Sunday, September 2, 2018

When Writers Get Stuck

Most writers get stuck at some point when they're writing. Everything is going fine and then-- bang. Suddenly it isn't going at all.

I usually get stuck two or three times while I'm drafting a novel. Fortunately I have a list hanging on the wall of things to try when I get stuck.

Here's the list, with explanations:

Print out what you've got, and read it.
Sometimes it helps to change everything to a font you don't usually use, and then print. Jot ideas in the margin as you read.

Identify where your stuckness began.
What's the story element problem?

Take a walk.
I find it most helpful to walk in the forest, or in the dark.

Draw a picture.
Don't worry if you "can't draw". No one else has to see it. Draw your main character, or any character you're having trouble with. What's s/he holding? Doing?
Don't skip this one; you'll almost always learn something new about characters by drawing them.

Make a bubble map.
Instructions here.
Put your problem --the story element on which you're stuck-- in the center.

Game of 20.
Form your story element problem into a question. (Like "Why is Aunt Fiona missing?")
Start writing answers to the question. The first few will be obvious answers. The next few will be ridiculous answers. Keep going till you get to the more interesting answers. Go all the way to 20 answers. I usually find #17 or #18 is the right one.

Do some dialogue.
Starting from the place where you got stuck, just let your characters talk to each other for a while. Don't worry about what they say; you don't have to use this dialogue. Just let them talk, and see what you learn.

Monday, April 18, 2016

(Auction for refugee relief ended.)

Auction has ended. Thanks to everyone who bid! Altogether the Writing for Charity auction raised over $29,000, all of which will go to Lifting Hands International for refugee relief.

Hey, incipient children's writers, here's an opportunity to help refugees and have me critique your manuscript!

As part of the Writing for Charity auction to benefit refugee relief, organized by authors Shannon Hale and Mette Ivie Harrison, I'm offering a critique of a middle grade manuscript up to 75,000 words.

See the offer here.

Proceeds from the auction will go to Lifting Hands International.

There are tons of other items --lots of other critiques offered! Plus more cool stuff, including a pole dance by two award winning authors; I'm not making this up.

To bid in the auction, you'll need to set up an account.

Bidding closes at 1 a.m. on 5/3/16. I'm not clear on the time zone, but I'm going to wildly guess they mean Mountain Time, which would be midnight Pacific and 3 a.m. Eastern. To be on the safe side, bid early!
(And often.)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Lemon Chess Pie

I haven’t made lemon chess pie in years.

The other day I asked my mother if she could find the recipe. And she could; stuck away in a drawer, exactly where she thought she’d put it. In a photocopy of an article in the Fort Wayne Journal about Murphy’s At The River. We picked that photocopy up one day in 1986 when we made a journey to the restaurant, as people did, to eat lemon chess pie.

If you have never had lemon chess pie, it is worth a long, long drive.

My other memory of that day is that we rode a small cable ferry across the Kentucky River. The ferryman was missing a family event— a wedding reception, I think— and his nieces had brought him a plate of fried chicken and fixings from the party. And he was surprised because he remembered the nieces as toddlers. And there they were, big.

The green river slipped away under the boat as it chugged across, and when we tried to pay the ferryman, he said 

“That’s okay. I was going across anyway.”

Which was so perfectly poetic that, being the right age, I wrote a poem about it. I’ve mercifully lost the poem, but below is the recipe for lemon chess pie.

According to the Journal article, the recipe was modernized by restaurateur Dorothy Rhea Murphy, from one handed down to her by her grandmother, Lucretia Curd King. The ingredients look pretty alarming… but they don't seem to have done Mrs. Murphy any harm. She lived well into her nineties. 

Lemon Chess Pie

2 whole eggs plus 4 yolks
1 cup white sugar
4 T melted butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 T yellow cornmeal
1 T flour
4 T lemon juice
1 T grated lemon rind
1 9” unbaked pie crust

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Beat eggs, yolks & sugar together at high speed for 2 minutes. Add butter
and cream; beat again at high speed for 2 minutes. 

Add cornmeal, flour, lemon
juice & rind. Mix well. 

Pour into pie crust and bake 30 minutes. Allow pie to cool to room temperature before serving.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Few Facts About Guns

Yesterday the country was shocked by another mass shooting.
Nine people were killed. Yes. Sadly. 
Of the 92 people killed by guns in the US yesterday, nine were in class at a community college in Oregon.

So we are talking about guns for the first time since nine people were killed at a prayer meeting in a church in South Carolina.

In between those two incidents, it’s likely that 9,584 people died of gunshot wounds in the United States.

I’m basing this on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. The numbers are from 2013, the most recent year available. 

For 2013, the CDC lists 33,636 gun deaths in the US.

In other words, the tragedies in Oregon and South Carolina that captured the nation’s attention occur ten times a day.

Usually, news sources quote a much lower figure: 11,208 gun deaths a year. Those are homicides. That’s 31 a day. 

Three times the Oregon shooting. Three times the South Carolina shooting. Today, and yesterday, and tomorrow, and forever.

According to the FBI, three-fourths of homicides are committed with guns. More than half are committed by someone the victim knows; 1 in 4 are committed by family members. One third of female homicide victims are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. 

In other words: an American is far more likely to be shot at home by a family member than in a public place by a deluded narcissist.

So what about the other 61 US gun deaths a day? A small proportion of those are accidents, a category that tends to get distributed among other categories. 
 But two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides. 

Many people, including the news media, are quick to brush the suicides aside as unimportant. The thinking is that “those people” were doomed anyway.

Research shows this is not true. Suicide is largely dependent on opportunity. The great majority of people who narrowly survive a suicide attempt never try again. And suicides attempted with guns are the most likely to be successful. 

I just wanted to put these facts out there. They tend to get lost in the noise.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Rabies Shots

So the final book in the Jinx trilogy,  Jinx’s Fire, comes out in just 20 days, and I’ll be doing some events (more to come later). I hope you’ll attend, and that you’ll come up and say hello. I promise not to bite… 

…and anyway, I’m getting rabies shots.

There seem to be two FAQ about rabies shots, which I would like to address here.

Q: Is it true they are given in the stomach every day for ten days with a needle as long as your arm, and are horribly painful?

A: No. It turns out they are given in your arm with an ordinary-sized needle, and they don’t hurt any more than an ordinary shot. And I’m having four of them over a period of two weeks, which is standard. (Immune-compromised people have five over the course of a month.)

Q: DId something bite you?

Not to my knowledge. But I’ve been sleeping for the past couple weeks in a room that has periodically filled with bats. Not cute little upstate New York bats, but big honking New England bats.

Because there is a very remote possibility of contracting rabies simply from sleeping in a batty room (i.e. it seems to happen about once every few years in the US) the public health officials in Rhode Island, where I’m staying right now, advise people to get rabies shots under these circumstances.

I don’t really think I need the shots, but the disease is nearly 100% preventable with the shots, and nearly 100% fatal without them. 

So prevention seems like the way to go.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How and why to cut words from your manuscript

I’ve just cut 2,800 words off my current work-in-progress, a middle grade novel with a tentative publication date in 2016. (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins, working title: Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded.) My goal was to cut 3,000, so I nearly made it. 

When I first taught myself to cut words, I did it mainly to get my manuscripts down to industry standard for middle grade. (For fantasy, under 75,000 words; for other genres, under 65,000.) But I learned so much else from the process of word-cutting that I now use it to identify other issues. 

Cutting words is a good idea even if you’re not over wordcount, because it helps make your manuscript leaner, cleaner, and more like the stuff that gets published.

Here’s the procedure. 

  1. Decide how many words you want to cut.
  2. Print your manuscript.
  3. Divide the number of words you want to cut by the number of pages you’ve printed. In this case there were 202 pages, so my goal was to cut 15 words a page.
  4. Take a pen and try to hunt out the target number of words to delete on every single page. Write your score at the bottom of each page.

Keeping score is important, because it gives you an incentive to keep hunting out that one little extra word you can do away with it. (You probably won’t meet your goal on every page, so you’ll need to exceed it on some pages.)

Here are some of the cuts I made, and why I made them. Underlined words are words I added.

“We can’t buy dinner.”
“Why should you need to buy dinner?”

Deleting the unnecessary repetion cuts two words. Sometimes repetition serves a rhythmic purpose. This one doesn’t.

He waved them through toward a high arched hallway that opened beyond the office.

It doesn’t matter exactly where the hallway is, so those five extra words can go.
Changing “them through” to “toward” saves a word, but it also saves misunderstanding. He’s not waving them.

 With a sigh, she thought of Miss Ellicott.

As I made cuts, I discovered my protagonist was doing everything with a sigh. Sometimes she ended the sentence with a sigh, sometimes she began it with one. After this week’s cuts, only three sighs remain.

 The fact was it was a very big city.

“The fact was” over and over again in this draft! No longer.

She gestured broadly with her arm

Yeah, what else was she going to gesture with? I mean, the choices are fairly limited. There’s no need to say what she gestured with unless it was something really unusual. Someone else’s arm, for example.

There were pools of water here and there in hollows on the rock.

This is only a net reduction of one word, but it gets rid of the vague “here and there” and replaces it with something more specific.

It was pitch dark. She couldn’t see a thing.

Since the second sentence describes exactly what we would expect, it can go.

“So you’re spying on me, are you?” said Mrs. Walters, standing in front of stood before the fireplace, hands on hips.

This is one I did purely to reduce word count. I don’t think the changes I made in this sentence add anything stylistically. “Before” isn’t a better locative than “in front of”. It’s just shorter.

You can usually remove a dialogue tag (said X, X said, X asked, etc) if it’s immediately followed by an action. The point of dialogue tags is to identify the speaker. The action accomplishes this.

 Men and boys were everywhere, rolling barrels that rumbled along the docks, shouting and singing. They rolled barrels that rumbled along the the docks.

This one actually results in a net gain of one word. But I had to do it. As it was, the barrels, since they were already the subject of the verb “rumbled”,  appeared to be shouting and singing. While this would be interesting, it was not the image I wanted.

Besides the above examples, there were many whole sentences and even some paragraphs I removed simply because they described something that was already adequately described.

On my next round of cuts, which will probably follow my next revision and immediately precede submitting the manuscript to the publisher, I’m going to be looking for places where I’ve overexplained, not trusted the reader enough.

A round of cutting generally takes a week of full-time work.

Anyway, I thought the above might be interesting to some people.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My New Year's Resolution: Don't Be Mrs. X

Many years ago, Jimmy Carter was President and I lived in a small town in upstate New York where various people worked for less than they might have, because otherwise the things they did would not have been done at all. The village doctor saw minor cases for $1, more serious ones for $5. The piano teacher, Mrs. Hull, taught lessons for $1.

The system was this. You came into her house, at the appointed hour, without knocking. If another kid was in there having a lesson, you entertained yourself by examining Mrs. Hull’s collection of ceramic miniatures (among other things, a tiny sliced loaf and a tiny dish of butter). When it was your turn, you placed a dollar on the piano and sat down next to Mrs. Hull on the bench. You played your pieces, and sometimes she would interrupt and say gently, “If you hit an F sharp there, it might sound a little bit better for you, Sage.” Or she would lean over and gently pry your finger away from a note it was holding too long. 

If she was satisfied with your performance, you got new pieces, which she would play once through for you (she knew them all!) And off you went.

I loved these lessons. I walked to them on stilts sometimes. (You never see stilts anymore.) I practiced 2 or 3 hours a day. (My poor family.) I went through lesson books and sheet music pretty fast, and since Mrs. Hull always insisted on giving the music to me, and wouldn’t let me pay for it, my mother decided to pay $2 a lesson. (She would have paid more but we didn’t have more.) 

Mrs. Hull was not a young woman. She had graduated from college with degrees in German and music sometime in the Depression. She was quiet and kind and never suggested I had a scrap of musical talent, which indeed I did not.

And then I got big and went away to college. The music professor, Mr. X, had a wife who gave piano lessons for $6. Well, I could make $6 by leading a two-hour nature hike, so I signed up for 12 weeks of lessons. Twelve nature hikes.

Mrs. X was about Mrs. Hull’s age, and also soft-spoken. But she was not Mrs. Hull.

What I remember about those twelve weeks is failing, continually and resoundingly, to live up to Mrs. X’s expectations. She asked me to tell her the direction that sound moved. (I couldn’t.) She asked me to compose variations based on simple nursery songs. (I couldn’t.) She asked me to sit down on the piano bench as hard as I was hitting the piano keys. (I refused.) She sternly informed me that she had been deceived by my sight-reading into thinking I had talent. She assured me with finality that I did not.

Gradually I stopped practicing much, and at last the 12 weeks came to an end. I shut the piano lid with relief and stepped away. 

And 30 years went by.

This winter I find myself staying in a house that has a piano in it.  A very shiny piano, the kind that gleams at you from across the room and says, “Come on. You know you want to.”

So one day, a month ago, I opened the lid. And I sat down. And I played it. And played it some more. And some more. And you know what?

I don’t have any talent. 

Not an iota. 

But I like playing the piano. It’s pleasant and relaxing and fun.

And it’s okay to play the piano, or to practice any art form, for those reasons.

Mrs. Hull knew that.

My Mrs. X story isn’t at all unusual. I’ve heard similar stories from many people. It might be music, or dance, or drawing. Someone who enjoyed doing something was informed by someone knowledgeable that they had no talent and should stop.  The world has too few Mrs. Hulls, who understand that a thing can be worth doing for its own sake and not for any glory or remuneration.

Sometimes friends and acquaintances show me their writing, and they want me to tell them if it’s any good, or good enough.

And of course no professional writer ever thinks anything is good enough, so I try to share the joys of my insecurity with them. And they gently remonstrate. “Well, this is just something I’m doing for fun, you know. Something I thought my grandchildren might like.”

Ouch. Point taken. They want to write the way I want to play the piano, for a bit of joy.

My New Year’s resolution is to remember Mrs. X and Mrs. Hull, and remember that all of the art forms are for everyone, and not just for a chosen few.

If you like doing it, it’s good enough.