to be Popular, she finds herself in with the in-crowd. One of her big breakthroughs comes when her friend, Jason, can't drive her home from school. Steph's faced with riding the bus. But popular Mark Finley shames one of the A-listers into giving Steph and her B-list friend a ride. Here's Cabot's scene opener:
I think I died and went to heaven.
Here are Maass' comments:
Eleventh grade is far from heaven, if you ask me, but we get the point. Notice that at the beginning of the scene, Steph has not yet copped a ride... Cabot is creating anticipation, a form of tension, by framing the scene. We read ahead to find out why Steph's so elated. This flashback structure happens so quickly we hardly notice. It's not a technique that will work for every scene, but it illustrates the importance of tension in line one.
By the end of the scene there are uneasy hints of the cost of Steph's new popularity. Still, Steph is happy--maybe irrationally so. How would you cap off this scene? Here's Cabot's choice:
Jason freaking out and refusing to give me rides anymore might just be the best thing that ever happened.
The very best thing, ever? I wonder if that's true... which is exactly what Cabot wants us to do at this moment.

Finally, Maass advises us to do a "first line/last line draft"--doing nothing but honing the bookends of every scene in our manuscripts. Making these little changes, he believes, will give our stories a more effective shape.

I'll be announcing November's craft book tomorrow. Till then, may all your little tricks be treats.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Week Three: Striding Forward, Falling Back

It's a beautiful sunshiney day in Portland, Oregon. So my "goal" is not really to blog. My goal is to be in the sunshine, letting it dapple my strong and manly features as I speed-read through the Hunger Games Trilogy. (I've just started Mockingjay.) How am I going to do this, and still remain true to my blogging schedule...?

I suspect the above paragraph appeared because I've been ruminating on Donald Maass' advice about scene creation. Send your character into a scene with a goal. It seems obvious, but Mr. Maass says we'd be surprised at how many middle scenes in many novels have characters having no particular reason to do something.

If I may segue back to the Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins' novels work as well as they do because the characters have clearly defined goals. The most important one being: Stay Alive. On a micro level, not all of the goals are articulated so forcefully, but they are always there under the surface, so that when they are artfully revealed the reader says: "Why, of course! Now I see why she was doing that. It makes sense."

As writers, we have to have at the forefront of our minds what it is our characters want or need in each particular scene. Maass puts it far better than I could:
At the end of a scene, we want to feel that something important occurred. A change took place. The fortunes of the character and the path of the story have shifted. We won't get that feeling unless we get, in some way, a prior sense of what we're hoping for--a hope that in the scene is either fulfilled or dashed and delayed.
At the end of each chapter, Maass has a series of exercises. I found the ones on this topic to be very helpful:
  1. Write down what it is in this scene that your protagonist or point-of-view character wants.
  2. Create three hints in this scene that your protagonist or POV character will get what he wants. Also, build three reasons to believe that he won't get what he wants.
  3. Write the passages that express the results of Steps 1 and 2. In rewriting the scene... incorporate those passages. Eliminate as much else as possible.
  4. Discussion: Just as stripping down dialogue helps punch up a scene, reducing a scene to a few strong steps toward or away from a goal also lends force and shape. Many authors wander through scene drafts, groping for the point. You can do it differently. Instead, start with the point and enhance from there.
So... Mike got up from his computer and set his strong and manly features towards the sunshine streaming through the back door. He was on the point of opening the door when he remembered his book was still on the bedside table. He turned to get it, and heard the chain-rattling sound of the school bus as it bumped down his street. Now his children were coming home. Sod the book, he thought. He raced out the back door and rejoiced in the sunshine for 15 seconds before a chorus of "Dad!".... (You get the picture.)

Happy writing, everyone.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Microfiction Monday: "Big Brother: The Middle Ages"

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's the world's best meme, coming to you from Susan at Stony River. One of the highlights of a dangerous writer's week. Enjoy.

Next on Lara's to-do list: winning "Big Brother: The Middle Ages." First, fake 'em out with frowny face. Then, fling some fancy rock cakes. (139 characters)