What Agents Hate

There's a wonderful article up at Writer's Digest outlining specific turn-offs agents have regarding the oh-so-important first chapter. This is a MUST READ, so scurry on over and take a look!

What Agents Hate

Something for my Fellow YAers...

It's moments like these that I'm extremely grateful for the facelessness of a blog. Seeing me red-nosed and drippy-eyed, bundled in blankets and surrounded by a legion of soggy Kleenex is so not a Cosmo cover moment. Not by a long shot.

Because my brain is waay too fuzzy to contemplate the wet work of editing my latest WIP, I decided I'd hole up for the day and finish my latest read, Writing and Selling the YA Novel. And because it's so awesome, I'm telling all of you to run out and get this book for yourself.

I've read a lot of 'How to write well' books. In fact, for a year or two, Becca and I would read the same books at the same time, and then discuss the concepts in each. The result is, we often recommend the same books, but only if they stand out from all the rest.

This is one of those books.

Written by K.L.Going, author of Fat Kid Rules the World, this book is pure gold several times over. As both an author and a past assistant at Curtis Brown, Going knows the business from both sides. More importantly, she knows what is needed to make a book stand out in today's tough YA market.

Most lessons in the traditional 'how to write a novel' books can translate well from Adult lit to YA. Still, as any YA writer knows, there are many differences between these two genres. In many ways, teens are sharper, more skeptical. It's harder to gain and keep their attention, and for the adult writer, it's a huge challenge to get the details right in order to convey authentic teen characters and situations that the reader will believe in.

This book explores the teenage world and looks at every aspect of writing for teens from start to finish: tight plotting & pacing, authentic voices, slang issues & relatable, memorable characters. Lessons are included at the end of each chapter to hone the skills needed to reach the reader.

One of the biggest highlights of this book is how the author surveyed teens across North America and asked them relevant questions about what they read: what kind of situations do they enjoy reading about, what turns them off a book, what makes a character's teen voice come across as fake, what topics (if any) are taboo, etc. Their thoughtful answers give a strong idea of the expectations of today's YA reader, and what it takes to keep their attention. I found it very revealing to see what their thoughts were on certain subjects.

The lessons in this book give a definite edge to the YA novelist. If you're looking for something to help you really understand your audience better, this book is a good choice for your bookshelf. Happy reading!

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Garden

Sight

sunshine, glittering leaves, dew, grass, weeds, flowers indigenous to climate (roses, lilies, hydrangeas, cacti, wildflowers, daisies, blazing stars, marigolds, cone flowers, sunflowers, lung wort, etc), sun-dappled, pools of water, wet leaves, damp steps/stepping stones/walkways, water hose, sprinkler, tomato plants, ripe or green tomatoes, pea vines, frilly carrot tops, hill ed potatoes, tall corn stalks, bright lettuce greens, spiky onion tops, raspberry bushes, strawberry plants with delicate white flowers, bees, beetles, ants, slugs, caterpillars, ladybugs, butterflies, moths, spiders, spiderwebs, small snakes, earthworms, rot, decay, discolored leaves, holes in foliage leaves, mulch, bark, compost bin, rich black soil, cracked soil, sun-baked, wilted stalks, withered plants, stone bench, fire pit, wandering pathways, archways, hedges, climbing vines, creeping ground cover, apple/pear/cherry/peach/orange/etc trees, fishpond, bird bath, rolling lawn, birdhouses, birds, birdseed scatter beneath a feeder, empty sunflower seeds, wasp nests, bird poop, garden shed, garden tools (hoe, rake, pruning shears, shovel, gardening gloves, lawn mower, etc), fertilizer, bright colors, water rainbows from misting sprinklers in the sun, bistro table and chairs, awning, trellises covered in flowers, moss, electronic water fountain, pruned, wild, encroaching, overrun, thicket, brambles, thistle, unkempt

Sounds

a running sprinkler, lawnmower, the snip of shears, the hum of bees, bird calls, skittering squirrels or mice, the flutter of wings, squawking over space in the water bath or bird feeder, wind through the leaves, rustling, soughing, howling, the crackle of lighting from a summer storm, hail smattering against the eaves or walking path, sawing through leaves & bending stalks, pattering rain, flicking leaves, the tic of dead leaves being stirred up by wind, water dripping off the leaves, crickets, frogs, laughter, dog barking, the chuck sound of a shovel or hoe being thrust into the dirt, digging, the squeak of a half-open gate shaken by wind

Smells

Pungent tomato vines, sweet flower perfume, mint leaves, fresh mown grass, damp earth, the tang of ozone before or after a storm, fresh grown herbs, gasoline/exhaust from a mower or rototiller, onions, ripe fruit or berries, warm earth, dust, mouldering compost/mulch, rotting vegetables, charcoal and smoke from a burning barrel, rain, crisp frost, the chemical smell of fertilizer

Tastes

fresh flavorful vegetables, sweet & juicy fruit and berries, sour or not-quite-ripe apples or tart berries, woody or mealy apples, bland taste of chewing on a stalk of grass, honeysuckle flowers, mint leaves or other edible leaves, rain or snow on the tongue, crunchy sweet apples, pungent chives or onions, dirt from an unwashed carrot pulled straight from the ground, fresh herbs, spicy radishes

Touch

Leaves that feel saw-edged, felty, smooth, rough, sticky, wilted, dry, papery; squeezing a tomato or melon for ripeness, the slight give of ripe fruit, dirt under the nails, muddy hands, cold damp soil, dry & dusty soil, crumbly fertilizer, cold water against skin, water mist, the sharp pinch of a bee sting, the weight of heavy root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc), the 'give' of a weed (instant loss of force during the pulling of it), satin petals, slimy mulch, the cool shade, the hot relentless sunlight, a welcome cool breeze against sweat,

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1: The garden was more brown than green: leafless branches, skeletal twigs, dead leaves for ground cover. A stale breeze stirred the detritus, filling the garden with the smell of decay and providing the only sound. No insects hummed, not a single bird sang. Even the noise of my footsteps sank quietly into the dusty ground.

Example 2: I surveyed my nephew's garden plot with awe. Bean vines choked the tomatoes. I smelled turnips but couldn't find them. Likely, they were hiding under the mass of weeds in the corner. Something squished under my shoe: a pile of moldy manure. I wiped my foot on the base of a crippled corn stalk and wondered if I had wandered into a garden or a mad scientist's lab experiment.


--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile) Raindrops splatted into the soil like blood dripping from a mortal wound.

Example 2: (Metaphor) The tree rose tall and regal at the garden's center, a queen surrounded by her humble subjects.

What are you Reading?

Angela's excellent post, combined with my daughter's new pseudo-schedule and a little more free-time, remind me of how much I miss reading. But after my little break, I feel out of the loop. In an effort to keep us all accountable (and drum up some possibilities for me) please tell me what you're reading--doesn't matter if it's YA, adult, fiction, non-fiction. I'm just curious.

The last book I read:
The No-Cry Sleep Solution, Pantwell

What I'm reading now:
What's So Amazing About Grace?, Yancey

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Satisfaction

·A deep sniff while lifting the chin
·Apt dialogue that sums up the situation perfectly
·Justified possessiveness
·Saying "I told you so"
·Taking deep breaths, savoring the moment
·Bragging
·Casually anchoring a hand on the hip
·Stretching the arms out wide and taking a deep breath
·Warmth spreading throughout body
·Happiness over work done well, euphoria
·Whistling, humming, contentment
·Self-congratulations
·A quick nod to oneself or another for completing a project


Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Final emotions list

Satisfaction
Desperation
Uncertainty/Unconvinced
Overwhelmed
Distracted
Humiliation
Wounded/Hurt
Loneliness
Hopeful
And then a final one on Exhibiting Pain

(Indifference?)

Confessions of a Naughty Writer

Forgive me Stephen King, for I have sinned. I am a bad, bad writer.

There are two cardinal sins that a writer can make: failing to make time for writing, and failing to make time for reading. I'm stepping up to admit that for the past year I have fallen from grace--I have stopped making time to read.

I had my reasons of course. Between all the stuff needing done around the house, family commitments, time with the kids, volunteer work, writing time and critiquing, when did I have time to sit down and read? I brushed it off, choosing instead to squeeze as much time and energy into critiquing, editing and drafting as I could. After all, these were the things that would lead me to get published, and if I didn't work at my writing, how could I ever expect to succeed?

Now writing is important, so my aggressive stance of putting as much time into it wasn't all wrong. But really, I think that something else was keeping me from reading like I used to, something I'd like to talk a little about here, if you'll indulge me.

Simply put, guilt.

I have guilt issues. I don't know if it's because I'm a stay-at-home mom, or just because I'm a headcase. Probably both. But somewhere deep down inside I felt like because reading was an activity that I derived great satisfaction from, it was also frivolous. Putting the feet up and reading was unproductive. Lazy. I should be doing the million tasks I knew required completion, not flagrantly enjoying fiction!

Reading became a rare treat to enjoy, a reward. Then a few days ago, someone at Verla Kay's posted a portion of a talk given by Stephen King, whereby he told his audience that if people wanted to become writers, they had to make time to read. Commitment to writing meant throwing all the pathetic excuses to the zombies and making time for what was important. (Well, he didn't exactly use the word zombies, but I totally bet he wanted to.)

This simple advice resonated within me, because somewhere along the way I'd lost touch with this basic writing 101 fact. Reading isn't only for pleasure. It's just as important to do as writing if we want to succeed.

I'm really grateful for that video, and for the little virtual slap of sense it dealt me. A one-time voracious reader, I had let guilt put a stranglehold on my reading. Maximizing time for writing is always important, but reading is what fills the creative well.

I've ordered a ton of books that I've put off reading because I 'had no time.' Already I'm starting to see a shift in my creativity, and I'm enjoying my writing on a new level. Here's to balance, and making time for all the important things!

Have you ever found yourself feeling guilt over the time you spent reading or writing?

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Restaurant

Sight

benches along the wall, hostess stand, menus, silverware roll-ups, crayons and coloring paper for the kids, chandeliers, candle light, paintings, wine bottles, bar, stools, empty glasses, glasses sitting on bar napkins, liquor bottles, mirrored wall behind the bar, low-hanging lights, bowls of nuts/pretzels/mints, people swiveling on stools, booths with cushioned benches, high tops, tables and chairs, flower centerpieces, place mats, cloth or paper tablecloths, salt and pepper shakers, bread baskets, waiters and waitresses rushing by, aprons, pens and pads, steaming trays of food, customers seated at tables, kids turning around in seats, empty tables with dirty dishes, bathrooms, mints placed on top of a bill, busboys/girls with bins of dishes, managers stopping to chat, chalkboard with specials written on it, Visa/Amex sign at the cash register, steaming hot cleansing towels on plates or bowls of lemon water, the pained expression of receiving & paying a high bill, A themed decor (Italian: jars of decorative oils, dried pastas, chillies, a bistro-like feel; 50's diner: shiny chrome stools, milk shake machines, juke box, checkered tile; Japanese: Sushi rolls, silk fans/room dividers, Japanese art, Sake bottles, servers dressed in traditional kimonos,) etc.


Sounds

people murmuring/talking/laughing, loud laughter/shouting from the bar, sports events/news anchors on TVs, silverware clinking, dishes breaking, doors swinging open, servers taking orders, children yelling/crying, sound of children's' feet as they run to and from the bathroom, squeak of swiveling bar stools, swish of glasses being filled at the bar, knives scraping on plates, slurp of straws, ice tinkling in glasses, menus snapping shut, receipts printing at servers' stations, servers and cooks yelling back and forth, sizzle of cooking food, footsteps, music softly playing, soft scrape of cheese or pepper being grated onto food, scrape of chairs on floor, soft swish of fabric on booth cushions, radio station tuned in, tailored to customer demographic, employees gathering to sing happy birthday to a customer, waitress reciting specials, the hiss of draft beer/ pop pouring out of the spout, noises of food enjoyment, the crunch of crusty bread being cut at the table, the sawing of steak, knives scratching at the plate, the clink of keys being pulled from pockets as customers prepare to leave, flickering candlelight

Smells

prepared food, themed to the restaurant's genre menu (Pasta, ribs, sushi, Chinese food, steak, seafood), steam, spices, yeast, beer, robust wines, perfume, cologne, grease, starch/bleach smell on linens, air freshener, cleaning products, garlic, bad breath, mint from breath mints or gum, sugar and vanilla from baked goods,



Tastes

Food, crisp salad, dressings, spicy, desserts, coffee, tea, water, wines, beers & other alcoholic beverages, bubbly pop, ice, mints, gum, chocolate, lipstick or lip gloss, garlic, pats of butter, oil, grease, meat juices, gravies, sauces, salt, pepper, tobacco, smoke



Touch

crunching salad, plastic or fabric of seat covers sticking to legs, hard wood or tile floors, cold silverware and dishes, rough paper or soft cloth napkins, smooth tabletop, warmth from low-hung lamps and candles, shoulders/hips touching in a too-small booth, warm bread, hot plates, a/c set too warm or cold, waft of air from ceiling fans




Helpful hints:


--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1:

I chose a table in the corner but this was one scenario where location didn't seem to matter. Kids' shouting vied with the noise coming from the arcade in the back. The floor shook with the stomp of little feet, accompanying the percussion of balloons banging into my head. I scanned the menu, but the smell of sweaty kids killed whatever appetite I'd come in with. The waiter appeared, voicing what I think was a request for my drink order. I closed the menu and rubbed at the ache starting behind my eye. "Vodka?" I begged.

Example 2:

I slid into the booth, approving more and more of Rob's choice of restaurant. Candles flickered on the tables and the lights were nicely dim. A server approached on noiseless shoes, bearing a basket that smelled like a baker's oven. My stomach rolled over. I opened my menu and hoped Rob wouldn't be long.


--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)

As the too-loud mariachi band approached my table, I cringed and hoisted my half-empty margarita glass into the air, waving at the server across the room like an air crash victim signalling help.

Example 2: (Metaphor)

Refolding the napkin on my lap, I forced an interested smile at Alan, a balding accountant who looked nothing like the photo he posted online at the dating site. As he launched into a explanation of the tax laws surrounding capital gains, a waiter passed with the dessert trolley, a rolling siren's call of custards, pastries and layer cakes.

International Talk Like a Pirate Day!!



Arr, Matey! Today be that most illustrious of days where you can hoist yer rum to the the Jolly Roger and skip washin' fer a day or three. Today, as the mate in the crow's nest keeps a weather eye out for ships to pillage, we'll play the hornpipe and drink, tellin' all sorts of foul lies about the enemies we bested and the booty we stole.

As a loyal crew, you should know I has a love of pirates and all things piratey. And as yer Captain, I'm requesting ye come join the fun, lettin' out yer inner pirate.

So let's hear yer best pirate speak in them comments, or me terrifying first mate, Crazy Eye Becca will tenderize yer shank with a keel haulin', ye pack of scaberous, scurvy-ridden dogs! ARRRRRR!

Yer pirate name
Pirate personality test
Pirate laws
English to Pirate translator

Emotion Thesarus Entry: Somberness

  • Becoming soft-spoken, devoid of emotion, deadpan
  • A dark or weighted outlook
  • Folding the hands in the lap
  • Flaccid yet unwelcoming body language
  • A monotone voice
  • Dark or heavy observations
  • A bleak mood that affects others, lessens energy, brings people down
  • Drab or plain clothing choices
  • A grim twist to the mouth
  • Difficulty engaging in conversation
  • Sedate mannerisms, minimal or economical movement
  • Becoming unresponsive, distracted
  • Accepting a negative outcome or realization
  • Loss of interest in the usual hobbies or entertainments
Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

Talk Amongst Yourselves: Realistic Dialogue

Saturday was Date Night (woohoo!) and while we were out, I realized a few things. First, I recognized that while going out to eat pre-baby was merely fun, it's now necessary to my sanity. Secondly, as nice as it was to eat someone else's cooking, having a real conversation with another adult was even better. And that got me to thinking about dialogue.

As writers, we do a lot of research. To write about the zoo, we take a field trip. Have a character on a farm? Check out one of a zillion sites on corn and the life cycle of the European cornborer. But we don't do a lot of research on how our characters talk. And it shows in our dialogue, which comes across as stilted, forced, hard to believe.

So as Al and I chatted, I kept half an ear (beware the cornborer) open to determine how real dialogue sounds. Here's what I came up with…

1. Dialogue isn't used to impart information that both people already know. This is the As-You-Know-Bob technique, and it drives me bonkers. Example: "As you know, Bob, the fall festival is coming up, where children will be bobbing for apples, begging for candy, and generally peeing their pants with excitement." This technique is ineffective because the reader can see that both Bob and his friend already know about the fall festival, so why would they be talking about it? They wouldn't. In real life, people don't tell each other things they both already know. Well, some people do, and hearing it is just as annoying as seeing it in print. If you need to tell your reader something, dialogue is a great way to do it as long as the scenario is realistic and not contrived: a superior debriefing a younger officer about a security situation; one friend telling another what she missed at last night's party, etc.

2. Dialogue doesn't exist in a dialogue-only void. Al and I had some good conversation, but it was interspersed with action: cutting meat, checking a cell phone for missed calls, holding a bone-dry glass upside-down in a vain attempt to get the waitress's attention. In writing, we include these interruptions via dialogue tags. Ex:
  • "I hope the portions are generous," I said, eyeing a passing dessert tray.
Tags are used to break up the dialogue, but they're also a great way to show emotions, details about the setting, and characterization. The key to writing them realistically is to strike a good balance. Too many tags slow the pace; too few, and all you've got is a supremely boring passage. Editing aloud will help you find that happy medium.

3. Dialogue doesn't always flow logically back and forth. When you analyze a conversation between two people, it's not a litany of questions and responses. People hedge and misdirect; they avoid certain questions or answer ones that weren't even posed. Here's an example from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:

In formal dialogue, questions are always clearly understood and answers are complete and responsive. Real life is rarely that neat. Consider the difference between:
"I don't know what you were thinking about, going into a place like that. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, I really am."

and

"What did you think you were doing, going into a place like that?"
"I'm all right. Really."

In the last example, the first speaker isn't asking what she really wants to know: are you all right? Yet the second person understands and responds to the unspoken question rather than what was asked. This is how people talk: they jump to conclusions, read into what others are saying, beat around the bush, misdirect, even lie. These techniques make dialogue feel real.

4. And finally: Dialogue should be specific to each character. A modern teen will use slang. A stuffy and formal character may not use contractions. Someone speaking in a newly-learned foreign language will leave out minor words, use incorrect ones, and phrase their sentences strangely. Consider the source: think carefully about each character and how he or she would talk. Write accordingly.

So now you all have an excuse to go on a date or out on the town with friends. Call it research, and have fun!

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Two posts in one day? Holy zombies!

Here's one more link for anyone looking to check out a few more Writer's & Book lover's blogs. It's Book Blogger Appreciation Week, so have a peek!

Marireads

I think I'll start with Book Zombie... :-)

If you're interested in participating, the link is in the sidebar. Happy reading!

On the hunt for an agent?


I tripped across a blog today that has compiled a list of all Children's agents currently accepting queries according to Agent Query. If you're looking, make sure to stop by The Daily Muse and browse the agents. All the contact info is listed, and agents working at the same agency have been grouped together for your convenience. Talk about Awesomeness!

It's Monday people, and the week is full of potential. Have a great writing (and querying) week!

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Library

Sight
Books, paper, pencils, pens, pen jars, DVDs, CDs, librarian, stacks, shelves, bookcases, dust, colorful paperbacks, tomes, dictionaries, encyclopedias, students, senior citizens, stamps, ink, filing cabinets, staircases, computers, microfiche, newspapers, pamphlets, handouts, banners, signs, posters, reading groups, study groups, lamps, stained glass (old libraries), children's corner, upper floor, no talking signs, filing cabinets, bookmarks, card catalogues, binders, laminating machine, few windows/natural sunlight, plants on desk, library name placard, photocopier, scanners, printers, workstations with privacy barriers, crumpled paper, paper slips magazines, couches, easy chairs, large open desks or row desks, books on showcase, reusable book bags, coat hooks, tables and chairs, light coming in through windows, conference rooms

Sounds
Quiet, cell phones quickly silenced, whirr of AC or heaters, fans, etc. Breathing, shushing, ping of a text message, muffled/hushed talking, librarian reading to children, excited children's voices, books dropping, turning pages, flapping pages, paper ripping, coughing, sneezing, chairs creaking, footsteps on a staircase, footsteps overhead on upper level, whispers, the scritch of pencils, clicking of pens, a frustrated sigh or groan, snap of gum, clearing throat, tapping a pencil on a table or book, muffled itunes music from headphones, the crackle of a newspaper page being straighted or folded, tapping of fingers on keyboards, soft click of laptops being plugged in/folded up/put away, zip of backpacks being opened, water bottles being swished

Smells
crisp paper, musty carpet, dust, air conditioning, minty breath, cigarette smell coming off a librarian or patron, leather, spicy cologne, perfume, old carpet, air freshener, cleaning products odors, pencil shavings (floor polish, pine sol, Windex)

Tastes
gum, breath mints, chewing tobacco, biting on pencils (wood taste), ink transfer (from newspaper to hand to mouth), sipping water from a public fountain

Touch
slippery pages, rough leather, smooth desk surfaces, static from carpet, scratchy seat cushions, hard, uncomfortable plastic chairs, brushing away leftover eraser debris off a table or term paper, a cold plastic library card handed over, typing on keyboards, pressing on cool glass doors to enter or exit, running a finger through dust or over a bumpy raised book cover, smooth polished banisters, cold doorknobs, rough pages sticking together, gloss of DVD covers, dusty computer screen, solid-feeling columns, warmth of sun shining through windows, heat from computers, frigid a/c

Helpful hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Example 1: The librarian read aloud from a brightly-illustrated book, holding it aloft for the children to see. No one saw; instead, toddlers flipped over on the colorful carpet, sucked thumbs, and stuck their rear-ends in the air. The narration continued in a voice that hid a smile.

Example 2: The hush of the library amplified his heartbeat until he was sure everyone could hear it. Books jostled for space on the shelves. Scrolls covered the tables, unrolling to litter the floor with recipes and carpentry designs. The ancient smell of crumbling parchment filled the air. Rham meandered through the clutter and wondered how anyone found what they needed.

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Example 1: (Simile)
Volumes crammed the shelves, all sizes and colors. The oldest ones sat on the highest shelf, out of reach of the children's sticky hands. Scripted gold lettering, faint as breath, could still be seen along the spines.

Example 2: (Metaphor)
My first time in the library at night, I hesitated at the bottom of the curved stairwell. Above on the upper level, the tall bookcases, always beckoning to me to explore on rain-filled days, were cloaked and secretive; wood sentinels guarding impenetrable darkness.

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Resentment

·Lips pinched together
·Spinning away in a huff
·Refusing to apologize, or giving a forced apology
·Rolling one's eyes
·A dark look, giving someone the "stink eye"
·Displaying anger (shoving someone, breaking something)
·Shouting, "Fine then!" or "Whatever!" or even "I hate you!"
·Locking oneself into a bedroom or bathroom
·Showing defiance (not doing homework, refusing to help out or do chores, refusing to eat)
·Experiencing vengeful thoughts towards others
·Angry tears
·A desire to spoil other peoples' moods
·Cattiness
·Pretending to zone out to an iPod or TV in order to avoid a question



Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 



Pacing Potholes: Common Hazards that Slow Forward Motion

How often have you been asked this question:

What's more important to a story, a strong plot or strong characters?

When I first heard this question, I argued heavily for plot being the King of the Road. After all, I wrote plot-driven stories and plotting was one of my biggest strengths! Maybe my characters weren't anything to write home about, but hey, I'd dazzle my readers through plot twists.

The more I listened to the advocates of characterization, tho, I began to realize how important a strong, authentic character is for getting the reader to relate to the story and connect to the plot. I started actively working on strengthening this component of my writing.

Now, I would say both plot and character are equally deserving of the top spot in writing; both are race cars that pack a powerful kick on the road. They don't share that distinction alone however. A third contender should sit rightfully between them: Pacing.

Why? Because without successful pacing, readers will never get to know the well-drawn characters, never get to experience that twisting plot brilliance. If the pacing stinks, they'll close the book and go find something else to read.

Pacing is a difficult thing to master. Like driving a car, there are many things we need to be on top of to keep our story on the road. Are we glancing out the window enough to be aware of the setting around us? Do we have a destination in mind, or is our plot taking the scenic route? Did we remember to bring road munchies for the long trip, like humor, voice, atmosphere, tension, and a steady point of view?

All stories should flow in one direction: forward. Seems easy, doesn't it? After all, we all know the formula of beginning, middle and end. But trust me, there are many things hazards to be wary of, even for masters of the road. In this post, I'd like to take a look at potential potholes that slow forward motion or stop it altogether.

1. Physical descriptions

Big chunks of description, of either people or places, can put the brakes on your story. Details of the setting should be woven into the story and provide concrete imagery. What the characters notice should be relevant to who they are and what they are feeling. If you do this, you can say a lot with only a few words.

If you're describing a character, select only a few fingernail details, relevant to what you want the reader to know about them. A head to toe account of what they're wearing is seldom necessary. What a character does speaks louder than what they look like.

2. Repetitives (Looping)

Repetition is something that occurs on all levels of writing, and something we must always be vigilant for. Whether it's two lines of description that say the same thing, internal thoughts that rehash current actions, two secondary characters who have the same purpose, or a repeating conflict that occurs over and over, the result is the same--it puts a speed restriction on your pace. If the repetition is minor, your reader will feel a mild sense of déjà vu. If they pick up on a major loop, they may skim ahead or stop reading altogether.

Becca and I often refer to something called RUE. It's from a book, Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King and stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. Basically, the concept is to show something once and move on, resisting the urge to clarify or explain it.

Writers struggle with 'over telling' because they want to make sure the message gets through to their readers. A common place where this happens is around dialogue or when showing character action and emotion.

"I'm done with the both of you!" Mary screamed, vibrating with rage. She stomped up the stairs and then slammed her bedroom door.

Here, the dialogue, the stomping and the slamming, all show her anger level. The 'vibrating with rage' is completely unnecessary, basically telling what has been already been shown.

*Keep your eye out for the small bumps in the road too, like overused words. Strong, specific verbs will stand out if used several times (ones like shun, ricochet, shatter, seeped, wept, etc)as do descriptors, the word said, etc.

3. Internal thoughts

Forward motion occurs on two levels: the physical and emotional. Often the emotional is conveyed internally, through thought. If there is an imbalance between thoughts and actions, it can slow the journey of the story.

Have you ever read a passage of dialogue where every single line is accompanied by thoughts? I think we all have, in fact, we probably all do this in our writing to some degree. I know I do, and it's something I have to edit out during the rewriting process.

When too many thoughts interrupt a scene, the reader is jerked from internal to external like tug-a-war. Focus shifts from what is happening to what the character thinks, and then back again. Sooner or later, the reader will grow frustrated and likely begin to skim, following only the dialogue. Having a reader skim is counterproductive, because the whole reason for internal thoughts is to draw your audience in closer to your character's perspective and emotions.

In any scene, actions should flow naturally from one to the next. This is especially true of dialogue. That's not to say that there shouldn't be any internal thoughts, simply they should be minimized and focused. Often, you can show what someone is thinking or feeling by what they do (action).

4. Back story

Our old pal back story can be like that clunky old rusted-out Ford driving 20 miles under the speed limit. In the wrong place, or at the wrong time, you suddenly find yourself inside a traffic jam.

Now back story sometimes gets a bad rap, because face it, occasionally we need something to haul a load of lumber or dirt. Of course we're going to use an old pickup, because it makes sense to do so. The trick with back story is to use it sparingly, when the gain outweighs the momentary loss of forward motion.

Sometimes, by moving the story back, you can provide the reader with information about a significant person, item or place that will offer an emotional connection to the main character and shed light on their current actions and motivations. Flashbacks should not be used just to provide more information on something the author believes the reader will find interesting.

To use a flashback properly, the content of it must have direct bearing on the current scene. The trick is to use smooth transitions to get in and out of the flashback as soon as possible so you can continue onward. By having the flashback be brought on by something experienced or seen in the moment, a seamless line can be drawn from current scene, to memory, to the scene again. Always make sure there is an emotional relevance, and be as brief as possible.

Can you think of any other dangers that can foul up the pace (and be sure to use my driving analogies, cause I KNOW you all want to!)

One that probably also deserves to be mentioned is SKIMPING, where we skim on details or speed through scenes in order to get to our destination. Don't be afraid to add meat to your writing; there's nothing wrong with description and with taking the time to set the stage.

As with all things, balance is the key. Pace should act as a mirror, slowing or speeding up to reflect the action level of each scene.

Setting Thesaurus Entry: Beach

Sight

blue, green, sea-green, whitecaps, waves, uneven shoreline, horizon, cruise ships and sailboats way out at sea, planes flying overhead with advertising banners, seaweed, shells, sand dunes, cattails, starfish, jellyfish, seagulls, beachcombers, half-washed-away sand castles, tide pools, jetties, rocks, sunbathers, swimmers, joggers, surfers, football/frisbee-throwers, food and drink vendors, people fishing on the shore, babies with soggy diapers, dogs, sunburned skin, umbrellas, blankets, towels, coolers, bottles of tanning lotion and sunblock, flip-flops, lifeguard tower with flag flying, streamers of seaweed rolling in the surf, cigarette butts, leaping fish, flies, snorkelers, portable BBQs, picnic baskets, colorful loungers and chairs, buckets and pails, people playing volleyball, trinket/food/beverage hawkers, water fountains, public toilets/change rooms, skittering crabs, surf, floatable loungers, inner tubes, water wings, colorful beach balls, banana boats

Sounds

crashing/rumbling/whispering waves, gusts of wind, seagulls crying and flapping, children screeching, people talking and laughing, snatches of conversation carried on the wind, umbrellas flapping, dogs barking, music, children crying, seadoos or powerboats thundering past, highway traffic, sea grass shushing in the breeze, planes flying overhead, kite streamers rattling in the wind, people pumping up floatables (boats, loungers, balls)

Smells

hot, briny, salty, hot dogs and burgers, suntan lotion, wet towels, sweat, seaweed/algae, spilt beer, taco chips, grease, bug spray

Tastes

salty air and water, sweat, cold water from bottles, hot dogs and burgers, soda, bitter drip of lotion, ice cream treats/ Popsicles, chips, gritty sand in food

Touch

soft sand, dry sand, gritty sand in your suit, scratching, chafing, sweat trickling, water running, sand sticking to wet feet, oily lotion, prickly sunburn, rough towel, hot sand burning your feet, sun's heat beating down, cold water bottle or soda can, heat coming off of people near you, the cooler air beneath an umbrella, cool/warm breeze, scratch of sand in your eyes, bumpy and smooth seashells, splashing water, cold or hot water, pull of undertow, startling scratch of seaweed tendrils brushing against skin, chafe of water-splashed shorts/pants, hair tangling in the wind and sticking to neck

Helpful Hints:

--The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.

Ex 1: The purity of blue sky and warm sunlight soothed me like a tropical balm, scattering my worries about the upcoming trial.

Ex 2: I unravelled my towel on the strip of unused sand between an overweight woman sunbather and a single mother and her pack of squalling children with food-encrusted faces. Ahead, two yellow umbrellas with a string of wet towels between them blocked any chance of a view of the ocean. What was this, a damn tent town?

--Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.

Ex 1 (simile): A patch of sea grass nodded in the wind, pointing toward the glittering waves like a signpost.

Ex 2 (metaphor): The surf thundered in, grabbing at the dry sand with frothing fingers.

Awards & Thanks


Recently Tabitha gave us an award to pass on, the Brillante Weblog Award. How awesome is that?

Now the hard part is passing it on, simply because Becca and I glean so much from other blogs, we're hard pressed to select favorites. So, rather than do the official handing off of the award to a few bloggers, we're breaking the rules and giving it out to all our musers! Each one of you offers a unique perspective on writing and the creative processes, and we really enjoy reading all of your posts.

Becca and I are new to the blogging world, still in our first year. It didn't take long for us to see that while we may create the content, what makes The Bookshelf Muse special is you. Your comments, conversations and sharing that arises from our interaction helps us all learn together. Thank you all for being so open and generous with your thoughts and knowledge!

In fact, in visiting a muser's blog *waves at Devon* I found THIS. If your looking for a few more good established blogs to read, check out the comments section--I found several ones that look quite helpful to writers that I hadn't heard of before. And check out Devon's blog if you'd like, because she's in the running!

Happy Writing!

Emotion Thesaurus Entry: Excited/Elated

·High color, a flushed appearance
·Slam-dunking trash into a barrel after a game or event (guys)
·Jumping up and down
·Making fists and doing an exaggerated shake close to the body (running in place)
·Doing a victory dance
·Not caring what others think, a lack of self consciousness, enjoying the moment
·Enjoying communal happiness, feeling part of the crowd
·A warm glow expanding throughout the body
·Heightened senses
·Cold fingers, numbness, shock
·Speed-talking with heads close together (girls)
·Throaty laughter
·Impatience
·Getting the giggles
·A distinct walk, a fast-paced strut

Enthusiasm is closely related to Excited/Elated. If you need more ideas on how to express this emotion, have a look here.



Good news! This sample has been expanded and streamlined into book form! The full list of physical, internal, and mental cues for this and 74 other emotions can be found in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, available for purchase at AmazonBarnes & NobleiTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF is also downloadable via the Paypal button in the sidebar. 

I'm Back!

HI folks! Let me just say going without Internet for over a week left me a a little twitchy, but overall we had a great trip. Our destination was Whistler, British Columbia, home of the 2010 Olympics. It was really interesting to see all the work being done to get ready for the Olympics, like the Luge track and ski jumps being built, along with all the other infrastructure needed to host such an enormous event.

I'm not one for crowds, so most of the activities we did were out in the big outdoors, hanging with the locals.







The setting was rich with earthy smells and the sound of running water and fluttering leaves.

I found myself enjoying the smallest of things--patterns of moss, burls on trees, the springy carpet of pine needles beneath us.





Of course, hiking through such fabulous scenery I couldn't help but think of the Setting Thesaurus, and so I tried to soak in everything I could as we walked.




Helen, a writer friend of mine, drove up from Vancouver and joined my family for the hike. It was great to spend time with her and talk shop. Her shoe is on the left.

And speaking of shoes...


My kids had quite the fascination for the slugs and snails! Where I live, the slugs are just tiny brown things, perhaps an inch in length. In Whistler the slugs come in all colors from black to vomit yellow to booger green. I'm sure this guy was on steroids, and I KNOW I heard him gurgle something about world domination in between bouts of maniacal slug laughter.



We hiked out to Lost Lake and had a picnic lunch. Some of the pathways were closed for the migrating toads, but we found we liked the more rugged trails, anyway.

How scenic is this?



We just missed the hot weather, and so with mist or rain every day I was unable to get shots of the mountains. Still, I hope you enjoy the ones I did take. Whistler is a beautiful area in any season and worth visiting.

How was your week?

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