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First Lines

First impressions are everything. At least, that’s what everyone says. Now, I don’t think that’s entirely true. You can recover from a bad first impression…eventually. But I can’t deny they’re important. Which makes the first line of a novel equally important. Let’s say the first page of a book is like a job interview and the reader is the boss. They’re saying, “All right, here’s your chance. So, entertain me.” That means your first line is like your suit and your smile. Important, right?

In The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass (intense book, I’m sure I’ll talk about it at some point) he has an exercise for first lines. He says “Try this at your next critique group session or chapter meeting of your writer’s organization: Ask everyone to bring in two opening lines: their favorite of all time, and the first line from their current manuscript. Mix them up in a hat. Read them aloud and ask people to raise their hands if they want to hear the next line. I promise you, you will see the intrigue factor at work again and again – or not!” See, didn’t I say it was a good idea to learn from the masters?

Let’s do that here. I’m going to take the first lines from some of the books in my library and see what it is that makes me want to go on. Normally, I give authors more than just the first line before I’ll put the book down. In fact, I’ll usually read the whole thing telling myself it must get better on the next page. That’s something I need to work on but not today. Today we’re just going to look at the first lines.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

You know, I respect Tolkein but I don’t think this one works. I recognize he wrote in a different time but this doesn’t make me want to know more (except maybe how he can be that old, but this is fantasy, the genre is full of ancient wizards and wizened dwarves).

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

I’ll preface this with: I really don’t like Twilight. But I thought it deserved a look since it’s so popular. I have to admit, it’s not a bad first line. Really melodramatic and a little cliché (not to make excuses, but that’s setting the tone for the rest of the book), but I definitely have some questions. Why is she dying? What’s been happening the last few months? And what kind of person doesn’t think about dying, especially if she had “reason enough”? Well, someone who seriously has no imagination.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Another popular one, though it can’t be because of its first line. This gives me no sense of the character, and I think waking up in the morning has to be the least interesting way to start a story. Though, I’ll admit, once I got past the first couple pages, I couldn’t put it down.

“Your grandfather,” said Vanyel’s brawny fifteen-year-old cousin Radevel, “was crazy.” Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

This is one of my favorite books but not one of my favorite first lines. This doesn’t tell me anything about the protagonist. I know I’m supposed to be thinking “Why is the grandfather crazy?” but what’s actually going through my head is “Why is the grandfather important?”. And the thing is, he’s not. We learn pretty soon that he’s dead and his craziness only matters right here in the first paragraph. It has nothing to do with the rest of the book. Kind of misleading, if you ask me.

“People…they do the craziest shit.” Nightlife by Rob Thurman

This one just makes me smile. As you read on, you realize this is a perfect introduction to Cal’s character. And it raises questions. Who are the people and what are they doing?

“That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me.” Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Oh, so many questions. And what a great intro to Ella’s voice.

“I am not as I once was.” The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

What a great promise to start a book with. I know right off the bat that this character is going to grow and change and not necessarily in good ways. The tone of the voice is almost one of regret or forgetfulness, but in just a few words it gives us a sense of Yeine’s character.

“On my seventh birthday, my father swore, for the first of many times, that I would die face down in a cesspool.” Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg

This is one of my favorites. How could you not keep reading? The language is beautiful, the sentiment is shocking, and I already have so many questions about the character, I’m not sure which one to pose first. Maybe: What is up with his family? That actually turns out to be one of the most compelling things about the book.

So what I’ve learned from this exercise is that I expect the first line of a book to give me a glimpse or a sense of who a character is. I expect questions to be raised, otherwise why would I want to go on? And those first words should set the mood or the tone of the entire book. Something I didn’t realize before I started was how important the promise of the first line is. In the case of Magic’s Pawn, I felt misled. But The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stayed true to its promise, though not exactly the way I’d imagined. That isn’t something you can tell until you’ve finished the book, but it is definitely something that your readers are going to notice if they go back and read it again. Something we all hope for.

Character, tone, questions, promise. That’s a lot to scrunch into one sentence. What do y’all think? Anything you look for in a first line? Did you disagree with any that I talked about? I think these elements are important but writing is still subjective. A line that works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. In the end you need to know what would keep you reading.

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Learning from the Masters

I’ve said before, I don’t have a degree in writing. I took one creative writing class in high school, that’s it. And I’m not really planning on going back to school. Yet I can study under masters of my craft like Mercedes Lackey, Tamora Pierce, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Terry Pratchett without budging from my library. I can improve my writing by reading and studying the authors I admire (not to mention practicing what I’ve learned).

What amazes me is how many people out there think to themselves “Hey, I could write a book” without having read anything but the morning paper over the last five years. Do you think Jacques Cousteau said “Hey, I could be a marine biologist” without ever having been to the beach? Reading familiarizes you with genre requirements, reader expectations, and above all, feeds your imagination. That last sounds cheesy, I know, but think of it like a linebacker. It can’t do its job unless you feed it four course meals full of carbs and protein. Agent Kristin Nelson has said on her blog that she wishes she could demand authors submit a receipt with their manuscripts proving they’ve bought (and hopefully read) a book in the last month.

You can learn directly from your favorite authors. Study their words, their language. Francine Prose calls this “close reading” in her book Reading Like a Writer (though I don’t recommend close reading this book unless you really like literary fiction and classics and/or plan on writing literary fiction).

What books did you absolutely love? What was it about them that made your heart beat faster? Why do you pick that one particular book up over and over again like a favorite blanket? How can you recapture the feeling you get from those pages? Reading isn’t supposed to be a chore but if you keep these thoughts in mind as you read, you’ll start to see the details that slipped by the first time. You’ll notice the mechanics that make the story work this way and not that way.

One of my favorite books is Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn. My copy is worn and dog-eared from so many readings. Finally, I decided to figure out what it was that had captured me the first time I read it as an ignorant high schooler and kept drawing me back over and over. It didn’t take long, since I was so familiar with it already (seriously, I read it about once a year). It was the character. Vanyel is strong and appears unapproachable, but as the reader you can see the vulnerabilities that he tries to hide from those in his world. That fragile strength that could break with just one wrong word made Vanyel so real and tangible.

Elizabeth Haydon has written a series that kept me up at night. The Symphony of Ages is a long read, but I found myself losing hours flipping pages. After some study, I figured out that it was one specific plot element that made this such a compelling read. At the very beginning, the two characters cross paths and diverge again, and they go on operating under a false assumption. They believe they’ve lost each other, but the reader knows the truth. Through three fairly hefty books I watched and waited and squirmed, knowing a secret that was killing me. I could not physically tear myself away from them because I had to see when and if they would learn the truth. Oh, such sweet agony.

These authors are obviously doing something right, and I hope that maybe some of that will rub off on me. I try to take what I’ve learned from them and apply it to my own writing. Right now, it’s just baby steps, but maybe one day, someone will be reading my work and thinking “Hey, I could write a book”.

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What’s in a Name?

A little while ago, I wrote a post about ways to beat writer’s block and a friend commented about how she had a problem coming up with names for her characters. I had a hard time condensing my reply because I felt like I could write a whole blog post on the topic. Well, I finally got around to putting my thoughts on paper, and here it is: “What I’ve Learned About Naming Characters”. Catchy, right? Maybe I should work on “What I’ve Learned About Titles”.

Not to freak anybody out right off the bat, but names are pretty important. Whether you’re trying to make a statement by hiding subtle clues in a character’s name or you just want to come up with something you can wrap your tongue around for the length of a novel, some work must go into the choice. And that work is one of the first things you have to do before you can even get the first draft down. I’ve found it’s very hard to start a novel not knowing the protagonist’s name and at least the basics of their personality. For me, the process usually falls into one of three difficulty levels: Easy, Medium, or Cursing at the page. Unfortunately, this isn’t a video game where you can just turn the difficulty down whenever the bad guy is kicking your butt. You’ve just got to deal with what your creativity hands you. Though there are some tools and tricks which can give you a leg up.

Every now and then, a character walks into my head fully formed, wearing a name tag. “Hello, my name is Isol.” For some reason she was holding hands with Anella, so I got two out of that deal. But that’s usually only once or twice per book, so for everyone else I keep a list of names I’ve come across (or thought up) that I like and think “Hey I might want to use that one day”. “One day” always comes sooner than I think it will. So when a character shows up in a scene without a convenient tag, my first move is to my list. Are there any that just seem to fit? I know it’s arbitrary, but sometimes it’s just a gut feeling. You probably already have an idea who this person is going to be, so find a name that invokes a feeling that matches. In By Wingéd Chair I wanted the leader of their group to be a well-respected warrior, and to me, the name Lans felt big and strong and protective. To contrast him, I wanted Merry’s love interest to be a bit more spindly and bookish and the name Whyn made me think clever rather than brawny; exactly what I was going for.

Sometimes you want something a bit more specific. You want names that mean something or sound like they’re from a certain place. I like behindthename.com because you can search their database by meaning or by country of origin. In Skin Deep I wanted the setting to have a kind of medieval France/Wales feel, so that’s where I got Anwen. Not only is it a pretty name but it’s Welsh for “very beautiful”. Fitting for the beauty in Beauty and the Beast. Same thing for Léon. I was looking for something both French and animalistic. Léon turns into a bear, not a lion, but I think the parallel still works.

When all else fails and the character is refusing to give you ID, start with a letter of the alphabet. Have too many K names already? Try a B. Then add another letter. What works? What doesn’t? Sound it out until you’ve got something useable. That’s how Merrin, Vinny, and Renny got their names in Catching Cinders. Michael J. Sullivan talked about naming some of his characters this way.

And remember, you’re not sitting there with a stone slab and a chisel. If you give someone a name and a few pages later you think of something better, you can always change it. Vira-we in By Wingéd Chair has had three different names so far, and Merry started out as Lori. Although, be careful, because if you slap a temporary tag on someone and leave it too long it might end up sticking like last night’s mac and cheese. For five chapters, I didn’t have a name for Cinderella’s prince (he was particularly picky), and finally, I just threw one at him. It was only supposed to be temporary, but by the end of the book, I couldn’t even imagine him with any other name. Vóila, Prince Nickolas was born.

I feel like I should add one more thing since it’s my mom’s pet peeve, and she’s very generously passed it on to me. If you write fantasy and you’re into those teeth-cracking, tongue-twisting names (like me), please follow accepted spelling and pronunciation rules for the country of your choice. If you must make up very own language, fine, just be sure everything makes sense and is consistent. No one wants to recommend a book saying, “Yeah, that one guy with the A and all the i’s and x’s is really cool. Unpronounceable, but cool.”

Go have some fun with it. I think naming characters is one of the most rewarding bits of our art. Seeing a character come to life on the page with all their cool traits fitting together topped with a name like a really great hat. You can’t deny how cool that is.

 

I’ve got some cool things planned for the near future, so stay tuned next week for an exciting update.

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A Taste of Potatoes

We’re always told that first impressions are the strongest, and it’s true that as writers we need to be aware of what impressions we’re giving the reader in the first pages (I’ll go into this at another time), but as a reader, I’ve noticed that there are lots of places I form opinions about a book. Not just the first pages.

I often have preconceptions about a book before I even crack the cover. Especially if it’s an author I’m familiar with or a subject I feel strongly about. Then, of course, there’s whether or not I want to keep reading after the first couple pages, but this one’s not as important for me as I tend to be a patient reader. I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt (and another twenty pages) so long as I’m not bored out of my mind or absolutely hating the characters. Now if the story is told by a gruesome serial killer, then he’d better save the cat by page five or I’m putting it down.

More importantly for me than the beginning is the ending. Was it satisfying? What taste did it leave after it was all over? As a rule, I try not to eat my books, but taste is a pretty good word for the feeling I’m left with on the last page. Am I licking my lips thinking Carol Berg tastes like chocolate mousse, something to take my time with and savor? Or am I gagging because Catcher in the Rye tastes like that little green steroid pill I had to take in the hospital, bitter and best swallowed quickly with lots of jello? Those reactions tend to be the most powerful for me.

However, I’ve noticed those aren’t necessarily my last impressions. Books mellow in my memory. I may put it down thinking it was the best book ever, but over time I’ll remember all the little things that I ignored because I was so caught up in the story. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be so sucked in that the imperfect details fade away; in fact, quite the opposite. However, I know I think about a book more objectively after my emotions aren’t so wrapped around a character and their story.

Which of all of these is the truer impression? I don’t know. I thought I’d have an answer by the end of this post, but I don’t. If anything, I think I’m more appreciative of the complexity of the novel and its ability to manipulate me better than Pinocchio’s puppet master. But is that enough to base a blog post on? I like to make some kind of greater point so y’all will come away feeling like you didn’t waste your time. Otherwise it’s jut me muttering to myself. Maybe that is the point. If we’re going to engage in the hugely manipulative art that is novel writing, we should at least be aware of the feelings and impressions we’re trying to make our readers feel with every word we type.

So, I’m curious now, what kind of taste do my posts leave you with? I’m hoping potatoes.

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Clumsy Clichés

It was a dark and stormy night.

“There she blows!”

Captain Amab clicked his spy glass shut and spun on the tip of his wooden leg.

“After that whale, you scurvy sea dogs. That’s the beast that ate me leg.”

The sailors shuffled their feet while the first mate and the bosun looked at each other.

“Is he always like this?” the bosun asked.

“Oh, this is just the calm before the storm,” the first mate said.

“Captain,” the bosun said. “We haven’t seen shore in months.”

“Avast that talk. You’ll not rob me of my revenge.”

The first mate and the bosun exchanged another look that said, “we’re all in the same boat”. Or maybe it was “sink or swim”. They nodded to each other.

They grabbed Captain Amab by the arms and chucked him over the pin rail.

His peg leg disappeared with an unassuming bloop.

“Not so hard after all,” the bosun said. “Turns out he was just a drop in the bucket.”

 

That was written during a writer’s group meeting where we talked about clichés. The general consensus was that they’re bad and no self-respecting writer would ever stoop to using them. However, I disagree. I think there’s a time and a place where clichés can be used effectively. For example, spotlighting the ridiculous, as seen above. Disclaimer: I’m a sailor and I’d have thrown him overboard too. What is a scurvy sea dog anyway?

The thing is, clichés are cliché for a reason, usually because there’s some truth in them. I’m not giving you free rein to go out and use all the same tired phrases and cheesy situations you can think of. I know it’s really easy to fall into the cliché trap when creating your characters. Half the work is already done for you when readers can easily imagine the crusty sailor with a peg leg, or the PI with a smart mouth and a drinking problem, or the romance heroine with a sordid past. But readers can also easily get bored with such tropes. Maybe stop and think about what you want to get across to your readers and figure out how you can use clichés without making them cringe and throw your book at the wall.

I write fairy-tales and what’s more cliché than happily ever after? One of the reasons I love fairy-tales is because they’re so familiar. Everyone knows that Cinderella loses her shoe at a ball. I use the familiar to bring out and highlight the differences in my characters and my stories. My Cinderella doesn’t lose a glass slipper, she loses an ankle-foot orthotic. Still just as unique to her (I mean, Prince Charming still has to be able to pinpoint her, right?), but not nearly as uncomfortable as glass footwear. Or what about a character that twists clichéd metaphors or uses them wrong. A guy says, “I beat that dead fish to death”. Tells you something about the character, doesn’t it?

I also write about disabilities. Just like everything else there are clichés associated with the handicapped, and like I said, they’re clichés because they’re at least a little bit true. My characters have the expected feelings of anger, bitterness, and uselessness because I had to go through those myself. But I try to write beyond them as well. There are deeper reasons behind the emotions that are far more interesting to read about than just “she’s angry because she can’t walk”. We’re capable of feeling so much; can you really justify assigning just one emotion to a character? My Maid Marion is angry, yes, but it’s a mask to hide her self-loathing and protect her from pity. She hates the people around her for not understanding her and then hates herself for hating them. So I’ve explained the cliché and moved past it, creating a deeper character we can understand and relate to.

So before you ax everything that sounds even remotely familiar, consider how clichés could actually help your writing.

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Breaking the Block

Today was supposed to be the review of Darby Karchut’s Griffin Rising and Griffin’s Fire, something I’ve been looking forward to writing for a while. But I really wanted to take my time with it, and between the dog going lame (he’s fine, he’s just copying me) and my house being on sale, time became that mythical creature you glimpse between the tree trunks before realizing you just ate some bad fruit. So instead I’ll talk about writing some more. Y’all will just have to wait with bated breath for the other.

 

There’s a disease all writers get from time to time. There is no vaccine; there aren’t any pills to take. Symptoms include fixation on a blank page, finger paralysis and that nagging feeling that you can’t possibly be a writer if you can’t think of what to write. If you experience any of these conditions, calm down and take a deep breath. Writer’s Block isn’t fatal, although it may feel like it, especially if you’re depending on your manuscript to bring in the next paycheck. Of course, if you’re getting paid to write, you’ve probably already conquered The Block, so this isn’t really for you. But for those of you still staring at the keyboard wondering why your fingers won’t move, here are a few treatments you can try.

Take a break. This may seem counter-intuitive – I thought I had to write to be a writer – but seriously, getting away from your work can give you a fresh perspective. Staring at the page is obviously not helping, so go do something else. I do some of my best thinking in the shower. Or if it’s the middle of the day, I take the dog out and mull over a problem while he chases the frisbee. Writing is work, give yourself time to rest and recoup your losses. But after your break, be sure to go back to the keyboard. Don’t let your frisbee time turn into a sabbatical. You’ve all heard my ‘just write‘ rant. Take all that fresh perspective and turn it into words.

Prompts anyone? Sure. Why not? Try exercises for writers, if you’re into that kind of thing. I thought I wasn’t, but turns out they’re kind of fun. Maybe take your character out of your book and put them in another. See what they do, how they react. Can you use that?

Try writing by hand. Or if you’re already old fashioned, try a keyboard or a typewriter. Changing mediums resets your brain and could jump start something on the page too. I write all my blog posts by hand first. For some reason, it feels less permanent that way. I can just jot down ideas without worrying whether they’re really going to work or not. I know that’s completely opposite of real life but shh my brain hasn’t figured it out yet.

I’ve heard change locales. Normally work at home? Try setting up in a coffee shop. Or vice versa. Go people watching in a park with just a notepad and a pen. Personally, this doesn’t work for me because I get super distracted. I swear I’m writing until all of a sudden, I realize I’ve been staring at that dog for five minutes wondering if it’s owner knows it looks like a pig. But writing someplace else might work great for you.

Outline your characters. Maybe one of the reasons you’re stuck is because you don’t know your characters well enough to write how they’d react to a situation. Take a moment to figure out what makes them tick. This is probably a good thing to do in general but I try to save it for moments I’m stuck. Digging deep into a character’s past and motivations really helps get the ball rolling, Indiana Jones style.

When all else fails, type harder. Yeah, tap the keys so you can hear them click. Don’t look at me like I’m insane. This is my default Block Buster. When I’m distracted or feeling like I’m not getting stuff on the page the way I want, I arch my fingers and tap the keys harder, more deliberately. I like how it sounds. It sounds productive. It’s soothing and makes me want to write more. Seriously, stop looking at me like that.

There are millions of ways to break The Block and everyone has their own tried and true method. These are just a few that I jotted down one day. Feel free to develop your own. How about it? What do you do to break your Block?

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More Than Just Ground

I don’t like setting. I don’t really like reading about it or writing it. Terry Goodkind had those long paragraphs in Wizard’s First Rule that described the trees and the hills and how the light fell just so and… yeah, I skipped all those. In a lot of my first drafts you’re not even sure where a scene takes place because I avoided mentioning it. My characters could be floating in space – or in a lake – but you have no idea because I haven’t described it well enough. Or at all.

As a writer, I realized this is probably something I should get over and learn to do, and since I’m trying to write about writing, I figured I’d detail some of the slow, painful learning I’ve been doing.

Setting is more than just the ground your characters walk on while they’re solving the mystery of the painted chicken. Setting can be a critical reason for character development. Miles Vorkosigan would not have faced the same trials or overcome them the same way if his story had not taken place where it had. It can be an active component of the plot. If your novel takes place on a small island during a hurricane, you bet your characters are going to have to deal with all the problems that come with too little space and too much water.

Even if all you want to do is tell a human story while transporting your readers to a beautiful land similar to – but not exactly like – our world, you can’t get away with dumping lengthy paragraphs of description where nothing happens into a reader’s lap. Those places where the hero pauses in his hike up the mountain to survey the surrounding landscape with it’s carefully researched vegetation and painstakingly lyrical prose about the sunlight and the birds- those are the things I skip. I don’t care how beautiful the language is, I’m bored. And I’m a writer too, so I know how much work went into that paragraph and how much you love the imagery. But what does it matter if the reader never sees those words because they’ve flipped ahead to where the hero actually starts doing something besides sightseeing?

I tend toward the other side of the scale. I dislike reading description so much that I avoid writing it altogether. I’ll tell you that my characters are sitting in a room or traveling through a forest and that’s as much as you’re going to get because I’d rather concentrate on why she’s glaring daggers at him or the ninja that’s about to jump out at them and ruin everyone’s day. Readers have enough imagination that they can come up with the setting by themselves, right? Wrong. It’s your story. They want to hear and see and smell what you want them to hear and see and smell. So my approach doesn’t work either.

Well, then what’s a struggling writer to do? I sat in on one of Donald Maass’s workshops two weeks ago at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and he said to throw out traditional description. What? Really? Yup. No one reads it anyway. Well, some people do. But most admit to skipping it.

A story is told from a specific character’s point of view (well, usually, there is also omniscient POV, but that’s not what I’m talking about). Sometimes there are forays into another character’s POV, but every story needs a protagonist. Since the story is already being told from the protagonist’s POV with their voice, then the setting should be as well. Show the reader where they are through a character’s eyes. Let their upbringing and emotions color the description.

In another workshop, the presenter gave us an exercise: Describe a building from the POV of a girl who just lost her boyfriend in a car accident, without mentioning the girl, the boyfriend, or the accident. This was my attempt:

Black stains crept up the cracked brick walls, and windows stared back like accusing eyes that knew all the secrets of the world. Water streamed from the sky and down the glass, making it seem like the building itself was crying.

The next exercise was to take that same building, same weather conditions, and describe it from the POV of a boy in love, without mentioning the boy or his emotional state.

Water poured down the brick facade, running through the cracks and over the black stains as if washing away the building’s dark past, cleansing its iniquities and raising it to new life.

 Now, I could have written it:

 The rain pinged off the dirty windows and ran down through the cracks in the brick, over the black stains.

Can you see the difference? The first two are colored with the emotions of the characters, what they’ve experienced, how they’re feeling in that moment. Instead of getting a boring line about the building – which could be really important, but how would we know because we skipped it – we get a closer look at the character and what’s important to them.

If you’re writing about a disabled character, this could be especially useful. Instead of giving the reader a lecture about how your girl in a wheelchair is supposed to feel, show them by including details only someone who has to navigate in a wheelchair would notice. The sidewalk is tilted so she feels she has to lean way over to keep her chair from falling over. There isn’t enough room for her to get from one side of the room to the other. People’s toes are in the way (toes and bookbags, I’m always running into toes and bookbags).

In this last exercise, we were supposed to take a character from our current work in progress and stick them on a horse ranch a half-hour away from the nearest store. Merry is from a fantastical world similar to Victorian England, so I had to wrap my mind around it first, but here’s what I came up with.

Manure. Did they really expect me to roll through manure? They knew I steered with my hands, right? “Do you have any wipes?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Well then we have to get wipes. I’m not going any further without wipes.”

“Nearest store’s half an hour away.” He eyed me. “Just use your jeans. Nothing wrong with them.”

You may not get a great picture of time of day or what exactly it looks like from this little bit, but you certainly know how she feels about the place. You know she’s probably in a wheelchair and which specific detail she’s worried about. And as a bonus you can see some of what the secondary character is feeling from the dialogue.

It’s not easy. I have lots of places to go back and rewrite or add description from a character’s POV, but in the end, your story will be much richer and your reader will have a better idea of who your characters are and what they care about.

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Brave the Blank Page

Blank pageFor a while I’ve felt that I should write about writing: the writing process, writing tips, the dreaded rewrite. I’m hardly an expert. I don’t have a degree in writing (just a BS in biology). But I have been doing this awhile, and along the way I’ve come up with some things that have worked for me. W. Somerset Maugham said “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Following that sage advice, I’m not going to try to come up with rules or even guidelines. I’m just going to talk about the things I’ve learned and you get to listen (lucky you).

The first thing I learned about writing while writing is probably the simplest concept, but it also seems to be the hardest to implement at times. The most important thing to do to improve your writing is….write. Just write. Put words on a page. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet this is what trips most people up. I hear, “I want to write a book, but I don’t know where to start” or “I want to finish my book, but I have writer’s block.”

One of the hardest things about writing is putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) when all you want to do is prance around the room in your granny panties because that’s easier than staring at a blank page. Yeah, I know all about that. I’ve been there. Wait, you don’t do that? Maybe it’s just me. Regardless of how you deal with writerly insanity, blank pages are scary things. I mean, it’s just sitting there waiting for you to fill it. Who wants that kind of responsibility? Well, if you call yourself a writer, then you’ve volunteered for it. So writers, what do we do with a blank page? Anyone? Bueller…Bueller? Well, we fill it with lovely words: poetry that captures the feel of a winter evening, fiction that takes us to new worlds, essays that teach and inspire. What do you want to add to the realm of literature?

“But I don’t know where to start,” you say. Don’t worry. No one else does either. Start with a sentence. I’m serious. At the top of that terrifyingly blank page, write one sentence.

The dog runs.

Look at that. There are words on that page. You’ve started. What next? How about another sentence?

The dog runs. But the dinosaur runs faster.

I don’t know about you, but that looks like the start of a story to me.

Pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants) probably have less trouble with this step than planners (people who plan everything before they write). I’m a tried and true pantser. I only outline if I figure out what happens next faster than I can get it on paper. But it’s easy to get stuck no matter what your method. I know planners who get bogged down in the outline, wanting to plan out every detail. And they never write a word of the actual novel. Pantsers have problems too. I’ll get halfway through a first draft and realize I have no clue what comes next. Or there are people like my sister, Arielle, who get words on the page, even a whole chapter, but they won’t move on until what they’ve written is perfect.

My advice to all of them is to just write. Planners, if it never makes it onto a page, then it’s never actually a novel. It’s just an idea. Pantsers, do what you do best and just see what happens. Add an agoraphobic assassin, sink the pirate’s ship. Run with it. Arielles of the world, write the next part. One chapter of a novel will never be perfect, only incomplete.

Once you’re past that first hurdle – when the first sentence is written, and the second sentence, a whole page, a chapter, a book – you’re still not done. Yes, there should be editing and revising, but I’m not going to talk about those here. What I mean is that you should still be writing. Hey, don’t complain to me, you were the one who wanted to be a writer.

I finished my first novel when I was nineteen. 200,000 words (yikes), and I was so proud of my first draft, I packed it up and sent it to an editor. Here’s a healthy tip: don’t do this… ever. I also didn’t write much for a while after that. Don’t do this either. Remember when your piano teacher told you practice makes perfect? Same thing. The only way to get better at writing is to keep writing. So write. All the time. Every day if you can. Need help fitting it into a busy schedule? There are plenty of books to help. Writer Mama by Christina Katz and Pen on fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett are two I’m going to look up myself. A friend of mine writes a blog Writing While the Rice Boils. Trouble finding ideas? Use prompts and exercises (Writer’s Digest has lots). Do research. Write another novel. Make it better. One of my critique partners likes to say, you can’t edit what doesn’t exist. I’ve written five novels over twelve years and all of them have taught me something. Things like don’t send a first draft to an editor, aMy story starts herend sinking the pirate ship can actually work out. Another big one was trust your readers (little sisters played a part in this one). So brave the blank page. Set off into the unknown armed with only your pen. Almost everyone wants to write a book, but only you writers will actually do it.

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Writing Promptly

Every month I go to a writer’s group at my local library where we talk about books, publishing, and all the things that writers specifically like to grumble about. Recently we’ve had some fun with prompts. I got a kick out of the one I did last month so I thought I’d share the results. The prompt was: “You’ve been asked to buy ingredients and prepare a meal for another family. Write about the experience”.

“Sue-Ellen resettled the casserole dish in the crook of her elbow, the rich smell of barbecue floating up to remind her of home. Her barbecue was world famous…well, only if you counted the small town of Cut-n-Shoot, Texas as the world and only if famous meant winning the cook-off at the county fair. Still, she was proud of that barbecue and rightly so. It could lay Jim flat for an entire afternoon- knock him out on the couch with his feet on the coffee table, proudly displaying the hole in his sock, his mouth open in an odorous, sonorous snore which drowned out the football game playing on the TV. Lord, she loved that man and how he ate her barbecue.”

Nothing earth-shattering, but I have to admit I fell in love with Jim a little bit. I know, I know. I got kind of derailed and somewhere out there that poor family is still waiting for their dinner.

We’ve had some discussion in our group about the helpfulness of prompts. Some people felt that prompts were only for those beginners who needed help with their writing. Prompts were below Advanced writers.

I think that’s a bunch of hooey. Now, to be fair, I never used to like prompts. I hate being told when and what to write. I also really suck at short fiction (flash fiction isn’t even on my radar). Ideas that start off as short stories somehow gain the momentum of a runaway truck and end up 60 or 70,000 words long.

But I’ve started to see the beauty of prompts. They make me stretch and grow as a writer. Just like rehab, the process can be painful. Sometimes tears are involved. I definitely get that look my therapists recognized as extreme concentration: eyebrows lowered, tongue sticking out, and sweat pooling in places where girls like to pretend they don’t sweat. Having to write something so specific and not in my genre is scary, but it’s not pointless. The only way to get better at what I do is to practice. I write young adult fantasy. As you can see, the prompt above does not scream fantasy, but I learned something from writing it. And no matter where you are in your writing career, you can always learn something new.

So, stretch yourself a bit. If what you write is totally stupid and you just want to crumple it up in a melodramatic gesture common to writers throughout the ages- but you can’t because it’s on a computer screen- then you never have to look at it again. But who knows? It might spark a greater work. Or breathe life into something you’ve been slaving over for a while. Writing’s hard. Admit it, suck it up, and put in the time.

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