Category Archives: writing
Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.
The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.
I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.
When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”
The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)
Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:
10 Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8 Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6 Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4 Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2 Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed
By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.
Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.
I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.
- Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
- Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
- Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
- No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.
Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!
That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:
I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.
Good advice of all of us.
P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.
Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.
Thursday is finally here and we are on our way to another adventure–one, I’ll be honest, I’ve been dreading. What??? Dreading a twenty-five day (more or less) trip to Australia and New Zealand? How is that even possible?
First, the length is daunting. We have never been on a vacation quite this long. And it is really hard to figure out how long the trip actually is. In three hours we fly from Phoenix to Los Angeles, wait seven hours (ugh) then board the plane for Brisbane at ten tonight. The flight is fourteen hours long and they are sixteen hours ahead of us. We land in Australia two days from now. When we fly home from New Zealand, we land in Phoenix before we left Auckland. How’s that for time travel??
And then there’s the packing for this trip. (I just realized that the clothes I’m wearing right now will be the same ones I will be wearing in two days. More or less.) I bravely limited myself to one large suitcase. Everything I need to take fit into it. Unfortunately, everything I need to take weighs more than fifty pounds. I offloaded shoes and clothes to my husband’s suitcase and to our carryon and voila! My suitcase is now a svelte forty-nine pounds.
One issue with packing for this trip is the inconsistency in the weather. In Port Douglas, AU (“you better see the Great Barrier Reef while it is still here”), it’s going to be tropical weather. Sydney and Melbourne should be warm (high 70’s to low 80’s) but then we cruise to Tasmania before making our way to New Zealand. That’s when the temperatures may drop and we may have rain. Every day. And because the majority of our time will be spent on the cruise ship, I needed to pack some dressier outfits–not jeans–for evenings. So that’s a lot of clothes–that will be worn, by necessity, more than once or twice. Each.
I was told by a fellow Thursday Night Writer that my trip would provide me with twenty-three days of uninterrupted writing time. Of course, we both know that she is wrong. I did commit to developing an idea for a short story that takes place on the cruise ship. Since I told her this, two people have fallen from cruise ships and died. In one week. “It was not immediately clear if any foul play was involved in either of the incidents.” Depending on your perspective, the real world either steals our ideas for potentially great fiction or presents us with the perfect situation to write about.
I am bringing a brand new journal in which I vow to record every detail of our trip!! At least for the first two days…
Heidi here. I’m in book jail, and I’m not writing fast enough. I was already not writing fast enough when I came down with the flu. The words dried up completely. Here are my four tried-and-sometimes-true methods for making the deadline anyway.
- The filing method: shuffle paper (or electrons.) Look through all those appended notes for corrections and improvements. Organize them. You may use pretty-colored file folders to do this. If you get lucky, some sentence will click and you find yourself writing instead of amending.
- The copy editing method: You’re going to have to weed those adverbs eventually. Start the line-by-line read-through. The upside of this method is the same as for Number One. Some connection will appear that sets you to churning out words for elsewhere in your book. If worst comes to worst, you end up with fewer adverbs and cleaner prose.
- The jig-saw method. Bring up on your screen all the hopeless dreck you’ve generated while trying to get your current chapter right. Clip out the substantive bits that simply must be in the final version or the plot won’t work. Dump them in a new file. Try to make them fit with each other. This method works the way physical jig-saw puzzles do: each sentence — even each phrase — that meets your eye might just fit over here… or over here… or…. And you’re just going to do one more piece before you stop. Really.
- The butt-on-chair method. For those of us raised as New England Puritans, this is Number One, not Number Four. If you were a serious writer and a virtuous person, you would simply ignore your illness, sit down and write. The result would be War and Peace or the Iliad, at least. On account of your will power, you see. The fact that this is a total crock never penetrates the Puritan mind. Neither does the fact that if you try it, you succeed only by using methods 1, 2 or 3.
You’re going to be sick no matter what you do. But if you can bring yourself to put your hands on that keyboard, and something does click, for some blessed number of minutes, you’ll forget to feel sick.
Holiday tip: check out The Harvard Book Store’s Holiday Hundred
So here I am, on what I hope is the final substantive rewrite of my first mystery. I pantsed it, and I had a great time. I loved my characters, just set them down on the page and let them romp. Have you ever watched very young children – five or six years old, say – make up a game out of their own heads, coming up with a story and acting out the roles? I had that much fun, I really did.
And now it’s all come home to roost. The bill has come due for all those joyous episodes of ‘Ooh! Wouldn’t it be great if …’ For instance, I have a character who started out a genealogy snob involved in a lawsuit and ended up burying his ancestors (literally) and switching sides on the suit.
Well, no disaster. I can see how that could happen. But as I romped through my game, I just sketched in the change, didn’t take time to act out in my head the character’s inner or outer experiences. Result: a vague and confusing switcheroo at best; at worst, a great, clunky meta-clue to the reader: this character is being manipulated to work a plot. Why, he’s not a real person!
My faithful TNW critics (make that critiquers) pointed out a similar problem with another character. I noticed for myself that the police showed up, getting things wrong, when I needed to spur my amateur detective on to greater effort, but not when the police probably would show up in a real investigation. To crown my shame, one colleague gently pointed out that the pair of cute ferrets I had introduced (to make this work a proper cozy) really ought at least to appear in the closing scenes.
This isn’t one of my usual streams of whining complaint. I really can see how to solve the problems, and I’ve set about it. I’m pulling together separate files of all the passages on each faulty character, each badly constructed plot line. And that job has me wondering: if I had done that work before I started writing, I’d be a plotter, wouldn’t I? It sure sounds more efficient. But would I then lose out on all that five-year-old, cowboys-and-Indians fun?
On a practical note, here is a question for readers: do you use a writing program like Scrivener? If so, is there an easy way to pull characters’ appearances and tease out individual plot threads to be looked at separately? It took hours to use keywords and the ‘Find’ function to do this job for a single character.
At present, I have each scene in a separate file, color-coded by the plot line that the scene mostly serves. But my writing is not so clunky as to confine each scene to actions serving only one plot. In Scrivener (I think – I’m no adept) I would have to put each paragraph in a coded file if I want to pull out individual subplots, and it still wouldn’t be precise. Ideas, anyone?
Recently I took my mother to the local hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation for a possible heart attack. We remained briefly in a packed waiting room where we overheard a mumbling man grumbling because they wouldn’t let him into the treatment area. Something was going on in there and they were keeping him from it.
As soon as a nurse escorted us through the closed door into the treatment area, I sensed a tension in the air, as before a hurricane hits. The hysterical wales and shrieks of a female that erupted throughout the ED indicated it had hit.
Someone had died. Right then and there. I just knew it.
Certainly she would be escorted out of the curtained area of the ED and into a private area where she could grieve. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone. Maybe the man in the waiting room was a relative. Why wouldn’t they let him in?
The nurse guided us into a private room at the far end of the ED and a team of medical professionals swooped in and drew blood, hooked up monitors, inserted an IV, and wheeled in a portable x-ray machine. Suddenly it was just my mother and me. Bloody gauze littered the floor. The monitor blazed green, yellow and blue squiggles, its beeps a reassurance that life went on.
A methodic pounding now accompanied the howling. Even my hard of hearing mother heard it. We looked at each other and started laughing.
I stood near the open door of my mother’s room, hoping to glimpse a clue as to the tragedy that had struck. A male voice—the man from the waiting room, perhaps—loud, firm, annoyed. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to lay down the law.”
For just a moment my mother and I relaxed into the quiet. When the howling started again a nurse closed our door, the noise muffled but not stopped.
We never learned what had happened to the young lady, we knew only what our minds could conjure, though I’m pretty sure no one had died.
It’s not always what you think, is it? Not so different from what happens with a murder mystery. As an author, I insert clues to mislead my fictional characters as well as my readers, who make assumptions based on the meager information I’ve doled out to them. The all-powerful author controls what the reader learns and when she learns it. The reader controls what assumptions and conclusions she makes. In the end, the author has the last word when she ends the suspense and reveals the murderer. What author doesn’t revel in that power?
Prayers for those impacted by Hurricane Irma.
A few blogs ago, I was whining and complaining about the decline of all things literate: cursive script gone from the schools, editing that goes no further than spellcheck, and above all, letter writing that has dwindled to email.
But why mope? We’re all writers here; hence, we’re all readers; hence, we have access to the written treasures of the centuries. I went to my bookshelves and within minutes pulled down an armload of books likely to contain the kind of letters no one writes any more. Here is a sample to brighten your day.
In the parlance of his own day (the reign of Charles II of England) John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester was a rakehell. Not the man you would expect to write this letter to his new bride:
I know not well who has the worst on’t, you, who love but a little, or I, who doat to an extravagance; sure, to be half kind is as bad as to be half witted; and madness, both in love and reason, bears a better character than a moderate state of either.
Full disclosure #1: Rochester was an earl, but an impoverished one. His bride, with whom he eloped, was very, very rich.
Full disclosure #2: After a lifetime of drinking, whoring and brawling, Rochester repented on his deathbed and died in the odor of sanctity. On the other hand, we have only his friends’ word for this.
In Sense and Sensibility, Lady Middleton is wary of the Dashwood sisters, fearing that they may be “satirical” of mind. Wonder who Jane Austen was thinking of? Jane to her sister Cassandra:
Another stupid party last night…. I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress & exposed bosom. Adm: Stanhope is a gentlemanlike Man, but then his legs are too short, & his tail too long.
E.B. White and his wife hobnobbed with the literati of The New Yorker. It didn’t go to their heads. White to his brother:
The summer reached a sort of peak the day we went to the Blue Hill Fair and K [White’s wife] tried to take a leak in the bushes just as the trap-shoot started. She came out with only a minor flesh wound, but she might as well have been through Anzio. We all thought it was very comical, and one shooter (I heard later) got 25 pigeons out of a possible 25.
Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, in New York, to her supplier of out-of-print classics, Marks & Co. of 84, Charing Cross Rd., London:
De Tocqueville’s compliments and he begs to announce his safe arrival in America. He sits around looking smug because everything he said was true, especially about lawyers running the country….
Did I tell you I finally found the perfect page cutter? It’s a pearl-handled fruit knife. My mother left me a dozen of them…. Maybe I go with the wrong kind of people but I’m just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around simultaneously eating fruit.
While we’re on politics, you needn’t depend on cable news for furious denunciations of partisanship. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, explaining why the excellent law codes of antiquity have been lost:
Why are those Laws lost? I say the Spirit of Party has destroyed them, civil, political and ecclesiastical Bigotry. Despotical, monarchical Aristocratical and democratical Fury, have all been employed in this Work of destruction of every Thing that could give us true light and a clear insight of Antiquity. For every One of these Parties, when possessed of Power, or when they have been Undermost and Struggling to get Uppermost, has been equally prone to every Species of fraud and Violence, and Usurpation.
And while we’re on the Adamses, a final love letter from one of the great love stories of history. Abigail Adams, in Braintree, Massachusetts, to John Adams, in France representing the newly independent United States, 1778:
How insupportable the Idea that 3000 leagues, and the vast ocean now divide us – but divide only our persons for the Heart of my Friend is in the Bosom of his partner. More than half a score years has so riveted it there, that the Fabrick which contains it must crumble into Dust, e’er the particles can be separated.
Now please sit down, think of your brightest, funniest, most verbal friend, and write him or her a letter. On paper, with a pen, in script. Just to keep Tinkerbelle alive.
Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”
Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.
And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.
Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.
Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.
We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?
I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.
So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.
I wouldn’t say that I have the knack yet. On the second full revision of my manuscript, I still feel like Alice with the Queen of Hearts’ playing-card army showering down on her head. There’s too much stuff to keep in my head. I question my own judgement. Sometimes I read a chapter and think, “Where’s the story? What was this about, again?”
But the process has changed. Mysteriously, paragraphs that came seamless from my brain now appear on the page with words, especially adverbs, and whole sentences blue-penciled. (Only metaphorically. No actual hallucinations so far.)
A lot of the stuff struck out by the Revision Angel is background, details about my imaginary community and beloved characters that please me greatly. On the first
revision, I couldn’t conceive of parting with them. Now, I see them as personal delights of my own, and I don’t object to clearing them away, giving my readers space to create the place and the people for themselves. My vision won’t disappear. Even if these details never make it into the series, I’ll still have them.
To my surprise, the pain is minimal. If I could see the expression on my own face as I work, I think I would look like my great-granddaughter when dessert is served. She listens, wriggling slightly, to her mother’s advice to “limit yourself,” sighs, wriggles just once more, and does not take another cookie.
My first six chapters now hang together and keep moving, but it’s time for a shock. Unhappily, the next thing that happens is a meeting. Not the “journeys end in…” kind of meeting, the kind with a Treasurer’s Report. The scene has a furious argument in it, but even so, a feeling of cerebrality creeps over me. No doubt getting your own way over Subparagraph 17b can be a genuine victory. The problem is ensuring that your prose doesn’t read like Subparagraph 17b.
This is where Alice’s playing-card army seems to threaten me. There are 40 scenes to go, at least, and the thought of rearranging them gives me the same short-of-breath feeling I get when playing jackstraws. If I pull this one stick out, will the whole pile collapse? How can I be sure that revision won’t become rewriting the whole book from scratch?
I guess I can’t be sure. There’s some new text in the six revised chapters, so there is such a thing as “a little rewriting.” I’ll just have to pick one jackstraw and pull. If you hear a loud crash, call 911.