Monday, June 29, 2009
The first exercise will involve chapter 16 on writing a synopsis, which links to chapter 7, plot. A synopsis outlines the book for a publisher or agent, but it's got to be done in a way that is not simply a linear retelling of events. Basically, Yardley states that the synopsis should include the introduction of the character, the story goal, inciting incident, the three sequential plot points, the black moment, the climax, and the resolution. She says it is also important to infuse your voice into the synopsis. She has an interesting idea about writing the synopsis in first person voice, although she advises that it is typically written in third person.
In my next posting, I will try writing a synopsis for my YA novel that is being revised as a paranormal mystery.
Monday, June 22, 2009
This was hard and took me awhile because I had to essentially outline all the scenes I have yet to write. Although I wasn't able to envision scenes to the end of the book, I did come up with 17 more scenes and got more ideas in doing this exercise. A number of writing books suggest outlining all the way through before writing the book, but this doesn't work for me. It is too linear and logical a process when I am still trying to figure out the story. Attempting to do it periodically though does help me grow ideas and organize the plot though which are always challenging aspects for me.
Since these 17 scenes are ones I have yet to write, it was difficult to know when I would need transitions and, even more specifically, if they would be in the form of reflections. In general, my transitions will likely comprise reflections on the passage of time, combined with some of the more mundane tasks connected to Drew's investigation (e.g., trying to contact the senator and failing), showing her at her job (writing, teaching, etc.), spending time with her children (e.g., Gymboree), and having parenting challenges (defiance, crying spells, temper tantrums).
It seems that in writing a mystery some of the ideas that Whitcomb mentions about reflections do not fit as well; instead, they may be more well suited to a literary or women's novel where there may be more reflection about theme, character, and so forth. Still, my adaptation of her exercise made me realize more consciously that I will use transitions rather than whole scenes for the protagonist's work, childcare, and routine tasks of the investigation. As importantly, it helped me line up my scenes, which gives me more direction about what to write next.
Review of Laura Whitcomb's NOVEL SHORTCUTS
In general, I thought this was an excellent book. For the most part, my sampling of her exercises involved those that were more appropriate to the middle portion of writing a novel. Whitcomb has a lot of exercises about coming up with ideas and starting a novel that I didn't get in to. For most writers, it is easier to start a novel than to deal with what one of my writing teachers at the Writer's League in Bethesda, Maryland called (and even had a workshop on), the Muddle in the Middle.
But the ones I chose are definitely helpful for figuring out scene-building when you are past the beginning. I will continue to use these two exercises in every scene I write: the compounding scenes exercise and the scene shortcut exercise (taking the purpose of the scene, the dialogue, and the freewriting separately and then melding them together). Does anyone else have any reactions or comments about Laura Whicomb's NOVEL SHORTCUTS?
The other part of this is to decide what kind of transition to provide. Whitcomb writes about "reflections," which are when the character in narrative voice makes a decision or comes to a resolution or insight. She talks about a variety of reflections:
1) reflecting on a theme or major conflict
2) reflecting on a character's personality
3) on thoughts
4) recapping a segment of time
My task (and please join in) is to examine the scenes I have yet to write which are loosely organized with many gaps and decide which ones should have a transition. I'm hoping this will help me firm up which ones I will be writing as scenes. I am also going to try to write some sample transitions based on the 4 Whitcomb names above.
The book could begin with an opening chapter that is not labeled by any particular sister to create suspense about who ended up "in the hospital after the crash."
This is an example of how it could be set up as a cautionary tale: "I’ve written this so I can figure out who I am, and maybe it will help you figure out who you are, too. I am in the hospital now after the crash and have time to sort it all out."
Show date and time before each chapter entry by one of the sisters. It will mislead the reader because although it looks factual with sequential dates, the years are off (2 years ahead for how Genny would be if she takes a certain path).
Although each chapter is currently written in first person from one of the sister's voices, it would become even more immediate if the chapters were written as diary entries.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
The first is an urban fantasy called TEEN TIME WITCH. Currently, it's structured by having a quote about time open each chapter. Here's some additional ideas based on Whitcomb's exercises:
1) As a cautionary tale:
Open the book with a caution: "You know how your mom tells you not to get involved with a boy (in that way). Well, she knows what she's talking about it. Because it releases all sorts of powerful feelings. In my case, it brought out my powers."
Because TEEN TIME WITCH involves a prophecy where time starts to run backward until it ends, I could show the time at the beginning of each chapter, and the reader can see how it goes backward.
3) Illustrating a story
A witch's spell could start each chapter or a how-to tip on how to be a witch.
4) Diary format
Main character Eve writes down in her diary as events occur; might lead to a new title DIARY OF A TEEN TIME WITCH which might have appeal
Let me know which sounds like the most compelling device to you and/or the one that might best catch the interest of agents or editors.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
- the cautionary tale
- the knight's tale
- documentary (showing date and time)
- a confessional (speaking directly to the audience)
- the book of wisdom in which you insert "lessions in life" or "stories" at the start of chapters (pps. 63-67)
- the fairy tale
I'm going to suggest a variation of Whitcomb's exercise; hers involves picking devices out of a hat and applying them to known stories, such as fairy tales, to get the creative juices flowing. My variation is to apply at least three devices to the project that you are working on.
I went through Chapters 9-13 of DEAD AND BURIED by Karen MacInerney, a Gray Whale Inn Mystery (Midnight Ink, 2007). I chose the book because it's a delightful cozy mystery series, and I am writing a cozy. I chose the particular chapters because I am around that point in my own novel.
What I found is that she is very heavy on writing scenes. In chapter nine, she has a one paragraph summary of a morning and afternoon and the rest of the chapter is a scene.
Chapter Ten has three scenes with a paragraph summary between the first and second scenes to convey a two-hour break.
Chapters Eleven and Twelve comprise one scene each.
Chapter Twelve has one short scene, then a two paragraph summary, followed by another scene.
This was a helpful exercise because it forced me to examine this element of writing in an author's work I admire. It's interesting that MacInerney uses so many scenes; I've been writing scene-heavy chapters, as well, with the understanding that these are much more immediate for the reader to experience events with the characters.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Whitcomb suggests looking at your favorite author (or the kind of book you want to write) and seeing how that person balances scene, summary, and reflection since it can be challenging figuring out how much of each to put in. This one doesn't require any writing, just seeing how other authors handle this.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
In the "what should happen in the scene" section, the goal could be as simple as learning that so-and-so isn't a suspect or as complex as John and Mary fall in love. It's the thing you're aiming at. The reason for having this scene in the first place. It might go with the character's goal. It's great for tension if two or more characters have different goals in a scene. John wants to convince Mary to testify while during the same conversation Mary wants to find out how he feels about her romantically. That kinda stuff. =)
Something should be unresolved. Could be something big like a mystery's whodunit, or something smaller like a character being unsure how they feel about something like death or taxes. What you don't want are scenes that tie up all the loose ends every time. People will feel too free to close the book. =D
Helpful feedback. Thanks so much to Laura Whitcomb.
Now here is the scene I wrote after weaving the three elements for the "Scene Shortcut" together:
“How was that lawyer Miller?” Arlene asked.
“I guess, okay.” Rob still chewing, sat back in his chair around our kitchen table. “He had me tell him everything before the police took my statement.”
“What kinds of things did he ask you?” she asked.
We had opted for pizza, with a whole-wheat crust since Seth was trying to control his consumption of white flour and sugar. He didn’t want to turn out diabetic like his mother.
Rob shifted in his chair. “Mom, that’s confidential.”
“Anything you tell a lawyer is confidential,” said Seth.
“I just want to get a feel for the guy. Is that so wrong?” Arlene appealed to Barbara.
“Like if were there any problems.” Rob avoided eye contact as he sawed at his pizza.
I stopped chewing. Those indentations in the pad I had found on his nightstand? I had filled the numbers in and called them: “Attorney’s office,” the young woman had sang out over the phone.
“What kind of attorney?”
“Divorce,” she’d said as if that was the happiest thing ever.
“Wrong number,” I’d said, wondering, as I replaced the receiver, who had written it down – Rob or Laurel?
“No marriage is perfect,” Arlene said and stuck a bite into her mouth.
“You can say that again,” said Barbara.
I didn’t want to rub it in, but I was pleased at how things had worked out for me and Seth. Why had I resisted marriage for so long?
Barbara pointed with her fork. “This pizza is the best ever.”
“The deep dish is even better,” I said, “but since the kids don’t eat the crust, we get the regular.” When ordering, Seth and I had reminded ourselves of our motto since having children: It’s all about them.
To underlie that point, I heard a “More!” from Alyssa in the living room. As I scurried to do her bidding, I strained to hear the grown-up conversation at the kitchen. But the Wiggles, singing and prancing about with brightly-colored pompoms, drowned it out.
I took Alyssa’s cannabilized piece back to the kitchen. She had picked off the cheese and pepperoni and left all bread products behind. As I tossed it in the garbage, I thought once again how comfortable you had to become with waste when you had children.
“I made some calls, “Rob was saying “– to the pharmaceutical rep from B.X. Watkins – but I have his phone number programmed into my cell phone so I called him from that.” B.X. Watkins, the company Seymour worked for, and where Laurel had her stock. Was it sheer coincidence that Rob had called someone from there? My mind started spinning the possibilities. Had he found out about her insider trading? Is that why the number for the divorce attorney?
“Mommy!” Noah yanked me out of my pondering. He had finally learned to say my name. Like most children, he had learned Daddy’s name first because of the constant prompting by Mommy, but now I wondered why I had been so eager for him to say it. The sound echoed through my ears, and I could barely hear Rob.
“It didn’t prove I was in my office. And the phone rang a few times, but I didn’t pick up. I thought it was probably a student – I had my seminar that afternoon – and they usually call about the case I assign right before it.”
That’s how they do, I thought until Noah wailed, as in “Come on with it, woman!”
As I cut my own half-eaten slice into tiny bite-sized pieces so Noah wouldn’t choke, Seth asked, “You didn’t write an e-mail, make a phone call?”
Rob shrugged. “I was either on my cell phone or dictating notes.”
I didn’t know anyone who dictated anymore and laughed at the idea of any of our office help typing something for the faculty.
“They can’t think it’s you. You’ve never done a violent thing in your life,” said Arlene.
I hurried into the living and handed Noah his plastic bowl. “Now don’t cram it all in your mouth at one time.” On the T.V., Henry the Octupus warbled a song. His voice sounded like the lead singer for the B52’s.
“What about that maid?” Arlene said.
I walked back into the kitchen. “I had Rosa call her.”
Arlene put her fork down. “Whatever for?” Even though I was a grown-up and an authority figure in my own right, I could see that she must have been a fierce disciplinarian. No wonder Rob had married a strong personality like Laurel.
Sitting down, I said, “Blanca’s trying to get her family back here. She sends them money. She makes an easy target for the police since she’s terrified of being deported.”
“How is that different from your babysitter?” Arlene asked.
I smiled. It was like a challenge question from a student, and I had a good answer. “Rosa has her green card. And she doesn’t rely on me for income. She works at the child care center at my gym, and I have to work around her hours.”
“I doubt if they can take you seriously, Rob.” Seth was obviously trying to change the subject. “There’s no evidence of a problem between you and Laurel. It’s not like the neighbors heard you arguing or anything like that.”
I wondered how hard the police had worked to get hold of the neighbors, to find out if they’d seen anything. I’d had no luck myself when I’d knocked on the house’s next door. Everyone in Georgetown must work all the time to afford their houses. I remembered that even when the emergency vehicles came, they didn’t draw out the neighbors like they usually did, only a few passersby.
“And they still haven’t found the murder weapon,” Rob said.
“If they don’t have that, any case against you is circumstantial,” Seth supplied and got up for his second piece.
“Boy, you eat fast,” said Barbara.
“It’s ever since having the kids,” he said, “we’ve learned to eat like wolves.”
“There’s no evidence againt Blanca either,” I said.
“She was there,” said Barbara.
“Yes, but she didn’t have blood on her.”
“She could have changed. Did you think of that?”
I shook my head. Of course I had thought of that. “Then she pretended to run out screaming for the benefit of neighbors that weren’t there? She didn’t know I was down the street. If it was an act, and now that she’s not working for Seth, she should sign up for a Spanish theatre group.”
Seth said, “She knew the area. Wasn’t she the one who walked Weezie? Maybe some bush or some plant?” I shot him a look. “Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. You’ve got to consider all sides when you’re in court.”
What I was really thinking was, how could I go back and search the area for bloodied clothes?
Reflection on the Scene Shortcut
I thought this was a good exercise. In the future, I would probably not be able to keep all the sections as clean as Whitcomb presents, but that's moot since the point is to get you writing. It does ensure that you attend to all the elements, which makes you think them through. I would definitely use this one again for writing a scene.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Goal of the scene:
Rob, the victim’s husband, relates his questioning that day by the police. He is worried he might be a suspect because they couldn’t alibi him at work where he said he was.
[Reaction: Here I got a little confused: is this supposed to be my goal as an author to convey or the goal of the protagonist? I put my goal as the author, what information I wanted to convey.]
Protagonist Drew is worried about Blanca, Rob and Laurel’s housekeeper who discovered Laurel’s body and is also a suspect. The conflict is that no one (Drew’s mother-in-law, her best friend and Rob’s mother, Arlene, and even Drew’s husband, Seth) can’t understand why she is going to help Blanca. They are afraid that if she is removed as a suspect, then Rob will emerge as a stronger suspect.
[Reaction: This part was very helpful to clarify.]
What is left unresolved:
The identity of the suspect
[Reaction: Here I also was a little confused. Should this be what is left unresolved more broadly – the identify of the suspect, which chose – or what is left unresolved in this specific scene, which may be whether Drew continues to support Blanca. It doesn’t seem like there is any question that she will, given the set-up though.]
Part II: Dialogue
Seth: Did you write an e-mail?
Rob: No, I was just dictating my notes.
[Reaction: I found I was unable to stay with only dialogue, and I had to insert Drew’s observations (indicated whenever I used “I” voice.)]
I didn’t know anyone who did that anymore and laughed at the idea of anyone typing anything for me.
Arlene: They can’t think it’s you. You’ve never done a violent thing in your life. What about that maid?
Drew: I had Rosa call her.
Arlene: Whatever for?
Drew: I felt sorry for her. She’s trying to get her family back here. She sends them money.
I would have said it more boldly if Rob wasn’t there. Poor Blanca obviously put up with a lot working for Laurel.
Arlene: How is it different from your babysitter?
I smiled. It was like a good challenge question from a student.
Drew: She has her green card. And she doesn’t rely on me for income. She works at the child care center at my gym, and I have to work around her hours. Blanca’s worried that since the police questioned her, she'll be deported.
Arlene: They’re not that easy to get rid of.
Seth: I doubt if they can take you seriously, Rob. There’s no evidence of a problem between you and Laurel. It’s not like the neighbors heard you arguing or anything like that.
I wondered how hard the police had worked to get hold of the neighbors, to find out if they’d seen anything. I’d had no luck myself when I’d knocked on the neighbor’s door. I wondered who lived in those places. Everyone must have to work all the time to afford the neighborhood. I remembered that when the emergency vehicles came, they didn’t draw out the neighbors like they usually did, only a few passersby.
Seth: And they still haven’t found the murder weapon.
Rob: But I was the one who was supposed to notice if something was missing. I could have said nothing was missing and used it myself.
Drew: There’s no evidence on Blanca either. Yes, she discovered the body, but she didn’t have blood on her.
Barbara: Maybe she changed.
I shook my head.
Drew: Then she pretended to run out screaming? It didn’t seem like an act.
If it was, and she had more time, maybe she could join a Spanish theatre group.
Seth: She knew the area. Wasn’t she the one who walked Weezie? Maybe some bush or some plant?
He misinterpreted my look.
Seth: Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. You’ve got to consider all sides when you’re in court.
What I was really thinking was, how could I get back and search the area for bloodied clothes?
Part III: Freewriting
[I couldn't bring myself to use the term "heartstorm." This was the hardest part since I couldn’t figure out an appropriate setting. There was a summary a chapter back or so that covered dinner at Seth and Drew’s house so I wondered if it was repetitive to have a dinner scene at the house. Then I was thinking of them going to a restaurant, but she had just mentioned that it was impossible to take her son to a restaurant, and, if I did that, she would just be running around and chasing children and not be able to talk.]
We ordered pizza, although Seth wasn’t happy. Not that he didn’t like pizza, but he was trying to control his consumption of white flour and sugar. He didn’t want to turn out diabetic like his mother. We used to order deep dish, but we recalled our motto since having children: It’s all about them. It’s frustrating to survey a plate of food you can’t eat.
I was glad I changed with the greasy finger prints smeared across my legs. There was a glue stain permanently etched into them, as well, when Alyssa and I had attempted one of our projects, a collage that I thought would be more amusing to work on, and which required actual glue.
I popped up and down like a Jack in the Box. “More!” “Juice” I took away one of Alyssa’s cannabilized pieces. She would pick off the cheese and of course, the pepperoni and leave all the bread. Making sure to cut the cheese strands into small pieces, so Noah wouldn't choke.
The Wiggles, grown men dancing with brightly-colored pompoms with their secondary characters, Wags the Dag, Dorothy the Dinosaur, Henry the Octopus (whose warbly underwater voice sounded suspiciously like the lead singer of the B-52’s), and Captain Feathersword. Out of a cast of irritiating characters, he won the award for most annoying. We were playing the whole collection of Tivo’s Wiggle shows about 10 times a day (but each show, I justified was really only 20 minutes long and not the half-hour as advertised. Thus, this only came out to three and a third hours of T.V. a day when he had vowed in her infancy that we would follow American Pediatric Guidelines to limit TV watching to one hour a day.
Next post, I will weave these elements together. Feel free to contribute your attempts at the exercise, as well.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
1. Write the goal of the scene, the conflict that happens, and what is left unresolved.
2. Write just the dialogue of the scene.
3. Freewrite (Whitcomb calls it "heartstorming') the sense details (touch, taste, smell, hear, see) and feelings of the scene.
Put these side by side after you are finished, and using them as a menu, take a part of each as you write the scene.
Friday, June 5, 2009
In the scene (below) for my mystery novel, DEATH IN THE CHAVURAH, I tried to convey a number of events:
1) the protagonist Drew met the industrial service to clean the Georgetown house where the victim, Laurel, was killed, as a favor to Laurel’s husband, Rob, who stayed with them the night before.
2) Drew has taken his cat back to her house to add to the chaos there
3) She has conflict with her husband Seth.
4) She is trying to amuse her children (Alyssa and Noah)
5) She has information from her babysitter Rosa, who is the only person Drew knows that can communicate in Spanish with the prime suspect, Blanca, Laurel’s housekeeper
6) She has met with the director of Victim Services at Washington, DC Police and received information about the case from her.
“Where’s dinner?” Putting his briefcase down, Seth stretched his shoulder.
“Your mother doesn’t want the chicken. She wants to eat out.”
“Hi, buddy,” Seth said, as Noah marched by, struggling to hold a full bottle of soda. Noah ignored him, intent on his task.
“I was looking forward to the chicken.” Seth didn’t react to the BOOM that followed. Just Noah throwing the soda bottle down the kitchen stairs. One of what we called his “projects.” He would do it to each bottle in turn. Did we mind? Not in the slightest. It kept him amused.
“I have to side with her on this one,” I said. “Not everyone wants to eat chicken
Alyssa tugged at my hand. “Mommy, play.” Although I had taken scores of child development classes, somehow I had never learned that imagination did not emerge until age three. That was what I remembered about my own childhood – imagination. Without it, you had to keep that ball rolling back and forth. After playing ball, Alyssa and I had danced to Wiggles songs, then a Gymboree C.D. I had drawn her T.V. characters, then she’d drawn. I’d enticed her with Montessori-approved blocks, which Noah knocked over.
“This is too much, having all these people here.” Seth rubbed his face, which was blotchy when he took his hands away.
“They’re all your people – your mother, her best friend. And I’m the one who has to be with them, not you.”
“You said you were gone for three hours.”
“Only seven hours less than you. And now there’s the animal entourage. The cat’s here, too.” The cleaning people had forbidden the cat; it was against their policy to have animals in the house while they did their work.
I ran my hand over the snags from Adam’s claws on the dress slacks I’d worn to meet with the director of Victim Services. I had stuff to tell Seth from Anita Rennert but not in the mood he was in now.
“Two dogs and a cat?” he said.
“Well, when we got together, we had three dogs.”
“And we almost didn’t have children because of that.”
When Alyssa pulled at me again, I said, “Why don’t you go find kitty?”
She hung on my hand. “You go.”
“You can do it yourself. See if he’s still there, and tell Daddy.”
“No!” Her face crumpled.
“Did she nap today?” Seth pulled out the mail and began sorting bills and circulars. Nothing fun came in the mail anymore.
“She’s done with naps,” I said.
“She still needs them.”
“We can’t drive around with Noah.” We’d never mastered the art of putting her down for a nap and had to resort to aimless driving missions to make her sleep.
“Where’s my mom and Arlene?”
“Now? It’s dinner time.”
“They took care of the kids for three hours while I met the cleaners at Rob’s house and went to Victim Services.”
“Why didn’t you get Rosa for them?”
“I offered to, but your mother doesn’t want her around. Too much talking.”
I had called Rosa, and she had told me about her conversation with Blanca. “Oh, miss, is terrible. She cry. I cry.” Her voice became husky with tears and broke. “I must not cry. The policia say she will be deported. Mr. Rob won’t call her back. She’s afraid he mad at her and won’t want her to work there no more. No money for children, no money for lawyer. Is terrible, miss. You must help her.”
“Noah – in a restaurant?” Seth was saying.
“It went fine on your birthday.”
“My fortieth birthday.” That was kind of a sore point. Worried that Noah would act up, we went to Guapos, a Mexican restaurant in Shirlington loud enough to cover up Noah’s bellowing, and even Alyssa would eat the fajita chicken. We ordered immediately upon being seated and were home within 45 minutes of leaving. What a fortieth celebration.
Before doing this exercise, I had written the meeting with the Victim Services director and the conversation with the babysitter Rosa as two separate scenes, but they each ended up only being about a paragraph long. That made me realize they needed to be part of another scene.
Although I did manage, in the above scene, to weave in a number of happenings, I wasn’t able here to get across the information Drew received from the Victim Services director. I will have to wait for the next scene when everyone is gathered for dinner, including Rob, the victim’s husband, who has been questioned by the police that day. I am also a little worried that, despite the number of things going on here, does it advance the plot?
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Write a new scene or work with an already-written scene and make sure you have a few different things going on. This adds interest and cuts out the need for many short scenes in which only one event occurs (pps. 146-147). Whitcomb gives an example of combining scenes in which a mother gets into a fight with her husband and has her feelings hurt by a child.
Note if authors you are currently reading do this well and describe what they did and to what effect.
Monday, June 1, 2009
1. I will pick a particular writing book. As time goes on and I pick up readers, I will be open to suggestions about which ones to select.
2. I will then select certain exercises that catch my fancy (again open to reader suggestion) and post them, one by one, here in advance. Just as a warning, I reserve the right to do a certain amount of skipping around. That means, I won’t necessarily select exercises that start with planning and starting your fiction and going from there. But I will flag your attention to the category of the exercise, such as setting, character, showing not telling, plot, dialogue, and so forth, typically using the author’s system for labeling.
3. The next posting will involve my illustration of the exercise and a reflection of the process.
4. You are invited to comment on what I have written and/or participate in the exercise. You can even send me the result of your efforts and your reflection of how it went. I will then select a couple of reader examples to post.
5. Another option that I will occasionally do and that you are welcome to try, is to find, as you read fiction, how particular authors exemplify the particular technique we are working on.
6. I will attempt to contact the author of the writing book and ask him or her to view the discussion about the exercises and offer any insights or comments.
7. When we are finished with a particular book, I will offer a summary (a kind of review) of how the exercises have worked for me and other readers that have tried them.
8. As we go, I will keep a list of “favorite” exercises in each category (setting, character, plot, dialogue).
The purpose of all this is to keep us inspired and motivated to write and to develop our skills and techniques through the use of fiction writing books.
I aim to post about three times a week. The first book will be Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb, published in 2009 by Writer’s Digest. Stay tuned for the first exercise!