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)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Week 2:  From Chapter 3: Outer and Inner Turning Points

Let's say, very unoriginally, that writing a novel is like running a marathon. (Disclaimer: I have never run a marathon. I wouldn't like to run a marathon. I'm not keen on driving 26 miles, let alone running 26 miles. But I digress.) You start your marathon (or novel) fresh-legged, the wind at your back, your carbo-loaded tank nice and full.

And then, you hit the dreaded wall. "The muddle in the middle," some call it.

In Donald Maass's words:
Middles are tough. Too many middles in manuscripts and published novels are routine, lackluster, just there, nothing special.
Maass has an opinion about why this happens. (I love his image of the weakly beating heart!):
Sagging middle scenes slump... because their purpose hasn't yet emerged. Authors, as they plow through the middle portion of their manuscripts, tend to write what they think ought to come next; furthermore, they write it in the first way it occurs to them to do so... The push to rack up pages, to meet self-imposed or actual deadlines, makes it easy to avoid tearing apart a scene to find its weakly beating heart and surgically open it.
So, what can one do to improve? Maass has the following prescription:
Look away from the page and look toward what is really happening. What change takes place? When does that change occur (at what precise second in the scene)? In that moment, how is the point of view character changed? The point of these questions is to find the scenes' turning points.
What are turning points? In Maass' definition, they are the times in each scene when 1) things change that everyone can understand; 2) the way in which the scene's point-of-view character also changes as a result. He labels them outer and inner turning points. As Maass always does, he uses published examples to demonstrate what he means. [In this chapter, the examples he uses are Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006), and Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007).] In conclusion, he asks
What about your scenes? Does every scene of travel, arrival, aftermath, investigation, meeting--all the business of getting your character from beginning to end--capture a sharply defined turning point and reveal its inner meaning? Are you sure? What if you were to do a scene draft of your novel? Suppose you broke down every discrete unit of the story, pinned down its turning point, and measured in words the change it brings to each point-of-view character? Would your story get stronger?
See why I love this guy? He's down-to-earth, and he challenges each of us to do better, and to spend time on scene-surgery. Writers always say that writing is essentially rewriting. If you have The Fire in Fiction as your novel's marathon coach, it will help immeasurably.

Next week: "Striding Forward, Falling Back."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Microfiction Monday: Noreen's Lucky Number

Welcome to Microfiction Monday, at Stony River: a writing life, where a picture paints 140 characters, or even fewer.[Hate counting letters and spaces? Try Design 215's character counter, which will count for you as you type. Microsoft Word will count for you too, of course, as part of its word count feature under the 'Review' tab.] Here's this week's picture, and my story to go with it.

15 was a sign, Noreen just knew it. After 14 long, lonely years with Joe and his tirades, the #15 would take her where he couldn't find her. (140 characters)

Hope there are no Noreens in your life; if there are, I hope they find their "#15." Have a great week, everyone.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A poem for Banned Books week

I saw this poem in the display window of my wonderful local indie bookstore, Annie Blooms. It brought me to tears. (Particularly the final two stanzas.)


To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.

You say you’re afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.

You say you’re afraid for America,
the red, white and blue corroded
by terrorists, socialists, the sexually
confused. But we are a vast quilt
of patchwork cultures and multi-gendered
identities. You cannot speak for those
whose ancestors braved
different seas.

You say you’re afraid for God,
the living word eroded by Muhammed
and Darwin and Magdalene.
But the omnipotent sculptor of heaven
and earth designed intelligence.
Surely you dare not speak
for the father, who opens
his arms to all.

A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.

— Ellen Hopkins,
bestselling author of Crank and newly published Tricks

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Donald Maass is brilliant. (Perhaps this is what happens when people use only three letters to make a five letter name?!) He's the author of the must-read Writing the Breakthrough Novel and Workbook, both of which I found enormously helpful. The Fire in Fiction was published in 2009, but just like the previous book, it shows Maass to be incredibly widely read and to be an astute critic of what he reads.

The first topic of the month could be titled "What kind of writer are you?" No, I don't mean "do you write sci-fi or mysteries or full-blooded bodice-ripping romances?" The question, as Maass poses it, is "are you a status seeker or a storyteller?"

I'll let Maass tell it his way:
For thirty years I have observed fiction careers. I've seen them succeed and fail. The more I see, the more I feel that novelists fall into two broad categories: those whose desire is to be published, and those whose passion is to spin stories. I think of these as status seekers and storytellers."
He makes the following comparisons between the two:

On Breaking In:
The majority of writers seek representation or publication years too soon. Rejection slips quickly set them straight. How do they respond? Some cleave to the timeless advice get it in the mail, keep it in the mail. The more thoughtful pull their manuscripts and go back to work.
At Writing the Breakout Novel workshops:
A more concerned with making his story the best story it can be, with discovering the levels and elements that are missing, and with understanding the techniques needed to make it all happen. Status seekers rush me fifty pages and an outline a few months after the workshop. Storytellers won't show me their novels again for a year or more, probably after several new drafts.
Maass contends that things get worse for the status seekers once they've landed an agent. They are anxious for validation, so they make constant inquiries about submissions. Once under contract with an editor, they focus on what they are getting (or not getting) by way of cover, copy, blurbs, or promotion. As for storytellers, they "have a more realistic grasp of retail realities. They may promote, but locally and not for long. They'll put up a website, maybe, then it's back to work on the next book..."

In mid-career, according to Maass, status-seekers "go full time too soon." They rely on advances, the size of which becomes critical. Maass has them crying out, "I am working too hard to keep getting paid fifteen thousand per book!" All the while, storytellers are working on delivering yet more powerful stories for their readers. (It sounds like something out of Aesop's fables!)

In advanced stages of their careers, status seekers "grumble about publishers...change agents, obsess over trunk projects, write screenplays." Storytellers, meanwhile, "look not to publishers to make them successful, but to themselves...Their grumbles are not about getting toured but about getting more time to deliver. Storytellers take calculated risks with their fiction. Mostly they try to make their stories bigger."

I admit that, when I read this, the angel and the demon on my shoulder got into a spat. One of them (I'm never sure which is which) roundly declared I was a storyteller. The other harrumphed with a "get real! You're just as much a status seeker as the rest of them." Most writers, if honest, probably have a bit of both. And it's probably easier for the unpublished writer to get sucked into status seeker mode, because "the clock is ticking, gentlemen!!!"

It is salutary, then, to view all this through Maass' long-time agent's eyes: storytellers may start slow and spend more time on trying to perfect their craft, but they are winners in the long run. And the long run is where we writers want to be, isn't it?

So, for now, I'm shelving those dreams of cruising the Caribbean by yacht, installing the home champagne fountain, and ordering the Bentley. It's back to work on those stories, status be damned!

Next week: Scenes That Can't be Cut

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Microfiction Monday: When You Wish Upon a Star

Welcome to Microfiction Monday, at Stony River: a writing life, where a picture paints 140 characters, or even fewer.[Hate counting letters and spaces? Try Design 215's character counter, which will count for you as you type. Microsoft Word will count for you too, of course, as part of its word count feature under the 'Review' tab.] Here's this week's picture, and my story to go with it.
The wishing star was so literal. Pam had wished for a LUCKY flutter on the ponies. But flying on Pegasus? (The lucky part was the prince.) (138 characters)

(N.B. In Brit. English, "having a flutter" means "betting on".)

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Boys and the Banned Books

Yes, Virginia, boys do read.

They read a lot... and banning a book won't slow them down either!

(Books featured: Harry Potter 1, 2, and 7; A Wrinkle in Time; Northern Lights; The Color Purple; Captain Underpants.)

What we're actually reading when not posing for Banned Books Week:

Son 1: Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry
Cricket Man by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Point Blank by Anthony Horowitz
sundry gaming and wrestling magazines

Son 2: The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket

Son 3: Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Giles Andreae

Dad: The Monster's Ring by Bruce Coville