Friday, October 2, 2015

Trick . . . or Treat . . . ?

It's easy, right?  Just treat your readers with your tricks.  We beat ourselves up and rack our crazy writer brains trying to come up with the latest wowing trick.

Writer, Merrill Markoe says she struggles with her tendency toward “contrarianism”.

“If I know there’s something I’m supposed to be doing or saying or wearing, I feel compelled to resist—particularly with creative endeavors like writing.  If I see an obvious punch line or plotline driving toward me, I can’t help but make a sharp left turn into the unexpected.  I don’t like to replicate what I’ve seen done before—I don’t like to give people what they expect.  I think it’s my job to come up with a surprising angle or add some personal twist.” –Merrill Markoe

She made me think about how some people are trying to follow the market and write what they think is “hot” or selling right then.  Of course we all want to sell our work, but if we aren’t writing from our gut and our heart, it shows in our work.  It ends up feeling derivative.  We need to make our work our own, with our original, distinctive voice.  

In comedy, I think one of the reason’s that David Letterman has had such success, even early on in his career, is that he felt a strong rapport with his audience, making them feel as if they were in on the joke.

As a fiction writer, that’s exactly what you are doing.  You are making the audience feel as if they are in on the story.  –You are sucking them in without their even knowing it, from the very first page—even the very first line.

Nobody likes to feel as if they are on the outside, looking in, and not a part of things.  Remember how you felt as a kid, or even as an adult, when you were at a party, or on the playground, and you weren’t included in a conversation.  Or you felt as if you had entered in the middle or towards the end and you didn’t have the details to jump in.  Sometimes, the people were doing that on purpose, hoping that you would go away, or wanting to control the group, giving them the upper hand.  When this happens in a story, the reader never gets a chance to connect with the characters, and may, in fact just put the book down.  

One of the ways you can include your readers in your story—letting them feel as if they are “in the know”—is to give them things to which they can relate.  You have to dig deeply in order to do this.  This doesn’t always happen for me until I’m heavily into my revision process.  Again, you have to climb into the minds of your characters—not just your main character, but all of your characters—and figure  out how they would feel and react to each situation in which you put them.  What you are shooting for is for your readers to think, “I’ve felt like that, too.  That’s just like me, or that’s just like when I …”

So dig to the bottom of that plastic pumpkin.  That's where the best treats are hiding out--waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to LaGuardia

I believe it was the brilliant John Irving who said,  “You don’t initiate a story until you know how you’re going to end it.  You don’t start a dinner party conversation—‘A funny thing happened on the way to LaGuardia’ –and not know what happened in LaGuardia."

I used to use the “fly by the seat of my pants” approach.  Sometimes it worked—just by fluke, I think.  But more often than not, I would dig myself into a hole and get stuck.  Now I think I tend to agree with John Irving.  I try to tell myself the story.  I don’t like to tell other people the story, because, maybe it’s just Irish superstition, but it feels as if it loses some of the magic for me when I talk it out with someone.  I’ll write little notes to myself –when I do it that way, it’s as if the story unfolds on its own.  As soon as I have a general idea of where it's going, then I start to work—and I work out technicalities and logistics along the way.
But the big, meaty question I try to remember to ask myself is, What has to happen?  If you have an impulsive character up on a rocky ledge, or if you have a nervous, self-conscious character fumbling in a mud pit, what absolutely has to happen?  I don't always know, but it's always an adventure to see where this question takes me.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Duct Tape, Chocolate and Walter White


Write two words. 

Get distracted by something shiny.

Two more words.

Cross them out.

Write three more.
Sneak peek out the window.

Stop.  Sniff the air.  Is that charcoal with a hint of cheeseburger?

Lean closer to the window.  

Shut the window and duct tape yourself to your chair.

Five more words.

Cross out three.

Write eight more.

Is that a sentence you see?

Give the sentence a friend or two.  

Don’t stop now.
You have a page.

The window has darkened.  The charcoal is gray.

But you’ve done the work.

Now celebrate.

Unpeel the duct tape.

Eat some 


See what Walter White is up to.


Wake up and repeat.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Painful and Embarrassing

Paula Danziger definitely had it right.  She knew how to create a truth-telling world.  This is the draw-you-in-immediately-make-you-laugh-sob-and-wet-your-pants-all-at-the-same-time kind of telling the truth.  

Wonderful to read, but not so easy to write.

But once you actually get down to adding that emotional layer--once you are actually laughing, sobbing, and wetting your pants while you are typing, it's going to be the most satisfying kind of work you can do.

My editor, Reka Simonsen, used to say to me, "Dig Deeper."

So that's my challenge for you this week.  Think of things that make you cringe and write down exactly what you are feeling.  Then give that feeling to one of your characters.  Drum up that embarrassing moment--you know which one.  Then pass it on to one of your characters.  Go ahead.  You got this.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Is Your Character Driving the Bus?

 “If you’re silent for a long time, people just arrive in your mind.” --Alice Walker

With your first few lines, you are inviting your readers into the lives of your characters.  You want your readers to feel as if they’re eavesdropping and somehow getting privileged information that no one else has.  You’re allowing them to sneak into the house with you --to hide in the corner or to be a fly on the wall.
Now you as the writer need to be the fly on that wall.  Listen to your characters.  What are they saying to each other?  Are they angry?  Afraid?  --Maybe even terrified?  And, of course, ask yourself why?

What are your characters worried about?  Has someone in the room caused those worries?

What does your character truly care about?  It has to at some point in the story seem almost unattainable.  Almost. 

I leave you today with a quote from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:  “Many people believe that stories are told to put people to sleep.  I tell mine to wake them up.”

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Razor Blades and Pencil Sharpeners

Lewis Carroll once said, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?”

As middle-grade and young adult writers, we owe our readers those pictures and conversation.  They are the toughest audience around.  Right around third grade, they start to form very strong opinions.  Each day in my third grade class, I would get a round of critiques, with their observations, all of their up-and-downs.  They would watch to see what I had on my desk, what I’d put around the room, how I might be reacting to the fact that Owen is taking all the razor blades out of the pencil sharpeners, and Anna has brought her cell phone to school and is showing it off in the cubby room. 

Kid readers see and hear and feel everything with the sharpness that hasn't yet had the edges buffed or smoothed.  So it is our job to make them see and hear and feel every last bit of our story.  We have to provide the pictures and conversation.  We have to drop those kids into our book from the first page, from the first sentence, or they are going to turn around and leave.  Remember, we’re not there to teach; we’re there to entertain.

They need an equal amount of action, description, and dialogue.  Not one word should be there that doesn’t drive the story forward.  Give them something to wonder about on the first page.  Give them someone to worry about or cheer for.

Novelist Andre Gide said, “The poor novelist constructs his characters; he controls them and makes them speak.  The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them.”

So today, go do a little eavesdropping.  Watch, listen, and wonder.  Color a few pictures.

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...