Sunday, October 31, 2010

National Novel Writing Month

Many of you know that November is a special month for those of us who write novels. It’s National Novel Writing Month. For those that have never heard of it, here’s the scoop. NaNoWriMo, as it’s commonly called, is a time for writers all over the world to ban together and encourage each other to write a 50,000 word novel.

It’s not a competition in the sense that there’s only one winner. If you write 50,000 words you win. We’re not competing for monetary prizes, but for the sense of accomplishment it brings. With that accomplishment comes the small gold crown that you are awarded for display on your website or blog. 

Sign up is free. To register, visit the official home page. Once you’ve registered, you’ll find forums to answer your questions, as well as regions and even local groups that meet in person.

It sounds crazy, but it’s actually one of the most freeing things you could ever try. It forces us to blast out the story, ignoring our inner editor in favor of word count. It allows our creative to dominate our need for perfection.

I’m going to be there and I encourage you to give it a try as well! My NaNoWriMo name is emelson – look me up and we can be buddies. If you’ve participated in NaNo let us know your thoughts and chime in to let us know if you’ll be participating this year.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Raising Readers

On my first visit to my granddaughter, I brought baby-proof cardboard books of nursery rhymes. They were Jordan's first books of her own, and I teased my son and daughter-in-law that they had waited too long. (She was all of two months old.)

Now she is 22 months. When she climbed into her toddler-sized rocker, I asked her, "Do you the know the story of the three little bears?"

Lickety split, she ran down the hall and came back with The Spooky Old Tree. As soon as I opened it to the first page, I understood why: three little bears going into the spooky old tree. She knew the story.

Later, she brought me a Dr. Seuss book, My Eye. I pointed to the word "eye" and said it.

She pointed to the picture of an eye and said "eye." She pointed to the word eye and said it. She pointed to her own eye and said it a third time.

You'll forgive a grandma bragging, won't it? One of those aha moments, when she made the connection between the word on the page, the two-dimensional picture, and the actual physical object.

My son reads, all the time. Serious books of religion and philosophy.

My oldest granddaughter (14) doesn't read much beyond books required by school--but she will carry the impact of books like The Giver and The Hunger Games for a long time.

My middle granddaughter (11) has read all the Harry Potter books and the Twilight series.

Jordan is joining a family of readers.

Without readers, we authors serve no purpose. Most of us are also avid readers.

Read to your children. Read to your grandchildren. Read yourself. They figure out for themselves that books are important!

What the earliest book that you remember? For me, probably The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.

Monday, October 18, 2010

POV—It’s Not as Unfair as You Thought

A lot of new writers I meet tend to get frustrated with the writing rules in regard to POV (Point of View). The unwritten rule is that the author is only allowed to write from the point of view of one character per scene. Many quote this as a rule that can NEVER be broken. But if you read any novels at all you’ll see it’s broken rather regularly—usually by well known writers.

  • So let me say first—be skeptical of anyone who quotes an ALWAYS or NEVER rule of writing. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single rule that can’t occasionally be broken for a good reason.
  • Second, let me be quick to add that you need to know how to work within the rules before you can effectively break them.
  • Third, here’s an important quote to remember. I’ve heard it attributed to several editors and I believe it’s applicable. “After you’ve made your first million you can make up your own rules—until then, you’ll follow ours.”
That little caveat out of the way let’s get down to the business of POV. A scene with correct POV allows the reader to know everything the POV character knows and thinks. It’s as if there were a camera attached to that one character’s head and it records everything. Conversely, that camera can’t record anything the POV character can’t see or experience. Let me show you what I mean by showing you what NOT to do. Here’s a common scene, one we can all visualize, written the way a beginner might write it.

Jill sat at the small table, twisting the napkin in her lap and trying not to stare every time the restaurant door opened. She couldn’t imagine why she’d let Susan talk her into a blind date, but she had and now here she sat, waiting for Nathan to show up. She forced as smile as the waiter refilled her water glass.

“Can I get you anything else while you wait?” Sam disliked waiting on a table with a blind date. His tip depended on so much he couldn’t control. If the date went well, great. If not . . . well all the excellent service in the world couldn’t make up for that.

Jill sat up a little straighter as a tall man approached her table. “Are you Jill?”

“Nathan?” She mentally crossed her fingers. Susan hadn’t exaggerated his good looks.

Sam scooted backward to let Nathan take a seat. “May I get you a drink?”

“Just water, thanks.” Relief quieted the butterflies in Nathan’s belly. Jill was quite beautiful—perhaps this wouldn’t be a waste of time after all.

This scene is a perfect example of HEAD HOPPING—a definite no-no in POV. Head hopping is where the reader knows the thoughts or is in the head of more than one character in a scene. You can see that in this scene we start out in Jill’s head, move to the waiter’s and end up in Nathan’s.

I can already hear the groaning from some of you. When I teach this workshop I barely get the example finished before these comments reach my ears.

“How else is the reader going to know what’s going on?”

“I have to be able to show what’s happening!”

In my humble opinion, Head Hopping is the lazy writer’s way to tell the story. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As an author we have an amazing ability—a gift even—we read minds, the minds of our characters. And we can be tempted to think that for the reader to truly understand and GET the story, we have to share this gift.

Not true. And here’s why. You and I go through life without one shred of mindreading ability. Yet, we’re able to GET what’s going on and figure out what’s happening. We’re not handicapped by this lack. In fact, most people I know get along better without it. As a writer, our job is to let the reader EXPERIENCE the details in a given scene and draw their own conclusions. If we write the sensory details well, they’ll have no trouble at all.

Here’s the same scene rewritten.

Jill sat at the small table, twisting the napkin in her lap and trying not to stare every time the restaurant door opened. She couldn’t imagine why she’d let Susan talk her into a blind date, but she had and now here she sat, waiting for a stranger to show up. She forced as smile as the waiter refilled her water glass.

“Can I get you anything else while you wait?” He fingered his order pad and let out a small sigh.

“No thank you.” Jill figured it couldn’t be easy to wait on a couple who were on a blind date. She caught a movement and sat up a little straighter as a tall man approached her table.

He cleared his throat. “Are you Jill?”

“Nathan?” She mentally crossed her fingers. Her friend hadn’t exaggerated his good looks.

Sam scooted backward to let Nathan take a seat. “May I get you a drink?”

“Just water, thanks.” Nathan grinned. “I have to admit I was worried.” He cocked an eyebrow. “But for once my brother was right on target.”

See, it is possible to convey what everyone's thinking without butchering POV. Here’s a quick check list to help round out the details.
  • Use all five senses.
  • Describe the setting details through the perception of the POV character.
  • Let the interesting parts of the story happen WITHIN the quotation marks.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave some things out—it will keep the reader interested in turning the page.
The key to POV is to trust yourself and trust your reader!

Monday, October 11, 2010

TO BE OR NOT TO BE: What is “passive” writing?

Before Darlene gets started, I wanted to invite all of you to Dave King's Facebook Fanpage for Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Hope to see you there.

Now, back to you, Darlene. :-)


Recently I presented a workshop for my local ACFW group on self-editing tips. For preparation, I took my current work in progress and made note of things I corrected in my own work.

The first problem I identified? “Avoid passive verbs when possible.”

But what is passive writing?

We can define passive writing grammatically:
• Verbs of being: To be. Also to seem, to appear, to feel, to become
• Passive tense: where the subject is acted upon instead of doing the acting. “I was hit by a car” vs. “I hit a car” (or “A car hit me.”)

But “avoiding” passive writing goes beyond those two rules of grammar.
• Another related rule of grammar involves participles: “She was going to the store.” Notice the “was.” Can we instead say, “She went to the store”?
• We avoid passive statements by showing rather than telling. Rather than saying “she felt sad,” we can show her feeling sad. (See last Monday’s blog for more on showing emotions.)
• “To have” often is used in a passive manner. “She had nine bags of groceries.” Instead of “had,” we could use bought, carried, gave away. Any one of those choices sharpens the meaning of the sentence.

Am I suggesting that writers never use passive voice? Of course not. As you may have noticed, I have used it liberally in this post. A few suggestions:
• One article I read said to keep passive voice to 2-3 occurrences a page. Most writers use more than that (some, many more).
• My personal rule: no more than one passive verb per paragraph.
• In critiquing, I don’t mention passive verbs in dialogue.
• During revisions, I use “search and replace” to change the font color of all passive verbs. That way I have to make a conscious decision about whether to keep or rewrite.

Do you have questions about “what is passive?” and “how to I rewrite this?” Feel free to share your questions and comments below.

Monday, October 4, 2010

After the Conference—Now What?

Many of us have gotten to attend a writing conference this year and many of us are just a couple of weeks back from the ACFW conference in Indianapolis. We’ve been inspired by the faculty and amazed at the ideas and abilities of fellow writers. While there, the adrenaline is pumping and we know when we get home we’ll be ready to take our own writing to the next level.

Then life happens. In the tired excitement of coming home, I have to reintegrate myself into my normal life. My family needs attention and I’ve missed them, too. Work has pressing deadlines and laundry has managed to multiply and take over my downstairs. These things tend to eat away at my time and energy until I’m so drained my conference experience seems like a lifetime ago.

By the time I catch my breath and return to writing I’ve found my confidence has deserted me and I’m left overwhelmed and confused. There’s so much I want to accomplish—revise my manuscript, start a blog, follow up with editors and agents. Instead I begin to listen that voice inside that says things like -

"That editor was just being nice—she isn’t really interested in my novel”
“My novel needs so much work, I ought to just start over.”
“Who am I trying to fool? There’s no way I could ever be a real writer.”

So how do I combat this downward spiral? I make a plan. I took time to time out my conference experience—I knew each day what classes I wanted and who I wanted to meet. I have to have that kind of a schedule to put into action the things I learned at the conference.

First make a list of what you came away wanting to do and prioritize what needs to be done first.
  • Start with thank you notes for those who took time to help you are a must. If you have an address send one through the mail, but often times you don’t have that information. If not, send a quick email—trust me—they’ll remember you took the time to say thank you.
  • Next evaluate your deadlines. Let’s say you have to revise a manuscript for one editor and send a proposal for another idea to a different editor. In this case, decide which one is easier to accomplish and start there.
  • Also look at the things you wanted to accomplish personally. Maybe you decided to spend more time each day writing. Or you committed to a personal word count goal. Don’t’ let those get pushed aside—start implementing the changes. This can be an incredible confidence builder.
  • What about other writers you met? Did you promise each other to stay in touch? Be brave and reach out to new friends.
  • Most important, accomplish something writing related every day. Some days that may be reading a chapter in a writing book. It might be reading a novel written by a writer you want to emulate.
Now it’s your turn. How do you combat the dark cloud that seems to descend after a conference?