Saturday, September 29, 2012

"So many trees," said Goldilocks. "I wonder if there's a forest nearby?"


Such a simple concept. Re-Vision: To see again with fresh eyes, a fresh imagination.

Like spring cleaning, revision clears out the junk, improves flow, strengthens the story. It's manuscript Feng-Shui.

"Great," I say. "Let's get started."

I print a copy of the manuscript, eager to prune flimsy sentences; to root out squishy, uncertain phrases and give bold ones room to grow. It's easy at first; the 'weeds' both plentiful and obvious. I pluck out fluff, delete fillers, remove excess dialogue tags.

Then I read it aloud, checking for flow, marking verbal blips with my red pen. Because I'm ruthless, (or so I think), the manuscript soon looks as though I've attacked it with a Weed eater, each whip of the twine leaving telltale crimson stain.

After changes to the piece, I survey my handiwork. "Better," I say. "Stronger. Bolder." I dash off a copy, congratulating myself on my willingness to 'murder my darlings.'

But reading the newest version, I feel a knot forming in my stomach. Something is wrong with my beloved story. A hidden canker, perhaps. A slow, malevolent rot lurking below the surface.

This time the flaws aren't so obvious. Uneasy, I send the manuscript to beta readers. I show it to friends and critique partners in the hope someone will say, "Oh. Here's the problem." But they are kind, even complimentary. "Nice job," they say. "I like your protagonist. Good story."

Good. But not great.

How do you fix good-but-not-great? Start over? Add a new twist? New scenes? Change the point of view?

Suddenly I'm like Goldilocks wandering through the trees in search of the forest. What I need is perspective; a lofty surface from which to view my surroundings.

I think I found it yesterday when a friend suggested writing coach Margie Lawson's website.  Though I've resisted the idea of checklists, formulas, or templates, I've seen how Ms. Lawson's approach to editing has strengthened my friend's work-in-progress.

"Stand up here," Margie says. "See this tree? Remove it. Cut this branch--but leave that one." Already the path is clearer. With renewed confidence I start on the new course, and soon pick up speed.

I'll let you know whether her method helps me locate a certain cabin in the woods.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The knife bit into Lara's skin, and a trickle of blood seeped...

Now what?

I stare at the screen, drawing a blank. The cursor blinks mockingly, as if to remind me I'm supposed to have something brilliant to say right now.

But I don't.

'Okay,' I think. 'Forget brilliant. Shoot for pedantic; mundane, even. Just get something down, quick, because you've got to finish this scene to stay on schedule. You'll juice it up later.'

Half an hour passes. No words appear.

I look around. Certain there's an external cause, I run through the 'Perfect Writing Atmosphere Checklist'. Lighting: Good. Noise: Absent. Temperature adjusted, candles lit, dishwasher loaded: Check, check, check.

At this point the committee in my head chimes in, offering helpful things like: 'I'll bet James Patterson doesn't waste time like this,' and 'Dean Koontz wrote LIGHTNING in seven weeks, from first word to final revision.'

I pour another cup of coffee. Feed the cat. Let the dogs out, then back in. Light a third (or fourth) candle.

Then, I settle back in the chair, open the laptop, and glare at the stupid cursor some more.

Finally, I delete the last line, and write:

Lara wrestled the knife away from Maxwell and tossed it into the river.

"I don't feel like being murdered today." She wiped the dirt from her Yoga pants and retrieved her lost flip-flop. "Better scram, before you find out how dangerous a pissed-off soccer mom can be."

It's not Hemingway, but it's a start. I smile and keep typing, curious where the story goes from here.

I'll make a thousand words today, easy.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Friday, September 21, 2012

Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust...

Football (the American kind--with a weird pointy ball made from the skin of unfortunate pigs) is often called an analogy for war. But as a lifelong fan, I think it makes a great analogy for almost anything--especially writing commercial fiction.

Think of it this way: NFL players prepare at least forty hours for every hour they play.

That's forty-to-one ratio.

This means that if I hope to 'win the game,' for every hour I spend creating new material I must devote many (many!) hours to sharpening my skill, and even more to checking, revising, correcting, formatting, summarizing and pitching that new creation.

Sometimes the words grind out slowly, inch by sweaty inch. Each sentence feels like 'Three yards and a cloud of dust.' A paragraph takes an hour, a single page consumes a whole frustrating day.

Then, like the receiver who breaks free and catches a perfectly-timed throw, scenes unfold in flowing detail, and pages appears on my laptop as if by magic. At the end of these 'bursts' I sigh, close my computer, and think, "Wow. Now that the chapter/scene/book is finished, the hard stuff is over."

Except it's not.

Like a long pass that nets huge yardage, a super-productive day simply means there's more work to do. If a completed scene is a successful scoring drive, I still need to play defense and clean up the manuscript. Another score (a polished draft)? Now it's time to run it by beta-readers and see where the thing drags--in other words, to play more defense.

Offense (writing) and defense (revisions) look good? Now we work on special teams, because we'll never sell our beloved creation unless we successfully pitch to editors and agents (or market the thing ourselves, which is probably harder.)

No football team can win the big prize unless they develop all three phases of the game (ask Boise State, who broke my heart last season. Go Broncos!)

I'm headed to the lake this weekend to work on my passing game.

Come Monday, I'll be back to playing defense.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Wind Howled...Or Was That A Shriek?

My literary crush Elmore Leonard often discusses his 10 Rules Of Writing--all designed to keep the writer invisible in the story.

First on the list: Never Open A Book With Weather.

The reason is simple: Unless you're showing a character's reaction to the weather, the reader will skip over long sections of meteorological blathering. Yet some writers--myself included--have started scenes detailing everything from wind speed to barometric pressure, thinking we're supposed to create 'atmosphere'.

But if the characters don't care about the weather (in which case we'd show their reaction, rather than the weather itself), why should the reader?

In this interview he talks about reading a book that starts with: "The wind howled like a beast in pain." (Tellingly, I thought it was a pretty cool metaphor.) Leonard, however, laughed, then asked, "Whose point of view is that?"

He was kind, though, and suggested that the unnamed author would probably get out of his own way soon enough; that the writer might have been eager to showcase his (or her) abilities, and hadn't yet learned to let the characters tell the story.

But weather can also be a writer's friend, as in this example:

Imagine a newly-hired crime scene technician, unprepared for real-life investigations, trudging through a muddy field in the midst of a downpour to reach the corpse. Just as our poindexter reaches the ditch on the far side, lightning strikes a nearby tree. Startled, he slips in the mud and slides down the embankment on his backside--much to the amusement of the uniformed officers on the scene.

Congratulations! Weather has just provided you with conflict, tension, and--as the story progresses and our technician learns the ropes--a LOT of room for character growth.

If the story is strong enough, who needs atmosphere?

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Monday, September 17, 2012

Fifty Shades of Envy

I may be the last American 'woman of a certain' age who hasn't read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James. Even with all the hype, I probably won't.

But every writer, agent, editor and blogger who discusses the blockbuster trilogy agrees it's not well-written. The funniest critiques are the word counts: Holy Crap--38, Mutter/muttered--63, Murmur/murmured--100, and perhaps tellingly, Inner Goddess (James' euphemism for lady bits)--57.

So, like any writer seeking publication, I have to ask why this book is wildly popular, while others--and surely many with better prose--languish in some agent's slush pile.

The answer may be deceptively simple. What if the quality of writing is less important than the story?

To put it differently: Am I concentrating on the beauty and flow of my words, or am I doing my darnedest to tell a great story?

Think about it. What books have stuck in your mind over the years? Were they great literary tomes, or simple ideas that tugged at your emotions.


Writing from the viewpoint of an uneducated thirteen-year-old boy, Rawls uses common phrases and easy language to put us in the Ozark foothills, chasing raccoons with our beloved red hounds. And while the book may be considered Young Adult, I dare you to read it as a grownup without crying (or completely dissolving into sobs as I did a couple years ago trying to read aloud to my son. He actually took the book from me, saying, "Jeez, Mom. I'll finish this part if you want me to.")

Perhaps Ms. James effectively tapped into readers' emotions using simple (and often the same) words. Maybe the story is better than the writing...and readers made it clear which they prefer.

So, after all the fuss over Ms. James' poorly-constructed bestseller, I must admit I'm envious of her success. But envy won't help my career, and it won't make me a better writer.

Remembering that a good story trumps fancy prose will.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

With a sickening lurch, Fiona's truck sailed off the...

                                                              Chapter 2.

...curb and landed in the street. "Darn it," Fiona said. "Now I've scraped both the front and back bumpers."

And there, my friends, is what writing consultant and screenplay guru Trai Cartwright, (who gave a bang-up presentation at the Colorado Gold conference) calls a cliffhanger.

According to Ms. Cartwright, cliffhangers are a great way to jumpstart a story that sags in the middle (more on sagging middle here). Put another way, she suggest never ending a chapter or scene on an 'exhale.' Instead, roll back the last seven lines of the scene and start your next chapter with them.

But she also reminds us to answer the 'question' we posed at the end of the previous chapter. And, if possible, to provide an answer the audience doesn't want. For example, in a serious attempt to create tension I could write:

With a sickening lurch, Fiona's truck sailed off the retaining wall and landed on the wooden drawbridge. She put the truck in reverse and punched the gas pedal, but the rear wheels spun uselessly on the rain-slick wood. Just as the left tire caught, she heard--then felt--the aging boards creak and bow under the truck's weight.

"Hang on, Letitia," she said, trying to quell the panic in her voice. "Mommy's going to get us out of this."

The child huddled next to Fiona whimpered, and then screamed as the bridge gave way.

Chapter 2.

The icy water swirled around Fiona's waist while she scrambled to unbuckle her daughter. "Hold on to Mommy, honey...."

Would you keep reading? I might--if the writer had made me care about Fiona and her daughter.

But if we had ended chapter one AFTER Fiona and Letitia escaped the flooded truck, a reader might sigh with pleasure, set down the book and go make a sandwich.

Instead, Ms. Cartwright insists we want readers to keep reading long past when they intended to stop. We want to be the author who keeps them up until two a.m. on a work night, who compels them to read our book while they walk to the subway station.

I'm going through my current project to see where chapters end on an 'exhale'. I'm sorry to report there are several.

But they won't be there much longer.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Monday, September 10, 2012

Now the Windup. And Here's the Pitch...

After a fantastic weekend at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Conference, I came away with a new (and better) perspective regarding a task most writers detest: Pitching their story to an editor or agent.

Don't get me wrong--I still don't like it.

Pitching is an exercise in selfishness that usually goes something like this: "Hello. I'm going to tell you about my book and how great it is, and why I'm exactly the right person to write this story."

This weekend I seriously thought: Let me get this straight. I'm seated across the table from a fascinating, connected, knowledgeable insider--a REAL New York literary agent--and we're supposed to talk about me?


So I came up with an analogy (sadly, not one about baseball) to help me understand.

In my veterinary practice I often performed surgery on my patients. Early on, I learned that the most technically perfect surgery--the sexy part, where scalpel parts delicate skin and neat sutures magically bind it back--can be undone by poor preparation.

But maybe a great pitch can be likened to a sterile surgical prep--where one carefully scours each finger to redness at the scrub sink, dons sterile gown, mask and gloves, and finally drapes the patient to avoid a contaminated field. Having the right instruments--in this case a strong logline and clear distillation of theme--is equally critical to the patient's survival.

Not to overdo the comparison (too late, maybe?) but I would never have considered performing surgery without a thorough, meticulous prep. Scrubbing wasn't my favorite part, but I took great care because I wanted the patient to survive--and thrive.

When it came to prep I didn't whine or procrastinate. I just went to work.

So the next time I'm seated across the table from a literary agent, I'll consider my patient (my story) and give my best pitch.

Here's hoping the patient thrives!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shoot for the Moon...

...then work on building your rocket!

Last night I witnessed a remarkable display of hard work, determination, and courage by a bunch of seventh-grade football players.

Yes, both teams fought through the suffocating heat. Both teams made mistakes, both got a few lucky breaks. And it was razor-close: The decisive play came when the opposing team completed a long pass that would've put them in position to take the lead. Their talented receiver caught the ball then fumbled, and our team (okay, it was my kid. But as you'll see in a moment, it really was a team effort) covered the live ball.

Thirty seconds later it was over. Our side cheered. Their side graciously congratulated us, loaded their thirty or so kids onto the bus, and went home.

The same thing happens nearly every night in this part of the world. Our sons (and a few daughters) don helmets and pads and fight their guts out for ten yards of dried-up turf on an unlit field in the middle of nowhere. Win or lose, parents are always proud of their kids--and rightfully so. It's hard work.

But what made last night remarkable is this: Our team suited up twelve players.


Since we play eleven-man football, that means most of the players--including the undersized, intellectually gifted kid wearing the number ten jersey--played the entire game without a break. Offense, Defense, Special Teams.

Every snap, every down.

It was over a hundred degrees when the game started, ninety-seven when it finally ended a few minutes after sundown.

We have a few talented players--and some wonderful kids who excel at things other than football. But what I saw last night reminded me that hard work and determination CAN make a difference.

When my husband and I saw all those opposing players pile off the bus and jog to their sideline, we looked at each other and said, "This isn't going to be pretty."

At the end, I'm not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes.

From now on, when someone tells me it's impossible for an unknown author to get published I'm going to smile and say, "I thought so, too. But my son taught me otherwise."

Cheers...and happy writing!


Monday, September 3, 2012

Hooks, Crooks, and Liars.

One of the toughest skills I've yet to master is answering the question: "What's your book about?"

Should be easy, right? After all, I've spent HUNDREDS of hours on the project; know my characters' motives, thoughts, gestures better than my own; have the plot laid out in a clear, systematic time line on a whiteboard above the desk.

So why can't I distill the story into a single exciting sentence?

With my first book (which I lovingly call a Dysfunctional Romance) I test-drove hooks like, "Boy meets girl. All hell breaks loose," and "Female veterinarian discovers fame comes at a price." After dozens of attempts I calculated the average time to eyes-glazing-over at 0.8 seconds.

Then I hit on a winner: "Lady veterinarian gets accused of murdering a horse in her practice."

"Ooh, sounds interesting," they'd say. "Love to read it." Sweet music to a writer's ears.

Except that's not really what the book is about. It's a complex love story that touches on themes of control, sexual trauma, and self-acceptance. (Try turning THAT into a catchy sentence!)

So I settled for a great hook--and a small lie.

Then I stumbled upon a hilarious website called Book-A-Minute, where great works ranging from GOLDILOCKS to FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS are condensed into twenty words or less. Notably absent: Adjectives and adverbs.

So I applied the formula to a different (as yet unwritten) project and came up with: "Defense contractor's wife gets abducted, falls for kidnapper, fools everyone and comes out on top." The best part is that the pared-down version captures the essence of the story (and might even give too much away.)

So next time we see each other, go ahead and ask what my book is about.

I'm ready.

Cheers...and happy writing!