Monday, November 30, 2009

True confessions: as a kid, I was a bit of a rebel when it came to reading. I come from a family of anti-sports book lovers. Our coffee table was always piled high with magazines. Long car trips usually meant a read-aloud trip to Narnia. Dad devoured historical fiction, especially Civil War stories. Mom loved a good mystery or character-driven mainstream story. My brother gobbled through adventure stories. Me? I preferred being out in the woods, building forts on the stream bank and imagining my own adventures.

In seventh grade, my reading teacher picked up on my rebellious reluctance to read and had a sixth sense about how pre-teens think. She called me over to her closet chock full of paperbacks one day with a "Psst. Come 'ere. I hear you take horseback riding lessons. I've got a little something you might like. Our little secret, though, okay?" She pointed me to a shelf of Walter Farely books and the addictive YA horse stories by Patsey Gray (whose stuff is now considered "rare" and "collectible").

It took just one of Grey's books to get me hooked. From there I devoured every horse book in my small-town library and even re-read the Narnia books on my own. It surprised me to no end how captivating Lewis was in my own internal voice rather than my mom's external one. Perhaps the magic was more sparkling when I didn't have the mind-numbing miles between Pennsylvania and my grandparents' place in western Montana as a soporific backdrop to the experience.

Were you a reader as a kid? What were the gateway books that drew you in to a lifetime habit of reading?
Monday, November 30, 2009 Laurel Garver
True confessions: as a kid, I was a bit of a rebel when it came to reading. I come from a family of anti-sports book lovers. Our coffee table was always piled high with magazines. Long car trips usually meant a read-aloud trip to Narnia. Dad devoured historical fiction, especially Civil War stories. Mom loved a good mystery or character-driven mainstream story. My brother gobbled through adventure stories. Me? I preferred being out in the woods, building forts on the stream bank and imagining my own adventures.

In seventh grade, my reading teacher picked up on my rebellious reluctance to read and had a sixth sense about how pre-teens think. She called me over to her closet chock full of paperbacks one day with a "Psst. Come 'ere. I hear you take horseback riding lessons. I've got a little something you might like. Our little secret, though, okay?" She pointed me to a shelf of Walter Farely books and the addictive YA horse stories by Patsey Gray (whose stuff is now considered "rare" and "collectible").

It took just one of Grey's books to get me hooked. From there I devoured every horse book in my small-town library and even re-read the Narnia books on my own. It surprised me to no end how captivating Lewis was in my own internal voice rather than my mom's external one. Perhaps the magic was more sparkling when I didn't have the mind-numbing miles between Pennsylvania and my grandparents' place in western Montana as a soporific backdrop to the experience.

Were you a reader as a kid? What were the gateway books that drew you in to a lifetime habit of reading?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Slang: do you love it? Hate it? Find you can't avoid it?

Using lots of slang can date your work, or at least your characters. That can be a slippery proposition in some genres. You can make it work for you, though. My title example, "cat's pajamas," comes from what era?

If you guessed the jazz age, you're right. Using old-timey slang in dialogue can be a fun way to suggest, for example, that Great-Granddad wasn't always a funny-smelling Jeopardy addict with dentures. Perhaps back in the day he was the popular guy every girl swooned over.

Slang can also suggest your character's ethnic background and class. How heavily you rely on it will, of course, depend on genre.

One of my favorite sites for slanging up scenes that involve British characters is the Peevish Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms Used in the United Kingdom (I also double-check with real people who live in Britain, just to be sure I'm on target). It's an especially useful site because it's searchable. Pop in a term like "crazy" and get useful results like "barmy," "nutter," "potty" and "totally hatstand." Even if you don't have British characters, it's an awfully entertaining site.

Do you use slang in your work? How? Any favorite sites you frequent to research it?
Friday, November 27, 2009 Laurel Garver
Slang: do you love it? Hate it? Find you can't avoid it?

Using lots of slang can date your work, or at least your characters. That can be a slippery proposition in some genres. You can make it work for you, though. My title example, "cat's pajamas," comes from what era?

If you guessed the jazz age, you're right. Using old-timey slang in dialogue can be a fun way to suggest, for example, that Great-Granddad wasn't always a funny-smelling Jeopardy addict with dentures. Perhaps back in the day he was the popular guy every girl swooned over.

Slang can also suggest your character's ethnic background and class. How heavily you rely on it will, of course, depend on genre.

One of my favorite sites for slanging up scenes that involve British characters is the Peevish Dictionary of Slang and Colloquialisms Used in the United Kingdom (I also double-check with real people who live in Britain, just to be sure I'm on target). It's an especially useful site because it's searchable. Pop in a term like "crazy" and get useful results like "barmy," "nutter," "potty" and "totally hatstand." Even if you don't have British characters, it's an awfully entertaining site.

Do you use slang in your work? How? Any favorite sites you frequent to research it?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sunday morning. I made my coffee palatable with ice cream, because we ran out of milk Saturday. A milk run was not top priority after a tiring day helping prep an apartment for a refugee family and trying to capture a stray kitten friends want to adopt. My husband returned from his jog. I finalized the "quick grocery run" list, called out my goodbyes.

"Don't go to the store," came a thin voice from upstairs. "I don't feel well."

I jogged up the steps. "Are you nauseous or something?"

My husband laid in bed with the laptop open, looking at cartoon chests. "It's my...I think it's my heart." He pointed to an image labeled "angina" and described the radiating pain, the sense of suffocation. I thought my eyeballs just might pop their sockets. He's only 40! I ran for the phone, called his doctor's office, worked through the endless menus until we got a live human, then handed over the phone. My husband described his symptoms to the doc-on-call and she urged him to take an aspirin and go to the ER.

After hustling our slow-moving 7-yo to dress and pack something to keep her occupied, we headed off to the hospital. In the next anxious hours, while my husband endured countless tests, I sat in the waiting room being as boringly normal as I could. I put finishing touches on my lesson for youth group that evening, admired C's drawing efforts and doled out snacks. I pushed the mute groans of prayer into the back of my head, off my face where they would terrify my child.

As the day progressed, we learned little of what had actually happened inside my husband's chest that morning. The "event" remained unlabeled. Cause, unknown. They would keep him overnight for observation. Run more and more and more tests.

Lunchtime was approaching. The milkless fridge at home called. My hubby would need an overnight bag packed and more things to read. So off we went, my daughter and I, to tend to the mundane. Food in the belly, groceries, clean socks and pajamas and toothpaste.

I'd forgotten how grueling the ordinary can seem. How anxiety can come not only from a health scare, but also from competing obligations and desires. How can I be the wife my husband needs and the mom my kid needs and the youth leader my teen girls need? And what of the lean, hungry lamb in me with her own needs, like hearing the voice of her shepherd, eating from his table every single week?

This strange mishmash of feelings I had to process opened my eyes to the many faces of courage. That at times it looks like asking the produce guy to check the storeroom for pomegranates because your kid needs to know you hear her, are for her, even though taking the time meant forgoing something I wanted (i.e. being with the youth group kids I adore). Later that evening, as we ate a quick bite in the hospital cafeteria, my daughter sang to herself as she assembled her tuna on rye. She felt safe. Wasn't worried.

And it hit me: this is what it feels like to walk in the shoes of my novel's antagonist, the mother my protagonist misreads again and again. Just because she won't publicly break down, it doesn't mean she doesn't feel every "barb and arrow of outrageous fortune." She has courage that looks like affect. Courage that's food in the belly, groceries, clean socks and pajamas and toothpaste.

Has life ever given you insight into your story's "bad guy"? How did it feel for you?
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 Laurel Garver
Sunday morning. I made my coffee palatable with ice cream, because we ran out of milk Saturday. A milk run was not top priority after a tiring day helping prep an apartment for a refugee family and trying to capture a stray kitten friends want to adopt. My husband returned from his jog. I finalized the "quick grocery run" list, called out my goodbyes.

"Don't go to the store," came a thin voice from upstairs. "I don't feel well."

I jogged up the steps. "Are you nauseous or something?"

My husband laid in bed with the laptop open, looking at cartoon chests. "It's my...I think it's my heart." He pointed to an image labeled "angina" and described the radiating pain, the sense of suffocation. I thought my eyeballs just might pop their sockets. He's only 40! I ran for the phone, called his doctor's office, worked through the endless menus until we got a live human, then handed over the phone. My husband described his symptoms to the doc-on-call and she urged him to take an aspirin and go to the ER.

After hustling our slow-moving 7-yo to dress and pack something to keep her occupied, we headed off to the hospital. In the next anxious hours, while my husband endured countless tests, I sat in the waiting room being as boringly normal as I could. I put finishing touches on my lesson for youth group that evening, admired C's drawing efforts and doled out snacks. I pushed the mute groans of prayer into the back of my head, off my face where they would terrify my child.

As the day progressed, we learned little of what had actually happened inside my husband's chest that morning. The "event" remained unlabeled. Cause, unknown. They would keep him overnight for observation. Run more and more and more tests.

Lunchtime was approaching. The milkless fridge at home called. My hubby would need an overnight bag packed and more things to read. So off we went, my daughter and I, to tend to the mundane. Food in the belly, groceries, clean socks and pajamas and toothpaste.

I'd forgotten how grueling the ordinary can seem. How anxiety can come not only from a health scare, but also from competing obligations and desires. How can I be the wife my husband needs and the mom my kid needs and the youth leader my teen girls need? And what of the lean, hungry lamb in me with her own needs, like hearing the voice of her shepherd, eating from his table every single week?

This strange mishmash of feelings I had to process opened my eyes to the many faces of courage. That at times it looks like asking the produce guy to check the storeroom for pomegranates because your kid needs to know you hear her, are for her, even though taking the time meant forgoing something I wanted (i.e. being with the youth group kids I adore). Later that evening, as we ate a quick bite in the hospital cafeteria, my daughter sang to herself as she assembled her tuna on rye. She felt safe. Wasn't worried.

And it hit me: this is what it feels like to walk in the shoes of my novel's antagonist, the mother my protagonist misreads again and again. Just because she won't publicly break down, it doesn't mean she doesn't feel every "barb and arrow of outrageous fortune." She has courage that looks like affect. Courage that's food in the belly, groceries, clean socks and pajamas and toothpaste.

Has life ever given you insight into your story's "bad guy"? How did it feel for you?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Occasionally my library runs will open up some fantastic new world, or in this case, a new continent. My penchant for titles with religious resonances (in the off chance I’ll find someone publishing work like mine) led me to works by some fabulous YA writers from Down Under. The colorful slang alone will make you love the Aussies.

I’ve included for review two Aussie YA books from my library. If you’ve come across other quality Aussie YA that’s now available in the US, please drop me a note in the comments.

Finding Grace by Alyssa Brugman

College freshman Rachel takes a job as a live-in caregiver for a brain-injured woman, Grace, with an elegant home, weirdo neighbors and greedy sisters. Rachel uncovers a box of Grace’s belongings that hints at unfinished business. She soon finds herself drawn into the mystery of this strange, silent woman she bathes, dresses and feeds like a doll.

Interspersed are Rachel’s escapades interacting with Grace’s family and neighbors, and trying to fit in and find love on campus. It’s an engaging and enjoyable read, LOL funny at places, touching at others. Brugman creates a sparkling narrative voice that I found delightful. She definitely piqued my interest in reading other Aussie authors.

I was a little disappointed that a few of the subplots were simply dropped at the end, but knowing the austere word-count limits of YA publishing, I wonder if the author was forced to cut.


The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It
by Lisa Shanahan

This novel’s wordy title, bubble-gum cover photo and weird back-cover blurb with unfamiliar slang like “chucking a birkett” has probably scared off many an American reader. Had I not been on the prowl for Aussie YA, I might have taken a pass on what proved to be one of very my favorite reads of 2009.

This story of a shy teen, Gemma, who finds her voice in theater is both hilarious and deeply touching. Amidst the moments of zany comedy (really far-out farce at times), there are some beautifully lyrical scenes. The romantic subplot with the boy from “the wrong side of the tracks” was exceptionally well done—subtle and thought-provoking. Through Gemma’s interactions with Raven, one of the notorious, thuggish DeHead boys, Shanahan explores the socio-economic divide and exposes how community prejudice makes it exceptionally hard for a kid from a "bad" family to rise above his upbringing.
Friday, November 20, 2009 Laurel Garver
Occasionally my library runs will open up some fantastic new world, or in this case, a new continent. My penchant for titles with religious resonances (in the off chance I’ll find someone publishing work like mine) led me to works by some fabulous YA writers from Down Under. The colorful slang alone will make you love the Aussies.

I’ve included for review two Aussie YA books from my library. If you’ve come across other quality Aussie YA that’s now available in the US, please drop me a note in the comments.

Finding Grace by Alyssa Brugman

College freshman Rachel takes a job as a live-in caregiver for a brain-injured woman, Grace, with an elegant home, weirdo neighbors and greedy sisters. Rachel uncovers a box of Grace’s belongings that hints at unfinished business. She soon finds herself drawn into the mystery of this strange, silent woman she bathes, dresses and feeds like a doll.

Interspersed are Rachel’s escapades interacting with Grace’s family and neighbors, and trying to fit in and find love on campus. It’s an engaging and enjoyable read, LOL funny at places, touching at others. Brugman creates a sparkling narrative voice that I found delightful. She definitely piqued my interest in reading other Aussie authors.

I was a little disappointed that a few of the subplots were simply dropped at the end, but knowing the austere word-count limits of YA publishing, I wonder if the author was forced to cut.


The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It
by Lisa Shanahan

This novel’s wordy title, bubble-gum cover photo and weird back-cover blurb with unfamiliar slang like “chucking a birkett” has probably scared off many an American reader. Had I not been on the prowl for Aussie YA, I might have taken a pass on what proved to be one of very my favorite reads of 2009.

This story of a shy teen, Gemma, who finds her voice in theater is both hilarious and deeply touching. Amidst the moments of zany comedy (really far-out farce at times), there are some beautifully lyrical scenes. The romantic subplot with the boy from “the wrong side of the tracks” was exceptionally well done—subtle and thought-provoking. Through Gemma’s interactions with Raven, one of the notorious, thuggish DeHead boys, Shanahan explores the socio-economic divide and exposes how community prejudice makes it exceptionally hard for a kid from a "bad" family to rise above his upbringing.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"I am a great surmiser, a bellows, blowing life into people and things, though they already have lives of their own."
--John Hazard. "Signage." South Dakota Review 46.4 (Winter 2008): 6.

One of the luscious perks of my job editing a scholarly journal is the freebie lit mags that arrive each season through a journal exchange program. I'm more apt to thumb through the latest issue of Ploughshares or The Southern Review, but the less prestigious journals like SDR have their gems as well (even if their production cycle is an entire year behind schedule).

I had to share the opening quote above, because I think it captures so well the storyteller brain at work. The more I write, the more I imagine stories everywhere: in every gum-chomping co-ed on the train platform, every bored security guard I pass (and now wave to), every clerk who rings up my purchases. The color of their umbrellas, condition of their fingernails, day-dreamy expressions suggest character traits and personal history. Before I know it, my brain has pumped fictional life into random strangers. I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing this phenomenon.

My question is, what do you do with it? I tend to see it as a harmless diversion most of the time, a way to pass the time waiting for the 8:03 to arrive. Have your people-watching fictions ever become something more? Do you jot them in a notebook? Turn them into whole stories?
Thursday, November 19, 2009 Laurel Garver
"I am a great surmiser, a bellows, blowing life into people and things, though they already have lives of their own."
--John Hazard. "Signage." South Dakota Review 46.4 (Winter 2008): 6.

One of the luscious perks of my job editing a scholarly journal is the freebie lit mags that arrive each season through a journal exchange program. I'm more apt to thumb through the latest issue of Ploughshares or The Southern Review, but the less prestigious journals like SDR have their gems as well (even if their production cycle is an entire year behind schedule).

I had to share the opening quote above, because I think it captures so well the storyteller brain at work. The more I write, the more I imagine stories everywhere: in every gum-chomping co-ed on the train platform, every bored security guard I pass (and now wave to), every clerk who rings up my purchases. The color of their umbrellas, condition of their fingernails, day-dreamy expressions suggest character traits and personal history. Before I know it, my brain has pumped fictional life into random strangers. I'm sure I'm not alone in experiencing this phenomenon.

My question is, what do you do with it? I tend to see it as a harmless diversion most of the time, a way to pass the time waiting for the 8:03 to arrive. Have your people-watching fictions ever become something more? Do you jot them in a notebook? Turn them into whole stories?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Yesterday, I hit a point revising when I felt I'm losing the love for the story. Does this ever happen to you?


It was time to recharge. Nothing does it for me like a library run (I'd love to say a bookstore run, but after replacing a water heater, well...bound paper treats will not be in the offing for a while). At times like this, I need some literary Oreos. Double stuffed. Something cute, light and cheerful, like this sweet YA romance, In Your Room (2008) by Jordanna Fraiberg.


The inventive premise hooked me: a teen boy and girl strike up a long-distance relationship when their families house-swap and they have to spend the summer in one another's rooms. Told from alternating points-of-view (limited third person) plus e-mail and IM exchanges, the story clips along at a nice pace. I liked especially how Molly develops over the course of the book. Her yearning to become a fashion designer moves from a secret passion to something she throws herself into as she works hard to develop her skills. Charlie's voice is well drawn, though we don't get quite the same level of detail about how he spends his summer or how it changes him.


There are hints throughout of deeper psychological issues: Molly's grieving her father's death 10 years prior and adjusting to her step-dad, Charlie's struggle to be real and honest with girls when he lives in a female-dominated world (a two-mom household with twin sisters). The potential to go deeply angsty was certainly there, but Fraiberg's lighter touch was a breath of fresh air for me, and a good reminder to look for opportunities to lighten up my own work a little.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 Laurel Garver

Yesterday, I hit a point revising when I felt I'm losing the love for the story. Does this ever happen to you?


It was time to recharge. Nothing does it for me like a library run (I'd love to say a bookstore run, but after replacing a water heater, well...bound paper treats will not be in the offing for a while). At times like this, I need some literary Oreos. Double stuffed. Something cute, light and cheerful, like this sweet YA romance, In Your Room (2008) by Jordanna Fraiberg.


The inventive premise hooked me: a teen boy and girl strike up a long-distance relationship when their families house-swap and they have to spend the summer in one another's rooms. Told from alternating points-of-view (limited third person) plus e-mail and IM exchanges, the story clips along at a nice pace. I liked especially how Molly develops over the course of the book. Her yearning to become a fashion designer moves from a secret passion to something she throws herself into as she works hard to develop her skills. Charlie's voice is well drawn, though we don't get quite the same level of detail about how he spends his summer or how it changes him.


There are hints throughout of deeper psychological issues: Molly's grieving her father's death 10 years prior and adjusting to her step-dad, Charlie's struggle to be real and honest with girls when he lives in a female-dominated world (a two-mom household with twin sisters). The potential to go deeply angsty was certainly there, but Fraiberg's lighter touch was a breath of fresh air for me, and a good reminder to look for opportunities to lighten up my own work a little.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I'm in the process of cutting 14,000 words out of my manuscript, which obviously requires more than simple line edits. Big, honking chunks must go: characters, subplots, dragging scenes, entire chapters. My main problems seem to be a story that started in the wrong place (so long, chapter 1!) and a saggy, draggy middle. But the solution isn't simply removing material--how simple that would be! Instead, I need to replace bloated sections with tightly-written, plot-moving NEW scenes.

Identifying problem areas was the first step. I bracketed a section of five chapters in which the scenes don't pull their weight. And then? KA-BOOM!

What do I mean by "Ka-boom"? Figurative TNT: I quickly dismantle a big section into components, some of which may still be usable. Like Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, I pick through an array of parts and sew together the strongest to create a new creature. Most often in my case it's settings/scenarios that stay, while the actions or actors or conversational tone or information revealed may need to change significantly. Zippy bits of dialogue and beautiful descriptions from otherwise plot-slowing scenes can find greater vitality when grafted into a new location.

Yes, revision sometimes requires "killing your darlings." Other times, it involves radical surgery or even "Frankensteining" (if I may stretch a strained metaphor) to give you darlings--and your work as a whole--health and vigor.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 Laurel Garver
I'm in the process of cutting 14,000 words out of my manuscript, which obviously requires more than simple line edits. Big, honking chunks must go: characters, subplots, dragging scenes, entire chapters. My main problems seem to be a story that started in the wrong place (so long, chapter 1!) and a saggy, draggy middle. But the solution isn't simply removing material--how simple that would be! Instead, I need to replace bloated sections with tightly-written, plot-moving NEW scenes.

Identifying problem areas was the first step. I bracketed a section of five chapters in which the scenes don't pull their weight. And then? KA-BOOM!

What do I mean by "Ka-boom"? Figurative TNT: I quickly dismantle a big section into components, some of which may still be usable. Like Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, I pick through an array of parts and sew together the strongest to create a new creature. Most often in my case it's settings/scenarios that stay, while the actions or actors or conversational tone or information revealed may need to change significantly. Zippy bits of dialogue and beautiful descriptions from otherwise plot-slowing scenes can find greater vitality when grafted into a new location.

Yes, revision sometimes requires "killing your darlings." Other times, it involves radical surgery or even "Frankensteining" (if I may stretch a strained metaphor) to give you darlings--and your work as a whole--health and vigor.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sometime this morning, after I'd squeezed in a shower and a couple loads of wash, we realized the water heater had sprung a huge leak. While my hubby shop-vacc'ed up 40 gallons of water and I called the plumber, I got thinking how so many of these home catastrophes strike without any warning whatsoever. Is there an extent to which it's okay to toss this sort of random breakdown disaster into a story without any foreshadowing? Is it realistic, lending verisimilitude, or artistically lazy, a deus ex machina sort of cheap trick?
Saturday, November 14, 2009 Laurel Garver
Sometime this morning, after I'd squeezed in a shower and a couple loads of wash, we realized the water heater had sprung a huge leak. While my hubby shop-vacc'ed up 40 gallons of water and I called the plumber, I got thinking how so many of these home catastrophes strike without any warning whatsoever. Is there an extent to which it's okay to toss this sort of random breakdown disaster into a story without any foreshadowing? Is it realistic, lending verisimilitude, or artistically lazy, a deus ex machina sort of cheap trick?

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Write what you know" sometimes spills into our approach to scene writing. We stick to the scene format that feels most comfortable to write, whether that's action, dialogue, description, narrative summary or internal monologue. This, my friends, is not good. Can we say "one trick pony"?

Have you picked up a book with too much dialogue and thought, "Would these people shut up already and DO something?" or read something that's action, action, action and felt completely exhausted within 10 pages? Presenting scene after scene in exactly the same manner can become tiresome to read. It can also hamstring your pacing. Tension that's never released tends to fizzle rather than build.

Self-editing for Fiction Writers delves into this particular problem well. The authors' remedy? Mix it up. Avoid putting the same scene format back-to-back. I'd say perhaps an exception would be when there's a chapter break.

Example time. I'm revising a chapter that opens with a dialogue scene. (And by golly am I entirely too addicted to dialogue scenes.) In it, the MC's grandfather drops a large family secret in her lap. Narrating the event would have sucked tension, so the dialogue is staying. My problem is the follow-up scene. What I can't do is more dialogue, at least not a scene that's driven by it. But alas, what I've drafted is indeed dialogue. My fix? Narrative summary. Not telling it in flashback, but reporting the event in story "real time" (in my case, first person present). I also plan to include some action here to pick up the pace. If I wanted to slow the pace, my best option would be an interior monologue section. Slower yet? Interior monologue with flashbacks.

Narrative summary doesn't come naturally for me. But craft trumps comfort. The more I bang away at it, read writers who do it well, the more the scenes flow.

So, my friends, get out the carrot or the whip, but by golly, teach that pony some new tricks.
Friday, November 13, 2009 Laurel Garver
"Write what you know" sometimes spills into our approach to scene writing. We stick to the scene format that feels most comfortable to write, whether that's action, dialogue, description, narrative summary or internal monologue. This, my friends, is not good. Can we say "one trick pony"?

Have you picked up a book with too much dialogue and thought, "Would these people shut up already and DO something?" or read something that's action, action, action and felt completely exhausted within 10 pages? Presenting scene after scene in exactly the same manner can become tiresome to read. It can also hamstring your pacing. Tension that's never released tends to fizzle rather than build.

Self-editing for Fiction Writers delves into this particular problem well. The authors' remedy? Mix it up. Avoid putting the same scene format back-to-back. I'd say perhaps an exception would be when there's a chapter break.

Example time. I'm revising a chapter that opens with a dialogue scene. (And by golly am I entirely too addicted to dialogue scenes.) In it, the MC's grandfather drops a large family secret in her lap. Narrating the event would have sucked tension, so the dialogue is staying. My problem is the follow-up scene. What I can't do is more dialogue, at least not a scene that's driven by it. But alas, what I've drafted is indeed dialogue. My fix? Narrative summary. Not telling it in flashback, but reporting the event in story "real time" (in my case, first person present). I also plan to include some action here to pick up the pace. If I wanted to slow the pace, my best option would be an interior monologue section. Slower yet? Interior monologue with flashbacks.

Narrative summary doesn't come naturally for me. But craft trumps comfort. The more I bang away at it, read writers who do it well, the more the scenes flow.

So, my friends, get out the carrot or the whip, but by golly, teach that pony some new tricks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm a bit burned out on revisions after several days of long slog, so I thought for fun I'd dig out something completely different to blog about. A poem. An old poem written during my brief career in the MA English/Creative writing program at Michigan State, polished and published a few years later.

Not Quite Away

Yesterday
all my troubles seemed so far
across the street my best friend
or close enough stepped on her
gerbil squish
She was walking it on a leash
like a dog pretty dumb I think
probably she'd forgot everything else and
burst into Tomorrow
I love ya tomorrow you're
only a day
around the block
the Bartelli boys who like to stick
crawly things into people's lunches
bought the guts for 50 ¢ &
2 red rubber bands & a swirly
marble all stuffed into
her hand too late for me
to yell cooties she smiled toothy
and wiped scritch scratch
her bloody shoe in the grass

© 1996 About Such Things

As you might guess, I was experimenting on a number of fronts here: interpolating song lyrics, breathless stream-of-consciousness style, tone/subject dissonance and finally voice. You could say my choice was somewhat in reaction to the mop-pushing megalomaniac in my poetry class who loved to use allusions to the Gilgamesh epic, among other pretensions. Ugh. Being around him made me want to write real, to get past all the grad school trying-to-sound-important BS. What could be less important-sounding than some silly kid story? So that's what I did. I worked from of a true childhood tale a high school friend had shared about one of her neighbors who thought it would be fun to walk her hamster on a leash, then inadvertently killed it. I vaguely recall that money had been exchanged to use the rodent remains for some ghoulish purpose.

My initial inclination for telling this had been to take a knowing tone, looking on this scenario with adult eyes. But it felt entirely wrong. I realized that if I was going to be true to this story, I needed to enter into the child world--seeing the neighbor girl as the kid I imagined she was, impulsive and apt to burst into song. I mined memories for details, like what the truly evil kids did for fun. Instead of 30 pieces of silver, the beloved pet is sold off for kid treasures--the sorts of things I admired in my parents' desk drawers, on my siblings' closet floors. By using onomatopoetic words, I tried make the gore concrete but not sensationalized.

It's an interesting escape, to dip into your well of memories, to set cynicism aside and speak again as a child.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 Laurel Garver
I'm a bit burned out on revisions after several days of long slog, so I thought for fun I'd dig out something completely different to blog about. A poem. An old poem written during my brief career in the MA English/Creative writing program at Michigan State, polished and published a few years later.

Not Quite Away

Yesterday
all my troubles seemed so far
across the street my best friend
or close enough stepped on her
gerbil squish
She was walking it on a leash
like a dog pretty dumb I think
probably she'd forgot everything else and
burst into Tomorrow
I love ya tomorrow you're
only a day
around the block
the Bartelli boys who like to stick
crawly things into people's lunches
bought the guts for 50 ¢ &
2 red rubber bands & a swirly
marble all stuffed into
her hand too late for me
to yell cooties she smiled toothy
and wiped scritch scratch
her bloody shoe in the grass

© 1996 About Such Things

As you might guess, I was experimenting on a number of fronts here: interpolating song lyrics, breathless stream-of-consciousness style, tone/subject dissonance and finally voice. You could say my choice was somewhat in reaction to the mop-pushing megalomaniac in my poetry class who loved to use allusions to the Gilgamesh epic, among other pretensions. Ugh. Being around him made me want to write real, to get past all the grad school trying-to-sound-important BS. What could be less important-sounding than some silly kid story? So that's what I did. I worked from of a true childhood tale a high school friend had shared about one of her neighbors who thought it would be fun to walk her hamster on a leash, then inadvertently killed it. I vaguely recall that money had been exchanged to use the rodent remains for some ghoulish purpose.

My initial inclination for telling this had been to take a knowing tone, looking on this scenario with adult eyes. But it felt entirely wrong. I realized that if I was going to be true to this story, I needed to enter into the child world--seeing the neighbor girl as the kid I imagined she was, impulsive and apt to burst into song. I mined memories for details, like what the truly evil kids did for fun. Instead of 30 pieces of silver, the beloved pet is sold off for kid treasures--the sorts of things I admired in my parents' desk drawers, on my siblings' closet floors. By using onomatopoetic words, I tried make the gore concrete but not sensationalized.

It's an interesting escape, to dip into your well of memories, to set cynicism aside and speak again as a child.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In writing early drafts, even plodders tend to skim the emotional surface of their scenes. One's initial focus is on pushing the plot forward and grasping the first burst of emotional play in character interactions. Usually one can retain the protagonist's core motivation (what Sandra Scofield calls the "pulse") as other characters interact with her. That's fine as far as it goes. But when you start passing your draft around for critique, expect your readers to find your protagonist flat and unrealistically single-minded. Because when are any of us of one mind about anything? Emotion is always a mixed bag. Always.

This is where revision comes to the rescue. On second draft, it's essential to go deeper in every scene. Look especially for places where you or your critique partners feel the emotion isn't quite what it could or should be. The reactions are flat, melodramatic or don't ring true in some way. Mark and label them, then set the manuscript aside.

Now pull out those character profiles you made while laying the groundwork of your first draft. Look at you character's back story, and identify her core values--things she stands for--and her deepest fears. Usually these things are connected. Always-poised characters, for example, often have some point of shame in their background. They value reputation and fear exposure. These drives will color every interaction in a story, even if only tangentially.

From these character sheets, brainstorm past the surface desire/motivation in the scene you need to revise. In a scene I'm currently revising, my character wants to keep a secret from a friend. But what else does she want? Well, she wants to maintain the friendship, to reassure her friend, to have her friend's support and love and acceptance. Immediately, I see inner turmoil for my protagonist--conflicting desires to conceal and reveal. Her back story will determine which desire takes precedence. In my protagonist's case, concealment is all that's ever been modeled in her family.

What about the friend? She wants information, wants the protagonist to open up, wants to be trusted, wants the protagonist to be free of hang-ups, wants the protagonist to stop game playing. Her back story as an extrovert ringleader in a boisterous family of six kids will make her more likely to push hard against the protagonist's reticence. She'll thus struggle with conflicting desires to know NOW and to reassure/support with gentleness.

Back to the manuscript. Look at those weak spots again. Where could the characters' mixed motives and mixed emotions express themselves? And how would they express themselves?
Nancy Kress's book Character, Emotion and Viewpoint notes some helpful techniques.

Show
-bodily reactions (muscles tightening, tears welling, etc.)
-actions (punching the wall, tidying a mess, high-fiving, etc.)
-dialogue that expresses the emotion without labeling it ("Hotdiggity! That's awesome!" rather than "I feel so excited for you, Jim.")
-character thoughts rendered like internal dialogue (expressing emotion rather than labeling it, but without the quotes)
-snippets of back story that shed light on the character's emotion or motivation

In the case of mixed emotion and conflicting motives, it's a matter of layering techniques. A character might inwardly cringe while outwardly acting nonchalant. He might say something supportive while his body reacts with anger, like clenched fists or a surge of heat.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 Laurel Garver
In writing early drafts, even plodders tend to skim the emotional surface of their scenes. One's initial focus is on pushing the plot forward and grasping the first burst of emotional play in character interactions. Usually one can retain the protagonist's core motivation (what Sandra Scofield calls the "pulse") as other characters interact with her. That's fine as far as it goes. But when you start passing your draft around for critique, expect your readers to find your protagonist flat and unrealistically single-minded. Because when are any of us of one mind about anything? Emotion is always a mixed bag. Always.

This is where revision comes to the rescue. On second draft, it's essential to go deeper in every scene. Look especially for places where you or your critique partners feel the emotion isn't quite what it could or should be. The reactions are flat, melodramatic or don't ring true in some way. Mark and label them, then set the manuscript aside.

Now pull out those character profiles you made while laying the groundwork of your first draft. Look at you character's back story, and identify her core values--things she stands for--and her deepest fears. Usually these things are connected. Always-poised characters, for example, often have some point of shame in their background. They value reputation and fear exposure. These drives will color every interaction in a story, even if only tangentially.

From these character sheets, brainstorm past the surface desire/motivation in the scene you need to revise. In a scene I'm currently revising, my character wants to keep a secret from a friend. But what else does she want? Well, she wants to maintain the friendship, to reassure her friend, to have her friend's support and love and acceptance. Immediately, I see inner turmoil for my protagonist--conflicting desires to conceal and reveal. Her back story will determine which desire takes precedence. In my protagonist's case, concealment is all that's ever been modeled in her family.

What about the friend? She wants information, wants the protagonist to open up, wants to be trusted, wants the protagonist to be free of hang-ups, wants the protagonist to stop game playing. Her back story as an extrovert ringleader in a boisterous family of six kids will make her more likely to push hard against the protagonist's reticence. She'll thus struggle with conflicting desires to know NOW and to reassure/support with gentleness.

Back to the manuscript. Look at those weak spots again. Where could the characters' mixed motives and mixed emotions express themselves? And how would they express themselves?
Nancy Kress's book Character, Emotion and Viewpoint notes some helpful techniques.

Show
-bodily reactions (muscles tightening, tears welling, etc.)
-actions (punching the wall, tidying a mess, high-fiving, etc.)
-dialogue that expresses the emotion without labeling it ("Hotdiggity! That's awesome!" rather than "I feel so excited for you, Jim.")
-character thoughts rendered like internal dialogue (expressing emotion rather than labeling it, but without the quotes)
-snippets of back story that shed light on the character's emotion or motivation

In the case of mixed emotion and conflicting motives, it's a matter of layering techniques. A character might inwardly cringe while outwardly acting nonchalant. He might say something supportive while his body reacts with anger, like clenched fists or a surge of heat.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Literary agent Anna Webman of Curtis Brown Ltd. will be judging a contest on the Query Tracker Blog this coming week. She wants to see the first five pages plus a synopsis of your YA novel. This contest is for completed Young Adult novels only. (All the genres that fall under the YA umbrella.)

The contest will open tomorrow, November 10th, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (6:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.)You will need to submit your first five pages AND a single-spaced one-page synopsis. Submissions will be accepted through the official form on the QT main site ONLY. Only one entry per person will be accepted. Only the first 70 entries will be accepted.
For more information about the contest, visit the QueryTracker Blog.

If you have a manuscript ready to market, the race is on to be one of those 70. Good luck!
Monday, November 09, 2009 Laurel Garver
Literary agent Anna Webman of Curtis Brown Ltd. will be judging a contest on the Query Tracker Blog this coming week. She wants to see the first five pages plus a synopsis of your YA novel. This contest is for completed Young Adult novels only. (All the genres that fall under the YA umbrella.)

The contest will open tomorrow, November 10th, at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (6:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.)You will need to submit your first five pages AND a single-spaced one-page synopsis. Submissions will be accepted through the official form on the QT main site ONLY. Only one entry per person will be accepted. Only the first 70 entries will be accepted.
For more information about the contest, visit the QueryTracker Blog.

If you have a manuscript ready to market, the race is on to be one of those 70. Good luck!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Last night, we took our small person to meet some favorite authors at kid lit event in Haverford. This place was so packed, we could barely squeeze in the door. This is the sort of scenario I usually avoid like the ebola ward. But to my great delight, one of the first faces I saw was the newest addition to Milestones Critique Circle, Kathye. She gave me a huge hug and promptly marched us directly to her friend, Judy Schachner, author/illustrator of the delightful Skippyjon Jones books. While C. watched in wide-eyed awe, Judy whipped up a quick sketch of her story's protagonist and signed with a flourish. When we pulled out a somewhat dog-eared, well loved older title, Judy graciously did the same. After whispering her thanks, C. nipped into a corner of the store, layed open the custom-signed pages and savored these special drawings made just for her.

Our early success, thanks to Kathye, gave us the extra courage to press through the crowd in search of two-time Caldecott medalist David Weisner. He adorned C.'s copy of Sector 7 with a cute anthropomorphized cloud that greeted her. More wide eyes and wows.

A couple lessons really hit home in this experience. First, exploring the webs of relationships around you will lead to good things. And second, if put yourself out there just a little, the rewards snowball. I got to have this wonderful experience with my kid because I attended a $10 writer's workshop offered by a local magazine last summer (which someone in my church network had alerted me to). There I met the Milestones Critique Circle coordinator, who invited me to visit the group. I nervously went, and found surprising welcome there. Meeting Kathye, and through her, Judy Schachner, is only the beginning of the good things to be found knowing these great women, I'm sure. In time, my webs of relationships may prove useful to them, too.

I know most of us who write are introverts and a bit neurotic. I carry the additional baggage of being the "pesky" youngest of five kids. Believe me when I say putting myself out there to connect with other writers feels like returning to the junior high cafeteria with my shoelaces tied together. It's important to remember that most other writers feel exactly the same. So mumble that hello and see where it leads.
Saturday, November 07, 2009 Laurel Garver
Last night, we took our small person to meet some favorite authors at kid lit event in Haverford. This place was so packed, we could barely squeeze in the door. This is the sort of scenario I usually avoid like the ebola ward. But to my great delight, one of the first faces I saw was the newest addition to Milestones Critique Circle, Kathye. She gave me a huge hug and promptly marched us directly to her friend, Judy Schachner, author/illustrator of the delightful Skippyjon Jones books. While C. watched in wide-eyed awe, Judy whipped up a quick sketch of her story's protagonist and signed with a flourish. When we pulled out a somewhat dog-eared, well loved older title, Judy graciously did the same. After whispering her thanks, C. nipped into a corner of the store, layed open the custom-signed pages and savored these special drawings made just for her.

Our early success, thanks to Kathye, gave us the extra courage to press through the crowd in search of two-time Caldecott medalist David Weisner. He adorned C.'s copy of Sector 7 with a cute anthropomorphized cloud that greeted her. More wide eyes and wows.

A couple lessons really hit home in this experience. First, exploring the webs of relationships around you will lead to good things. And second, if put yourself out there just a little, the rewards snowball. I got to have this wonderful experience with my kid because I attended a $10 writer's workshop offered by a local magazine last summer (which someone in my church network had alerted me to). There I met the Milestones Critique Circle coordinator, who invited me to visit the group. I nervously went, and found surprising welcome there. Meeting Kathye, and through her, Judy Schachner, is only the beginning of the good things to be found knowing these great women, I'm sure. In time, my webs of relationships may prove useful to them, too.

I know most of us who write are introverts and a bit neurotic. I carry the additional baggage of being the "pesky" youngest of five kids. Believe me when I say putting myself out there to connect with other writers feels like returning to the junior high cafeteria with my shoelaces tied together. It's important to remember that most other writers feel exactly the same. So mumble that hello and see where it leads.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Thanks to the SEPTA strike, my hubby and I will not be taking a group of his college students via subway to First Friday in Philly's Old City gallery district tonight. Instead, we'll be bringing our cute 7-yo to meet her favorite authors, Judy Schachter and David Weisner, at a fabulous children's lit event in Haverford. I also hope to meet the elusive Jennifer Hubbard, who's part of a children's/YA critique group I started attending in August.


Children's Book World in Haverford hosts this event for Philly-area authors and illustrators each year. If you write for kids or teens, this is a great networking event. Or if you happen to have avid young readers in your home, bring them out to meet real, live creative folks who make their world so much more vibrant.


Friday, November 06, 2009 Laurel Garver

Thanks to the SEPTA strike, my hubby and I will not be taking a group of his college students via subway to First Friday in Philly's Old City gallery district tonight. Instead, we'll be bringing our cute 7-yo to meet her favorite authors, Judy Schachter and David Weisner, at a fabulous children's lit event in Haverford. I also hope to meet the elusive Jennifer Hubbard, who's part of a children's/YA critique group I started attending in August.


Children's Book World in Haverford hosts this event for Philly-area authors and illustrators each year. If you write for kids or teens, this is a great networking event. Or if you happen to have avid young readers in your home, bring them out to meet real, live creative folks who make their world so much more vibrant.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Revision is my thing. I work as an editor, after all. Give me a stack of pages and a pen and I'm happy as a clam. But put me in front of a blank screen? Ai-yi-yi.

As a result of my blank screen dread, I do most of my rough drafting in those el-cheapo spiral notebooks you can get 10 for $1 at a grocery store back-to-school sale. The el-cheapo factor seems to cry for messy lists, half-baked plot ideas, random musings that may or may not end up working their way into usable prose. The downside of this dubious system is that I sometimes spend as much time trying to find a nugget as I spent writing it in the first place. Time stealer=bad news for this working mom trying to squeeze in some writing.

I know I need to get over this blank screen phobia, and pronto. One of my critique group friends recommends a software solution, this program called "Write or Die" that monitors how many words you churn out in a given timeframe. Pause too long, produce too little and it metes out punishments (the user can select the level of severity). This sounds kind of big-guns to me. Punative systems, like praise-averse bosses, tend to make me less productive.

Instead, I figured I'd set up a simple experiment and reward myself with library book time/Netflix with spouse if it worked. I had to write raw for 40 minutes. Raw AND autobiographical, the two things that really make me squirm.

It was a pretty successful experiment. I not only filled two pages, but tapped into a powerful memory from my teen years that will make a decent short story if I keep going with it. Take that, stupid phobia!
Wednesday, November 04, 2009 Laurel Garver
Revision is my thing. I work as an editor, after all. Give me a stack of pages and a pen and I'm happy as a clam. But put me in front of a blank screen? Ai-yi-yi.

As a result of my blank screen dread, I do most of my rough drafting in those el-cheapo spiral notebooks you can get 10 for $1 at a grocery store back-to-school sale. The el-cheapo factor seems to cry for messy lists, half-baked plot ideas, random musings that may or may not end up working their way into usable prose. The downside of this dubious system is that I sometimes spend as much time trying to find a nugget as I spent writing it in the first place. Time stealer=bad news for this working mom trying to squeeze in some writing.

I know I need to get over this blank screen phobia, and pronto. One of my critique group friends recommends a software solution, this program called "Write or Die" that monitors how many words you churn out in a given timeframe. Pause too long, produce too little and it metes out punishments (the user can select the level of severity). This sounds kind of big-guns to me. Punative systems, like praise-averse bosses, tend to make me less productive.

Instead, I figured I'd set up a simple experiment and reward myself with library book time/Netflix with spouse if it worked. I had to write raw for 40 minutes. Raw AND autobiographical, the two things that really make me squirm.

It was a pretty successful experiment. I not only filled two pages, but tapped into a powerful memory from my teen years that will make a decent short story if I keep going with it. Take that, stupid phobia!