Sunday, October 24, 2010

Say it proud, say those words out loud

If you really want to know if you've written something that resonates, try this little test: Read it out loud. Sure, you might feel a little silly, but do it anyway. It works.

We all know that the written word has its own cadence, its own rhythm and flow. But when we're caught up in the moment, in the drama or comedy of storytelling, we sometimes forget. We're so busy thinking about the story, we forget about the sound. And if our words trip up our readers, they'll never make it through the first few paragraphs.

Or we'll sound ridiculous.

Case in point: When I was writing one of the first drafts of Death on Deadline, (I cleaned out the basement recently and only then realized how many times I rewrote the thing), I had put in this scene where two of the main characters were in an area of the newspaper that used to be called the morgue. They were discussing their mean-as-a-snake editor, who'd just been taken from his office on a stretcher. They didn't know that a third character was standing in the dark, listening, until he spoke. They exchanged a few sentences, and then - caught up in the drama - I had the third character say this doozy:

"He's dead," he said instead.

I thought it sounded terse and dramatic - until I read it out loud. Only then did I realize it sounded like a morbid Dr. Seuss couplet. Naturally, I changed it.

Give it a try. You may be surprised what your words sound like coming from your own mouth.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Not everyone will love your writing (it's ok)

There comes a time in writing when you wonder, quite bluntly, if you suck.

Maybe you've received two or three rejection letters. Maybe your editor has done a hatchet job on your piece. Maybe you've just been uninspired lately, and you're contemplating entering the field of retail.

Let me share, then, this story: I entered a short story contest recently. (I'll end the suspense for you now and tell you I didn't win). But part of the entry fee was a critique by two judges. Well, okay, I thought. That sounds pretty good. Usually, I only force relatives to give their opinion, and since they pretty much know I want their opinion to be "I love it!" I figured it might be nice to get an unbiased view.

I sent in 10 pages of a story. I received my critiques.

I was rated on a scale of 1 to 10 - higher being better, naturally. The first judge gave me 5s across the board. I think my highest score was a mere 7, for my spelling and grammar. (On this I had to quibble. I may not be able to write, dear judge, but I am a fine speller).

She had one comment: "Use a different font." I don't think I wowed her.

As a matter of fact, after reading her critique, I double-checked to make sure she read my story. It was good!!! Wasn't it?? Or ... maybe not.

Then I read the second critique. It scored 9s across the board. At the bottom, the second judge had scrawled, "I love this!!! I would buy this!!!"

I love this judge!! Me and this judge should be best friends!!! Now here is someone who understands me.

This story provides a perfect example of why you probably don't suck on those days when you think you do. Writing and publishing is rife with subjectivity. What one person hates another may love. So what's a writer to do?

Just keep writing. You'll find that second judge.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Look to books for some humor therapy

Love may be the universal language, but laughter surely has to come in a close second.

When I'm stressed or feeling blue, I head straight for the bookshelves and a little humor therapy, courtesy of some of my favorite authors. If you haven't tried it, I heartily recommend it. When everything seems to be going wrong, a good belly laugh or even a few stifled giggles can make all the difference.

I started reading Laurie Notaro's I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies) while I was sitting on a bench at a very hoity-toity dance studio waiting for my daughter to finish her overpriced ballet lessons that she ended up hating. I tried, really tried, to contain myself, but I burst out laughing several times. The other mother's glares told me how inappropriate it was, and I suppose I could have stopped reading, but it was too good and I couldn't help myself.

Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent was another tome that had me giggling through my hand. I felt surprise - and relief - that there was someone else out there who sees all the strangeness in the world and doesn't mind getting a little snarky about it.

There's lots of other, of course - and not just non-fiction. I love it when fiction makes me laugh. Sarah Shankman, who wrote I Still Miss My Man (but my aim is getting better) is hilarious, and I love the Southern Sisters mysteries of the late Anne George.

But surprises - finding someone new and funny (or new to you and funny) - are the best. Consider this: Shirley Jackson, the author of the haunting short story The Lottery and uber-creepy The Haunting of Hill House, wrote a really funny memoir titled Life Among The Savages about her life with her husband, her "twenty children and half a million books." And a friend of mine recently loaned to me a little off-beat book called "Apathy," by Paul Neilan that she insists is "disturbingly funny."

I can't wait to find out.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Smile, lady - you're in chapter three

There's this woman where I work who drives me crazy.

Oh, I don't know her name. I don't even know what department she works in. I just know that I have already cast her as a character in my next book.

Sometimes, I can't help it. I see a person in real life and I know - I just know - that they're a perfect character for one of my stories. One time I was sipping on a mocha in a Barnes & Noble cafe in Springfield, Mo., and I saw America Miles, the protagonist in my novel, Death on Deadline.

Yep, that woman sitting two tables across from me, flipping through a magazine and minding her own business, had come straight from my imagination. She had the hair. She had the bone structure. She even had that little worry line between her eyebrows. I couldn't stop staring. I was mesmerized. She finally looked up and gave me one of those little polite smiles - you know, the kind you give when some weirdo is looking at you - and I had to look away. But it was very exciting.

Not so much with this lady. I see her nearly every time I go to the cafeteria. Our cafeteria is big and it's busy and to my eyes, it looks a bit understaffed. So the men and women serving behind the counters are basically working at full tilt to keep everything running smoothly.

So this lady - whom I have cast as perhaps a pretentious, uncooperative clerk - usually minces in with a self-important swagger and then proceeds to bluster and bitch constantly in line, complaining about anything and everything until the person behind her is about ready to crack.

Unfortunately that person is usually me.

"Geez, these chicken nuggets are taking forever!!" she sighs after two minutes.
"No curly fries today? You'd think there'd be curly fries today," she pouts after three.
"I just don't see what the holdup is in these lines," she whines after four, shifting her considerable weight.
"I'm still here - it's just taking forever!!" she calls to her friend after five.

For the record, her meal is usually ready in about five minutes. Not that I'm counting.

Aaargh. It's so annoying. But I just stand quietly, practicing my calming zen breaths, studying her petulant red face and overly mascaraed eyes so I can describe them perfectly in my next story.

Meanwhile, the poor woman behind the counter is smiling politely, sweating profusely, just busting her butt trying to move everyone's orders through. Maybe I have it all wrong, though. Maybe I should be telling her story - perhaps a tale of revenge against annoying, unappreciative customers.