Tuesday, November 18, 2014

For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a snippet from my work in progress. It's a YA contemporary that picks up roughly 18 months after my debut, Never Gone. My protagonist, Danielle, is spending a few weeks in central Pennsylvania when her grandfather is hospitalized after a bad fall. She hopes to enlist her uncle's help to get away quickly to take a planned trip to Paris. But her reason is far from selfish.

===

Uncle David scratches Rhys behind the ears. “Guess I should show you where your pooch is allowed and where he ain’t. You can tell me what’s up.”

As we walk the boundaries of Poppa’s land, from a pond and cornfields on one side to a creek running through the woods on the other, I tell my uncle about our Paris travel plans, and Mum’s stubborn insistence that we can’t take the trip we’d been planning for months. Not until Poppa’s house is “ready,” whatever that means, and he’s “settled,” another vague goal. I describe Mum’s recent low spirits and how unprepared she is for her September art show.

He nods along to the story, interrupting from time to time to point out places where he and Mum used to play as kids.

“So you reckon she’ll have a nervous breakdown if she doesn’t get some time away?”

“I know that sounds dramatic, but she’s had a really rough spring. Dad’s birthday came and he was still gone and all the light went out of her eyes. She stares more than paints, but when she does, her work give me chills, and not it a good way. It’s really dark—full of mud and crows and broken fence posts. You’d swear she crawled out of a First World War trench in Flanders.”

“I wanna do all I can to help her.” He frowns and stoops to untangle the leash from Rhys’s front leg. “But two weeks is a mighty tight deadline. I’ve got client projects to finish as it is. I don’t rightly know how long I can be away from my shop, either.”

“Can’t Keegan and the new guy run things for you?”

“Well....they’re both Narc-Anon guys. You catch my drift?”

“You want them to rebuild their lives, but you can’t trust them to not screw up your business.”

He rakes his nails over his scalp. “Keegan’s been clean two years, but Chip, only seven months.”

“You have church friends who’d keep an eye on them, don’t you?”

David shakes his head and playful punches my shoulder. “Niece o’mine, you are a very stubborn girl, aren’t ya?”

“I happen to be concerned about my mother’s mental health and what will happen to me if she has a breakdown. Apparently you aren’t. So just forget it. I’ll refurbish Poppa’s whole freaking house by myself!”

Photo credit: psarahtonen from morguefile.com 
I yank Rhys’s leash and storm off, tears burning my eyes. David promised to keep Mum out of this but has he? Heck, no. He talks a good game—It’s about time I had a go being the responsible one—but when push comes to shove, he’s back to being the coddled baby who expects Mum to take care of everything.

It’s the first I’ve run since track season ended, and soon I have to stop to catch my breath. Rhys plops in the grass beside me, smiling. He always loves a hearty sprint.

Poppa’s house is still a good ways off, but I notice, closer to me, a strange outbuilding on this side of a grove of trees. From the house, it’s not visible. I haltingly make my way toward it as my breathing slows.

If this place were a garage, you might fit a car and a half in it. Three of the sides have picture windows that are papered over from the inside. Rhys sniffs around the perimeter, leading me to a door that’s not only dead bolted, but also chained and padlocked. What’s with the high security? There has to be something very valuable or very dangerous in there. Possibly both.

My uncle huffs and puffs up behind me. “Would you,” pant, “please let me,” pant, “have a half minute,” pant “to respond?”

“What is this place?” I demand.

He holds up a finger, the “one moment” sign, and continues breathing hard.

Rhys scratches at the bottom of the door, like he smells a treat inside. My uncle says, “No,” and “Stop,” between rasping inhalations.

I lead Rhys away and walk him in a circle around my uncle. “Pot smoking does wreck your lungs,” I tease, “no matter what the pro-weed people say.”

“I just don’t happen to be young,” pant, “or an athlete,” he retorts.

 “I’m the slowest runner on our team. Luckily, you don’t need speed for high jump.”

“You know just how to cheer up an old guy, don’cha?” He pulls his sweaty shirt away from his stomach in a fanning motion. “I never meant to say I wouldn’t help ya, kiddo. You just sprang this deadline on me and I had to think it through.”

“Okay. Sorry. Mum’s done nothing but throw up roadblocks. I guess I heard you doing the same.”

“She’s got a certain comfort level with being Pop’s servant. Don’t expect her to start sticking up for herself anytime soon. Seems to me that’s another battle entirely.”

“So we fight for her.”

“I reckon we do. Let’s get back and see what wonders we can work today.” He gives a decisive clap and heads towards the house.

I stand there for a moment, confused. “But what about the—?” I call, pointing at the mysterious, locked building.

But my uncle is already out of earshot.

===

What are you working on these days?
7:00 AM Laurel Garver
For a change of pace, I thought I'd share a snippet from my work in progress. It's a YA contemporary that picks up roughly 18 months after my debut, Never Gone. My protagonist, Danielle, is spending a few weeks in central Pennsylvania when her grandfather is hospitalized after a bad fall. She hopes to enlist her uncle's help to get away quickly to take a planned trip to Paris. But her reason is far from selfish.

===

Uncle David scratches Rhys behind the ears. “Guess I should show you where your pooch is allowed and where he ain’t. You can tell me what’s up.”

As we walk the boundaries of Poppa’s land, from a pond and cornfields on one side to a creek running through the woods on the other, I tell my uncle about our Paris travel plans, and Mum’s stubborn insistence that we can’t take the trip we’d been planning for months. Not until Poppa’s house is “ready,” whatever that means, and he’s “settled,” another vague goal. I describe Mum’s recent low spirits and how unprepared she is for her September art show.

He nods along to the story, interrupting from time to time to point out places where he and Mum used to play as kids.

“So you reckon she’ll have a nervous breakdown if she doesn’t get some time away?”

“I know that sounds dramatic, but she’s had a really rough spring. Dad’s birthday came and he was still gone and all the light went out of her eyes. She stares more than paints, but when she does, her work give me chills, and not it a good way. It’s really dark—full of mud and crows and broken fence posts. You’d swear she crawled out of a First World War trench in Flanders.”

“I wanna do all I can to help her.” He frowns and stoops to untangle the leash from Rhys’s front leg. “But two weeks is a mighty tight deadline. I’ve got client projects to finish as it is. I don’t rightly know how long I can be away from my shop, either.”

“Can’t Keegan and the new guy run things for you?”

“Well....they’re both Narc-Anon guys. You catch my drift?”

“You want them to rebuild their lives, but you can’t trust them to not screw up your business.”

He rakes his nails over his scalp. “Keegan’s been clean two years, but Chip, only seven months.”

“You have church friends who’d keep an eye on them, don’t you?”

David shakes his head and playful punches my shoulder. “Niece o’mine, you are a very stubborn girl, aren’t ya?”

“I happen to be concerned about my mother’s mental health and what will happen to me if she has a breakdown. Apparently you aren’t. So just forget it. I’ll refurbish Poppa’s whole freaking house by myself!”

Photo credit: psarahtonen from morguefile.com 
I yank Rhys’s leash and storm off, tears burning my eyes. David promised to keep Mum out of this but has he? Heck, no. He talks a good game—It’s about time I had a go being the responsible one—but when push comes to shove, he’s back to being the coddled baby who expects Mum to take care of everything.

It’s the first I’ve run since track season ended, and soon I have to stop to catch my breath. Rhys plops in the grass beside me, smiling. He always loves a hearty sprint.

Poppa’s house is still a good ways off, but I notice, closer to me, a strange outbuilding on this side of a grove of trees. From the house, it’s not visible. I haltingly make my way toward it as my breathing slows.

If this place were a garage, you might fit a car and a half in it. Three of the sides have picture windows that are papered over from the inside. Rhys sniffs around the perimeter, leading me to a door that’s not only dead bolted, but also chained and padlocked. What’s with the high security? There has to be something very valuable or very dangerous in there. Possibly both.

My uncle huffs and puffs up behind me. “Would you,” pant, “please let me,” pant, “have a half minute,” pant “to respond?”

“What is this place?” I demand.

He holds up a finger, the “one moment” sign, and continues breathing hard.

Rhys scratches at the bottom of the door, like he smells a treat inside. My uncle says, “No,” and “Stop,” between rasping inhalations.

I lead Rhys away and walk him in a circle around my uncle. “Pot smoking does wreck your lungs,” I tease, “no matter what the pro-weed people say.”

“I just don’t happen to be young,” pant, “or an athlete,” he retorts.

 “I’m the slowest runner on our team. Luckily, you don’t need speed for high jump.”

“You know just how to cheer up an old guy, don’cha?” He pulls his sweaty shirt away from his stomach in a fanning motion. “I never meant to say I wouldn’t help ya, kiddo. You just sprang this deadline on me and I had to think it through.”

“Okay. Sorry. Mum’s done nothing but throw up roadblocks. I guess I heard you doing the same.”

“She’s got a certain comfort level with being Pop’s servant. Don’t expect her to start sticking up for herself anytime soon. Seems to me that’s another battle entirely.”

“So we fight for her.”

“I reckon we do. Let’s get back and see what wonders we can work today.” He gives a decisive clap and heads towards the house.

I stand there for a moment, confused. “But what about the—?” I call, pointing at the mysterious, locked building.

But my uncle is already out of earshot.

===

What are you working on these days?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Compulsion is a deep-seated need to do something, a belief that a particular action will make one's anxiety evaporate. More serious compulsions we label "OCD"--obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD sufferers need to wash their hands frequently to dispel their anxiety about germs, or flick light switches a certain number of times to keep the universe in harmony.

Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com
Most of us have less dramatic compulsions that surface in times of stress. "I'll be okay if I can just go for a run," says the exercise-compulsive. One of my good friends cooks and freezes huge portions of food when she's anxious. I tend to clean, organize, and rearrange the furniture. Having a neat environment makes me feel like life is under control.


There's a wonderful indie film that got me thinking more deeply about this: Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters Rose and Nora. These women are both struggling financially and learn that they could be making good money starting up their own business--cleaning up crime scenes.

What sort of person would be drawn to this work? It's grisly and just really, really gross. But as you learn Rose and Nora's backstory, it becomes clear that this is therapeutic work for them. They lost a loved one in a grisly manner when they were both quite young and have had difficulty moving on. Clearing away the evidence of painful loss for their clients cleans their own damaged souls.

If a different set of characters had been set in this scenario, I don't know that it would have worked as well. A socialite scrubbing gore off the walls would have been funnier--but less believable. What kept me gripped by the film was a desire to understand the underlying compulsion--the psychological need being met in this particular set of circumstances.

At one point, Rose is at a baby shower and has to explain her new business to a group of well-off young women who were high school friends. You couldn't ask for a more ironic juxtaposition, so I was bracing myself for things to go horribly, hilariously wrong. But the writer took a light touch, and in that moment we expect to writhe for Rose, she gives a wonderfully layered response to her friends' questions that's simultaneously sappy and deep.

"We're helping people," Rose says, "at a time when they are going through something profound. And we make things better."

When you can link an old wound with a new challenge, well, friends, you have the makings of deep, compelling drama. The trick is to match your protagonist and plot well.

Does your story's plot force your character to grapple with an old wound? If not, how might you better match protagonist and plot?
12:30 PM Laurel Garver
Compulsion is a deep-seated need to do something, a belief that a particular action will make one's anxiety evaporate. More serious compulsions we label "OCD"--obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD sufferers need to wash their hands frequently to dispel their anxiety about germs, or flick light switches a certain number of times to keep the universe in harmony.

Photo credit: mensatic from morguefile.com
Most of us have less dramatic compulsions that surface in times of stress. "I'll be okay if I can just go for a run," says the exercise-compulsive. One of my good friends cooks and freezes huge portions of food when she's anxious. I tend to clean, organize, and rearrange the furniture. Having a neat environment makes me feel like life is under control.


There's a wonderful indie film that got me thinking more deeply about this: Sunshine Cleaning, starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as sisters Rose and Nora. These women are both struggling financially and learn that they could be making good money starting up their own business--cleaning up crime scenes.

What sort of person would be drawn to this work? It's grisly and just really, really gross. But as you learn Rose and Nora's backstory, it becomes clear that this is therapeutic work for them. They lost a loved one in a grisly manner when they were both quite young and have had difficulty moving on. Clearing away the evidence of painful loss for their clients cleans their own damaged souls.

If a different set of characters had been set in this scenario, I don't know that it would have worked as well. A socialite scrubbing gore off the walls would have been funnier--but less believable. What kept me gripped by the film was a desire to understand the underlying compulsion--the psychological need being met in this particular set of circumstances.

At one point, Rose is at a baby shower and has to explain her new business to a group of well-off young women who were high school friends. You couldn't ask for a more ironic juxtaposition, so I was bracing myself for things to go horribly, hilariously wrong. But the writer took a light touch, and in that moment we expect to writhe for Rose, she gives a wonderfully layered response to her friends' questions that's simultaneously sappy and deep.

"We're helping people," Rose says, "at a time when they are going through something profound. And we make things better."

When you can link an old wound with a new challenge, well, friends, you have the makings of deep, compelling drama. The trick is to match your protagonist and plot well.

Does your story's plot force your character to grapple with an old wound? If not, how might you better match protagonist and plot?

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Too much of a good thing.... (photo by jycleaver, morguefile)
Dear Editor-on-Call,

I was just asked to beta read a piece from a very good writer friend and lo and behold, she is an overwriter. I am, too, to some extent, but this is excessive. Of course, I want to be gentle when I send this back, but if I was completely honest, I would be bleeding all over the page. Personally, I relish crits that I get back covered in red, because I see it as an awesome learning experience, but others are quite a bit more sensitive than I am. I'm worried that she is one of the sensitive ones. Egads, I don't know what to do here. Do you have any advice?

Sincerely,
Wannabe Gracious

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dear Gracious,

I've faced this issue before, too. And I'm a recovering overwriter myself. I'd suggest refraining from line editing the whole piece at this stage. General comments and especially questions will be more helpful to your friend, and less likely to wound. Something along the lines of "you have some very vivid descriptions here, and some that I think would feel stronger if you pared them back," then line edit a sentence to show what you mean. In areas where she describes the same thing six ways, try a margin question: which of these best captures your idea here? You can also recommend that she take a look at Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Manuscript Makeover, which will provide great guidance for the revision process.

Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity. Be sure to sandwich the idea of "you need to trim and simplify" with encouragement about what she does right: her characters are likeable, her emotions real, her humor funny, her plot attention-grabbing and the like. Overwriting is so often a sign of lack of confidence. Build her up in the right way, and she'll find the courage to trim.

Any other sage words for this advice-seeker? How do you typically approach critiquing an overwriter? 

Have an editing or revision question? Ask away. I'll tackle it in a future post.

7:00 AM Laurel Garver
Too much of a good thing.... (photo by jycleaver, morguefile)
Dear Editor-on-Call,

I was just asked to beta read a piece from a very good writer friend and lo and behold, she is an overwriter. I am, too, to some extent, but this is excessive. Of course, I want to be gentle when I send this back, but if I was completely honest, I would be bleeding all over the page. Personally, I relish crits that I get back covered in red, because I see it as an awesome learning experience, but others are quite a bit more sensitive than I am. I'm worried that she is one of the sensitive ones. Egads, I don't know what to do here. Do you have any advice?

Sincerely,
Wannabe Gracious

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dear Gracious,

I've faced this issue before, too. And I'm a recovering overwriter myself. I'd suggest refraining from line editing the whole piece at this stage. General comments and especially questions will be more helpful to your friend, and less likely to wound. Something along the lines of "you have some very vivid descriptions here, and some that I think would feel stronger if you pared them back," then line edit a sentence to show what you mean. In areas where she describes the same thing six ways, try a margin question: which of these best captures your idea here? You can also recommend that she take a look at Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Manuscript Makeover, which will provide great guidance for the revision process.

Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity. Be sure to sandwich the idea of "you need to trim and simplify" with encouragement about what she does right: her characters are likeable, her emotions real, her humor funny, her plot attention-grabbing and the like. Overwriting is so often a sign of lack of confidence. Build her up in the right way, and she'll find the courage to trim.

Any other sage words for this advice-seeker? How do you typically approach critiquing an overwriter? 

Have an editing or revision question? Ask away. I'll tackle it in a future post.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I'm a last born, which means I have a bit of a rebellious streak. I always like ideas best if I feel they aren't being forced on me by some authority figure. Who wants some bossy person breathing down your neck all the time?

Well, anyone who wants to get things accomplished. Having a rebellious streak not only gets you into scrapes with teachers, directors, managers, or other authorities, it also can keep you stuck in unproductive patterns.

Photo credit: vahiju from morguefile.com
Accountability to another party--not necessarily a bossy person, mind you--can keep you on track far more than going it alone. Why else would NaNoWriMo be such a popular program? Nothing is stopping you from picking any month you like, say January or July, to generate 50,000 words. What NaNo offers is a vast web of accountability, a mob of positive peer pressure to show up and do what you promised to show up and do.

Sadly, NaNo is only a month long. Some writers are able to maintain the relationships they develop then, others, shamed by failing to meet their goals, disengage.

I don't necessarily think we need more rigid programs to help with accountability, but I do believe all of us can benefit from having a someone or some group/team to whom we report about what we're up to.

Here are some ways to build an accountability structure.

Journal your progress

Sometimes you most need some visual reminder that you are showing up to write. When you hit a moment of self-loathing, you have a document you can hold in your hands to that proves you aren't actually a lazy slob. On days when you feel like you're spinning your wheels, you can see how far you've come and draw strength from it.

Roseanne Bane's Around the Writer's Block has some great advice about making commitments with yourself regarding process time (creative play) and product time (working on some aspect of research, drafting, revision, or marketing). As you mark your daily progress and see success with building a habit, she notes, the pleasure chemicals in your brain give you added reinforcement. You want to keep meeting goals and recording it. It feels great to succeed.

Seek social media accountability

I've found it helpful in distracted periods to declare my daily goal on Twitter, then check in again later in the day to report on my progress. Nothing like having your intentions exposed so publicly to make you eager to follow through.

Others use participate in "What's Up Wednesday" on their blogs to be accountable for progressing with projects (and to help them generate blog content and stay connected).


Have an accountability partner

A friend helped me get back into writing after years away by simply asking that I bring her pages each month when we met for coffee. She didn't care what I wrote, so long as I appeared with pages in hand. After a few meetings, I had the beginnings of a novel.

Participate in a writing group

A fact-to-face group can be a great place to build accountability, either for you to produce work or to be developing your craft in some way. I participate in a group to which I bring up to two chapters per month for critique. Others in the group prefer to distribute whole drafts outside of meeting times, using meetings to simply report how they are progressing, and offer fellow writers critiques. The group meetings are often boisterous as we get excited about each other's works in progress and toss around creative ideas to overcome plot holes or other snags in the process.

Perhaps a looser group, such a "Write in" session at a local cafe or library might be all you need. Once again, NaNoWriMo has a forum to join or create such a group.


Find a mentor

Mentoring is like a more intimate teacher/student relationship, in which a less experienced person seeks the guidance of a more experience person. No matter where you are in the journey, you can benefit from this sort of relationship either as a mentor or a protege (this is the once widely-used term from someone who is mentored, before consultants invented the goofy word "mentee" that sounds like someone who belongs in an asylum).

A mentor might function more like an accountability partner with some wisdom for you, or more like a teacher/coach who doles out assignments, cheers you on, and gives you constructive feedback about what you're doing well and where you need to improve.

Professional associations like SCBWI for children's writers offer formal mentoring programs. Or you could seek out connections at places like Query Tracker forums, WANA Tribe (the acronym stands for "we are not alone"), Nathan Bransford's forums, or as I mentioned earlier, NaNoWriMo forums.

You might even have some potential mentor material in your own back yard. Connect with a local chapter of your genre's professional association, take a continuing education class, visit book signings. The perfect person to guide you might be closer than you realize.

Do you have accountability in your writing life? What avenues might you try to get it?
7:00 AM Laurel Garver
I'm a last born, which means I have a bit of a rebellious streak. I always like ideas best if I feel they aren't being forced on me by some authority figure. Who wants some bossy person breathing down your neck all the time?

Well, anyone who wants to get things accomplished. Having a rebellious streak not only gets you into scrapes with teachers, directors, managers, or other authorities, it also can keep you stuck in unproductive patterns.

Photo credit: vahiju from morguefile.com
Accountability to another party--not necessarily a bossy person, mind you--can keep you on track far more than going it alone. Why else would NaNoWriMo be such a popular program? Nothing is stopping you from picking any month you like, say January or July, to generate 50,000 words. What NaNo offers is a vast web of accountability, a mob of positive peer pressure to show up and do what you promised to show up and do.

Sadly, NaNo is only a month long. Some writers are able to maintain the relationships they develop then, others, shamed by failing to meet their goals, disengage.

I don't necessarily think we need more rigid programs to help with accountability, but I do believe all of us can benefit from having a someone or some group/team to whom we report about what we're up to.

Here are some ways to build an accountability structure.

Journal your progress

Sometimes you most need some visual reminder that you are showing up to write. When you hit a moment of self-loathing, you have a document you can hold in your hands to that proves you aren't actually a lazy slob. On days when you feel like you're spinning your wheels, you can see how far you've come and draw strength from it.

Roseanne Bane's Around the Writer's Block has some great advice about making commitments with yourself regarding process time (creative play) and product time (working on some aspect of research, drafting, revision, or marketing). As you mark your daily progress and see success with building a habit, she notes, the pleasure chemicals in your brain give you added reinforcement. You want to keep meeting goals and recording it. It feels great to succeed.

Seek social media accountability

I've found it helpful in distracted periods to declare my daily goal on Twitter, then check in again later in the day to report on my progress. Nothing like having your intentions exposed so publicly to make you eager to follow through.

Others use participate in "What's Up Wednesday" on their blogs to be accountable for progressing with projects (and to help them generate blog content and stay connected).


Have an accountability partner

A friend helped me get back into writing after years away by simply asking that I bring her pages each month when we met for coffee. She didn't care what I wrote, so long as I appeared with pages in hand. After a few meetings, I had the beginnings of a novel.

Participate in a writing group

A fact-to-face group can be a great place to build accountability, either for you to produce work or to be developing your craft in some way. I participate in a group to which I bring up to two chapters per month for critique. Others in the group prefer to distribute whole drafts outside of meeting times, using meetings to simply report how they are progressing, and offer fellow writers critiques. The group meetings are often boisterous as we get excited about each other's works in progress and toss around creative ideas to overcome plot holes or other snags in the process.

Perhaps a looser group, such a "Write in" session at a local cafe or library might be all you need. Once again, NaNoWriMo has a forum to join or create such a group.


Find a mentor

Mentoring is like a more intimate teacher/student relationship, in which a less experienced person seeks the guidance of a more experience person. No matter where you are in the journey, you can benefit from this sort of relationship either as a mentor or a protege (this is the once widely-used term from someone who is mentored, before consultants invented the goofy word "mentee" that sounds like someone who belongs in an asylum).

A mentor might function more like an accountability partner with some wisdom for you, or more like a teacher/coach who doles out assignments, cheers you on, and gives you constructive feedback about what you're doing well and where you need to improve.

Professional associations like SCBWI for children's writers offer formal mentoring programs. Or you could seek out connections at places like Query Tracker forums, WANA Tribe (the acronym stands for "we are not alone"), Nathan Bransford's forums, or as I mentioned earlier, NaNoWriMo forums.

You might even have some potential mentor material in your own back yard. Connect with a local chapter of your genre's professional association, take a continuing education class, visit book signings. The perfect person to guide you might be closer than you realize.

Do you have accountability in your writing life? What avenues might you try to get it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Photo credit: infinitetrix from morguefile.com 
In a previous post, I shared some of my favorite resources for copy editing (line editing, sentence-level revision, call it what you will). Today I'd like to share two favorite resources for revision--the big-picture changes one makes once you have some material drafted.

Despite the order in which I'm talking about resources, revision should happen before copy editing, otherwise you'll waste a lot of effort on material you don't ultimately keep. Most of you are pretty savvy in these matters, but for any beginners, some clarity on that point seemed necessary.

Revision is what truly separates the amateurs from the pros. Even a middle schooler can do a quick edit and correct the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But it takes tremendous skill and indeed wisdom to evaluate what isn't working in a scene, chapter, section or character arc, then actually fix it. Here are two books that offer some great training.

Fiction First Aid


Raymond Obstfeld's gem Fiction First Aid is one I first discovered in my local library and quickly realized I needed to own. Using medical metaphors of  symptoms, ailments and treatments, he examines typical writing problems and their causes, then suggests a number of approaches to revise the problem away. Most sections have an application exercise he calls "physical therapy."

The first two chapters, on plot and characterization, take up nearly half the book. He covers everything from developing great plot structure and suspense to remedying predictable, cardboard, and unlikable characters. His examples are drawn from both books and film across many genres, which I found particularly helpful.

The middle chapters on setting and style can help you build a more compelling fictional world from the outside in. He helps you determine how much setting detail you need and how to better ground scenes without bogging down the story. The style section has great advice on finding a balance between bland or monotonous writing and overwritten purple prose.

I found  the theme chapter especially useful. Because so many English teachers theme us to death in high school, it can be tempting to tell yourself that theme is for dull classics of yesteryear. Obstfeld argues quite convincingly that ignoring theme can lead to pale, thin stories that don't stick with readers. To have a theme is to write a story that means something, that puts forward a sort of emotional and intellectual thesis, then proves it. His case study of the film Groundhog Day illustrates well what a theme is and how one operates in fiction.

Manuscript Makeover


Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover is a book I turn to again and again. Her approach is a rare mix of methodical and somewhat freewheeling creative. Every section ends with a checklist for revision that alone is totally worth the price of the book, it's so well organized and thorough.


Lyon opens with giant-picture items--the overall style and presentation of your story. How do feel when you read aloud? Is it captivating? Is it full of your deeper truth? She suggests a number of really helpful exercises to write more deeply in revision. Her concept of "riff writing" is revolutionary, because it challenges you to go broader and deeper, not simply cut, cut, cut when you revise.

Rather than simply clumping together disparate plot concerns, she divides plot issues over several chapters: whole-book structure (2 chapters), Movement and Suspense, and Time and Pace. Her concept of developing "mattering moments" is incredibly helpful for building well-paced plots.

Roughly a third of the book covers characterization concerns: Viewpoint, Character Dimension and Theme, Character-Driven Beginnings, Character-Driven Scenes and Suspense, and finally Character Personality and Voice. I found her information on voice--especially how to make characters sound unique from one another--quite revolutionary and paradigm-shifting.

The book wraps up with chapters on copy editing and querying manuscripts, with those fabulously helpful checklists I mentioned earlier.

Do you enjoy revision or dread it? Why?
7:00 AM Laurel Garver
Photo credit: infinitetrix from morguefile.com 
In a previous post, I shared some of my favorite resources for copy editing (line editing, sentence-level revision, call it what you will). Today I'd like to share two favorite resources for revision--the big-picture changes one makes once you have some material drafted.

Despite the order in which I'm talking about resources, revision should happen before copy editing, otherwise you'll waste a lot of effort on material you don't ultimately keep. Most of you are pretty savvy in these matters, but for any beginners, some clarity on that point seemed necessary.

Revision is what truly separates the amateurs from the pros. Even a middle schooler can do a quick edit and correct the grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But it takes tremendous skill and indeed wisdom to evaluate what isn't working in a scene, chapter, section or character arc, then actually fix it. Here are two books that offer some great training.

Fiction First Aid


Raymond Obstfeld's gem Fiction First Aid is one I first discovered in my local library and quickly realized I needed to own. Using medical metaphors of  symptoms, ailments and treatments, he examines typical writing problems and their causes, then suggests a number of approaches to revise the problem away. Most sections have an application exercise he calls "physical therapy."

The first two chapters, on plot and characterization, take up nearly half the book. He covers everything from developing great plot structure and suspense to remedying predictable, cardboard, and unlikable characters. His examples are drawn from both books and film across many genres, which I found particularly helpful.

The middle chapters on setting and style can help you build a more compelling fictional world from the outside in. He helps you determine how much setting detail you need and how to better ground scenes without bogging down the story. The style section has great advice on finding a balance between bland or monotonous writing and overwritten purple prose.

I found  the theme chapter especially useful. Because so many English teachers theme us to death in high school, it can be tempting to tell yourself that theme is for dull classics of yesteryear. Obstfeld argues quite convincingly that ignoring theme can lead to pale, thin stories that don't stick with readers. To have a theme is to write a story that means something, that puts forward a sort of emotional and intellectual thesis, then proves it. His case study of the film Groundhog Day illustrates well what a theme is and how one operates in fiction.

Manuscript Makeover


Elizabeth Lyon's Manuscript Makeover is a book I turn to again and again. Her approach is a rare mix of methodical and somewhat freewheeling creative. Every section ends with a checklist for revision that alone is totally worth the price of the book, it's so well organized and thorough.


Lyon opens with giant-picture items--the overall style and presentation of your story. How do feel when you read aloud? Is it captivating? Is it full of your deeper truth? She suggests a number of really helpful exercises to write more deeply in revision. Her concept of "riff writing" is revolutionary, because it challenges you to go broader and deeper, not simply cut, cut, cut when you revise.

Rather than simply clumping together disparate plot concerns, she divides plot issues over several chapters: whole-book structure (2 chapters), Movement and Suspense, and Time and Pace. Her concept of developing "mattering moments" is incredibly helpful for building well-paced plots.

Roughly a third of the book covers characterization concerns: Viewpoint, Character Dimension and Theme, Character-Driven Beginnings, Character-Driven Scenes and Suspense, and finally Character Personality and Voice. I found her information on voice--especially how to make characters sound unique from one another--quite revolutionary and paradigm-shifting.

The book wraps up with chapters on copy editing and querying manuscripts, with those fabulously helpful checklists I mentioned earlier.

Do you enjoy revision or dread it? Why?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

I've read far more books and blog posts about how to be productive than I can accurately count. So much of the advice sounds exactly the same: have a routine, commit to it, don't stop until you meet your goal, treat it like a job. These little tidbits sound great for just about anything other than creative work. Some people can approach writing like it's laundry or at worst, doing your taxes. It might be a bit tough at times, but any momentary qualms can be powered through.

Well, that's not how I'm wired. I set aside time to write, commit to it and...freeze at the keyboard. Or think of twenty other things I'd rather be doing. Or simply beat myself up for not being Shakespeare yesterday. And trying to dedicate more time? Well, it often only makes me more anxious.

Steven Pressfield came along and gave my affliction a label. He called it "resistance," and made it seem pretty normal. Anything you care about, he argues, will bring with it a certain level of fear. His book The War of Art goes into great detail about what resistance feels like and what causes it. His solutions to it, however, haven't borne much fruit for me. Yes, routine can help; silly rituals can help; taking yourself seriously as an artist can help.

But none of these things remove the anxiety factor for me. So when I stumbled across Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, I had to take a look. The author Rosanne Bane goes into a lot of detail about the brain science behind how anxiety derails creative control. To summarize, what writers need most is to develop habits that create a state of mental relaxation so that the fight-or-flight instinct doesn't make you want to leave your desk before you even type one word. And because of neuroplasticity (the brain's inherent capacity for change), new habits can actually cause lasting brain changes.

Photo credit: Maena from morguefile.com
The most powerfully different habit she advocates to be a productive writer?

Play.

You're probably thinking, "Whoa, what? If I want to be more productive, I need to play more? What is this, Opposite Day?"

Bane says writers need to build in a habit of doing something fun and nonproductive 3-5 days a week for any period you can easily commit to. Ten, fifteen or twenty minutes is fine. The point of this play commitment (what she calls "process time") is to retrain your brain toward a relaxed state. The neural pathways you are building will become stronger than the ones that link creative work with fear.

Frankly, I'm tired enough of tangling with my inner resistance to give it a try. Bane recommended coming up with a list for yourself of things you find relaxing and writing down what you are committing to.

My brain balked at this at first. It was surprisingly hard to actually remember what activities I once did for fun, years ago before I started focusing on novel-length writing. Digging through some boxes in storage refreshed my memory about the many hobbies and enthusiasms I once regularly enjoyed.

Here's my list:
play with my cats
play tin whistle
improvise on the piano
sing
do calligraphy
sketch
bake
scrapbook
do scherenschnitte, quilling, and other paper crafts
garden
take photos
make collages
play with magnetic poetry
play Wii

I've committed to fifteen minutes three times a week. Today I unearthed my Irish tin whistle and played a handful of tunes by ear, then worked in the garden. I can attest that my mood improved.

As I think back to the days when I wrote most prolifically (middle and high school), I also made space in my life for hobbies. Maybe hobbies are what enabled me to be on honor roll, work part time and be in band, choir, art club, and school newspaper while writing lots.

It's a theory worth experimenting with. Hey, at least I'll be having fun regularly.

Do you include play in your routine? What favorite activities might you give 45 minutes a week?

9:38 PM Laurel Garver
I've read far more books and blog posts about how to be productive than I can accurately count. So much of the advice sounds exactly the same: have a routine, commit to it, don't stop until you meet your goal, treat it like a job. These little tidbits sound great for just about anything other than creative work. Some people can approach writing like it's laundry or at worst, doing your taxes. It might be a bit tough at times, but any momentary qualms can be powered through.

Well, that's not how I'm wired. I set aside time to write, commit to it and...freeze at the keyboard. Or think of twenty other things I'd rather be doing. Or simply beat myself up for not being Shakespeare yesterday. And trying to dedicate more time? Well, it often only makes me more anxious.

Steven Pressfield came along and gave my affliction a label. He called it "resistance," and made it seem pretty normal. Anything you care about, he argues, will bring with it a certain level of fear. His book The War of Art goes into great detail about what resistance feels like and what causes it. His solutions to it, however, haven't borne much fruit for me. Yes, routine can help; silly rituals can help; taking yourself seriously as an artist can help.

But none of these things remove the anxiety factor for me. So when I stumbled across Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, I had to take a look. The author Rosanne Bane goes into a lot of detail about the brain science behind how anxiety derails creative control. To summarize, what writers need most is to develop habits that create a state of mental relaxation so that the fight-or-flight instinct doesn't make you want to leave your desk before you even type one word. And because of neuroplasticity (the brain's inherent capacity for change), new habits can actually cause lasting brain changes.

Photo credit: Maena from morguefile.com
The most powerfully different habit she advocates to be a productive writer?

Play.

You're probably thinking, "Whoa, what? If I want to be more productive, I need to play more? What is this, Opposite Day?"

Bane says writers need to build in a habit of doing something fun and nonproductive 3-5 days a week for any period you can easily commit to. Ten, fifteen or twenty minutes is fine. The point of this play commitment (what she calls "process time") is to retrain your brain toward a relaxed state. The neural pathways you are building will become stronger than the ones that link creative work with fear.

Frankly, I'm tired enough of tangling with my inner resistance to give it a try. Bane recommended coming up with a list for yourself of things you find relaxing and writing down what you are committing to.

My brain balked at this at first. It was surprisingly hard to actually remember what activities I once did for fun, years ago before I started focusing on novel-length writing. Digging through some boxes in storage refreshed my memory about the many hobbies and enthusiasms I once regularly enjoyed.

Here's my list:
play with my cats
play tin whistle
improvise on the piano
sing
do calligraphy
sketch
bake
scrapbook
do scherenschnitte, quilling, and other paper crafts
garden
take photos
make collages
play with magnetic poetry
play Wii

I've committed to fifteen minutes three times a week. Today I unearthed my Irish tin whistle and played a handful of tunes by ear, then worked in the garden. I can attest that my mood improved.

As I think back to the days when I wrote most prolifically (middle and high school), I also made space in my life for hobbies. Maybe hobbies are what enabled me to be on honor roll, work part time and be in band, choir, art club, and school newspaper while writing lots.

It's a theory worth experimenting with. Hey, at least I'll be having fun regularly.

Do you include play in your routine? What favorite activities might you give 45 minutes a week?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Because I'm an editor who writes, people frequently ask whether I edit my own work and if so, how.

Like most of you, I believe every writer should do some self-editing to ensure a piece is the best you can make it before seeking feedback from others. (I also believe that other eyes are essential, and that self-editing alone will generally not result in a manuscript that it is the best it can be. But that's a topic for another post.)

And like most of you, I also lean on expertise when I'm unsure of a rule: "when in doubt, look it up" is a core motto for editors everywhere. Below are a few favorite resources that I regularly turn to for help with micro issues--sentence-level editing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers


I sometimes call this book by Renni Browne and Dave King "a portable MFA." It offers some of the best insights I've come across to make your work not simply clean, but also polished and sophisticated. In fact, one of the most helpful chapters is titled "Sophistication." In it, Browne and King identify a handful of small changes that can make passages sound far more professional: avoiding "as" and "-ing" constructions (which place action at a remove from your reader), ferreting out weak verbs, paring back exclamation points and italics for emphasis, placing literary devices appropriately, and removing unnecessary repetition.

Their insights on proportion--giving actions, characters, devices, scenes only as much page time as is justified--are extremely helpful, especially when you're approaching revision and not sure where to start. When it comes to honing your narrative voice, the authors not only show how to improve, but also explain why some techniques are so effective. If you've always wanted to do deeper point-of-view writing but aren't quite sure how to pull it off, Browne and King's chapters on "Point of View," "Interior Monologue," "See How It Sounds," and "Characterization and Exposition" will guide you expertly.

Browne and King also cover some core revision concerns including show/tell balance, consistent point of view, and well paced dialogue.


Woe Is I


Subtitled "A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English," Patricia O'Conner's guide to basic grammar rules is, well, a lot more fun than you ever dreamed grammar could be. Her pun-filled chapter titles, like "Plurals Before Swine" and "Comma Sutra," lead chapters of no-nonsense advice full of funny examples and witty word play. Her special section called "mixed doubles" on homophones and other commonly switched pairings inspired my "Phonics Friday" series on homophone helps (which I hope are even a fraction as funny as O'Conner's chapter).

The material is grouped topically, though there's an excellent index if you need to find guidance on a particular grammar bugaboo. In addition to covering all the basics, from pronoun use, plurals, and possessives to verb tenses, modifiers, and punctuation, the book has several helpful chapters on frequently misused words and outdated grammar rules that need to be buried with that persnickety snob John Dryden and his ilk. And she clearly knows the sources of every outdated rule and why it needs to die--evidence aplenty to silence your uptight uncle who refuses to watch Star Trek because each episode opens with  Capt. Kirk saying "to boldly go" rather than "boldly to go" (the bogus split infinitive rule).

If you are a grammarphobe, this is one grammar book that will leave you giggling, not whimpering.



What resources have you found helpful for sentence-level editing?
5:39 PM Laurel Garver
Because I'm an editor who writes, people frequently ask whether I edit my own work and if so, how.

Like most of you, I believe every writer should do some self-editing to ensure a piece is the best you can make it before seeking feedback from others. (I also believe that other eyes are essential, and that self-editing alone will generally not result in a manuscript that it is the best it can be. But that's a topic for another post.)

And like most of you, I also lean on expertise when I'm unsure of a rule: "when in doubt, look it up" is a core motto for editors everywhere. Below are a few favorite resources that I regularly turn to for help with micro issues--sentence-level editing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers


I sometimes call this book by Renni Browne and Dave King "a portable MFA." It offers some of the best insights I've come across to make your work not simply clean, but also polished and sophisticated. In fact, one of the most helpful chapters is titled "Sophistication." In it, Browne and King identify a handful of small changes that can make passages sound far more professional: avoiding "as" and "-ing" constructions (which place action at a remove from your reader), ferreting out weak verbs, paring back exclamation points and italics for emphasis, placing literary devices appropriately, and removing unnecessary repetition.

Their insights on proportion--giving actions, characters, devices, scenes only as much page time as is justified--are extremely helpful, especially when you're approaching revision and not sure where to start. When it comes to honing your narrative voice, the authors not only show how to improve, but also explain why some techniques are so effective. If you've always wanted to do deeper point-of-view writing but aren't quite sure how to pull it off, Browne and King's chapters on "Point of View," "Interior Monologue," "See How It Sounds," and "Characterization and Exposition" will guide you expertly.

Browne and King also cover some core revision concerns including show/tell balance, consistent point of view, and well paced dialogue.


Woe Is I


Subtitled "A Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English," Patricia O'Conner's guide to basic grammar rules is, well, a lot more fun than you ever dreamed grammar could be. Her pun-filled chapter titles, like "Plurals Before Swine" and "Comma Sutra," lead chapters of no-nonsense advice full of funny examples and witty word play. Her special section called "mixed doubles" on homophones and other commonly switched pairings inspired my "Phonics Friday" series on homophone helps (which I hope are even a fraction as funny as O'Conner's chapter).

The material is grouped topically, though there's an excellent index if you need to find guidance on a particular grammar bugaboo. In addition to covering all the basics, from pronoun use, plurals, and possessives to verb tenses, modifiers, and punctuation, the book has several helpful chapters on frequently misused words and outdated grammar rules that need to be buried with that persnickety snob John Dryden and his ilk. And she clearly knows the sources of every outdated rule and why it needs to die--evidence aplenty to silence your uptight uncle who refuses to watch Star Trek because each episode opens with  Capt. Kirk saying "to boldly go" rather than "boldly to go" (the bogus split infinitive rule).

If you are a grammarphobe, this is one grammar book that will leave you giggling, not whimpering.



What resources have you found helpful for sentence-level editing?