Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday challenge: Better Beginning

I haven’t dug out any of my writing craft books in months. But today, I spent the first hour or so of my Sunday morning sitting on the patio with Sol Stein’s book Stein on Writing.

I dug it out because I’m struggling a bit with the opening of one of my novel manuscripts. This one is my middle grade fantasy – which was great fun to write – but has an opening that is a bit of a dud.

I’ve stared at it. I’ve rewritten it. I’ve chopped it out and hit “delete” more than once. Finally, I gave up on it for a while and focused on the rest of the story, which was the right move at the time. Now, however, I have a full manuscript draft – that still doesn’t resonate in the first page. Problem, right?

Chapter 2 of Stein’s book is called Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs. He begins:

“Elia Kazan, brilliant director of stage and screen as well as a late-blooming novelist, told me that audiences give a file seven minutes. If the viewer is not intrigued by character or incident within that time, the film and its viewer are at odds. The viewer came for an experience. The film is disappointing him.”

So between my love of film, my own late blooming writing life, and the general good advice of this opening itself, I think I’d better listen to Mr. Stein. (I guess I’m hooked by the chapter on how to hook readers. Hmmm.)

Stein goes on to say the ideal goals of the opening of a novel are:

1.      To excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.

2.      To introduce a setting.

3.      To lend resonance to the story.

I also have the voice of a writer-friend whispering in my ear about this same opening. She is the first “test reader” to give me feedback on the story and her first piece of advice was to work on the opening. She suggested it needs to start more in the middle of the action, more “in” the story – which (brilliantly) fits with Stein’s advice.

Not exactly the hook I need, but
you get the idea.
My challenge today: Make my middle grade novel opening reach for those goals.

Who do I want to excite the reader to get to know? Stephen, the prince who prefers poetry to swords? Hector, the tricky cousin who has designs for the throne? Both of them are in the opening already with at least an attempt at giving clues to their lop-sided relationship. Who is missing? The heroine. Perhaps she comes into the story way too late. The question is: How can I move her into page one?

Setting? Castle. But where does the rest of the STORY take place really? Outside of the castle. In the forest, in a secluded tower prison. Various other places within the kingdom. Should I move my opening to one of these other places in the story? Even if the castle is the seat of the king and therefore represents the hero and heroine’s ultimate goal? Something to think about…

Finally – resonance. The story, ultimately, is about being true to who you are. Holding fast to your dreams and defending them when necessary. Having the courage to stand up and speak up – and take action in the face of the unknown. Is that what needs to resonate? Or is it, perhaps, the problem: Hector plotting to take over the throne? This might be the hardest of the Stein’s three goals to accomplish.

I’m off to fill up my coffee mug and try to wipe the opening “slate” clean. To try again. Wish me luck.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

We are warriors

“Creative work is…a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”
--- Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”


So, what’s up with creative people and the battles they fight against resistance? I, for one, know it is pretty easy to give in and let the resistance take over. Let procrastination be the winner – allow everything you know you need to do falter, wither and never see the light of day.

But once you know what you need to do… Once you know your soul needs you to create… that’s when the fight really begins, doesn’t it? Maybe those of us who are creators and resistance fighters need to take some advice from Lt. Kara “Starbuck” Thrace of the Battlestar Gallactica – my all-time favorite fighter.  Maybe we need to “…do the same thing we always do. Fight ‘em til we can’t.”

Let the fight begin.


Adama: Morning, Starbuck, what do you hear?

Starbuck: Nothin' but the rain.

Adama: Grab your gun and bring in the cat.

Starbuck: Aye-aye, sir.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Coming to the end…and grinding to a halt

For weeks now, my MG manuscript has been on the verge of being a finished first draft. Weeks. Seriously.

Instead of finishing it, I’ve cleaned toilets, baked gluten free experiments, set up an entire year’s worth of horse show events on Facebook for my daughter’s team, watched all of the new episodes of Castle on my iPhone, and started a new Twitter account. I’ve consumed a lot of coffee, helped assemble 725 nametags for TEDx Columbus, made a new friend, and taught numerous classes for work. Oh… and now I’m writing this instead of opening my book file.

Yes… I’m sitting on the platform at Procrastination Station ignoring every train that whistles down the tunnel.

My writing partner once heckled me about getting distracted so easily. We were in her basement trying to plot out our first novel and write something – anything – that we could call a beginning. I could focus for only so long, eventually trying to convince her to go see the new Star Trek movie. She looked at me as if I’d grown an extra ear in the middle of my forehead.

So you see… I know I get distracted. I know I tend to lose focus at the worst possible moments. But this is getting ridiculous.

I’m beginning to realize I might just be experiencing not just writer’s block, but some sort of writer’s paralysis. What will happen when the plot curve is complete? As I wrap up the climax and falling action, how will I know if it is, indeed, finished? And then what? In my head, I can only see a dark tunnel, leading to who knows where – and not a flicker of light at the end. I write the last few chapters. I go back and fix a plot hole I know exists earlier in the book. And then… Then I have to do one of two things:

1.      Put the whole thing aside for a few weeks and ignore it. (I’m pretty good at ignoring it now, for heaven’s sake. So this shouldn’t be intimidating…but knowing I have to set a date and come back to it for editing and eventually finding an agent. This is what stops me in my tracks.)

2.      Find a reader or two. Readers I trust. Readers who will give me critique, creative criticism…and who will hopefully find a way to let me down gently if they see clearly what I cannot – if they know it is just plain bad.

So which one will it be? Virtual shoebox under my bed? Or courageous leap into handing over my written baby to someone else to examine?

Maybe if I can make this decision, I can focus again. Write those last few chapters. Carry my characters home.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rory's Story Cubes

I was wandering through the toy aisles at Target the other day, waiting for my son to choose a birthday present for a friend. In the section with the smaller, travel-sized games and card decks, I did a double-take.

Have you seen these?
If not – and if you are a writer, you MUST go find them right now. No matter your age…if you love stories, like writing, want to entertain your kids or yourself or just like to toss dice…this game is a winner.

9 cubes. 54 images. 10 million combinations. Infinite stories.

Heck yeah!!

Go on. Stop reading this right now. Set your coffee cup down and shut your laptop. Get your keys.

You’ll thank me later.   


Still here?
Seriously. Go… Then come home and play. Post your story in the comments below. I dare you!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cougar in My Head -- (or the Gift of Metaphor)

I attended a storytelling workshop today for business people. Fantastic experience, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was this discovery: Other people don’t think automatically in metaphor.

OK… I can hear you thinking, “Whatever. She thinks she’s tough you-know-what, doesn’t she?! Thinking in metaphors…Bah!” OK -- so maybe I don’t automatically convert events or people or circumstances into metaphors all day long, but I do find myself making comparisons often in my writerly brain. It helps me sort out reality, I think. Handle and parse and prioritize.

So I was taken by surprise when, during this class, we were asked to come up with a metaphor for a particularly sticky work situation. For me, it was harder to decide on the situation than it was to find the words to make the comparison come to life. I settled quickly on comparing my difficult situation to feeling like a sheep climbing a mountain, while cougars leapt out at me from behind random boulders. Not the most elegant (or eloquent) of metaphors, but for a 30 second exercise, it worked.

Here’s the thing – others in the class couldn’t do it. Or they struggled a lot. A LOT.  Many couldn’t wrap their heads around how to describe something by catching the essence and comparing it to a seemingly unrelated item. Something I guess I’ve taken for granted in my own “toolbox” in my head.

After the class was over, I stood chatting with the speaker, Ruth Milligan. (Ruth is the curator for TedX Columbus and my newest storytelling-geeky BFF!) She had some great insight: People who don’t read, struggle with that metaphor exercise. This makes great sense to me. It was, as they say, an “a-ha moment.”

I read about a novel every week. I write a lot for my day job and my dream job. Thinking in metaphor is part of my bread and butter. But like any skill, if you don’t tend it –if you don’t practice creating metaphor or recognizing good ones – that skill will wither and die on the vine. (See that? Metaphor right there! I’m too cool….)

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading a lyrical novel called The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Simply lovely language. There is magic, love, regret, action, spell casting, shape shifting, and sprinkles of Oz, Narnia, Hogwarts, and almost every other classic fantasy story mixed in. Quite a brilliant ode to the genre.

Here are some quotes from Mr. Grossman’s work that I’d marked in the novel simply because I thought they were beautiful. Some are metaphor or simile, but some are just lovely use of language. And considering my self-discovery today about practicing with recognizing and using metaphor, it seemed like a good thing to share with all of you. Here goes:

“Martin stalks away into the dense Darkling Woods, weeping wimpy English schoolboy tears.” – page 75

“A gang of wild turkeys patrolled the edge of the forest, upright and alert, looking oddly saurian and menacing, like a lost squadron of velociraptors.” –page 79

“Are you kidding? That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” – page 107 

“Once in a while, an entire sub-sub-category that had long been thought safely dormant would take wing with an indescribable papery susurrus.” – page 128

“It had a clean, industrious air of a room that had just been vigorously swept with a birch-twig broom.”  -- page 150

“His head felt huge and diffuse and empty, like a puff of cloud hanging above his shoulders. The cloud began to drift away. He wondered if he was going to pass out.”  --page 285

I mean, seriously? Lost squadron of velociraptors? Papery susurrus? Puff of cloud hanging above shoulders? Hit somebody or start a blog? This is great stuff! The kind of writing that makes me smile, dog-ear the page just a tiny bit, then go back a day later to find that magical (forgive the pun) sentence or phrase, just so I can smile about it again. (And I'll give any writer bonus points for susurrus. One of the best words. Ever.)
Have you found any great metaphors lately? Do you think they are hard to write? Or do you, too, tend to think in them more often than others? Maybe it’s a writer thing. Maybe we are lucky enough to be wired to think in metaphor, poetry, and description. If so, it’s a gift I never realized I had…until today.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Inspiration at a time of need...

If you ever wake up one morning and decide you need a good dose of inadequacy in your life, have I ever got a tip for you:

Try picking up the beautiful book A Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman – reading it in big gulps, gasping for breath as you fall in love (and hate) with Kings and Queens, with courtiers and knights in shining armor and their stories. Then…only after the last page is read and you’ve closed the back cover…pick up your current work in progress.


Nothing like consciously trying to NOT compare yourself to other writers, right? Oh yes… my middle grade fantasy seems oh so lovely now that I have King Richard III and his court charging through my head. In Ms. Penman’s lovely, lyrical voice.

*Sigh* again.

OK – Seriously. I’m not the first writer to float on this kind of wave of inadequacy, right? So if you are there with me (or ever have been there) – here are some words of inspiration from a couple of world-class storytellers. And here’s the great part – they DON’T WRITE BOOKS! So no comparing your current work with anything they’ve done, ok? Just not right.

Enjoy – and keep writing!

(Word to the wise -- Mr. Stanton uses some rather adult language...)

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Young Henry Jones Jr. -- A Perfunctory Prologue Lesson

My hero.
Saturday afternoon. Too hot outside for gardening or … well, pretty much anything. So I sat down with a cold drink, some chips and salsa, and one of my all-time favorite movies: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

(Confession time: I want to write like these movies. All action, adventure, ridiculous life or death scenarios, and a hero in a cool hat. But I digress…)

You know the movie, right? It starts off with a bunch of Scouts taking a trail ride in the desert…where we quickly realize we are going to be treated to a glimpse of Indy’s boyhood. Whoever cast River Phoenix as the young Indiana Jones was brilliant, in my humble opinion. (Digressing again, aren’t I? Sorry.)

This flashback beginning bit doesn’t make the plot of the Last Crusade move forward; however, at this point in the movie series, these cinematic prologue does a couple of things: it pulls us into the fictional world of Indiana Jones, while at the same time giving us information about HOW and WHY he is who he is.

Ahhh, youth.
Remember: this is the third movie, so by now, Indy is a well-known and well-loved character in pop culture. We all know a lot about what he does and we have come to expect him to behave in certain ways. In fact, we know him so well, we don’t even need to see his face. All we need to see is that hat. Better yet, the hat paired with the whip. Or hear his theme song. No actual Indy required to know you are about to have a Raiders of the Lost Ark type experience.

And the second thing (the real beauty of the boy scout prologue) – now that we know about the adult adventurous Indy, a glimpse backward shows us how he came to be. That prologue gives us an enormous insight into his character in just those few minutes. The climb into the cave, sending a friend for the police, stealing the priceless artifact (Coronado’s cross) out from under the professional treasure hunters, the chase on horseback and the circus train, all culminating at his Father’s doorstep. Seriously…we find out how he gets his first hat, why he carries the whip everywhere he goes, why he hates snakes. We get a peek into what drives his love of history and why he lives to bring priceless artifacts to museums for safekeeping. We even find out how he gets the rakish scar on his chin, for heaven’s sake.

The nearly unbelievable situations started at a very young age for our hero. Of course they did! This is the world of Indiana Jones, people! Where a bag of sand might save your life or trigger a booby trap. Where knowing that being penitent means to “kneel before God.” Where diving into a magician’s box on a moving train might be the only way to save Coronado’s treasured gold cross. And where struggling with a bad guy on the roof of a moving train can only be stopped by nearly being impaled by a rhino’s horn!

This movie prologue ties us back to what we already know about Indiana Jones before the newest story even begins. It reminds us of his faults, his flaws, and his desires – and sets us up for the conflict (which we already knew back when we bought the popcorn): a search for an historical artifact of unbelievable value – and Indy’s attempt to do what is right above all else.

So here’s what I’d like to know: What is the best prologue example you’ve seen in young adult or middle grade novels? What about prologues in your writing? Do you use them or not? Why or why not?

While you’re thinking that over… I’ll pop more corn and settle in for another chapter of Indy and his hat. Gotta love that hat.