There’s a Marsupial in My Manuscript!

A little writing hack that might save you some time:

When you get to a stopping point for the day, or when you get to a part of your manuscript that isn’t working, insert a marsupial.

By this I mean actually type in the word MARSUPIAL–or some other word you’re not likely to use in your book–in all caps. (If you’re writing a book about marsupials, definitely find another word.) Later, when you come back to your book to write some more, you can do a quick search for your unusual word and save yourself the time of having to scroll through to find your last stopping point.

Just a little something that has saved me some time over the years. Anyone else have a writing hack to share?

 

A Temptation Writers Must Avoid

Sometimes when you’re working on a new book, you get so excited that you’re just dying to talk about it. Especially if you come up with a character based on someone you know. The temptation is strong to tell that person, “Guess what? I’m basing a character on you!” Well, let me give you some advice: DON’T.

A while back, a friend of mine shared an anecdote about his life. It was a really charming story about how a failure had taught him an important lesson. I was impressed because said friend is extremely smart and multi-talented, and I was a little surprised to hear that he’d ever failed at anything. And I was even more impressed that he had the humility to share it. So I couldn’t help but open my big mouth and tell him how I was creating a character in my WIP based on him and his story. Big mistake.

Because here’s what happened: My editors convinced me that this character would be a lot more entertaining if I made him quirkier. As in “extremely socially awkward” quirkier. “Unattractive to most people” quirkier. My editors, as usual, were right–it did make the character more interesting. But imagine my embarrassment when I had to tell my friend that the character was like him ONLY IN THE GOOD WAYS. He seemed skeptical, and I couldn’t blame him. I ended up feeling terrible about the whole thing because the seed of inspiration was that this talented person had such humility, and now I’d come up with a character who was very different than what I’d first envisioned.

My character Kyra in Tig Ripley was a similar circumstance. I started thinking of how cool it would be if some middle school girls had their own rock band, and even cooler if two of them were cousins since my cousin and I have been best friends since I was 14. So Kyra was originally supposed to be this great confidante for my heroine, but it turned out, that didn’t give the story enough conflict. So Kyra ended up being obsessed with popularity and pretty whiny and annoying, completely unlike my BFF cousin. I had to make sure all my cousins knew that I was not Tig and they were not Kyra. Otherwise, family reunions could have gotten pretty awkward.

A word to the wise: wait until the manuscript is complete and the last round of edits are in before you tell someone you’ve based a character on him/her.

Your Orthodontist (or Insurance Agent) Wants You to Write a Book

Because orthodontists support the arts, that’s why.

In publishing, there’s a handy thing called a “book bible.” Some wonderful copy editor reads your entire book manuscript with exceedingly careful attention and makes an index of…well, everything.

You think you know your characters, your setting, and every detail of your book. But you’d actually be surprised how easy it is to forget so much of it. Book bibles help make sure there are no contradictions in the manuscript. For example, maybe in chapter two you said your protagonist has math during second period. But by chapter fifteen, you’ve forgotten that minor detail, and now she’s at lunch, stressing over her big math test next period. Whoops. A good copy editor catches this, notes it in the book bible, and keeps you from looking like a real doofus.

I don’t make my own book bible per se, but I will share with you one handy trick my now-agent taught me years ago: make a calendar. Write down what happens each day of your book on that calendar. It can even be an out-of-date one (reuse, recycle!) because the actual dates may not matter so much as how much time passes between, say, a protagonist puking on her love interest and the day he asks her to prom. (Yeah, that happens all the time.) Oddly enough, many orthodontists, insurance agents, and Realtors give calendars away all the time. I think it’s probably because, deep down, they know you are writing a book and they want to do their part to help.

It takes a little extra time but it has really helped me keep a timeline straight. Maybe it will help you, too.

Why Your Mean English Teacher Made You Learn Sentence Types

When I was a “mean, old English teacher,” I was young!

Today’s topic is sentence variety.

As you may remember from middle school, there are different types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound/complex. You probably had to take a test on them at some point. It may have been one of those, “When will we ever need to know this in real life?” moments for you. And you were right. But also wrong.

Chances are, outside of a test, no one will ever expect you to label a sentence by type (or at all). So why did you learn it?

Because language is music.

Take a moment and sing “Jingle Bells” to yourself. Or out loud, if you want to annoy someone. But just keep on singing the words “jingle bells.” Don’t change the words or the musical notes you’re singing. Do NOT, under any circumstances, jingle all the way.

How long before you drove yourself–or those in earshot–mad?

My point is that “jingle bells” is fine for a few bars, but for the love of humanity, enough is enough.

And so it is with your sentences. We vary the types of sentences to make the words pleasant to the ear, even if the “ear” is in your own mind while you read to yourself.

Some writers can instinctively employ sentence variety, but others may need to break it down. One good trick for teachers is to have students write a paragraph or two and then highlight the different sentence types in different colors. If everything on your page is, say, blue, then chances are you need more sentence variety. Unless you happen to be Ernest Hemingway. Then you could do whatever you want.

 

No, I Don’t Want to Read Your Book Manuscript

About once a week, I get a request from someone to read his/her book manuscript. I almost always say no. Here’s why.

I really do work for a living. Between writing my own books and magazine articles, I don’t have a lot of free time. Oh, and did I mention I’m also bringing up three children and a puppy? Asking someone to devote hours to your WIP (work in progress) is asking a lot. Before you do it, you should ask yourself some questions:

1. How close are we? And by close, I mean, have I ever donated a major organ to this person, bailed him/her out of jail, or had a chair broken across my back for him/her during a bar fight? If you can’t answer yes to any of those, you may be asking too much. People have lives, and frankly, time is money.

2. Did I offer to pay this person or do I just expect him/her to be delighted to do my bidding free of charge? (See above “time is money” comment.) Continue reading ‘No, I Don’t Want to Read Your Book Manuscript’

How Columbus, Mississippi, Wound up in a Children’s Book Set in Texas

I’ve started thinking that the job of writers is to take pieces from real life, put them in one of those silver cocktail cup thingies, and shake shake shake and see what emerges. At least, that is apparently what I do.

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time—as much as possible, in fact—hanging out with my cousin and our friends in Columbus, Mississippi. I loved it there, probably because I had such a cool cousin and friends, but also because it’s just a pretty neat place. Columbus was and is a charming small town, and if you were underage like I was, there was pretty much only one place to go on the weekends: a little joint called Bob’s. I’m told they served food there, but I think I went inside only once. Most of the time we just hung out in the parking lot, which doesn’t sound like much fun and excitement, but trust me when I tell you it was the best. (The owners must have been overjoyed by our failure to support the local economy, but they kindly tolerated us anyway.) Continue reading ‘How Columbus, Mississippi, Wound up in a Children’s Book Set in Texas’

Blogging: I, Too, Dislike It*

In case you missed it, author Rebecca Kauffman wrote an article for Publishers Weekly a week or two ago about her resistance to social media. Kauffman sums up what I’ve been thinking about that subject for years, but to borrow from Alexander Pope, she wrote “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”

Confession: I actually don’t like blogging. For one thing, I don’t think anyone reads my blog. And for another, having conversations with strangers makes me a little uncomfortable. And finally, I can’t shake the feeling that while I’m blogging a blog nobody reads, I could be spending that time writing a book.

So why do I have a blog or any of that stuff? Because publishers want writers to have those things. I wonder sometimes what JD Salinger would have done had he written in this day and age. Or Faulkner! Just imagine, the man who gave up his job as postmaster by writing in his resignation letter, “I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp” having to put something about himself online week after week and having to delete all the “what a great post” comments from hair tonic robots! In one of the collections of Faulkner’s letters I read some years ago, he told a friend about receiving letters from readers. He said something to the effect of, “I suppose I ought to answer them, but I don’t.”

I guess when you’re Faulkner you can do what you want.

The rest of us who write, I suppose, will have to continue to hide in plain sight on the internet…because that has become part of it.

*Title of today’s blog is a nod to a much better poem from a much better writer.

 

 

Chapter Breaks

In all the creative writing classes I took in college, no one ever taught me something kind of important:

When to end a chapter.

Luckily, most of us who write read enough books that we wind up with an innate sense of chapter breaks. My rule of thumb is that each chapter should have a sense of a scene’s being over, plus a little unfinished business. It’s that unfinished business that will make the reader tell herself, “Just one more chapter” because she’s dying to know what happens next.

Of course, like everything else in writing, the only rule is that there are no rules. I offer William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as evidence.

If you’ve ever read As I Lay Dying, you can probably clearly recall getting to the chapter with only five words and feeling like Marty McFly being blown to the other side of the room by a giant, loud amp. Those five words, “My mother is a fish,” might be the biggest mic drop in twentieth century American literature.

Just one more reason, folks, why Faulkner is the man.

 

How Important Is Setting?

It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s how Snoopy starts his novels as he sits on the roof of his doghouse and types on his typewriter. He never seems to get much further, but maybe that’s because the roof line on his doghouse must be uncomfortable for sitting, or maybe it’s because he’s still using a typewriter, or maybe it’s because he’s beginning with setting. (Digression 1: Don’t you just love Snoopy?)

I can remember going to a writers’ conference back when I was in high school. The panel of speakers talked about the importance of setting. But this was the 80s, and I wonder if what those experts said then is still true. Continue reading ‘How Important Is Setting?’

The Internet Can Kill a Good Writing Buzz

Does the name William Zabka mean anything to you?

Maybe not. But William Zabka is an actor, screenwriter, director, and producer who has a pretty extensive and impressive IMDB page. If you look at the photo of William Zabka on that same page, he looks like a well-adjusted guy you might chat with at your kids’ soccer game.

But William Zabka is best known (to me, anyway) as the mean nemesis in The Karate Kid.

This brings me to the point of today’s blog post: writers rely heavily on our memories for material. For example, when I’m writing a mean kid character, I often think back to the mean kids I used to know. Sometimes I can still feel that dread I felt walking onto the campus of my junior high school, hoping I wouldn’t cross those kids’ paths. This is great material when bringing a fictional character to life. Continue reading ‘The Internet Can Kill a Good Writing Buzz’