Thursday, July 2, 2015

Where in the World Are We??

I have always been partial to anything that is broken-down and decrepit or unusual, because such things always spark a story for me.  I can't help but imagine:  Who lived there?  What went on in that place over the years?

Some people feel that in order for a place in a story to feel authentic, it has to be a very familiar place -- a place the author has experienced in great detail.  But I don't necessarily agree.  We can add details in a such a way that it becomes real and familiar.

And I think that setting is very subjective.  We experience setting in the same way that we experience people.  We all see and notice different details around us.  Think about giving someone directions, for example.  Some of us will deliver what I call the MapQuest version, using strictly mileage and left and right turns, while most of my writer and illustrator friends will use color, shape, and landmarks.

The details of settings add emotion to the story, because we can actually have strong emotional reactions to places, especially when we have our own history there.  Certain elements may spark vivid memories, both good and not so wonderful--your childhood home, for example.

The setting is the holder of the large details, and more importantly, the tiny, sharp details of the character's world.  The writer is coloring the picture for the reader.  I always hope that my reader will feel as if s/he is eavesdropping -- as if s/he is a fly on the wall of the setting.  Your unique setting allows the reader to crawl into your story.

My invitation to you writers out there:  Notice a detail of a place as you are out driving or walking.  It stands out to you in some way, but you may have no idea how or why this is.  You do know that you can completely picture your character there.  Write it.  Do it now.  See where it takes you...

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Talk to Strangers

I am cross-posting over at Smack-Dab-In-the-Middle today ... and I am looking at the frozen New England tundra of my back yard, with serious doubts that anything will ever grow there again.  I'd much rather think about growing characters.  I can't make the dirt-streaked snow melt, but I can do whatever I want with my characters.

E.B. White said, "Don't write about man.  Write about man."

I love that quote, because it reminds me that a well-drawn character takes a story to a completely different level.  If a reader does this well, she can make her reader laugh, or cry -- or both.

By creating real characters, a writer can bring out raw emotion in the reader.  I'm not only talking about realistic fiction, either.  I'm talking about creating a character so real, that without even noticing, the reader invites that character into his life.  Well after he has put the book down, he is quoting the character, or saying things like, "That sounds like something Bilbo Baggins would do." ...or..."I'm more of a Gryffindor than a Hufflepuff."

So to create real characters, you have to go out and look at real people.  Eavesdrop and study mannerisms and quirks.  Don't keep to yourself.  (Change out of your pajamas and get out from behind that computer screen.) You need to mingle--to be nosy.  You need to talk to strangers.  Strike up a conversation with the least likely person.  I'm not asking you to go chat up the meth dealer on the corner, but talk to someone who you think is the least like you.

Then write down what those strangers say-- and not just what they say, but how they say it.  How do they stand, sit, move?  What are they doing with their hands? 

Write it down.  All of it.  Take a piece of one person, and a phrase from another.  Add.  Water.  Prune.  Your characters are beginning to grow...I can't wait to meet them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Beware the ides of March


Watch out!

Heed my warning!

We can always exercise a little caution in our lives.  But can we be too cautious as writers?

Sometimes we need to ignore the caution flag and step out of our comfort zones.

I'd be willing to bet that you have at least one idea that's been lurking around in a back out-of-the-way mind cavern.  It may have been stashed away eons ago, because it's a little out of the ordinary or too away from the mainstream.  Maybe someone tried to convince you that nobody was buying/reading (blank) right now. 

Ignore the soothsayer's warning and uncover that idea.  Peel off the layers and let it grow into a story.  It's hung around for so long for a reason, don't you think?

Monday, February 2, 2015

One Letter at a Time

Amira, just twelve years old and in the midst of civil war-torn Sudan, wants nothing more than to learn to read and write and to attend school.  I fell in love with little Amira from Andrea Davis Pinkney's first word in her stunning new novel, THE RED PENCIL.

I was reminded of how words and teachers have made me who I am as a person, as a third-generation teacher, and as a writer.

I most likely wouldn't be here if my grandmother hadn't been allowed to stay in school.  She was born to a family of several children and would have been required to quit school early on and help on the farm and care for her younger siblings.  An education wasn't considered important for a girl.

She was born without fingers on her left hand.  Her father thought she would never marry.  He knew she would need to be able to support herself, so she was allowed to go to school.  She graduated and became a teacher.  She and the man who would become my grandfather wrote long letters back and forth before they were married.  He had lost one of his legs when he was run over by a cart in Ireland.

I wish I had those letters, but I was lucky enough to have my grandma in my life until I was twenty.  I loved that hand of hers, especially when I was a little girl.  Instead of holding my hand, I held hers.  It fit perfectly in my kid-sized hand.

I remember exactly what her watch looked like on her narrow wrist.  But what I remember even more clearly is her voice.  She couldn't carry a tune at all, but she sang out loudly from the church pew.  I can remember the rise and fall of that wonderful voice as she recited her favorite poems to me.  Poems she'd learned in school.

Thank you, Grandma, for teaching me the power of letters and words.  And thank you, Andrea Davis Pinkney, for the power of The Red Pencil.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Everyone Loves a Challenge . . . Right?

"It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver." --Amy Poehler (on writing her book, YES PLEASE)

Resolve is not only the perfect blog theme for the beginning of 2015, it is also the ideal theme for writing, especially in the verb sense of the word.

It means to sort something out, to fix it, to straighten it and find a solution.  It means to decide firmly on a course of action or to figure it all out.

As writers, and as human beings in general, we are constantly trying to step over that slippery puddle that has the word, FEAR hidden beneath that thin layer of precarious winter ice.

So . . . I CHALLENGE YOU THIS MONTH.  Whether it's your novel, your first marathon, that mysterious stain in the upstairs bathroom . . . maybe it's that dream job you've been dying to make your own or that intimidating volume of Proust you've been wanting to tackle . . .

Get your resolve on and make it happen.

I leave you with one more Amy Poehler quote (because I kind of want to be her when I grow up):

"So let's peek behind the curtain and hail the others like us. The open-faced sandwiches who take risks and live big and smile with all of their teeth.  These are the people I want to be around.  This is the honest way I want to live and love and write."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Your character did WHAT?

Writers can harvest ideas at the drop of a pick axe, right?  As soon as we sit down and touch our fingers to the computer keys, those brilliant ideas just spill out onto the page like giant raindrops . . . right? 

Yesterday, I gave a mini workshop on grabbing onto ideas and putting them into a story. 

I explained that you must make the reader fall in love with your character from the very first second, so that they will cry right along with your character when bad things happen, and cheer for them until the very last page. 

A woman sat in front of me, listening intently, with a pained expression on her face.  

Great, I thought.  My talk must completely stink, and she'll be heading for the door at any moment.

But she finally raised her hand tentatively.  "I have lots of ideas," she said. 

"Do you write them down?"  I asked.  "What's the idea that is closest to your heart?"

She hesitated for a moment, then went on to talk about her characters and her setting.

"Does your character have a problem?" I asked.

The pained expression soaked into her face again.  "I don't want to give her too much of a problem.  I would feel too bad for her."

"It will keep your reader turning the page," I explained.  

Then, as if the Writer Fairy had cast her magic wand, in walked my friend and author-extraordinaire Eric Luper.  "You have to do it," he said.

We tag-teamed the poor woman, trying to convince her that the worse things got for her character, the more her readers would want to--and have to turn the page.

I hope she is home today feeling truly bad for her character.  I hope she is crying sloppy tears as she harvests her ideas and makes her character's situation almost untenable -- almost.  Then I hope those tears become joyful ones as her character climbs out from under the heavy rock pile.  

Now I'm going to go and try taking my own advice.  The character in my WIP had better be prepared, because things are going to get ugly . . . 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Contemplating the Strange and Creepy

I have a love-hate relationship with things that are strange and creepy.  I am both intrigued and terrified in a can't-quite-pry-my-eyes-from-it way.

The dark always held the top spot on my kid fear list.  When I was five, my dad tried really hard to dispel it.  He took me out to the front yard and pointed out all the familiar landmarks. "See."  He nodded at our maple tree by the curb.  "That's the same one that's there when it's light out, isn't it?"

But I wasn't going to be fooled.  Those tree branches were spiky in the dark. And what was that moving in the top leaves??

I clung to him so tightly, he probably still has reduced blood flow to his arms.

Being afraid of the dark and having a longish list of ThingsIAmModeratelyTerrifiedOf is like a badge of honor for a fiction writer.

Many of us writer and artist-types, if we are willing and able to admit it, have items on that childhood list that quite smoothly carried over into adulthood.  For example, how many of you still . . .
. . . (casually, of course) check behind the shower curtain before you brush your teeth at night?
. . . take more than the required leap to get into your bed?
. . . wonder if that Trick-or-Treater at your door dressed like a character from The Walking Dead might actually be a real zombie whose only day to roam the neighborhood freely is October 31st?

The fact is, we are looking for the strange and creepy.  We yearn for it in a way, because we are on a quest for the hidden story behind just about everything . . . the what might be.  The possibilities are endless.

So all of you scaredy pantses out there be proud.  There's a novel waiting for you .  You just have to venture out into the strange and creepy dark and grab it.