Saturday, August 23, 2014

Does Hardship Improve Your Writing?

We just got back from a vacation in northern Michigan. We had a great time, but now I’m way behind on my novel. I need to get busy.

I’m too tired to write a long post tonight, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this question: Does hardship make you a better writer? A lot of people think so, but I’m skeptical. A little hardship might be a good thing -- it can fill you with grit and determination and perhaps even some righteous zeal. I’m thinking now of Dickens, whose miserable childhood spurred him to write some remarkable novels. But constant misery isn’t good for anyone.

I can think of many desperately unhappy people who produced works of genius -- David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, etc. -- but it’s easy to confuse correlation with causation. Did Cobain write great music because he was unhappy, or was he a musical genius who also happened to have problems with addiction and depression? When Cobain killed himself in 1994, many people assumed that the pressures of becoming a rock star had contributed to his suicide, but I think music helped him far more than it hurt him. Without it, he would’ve killed himself even sooner.

Wow, this is morbid. I’m going to end this post on a more cheerful note: I’ve discovered a wonderful new thing to eat. It’s the spicy lamb noodle soup from Xi’an Famous Foods on Broadway and 102nd Street. Truly delicious and only eight dollars! The next time you’re in New York you’ve got to try it.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Reader Friday: What's Your "Island Scene"?

A while back, Kris (PJ Parrish) wrote a great post in which she described writing as a process of creating "scene islands", connected by "transition bridges".

Think of the scene you're currently working on. If you think of that scene as an island, what would you name that island? Story-wise, what important thing is happening in this scene?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

First Page Critique for: Not Useless

Jordan Dane

For your enjoyment are the first 400 words of Not Useless, submitted anonymously for critique by a daring soul. My feedback will be on the flip side. Please join in the conversation with constructive comments. Thanks!

Quentin felt like a fly caught in a pitcher plant. The old woman had lured him with great promises, but they had been lies. If he didn’t escape, she would destroy his career, his dreams. That would kill him.

Dr. Windsor had her back to him now, kneeling in her space suit in the gray rubble of the crater’s ejecta. Boulders, some the size of New York taxis, made her look small against the planetoid’s monochrome landscape. She bent over a small box. Instead of a legendary scientist, famed for discovering exotic extremophiles, the old woman reminded Quentin of a retiree playing with her little insect hobby. Pitiful. He’d find nothing for his doctoral thesis while working with her.

Yet, many people still respected the exoentomologist for her past work. Quentin craved a recommendation from her.But he also wanted off this useless expedition. He sighed. How could he get both?

“Mr. Stone. If you plan to continue sighing, please disengage your helmet microphone.” Dr. Windsor’s voice crackled in his ears, but she did not look up from her work.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Doctor. I was just thinking of…um…Earth.”

“Important discoveries are not found on Earth, Mr. Stone. They are found out here at the edge of interstellar travel. I selected you because I thought you shared this vision. Was I mistaken?”

“No, definitely not, Dr. Windsor.”

“Good. Now, please bring me the rest of the light lures.”

Quentin winced.  “The rest? You said two packs were all we needed.”

Windsor stopped working and turned to Quentin. He was glad he couldn’t see her face behind her helmet visor.

“Do not be a buffoon, Mr. Stone. I distinctly said bring four packs of light lures. Did you forget some back at the ship?

“Ah, well, ah, when you said—”

“Mr. Stone, I have no time for idiocy. Return to the ship and retrieve them now.” Windsor resumed her work.

“Alone?” said Quentin. “But we’re supposed to travel with a partner.”

“I am aware of protocol, Mr. Stone,” Windsor said, as she continued working. “However, your incompetence has cost me valuable time. If I return, I cannot set enough live traps to make this stop worthwhile. We have a tight schedule and cannot ask the others to wait for us. Follow the guide cable and you will be fine. Do you think you can handle that simple task, Mr. Stone?”

The author teased me into this intro and I was first surprised by the fact this is on a planet or planetoid. My second surprise came when the doctor heard his sigh over the mic to bring the reader from Stone’s internal monologue and back into the scene. The tone is set for calamity. I liked the tension between these two. Stone’s internal thoughts are short and set the stage for what will come next. I would expect something to happen while Stone goes back to the ship, if the foreshadowing holds true.

It’s hard to tell if Stone is a main character, but the set up implies it. The way the author teases us deeper into this story and foreshadows something ahead for Stone, I would turn the page and keep reading. With Stone drawn into his worries about his thesis, it would appear he has done this procedure many times before and is not distracted by what he’s seeing on the planet, but I would like to know more about the setting. Below are some questions I have. The answers may add some depth to the scene.


What is his career? His doctoral thesis? Entomologist too?

Where are they? Which planetoid or galaxy? Any other colors besides a monochrome one? Number of moons? Can Earth be seen? Location, location, location.

What does it look like…feel like…to be encumbered by a space suit? Are they weighted or tethered? 

Staring through a visor, what does he truly see of the planet? I’m assuming there is zero gravity, yet she's working with a box that's not adrift or unsteady.

I'd like to see more mood or tone to this. I'm not sure if this will be a suspense story. The foreshadowing is all I have to go on. A suspenseful tone can be enhanced by simple word choices that give the narrative an edgy danger. Or perhaps a mishap of something small can remind Stone how dangerous things can be.

I’d like more setting and tone to fill this opener out. With only dialogue, the scene feels too sparse to create a world the reader will want to see in their mind’s eye. The bones are here, but in my opinion, this needs a bit of filler to broaden the world building.

What do you think, TKZers? Is there enough mood or tone to this? What would you add or change? Your feedback would be appreciated.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Finding Your Voice part II

by Joe Moore

On Monday, Clare posted a great blog on Finding Your Voice. She pointed out that it’s critical for a writer to have a distinctive voice that fits the genre and helps pull the reader into the story. Along with her post, Clare got a number of excellent comments. Check them out when you get through with my post.

Today I want to add some additional thoughts on developing writer’s voice by comparing it to performing music.

If I asked a musician to play a melody on a trumpet, then asked another to play the same melody on a cello, chances are you could tell the difference between the two even though they played the same notes. Not only doesmusic one instrument sound different from the other, but individually, they can convey a variety of emotions based upon the style and technique of the musicians. Both can play the same melody, and when combined with the timbre of the instruments and their respective artists’ style, they can also invoke feelings and emotion.

In a similar manner, when it comes to defining the writer’s voice, it can be the combination of the author’s attitude, personality and character; the writer’s style that conveys the story. It’s called the writer’s voice. Voice is the persona of the story as interpreted by the reader.

So how do you find your writer’s voice and keep it going throughout your manuscript? Here are some tips.

First, start by writing to connect with your readers, not to impress them. Your voice is the direct connection into your reader’s head. Some might argue that the words are the connection. But I believe that the words are like the notes on the sheet music that a musician reads as he or she plays that trumpet or cello. Those notes printed on the musical staff have no value until they are “voiced” by the musician.

Likewise, those written words on the printed page of a book have no value until they are interpreted by the reader. With the musical example, the styles and techniques of the musicians are the connection to the listener. With the novel, the writer’s voice is the connection into the reader’s imagination. The pictures formed in the mind of the reader are strongest when the writer’s voice is solid, unique and original.

The best way to develop your writer’s voice is to simply let the words flow without restrictions—let them speak from your heart. Feel the emotions that your character or (first-person) narrator feels.

Equally important, avoid comparing yourself to other writers. Doing so can be restrictive or downright destructive to your voice. You are who you are, not someone else. Write from your heart while not trying to copy your favorite author. The writer’s voice you need to create is yours alone. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other writers, but convert that inspiration into your own style, your own voice.

It’s also dangerous to compare yourself to other writers or become jealous of their style or accomplishments. Doing so always leads to frustration and a product that is not totally yours. If you’ve tried to inject someone else’s voice into your words, the lack of honesty will always come through to the reader.

Finally, as you work on your manuscript, try to visualize a specific reader and write directly to that person. Remember that you’re trying to communicate, to make a single connection with a single reader.

Just like a musician playing the notes on the sheet music, finding your writer’s voice is the process of communicating with your reader the emotions and feelings you feel through your characters. You can’t learn voice, but through writing, more writing and even more writing, you can develop a distinctive, unique writer’s voice.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Must our heroes be handsome?

This summer I attended an interesting workshop by a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who discussed his approach to crafting thrillers. It was his opinion that main characters need to be handsome (or beautiful, if female), intelligent, and successful. As he described his approach, "I write a main character that women want to sleep with, and men want to be. " In other words, more James Bond than Monk. His reason for his writing main characters that way? "I like to write books that sell."

It's an interesting thought. I'd always assumed that a main character didn't need to be particularly genetically or intellectually gifted. I always assumed that overcoming adversity was what made a hero appealing to readers.  But when I think back about books I've particularly enjoyed--SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, COMA--I have to admit that those protagonists were handsome and brilliant. I just never thought of those characteristics as being requirements for popular appeal.

What do you think? Is physical beauty, in particular, central to creating an appealing main character? 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Finding Your Voice

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Yesterday I read a great piece by Lev Grossman (author of the Magicians trilogy) on finding his author voice through writing fantasy fiction ('Finding my Voice in Fantasy'). He admitted that he felt something was missing in the two 'literary' novels he had published and that, when he was producing those works, the writing came slow and hard as if he hadn't quite found his 'voice' yet. For Grossman it was writing fantasy, and the liberation of writing against the literary expectations he had imposed on himself, that gave him the chance to discover his true 'voice' in his writing.

For Grossman "it was the most profound, intense writing experience I'd ever had. The icy grip of reality on my fiction cracked, and a torrent of magic came rushing out". I love that line - for it encapsulates beautifully the experience of truly being in the writing 'zone' when your author voice takes over and allows the story to emerge. 

I've recently delved into the writing world of YA and middle grade fiction and what occurred to me was most surprising. I expected my YA voice would be an easier one to access (I still feel most days like I'm 16 after all...) but instead, it was the middle grade world that set my voice free. Maybe it's because I feel attuned to my nine year old twin boys' world, perhaps it's because I still read aloud to them each night and these books tend to be for the most part middle grade fantasy novels...who knows? Whatever the reason I felt the exact sense of liberation that Grossman describes. 

I remember when I was writing my first book, Consequences of Sin, I certainly felt as if I was channeling the voice of my heroine Ursula Marlow - and when I returned to writing the third book in the series, Unlikely Traitors, that voice was inside me, ready to be channeled once more. I hesitated before deciding to write a middle grade book because I wasn't really sure I'd be able to access that kind of 'voice' within me.  To my surprise the voice that emerged was just as strong as Ursula's. 

The upshot of all this, is that I think many writers need to dabble in different genres to explore aspects of 'voice' which they may never have expected. I know plenty of writers who consider themselves 'literary' and, by default, superior to those of us who write commercial or genre fiction. For many of them the act of writing is a struggle (sometimes I wonder if they feel that the angst of it all somehow adds to the mystique). I wonder, if they allowed themselves the freedom to explore other genres, whether they would discover a new and more accessible 'voice' within them. I can only hope that others take Grossman's lead and realize, as he did that: 
"Writing about magic felt like magic. It was as if all my life I'd been writing in a foreign language that I wasn't quite fluent in, and now I'd found my mother tongue. It turned out I did have a voice after all. I'd had it all along. I just wasn't looking for it in the right place."

Isn't that great?!

So tell me TKZers how did you discover your writer's voice?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Trouble Is Your Business


Another entry from the journal of legendary pulp writer William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster. Of its origins, see here.

Benny Wannabe charged up to my table at Musso's and said, "I did it!"
I took my fingers off the Underwood keys. My normally productive digits weren't doing me any good at the moment. I was stuck on a scene. The smiling mug of my young pupil was good for a break.
"Sit down." I leaned back and reached for a cigar. "Now, what is it you did?"
"Started my story! And it felt great. I told myself I was gonna write great today, just like you told me to. And I did!"
"Nice going, kid. Getting words on paper is every day is the golden rule. You have a plot?"
"I sure do!"
"Tell it to me."
"Well, it's about a young man who wants to become a writer and uses all his money to buy a train ticket to Los Angeles."
"And?" I said.
"And what?"
"What happens to him?"
"Um, he gets to Los Angeles, where he meets a famous writer."
"Uh-huh. That famous writer better be handsome, brilliant and witty."
"Of course!"
"Problem is," I said, "that's not a plot."
"It's not?"
"You're just telling your own story, right?"
"How'd you know?"
"Wild guess," I said. "Listen, all new writers think the have an autobiographical story inside them, and that's a great place to keep it. You, you need a plot."
"But I felt great. You told me I have to write like I couldn't fail."
"That doesn't mean  you don't have to learn how to write. Write as if it were impossible to fail, then clear your decks and look at what you've done and figure out how to make it better. Or find somebody who knows his stuff to help  you along."
"Like you, Mr. Armbrewster?"
"You lucky kid. Now let's get down to basics. What's a plot?"
"It's what the story's about."
I shook my head. "Your Aunt Mabel's flowers is 'about something.' Or some kid coming west. For you to have a plot you've got to have trouble."
"Write this down. Trouble is your business. A plot without a trouble is like a Duesenberg without gas. Pretty to look at but going nowhere. Readers read in order to have an extended experience of worrying about what happens to somebody. So make 'em worry."
"Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Have lightning hit the tree and set it on fire. Then get your character down. That's a plot."
"So let's take your young writer. Make him so he's not you."
"Make him older or younger. Make him from a town without pity, or a runaway."
Benny took out a little notebook and a pencil and started scribbling. "This is good stuff!"
"You're talking to Armbrewster! Here's another one. Make the character not a man, but a woman."
Benny looked at me, pie-eyed. "But I can't. I'm not one."
"Dammit, boy, you're a writer! There's no can't in your vocabulary."
"But somebody told me once you have to write what you know."
"Hooey! Write what you burn with, and then find out what you need to know to write it."
"But I've never been a woman."
"And I've never been a gangster or a gumshoe! Is that going to stop me? No! Do some research! Go see a Bette Davis movie. There's one playing at the Chinese called The Great Lie. Mary Astor's in it, too. Earn the trust of a waitress and ask her questions. And then learn to listen. Half the problems in this world are because men don't know how to listen to women."
"Then what?"
"She's on a train coming west, right?"
"What happens on the train?"
"Um, she has dinner and a good, long sleep."
I stuck the cigar in my maw so I could rub my head with both hands.
"No," I said. "She's in her sleeper when a guy with a gun breaks in and covers her mouth."
"But why?"
"Figure it out! That's your job, kid. Bad stuff happens. Your character fights against the bad stuff, because if she doesn't, she's gonna lose something important, maybe even her own life. That's plot and story and the name of this game all rolled into one. When in doubt, when your fingers are frozen over the keys, just bring in a guy with a gun. I said that to Chandler once, and look at him now."
"Raymond Chandler?"
"No, Homer Chandler the delivery boy. Of course Raymond Chandler!"
"But what if I want to write a quiet story about a character, and how he––I mean, she––becomes a better person."
"Ah, you mean you want to be one of the literary boys?"
"Doesn't matter. Instead of a guy with a gun, your bring in someone who has a psychological gun. Who has power to crush the spirit."
"Personally, I prefer the rod. But you get to choose, Benny. Just make sure it's real bad trouble."
"That does it!" Benny said. "I'm making her a woman, and bad stuff's going to happen to her."
"That's the ticket. Now go back to your room and start writing. In the first paragraph I want to see a disturbance."
"A what?"
"Am I speaking Chinese here? A disturbance! I don't want to see a florid description or a character who is sleepwalking through life. I want to know that there's a change or challenge happening to your character right from the jump."
"Like a train wreck maybe?"
"It doesn't have to be big, remember that. It can be anything that's disturbing, from a late night shadow outside a window to a knock on a hermit's door. It can even be some tense dialogue. Just don't warm up your engines! So get to your typewriter and bring me the first three pages when you're done with 'em."
"This is gold, Mr. Armbrewster, gold! I can't thank—"
"It's all right, Benny—"
"—you enough. I'm so excited I'm going to write to my ma and pa and tell 'em—"
"Good-bye, Benny."
"—what a great and wonderful—"
"If you don't go and start writing now, something disturbing is going to happen to you."
"Got it!" He rushed out.
I was looking forward to what the kid was going to show me next. A young writer's enthusiasm, if it's mixed with a desire to grow in the craft, always pleases me.
I went back to the scene I was stuck on. Where was I going to go? And then I found myself typing: A guy with a gun walked in.

[NOTE: I'm once again in travel and teaching mode. So talk about how you put trouble in your books. Is there enough? What do you do when a scene is dull?]