Archive for the ‘Balance’ Category

10 Tips for Winning Writing Contests, Scoring an A, or Attracting an Agent/Editor

January 27, 2014

1. Hook your readers with a vivid scene right away. How? Read on.

2. Specific senses will get your reader to experience your story.

Example: Gary D. Schmidt’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy begins like this: Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine, for fifteen minutes shy of six hours. He had dipped his hand in its waves and licked the salt from his fingers. He had smelled the sharp resin of the pines. He had heard the low rhythm of the bells on the buoys that balanced on the ridges of the sea. He had seen the fine clapboard parsonage beside the church where he was to live, and the small house set a ways beyond it that puzzled him some. Turner Buckminster had lived in Phippsburg, Maine, for almost six whole hours. He didn’t know how much longer he could stand it.

3. Show the protagonist’s problem right away. Turner’s is shown in his feelings shown in the last sentence.

4. Character dialogue must move the story forward. If it’s just talking back and forth to talk, remove it.

5. Use adverbs sparingly. Change them to verbs.
Example: He said loudly. Change to: He shouted.

6. Create suspense with tension. Author Steve Mooser employs the element of time. He says, “If the bad guys are due into town at sunset, if Friday is the day of the school play – that’s the easiest way to build tension.” In Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, the hourglass shows how much time Dorothy has to live.

David Almond created atmosphere with action verbs and specific images in Heaven Eyes:
Mud. Black, sticky, oily, stinking mud. It was January who dared to lean out of his raft first. He dipped his hand into what should have been water. He touched mud, black mud. It oozed and dribbled from his fingers. The raft settled, and mud slithered across its surface, onto our clothes. It seeped through to our skin. It seeped through the tiny gaps between the doors. I took my flashlight out, switched it on, saw the doors disappearing as they sank . . . saw that we were being slowly sucked down into the sodden earth . . . Our feet, our hells, our knees were caught in mud . . . I grunted, whimpered, groaned. I slithered forward. . . My head filled with the mist and darkness.

7. Everyone loves humor. The unexpected is funny. Two unlike characters or objects placed together can be funny.

8. Read your piece out loud. Is it balanced? Not big chunks of description or pages of pure dialogue, but evenly paced?

9. Eliminate vague words: Possibly, many, pretty, terrible . . .

10. What has the protagonist learned or how has your character changed in some small way?

After several drafts, put away your manuscript for a while. When you return, read it aloud with fresh eyes. Are you having fun? If not, rework the story until it’s just right. You’ll feel that tingle of excitement when it works!

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On Writing Crappy and Writing Great (or at Least Better)

May 24, 2013

I guess reporters don’t know which column will be published when, or else the California Writers Club Young Writers Contest article and photo just didn’t make it into my edition of the Contra Costa Times on May 23.  Next time I’ll only post it here when I see it in the paper myself. 

***

As I’ve been working on a project, I’ve found myself being concerned with the marketing aspect and how the publicist would  react to the story.  After the day’s work, I closed my computer and purposely didn’t re-read my words. 

The next morning, I printed out my chapter and took a clipboard to revise and work on another scene.  Reading what I had written, my jaw dropped.  Who was this stilted writer who had composed these awkward sentences?  Do I know this person?  Where did she come from? If she was in my writing class, I’d take her aside and tell her to forget the final phases of book production, and free herself by going back to the basics.  Think about character!  Relax.  Wonder about the story, don’t let the final outcome block the writing process.

I set aside my previous day’s disaster, and started over.  This time, I let my mind wander over my characters and their world.  “No worries,”  I told myself.  “Have fun with these people.  Get to know them.  You don’t have to write the very next chapter.  Just write a scene where they talk to each other. What’s the worst problem they can get into together?  What will they do?”

Writing Prompts:

1.  What is a dramatic or interesting conflict you can have your character get into?  Can it somehow be based on her greatest fear?

2.  What emotion does your scene evoke?  What do you want your reader to feel?

3.  What is the motivation for why the characters in your scene act the way they do?

4.  Write about your characters BEFORE this scene.  What is their back story?

5.  Within your writing, can you locate where you are showing and where you are telling?  Highlight the telling.  If you have too much highlighting, where can you show in a scene rather than tell?  Or where can you cut out the telling all together?  If it doesn’t move your story forward, cut it out.

The Couch IS Important

January 7, 2013

At a recent breakfast date, a friend leaned toward me over the table and asked, “Tell me, is Mary rich?”

I had been inside her home. “Everything in her house matches,” I said.

My friend laughed. We both had grown up poor so she knew what I meant. Mary was rich in our eyes.

Every piece in Mary’s lovely home did look expensive. Colorful tapestries showing European influences decorated the floors; delicate china and glassware displayed in dark cherry cabinets. A silver teapot and tray sparkled in the sunlight. Art work on the walls had been purchased from her travels from all around the world.

I remember a few years ago I was so proud we were able to get a matching white couch and chair for our living room. But when our son, who lives on the opposite coast, came for a visit and walked into our house, his jaw dropped. “Oh no!” he said. “One of those houses! It’s white and sterile and not comfy. This is not how we are.”

He turned and walked through our kitchen into our cluttered and mismatched family room. “Ah, he said. This is us.”

Writing Prompts:

1. Does your house reflect who you are? Describe the room that best shows your personality.
2. In your most recent project, write about your main character’s bedroom or favorite place to be. Does she hang out in the forest behind her back yard? Does she love her high-rise office overlooking the Oakland Bay Bridge? Does he cherish his music room? Describe your character’s actions in this room.
3. Write a short story or poem showing how setting is important to the theme or plot of the story.
4. Write about the importance of one object in an essay, poem or story. How can it fuel the plot?
5. Does your character collect any objects? Have a special style? Does she or he fit in with his surroundings? Stand out in any way? Write a scene to show the answers to these questions.

Writing Realistic Dialogue

October 5, 2012

“So, like you know Nick’s mom?” the teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.

“Yeah, like she’s blonde  right?” said the girl in the middle of the three, her short-shorts hiking up oh, so far.

I huffed and puffed behind them on the walking trail and made sure I kept up so I wouldn’t miss a word. 

The girl on the right chimed in with awe in her voice.  “She’s really good-looking.”

“No kidding,” said Ms. Pony Tail.  “She looks exactly like Carrie on Sex in the City. Her body, anyways.” 

All three murmured their agreements. 

Just a tidbit of conversation, but a goldmine for a writer.  Why?  Because if you’re not around teenagers, you don’t know how they sound any more.  Whether they’re in your  young adult novel or in another work of fiction, their dialogue needs to sound real.  Nothing worse than phony characters!

Ever read a book for adults with a child who doesn’t  sound kid-like?  The talking doesn’t match the character, where they live, or time period?   Fake.     Or lines of useless talk without a purpose?   

So what makes dialogue good?

Dialogue should show character and move the story forward.  Talk should be action.  Can you get your characters’ words to heighten conflict?  Sometimes great dialogue has subtext, or a secondary meaning when  words that mean one thing on the surface, but underneath they have a deeper emotional meaning.    And occasionally dialogue is important because of what isn’t being said.   The elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

It reminds me of an incident once years ago when my husband, young son and I traveled to see his parents, brother and sister-in-law.  We talked in the living room for a couple of hours and then took separate cars to meet at a restaurant.  In our car I mentioned to Bob that his mother was upset with his father and my sister-in-law knew, but I hadn’t figured out the reason yet.  And my sister-in-law was irritated about my mother-in-law over an issue too, but we’d learn why at the restaurant.

Bob’s mouth dropped open.  “You are nuts.  We talked about the weather, everyone’s health and what the kids were doing in school.  How did you get all of that out of mindless conversation?”

“You weren’t paying attention!” I said.  “Watch the body language, the eyes, listen to the voices.” 

My husband shook his head in disgust.  “You are wrong, Liz.  Totally wrong.”

Of course, we discovered the source of my mother-in-law’s irritation with her husband, and my sister-in-law’s problem with my mother-in-law.  Later, he grew to appreciate my “women’s intuition.”  But I don’t think it’s limited to women.  All writers have this when they are working. 

And when aren’t we? 

Writing Tips: 

1. Don’t use substitute words for “said.”  I just unearthed a beginning writing piece of mine from a trillion years ago and I’m embarrassed to say each time someone talked I used gasped, murmured, whispered, indicated, questioned, etc. so often it was embarrassing.  Occasionally it’s appropriate but generally, use SAID.  it will make your writing flow more smoothly.  

Or, skip the tags and employ an action.   (See above.  Bob’s mouth dropped open.  The teen’s pony tail swished behind her as she walked.)

2.  Don’t use dialogue to tell information a character would already know.   Example: 
“Mary, you are my very best friend.  I’ve known you all my life and your mother is our horse’s vet.  She saved his life two times.”  

Writing Prompts

1.  Listen to real dialogue wherever you go.  Keep a journal.  Jot it down after you hear it so you won’t forget.  (But try not to write it down as you walk, or you’ll be caught like Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.)  Choose a piece of real dialogue and create a story with it.

2.  Write a story with special buzzwords.  These are words that each and every hobby or occupation has.  Does your character love horses?  Research horses.  Interview a horse lover.  Read horse books.  How does a horse lover talk about them?  What are the “horse words” that would go with this character?  

My husband was an engineer and he wrote a recommendation for one of his secretaries and said she had good “phone presence.” This time I thought HE was nuts.  But sure enough, in that industry, it was exactly what they called good phone etiquette.

3.  Write a story about you with real dialogue.   Read your dialogue out loud.  (In fact, read ALL dialogue you EVER write out loud!) 

4. Check a recent project of yours.  Do you have long narration that needs to be broken up with dialogue?  Make sure your piece is balanced.  Dialogue helps provide a balance and is good for pacing.  Need faster pacing?  Write short dialogue and skip tags.   But don’t have huge blocks of dialogue, either.  Make sure you have a balanced story that flows well.  Read it aloud to make sure it feels just right.

Writing Beginnings and Character

August 8, 2012

On Beginnings

A question from a writer:  I know the basic premise of my story, but am uncertain exactly how to begin the story.  (She writes the specifics to me.)  What do I do now?

Writers often think there is a magic formula to writing.  There isn’t.  No one can prescribe an elixir for your story.  It’s TERRIFIC when you already know your premise!  This writer is ahead of the game.  Now the fun begins!  She knows her conflict, so all she has to do is throw her two characters together into a scene and let them talk, act, and REACT to each other.   Keep on writing and sooner or later,  the writer will instinctively know where to begin.

What if you don’t know?   Read what you have written aloud.  By hearing your own voice, you will feel the rhythm of your pacing and feel what should come next.  Do you have too much dialogue chunked together?  Or too much narration and not enough action? 

Revision is your best friend.  Play with your words.  Have fun with it! 

Sleep on it.  Time is another savior.  Go back to your story and you will discover hidden insights later. 

Talk with other writers.  Sometimes our community can help one another in our progress.

———

On Character

Do you want to know your character better?  Besides throwing her into scenes, daydreaming about her, and basically spending lots of time with your protagonist, make sure you know her inside and out.  Discover the quirky tidbits about what makes her tick.    You can answer these questions about yourself and later write an anecdote or personal narrative about a memory that may be inspired by them, and also use them for your characters. 

Favorite quote: 

(Mine:  “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”  Groucho Marx       and

  “All who wander are not lost.”  J. R. R. Tolkien . . . oh, and one more . . . “In every struggle, there is a hidden

blessing.”  Joan Chittister )

Current photo on desk or dresser:  

(Mine: a 1940s picture of my mother)

A movie to watch over and over again:

(Me:  Ruthless People, Born Yesterday)

Quirky collection:

(Mine: water bottle labels – – I don’t drink, so when I travel, I collect “interesting” labels to tease the wine snobs in my life . . .)

Favorite book:

(Mine: Charlotte’s Web, Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1000 more)

What to save out of a burning house:

(Mine: my dog, Zoie, and old photos)

How earned money as a child:

(Mine:  babysitting)

First jobs:

(Mine: worked in a library, a factory, a liquor corporation, in a school)

Quirky jobs?

(Mine: Easter Bunny!)

Writing Prompts:

1.  Write an anecdote, story, personal narrative or poem inspired by any of the questions above pertaining to YOUR life. 

2.  Write a scene inspired by any of the questions above pertaining to your character’s life. 

3.  Come up with other questions and answers for your character – – and you – – to answer.

Amazon Buys Marshall Cavendish: Children’s Publisher Morphs into Selling Industry

December 8, 2011

Gulp.  I can’t (puff, puff) keep (puff, puff) up.  I’m running as fast as I can.  The changes in the publishing industry are zooming ahead of me.  I learn Amazon has just bought Marshall Cavendish, a children’s publisher. 

What does this mean for creativity?   In my last post I talked about balance of time.  This time we need to search for balance for creativity. 

Already, the big box stores and Amazon have been successful in making big money-making deals larger and the small independent projects smaller or non-existent. 

Now they’ve gulped a creative source. 

As a person who tries to see the positive in every move, yes, I know this means a new life for books as in e-books for children. 

But. 

Another big guy strikes against art. 

Follow the money.

Full Disclosure

December 7, 2011

Since mid November, when I took a trek to a coastal women’s retreat, I haven’t spent a solid day home writing.  This is unusual for me, because my goal is to write all week days  in my home office.  I turn down invitations for coffee, lunch, and “going shopping with girlfriends.”   Weekends are my play time.  

But stuff happens. 

My birthday, appointments, a friend passes away, another friend comes to visit, someone needs help . . . you get the idea.  And Christmas looms so invitations appear that just come once a year.    “Only this time,” I say to myself.

But.  

The January deadline appears for two big projects.  

Ah ha.  I did it to myself.   This lack of time.  By saying yes to other obligations and to a fun social life.

We all do it. 

Where is the balance in our lives? 

Between giving to others and to ourselves? Between our household chores and our creative projects?  Between our day jobs and our writing? Between our social selves and our inner lives?  Between the noisy world outside and the life of silence we crave? 

What to do?  Make a list of priorities. 

Mine?  Two, outside of my family and friendsMy writing and helping young writers by way of the California Writers Club, Mt. Diablo Branch’s Young Writers Contest.  If any requests come to me outside of those concerns I will probably say no because I just don’t have the time or energy. 

Next, schedule in your calendar and your daysWhat are you doing, hour by hour?  If you actually don’t know how your day is spent, write down what you are doing, hour by hour.  Took you fifteen minutes to unload the dishwasher?  Write it down.  Took you 30 minutes to sort, load and unload the laundry?  Write it down.  

If you are actually in your office trying to write but NOT writing, what is happening there?  Emailing?  Researching on the Internet?  Shopping?  Cleaning your files?   Keep track and see what you are doing.  Don’t feel too guilty you don’t write the minute you sit down at your computer.  I know someone who has to play computer games for 20 minutes in order to write productively.   Figure out what helps you work best.  Discover what helps you work with the fewest distractions.

I know that at this moment, half of my office is filled with wrapping paper, gifts, and CWC Young Writers Contest stuff.  The other half is my book project.  If I don’t organize my book project half-of-the-room first, I’ll never be able to settle down and write.   It’s how I work best. 

How do you work best?