Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting Naked with the Muse

I suspect that many writers come to writing because they cannot find their voice in real life. They have trouble speaking their truths, whatever they may be, and writing is a place where they can do just that. (Although I am also willing to admit I might be projecting wildly here.) They don’t even have to risk anyone hearing it if they don’t want to, at least not until the writing kind of takes over and they find themselves pursuing publication.

Most everyone will agree that a great voice is what separates good writing from amazing writing. Not by itself, but it’s hard to achieve great writing without it.

After a certain point, when one has reached a certain mastery of craft, craft is no longer the issue; the uniqueness of the voice is. Not just in the words you use, but the things you have to say. They have to matter. And matter a lot. But in order to do that, you have to be willing to declare to the world what matters to you; what you think about, obsess over, are fascinated by. Even if they aren’t pretty or normal or even very common.

I have been a tiptoer. All my life I’ve tiptoed around my family and friends, not wanting to offend or, God forbid, upset or anger them. It’s hard to describe just how much I’ve censored myself in this quest to be a good friend, mother, daughter, or wife. And in a roundabout way, it served me well because I think it was part of the impetus to turn to writing—to have some place where I could say all the things I could never say in real life. That is why the Theodosia character was such a break through for me. And the only way I could write that first book was by telling myself it was just for me, no one else was ever going to read it. No one else was ever going to see that lens through which I sometimes viewed the world. 

And one of the things I adore about the Universe is that it is very willing to send you feedback when you are on the right track. That book has been my most popular one so far, no doubt due to my willingness to untangle myself from my own fears in the writing of it.

Which brings me to the project I've just finished, GRAVE MERCY.  Boys and girls, it terrifies me. Anyone who reads it will know that I am fascinated by sex and religion, death and love, duty and honor. I’m not sure I’m ready to confess to the world that my mind spends a lot of time mucking around in those places.

And yet…it does.

There is a scene in the third Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Eustace Scrubb has been enchanted and turned into a dragon. In order to remove the enchantment, he has to bathe in a magical pool, but before he can get in it, he has to strip out of his dragon skin. Not just the outer dragonish layer, but down past the scales and skin to the raw, tender Eustace part beneath.

That’s where I feel like I am in my journey; I am in the process of stripping off that old protective skin and finding the courage to step into that pool. Not just in writing, but in life. In striving to become a better writer, I find I have forced myself to become a stronger person. Once I have allowed myself to walk about with sure and certain feet, it is hard to get back up on my tiptoes and resume that cautious, tentative journey.

Stripping off those old protections stings, no question. Maybe even burns a little. I feel raw and tender and unbelievably vulnerable and exposed.

And yet, I am convinced that incredible freedom and beauty exists on the other side of that pool…

(originally posted on The Moody Muses blog)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Where Stories Come From

A while ago on another blog (in a galaxy far, far away) someone wanted to know why people who weren’t young adults would be interested in writing YA. It struck me as an odd question, because I’ve never had the sense that writers were only propelled by their own demographic for their stories. But it is also a legitimate question in a broader sense, and it got me to thinking about why we write and where our stories come from.

My own theory is that our richest, most authentic stories come out of our own traumas and heartbreaks. Not necessarily in a direct correlation—I was beaten as a child therefore I will write about child abuse. But rather the core emotional issues, the wounds and scars that have shaped us will also shape our stories. And the nature of those will, in turn, help determine what age group we write for.

Stories are the psychological equivalent of pearls, if you think about it. At some point in our lives, we receive this grain of sand—some horror or trauma or huge obstacle that becomes a permanent part of who we are. And then the magic begins to happen. Time passes, we move on, we begin to heal, scar tissue forms, we begin to grow again, only this time our growth encompasses those painful experiences. And if you are lucky enough to have a creative outlet, those painful experiences cannot help but shape what you create, much in the same way the shape of your hand determines the way you play the piano or the choice of medium affects what your artwork looks like.

My childhood and teen years were my most emotionally tumultuous, one great big stewing pot of dysfunctionality. It tapered off toward the ends of high school, but it was too late. The scars and wounds I’d received in childhood were so much a part of me that they radically affected every aspect of how I viewed the world and how I interacted with people, thus ensuring high school was hard and not the glowing ‘best time of your life’ that so many adults think of it.

So it is no surprise that when I write, that is where my stories come from. That place, even though I am well, (WELL!) past being a young adult, Not only was that the most fertile for me story-wise, but the thematic issues I am drawn to explore lend themselves best to that age.

Once I hit adulthood, I got lucky, found unconditional love, got married, and had kids. My life has been pretty great so far. Not exactly smooth sailing, raising kids is never smooth sailing, but there have been far fewer traumas and upheavals, and very little scar tissue and lots of lessons learned.

Which is why I write for kids and young adults. How about you? Why do you think you are drawn to the genre you work in? Which of your core emotional themes and issues make it a perfect fit?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Quirks and Foibles

It seems to me that the best writers, the ones whose books really stay with me, are connoisseurs of human nature. Being proficient at craft, or excelling at it, is good, but not enough, nor is a crackerjack plot. I relish learning things about the human condition and people.

I also think this is part and parcel of what propels some people to become writers—this desire to wrestle with and better understand the human condition. Do writers become observers of people so they have material? Or, do acute observers of people become writers so they have something to do with all that knowledge they’ve accumulated? Chicken? Egg? For most writers I know, this people watching begins at the earliest of ages.

I’ve also decided that people fall into two groups; those who like and are attracted to perfection, and those who are charmed by and attracted to quirks and foibles. I am willing to bet that a majority of writers fall into that latter category.

The thing about perfection is that it is often boring in its beauty, there is nothing innately interesting or human about it, no place for me in its vista. And I say this as a rank perfectionist—if I am not perfect, I have failed, so as a goal, perfection holds huge appeal for me. And yet, what I love most about people is their quirks and foibles. Their personal behavioral tics and oddities.

~The thirty five year old muscle bound guy who still has a baby animal calendar.
~The precision machinist who can’t get the sugar in the sugar bowl or the coffee grounds in the filter, but can execute the most precise of measurements on a metal lathe.
~The sleek, sexy brand spanking new black dodge charger being driven by an eighty year old lady.
~The woman who feels called to the priesthood, but also has an unholy obsession with Jimmy Choos.
~The guy who drives a gorgeous Porsche, but can’t stand driving in traffic so he rarely gets it out.
~The laid back surfer girl who cannot be in the same room with a change jar without sorting the coins into neat little stacks.

Quirks can also be physical—the kid whose ears turn bright red when he gets embarrassed, the stunning woman who bites her lip or nails, the kid whose twirled his hair so often he has a bald spot…

Quirks and foibles are often a chink in our armor, an indicator at how hard won our mastery of some skill or behavior really is. They are a physical manifestation of our deepest level conflicts.

Take a look at the people around you. What is it that most endears them to you? I’m betting it’s not their straight A report card or excellent punctuality record. No, I’m betting it’s that little something that only they do, it might even be a tad odd or strange…The thing is, a lot of this behavior can cross over into the highly annoying, it’s a matter of degree really.

But I wonder if we use that enough in our writing?

What quirks and foibles do your characters have? Not just pasted on to simply be funny or clever, but one’s you can trace back to their development as a person?

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Art of Revising: Micro Revision

Micro revision is all about the scene. Is the scene—the building block of my novel—working? Is it carrying its weight? Has it earned its place in the story? This is also where I check for dropped plot threads or un-fleshed out characters.

However, you only do this once you've hammered out the story, otherwise the focus of the scene might shift.

The first thing to check is that you have indeed written in scenes and not in one long, every minute accounted for stretch from beginning to end. You only need to show the parts that impact the story. It is okay to have some stuff (the boring stuff) happen off the page and either recap it or relay it in a quick transition or conversation.



Every scene should move the plot forward in some way. However, moving the plot forward can be subtle. But there needs to be some reason for the scene to be there. Note: The reason it’s there can often be very, very hidden.

Ideally, each scene should perform a variety of functions. Shoot for three:
Move plot forward
develop characters
reveal backstory (in tiny bits and pieces)
foreshadow upcoming events,
raise dramatic questions the reader wants answer to

Does the scene have some source of conflict or dramatic tension? This doesn’t have to be head to head conflict. It can be in the form of a dramatic question that is raised. Or a ticking clock. Or things left unsaid, swirling about the room. Foreshadowing can also work.

Look for a way to add tension on every single page.

If you can’t heighten the tension, ask yourself if the character is fully reacting to the events around him. Is he fully engaged by the events of the story?

Do I start the scene as late as possible and still make sense? In first books especially there can be a lot of deadwood. Writers feel they must account for every minute of their hero’s time, not realizing they get to pick and choose the dramatic moments they show, and simply account for the rest in transitions.

Consider eliminating the character getting from one place to another unless it has a dramatic rather than logistical reason for being there. For example, in Beastologist, I had to find ways to imbue some of the travel with tension, because it was Nate’s first trip—an exciting milestone in his life and something he should experience “on screen,” yet not necessarily a huge thing in and of itself.

For weak scenes, try listing all the reasons the scene is there. If the list is mostly because the character needs to know something, can you find a way to incorporate that same information in another scene?

Are there any places you start to skim as you’re re-reading the mss? Better look at those closely.

Have you dropped any subplots or plot threads along the way? This is where my handy-dandy spreadsheets come in. (Which I will be talking about next week, as per Laurel’s request.) Sometimes when I juggle as many plot threads as I do it is easy to lose someone.

Check for smooth transitions. If you start a scene with a chunk of action that isn’t dramatic action, or a few days have gone by, you can easily fill that part in with an effective transition.


Does the scene address the internal character arc as well as the external action of the story?

Have you gone deep enough into the character’s POV? Are you really living, breathing, feeling things through his filters?

Do the varying POV characters thoughts and actions flow smoothly? Is there a sense of continuity from one scene of theirs to the next?

Have I lost anyone? Dropped any secondary characters or forgotten about them?

Building On Theme

By now you should have a good idea as to what your theme is. Do your scenes explore this theme? Do your scenes wrestle with both sides of the question you raised? If your theme is about gaining forgiveness, do some of your scenes show the promise of forgiveness while others show the threat of eternal penance or punishment? Perhaps you can pull a little of this into your weaker scenes.

Is there an opportunity to build subtext into the scenes in some way, create a layer of something unspoken between the characters, or even something the character is hiding from himself?

Look for physical items that might make good concrete objects.


Keep an eye out for backstory or info dump; they can slow down your story. Flashbacks, too, can bring a story to a screeching halt.

Have you established a sense of time and place that the scene is occurring in. Would a change of location make the scene more fraught with meaning?

Look at your descriptions; do they illuminate something about the character as well as what they’re describing? The best descriptions are so deep in the character’s viewpoint that they tell us a lot about their worldview or current emotional state.

Have you pulled the senses into the scene?

What is it you want the reader to know by the end of this scene? What questions do you want her to be asking?

Do you give the same information more than once? If so, be sure to add something each time, some new revelation, some new nuance, otherwise say it only once.

If the book builds on clues or research or revelations, do those happen in an ordered sequence that actually lead to the proper revelation? Often I will cut and paste all the “clue” scenes into a single document and be sure they actually build on each other and don’t leave anything important out.

If you’re using more than one POV character, this can also be a handy trick for being sure the character’s thought build on each other—cutting and pasting all their POV scenes and reading them all at once to check for logistical flow and consistency.

Are there any vestigial tails in your scenes? Bits and pieces left over from something you had originally then removed?

Check for continuity of time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Art of Revising: Macro Revision

Ah, revision. Some writers hate it, others love it. Personally? I come down on the side of loving it. Revision is a chance to take a raw idea and make it really sing. It's one of the few chances we get in life at a do-over. First draft turned out $hi!!y? No problem. Because you can revise as much as you want to get it right.

Probably one of the most important revision tools is distance. Give yourself the gift of a little time between finishing one draft and starting on the next. You will be astonished at how much is revealed by that bit of distance.

A secondly, nearly as important tool is to recognize that revising is not the same thing as polishing. Polishing is about smoothing and shaping what you've got on the page. Revising is about really looking at the story and seeing if it's working. Revising is when it's time to look at what you actually managed to get out of your head onto the paper and see if the idea holds up under daylight. Or if there’s really as much there there as you’d hoped.  This is your chance to re-envision the story--to roll up your sleeves and see if the first attempt you made at telling it really utilized the best tools available for the job.

Revision, or Macro Revision, as I think of it, is all about the story. Does the manuscript contain all the vital elements needed to create a gripping story. Does it realize its potential? News flash: Most people’s don’t at the first draft stage. Seriously. Or if they revise as they go, you can bet their first pass at a scene isn’t perfect.

So here then, are the things to look at when sitting down to revise a story.

(I changed my mind. This isn't really a checklist, it's more of a list of questions to ask yourself as you try to analyze your manuscript. If you use it as a checklist of things you must have, you will go mad. So don't.)

Have you chosen the right person to tell this story?
90% of the time you will have, but sometimes there are times when the story is better told through someone else, less removed from the action. Think Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes.

Have your selected the right POV?
Is your first person narrative flat? If you can easily substitute third person pronouns and have the whole thing make sense and flow, chances are you haven’t taken full advantage of the first person form. Conversely, have you at least tried first person? What happens when you get totally inside your character's head? Does he come even more alive?

If you are working with a familiar scenario (dreaded move, new school, losing a best friend) what fresh, new, unique twist do you bring to it?

Have you selected the best setting for this story? Is there a different setting that would add more inherent conflict? Create more tension? Echo your thematic elements?


Does your character want something? Or not want something? Is that desire driving the story or at least some of his actions?

Is your character an active participant in the story? If not, is he taking baby steps toward becoming one?

Is there something that keeps getting between the main character and his goal? Would the story be stronger if there was?

Is there a source of tension?

Is your story building toward something?

If not, what provides the dramatic push or narrative drive toward the end?

Do the obstacles the protagonist faces increase in difficulty?

Does he ever fail? (Remember, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes!)

Are their times when he makes things worse by his own actions?

Is there cause and effect in your story, or is it more of a string of unconnected events. (This happened and then this happened and then this happened, but nothing caused any of the other things to happen.)

Is your character a different person at the end of the book than they were at the beginning?

Could he have solved this problem or puzzle or dealt with the core issues at the beginning of the book? If so, have you given him a big enough growth arc?

Will people be emotionally invested in his journey? Will they care if he fail? What is at risk if he fails?

Are there measurable baby steps he makes on his journey? Or does he just wake up one day, able to tackle the problem? Do we see his growth on the page?

Are the ideas and issues fully developed? Is there a true beginning, middle, and end? Or do you go straight from the beginning to the end without fully developing the issues in the middle?

Do the actions and events in the book impact different parts of the protagonist’s life? School, home, other relationships?

Do your secondary characters have arcs, too? They will be smaller and more subtle, but they should be there.


Why are you writing this story? What piece of You is in there? Why are you the most perfect person to tell this story?

Are the themes universal? Is there room for Everyman in your story?

Do the actions and events of your story support the theme you’re working with?

Now that you know your theme, is there a way you can make it even more powerful?

Next week? Micro revision....

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Also, last week's winners never checked in and I cannot find email addresses for them, therefore I have drawn a second round of names for the WRITING YA FOR DUMMIES prizes.

Erin Liles and Avery Michaels, you are our new winners! Please email me with you info so I can get these awesome prizes out to you!