Friday, July 23, 2010

On Santa frogs, creepy dolls, and questionable turkey recipes

I've come across some interesting things while packing up my house to get ready to move. In looking through conference notes, I saw this quote from Isaac Asimov:

"The reader will remember not the phrase, but the effect it has. If the phrase does not have an effect on the reader, change it or cut it."

I don't know what conference presenter relayed the quote to us, and I couldn't confirm that was the exact quote or find where Asimov said that, but that's what I scribbled down at the workshop, so let's just assume he did say something like that at some time.

'Cause I think it works really well with sorting through ten years' worth of stuff. Plus, deciding what to keep and what to throw out reminded me of editing.

By some miracle of physics, the entire contents of one closet filled up the living room. Not all of those things can be worth keeping.

This, for example:

What is this thing and why do I own it? It's-- a frog, I guess? Wearing a Santa hat for some reason. Maybe it's cute, but it doesn't elicit any warm feelings from me. There's nothing wrong with him, really. I love frogs. I love Santa. But the amphibious hat-wearer needs to go.

Maybe when you're revising a manuscript you'll find some phrases or scenes that are like the Santa frog: nice, but they don't serve any purpose. It might even be a favorite scene you've written. But does it advance the plot? Will it have an effect on the reader? If not, there's no reason for it to take up space. So, toss it out like 1997's tax receipts.

Some things worth saving have an effect on us, but not a pleasant one. Like these gals:

Yeah, I know. Lovely, right? Just the kind of thing a little girl would love to cuddle with before falling asleep at night. They live in a box in my closet. Yes, I do worry they will leap out and murder me in my sleep. But they're antique, and they were my grandmother's. So they will stay.

Some scenes are hard to write. I don't mean the writing part, although that's hard too, but I mean because they're unpleasant. Something bad happens to the characters we love. Maybe someone's broken his heart, or punched her in the face. Or your character has lost her home, or her family, his innocence, or everything he's ever loved. You've read books like that, too; anyone who's read Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins knows about scenes that are hard to get through. We identify with the characters and hate to see bad things happen to them, but that's part of their story. And we remember them. They have an effect on us.

On to my favorite kinds of things to find:

That first paper is one I post on the refrigerator every November. It was a "How To Cook a Turkey" assignment my daughter had in 2nd grade. Is it well-written? Sure, for an 8-year-old, I think it is. Is the recipe accurate? I wouldn't recommend using it unless you want to spend Thanksgiving in the emergency room with all your family members. And the turkey's missing a foot. But after ten years, I still laugh when I read the instruction, "Bake for 30 minutes at 104 degrees." We're keeping the turkey.

The yellow paper looks like something the daughter drew at age 2. I think it's a family portrait. Sure, our legs are attached to our heads, but she could write "Dad." No one has arms, but we have ears and knee caps.

When we look over a drafts of our manuscripts, we always find things that need to be rewritten. Maybe the words aren't exactly right, or the sentences are too wordy. There isn't enough detail, or there's too much. Or you're revising something you wrote last year, and you've grown as a writer since then, so you'd write it differently today. But the feeling is there. The scene has an effect on the reader. It isn't perfect, but it's worth keeping.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm getting a padlock for that box of dolls.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Setting the Stage for Story...

Setting. It’s important. When done well, it can become a living, breathing character and give vital depth to any story.

Who has read To Kill a Mockingbird and not been transported to Maycomb, Alabama, where the air is scented with Miss Maudie’s flowers and you can almost feel the tension bubbling beneath the sidewalks?

Or what about the arena in The Hunger Games, which becomes as menacing as any of the human characters? Or Grandma Dowdel’s farm in Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder?

Setting is crucial, and if you can speak about the place where your book is set with some authority, you’ll have an easier time convincing readers that the world you’ve created is real and that they need to step inside.

That’s not to say setting should be a carbon copy of places that you have lived or visited. We writers need to take bits and pieces of our memories of place and translate them - make our readers understand them on an emotional level. Why did these places resonate with us? Why are they important to our characters? This doesn’t come from telling us (for example) that there’s a coffee shop on the corner, it comes from describing the smells, the sounds, the ornate tin ceiling and the "ca-ching" of the old fashioned cash register.

For my book, THE ICING ON THE CAKE, about a teenaged cake decorator, the setting came by coincidence, while I was actually quite stuck, not sure where the story was going.

In 2006, my husband and I went to a wedding in Grand Rapids, MI. We flew into Chicago and drove around the bottom half of Lake Michigan. On our way, we stopped in several of the quaint towns that dot the Michigan shore. They are quiet, cozy, welcoming and completely charming.

It didn't take me long to realize I had found my setting, and the rest of the story fell into place. My main character, Sheridan, loves her hometown. When her father is offered a reality TV show, she is faced with the possibility of leaving. But how to convince my readers that a 15 year old girl would not want to leave a small town like St. Mary (the fictional town I came up with) for super cool New York City?

The key for me was to have St. Mary become almost like a mother figure to Sheridan, representing security, safety and comfort. This was important because one of the key plot points is that Sheridan's mother is missing. Quite literally, St. Mary is Sheridan’s safe harbor. Not just a place, but something more. I guarantee I could not have successfully gotten that across if I hadn't had the experience of our time in Michigan.

Amazing how important story elements can come together when you're doing something as seemingly non-writing related as going to a friend's wedding.

Yeah. They're adorable. And don't think they're not getting mentioned in my acknowledgements.

So. Setting. Where have you found inspiration for the places your stories are set? Where do your favorite books take place? Can you imagine them set anywhere else?

Happy Monday!

Friday, July 16, 2010

I'm not eavesdropping, I'm researching

I wasn't trying to listen, I promise. But I couldn't help myself. You'd have done the same, I'm sure.

Yesterday I was in the waiting room of a doctor's office, and I honestly was reading a book at first. But then I overheard a woman on the phone across the room, and from then on I was doing a very good impression of someone reading a book. I wish I caught the beginning of the call, but at the point I started listening, her side of the conversation went something like this:

"I was naked when they pepper-sprayed me and tied me to the gurney."

I wonder what the normal people (i.e. non-writers) in the room were thinking at the time. Maybe something like, "What a weirdo" or "Damn, I hate it when that happens."

But of course I'm thinking, "That is awesome."

And then my brain started filling in the details. Which was a bit of a challenge, because I was still trying to listen to the rest of the conversation (The phrase, "Why? 'Cause men are crazy, that's why?" came up too). But as other people were probably thinking about moving away from this woman, I was leaning in closer to try to learn more (while still staring at the same page of my book.)

Under what circumstances would something like this happen? Let's see...a gurney implies there were paramedics there, so someone must have been injured. Who called them? Perhaps the police? They had a reason to arrest her, maybe at home where she happened to be naked, then pepper-sprayed her because she was getting violent? That's quite a picture. For some reason handcuffing her wasn't adequate, so the gurney and restraints became necessary at some point.

And what's it like to be this woman's neighbor? I bet this wasn't the first incident of crazymaking. You don't lead a perfectly normal life, taking out the trash on Thursday mornings, weeding the flower beds, checking the mail, then suddenly find yourself naked on a gurney. At least I don't think so. Let me know if you've had a different experience. So she's probably a regular source of entertainment and/or annoyance. What does someone across the street see when they peek through the curtains at her? (And you know they're peeking.) She's probably not the person you'd trust to take care of your cat while you're on vacation. Or your plants, come to think of it.

Then I started introducing her in my head to other interesting people I've met and wondering how they'd interact. Like our handyman who was usually drunk by 11 A.M. (I affectionately call him "Drunken Handyman Guy.") They'd make an interesting couple. And by "interesting," I mean, "they'd probably murder each other." Or what if Drunken Handyman Guy and Pepper-Sprayed And Tied To A Gurney Naked Lady had kids? Yikes! What would they be like? Or what if they were YOUR parents?

So, do you find yourself doing the same thing--listening to conversations around you and making up stories about them?

Now I'm concerned that people will be afraid to talk in front of me, fearing they'll end up in a book somehow. Um...don't worry. I'm not listening. Really. Keep talking. This book I'm reading has my full attention.