Category Archives: Unsolicited Writing Advice!

How did you get along without it?

Kicking it off the cliff

the-endOne of the most depressing days in a writer’s life is when they finish their work-in-progress. You’d think it’d be a James Caan break-out-the-bubbly moment like in Stephen King’s Misery, but truly, it’s more like Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, crying like a baby as she types The End. The latter’s an apt analogy, because there ‘s definitely some postpartum issues going on, and although you feel a sense of release, it’s also pretty scary. Mainly because although the creative part is finished the business end kicks in, and suddenly the kind of terror you’re facing makes that Scary First Page look like all kitty and bunny cuteness. You start going all agoraphobia, freaked at the idea of sending Baby out into the cruel, cruel world, completely certain everyone  will discover you for the hack — or even worse — the fraud, the imposter you are. “Take THAT bitch!” you imagine as another rejection skids into your inbox, “who ever told you you can write?” (actually, a “mentor” once did say that to me, an Iowa Workshop graduate who I now can only remember as Dick.) You start doubting yourself, convinced everything you ever wrote is shit and trash-worthy, and you end up with your ass still in pajamas at 4:00 PM eating Tater Tots and binge-watching old episodes of Family Ties. Pathetic.

Of course, this is the most extreme scenario, and not completely reflective of my reality. I’m fortunate enough to have an agent who believes in my work, and a couple good leads on this new thing. But that doesn’t mean everything I described above hasn’t gone through my head, and it’s certainly nothing I haven’t faced before. (Okay, no Family Ties, but I did recently binge five episodes of Outlander and nearly the whole season of Girls.) The thing is no matter what stage you are in your writing career, you’re not immune to self-doubt and imposter syndrome and the fact that you’re only as good as your latest success. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let go. I did, and as proof–oh what the hell, here’s the first chapter of my latest book to prove it. Go ahead and read it and let me know what you think. Just don’t make me call you Dick.

All systems stop

Brick wallRight now I’m in the process of editing my latest book, and for the most part, it’s rolling along superbly. I have a terrific premise, stellar characters, lots of quirkiness and some great dialogue. I always keep in mind the big picture–the one thing I want to accomplish and how it all will eventually end up. For one reason or the other I can always visualize the last scene, where the characters will be and the affecting bon mots that’ll roll off their tongue which will hopefully, linger in my readers’ minds. And then three-quarters of the way in, I turned around and just like that! I ran face-first into a brick wall.

Stopped. Not stalled–I’m talking dead motor. I couldn’t move an inch and worse than that, I didn’t know why. I thought at first I was stymied by the research, as there’s some technical devices I’m using that needed to be clarified. But that wasn’t it either, and it wasn’t the pacing, because it was going along at such a rapid clip I made a conscious effort to slow it down. Then it hit me (metaphorically): I couldn’t go on because I didn’t know one of  my characters well enough. And when you don’t, how could you possibly know what they’ll do next?

According to Nancy Lamb in The Art and Craft of Storytelling, “how your characters act and react–how they think and feel; how they handle obstacles and respond to people, places and things is story.” Agreed. I have some great characters. They’re colorful and full of nuance, they have interesting backstories and deliver some killers lines. Yet…and this took me a bit of thinking to figure out–they’re still one-dimensional. I’m working with them, but I don’t really know them. I’m hitting that wall of what-to-do-next because this far into the book I can no longer write them observationally, or how the opposing characters see them. I have to write them motivationally or how their unique combination of nurture, nature, inclination and quirkiness force them to do the things they do.  So I stopped and thought about the plot situation my character was in, and that’s where I found my moment of clarity. I couldn’t predict what he’d do next because I’d yet to give him justification. Oh sure, I knew his present because I had observed it through the eyes of the other characters. But I wasn’t well-enough acquainted with his personal history to give him a motivation to react the way that would advance the story. So to help that along, I devised a little checklist to run him through.

Personality  – Is he aggressive or passive? Confident or shy? Is he willing to take chances, or does he like to play it safe? Cheerful or moody?

Defining Traits – Is he a geek or a loner? A leader or a follower? Fun or a bit of a wet blanket? Is he cold? Is he liked or feared, and how much does that matter to him?

Family – Is he close to them or estranged? Married or does he want to be? Any children? Youngest, middle or oldest? Pets?

Interests – What is he passionate about? Any hobbies? Political? A patron of the arts? What does he really dislike? And how does this conflict with the other main character?

Clothes – Does he dress nattily? Or like a slob? And what does he observe in others?

Body Language – How is his handshake? Does he always make eye contact? Does he walk confidently or does he cower?  Does he listen?

This is just a short list as you can go on and on, but by the end you will end up knowing your character a bit better. And when you do you can finally sit back and relax. They’ll take it from there.

 

Writers Anonymous

hand blocking cameraAre you ever ashamed to call yourself a writer? I don’t mean consciously, but when someone asks you what you do, and I’m not referring to your nine-to-five job, do you shy away from mentioning your “shadow” career, only “admitting” it to your closest friends? Or when someone asks you “what’s new?” do you tell them you’ve just finished your latest chapter, or do you toss them non sequiturs? Do you answer your partner’s “What are you doing?” with “Oh, nothing,” even if you’re neck-deep into plotting? Do you consider your writing a guilty pleasure rather than a necessary part of your overall mental health? And most of all, do you write only when you can steal some time away from the “more important” things you have to do? Does any of this sound familiar? If it does then I have news for you: you’re seriously disrespecting The Work.

Easy for you to say, you may be saying. I have a home. A family. Kids. A job.  A cranky spouse. Responsibility! Bills to pay! <Fill in this blank with your bitch.> I get it. I GET IT.  I’m not saying you don’t have any of that. And I’m not denigrating it. You are. And why’s that? Because what you’re telling me is this “secret passion” you have is not important enough for the public. That it’s just some silly little thing you do now and then. And it deserves significantly less attention than your more respectable pastimes, such as checking Instagram on your phone, watching “The Walking Dead,” or hoisting a few on the deck (I may be persuaded to reconsider the last one). And that’s fine–as long as that’s how you really feel. Do you?

Truth be told, I used to. I hid my more creative bent from my friends and family, only indulging in it during what is known as “free time,” which could be exclusive of anything in the world from chopping wood to piloting the International Space Station, as long as it didn’t involve writing. But the thing was, I didn’t write any more or less. I still devoted an inordinate amount of time to my fiction; I just accomplished it after everything else “more important” was finished, even if I had to work late into the night. Then came the ultimate paradigm shift–I began to make money. Overnight my little hobby gained immediate legitimacy. Which forced me to ask myself, Does it take making money before anyone will take me seriously? A big resounding NO, and you know why? Because if I weren’t already taking myself seriously, I would’ve never been able to write well enough so someone else–someone like an editor–would consider my writing worth the risk.

You see, good writing doesn’t spring from your laptop by chance; it’s cultivated. It’s not enough to plant the casual seed and see if something will eventually come up, like so many random chimpanzees at countless random typewriters. It’s work. And if you are, indeed, a writer, my goodness! It’s nothing to be ashamed of!

 

HOUSATONIC BOOK AWARDS ARE NOW OPEN FOR NOMINATION

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Every year my grad alma mater, Western Connecticut State University‘s Masters in Fine Arts program sponsors the Housatonic Book Awards, which are now accepting nominations for 2016 in Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, and YA (fiction or nonfiction). Books published in 2014 and 2015 are eligible in Fiction, and books published in 2015 are eligible in all other categories. Deadline is June 15. Authors, publishers, editors, and agents may nominate titles. $1500 for winners, who will visit a residency of the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at WCSU. Guidelines for the awards are here.  Spread the word!

Boo Effing Hoo – get your ass in the chair

vintage-writer-at-old-typewriterOne New Year’s resolution I’m sure plenty of writers made was finally attempting that full-length novel. For some, NaNoWriMo in November gave them their first taste of what long form writing’s like, as a national novel-writing month forces derriere-in-chair and excuses out the window. But what if no amount of incentive will work? What if you just can’t get in the mood to write?

If you consider yourself a writer, then no one has to tell you about black moods. To a writer, they’re as welcoming as a rejection and as familiar as the backspace. Our black moods spawn as much from those brick walls we face as from the months we spend waiting for an answer, and when we do it’s often nothing we want to hear. Our dismal days are frequently filled with endless rewrites, verbal vomit and dead ends, and the inevitable recalcitrant character who insists on upending the plot. Sometimes when it gets really bad we end the day dispirited and frustrated, cursing our near obsession as we cry into our goblets of pinot noir, gorging on double-chocolate brownies and tater tots.  ANYWAY, this writing life can sure enough get you down now and then, no fooling. So what’s a sullen scribe to do?

Milk it, I say. Milk it for all it’s worth, right down to the quick until it’s pink and screaming. Believe it or not, your darkest days can bring out some of your most illuminated writing, as you dig into the depths of your rawest emotions. You need to write a scene where your protagonist loses the love of his life? His job? His home? His space in line for the newest iPhone? Drag yourself to your keyboard and lose your troubles in his, as pouring all that angst into your prose will make it so much richer and realistic, not to mention the cathartic bonus you’ll get out of unloading it all into some unwitting character. The same thing can work in reverse, too. Write your heroine falling in love on the day you finally nail that job, fit into those skinny jeans, eat a perfect peach. Works really well when you’re angry, too, letting that poor, downtrodden patsy finally give the bully his due as he lands a left dead-on his fictional jaw. Hey, it’s better than shoving your own fist into the sheet rock. It’ll save you a ton of dough in repairs, leaving more money to spend on pinot noir, tater tots and–oh, we’ll just leave that up to our very fertile imaginations, now won’t we?

 

My Post-Holiday Sugar Crash

BirdfeederIt’s a sunny morning in my neck of New Jersey, and unlike the photo to the left, snow-free. The wind is relatively calm, and from my window I can see all kinds of birds pecking at the feeder and except for the barren vegetation, it could almost be anytime of the year. But it isn’t, and I don’t need to step outside into the mid-twenties chill to feel the hollowness of the season in my bones, especially when the Weather Bleaters are predicting a Snowmageddon for the weekend.  Sorry if I’m being a bit of a Debbie Downer, but seriously, after the choreographed optimism of the New Year fades back into the mundane, what are we actually left with? Only the anti-climatic yawn of the Dead of Winter and the mind-numbing ennui that follows.

Maybe it’s just a sugar crash after all those Christmas cookies, but last fall’s good intentions and best laid plans now seem as sensible as earmuffs in August. What happened to that get-up-and-go, those ideas that seemed so workable, those plans set to be implemented as soon as the everything got back to normal, post-holiday? Instead, you’re quickly finding out that things don’t really change, that everything goes comfortably back to the way it was, or more often than not, gets just a little bit worse. (Like waiting for that first paycheck of 2016? Times like these make you wish you’d majored in creative accounting and not creative writing.) You’re finding yourself just a little more broke, a touch fatter, a tad less cheerful and a whole lot lazier. A stretch on the sofa feels more natural that an extended stretch at laptop, and when you do find yourself in front of a screen, it’s more likely for Netflix than for fixing that severely flawed manuscript.

Not that you haven’t tried. To fix that manuscript, I mean. But everything you seem to write is crap. As it was the last time you looked at it just before Christmas. When you told yourself you’d make it better next month. When you had more time. When everything calmed down.  After the New Year. When all that holiday hoo-hah is behind you and you can finally think again. In January. Because in January the Universe presses the big RESET button and all wrongs get righted, everything gone down goes up, all promises are kept. When the Muse of Inspiration suddenly infuses us with glorious plot threads, miraculous turns-of-phrase and endings so sock-blowing that ever-elusive editor you queried back in the fall suddenly jumps from your proposal and screeches “MY GOD! THIS IS GONNA MAKE US MILLIONS!”

As if. So what to do?

Beats me. I’m depressed, remember? Deads of Winter tend to breed brain-deadness. Or at least that’s how it feels from here. All I can offer is this isn’t my first Dead of Winter, that I’ve made it through several, and there’s just something about January that breeds contempt. And invariably, things do pick up by February. Maybe it is all that holiday crap we ingested and like a six-year-old on Halloween night, we just need to sleep it off.

Okay, whine over. Back to work.

 

Rejection, you old bastard

Writers Write!The other day I received in my inbox one of the most eagerly unanticipated of emails – the dreaded rejection. It wasn’t my first, and it most certainly will not be my last. In fact, it was another in a long, and happily broken line of such letters, which at this point in my career, totals well over one hundred. Through the years I’ve received all kinds, reaching back to the pre-electronic era: my own typed query with a rubber-stamped REJECTED across it, thrifty pre-printed postcards tucked into my SASE, crookedly off-centered-Xeroxed form letters, flyers inviting me to partake in the purchase of 1) editorial services, 2) how-to books, 3) seminars, even one with a large NO scribbled across the body of the letter. Of the electronic variety, I’ve received mainly cut-and-paste form emails, some three months after I submitted, to one within the hour. Several of these, especially of late, have been what is popularly known as good rejections, dismissals of a more personal nature, where the sender comments on what they liked and disliked about the work, more often than not praising the writing, but not “falling in love” with the story. Often the sender will point out the subjective nature intrinsic to all rejections, and wish you “the best of luck in finding a home/editor/agent for your novel/project/work.” Although rejections of this ilk are often sent with the kindest of cuts, because of the higher level of expertise the writer has demonstrated by the point, they’re usually the toughest rejections of all to take.

I’ve seen many a writer crumple in despair over such rejections, burn their manuscripts, erase their hard drives, lose themselves in a blurry of cheap liquor and even cheaper chocolate (yours truly suggests burrowing into a Himalaya-size pile of Tater Tots). Many vow to give up writing for good, and sometimes many do, at least temporarily, and often that’s a good thing. Because once the hurt and the anger and the self-deprecation subside, the writer can take a step back and look at the work objectively. Subjectivity aside, editors and agents, more than anything else, are professional readers, and if the work comes back over and over with similar commentary, maybe it’s time to take a look at that particular aspect of the story. In the same vein, the writer also has to consider where the work was sent and the editors’/agents’ preferred genres. Are you submitting mystery when the agent’s preference is sci-fi? Have you sent a novel query to an editor who usually publishes self-help? Have you taken a look at the agent’s clients? The editor’s list? Have you read the acknowledgement pages of works similar to yours to see who the author is thanking? You have? Then good, but let me ask you this: do you have multiple queries out there, or are you placing all of your literary eggs into the basket of one editor/agent?

If you are, you are most certainly setting yourself up for disappointment. Submission should be a very fluid process, and sending to one editor/agent at a time is akin to hitting a stop sign on every corner, causing your writing to lose momentum. For the most part, your writing life should have two very distinct entities – the creative and the practical, and as hard as it is to separate one from the other, the two should never align. Plus if you have multiple queries out there at once, the random rejection tends to lose its sting, and the dismissing editor/agent diminishes in importance. But most of all, you should never, ever let a rejection sink you so low that you lose faith in your abilities, a point where I’ll admit I have found myself. Instead of wallowing in dejection, ask yourself this: Who are these people who wield such power that I allow their judgment to supercede mine? Confidence in your talent will show through in your work, and you should always be exercising your writing muscle. As I tell my students, writers write, and no one was more surprised than me by my reaction to that latest rejection. Sure, it rattled me, but all I could think about was finishing the chapter I had been working on, which I did before I went to bed that night. To me, that meant I had lived through one more rejection, and had come out the other end, still a writer.

A while ago, when I was less confident, I had poured my heart out to my sister over one particularly brutal rejection. She told me of an article she had read in the New York Times about author James Lee Burke, and his fourth novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie. By his own accounting, the manuscript was rejected by 111 editors over a nine-year period. When it was finally accepted and published, it went on to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s now translated all over the world, and has gone into numerous printings. I never forgot that story, and many times it has kept me going. It made me think that one day, if I’m lucky enough, my own tales of desperation and abject failure will rally someone on to success. Only if!

 

Sex Scenes for Chicks 101

Sex scenes are as integral to spicy romance as whipped cream is to sundaes (or to use-your-imagination), but quantity hardly speaks for quality. A proliferation of ins and outs and seductive banter are only the more apparent components of saucy scene-writing. Truth be told, there should be much more going on before the point of contact than during. A romance writer should never forget to keep an eye on the romance if she’s ever going to make the scene truly sensuous. So how to accomplish it?

Romance is mostly written by and for women, and because of that the prose has to be approached with their sensibilities in mind. Women take their cues from the images they form in their mind as their senses are acted upon, rather than visuals observed as men are more apt to do. This is the greatest difference I’ve noted between sex scenes written by male and female authors, and the biggest flaw when male authors get it wrong. (Not that it’s universal in male authors, as many get it exceedingly right. Ken Follett still writes the best sex scenes of any male author I’ve ever read. To see what I’m talking about, read Night Over Water.) Let me give you an example.

I once read a sex scene written by a man which included the male character receiving stimulation to a very male part of his anatomy. While the prose was quite good and very descriptive, the writer’s observations were not only in the male character’s point of view, but within the confines of a man’s sensibilities. He described the woman’s breasts and her voluptuous figure, as well as her lipsticked mouth gliding up and down him. He also described rather graphically how it looked when his climax reached its er…finish, using some very active verbs and sticky adjectives. I don’t know about you, but I was a tad put off by the scene’s ickiness, and I feel quite safe in saying there would be more than a few women who’d share my opinion. Now, while this would be considered just fine if it were written primarily for a male market, it doesn’t work for women, and I’ll tell you why.

Part of the explanation is obvious, as most heterosexual men would consider a description of a woman’s feminine pulchritude essential, while most heterosexual women would not. But it’s more subtle than that. When writing for a female audience (and I’ve found this point valid with lesbian romance as well),  it’s more important to show not what the woman observes but what the character’s lover reacts to.  Although she may be just as interested in the male’s anatomy and what he does with it, her senses are more roused by the male’s sexual reaction to her. The more arousing he finds the heroine, the more arousing it is for the female reader. Take male-centric scene mentioned above. Written for a female audience it could be just as sexually charged and graphic, but the focus would be more on how excited she felt doing it, as well as how passionate her partner reacted because of it.

Simply put, as far as the males are concerned in female-centric sex scenes, they should always be more aroused by their woman’s reaction to them, than by how they feel by the act alone. Every woman, no matter the shape or looks or age, wants to feel that she alone can cause her lover to lose it, her own uniqueness being the most potent aphrodisiac of them all.

 

Stop the creeping evil of apostrophe abuse!

It was a pretty innocuous thing. We were out of juice, and since Sweetie was going to the store that morning, I asked if he could pick up some. “Put it on my list!” he called from the shower, which he had left atop the microwave. So I went to it, idly glancing at what items he had already amassed: light cream, yogurt, bread, banana’s–

I stopped dead. Oh no – in my own home? I grabbed the list, storming into the bathroom. “Banana’s?!” I cried. “BANANA’S?”

He stared at me, washcloth in hand. “Right. Bananas. Jesus, what’s the problem?”

I could barely sputter the words. “Look!” I said, holding up the slip of pink scratch paper. “Right there!” I said, pointing to the tiny blip of blue ink between the third a and the s. “What’s that!”

“What’s what?” he said, squinting through soap and the shower curtain.

“THAT!” I said, flicking the teensy squiggle. “You put an apostrophe before the s! You did it to make a plural!”

He looked at me like I just grew a third eye. “No I didn’t. And if I did, I didn’t even think about it.”

My jaw dropped. “You didn’t even think about it? All your life you’ve been reading and writing and pluralizing words just fine and overnight, the rules of grammar change and you don’t even notice?! My God – it’s like aliens have abducted our collective grammatical knowledge! They must be planting billions of plural-snatching apostrophes in our brains while we sleep!”

He twisted a wad of washcloth into his ear, cocking a brow. “You want the bananas or what?”

It was all I could do to whimper. How did this happen? I saw a sign at an ice cream parlor the other day: Birthday Party’s Available. And at a fast food joint down the Shore: Best Burger’s on the Island! Granted, sometimes possessive apostrophes get sloughed away when the word grouping falls into popular parlance – Pikes Peak, is one, and in my home state of New Jersey, the town of Toms River, the county seat. But where did this aberrant pluralization come from? You can understand wanting to abbreviate by taking something away, but this is ADDING baggage. Unless, as in the case of Birthday Party’s, the writer was absent the day they gave a lesson on turning words that end in y’s (yes, this is correct according to the AP Stylebook) into plurals by adding -ies. No. That can’t be it. It’s just too widespread anymore. An epidemic. With no vaccine in sight.

Which can only lead me to one conclusion: it’s those darn aliens. So close your windows at night, keep a  Strunk and White at the ready, and a firm eye out for pods in the basement.

 

Ready…set…brilliance!

Vintage+woman+office+type+writerRecently I had shown my students several different ways to begin an essay. Instead of staring dumbfounded at a blank page (that is, if you’ve been blocked from echeat.com), I presented them with a few different starting techniques, such as posing a question, telling a story or exposing a fault in logic to name a few. Later on it led me to ponder what’s really the best way to launch a book? I’ve tried several techniques, but is there one sure-fire way?

After you’re writing for awhile you begin to settle into a few characteristic ways of doing things. Eventually they’ll be known as your “style.” Whether it’s a turn of phrase, a sense of irony, a humorous bent or any number of things indicative of your method of storytelling, your readers will recognize it and hopefully love it enough to come back to your work over and over. One of the most important indications of your style will be your opening, perhaps even your very first line. Depending on the genre, the opening is often approached in various ways, but I’m of the firm belief it should grab your readers from nearly the first line.

I once heard a comment from a genre writer that literary fiction is usually depressing.  Not that l believe this is true–I don’t–but one of its characteristics is a more variegated writing style that often takes longer to open. Many times the introduction is an unfolding, an intricate depiction of a landscape, situation or character. It could be more obtuse than easily recognizable, its meaning shaded by metaphor or symbolism. Often there’s an unreliable narrator or the characters appear doomed from the onset. The overall pace can be slower as there’s a lot more emphasis on the way something’s said, rather than on the speedy advancement of the plot. In fact, often there is no resolution, the story left open-ended so we could draw our own conclusion.

Not so much in genre writing. The lovers find their happily-ever-after, the mystery is solved, the planet is saved from destruction (actually, I don’t really know what happens in scifi; I’m just applying a happy ending with an intergalactic bent). And all this is initiated at a faster pace. Readers want the lovers to meet, the victim to die, and the alternate universe to appear as soon as possible. So how’s this accomplished? Why not try to–

Start in the middle – Forget the backstory and jump right into a situation already in progress. The cat’s up the tree, the car’s hit a pole, the cad’s been caught with the hussy–it’s all in your face and your protagonist hasn’t a clue how to deal with it. Dump them into a situation that’ll be hell to fix while sprinkling in backstory as the plot progresses. Think breadcrumbs along a trail.

Eavesdrop – Someone’s arguing or confessing or dishing over drinks, and there you are, a fly on the wall, privy to a candid conversation. Drop in a minimum of milieu and let your characters tell your readers what’s going on through their dialogue. Watch being overly explicit about what you say, though. Too much detail and your casual conversation can come off as an information dump. Divulge on a need-to-know basis.

Begin with the ending – One of the best examples of this technique is the 1950 movie classic by director Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The movie opens with Holden’s body floating face-down in a Beverly Hills mansion’s swimming pool, and in his own voice he tells you how he got there. It’s really not as anti-climatic as it seems as you’re dying (sorry) to know how he got that way. And if you apply this to writing a book, hey! they’ll be no angsting over how to end it.

That’s a just a few ways, and I’m sure there’s many more, but one thing’s for certain. If you don’t give your readers something to grab onto, they’ll be nothing to keep them turning the pages. The sooner you get them hooked, the easier it’ll be to pull them into the story and all the way through to the end.