Archive for the ‘Description’ 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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How’s Your Sniffer?

October 17, 2013

Everyone I know has their nose in their peanut butter jar. A recent study has shown people who have Alzheimer’s or later develop the disease couldn’t smell peanut butter while plugging their right nostril and sniffing with their left. (There are exceptions: if you have nose polyps, Parkinson’s Disease, or have had head trauma you won’t be able to smell the peanut butter either.)

I knew Parkinson’s would be an exception. When I was a child, my father never could smell anything. Bad milk in the frig? Dad would start pouring and Mom would grab the glass before he brought it to his mouth.

Scared skunk in the back yard? Mom ran to close the windows as Dad unknowingly opened them. I wonder now – – was this an early sign that in Dad’s later life he’d suffer from Parkinson’s? Did Michael J. Fox have a poor sniffer when he was young, too?

I inherited my mom’s sniffer, occasionally to unfortunate consequences. As a person who suffers from migraines which can be set off by scented chemicals, the overpowering smells of perfume, hairspray and cologne and have been known to make me change seats in church, movie theaters and actually leave places if the mixing of aromas are too strong. When Dad moved out to California after my mother passed away, it was the last of his Old Spice days for the poor man.

Supposedly, we choose our mate on the basis of scent. Diane Ackerman, in Natural History of the Senses, says, “Each person has an odor as distinctive as a finger print.” And: “We smell always and with every breath.”

In our writing, the sense of smell is easy to overlook. Although we may not naturally include this sensory image within our first draft, we need to remember to include moments of them within our rewrites.

Here’s an example of using the sense of smell to bring a setting alive. This paragraph is from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

“The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell–as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.”

Writing Prompts:

1. Look through a writing project of yours. Is there a natural place one or more scents could be woven within the manuscript?

2. Go back to your past. It could be a long-ago classroom, childhood room, or a favorite place. Meditate so that YOU ARE THERE. Include as many specific scents as you can.

3. Create a poem based on the scents of a setting of your choice.

4. Go ahead. You know you want to do it. Go smell that peanut butter with your left nostril. But don’t get freaked out if you can’t smell it. You may have a cold, allergies or some other issue at work. If you can smell it, eat some and then use all of your senses to describe the experience.

Where is the beauty in your world?

May 27, 2013

Thanks for sharing this amazing film.  Making music from trash found in a landfill!  There is beauty in the world . . . we just need to know where to look. 

Comment from Joanne

Writing Prompt Inspired by Joanne’s Comment:

Where do you find beauty in your world?  Write a poem, personal narrative or story about this topic.   Make it a sensory experience.

May 17, 2013

Recently a friend’s husband drove her to a meeting and returned home after fifteen minutes.  Switching on music,  he headed to the bedroom and stopped abruptly.  Their back window had been smashed; dresser drawers were strewn open, their contents spilling out.  Most of his wife’s jewelry was missing, except for a few pieces the burglars had dropped on the floor in their hasty retreat.

“I think he got home in the middle of it,” she said.  She was relieved they left her most valued sentimental necklace behind. 

Then there was the time my son was four and the floor beneath our feet began rolling.    “Earthquake!  Run!”  I yelled as I scooped up our terrier.  We flew past the swinging  light fixture and didn’t stop until we reached the middle of the cul-de-sac. 

We waited until birds chirped and squirrels chattered once again. After returning to discover overturned file cabinets, right where my son had been playing, I explained what could occur during an earthquake.  Later we discovered the extent of the Loma Prieta once we got back our electricity.  “Gee,” said Tofer, considering our house could have been demolished.  “I should have grabbed Herbie.”  (His favorite stuffed animal, which wasn’t an animal at all, but a car.)

During the disastrous Oakland fire of 1991, my friend’s sister and her family were evacuated.  She ran past her dresser, noticing a coffee mug, her jewelry box, and a photo album.  They didn’t stop running until they got to the base of their hill. That’s when she discovered she held the coffee mug in her hand. 

Writing Prompts:

1.   What was the first object that held important emotional meaning for you? Why?  How did you value it? Describe the item and show how you placed it in esteem. 

2.  Did your family have any treasured family heirlooms?  Write an essay about one’s significance.

3.  You have only a minute to grab one item to save from your home. What do you take and why? Describe it using your senses and emotions.

4.  In the writing project you are working on now, write about a meaningful object for your main character, a minor character, and even the antagonist.  Give background for each.  Why do they hold significant relevance?  Can any of them be a larger symbol?

Workshop on Writing the Novel in Contra Costa County

April 8, 2013

WORKSHOP & BUFFET LUNCHEON

Architecture of Long Works in Fiction and Nonfiction

Saturday, April 13, 2013

9am to 1:30pm

Jane Vandenburgh is the author of two novels, the award-winning Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset. Her nonfiction includes the memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century and The Wrong Dog Dream: A True Romance, a memoir recently published by Counterpoint Press.

Based on many years of teaching writing, Jane wrote Architecture of the Novel on the craft of structuring the longer narrative.

From it she will share such tips as:

*The elemental nature of narrative: a story consists of its events, told in scenes

*Placing scenes along the natural arc of the story in an order that provides suspense and mystery

*Drawing characters toward the inevitability of their destinies

*The maps and mechanics of any long work

Sign-in is 9 – 9:30 am, workshop 9:30 – 12:15, and luncheon from 12:30 to 1:30 pm Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant, 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill, CA. Registration is $35, or $40 for non-CWC members; contact Jean Georgakopoulos at jeaniegpops@comcast.net, or phone 925-934-5677 for reservations.

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 About Unlikable Characters

July 30, 2012

My husband and I returned to our car after shopping when we discovered, adjacent to our car’s passenger door, a disheveled guy in shorts standing next to his rear view window, checking himself out. 

My husband pointed his keys at our car, and we heard the clicks.  We stood at the end of our car and waited a few moments.  I cleared my throat. 

The man picked his nose as he watched his reflection.

(Really.  Not kidding.  Or in Dave Barry’s style, I’m not making this up.) 

We waited some more.

I took in his physical looks; his belly extended beyond his tee-shirt and his plaid shorts.   As he adjusted his mirror and gazed at himself, his greasy hair flopped over his eyes.   Meanwhile, on the other side of his vehicle, his wife loaded their toddler into a stroller. 

Clearly, he wasn’t going to move an inch to let me in the car. 

Bob said,  “I’ll back out the car for you.” 

As I got in the car, I said, “He doesn’t have a clue.”

#@%!, ” said my husband. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Go to a public place with a notebook.  Jot down physical descriptions of people you see.  Be as specific as possible.  Start with general notes and then glance at small details – – the mole on a face, the brown spots on one’s hands.  How does the person walk?  Stand?  Sit?  Does the person have a way of talking that is unique?   Show emotion?

2.  Use some of those notes to create an unlikable fictional character.  Why is this person the way she or he is?  What kind of annoying habits or morals does she/he possess?  Write a backstory for the character which may show motivation for the character quirks.

3.  Write other characters who must deal with the unlikable character.  What will be the problem/conflict/plot of your story?  Is  your unlikable character the main character or a minor character?

4.  Write a personal experience piece about a person you have dealt with who would fit the description of an unlikable character.

Jonathan Franzen – Writing Fiction and Memoir

June 22, 2012

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, Freedom, two other novels, a work of nonfiction and two collections of essays, gave a talk the other night and I was a fortunate attendee.

He spoke with thoughtfulness and richness.  When the audience asked questions, Franzen didn’t merely pop off answers from the top of his head, but gave them much consideration; the answers were from deep reflections, much like his writing. 

“Reading and writing fiction is an act of social engagement.”

“A character dies on the page if you can’t hear his or her voice.”

“A novel is a personal struggle.  What is fiction after all if not purposeful dreaming?”

“If fiction is easy to write it’s not any good.” 

(He mentioned he wasn’t talking about fun, light reading.)

“Take autobiographical risks.  Trust people you know to love the whole you.  All writers have to be loyal to themselves.”  His brother was similar to the character, Gary, in The Corrections, in that he was also working on a family album.  But Franzen learned not to be concerned because he knew his brother had his own life.  After his brother read the book he called him.  “John?” he said.  “This is your brother.  (Pause.) Gary!” 

“Tone, language, character – – – even a great TV show like Breaking Bad can’t do moral subtly. I’m trying to defeat other media.” 

“A writer wants to be alone in a room.  He’s easily ashamed and is an exhibitionist.”

“I’ve grown a thick skin.  I’ve learned not to Google myself.” 

“I never thought I’d do nonfiction.  I thought it was a betrayal of the novel.” 

Favorite bird at the moment?  The California Towhee.  Why?  Subtle.  Charismatic.  Not shy. 

Just like Jonathan Franzen. 

Writing Prompts:

1.  Franzen gave a plug for Memoir Journal, a nonprofit that is a literary magazine and also holds writing workshops.  Check this publication out a memoirjournal.net    

They are open to submissions for memoir pieces, with $500 and publication as their top prizes.  Write a memoir following their submission policy.   

2.  Choose one small autobiographical detail and combine it with a fictional character in your story.  Make sure it enhances and adds depth to your character and story.   

3.  Create a character with one or all of these descriptions:  subtle, charismatic, not shy.

Writing about Food and Memories

June 10, 2012

Warning:  This blog is about food.  So if you’re hungry, it may make you want to reach for something yummy.  If you aren’t, you’re probably safe. 

Friday night fry.  Turtle sundaes made with honest-to-goodness creamy, custard.  (Richer and tastier than ice cream!)  My cousin, Cindy special-ordered German doughnuts called crullers, from a delightful small-town bakery called Bon Ton. Crullers are delicious pastries created with cake-like dough twisted into sticks and covered with light white frosting, from a wonderful small-town bakery, Bon Ton. My cousin, Mary’s fabulous farm-fried egg, white on top, perfect yellowy-goodness inside.  A POP of flavor!  Best of all? The homemade pies my cousin, Paula created – – apple with a flakey crust – – the apples not too hard and not too sweet, but just right – – and a tangy lemon meringue.  What could be better?

The last time I had a homemade Wisconsin pie – – made just right – – was when I was seventeen.  (Thank you, Mom, if you can read this in that parallel universe known as heaven.)  I left for college and came home for visits when she created the most fabulous cakes and cookies.  Perhaps because I didn’t come home during apple-picking season, I didn’t have eat another of her apple pie wonders.

Setting foot on Wisconsin soil brought back memories of picking sweet, crunchy carrots right from the garden, holding them under the hose and then chomping down on them for a quick snack.  I did the same thing with lettuce and even green beans.  Mom would shudder and say, “Raw green beans?  How can you, Elizabeth?” 

But I hated picking them in the early morning, slapping away at Wisconsin’s state bird – – the mosquito.  See what happens when you begin writing about food?  Our sense of taste can bring back a flood of other memories and associations.   

I recall years ago writing a number of articles about one of my passions – – chocolate.  At one point, I received annual gifts from the Chocolate Manufacturing Association.  There was only one problem with my assignments – – the writing motivated consumption of the product.

Stay tuned for more about the Wisconsin trip, and how you can use your travels to motivate and improve your own writing.  Right now, I have to take a break and eat something luscious.  Unfortunately, nothing will taste as good as it did in my home state, or in my memories. 

Writing Prompts

  1. What foods do you recall from your past?  Write about them and any associations they bring.  
  2. Describe a food scene with a character in your current project.  Is your character sitting at a dining table?  Eating on the run?  Include description of the food and your character’s reactions to the food and her/his surroundings.
  3. Let food motivate a poem, song, or other piece of art work. 

Writing Prompt About Nature/Animals

March 26, 2012

Let your visual and auditory senses inspire writing.

Watch what happens when a young man saves the life of a hummingbird.  Describe their relationship in a poem or short story.

http://www.wimp.com/babyhummingbird