Thursday, October 28, 2010

"I Was So Embarrassed, I Could Just..."

Feelings are much like waves, we can't stop them from coming but we can choose which one to surf. --Jonatan Martensson
I was so embarrassed once...once? I've been embarrassed more times than I care to remember. There was the time in junior high when I was scheduled to give an oral report right after lunch but spilled juice on my skirt during that lunch. Oh, the dark blotch, the snickers, the finger pointing. Want the floor to open up and swallow you...?

And the time, many years later when I was a chaperone for a youth group on a trip to Washington D.C. and sported a brand-new camera. There I was, standing in awe in the middle of our nation's National Archives building, surrounded by twenty-some teenagers (for whom I was to be an example) and as many signs that practically shouted, NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY. And, with this being a new camera and all, I thought the flash was off when I aimed to take a picture...and of course it wasn't. I can still feel the breath of the guard who was there in a nanosecond, and hear his reprimand. The color in my face didn't come back until we were sitting in the dark of Ford's Theater several blocks away...

Then there was the time...oh, I think that's enough!

Embarrassment. An emotion of the third level according to, right under sadness and neglect. Robert Plutchik, Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions, named what he saw as eight basic emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. However, if you count through all the first, second, and third tiers, you come up with close to one hundred emotion variations.

Portraying a character's emotions following the cardinal rule, "show, don't tell," is one of a writer's greatest challenges. If you say, "She was embarrassed," you've told how she felt, but give readers no emotional anchor to hold on to that helps them care. But if, for example, you say, "She slipped, fell, and smacked her face hard against the dirty tile outside the chemistry lab just as her ex-boyfriend rounded the corner" (ahem, sad to say, another true story), you're more apt to catch their attention.

I was reminded of all this when I learned that the children's magazine Highlights for Children is sponsoring a contest, "Fiction Involving an Embarrassing Moment." All entries must be postmarked between January 1 and 31, 2011 (details here). I think I'll take a short detour from my WIP and play around with the idea for a couple of days. I need the exercise. Maybe with a little practice I won't fall on my face?

How are you doing in your attempts to show emotion, not tell, in your stories? Have you drawn inspiration from a real life moment? Maybe you could try your hand at the Highlights contest, too.

Friday, October 22, 2010

On a Quest to Find Just the Right Word

Today was a day of fighting with words. And believe me, it was a struggle. A battle. Words--those just-right ones, ones best for the thought, those that would convey on paper what I pictured in my head--proved elusive. In scene, emotion, dialogue. They just wouldn't come. Maybe I need a few days reprieve. Oh, yes--it's the weekend. I'll take the break!

 But I'll also take comfort in knowing that most writers have such days.

Yet, along with the problems, the fits and starts, I was reminded of just how important it is to find that right word. How important it is to not settle for a close-second. Maybe I should just put things aside for a few days. The reminder came in this little ditty that I ran across. It comes from David Carroll's A Manual of Writer's Tricks:

Call a woman a kitten, but never a cat;
You can call her a mouse, cannot call her a rat;
Call a woman a chick, but never a hen;
Or you surely will not be her caller again.

You can call her a duck, cannot call her a goose;
You can call her a deer, but never a moose;
You can call her a lamb, but never a sheep;
Economic she likes, but you can't call her cheap.

Ha! There we go. It's that important. What do you think? Been struggling with just the right word, too?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Moments of Inspiration

The past week, for me, was filled with the study of story, the writing of story, fall walks, camera shots--and inspirational moments that can come from a mix of it all. Here's a peek at what I gathered.

"An author must learn the principles of good storytelling only in order to write better from the heart." --Uri Shulevitz

"Imagination needs noodling--long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering." --Brenda Useland

"I think you must remember that a writer is a simple-minded person to begin with and go on that basis. He's not a great mind, he's not a great thinker, he's not a great philosopher, he's a story-teller." --Erskine Caldwell

"Moving around is good for creativity: the next line of dialogue that you desperately need may be waiting in the back of the refrigerator or half a mile along your favorite walk." --Will Shetterly

"Any work of art must first of all tell a story." --Robert Frost

"Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." --Albert Einstein

Wishing you beauty and inspiration in the week ahead...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Case For Reading Your Writing Out Loud

In conversation you can use timing, a look, an inflection. But on the page all you have is commas, dashes, the amount of syllables in a word. When I write, I read everything out loud to get the right rhythm. --Fran Lebowitz

photo source: GeekPhilosopher
What I think I hear in my head when I'm writing is different than what my ears hear when I read my work aloud--something I was reminded of today. Whoa. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. In the writer's craft, reading your work aloud is a key revision technique. But I realize I've neglected the process. And sad to say, my work shows it. Some parts sound out of tune--and are missing rhythm.

Note to self: Read. Your. Work. Out. Loud.

The mind, you know, is a funny thing. In it, your scenes march by in great order--the inciting incident in the first chapter through the conflict, story arc and struggle of the middle, all the way to the climax, resolution and (hopefully) satisfying conclusion at the end. You can visualize it, like a band as it marches across the football field at half time. Awesome movie reel running.

But then you pick up a page, begin to read, and actually hear the words--and it's like the tuba player has run into the clarinet player who knocks over the drum major. And the whole things comes to a halt.

For example, I stumbled over a confusing word then an awkward sentence--and then a distracting alliteration. All on the first page. Clunk.

Les Edgerton, in Finding Your Voice, How to Put Personality in Your Writing, explains how rhythm is one of the elements that go into voice. Rhythm, he writes, " the drummer or the bass player of the voice 'quarter.' The timekeeper in your band...(So) Read your work aloud (to check for rhythm)."

Julia McCutchen, in an e-zine article (here) adds another key point: "Reading your work out loud will enable you to gain a clearer picture of whether your writing truly captures the essence of what you want to share with your readers." Joanna Penn at thecreativepenn says that reading your work out loud helps you find inconsistencies, improves dialogue, and gives you a sense of pacing. And Audrey Owen, at writershelper  says, "Read your work aloud. You will find awkward places or unclear references as soon as the words are out of your mouth."

So when we build a case for reading our work out loud, we see it helps with rhythm...essence... inconsistencies...dialogue...pace...voice. It also uncovers grammatical and spelling mistakes, repetitions, and awkward places.

Anything you care to add to the list?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Workshop Highlights

The fact remains that there's no substitute for meeting in person when you want
to build emotional support and develop relationships. --Mary Beth McEuen

Had a great time this past Saturday at the Central Ohio SCBWI Scarlet & Gray workshop. What is it about writers' conferences that make them so special? To me, they're all about sharing our excitement about writing with those who understand. It's about stretching and improving in our craft, about learning all we can about the publishing industry. It's about the energy, the discussions, the buzz. It's about making new friends--and encouraging one another. And in this case, it was about meeting with an agent and being able to pitch my book. Priceless!

Guest speaker and agent Mary Kole, Andrea Brown Literary Agency ( and also over at her fantastic blogsite, spoke on "Kidlit: Writing for Publishing's Coolest (and Hottest) Market," and "Escape the Slush Pile: How to Survive Your Agent Search."

YA author Lisa Klein (Ophelia, Two Girls of Gettysburg, Lady Macbeth's Daughter) spoke on "The Scene: Your Story in Microcosm." And Marcia James, PR specialist and romance author spoke on "A PR Primer: Promoting Yourself Before--and Just After--'The Call.'"

Gleaning through some great tips:

"Do your research. Read. Interact with real kids. Be authentic. Don't preach. Stay within the guidelines of the business. GET A CRITIQUE PARTNER. Make connections with writer friends. Learn to love the process of writing and revision. Have an insatiable curiosity. Write an irresistable book." --Mary

"What is a story but a sucession of scenes. Scene and story both have a beginning, middle, end. Both have rising action, character in conflict, falling action, resolution. Every scene needs to have a purpose. If you can write a good scene, you can write a good story. The end." --Lisa

"Learn what PR options are available. Budget your time as well as your money. Determine what niche markets are worth targeting. Don't discount the role your personality will play in which PR options are best for you." --Marsha

And then came time to pitch. And I want you to know that those six minutes were a highlight of the day. Nerves settled down, story line flowed, and we...talked. What's better than sharing a story you love with someone who wants to hear about it? Thanks goes to Mary, whose love for children's books radiates. Her time, interest and encouragement were much appreciated.

And hats off to the Central Ohio SCBWI team, headed by Susan Bradley, who made it all possible. The workshop was well worth attending. No doubt about it.

And so now, back to work--with the highlights and high spots to spur me on. What about you, any highlights lately? Sure hope so!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Heading Off to Pitch

"Stick to the facts, but make those facts fascinating." --Blythe Camenson

Although the dry weather has pretty much nixed colorful foliage this fall, I did notice a few bright spots on my walk this morning. There is beauty if we would only pause to look for it. And, although there were times in the past few days as I prepared for this weekend's pitch opportunity that the progress seemed to go dry, I found bright spots along the way there, too. Can I hear the collective cheer when we all say thanks to those who have posted so much wonderful help for the rest of us? One... two... three... YEAAAA.

Recapping highlights. First, on the one-sentence summary--the starting place for effective pitches:

"The resulting very basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE quest...The important thing to remember is that a good pitch is a description of what actually happens. It's a one sentence description of the plot, not the theme." --Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent

"The one-sentence summary, also known as a logline, a hook, or a one-sentence pitch (it is not a tagline, however) a one-sentence summary (that) takes your complex book with multiple characters and plotlines and boils it down into a simple statement that can be quickly conveyed and understood, and generates interest in the book." --Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

"Knowing a story's pitch (a one-line description) is an effective way to keep the main concept in mind when writing and revising. To develop your one-sentence pitch, here's a formula: Title + Genre + Life Change = Pitch." --Adventures in Children's Publishing

On the verbal pitch itself (which I will have six minutes alloted to me to do):

"Be prepared...Conquer the nerves...Accept criticism."--Sue Lick, writing-world

"Keep it short. Focus on a character and the character's problem. Stop at a moment of tension and wait." --Jane Friedman, Writer's Digest There Are No Rules

"So if you do get an agent or editor in front of you, relax. Impossible, I know. But once you relax, you can actually talk to the other person. Tell them about your book. Ask a question. Talk as well as listen. There's nothing I appreciate more than a writer who is prepared yet flexible, professional yet casual. Someone who'll talk to me as another person who loves books, not as someone desperately trying to get my approval." --Mary Kole, Literary Agent

So here we are. Ready and raring to go. I expect the entire workshop to be fun, and the pitch to be a great experience.

As for the future, I think I will reverse the order. Instead of trying to come up with the one-sentence summary and short pitch paragraph after writing the book, I want to follow Blythe Camenson's advice in his book Give 'Em What They Want, The Right Way to Pitch Your Novel to Editors and Agents: "If you create your pitch line before you actually write the novel, it can guide your writing and keep your plot on track." And, may I add, cut lots of time off the work to the finished product? I think so.

I'll share some of what I learned when I get back. Until then, happy plotting, revising, dreaming, imagining, pitching--whatever part of writing occupies your time in the days ahead. May there be many bright spots along your way, too.