Friday, January 28, 2011

I Am Not a Writer - Part 1

One of the most common comments I hear regarding writing a book is this: "I have this idea for a book.... but I Am Not a Writer."

I am amazed at the number of people with book ideas running around their brains. Eight out of 10 Americans want to write a book, according to the Jenkins Group. That's a lot of people! Likely only a small majority would actually consider themselves writers. Even fewer boast writing as their actual profession.
To see if you are a writer or not, take my lovely quiz (this quiz is not endorsed by the quiz-making people of the universe).

Answer True or False:

Writing doesn't come naturally to me.

I hate grammar.
When I sit down to write, my brain turns off.
The thought of writing gives me a headache.
I'd rather speak my thoughts than write them.
Hiring a Ghost Writer might be a good idea.
My paper is due tomorrow, and I can't even write one word.

If you answered True to most of these, you are probably not a writer. And that's ok, because there are writers and editors out there who can help you. It's their job. YOUR job is to come up with the concept.

More on that later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dialogue/Quotes - If It's Not Interesting, Leave It Out

I've read and edited my fair share of manuscripts to be published, and I've read my share of books (and edited some in my mind while reading them). One thing I come across in all of them is that either the dialogue works or it doesn't.

It's so awesome when it's done right!
And it's so painful when it's not.

My family is a quick-witted bunch. They are beyond smart and hilariously funny. The come backs fly at every family reunion. My dad calls it "verbal jousting." An art-form sports event of sorts. I love dialogue that darts back and forth and has rich meat like that! And I expect nothing less of the characters I read.

In other words, I'm picky and have high expectations. Isn't that the definition of an editor? (Note: if you are an editor, please don't hate me for that comment or any grammatical errors I may have committed.)

You can tell a lot about a writer by the dialogue he chooses to include in his stories. How much is there? How thorough is it? Does it reflect feeling? Is it.... interesting?

Stephen King tells us in On Writing to stay away from adverbs when telling readers how a character said something... as in, she said sheepishly. King says that the dialogue and situation should be evidence enough of how something was said. Give the reader some credit! They like to read -- so let them imagine it a little. Stick with she said and you'll be fine (works in journalism, too).

The biggest thing that always jumps out at me when I read a story -- is the dialogue interesting? Do I care about what they are saying? Could it be better said in a paraphrase?

Paraphrase! Ok, you got me. I have a background in print journalism. But I believe the techniques behind good dialogue in fiction novels work the same as in quoting real people for a news story. Let me show you what I mean both ways.

News and Quotes
Quoting people is a reporter's life, but in order to grab the public's attention, a reporter can't simply run the interview verbatim (even Barbara Walters uses b-roll and cuts out the mundane stuff). You gotta hype it up! You weed out stuff. You gotta make it interesting.

When I have a news story assignment, and I am finished collecting all the interviews, the first thing I do is sit down with my notes and highlight the most interesting quotes. It doesn't mean those will lead the story; it means those will be used somewhere in the story. The rest of it-- the important but less interesting stuff like dates and facts and locations and so on -- I can find better ways to say it. I can paraphrase it.

That's what they teach you in journalism school. If you can say it better yourself, then paraphrase it. Case in point below. Which story would you rather read?


Robber Still At Large After Morning Break In

Version 1: Police are still looking for a six-foot-tall man wearing a white bandanna who robbed the corner store sometime after 4 this morning.

"The man took a variety of items not consistent with most robberies we see," said Sgt. Officer. "It doesn't add up."


Version 2: Police are still looking for a man who robbed the corner store sometime after 4 this morning.

"He was wearing a white bandanna. He was about six-feet tall," said Sgt. Officer. He also said that the man stole odd items.


See the difference? How boring is reading about a description in a quote? A description IS important, and that's why it's in the lead paragraph. But it's not particularly interesting. In short, the only words I put in between quote marks have to earn their place.

Book Authors and Dialogue
The same should go for authors of fiction novels. Dialogue should serve a purpose. Perhaps it establishes a character, sets the scene, reveals the plot.... never should it be dull or lifeless. Never should it be used if paraphrasing could better share the information.

To move a story along, there will be a little of the "business" to take care of like traveling to different locations or talking on the phone or putting the kids to bed. This business stuff is important and helps the story work. BUT if these are just minor details to move the story along to the important stuff that comes later.... don't slow the story down or make the reader pay attention to the wrong things by adding too much extra dialogue.


Highway 1 Mystery

Version 1: Peter and Sarah jumped in the car, barely escaping the grasp of the man who remained a mystery to everyone in the town of Hilly Valley.

"We'd better call police," Sarah said, fiddling with the phone in her pocket.

"Wait, I have a better idea," Peter said. He swerved off the road and slowed down just enough so the impact of the tree wouldn't cause injury.

"What did you do that for?!" Sarah yelled.


Version 2: Peter and Sarah jumped in the car.

"Oh my gosh, we barely got away!" Peter said, panting. "That guy is crazy! Who is he?"

"We'd better call police," Sarah said. "I need to find my phone!"

"Wait, I have a better idea," Peter said. He swerved off the road and slowed down just enough so the impact of the tree wouldn't cause injury.

"What did you do that for?!" Sarah yelled.


The difference is slight, but see what an impact it makes? The crucial parts of the story are left intact, but only the most interesting dialogue is included. Sarah finding her phone is trivial and shouldn't be over-emphasized by dialogue. And things like "he's crazy" aren't really that interesting. It would be better to describe him via paraphrase as a "man who remained a mystery to everyone in the town of Hilly Valley."

Remember-- if it's not interesting, leave it out.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Holding Back Information for Suspense

I wrote out my love story. It's a true story. And I'm in it.

I decided to write it down because there are details I'm forgetting. Through writing it, I've been able to relive it, which is one of the best parts! (Who doesn't love falling in love all over again?) The story takes place over time, so early on I realized I would need to write a series.

I didn't know how long it would be, what I would include, or when it would end (First kiss? Engagement? Wedding day? Ever?). I just knew I had to keep writing.

Through it all, I've become addicted to suspense. With each portion I always try to end with something that will keep the reader coming back for more. That wasn't my intention, to gain readers or what-not. But the suspense has kept my family and friends on the edge of their seats and ME at the edge of the keyboard, hardly able to contain the next installment within my fingers.

What is it about suspense that we love so much?

The waiting, the wanting, the longing... we are impatient! We are busy! We want to know now. Suspense forces us to wait. It's a love-hate thing. We are so consumed with the story, that when it suddenly stops we throw up our hands and say "No! Not yet!"

Like on a recent episode of Castle when Ric realizes the killer isn't actually dead-- he runs to Kate's apartment and BOOM! It explodes before our eyes. Is she ok? Oh no! Then.... come the credits.


I was so mad, being forced to wait another week to find out what happened. But at the same time, I loved it. Scenarios ran through my mind, and for the most part I knew Kate was ok. But there is that 1-2% of you that isn't sure. Maybe she's severely injured, or maybe Kate is about to die but Castle goes up and rescues her. There are a million possibilities. How it really happens, that is what we are waiting for.

Growing up, when we would watch movies as a family my dad could ALWAYS predict the end. It was so maddening! Don't tell us, dag nabbit! He was always right. At first I couldn't understand how he did it.

But lately I find myself doing the same thing. Really, most plots are fairly obvious. There are many ways it could go, but we all know which route will lead to maximum impact. Sure, some stories take twists and turns we don't expect. But for the most part, when I watch a movie or read a book, I know how it will end.

Regardless, I read or watch it anyway. I hunger for the story, especially for the suspense. A chapter ends and leaves me hanging for a few pages, and I almost race forward to see how it is resolved!

If you are a writer, I implore you to use suspense more in your writing.

Hold back a little information. Reveal bits and pieces here and there, but don't tell the reader EVERYTHING. Keep them guessing. Give them enough to think, "What does that mean? Is the author telling me something?" Whet their appetite.

In the case of my love story, we all know how it will end (duh, it's about me and my husband. We got married!) So I have to build suspense for it to be interesting. Here are some examples:

* * *

We laughed. She was embarrassed. But laughed some more. I liked this girl, crazy as she was. Tori would become one of my best friends ever, helping me survive my time in a new town. And as it turned out, Tori would become instrumental in leading me and Jon to the marriage alter. (to be continued)

* * *

Much to my happiness, he finally came to a stop, and my body peeled itself off the contraption. I literally fell to the ground, maybe even kissing the snow, except the ground was probably still spinning. I vowed to never, ever ride on a snowmobile with him again. To this day I can say I have upheld that vow.

But within a few weeks, Jon would muster up the courage and I would actually agree to ride with him... in his car.... on a date. (to be continued)

* * *

At some point I thought for sure Jon would jump right out of his seat. He was beaming, and fidgity. Once I was done eating and they took my plate away, I rested my hands on the table. Somehow Jon thought it was ok to rest his hands on mine.

"We're not dating." I scolded him.

"Oh! Sorry!" He was grinning from ear to ear.

It was like he knew something I didn't.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Trick to Writing Young Adult Fiction, Part 1

I've been editing a book and the author recently asked me about writing for a Young Adult audience. I scratched my head and said, "I don't know" because while I've edited fiction and nonfiction of many different types, YA escapes me.

I also *gasp!* didn't even read the Harry Potter series. Please don't hate me.

When I was a young adult I did enjoy that genre. Many times I sneaked upstairs to the dusty bookshelves in my grandma's house. There I hid a old copies of Nancy Drew in my jacket until I finished and returned them a little less dusty than I had found them. Most of the books in the series followed the same premise -- young girl gets tangled in a mystery, young girl amazingly solves mystery. The end.

What I loved about Nancy Drew was I could identify with her at the time. She was on the nerdy side (am I giving away too much about my past?), but she was also confident and smart. In the end, though not "hip" by the cool kids' standards, she was pretty dang awesome. A super sleuth if you will. Sort of like a journalist maybe?

Today I probably still identify with her (I am a journalist and nerd, after all), but maybe I don't want to identify with stories that are for "little kids" or in the case of Harry Potter, I still prefer not to follow the crowd. You won't catch me waiting in line at midnight dressed up like Hermine. No sir.

It's funny that this author of the book I'm editing asked me about YA writing. Because only a few days later, I woke up from a nap with a light bulb over my head (probably the most exciting thing for a writer). Ding! An idea for a YA novel. In the past I've had ideas for religious nonfiction (which needs massive amounts of research first that I haven't even begun), fiction suspense (I've thought up and abandoned a few-- who hasn't?), and even a Broadway musical (stay tuned) but never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that YA would be on my menu.

But this impression was so strong, so vivid, and so cleaver, I had to start a file on my computer. In two days I already hashed out over 1,000 words. Now I not only need to find out the tricks for writing Young Adult fiction for this other author, I need to find them out for myself.

Tip Number One: Read the Harry Potter series.

Did I just say that?

Alright, maybe I can start with something else. Like the Diary of a Whimpy Kid. Or I could re-read my copy of Holes that I loved and placed on my sons' book self.

Here is a good blog post about YA writing over here on Women on Writing that offers some good ideas (while you're over there, check out the March/April 2010 issue which is all about YA).

Anyone else have any recommendations of good YA that doesn't involve wizards?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Welcoming Criticism For Your Writing

I haven't been a big TV watcher until recently.

Somehow, becoming a mother of small children forces you to find a way to unwind-- because really, going from 100 miles an hour (all day) to 0 miles an hour (sleep) isn't easy.

I suppose I could take a hot bath. Drink some milk. Read a good book. Get my husband to give me a back massage.

Actually I do those things quite often, but sometimes I just want to veg in front of a good TV show and finish off the carton of ice cream in the freezer. That's precious freezer space I'm saving!

We don't get great TV reception at our house and I'm too cheap for cable, but the most amazing invention of all time is available in my room on our computer--! Some friends told me about the new show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution , and so far it's interesting and eye-opening.

The concept seemed logical enough -- go to a town with high obesity rates and try to change the school lunch menu and people's eating habits in general. I'm all for healthy eating (honestly, I don't eat ice cream that much, unless it's on sale). But something I didn't expect-- the amount of criticism that met Jamie as he started his "revolution" to help this town.

We're talking the radio host, the school cooks, etc. -- they all were skeptical and quite defensive of Jamie's methods and ideas. At first it really surprised me. Don't they want to be healthier? Don't they want fresh, awesome food going into their kids' mouths? And hello! Free help from an awesome chef? What's not to like?

Then I thought about it. How would I like someone telling me what I'm doing wrong and showing me how to change it without me asking? I'm doing just fine, thank you.

I can see both sides. It's hard. Change is hard. But I have been really impressed with Jamie's resilience. Some of the criticism he expects, some of it he doesn't-- and most of the time it's really hard for him to take. He even sheds tears during some interviews. But despite that, he is determined to try. He has a vision and no one is going to stand in his way. There is criticism, but he listens to it, he meets it head-on, and he tries to work through it. Because in the end, whether they see it or not, he's on their side. He wants to help this town and eventually the country not to be an obesity statistic. Above all, he's an experienced chef with the proper knowledge and tools that can help them change for the better.

After watching the show, I thought how much that idea relates to editing. An editor is sort of like a visitor to an author's town, telling him what he is doing wrong and trying to get him to do something better. At first it's unnerving. Even if the author knows and trust this person, it's still hard to take their criticisms/critiques/comments/edits -- whatever you want to call them.

The worst thing authors can do is to not welcome editors. Authors must give their editors a chance. Authors may think their manuscript is just fine-- but editors have insight. Editors have experience and the tools necessary to make a manuscript better. They can see things authors can't see. And in the end, they have their author's best interest at heart.

Editors can help trim the fat, keep ideas fresh, add in proper ingredients, and ultimately provide a product that readers will enjoy. So authors, don't resist change. Welcome it. Seek out criticism. Realize that there is always room for improvement. And editors, don't let authors who fear change stop you from helping them succeed. Don't give up or stop doing your job. Realize that theses authors are scared and aren't fully converted yet. Listen to their concerns and meet them head-on. Prove that you will be there for them and then make it happen.

What do you say? Let's learn from Jamie and not give up. Change can be a good thing. For his sake--and the sake of the TV series--I hope it is.

What do you think?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Pitfall of "Starting to" or "Beginning to"

I've edited quite a few manuscripts and while there are common pitfalls you would expect, such as subject-verb agreement or using the right form of "there/their/they're," one pitfall has jumped out at me that completely boggles my mind.

It is (starting to) give me a headache.

I am (beginning to) notice it everywhere.

Wait.... akk! I did it just now! Those two phrases are so.... not needed. I could have just as easily said:

It gives me a headache.

I notice it everywhere.

Isn't that much better? Phrases that use "starting to" or "beginning to" when they don't need to are wordy and distracting. They don't do much for a novel, nonfiction manuscript, or news story. Why do we use them so often?

Because you and I think that way. You think in your head, I'm starting to get a headache. Great. (Well not really great.) But the fact is, you're getting a headache. Plain and simple. It's already implied that you're "starting" to get one. Because you said "getting" and if you already HAD it you would just say "I HAVE a headache" so leave me alone! Just cut out the extra words. It means the same thing.

Is this starting to make sense?


I meant, is this making sense?

Ahh yes. Much better.

Trust me. Now that I pointed this out to you, you will start to see it everywhere. I mean, you will SEE IT everywhere. Because you probably already started to (plus I already said WILL SEE IT, which implies that in the future you will start at some point).

I really AM getting a headache now.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm not saying that it's horrible to use "starting to" or "beginning to" as at times they are completely warranted. But watch yourself. Overuse it, and readers may begin to pay attention to that over the plot, or they will start to get distracted by all the extra words.

Are you distracted now? I thought so.

Make it concise. Not war.

Thank you.