Saturday, July 25, 2009

Avoid Flooding in Your Work

Last Saturday, I woke up to the sound of dripping water, no, pouring water, splashing, definitely making something very, very wet in my basement. It was raining, so I thought water was coming in through the windows. Oh no. That would have been good news. The water heater decided to expunge its contents onto the floor, leaving me with a two-inch pond to clean up. Not fun! But not that bad either. Many people have lost their entire homes and even loved ones and pets in real floods, so, in perspective, 40 gallons of water or there-abouts is really not that tear-worthy. Just a pain in the butt.

Now, exactly a week later, after my husband tried to keep the old one hanging on but lost in the fight, we have a new tank. Fourteen bucks to rent one from the gas company a month is totally doable.

When you're writing long fiction, sometimes things can flood your work and create gloppy bogs. Here is a list of things to avoid, especially if you're a unpublished newbie.

The prologue that explains things in order for readers to understand the story. A prologue, if there is one, should just hint at something weird, entice, or maybe it can be a short view into a time outside of your main story. Melissa Marr in Wicked Lovely has a great one and Frank Perritti in The Visitation. They're short, somewhat weird, they set the tone and they pull readers in. You're prologue should do this. Hint. Foreshadow. Parallel. Show something vitally important. Don't info dump.

The exposition landslide. You don't have to give buckets of backstory and information at the onset. Just start your story where your story starts, which does not necessarily have to be an action sequence, but it does need to be close to the dawning of your story question. Your story question is what hooks readers. Will she find escape from her abusive, alien ex-husband? Will they catch this psycho killer who is expressing Beatles tunes with dead bodies and creative crime scenes? Find your question and make it obvious what your story's about in chapter one. Give readers something to care about and latch on to.

Strange punctuation and hacked words to denote dialect. In bits and pieces or for minor characters, it's okay, but throughout a novel, it can be very tiresome for the reader. Instead, try and use terms and phrases common to the area of origin.

Too much telling. The demand to show not tell is drilled into writers' heads because it's so important to vivid, engaging storytelling. So when you can, show.

Too many adverbs. They have their place, but often times you can find a strong verb to say what a verb-adverb combo does. So look around, check the thesaurus, stretch.

Purple prose. Flowery, poetic writing, though it sounds nice, often draws more attention to the author. Purple prose can come out as excessive description and sweeping love scenes that bring amusement parks rides and sparkling clouds into sexual responses. You can certainly be lyrical, you can use a FEW precious violets, but avoid waves and waves of heather. It can be cool, if you use it with intent to paint contrast, a lush landscape now tainted by the presence of a dark character. But purple for the sake of drowning readers in lovely words? No. Nix that junk post haste.

Draggy dialogue. The draggiest dialogue is not dialogue at all. It's conversation that has no business being in the story. If it doesn't advance the plot, add more depth to the story or reveal character, either rewrite it so it's more vital or get rid of it. And don't allow characters to unnaturally discuss things for the benefit of the reader. Some Sci-fi writers do this so we understand the society, rules or time and place. Show how things work and are instead.

Dull verbs. Need I say more? Punchy verbs are important for making your voice stand out, so look for some gems.

Avoid those book flooders and make your work shine. You can do it.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Build Characters with Depth

Ok. You began with a good sketch of your protagonist for your plot-driven novel. As you wrote your book, he practically came alive for you and veered your story in ways you never intended, making your work exceptionally better than you'd planned, but still, something is off. Test readers, or worse, agents, are saying they loved your twists, the suspense was riveting, but your main guy was one-dimensional…not fleshed out…not believable. Hmmm? Where did you go wrong?

I've read books that were packed with conflict but not so engaging. These are generally works readers on Amazon will say were strong in plot but weak in characterization. In creative writing class, after you've made your character sketch, this is how we’re told to write. Let every scene end with some kind of disaster, where a goal is not fully met, an answer is not found, a hero turns towards certain peril. The problem with having every scene be about achieving a goal or fighting through conflict is it can leave your work feeling stark…and it probably is. All scenes need to be related to the story, they need to be pertinent, but they don’t ALL have to be about having a goal or showing a conflict. Sometimes it’s important to show a piece of a puzzle or a hunter getting closer to his prey or a phone conversation after another nightmarish date or a police officer tucking her daughter into bed at night. Don’t get so wrapped up in structure that your work can't breath and be told in its own unique way.

Unless your audience is middle-grade boys who care more about blood, battle and boogers, (Good title!), don’t cheat readers. You should aim for both solid plotting and intriguing characters. Delve deeper and find out who your characters are, who they truly are, from top to bottom, inside out and then present that to readers.

With my novel, Kings & Queens, readers are always asking me what’s happening with my characters or how they’re doing as though they’re real people. When I tell those inquiring minds I’m writing a sequel, they say they can’t wait to pick up with their lives again. What lives? They’re not alive, people! But they almost feel like they are, even to me, like they’re living off in Fantasia or a parallel universe. That’s what you want. Readers to feel like they’ve met real people and to feel a little bit sad and miss them when the ride is over.

Here are some things you can do to ensure your main characters pop off the page.

Humanize: No character, friend or foe, is all good or all bad. Characters needs various shades and facets to stand out and be believable and identifiable to readers. Your villains need to have a dash of something good, even if it's just concern for the environment, or their motivations need to be clear, and your heroes or heroines need to have flaws and weaknesses. Perfect characters are bores on the page.

Layer: Make sure you’ve peppered your narrative with your main character’s tastes, interests, contradictions, quirks, props (lucky sneakers, glasses bent just right so they don't appear crooked on his slightly uneven ears), ghosts from the past, secrets, connections to other people who never grace the pages of your book like grandmas and old lovers. Characters need to feel like real people, who have lived their lives up until the moment you started to pen their circumstances. Layering will give your characters greater depth and dimension. However, your work should NOT be so saturated that it creates drag. Attempt to show much of this or spill it out through dialogue and action. Balance is key. If a point doesn’t belong or is too obtrusive, get rid of it.

Texturize: Don’t forget to tickle the senses beyond what’s seen and heard. By showing how your character responds to chilly mist, to the wall of scorching humidity when he steps out of his hotel in Shanghai, to the salty anchovies on his boss’s pizza, to the peppery chocolate scent emanating from the kitchen where her mom is baking another batch of experimental brownies, you can add texture to both your scene and character at the same time.

Shift: Let your heroine take a detour from her mapped out sketch and break type. When pressure is applied or danger bursts in or a grim diagnosis is given, real people deal and cope in different ways. They do stupid things, make mistakes, crumble, take wrong turns, cry, turn to God, say things they later regret, backpedal, contemplate suicide. So in fiction, your characters can do this. Shake things up and surprise readers. Just remember, every major action a character takes in fiction should stem from some sort of stimulus. As long as you make your variation believable and make it seem like an appropriate response or action by your MC, readers will buy it. If your heroine becomes too wimpy or stalls too long, readers will stop caring. No one likes a wimp or a loser. Keep the story moving. Kick your MC in the butt.

Show: Are you doing too much telling? Look for places you may have been able to show what you told. Readers will become more drawn into your work if they can experience what the character does. Showing helps to transport readers into your fictional world and identify with your hero. You can reveal so much character through speech and action.

Push: Do your characters have goals? All point of view characters need to want something in order for readers to care: revenge, love, justice, one day of tranquility, an Ivy League education. Up the stakes and the opposition. Make your MC work harder to attain his goals. Show the struggle, sweat, tears, determination, disappointment, passion. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds makes victory all the sweeter. Don't hold back or be afraid to stack up the obstacles. That creates tension and suspense, which makes for an all around stronger work.

Expose: Get into your character's mind and explore their desires and motivations. The more fully you relay this information to readers, the more readers will care about the outcome and connect. Sometimes characters live behind a facade or they vary their persona based on the company they're in. They act prim and proper with coworkers, cut loose with friends, or they say one thing and think another. Look at The Good Son. The parents are oblivious to their son's evil bent, but little by little he exposes it to his cousin. Allow your characters to reveal their innermost selves.

Build those memorable characters. You can do it. Give your babies every chance to not only reel in readers but leave a lasting impression.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Collective Inspiration ~ Thank You All

So, I've been blogging for almost a year, and in that time, many people have found my blog through various search engine terms. My new blog friend, Sandy, pieced together a brilliant poem using word-for-word search lines that have ushered people to her blog. You can read that bit of fabulousness here. Most of my terms involve prose, artistic voice and stuff like that, or my highest "weird true stories" which currently tallies 37 hits, and I didn't get any gems as precious as hers, but I was inspired to see if I could find something at least kinda sorta sparkly in my own heap.

Everyone who faithfully reads my blog knows I love challenges and have a hard time keeping my pen quiet and still. I was able to make sense of madness and piece together my own poem, a poem that fits my blog's theme and doesn't entirely suck. These are actual search terms. No doctoring involved. From trash to treasure, here it is. I call it Creative Burst:

listening ears
find a symphonic zone
while running
falling in love
crying on a pillow

in the dark of night
during wild sex
in fits of mania
from yesterday
beyond twilight

be weird and crazy
stir curiosity
stretch for greatness
be passionate
find artistic voice

you superstar
queen of hearts
sex goddess
homeless man
child born with pen

to be or not to be,
that is the question
find the story
the untold story
poetic license

deep within
springing out
like glorious angels
like soul's fire
in a creative burst

Thanks for all your help, guys and dolls. I never could have created this poem without all the fine people who have paid a visit to my blog. Sometimes art can be found in the strangest places. Thanks for the tip, Sandy. See if you can create your own.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Finding Voice: Your Ultimate Superpower

Okay. I’m finally going to share a secret with the world, something I’ve never actually told a soul. Ready?

I have...a super power.

No really. It's true. So stop laughing or doing that head bobbing thing with one corner of your lips pinched, as though I'm fruity and out of my mind. Noooo, I can’t fly—though that would totally rock—I can’t see dead people or scale tall buildings, and worst of all, I can’t “Wonder Twin Powers. ACTIVATE!!!” with anyone, but what I CAN do, is remember people to a freakish degree. I never forget people. I call it Social Photographic Memory, though that’s not quite what it is. I remember people I meet, but beyond that, I can remember events, blocks of conversations and things people tell me about themselves, especially if they’re unique. It’s all about people. I can’t find my misplaced debit card, historical junk in my brain or any mathematical solutions beyond Pre-Algebra. I CAN call up my Bio notes from college, but that’s only because I turned Dr. Spohn’s notes into song lyrics. Such things, most of which don’t benefit me at all to know, I will remember until the End of Days or unless Alzheimer’s or amnesia take my mind.
One reason I have vivid recall is my piqued senses intertwine with images, people, objects and events, turning them into lasting memories, infusing them into my brain. I remember not just things from when I was five, I remember BEING five. And not just events, but emotions I felt, smells in the room, tastes, textures, etc.
For instance, they're gone now, but my grandfather’s name was James and my grandmother referred to him as Jimmer. She was the ONLY one who ever called him that. And she always did. Never James or Jim, just Jimmer. I wasn’t even two, and I remember the first time I called him Grandpa Jimmer. Everyone in the kitchen, my aunt, my uncles, my parents, cracked up, bowling over and everything. I remember this wonderful feeling, a sense of pride and accomplishment, for making people laugh.

Another reason why I have Social Photographic Memory—and this is my secret part—is because every person I come across gives me a…hmm…a sensory impression I’ll call it, that is unique to them. In the split second I see someone, and every time, I detect this texture in a person’s soul that triggers an instant yet momentary emotional response. Some are dull, others vibrant. It can be linked to personality, interests, what a person's going through at the time I first see or meet them or how they’ll make me feel in the future.

Whenever my husband walks into the room, I get a peace that's so soft, like a dryer-fresh towel, all smelling nice and feeling warm. My best friend from college = a teddy-bear warmth. Another friend = a zippy jolt. She loves to travel and is always on the go.

Some guy who's guarded can be reminiscent of a stone wall or an onion, and even after I demolish the blockade or peel all the layers, he'll forever and always give me that same evanescent impression. I can instantly know some strange lady loves cats even if she’s not wearing a shirt proclaiming it because her impression is tied up with cats. Totally creepy I know—I get freaked out all the time when I gather enough info for the impression to make sense—but I'm hoping I can someday lend my super power to a character when that perfect plot match enters my brain. I've never heard of anyone else, fictional or not, possessing my offbeat...whatever-it-is...oh, super power, right.

You want your writing to be as distinctive as the sensory impressions people give me. It needs to stand out in a crowd, be unforgettable and expose the deepest parts of your soul. And this beautiful power you possess to make your mark is called voice. Writing voice is as individualized as, well, voice. Every person has their own way of speaking. Even identical twins have differences, revealing their inner selves through attitude, emotion, diction, pacing, tone, word choice.

When you write, your basic speaking voice should be emerging and spilling onto the pages, not Hemingway’s or John Grisham’s or your mom’s. Not that you should write exactly as you think or talk because you could be narrating from an evil POV or a sarcastic or unreliable one, or maybe you curse more than a work can stand. But your prose should contain your uniqueness and also be appropriate for your audience. Tell your story, poem or novel in the way only you can tell it. Voice is what I'm using to write this blog. It exposes so much about me, even if I never mentioned one personal thing. That's why writing on the whole feels so soul-baring. It is. It was pretty scary to hand my work over and have people read and critique it, but I took the bold step and just did it so I could improve.

Here are some things you can do to make sure your voice comes through in your writing.

Relax and just write. Don’t concentrate too hard because it will stifle your voice. Just be free and go.

Broaden your vocabulary. Learning new words all the time will give you a bigger reserve to draw from so your voice doesn’t become stale, so you’re not always falling back on the same crutch words and phrases.

Know the basic writing pitfalls to avoid like misplaced modifiers, too many adverbs, adjectives, etc., so those glitches don’t muck up your prose.

Break out of the clutches of cliché and search inside for some originality and zest.

If grammar’s a weak point for you, get Elements of Style or a book like it to have handy when you hit a bump or have a question.

Every voice has rhythm. Find your ebb and flow and boogie with it.

Have confidence. Trust in your ability to tell the story.

If your voice is eluding you or not sounding quite like the real you, shut out all outside influences so they don’t become infused in your work.

Experiment with different voices, like an array of hats. Obviously from my blog, you can tell I look for the humor that’s all around me and don’t take certain things too seriously. But, I do take my writing seriously. And I use different voices for different mediums and audiences.

Do writing exercises like free writing, random word stories or poems or write first thing in the morning. Work specifically at discovering voice.

Use your emotion.

Write with authenticity and integrity. Be true to yourself. Don't mimic.

Don’t puff up your work or make it loftier than it should be.

Say aloud what you want to write before putting it down and see if it sounds like your true self. You can use a tape recorder for assistance. Or write it first and then read it aloud. Check for continuity and ask yourself if it sounds like you.

Think positively. Published or not, consider yourself a true writer, seizing your passion, honing your craft, living your dream.

Voice can’t be enhanced, borrowed, copied or sharpened; it must be found. It is your ultimate super power, your best tool to reel readers in and turn them into fans. Make a lasting impression, and you can only do that when you tap into that inner you and reveal that to readers. When you find your true voice, your writing will sparkle and be a wonderful reflection of you. Then you'll be able to turn your voice into a brand. You can do it. Let the quest begin.

[Oh. And keep my secret on the down low. Thanks. I don't want the masses hounding me to find out what impressions I get. Sometimes words can't adequately describe anyway.]
~Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Discovering Art in Randomness

When are you most creative? First thing in the morning? After an espresso shot, a run or a shower? In the dead of night? I find inspiration bites me at sporadic times. I’ll have a dream so lively and strange, that I wake up with an urgent need to pen it. Or I’ll be up late, stuck in the sillies and an idea will come to me.

The concept for Sapphire Reign, the book I’m working on now, came to me from a dream, two actually, now spliced together, as did its prequel, Kings & Queens, so I guess that says something about dreams for me. Dreams are beyond our conscious imagination so that’s where interesting plots are born, characters introduce themselves, and circumstances aren’t hemmed in by time or space or practicality or realism. One night you’re attempting to evade shark jaws while surfing and the next, you’re under a purple sky in a land where everyone, man and beast, gets along until you arrive and destroy the balance, and as you strive to make things right, you only make them worse.

One night at 2 AM, I was writing a forum post and jotting down songs singers should avoid on American Idol. Some are so owned, they should never grace the stage again, some were the kiss of death, some totally bit—TOTALLY—, and some are just not, um, Idol material. In my post, which was making me crack up, a story emerged, so I arranged the song titles into a lose poem. Here’s that 2 AM creative burst:

~ Songs to Avoid on American Idol ~

I Am I Said
Dust in the Wind
Welcome to My Life
The Long and Winding Road
I Feel So
Like a Virgin
Cherry Pie
I'm Too Sexy
Born to be Wild
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
(You Gotta ) Fight For Your Right (to Party)
It's My Life
I Drove All Night
I Want Your Sex
Eight Days a Week
Time After Time
Any Way You Want It
All I Want Is You
I'm On Fire
Burning Love
Outta My Head
Hungry Like the Wolf
Crazy for You
My Immortal
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Livin La Vida Loca
It's All Wrong, But It's All Right
Is This Love
Love Bites
Love Is A Battlefield
Going Under
Bring Me to Life
Devil Inside
Highway to Hell
Some Like It Hot
Inside the Fire
I Have Nothing
Total Eclipse of the Heart
Smashed Into Pieces
Helplessly Hoping
I Wanna Know What Love Is
Wake Me Up Before You Go Go
How Do I Live
My Life
Good Enough
Empty Me
Save a Prayer
Pour Some Sugar on Me
A Change is Gonna Come
Karma Chameleon
Shake Your Love
Shout to the Lord
Dare You to Move
I Believe
I'm a Believer
Travelin' Thru
The Greatest Love of All
Jesus Christ Superstar
A Perfect Love
Love of a Lifetime
Stairway to Heaven
I'll Fly Away
High Enough
Inside Your Heaven
To Be With You
Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
This is just a crazy list of song titles, but it tells a story, a journey about life. There’s a character here who’s searching for true love and finds it in an unexpected place.
During a moment when you’re most likely to be creative or even a moment when you're totally not, like exhausted maybe or distraught, pick a topic and brainstorm. Go with it, write whatever crazy thing comes to your mind. You could end up with a poem, a song, a short story sketch, a new plot concept for a novel or character who wants his story told. Never assume your random thoughts are just rubbish. Often times, when you clear away the haze and dust and look at something in a different way, you’ll discover your junk is actually precious art. Inspiration is waiting in the oddest places and during the most unthinkable times, so go find it.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Inspiration is Paging You

I generally find inspiration in the weirdest things. This morning as I lingered in bed in a sleepy daze, after a short nap because my husband's off today and I'd gotten up at 6 AM—early for meand wanted a few more winks, I tuned in to the various sounds of morning. My ceiling fan whirling around with its own drum beat, birds praising God, a neighbor mowing his lawn, cars driving by every now and again, my daughter laughing. Then I heard this unexpected intercom-type noise, someone being paged on a walkie-talkie maybe, and BAM.

It doesn't seem like much at all. Just a voice. Just a call. Something tiny and insignificant really. But no, I didn't see it that way, and neither did my new character who's just been handed a baton she never asked for and can't for her life get rid of. The burly doctor who held it before her committed suicide. What on earth will she do when people start dying at her hand? She can't run. She tries. She can't avoid people. She tries that too. She can't escape her destiny. Nor can she forsake The List.

I don't know where I'll go with it yet. It's inspiration that waits to be fleshed out. I have many such ideas for stories running through my head. Some leaning more adult, some more YA. This feels YA to me, and is aching to be in First Person--which I've never wielded before--but I need to wait to see where KINGS & QUEENS is positioned first so I don't waste my time writing for the wrong peeps. I write for readers who love suspense stories, not really a particular age group, but in the end, it's all about shelving and my main characters need to fit in a certain age bracket. Suspense with extra toppings, especially some weird ones, will be my niche for a while. Whether that's YA or adult will be up to the big guys. My future projects wait for the almighty arrow.

Either way, I'll write the same. Always building in complexity and layers in the plot points and prose, always promising multifaceted, engaging characters worth reading about, always sharing something a little bit weird.

Where do you find your inspiration? I found mine this morning in a wake-up call. It can be found in a myth, a news article, a secret, a dream, a photo or a new development. Take up your pen. Go find inspiration. It's paging you.

~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.