"Wherever men have lived there is a story to be told." Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Making Promises

We’ve all known the person who says they’ll call but never do, or who says they’ll meet you at the restaurant at 1:00 on Tuesday but never show. And when you call them to see what happened, they don’t even remember having made the date. We quickly realize this person is unreliable and, consequently, we no longer want to do things with him or her and we cease believing anything they say. They made promises they didn’t keep and they lost our faith and trust.

What exactly do I mean by promises in writing? These come in the form of dilemmas, obstacles, conflicts, and twists and turns in the plot. In each scene you make a promise that something is going to happen in the next scene and then the one after that. You suggest something is going to go wrong to mess up your character’s plans for the future he envisions for himself. You hint at impending disaster. You create suspense in everything your characters do and say and in how they interact. As you fulfill one promise, make another one, until each promise flows into the next and until each one is fulfilled in the book’s final resolution.

Readers anticipate the best–and the worst–and they darn well don’t want to be let down. If you keep promising something, but nothing happens, you’re going to be in big trouble. You’re going to lose credibility.

This makes me think of the famous poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost. Although it had nothing to do with writing, the words still might hold wisdom for us if we apply them to our situation and read between the lines.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

It is fun but challenging to navigate the “lovely, dark and deep” world of novel writing. We do have promises to keep to our readers, and we should not rest until we meet our ultimate goal of successfully fulfilling each and every one of them. If we don’t deliver on those promises, we won’t have readers for long, and we will become like that unreliable friend who forgets her promises as soon as they leave her mouth. We should always strive to be the writer our readers can trust for a good read.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

You Don't Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

This blog first appeared on the Blue Sage Writers of Idaho blogspot, October 3, 2011.

Most agents and writers have come to prefer email submissions to snail mail. It is decidedly easier for all parties and saves the writer a lot of money in postage. As a matter of fact, the loss of all those query letters, partials, and bulky manuscripts, along with return postage, could very well be what is causing the U. S. Postal Service’s financial demise.

Agents really like email queries because they can easily hit the “delete” button if they aren’t interested. And, you, the writer can easily choose 100 agents and send your query out to all of them simultaneously. Right?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

It’s acceptable to send out multiple query letters. After all, if you sent out one at time, you might not live long enough to get through your list unless you’re twenty when you start querying. Granted, email does make it so you only have to wait weeks, rather than months, for a response, but it’s still not a good idea to get overzealous. I personally prefer to choose around five agents at a time and wait to see what sort of response I get. If it’s positive and they want to see more, I can assume my query letter piqued their interest. If I don’t get a response, or get all negative responses, then I realize I might need to rework the query letter. The same philosophy goes for a partial, and so on to the request of a full manuscript.

The bottom line is you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so don’t exhaust all the agents on your list in one fell swoop. You want to leave your options open to rework your query, your partial, or your manuscript if each phase of submission isn’t garnering the interest to take it to the next level.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What? I Have to Speak!

I’ve always been a shy person so writing became a natural way for me to express myself. I think it stems from my parents’ philosophy that children should be seen and not heard, and that a child wasn’t supposed to interrupt the adults unless there was fire or blood. (Being the youngest of four children, I was even more unlikely to get a voice.) Anyway, my parents were so successful in instilling this mindset in me that when I finally became an adult and realized I could now voice my opinion, I didn’t know how. I was of the notion that nothing I had to say could possibly be important enough for others to listen to. I mean, if there was no fire or blood, it had to be true, right? But when I sat down to write, I could talk through my characters and they could say exactly what I wanted them to say, and other characters would respond exactly as I wanted them to respond. Such gratification.

I think a lot of writers are shy for whatever reason, and they’d like to just be left alone in their little attic alcoves or their basement cubbyholes and write. But then one day all that writing pays off and they find themselves with a published book in hand. They go forth to promote it, and, to their dismay, the phone starts ringing. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has one question: “Will you come speak to our group?”

That’s when the old heart sinks and you stutter and stammer and finally say yes because it’s so damn hard to say no. You arrive at the meeting and you wish to hell you’d stayed in your attic writing brilliant prose. You struggle your way through a “speech” with shaking hands and dry mouth, and when it’s over you rush back home and say, “I am NEVER going to do that again.”

And then the phone rings. “Will you come speak at our conference?”


You seriously consider delisting your phone number.

Of course, there are rewards to public speaking. You sell books and meet a lot of great, like-minded people, and often come away with new friendships. And you might find you actually enjoy it. (I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but wonders never cease). Also, if you make yourself go out and speak every time you’re asked, then eventually you might relax and get the hang of it. (I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but wonders never cease).

Then there are those writers who should have been actors or stand-up comedians. I SO admire them. They love the spotlight. Their audiences love them, and they sell tons of books. They walk into a room and command attention. I love listening to them, and wish I could be like them. They are not just writers. They are entertainers. But I have also listened to speakers who thought they were terrific but who were so self-centered and arrogant, or boring, that I walked away deciding not to buy their books. So sometimes NOT speaking might be the wiser choice.

What I’m getting at here is that you have to know your own personality when it comes to speaking, and you have to try to find the balance that works for you. For me, I can handle small, informal groups of writers and readers, and I love sitting around chatting about books and writing. I don’t mind being on panels because it’s not really a “speech” and I don’t have to wax poetic, dance, or sing. I can answer questions and give opinions until the cows come home. But I hate getting up behind a podium with a room full of people who expect me to be as witty and clever and brilliant as my books! I’d rather go to the dentist and have my teeth drilled without novocaine. Seriously.

Still there’s hope even for us painfully shy people. You might be able to work yourself up to the bigger gigs and find out you really enjoy all the attention and accolades. If you are determined to be a good speaker, take classes in speaking (and acting!) and see if you can overcome your fright. Tell yourself that when you get up in front of people, they are there to learn something from you--they’re not there to watch you shaking in your boots. They truly want you to succeed. If you can convince yourself of this one simple thing, you can oftentimes pull it off and walk away saying, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I might do it again.”

Bottom line: it behooves writers to hone their speaking skills because writing nowadays is all about self-promotion. Publishers love writers who are great speakers because they can go forth and hand-sell tons of their books at conferences and similar venues. So whether you love to be in the spotlight, or whether you hate it, writing isn’t the solitary career you might have thought it was. Some day that phone will ring, and you will be asked to speak.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Use Stereotyping to Your Advantage

We have been told absolutely, under no circumstances, should we ever use stereotypes in our writing. But in life we stereotype people all the time. From the first moment we see or meet someone, we are stereotyping them. We “size” them up by the clothes they wear, the way they talk, the type of job they have, where they live, the car they drive, even the type of dog they pack around in their Gucci bag. And, ironic as it might seem, people really do fall into stereotypes – all of us. Certain “types” look and act and behave in ways that have become so predictable that a stereotype has developed.

But there are times when stereotyping is exactly what the book doctor ordered.

How can that be, you say? That would be breaking the rules.

Enter: a minor character who is there as part of the scene and who is there to interact with the main character to advance the story or give insights into some aspect of our main character. But this “walk on” character will not take a role beyond that scene. If we stereotype this minor character, he will look and act exactly the way we expect. He will say exactly what we expect him to say. We won’t need to be told much about him because the stereotype will draw the picture for us.

Here are some examples of stereotypes: the chatty hairdresser, the waitress with the perky pink uniform chewing on a wad of bubble gum, the old man in the alley with his bottle of wine, the harried mother in the grocery store with her screaming kids, the biker with his leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head, the absent-minded professor with the Einstein hair and bow tie, the gruff rancher walking into the feed store with manure on his boots, the sullen teenage girl ignoring her mother, the jock in the tight T-shirt flirting with the cheerleaders.

We immediately see this people and categorize them into a group that we are comfortable with and understand. There will be no surprises from them. And when the scene is over and they’ve served their purpose, we’ll stash them away to be easily forgotten, which is exactly what we should do.

But stereotyping can be a powerful tool for your main characters too. For example, let’s take the biker with the leather jacket and tattoos all over his shaved head. Let’s show him parking his Harley in the Walgreen’s parking lot, striding uneasily inside and making his way self-consciously back to the pharmacy. Let’s see him asking the pharmacist for a prescription pain medicine called in by his mother’s doctor. Let’s listen to the pharmacist explain to him the dosage and then caution him that he needs to administer it to his mother himself because she might not be “thinking straight.” He hands the medicine to the biker with sympathy on his face and says, “I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s cancer. Tell her I said hello.”

Instantly, the biker has stepped out of stereotype. He’s surprised us, piqued our interest, and has become a main player we want to know more about. He’s not the tough guy we might have thought he was. He has a dying mother and he’s out of his element in dealing with it. We immediately want to know everything about him from his childhood to the present.

So, bottom line, if you want to keep a “walk on” character invisible and forgettable, stick to the stereotype. But if you want to hold onto your reader for the long haul, go ahead and stereotype your main characters, then throw a curve ball (or two or three) and make it work to your advantage.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Brainstorming: Good for the Writing; Good for the Soul

Face it. Sometimes when it comes to plotting our books, our brains get stuck in a gigantic rut. We get set on an idea or a direction and no matter what we do we can’t get beyond it to open the door to something new and better. I don’t know a writer who hasn’t faced this. (If you haven’t, there’s something wrong with you!).

It’s been said a gazillion times that two heads are better than one. Get a bunch of heads together and it’s even better. This is the one time in writing when “talking heads” is acceptable. Sometimes all it takes is for a fellow writer, or engaged friend/reader, to ask some simple questions about your plot and, voila, the muddy road immediately dries out and you can pull right out of that rut and get back on the road.

I have three daughters who also write, so it is very fun and productive for us to brainstorm our ideas. I just came back from a week-long visit with one of my daughters and after several BS sessions (i.e., brainstorming sessions) we were able to help her with a book ending she hadn’t been completely satisfied with, and I was able to see more clearly a book I’d wanted to write for years but couldn’t because of that danged rut that kept bogging me down.

A good brainstorming partner should have the same qualifications as a good critique partner, but the main thing for both is someone who not only loves books but who understands writing, who understands you, and who will energize you so much that when you go home, you don’t want to do anything but head straight to your computer and start writing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wyoming: A Great Place to Brainstorm

We recently made a trip across Wyoming to visit family. I must say, crossing this state is always interesting. If you've ever taken the trip you might think I've lost my mind. You might think there is nothing out there in all that expanse but sagebrush and rocks. But look again. There are miles and miles of very tall snow fence, herds of antelope and cattle (usually black Angus), and the occasional semi-truck tipped over by the wind. (The tag "Windy Wyoming" wasn't pulled out of a cowboy hat.) Oh, and this time of year, there's always the excitement of getting caught in a spring snowstorm.

But, wait, there's more to this state than meets the eye. For us writers, it's a darn good place to hatch book ideas and solve plotting problems. Even while dodging semi-trucks (which are always driving over the speed limit), a writer can start feeling the creative juices flowing. And, with my husband trapped in the car with no place to go, I can bounce ideas off his head. I can tell him my story line and the problem I'm having and he will always come up with something that helps get the kinks out, even if I don't end up using his idea. I've solved more than one instance of writer's block while on I-80.

So, all in all, I don't mind driving across Wyoming (if it isn't snowing). It's a darn good place to clear your mind and do some heavy-duty brainstorming for your next book.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ride Your Own Horse

When I was growing up, we always had a bunch of horses around the farm, and most of them were too wild for us kids to ride. My dad was always afraid we'd get hurt so he wouldn't put us on anything that wasn't broke really well or ridden down for a few days before we climbed up on its back. Many times if he was breaking a colt, he would "snub" the colt to an older horse. By this, I mean he would put a lead rope on the colt's hackamore (he preferred hackamores to bridles). The person on the older horse would help control the colt with the lead rope. The person on the colt had the reins, but the snubbing rope was an added insurance in case the colt started bucking or decided to run away.

One of my dad's favorite horses was named Dan. He was a spirited Appaloosa. Dad wouldn't let just anybody ride that horse because he was afraid if the rider "didn't know what he was doing" he'd "ruin the horse." I'll never forget the day when he decided he was going to let me ride Dan. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous–more about ruining his horse than getting bucked off. Dad decided we were going to ride to the top of Blue Mountain at our ranch, a steep climb through pine trees and over rocks. Even though he'd ridden Dan pretty good ahead of time, we started out with Dad snubbing Dan to the horse he was riding. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, Dan was tired (or at least I hoped) and dad wrapped the snubbing rope around my saddle horn. I was on my own on the ride back down. It was quite a thrill to ride that horse. I made it back to the ranch in one piece and didn't ruin Old Dan.

I know you're wondering what this has to do with writing. Well, I'll tell you. We all like to have some help now and then with our writing. We like someone to hold that snubbing rope and keep us from getting bucked off; i.e., rejected. We want to hear what others say about our work. We want their advice, their critiques that will kindly and gently point out bad plotting, punctuation mistakes, weak conflicts, poor characterizations and so on and so on. But sooner or later, we have to gather the reins, put our foot in the stirrup, and settle our butts down deep in the saddle. We might be a little afraid to put our heels to that horse, but there comes a time when we have to trust ourselves, our knowledge, our instincts, and all we've learned along the way. Sooner or later we have to let go of that snubbing rope and ride our own horse. What's the worst that can happen? If you get thrown off, just dust off the dirt and swing into that saddle again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Make Your Dialogue Speak

In our daily lives we often engage in nonsensical dialogue and pleasantries, but if we do this in our writing, we'll never see our Great American Novel in print.

Authentic dialogue starts with interesting characters who have their own voice based on their personal history. Beyond that, it needs to flow naturally and not sound stilted, dull, or too proper. Reading it aloud or "acting it out" will help you determine if it sounds natural.

Just as narrative can go on for too long, so can dialogue. Whatever the issue, don't drag it out for pages. The reader will want your story to keep moving forward. If characters get caught in an argument, or perhaps they are bickering over a decision that needs to be made, don't keep rehashing the same point. Bring the topic to a conclusion in good time. Say what needs to be said and move on.

Also, don't be point-blank, unless that is one of your character's known traits. Most men wouldn't walk up to an attractive woman and tell her she's hot. He'd show his interest in more subtle ways. People in real life often dance around what's really on their minds and, for the most part, your characters will too.

Avoid "info dumps" via dialogue (or narrative). Shifting the content of the dialogue from one thing to the next in the same scene, especially if the content isn't tied together, could be more than the reader wants to digest in that particular setting. If the reader becomes confused or can't absorb all the information, he could be confused later because he missed something.

Dialogue needs to move the story forward by imparting information pertinent to the plot and the characters. Each piece of dialogue should be there for a reason and each scene should have a point. Like your narrative, it should "show" rather than "tell." It should impart an "action/reaction" mode from your characters.

Pick a piece of dialogue from a favorite book and analyze each line, asking yourself what information it imparts. Here is dialogue from my own book, The Last Rodeo. Dev Summers, a rodeo bull rider, has just completed his last ride on a savage bull named Satan 101 and walked away, but with injuries. Here's the conversation between him and his dad.

"What do you mean, you're done?" Jake Summers spoke with that familiar sharp edge to his voice. "You'll have plenty of time to get healed before the next event. I can tell you one thing, that shit you pulled today on Satan damned near got you killed, and you'd better not do it again."

"I rode him."

"If you want to call that a ride."

Dev lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. His dad's response was so typical. "I stuck to him until the buzzer sounded, and I got the top score for the night. Isn't that what you wanted, damn it?"

"And look where it got you–crippled up again. You'd have done better to let go. A man has to know when to let go."

"My point precisely."

"So that's what the suicide wrap was all about? To rub my nose in some imaginary shit you've been packin' around."

This scene's purpose is to show the ongoing discord between Dev and his father. It reveals the father's disapproval of the bull ride. His dad thinks he should have known when to let go instead of sticking to the bull with a suicide wrap that ultimately got him injured. But at the same time he disapproves of his son not going to the next event because of the injury. It shows something of the two personalities–of the father who can't give praise, sympathy, or understanding, and the son who is tired of trying to please his father and thus rebels by intentionally knocking himself out of the running.

Just as dialogue arouses your characters' emotions, it should reveal growth, discovery, and truth about themselves and others. In real life we often walk away from a conversation and kick ourselves for not saying something smart or clever, or for not sticking up for ourselves and saying what was really on our minds. As writers, we have all the time in the world to help our characters say those perfect words and say them in exactly the right way.