Freezing laughter in amber

the boysPut down that pen and look around.

As writers, we can get stuck inside our heads, spending more time with our characters than with those around us. Bad idea. We need the real world to inform our writing. The way a niece’s fingertips brush the hair from her face and behind her ears. How an uncle’s stammer has his relatives biting their tongues as he struggles to loosen his. The way the water distorts an image reflected in a glass, turning it into a fun house mirror. We draw on our own experiences to breathe life into our work.

Use all your senses to experience life. Not just as writers, but as parents, as children, as friends, as colleagues. Amidst the chaos and stress of daily living, there will be moments we will want to freeze, like living things caught in amber, so that we might hold those memories safe and bring them out when we want to remind ourselves there is wonder in the world.

With each passing year, treasured faces disappear from around our tables. Distance and death sever our tactile connections, but not our memories. And that’s the key. We must make those memories now to be able to retrieve them later.

The things we remember usually aren’t Memories with a capital M. Often we don’t so much create them, as they just happen. My children most remember not the ride at Disney World or the laser light show, not the intergenerational family dinners or Christmas mornings. They remember not the awe-inspiring, but the laugh-inducing. They recall the leftovers forgotten in the Orlando restaurant, the beach campfire in July, and the bedraggled child-made ornaments I stubbornly put on the trees each Christmas. As with a well-written novel, it is the little things, the human things, that touch us.

This holiday season, hold the people you love close. When you dust off those memories, listen for the laughter echoing down the years.

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Falling in love again

TornBookWhen a friend recently said he had fallen out of love with his novels-in-progress, I could relate. There are days when I tire of Janelle or feel the plot is plodding. I want to tell the reporter to get a life, or I want something to happen that shakes things up. Then I realize that unlike with flesh-and-blood people, I can create the change I want to see.

Walking away can help give me the distance I need to come to grips with why I have lost interest in my stories. Being able to identify why I’ve fallen out of love can help me to rekindle the romance. Maybe my characters simply have become too predictable or I know them too well. Maybe the minor characters are flat and clichéd. Or perhaps the plot has become formulaic. Maybe I’m just tired of writing.

Writing can be a chore. We’ve all heard how serious writers set a place and time to write and have a goal of how much they’ll churn out each day. To be honest, I have good intentions, but I’m not always great about following those rules. The place? No problem. The time? It flexes, depending on my other commitments. The goal? When I had deadlines for my magazine articles, speeches and other pieces, I always delivered on time. Now, I usually come close, but I don’t always hit the mark.

While daily writing remains a priority without those hard and fast deadlines, it is no longer the most important thing in my life, and I’m fine with that. My critique group keeps me on track and provides unvarnished feedback to let me know when I miss the mark and when I’m doing it right. Fundamentally, I think I have a solid story, so at least with this book, the faults lie primarily in execution.

Sometimes, even after giving it all I’ve got, there are good reasons to fall out of love with my work. I’ve written pieces, labored over them, only to realize they really are terrible. There might be a salvageable nugget, but I basically have had to blow them up and start entirely different stories.

Usually, I know when to ditch a work. However, when I’m not sure, I get unbiased, honest feedback from trusted readers and other writers. I ask if they picked up this story/article/book and began reading it, would they put it down and pick up a different one. If they would, what lost their interest? If the flaws aren’t fixable, if something is fundamentally wrong and the love can’t be rekindled, the relationship is over. After having invested so much of oneself, breaking up is hard to do, but sometimes, it’s better to cut your losses and move on. As with any relationship, I’ll remember the best parts and, being a writer, they’ll end up in a new work. And I’ll fall in love with my writing again.

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Sweat the small stuff

MovieMistakesWe’ve all seen it – a bruise that moves from the left to right eye after a cutaway, a hat that flies off in one scene but is firmly in place in the next, a lamp broken during a struggle that miraculously mends. Members of movie and TV production crews in charge of continuity try their best not to let these slip-ups occur, but occasionally they creep in – even in animated media. Although these errors are more obvious when we see rather than read them, writers need to be just as vigilant to ensure continuity in their writing.

Last week, I discovered a big one in my novel-in-progress. When Eric Shinseki resigns, Chicago Tribune reporter Janelle Martin is reminded of a year-old bioterrorist case purportedly engineered by a veteran trying to draw attention to the months and years some veterans have to wait for VA health care. So, in late April she drives to Iowa to find out what’s happened to the accused veteran and what would drive him to violence. The problem is that Shinseki didn’t resign until May 30th. The fix wasn’t as easy as changing April references to June. Because I want the action to take place during the college academic year, I had to reset the story in October. That meant going back and changing not only the month that she hit the road but descriptions of the landscaping around her interviewees’ houses, the state of the leaves on the trees and the liturgical activities of the priest with whom she talks. She also would wear fall instead of spring clothes.

Continuity can become more difficult the more detail writers provide. Done well, detail add a richness that engages readers. Lack of continuity can put them off. If a woman breaks a heel running, she can’t dash into a room as if both shoes were the same height. If a character takes a jacket off in a restaurant, be sure he remembers to pick it up when he leaves.

Outlining and pre-writing character descriptions can help avoid big issues, such as conflicting physical descriptions, inconsistent character traits and unresolved plot points.

Writers have different ways of keeping tracks of those details. A few years ago, crime writer Jeffery Deaver told the Charlotte Writers’ Club that since he has a lot of plot twists, he keeps a big board to help him remember. If he makes changes during the writing process, he simply moves things around. I’ve found erasable pens to be an invaluable tool. I use them to note, change, add or delete key events and details on my story arc.

Get the details right now and you’re a step ahead when your book is optioned for a movie.

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Feeling the heartbeat

maze-gyreRon Rash told the Charlotte Observer recently that a first draft is like “an ugly glob of clay on a wheel.”

It is an apt metaphor. The best writers discard the unnecessary bits. They use imagery, actions and dramatic tension to spin their tales, drawing readers in and shaping riveting pieces of art.

Last week at a free Charlotte Writers’ Club workshop, memoirist Gilda Morina Syverson, poet David Radavich and screenwriter Patrick Lee illustrated how that artistry works. The way Gilda described finding the story reminded me of a nautilus shell. You start on the periphery, circling in ever smaller circles closer to its heart.

Imagery helps readers see that heart beat. We all know to use literary devices, such as metaphor and simile, alliteration and meter. We can make our writing even more accessible by creating a sensory impression that’s mental, emotional, visceral. Engage readers’ senses, David said. Don’t tell us you love your grandmother, show love in action. Be specific and linger on the details, letting interactions replace words. Allow readers to see the grandmother push the child’s hair from her face with floury fingers as they bake. Have readers smell those cookies and feel (and taste) that dough.

Action, which is a prerequisite to keep moviegoers engaged, add richness to the written media, too. Patrick underscored how a reader can gauge what is in characters’ hearts by watching what they do, rather than what they say. A proclamation of love could mean affection or signal ulterior motives. Words can be lies; action is truth. The difference between the two creates dramatic tension.

Story telling is not reserved for memoirs, imagery for poetry or action for the screen. Device cross-pollination makes each genre more compelling. Gilda’s memoir is informed by her work as a poet. David’s poetry is influenced by his playwriting. Patrick’s novels draw on his screenwriting experience. We learn from other genres and from other writers, borrowing and adapting.

Novels, poems and scripts can start as loosely crafted works. Then we revise and revise and revise. Ron Rash told the Observer that he will revise a novel 14-16 times, sometimes spending 30 minutes on a single sentence. It took Michelangelo three years to turn a block of stone into David. Art takes patience. Writing is a process. We know we’ve been successful when our readers feel our character’s pulse and can see into his heart, when they want to turn the page and find out what happens next.

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Practice makes better

sad girlWith the insecurities, easily hurt feelings and sense of not belonging, middle school is still the stuff of nightmares. Yet, much as we might want to have avoided those years, middle school experiences are rough drafts for later life. Fortunately, writing poems or prose does not have to be as painful. We have the opportunity to erase our mistakes and revise.

Early in my novel-in-progress, for example, reporter Janelle Martin familiarizes herself (and the reader) with the cast of characters and their hometown. To do that, she drives around the city past schools, churches and homes significant to the accused bioterrorist. Here’s an early draft of her arriving in town:

“The dashboard clock said 12:12 a.m., too early to check into the Holiday Inn Express and not ready for lunch, so Janelle stayed straight on US-30, allowing it to become 8th Avenue South and followed it past Clinton High School.”

That was the middle school version. Later, I went back, moved the mapping detail up from later in the narrative and added clarity. One sentence became three:

“The dashboard clock read 12:12 p.m., too early to check into the Holiday Inn Express. The chips and cookie had dulled her appetite, so she wasn’t ready for lunch. Before leaving Chicago, Janelle had mapped her interview locations, but with no interviews scheduled that day, she began a lazy loop around Clinton on a self-guided tour.”

The next paragraphs in both versions describe the key locations she passes. However, in the second version, I added how these places have changed, concluding with:

“So many changes to touchstones in Paul’s life. She wondered if upon returning from Afghanistan he had felt like a stranger in his hometown.”

Those final two sentences help put her drive in perspective and hint at Paul’s state of mind.

Perfect? No. Final version? Not sure. I’ll see where my writing takes me. I can’t go back for a middle school do-over, but I can revise my writing to make my readers’ experiences better.

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Details, details

boat sunsetAt sunset on a late June evening, a fisherman sees an empty boat drifting on a northern Michigan lake. Would the man be fishing from the shore, a dock or boat? What fish would he be after that time of day and year? Would the sun be below the horizon or above? In his eyes or behind him? How would that affect how he sees the boat? What kind of boat is it?

Being attentive to details helps draw readers in, putting them at the scene. Like the fisherman, they are squinting to make out the boat that keeps disappearing in the waves splintered by the sun’s refracted light. Know, too, why a fisherman would be out on the lake that time of night. The sun sets around 10 p.m. that far north in the summer, and with the lake’s afterglow, it could even be later.

Writing might spring from the well of creativity, but reality shapes it. Only in action movies or TV shows where a suspension of disbelief is part of the viewing experience do brutally beaten characters hop up to single handedly take the bad guy down. It’s great entertainment, but not great writing.

Recently, I wrote a scene set in a hospital intensive care unit. Since this was a real hospital, I researched how to get there, where one would park, which building to enter, which elevator to take and on which floor the patient would be. In rereading the scene, I realized it still was missing color. If I were in that room, what would I see? There likely would be a cardiac monitor, pulse oximeter, arterial lines and urinary catheter. There also might be chest tubes, a Swan-Ganz catheter or central venous catheter. However, all the medical knowledge my character has comes from watching TV shows. She wouldn’t identify a pulse oximeter or Swan-Ganz catheter by name, but the descriptions have to be accurate.

Research is as important in fiction writing as it is in creative nonfiction or memoir. Get the details that make the difference online, first hand or from experts. Good writers get the details right.

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Delete. Rewrite.

DeleteInsertBackspaceI was feeling pretty smug on Friday. I was going into the weekend with all my to-dos checked off and a little more than 2,500 words added to my novel, excluding revisions. But something wasn’t sitting right with me.

The narrative flowed. The dialogue was believable. There even was some dramatic tension.

Yet, something was off. I kept coming back to the conversation in the car. It was filler, 745 wasted words. The reader learned nothing new, and the information I restated was not important enough to mention twice. Earlier, I’d hinted that Janelle might gain additional insight by spending more than an hour in the car with Paul’s parents, but I hadn’t delivered. I was feeling less smug.

The car ride, the precursor to a dramatic scene, contained no drama, no heightened expectations, nothing that would make me (or you) want to turn the page and keep reading. Nearly a third of my week’s work was junk not worth salvaging.

I’ll be able to use a sentence or two, move them to an earlier section. As for the rest, I’ll highlight the words and hit delete. Today, I’ll rewrite that section, plus another 500 words or so.

For the past several months, I’ve been taking a new approach to writing. Members of my critique group suggested moving the story along and revising later. Previously, I’d revise as I wrote, which made for lovely prose, but stories that crept forward. In the write now-revise later model, I find that plot problems are more apparent. However, the prose stinks. So, I am trying a hybrid approach, revising my work of the previous days before I write new sections that get things going again.

Of course, there’s still the no-fail way to find problems: Step away from the computer. Let the plot percolate in the subconscious. After it’s steeped a while, ask do I care what’s happening, do the characters interest me and further the plot, why do they act as they do, and what needs to happen to keep me turning pages? When I know the answers, I go back to the keyboard. And maybe hit delete.

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Read to write – and enjoy

NYTtblcontentsReading is one of my greatest pleasures, and I suspect it is one of yours, too. It’s my treat to myself after I’ve completed the day’s work. If I’m feeling particularly self-indulgent, I’ll put the to-dos aside and curl up on the couch or sit in the sun with a good book (the real thing, not a digital version).

When I teach creative writing, I tell my students to read like a writer and to write like a reader. That might explain why I am such an annoyingly slow reader and such a compulsive revisionist. It takes me nearly a full week to finish reading the New York Times. Not because there’s that much news or I’m a news junkie, although there is and I am. It’s because I read everything.

“A blond woman in a hot pink spandex tank hoists a sledgehammer over her shoulders, then slams it down with a dull thud onto the big tire in front of her.” (“Never Quit” by Heather Havrilesky)

I care nothing about extreme fitness, but with an opening sentence like this, how can I not read the second. Or the third. The headlines, too, draw me in. Captivating in print, they are rewritten for search optimization online. “Never Quit” becomes “Why Are Americans So Fascinated by Extreme Fitness?”

Articles I likely would pass over in other publications, I read and reread word for word to analyze why the images are so clear, the structure so crisp and – most importantly – the story so compelling.

“Once a year, Elimelech Ehrlich travels from Jerusalem to Lakewood, N.J., with a cash box and a wireless credit-card machine.” (“Beggarville” by Mark Oppenheimer)

The Times journalists are fine reporters, but just as importantly, they are unparalleled storytellers.

“In August, Tom Steyer and seven campaign advisers sat in a small conference room in Coral Gables, Fla., trying to figure out how to save the world.” (“Money Talks” by Jim Rutenberg)

The leads in these The New York Times Magazine stories from the October 19, 2014, are ones that would be at home as openings to detective, espionage or science fiction novels.

Our time is limited; each hour is precious. There are a lot of good writers out there – and a lot of bad ones. There are fewer excellent ones (with outstanding editors). Find them. Read them. You will be a better writer because of it.

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Filling holes

WordsFillingHoleWe were leaving our critique group last week, comments and suggestions duly noted, when one of the members began asking me more about my main character’s motivation. Easy questions. I had written her back story before I started the book, so I knew what made her tick. I understood her quirks and insecurities better than Janelle did herself. In each chapter, I revealed more about the reporter, so that readers got to know her. I thought I had everything accounted for, but this question brought me up short.

“Why Paul?”

I knew what she wanted to know about Paul and why she wanted to know it. I didn’t know how she had latched on to Paul’s story in the first place. What made her want to write about a year-old case? What brought it to the forefront of her consciousness when the case against him was tight and the media had moved on long ago?

I didn’t know.

All the next day, I mentally proposed and tossed out answers. I did what I always did when chewing on a plot turn or character’s development. I walked. I worked in the yard. I did something physical to free my mind, allowing it to work in the background to find a creative solution.

It worked. The answer came to me, and it was so obvious, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before.

I rewrote sections of my first chapter to include it. The answer not only made the chapter stronger, it explained why Janelle felt so passionately about writing the untold story that she was willing to have a heated exchange with her editor (an added section) about the journalistic value of pursuing it. Without the explanation, Janelle could have appeared to be just an idealistic, headstrong reporter. Now, she has a strong and valid argument that justifies her time and interest, even if it is writing on her own time and at her own expense.

Whether she gets the story she envisions is another issue.

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Bringing it home

familyFamilial relationships are complicated. And they should be just as complex in fiction as they are in real life. With the oldest child an accused bioterrorist, the Blake family has more than its share of complications.

In the ninth chapter of my book-in-progress, Chicago Tribune reporter Janelle Martin meets and interviews the family of accused bioterrorist Paul Blake. She knows she must carefully negotiate the family dynamics, being both respectful and professional, while uncovering new ground.

From interviews with friends, a teacher, police, the local paper and people in town, Janelle thinks she knows everything relevant about Paul as a child and teen. What she doesn’t know is the trigger or process that turned the good boy into a bioterrorist. No one she has interviewed so far has been able to explain that. Several think he’s innocent. She hopes that the uniquely intimate relationship that the Blakes have with Paul will provide the smoking gun.

To complicate matters, the reader knows something that Janelle doesn’t recognize. The reporter has gotten too close to her subject and to always be objective. That’s an objectivity she needs to recover.

Yesterday, I left Janelle thinking as she walked around a cemetery near her hotel. She is trying to identify what she specifically wants from the Blake family interview and how best to get it. She is framing her questions and anticipating roadblocks, so that she would know how to overcome them. The encounter will not be easy. For anyone.

The reporter will ask the family questions to gain insight and to open new avenues into understanding Paul. What questions, other than the obvious ones about his friends and changes his family noticed, do you think Janelle should ask Paul’s parents and his younger, young adult brother and sister? The reporter’s deadline is looming and she needs answers and direction to find those answers without alienating Paul’s family. She needs a complete picture of him and doesn’t have what she needs to write her story – yet.

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