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.