Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday's Focus: What Color Are You?

Several years ago, at a time in my life when hope for all things positive was low, I was asked a simple question: if you were a part of the rainbow, what color would you be? This was my answer:

I would be silver.

Silver is the color of the sky just before the dawn of a new day...the day where we give birth to new creativity.

Silver is the color of ribbons and satin bows and crinkly paper and sparkly thingys on birthday and wedding cakes, where happiness surrounds us and pain and sorrow are univited guests not allowed in.

Silver shimmers in the moonlight when two lovers take long walks into their future together.

Silver sparkles in the raindrops on the ground just as the clouds begin to lift and go their separate ways.

Sliver catches fire from the reflection of the sun as it beams down on the scorched earth below.

Silver dims and tarnishes from the tears that flow in a simple graveyard.

Silver is the color of my mare as she stands poised in flight, on the brink of life, on the edge of death. I miss her so much.

I would be silver.

What color would you be?

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday's Focus: Phrases That Kill

Are you a murderer? Do you kill your story with phrases that should never have been written?

Let's get down to some serious business about the writing process. As writers, we all want to catch our readers' attention with words and phrases that will build up the tension, sound great, even look pretty as we write them. But very often, our narration gets so out of hand that the reader is going to throw down the book in disgust, and possibly, never pick up one of ours ever again.

Here are some examples of what I mean by phrases that kill:

Her eyes followed him as he stormed out of the house. I'm sure you've all read this, or something very similar. But what kind of image that does produce? A pair of long-lashed eyes bumping along behind him? Really?

What about this one: His eyes were consumed with passion. Wait a minute...the dictionary says "consumed" means to use something up in such a way that it cannot be recovered. I wonder how he handled being without his eyes once his passion was over? Then there's this one: He claimed he was telling the truth, but his eyes said otherwise. Did his eyes learn to talk as a baby at the same time he did? That should have been interesting for his parents.

She dropped her eyes in embarrassment. Excuse me? I surely hope she dropped them on something soft, like a bed or a thick carpet.

Here is one I read recently from a book by one of my favorite authors: Unseeing, he looked out at the sun setting over the ocean. If he can't see, how can he "look out" at anything?

Here are some more phrases that kill:
Her emerald eyes mesmerized him. What was the rest of her body doing?
Her smokey eyes blazed with fire.  I guess her eyes would be smokey if they were on fire.
Her sultry voice grated on me.  Why? are you a piece of cheese?
His voice came from a long distance.  Long distance? That must have really been hard on his throat.
His eyes caught and held hers. pair of eyes must have been running away to have been caught by another pair.
Her heart sang with happiness. What song was her heart singing? OR:
Her heart wept with despair.  One can only hope her heart had a big hankie. ( Both of these are writers' favorites, and one makes about as much sense as the other.)
I thought to myself.  Excuse me, but to whom else would you be thinking?

Enough all ready! The point is...these are the kinds of phrases we writers need to be on the look-out for. A lot of Romance Writers use phrases like the above, and some even more, uh, descriptive in sexual tones, but I won't go into those here. After all, I DO have kids looking at this blog sometimes!

Think about YOURSELF when you start to write something like the above: would your eyes be falling out on the bed, or running down the street after someone, or would they be on fire?  There are other ways to be expressive, to spark the reader's interest without using a body part as the subject
of a sentence. It just doesn't work.

You are a writer. You are creative. Find another way to say the same thing.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday's Focus: Fun, Fanciful, and Farcical Facts

Today I feel like doing something for fun. In my research over the years, I've run into all kinds of funny, weird, crazy, and even nonsensical "facts." So, just for the heck of it, here are some of them, in no particular order, and relating to nothing in general.

>> Americans purchase more than 20 million pounds of Candy Corn every Halloween season.
>>Uncopyrightable is the only English word with fifteen letters that does not repeat a letter.
>>The only English words that cannot be rhymed are orange, month, silver, and purple.
>>A Texan's ten-gallon hat only holds about six pints.
>>Ninety percent of the world's ice covers Antartica, but the continent is the driest place on earth. (with the exception of California this year.) The average percipitation is about two inches a year, and it has an absolute humidity lower than that of the Gobi Desert.
>>The only state in the US that has never had an earthquake is North Dakota.
>>The number of bones in the human body is 350 at birth, and 206 in adulthood. ??
>>The average office desk has over 400 times more bacteria than a toilet. !!!
>>The body pumps 2,000 gallons of blood 60,000 miles every day.
>>The US motto, In God We Trust, was not adopted until 1956.
>>San Francisco's cable cars are the only mobile National Monument.
>>The shortest war in history was between England and Zanzibar in 1896. It only lasted 38 minutes before Zanzibar surrendered.
>>"When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was written by a German musician, George Graff, who had never even visited Ireland.
>>Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to power a television for three hours; the same can, thrown away, will still be a can 500 years from now.
>>Rycycling one ton of paper saves: 17 trees; 6,953 gallons of water; 463 gallons of oil; 587 pounds of air pollution; 3.06 cubic yards of landfill; and 4,077 kilowatt hours of energy.
>>A hippopotamus can open its mouth wide enough to fit in a 4-foot person. They are the third largest land animal but can still outrun a human.
>>A cockroach can live up to nine days without its head. Yuck.
>>A Poison Arrow frog, indigenous to South American rainforests, contains enough poison to kill 2,200 people, although they are only one half inch in length.
>>Koala bear fingerprints are very similar to human fingerprints, as their fingers and toes have patterned ridges.
>>Contrary to popular opinion, a porcupine cannot "shoot" its quills. They rise up from the back and come out easily enough to embed themselves in predators...or nosy dogs who get too close.
>>Thomas Jefferson introduced brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and eggplant to America.
>>Coconut water can be used intravenously in emergency situtations to rehydrate a person, because it is sterile, has an ideal pH level, and is chemically similar to blood plasma.
>>Americans consume 75 to 100 acres of pizza each day, which is about 350 slices a second, and 40 slices per man, woman, and child, a year.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday's Focus: Foreshadowing: Do You Use It?

A hint of what is to come. That's another way of saying "foreshadowing." As writers, we know how important 'detail' is to our stories. But one detail is not the same as another detail. We have to be selective in what we say and how we say it. If we give importance to some small detail in our story, and then go on without ever going back to that detail, we are in trouble and our story is going to cause some definite unrest among our readers.

A favorite author of mine, Sandy Asher, once said, "If a character coughs in Act I, he'd better die of consumption by Act III." Why? Because if you give some kind of importance to a detail at one point in the story, and then never go back to it, never explain why it was important at that particular point, the reader is going to feel cheated. The detail will stick in his mind, and then leaving him wondering "why" is not going to win points and make friends. Or future readers.

Have you ever heard of the literary principal "Chekhov's Gun?" Chekhov was a Russian author who once said, "One must never put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it." That suggests this scenario: Your MC and her boyfriend spend the weekend in a cabin out in the woods, trying to repair their relationship. As they come in, the boyfriend sees a rifle hanging above the fireplace. He stares at it for a moment, before turning back to the MC.

That is foreshadowing. it is a hint of what is to come. Or should be a hint of what is to come. If you as the writer allow his eyes to dwell on the rifle, but the weekend goes well and the two come home, more in love than ever, that is a wasted moment, a wasted detail that the reader is going to ask, "What was THAT all about?"

But: think about this: the boyfriend is unreasonably jealous, and the girl is tired of it. The weekend does not go well, and they continually fight. Finally, the boyfriend slams out of the cabin, gets in his car and drives off, leaving the girl behind...lying on the floor, bleeding. Then the rifle has become an important part of the story, and the small detail of the boy's eyes dwelling on that hanging rifle has meaning.

When you write about the details of a character or to give insight into the plot, you need to have some idea of why you are writing this. What is the importance of that detail? Is it going to have some kind of meaning later on in the story? Those details are going to stick in a discerning reader's mind, and make him ask, Where is this going? What's going to happen with that? If you don't follow through, and make those details have some kind of result in the plot or with the character, you are just leading your reader on for no good reason.

On the other hand...don't ever use phrases like "Little did she know what tomorrow would bring" or "They thought they were alone. They were wrong." These are "cliff-hangers", usually used at the end of a chapter to entice the reader to go on. ( Incidentally, the last phrase...they thought they were mine, from my current WIP, that, after reading through it, I had to go back and change.) But these phrases and many other like this, are "author-intrusive," meaning that it's only the author acting as the narrator who puts them there.  These phrases don't come from the character's POV, they come out of nowhere and do nothing but irritate the reader.

Foreshadowing is a great literary device, if it is used correctly. However, sometimes we use something that we think is foreshadowing, and it's not. For example, in my story, at the end of one chapter I used the "they thought they were alone. They were wrong." phrases as foreshadowing what came next. But as I started to think about it, I knew I had used those two sentences incorrectly. I went back and deleted them. So you know what I'm talking about, my MC and another character were racing through the woods, trying to avoid the police. They were being observed by another character but didn't know it. So I changed those two sentences to: Above them, the whirring of wings was unheard over the noise of their crashing through the underbrush.

That foreshadows what happens to them in the next chapter, even though it doesn't come until late in the chapter. At least, here the reader has an idea of something that is going to happen, because in previous chapters, this same character with wings has appeared.

The point is: we all give details about the plot, the characters, even the setting. Sometimes in narration, sometimes in dialogue. Write those details in well-chosen words that will give a hint of something to come, words that will create suspense, or that will give the reader information about the character that might not appear again until late in the story. Remember that the purpose of foreshadowing is to make the incidents or events that appear later on in the story meaningful and plausible. You don't want your reader to finish your book, and then feel like some important part of the story was ignored or left unfinished. Plant those foreshadowing details carefully, think them through first, and know where they are going to lead and how you are going to deal with them. Then you can be assured that your readers are going to be fully satisfied with your novel.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Friday's Focus: Subplots and Plot Threads

Most of my writing is pretty clear cut. Since I write mostly for "tweens" ( ages 10-13), there aren't many subplots, maybe one or two, but that's all.

In my new WIP, however, subplots abound. To the point that I've realized that some things need to be changed, rewritten entirely, or perhaps even eliminated. More work, and I haven't even finished the first draft. However, if I don't get those subplots under control, that first draft is going to be one major mess to edit and revise.

Subplots have always kind of defeated me, in that I've never been entirely sure just how to work them in and get them to the end of the story, all tied up in one nice, neat, and logically concluded package. Now, however, I've learned of a new way to think of subplots, and it's beginning to make more sense to me.

How is that? To think of your subplots as threads, instead of subplots. Think of a piece of clothing: the material is made up of threads, right? Each thread has a purpose, but the end result is a solid piece of material. Thus, each thread is singular and important, but eventually comes together and meets every other thread to form a whole piece. Of material, that is.

So, first of all, you have to identify your plot threads. This shouldn't be hard to do, because first of all, any time an event happens that makes the reader want to know "what happens next," that event becomes a thread. Let me give you an example from my WIP: Zahra is talking to Henri. That in itself is not an event, but when Henri hands a note ot Zahra and her face pales when she read it, that becomes a thread. And you as the writer must follow that thread to the end. What does the note say? Why does she turn pale when she reads it? What will happen next?

You need to go through your novel page by page to find those little things you have happening to your characters that don't really count as major issues. When they don't count as major, they still can become important to the story as threads...better known in the past as subplots.

The next thing to do is to count everything you think can be a thread. Events aren't the only things that can be counted as a thread. Suppose your MC is afraid of something happening or not happening: you can't just leave that up in the air, you have to work her fears, whatever they are, into the story and put them to rest, one way or another. Thus, you have another thread...or more, as the case may be, because her fears, or even her thoughts if they can have consequences, become threads. Each of these threads has a life of its own, a purpose, but in the end, it must come together with each of the other threads to combine into a whole. A whole and complete story, that is.

We already know that a simple, straightforeward story line is just that...simple, and usually uncomplicated. Great for a younger kid's book, but totally unacceptable for MG, YA, or adult books. If you are writing an adult book, multiple threads, as in 9, 10, 11, are fine, and intriguing...if you can keep them all straight, don't intertwine them together into a stranglehold, and can keep them going logicall until the conclusion of your story.

If you are writing MG/YA, you had better keep those threads to no more than 5 or 6, and make very sure that they all come together at the end, with no split ends flying around. Kids of any age HATE that, and probably won't ever pick up another book by you, just for that reason.

For all threads, but especially in adult writing where you might have 8 or 9 or even more, you must make sure each thread connects to your main plot.  If the note Henri gave to Zahra has no impact on the overall storyline, and it's just a little love note she wasn't expecting, so she tears it up and that's the end of that, it is not a thread because it doesn't connect to the overall story. However, this example comes from my WIP, and the note absolutely has something important to do with the story, so therefore it IS an independent thread. My problem, therefore, is to make sure I can weave this thread into the basic fabric of my story at the end, to become the complete "garment."

With all your threads, you must do just that: make sure they fit into the fabric of your story, and can be woven into the final design.

If you find you have 'threads' that go nowhere and connect with nothing, you must delete them. Yes, no matter how beautifully written they are, no matter how they glow as independent thoughts or events or even characters, you must kill your darlings off if they don't fit properly into your story. If these threads are fly-by-night wisps of fuzz, then GET RID OF THEM!!

When you ferret out all of these threads, you must understand which ones relate to one another, and will eventually interweave into the final fabric of your story. If they don't do this, they will eventually unravel, and you will have exposed threads hanging out of your completed storyline. Then it will be too late to snip them off.

Confusing? Not really. Substitute the word "subplot" if you must every where I've used thread.It still works. Well, maybe not as an anology for fabric, but no matter what words you use, the idea is still the same: continuity of plot lines, or threads, is very important to your story, and in the end, everything must come together logically so the conclusion of the story is understood, and nothing is left hanging out. Or fuzzy. Or flying around.

Now I must leave you, and go searching for all those threads in my WIP that I'm sure are VERY important to the overall storyline...or not.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday's Focus: Personal: Shattered Lives, Shattered Dreams

They stood huddled together, arms around each other for support, for love, for sharing. One man stood apart, looking at them. Strangely, tears were running down the pale cheeks of the group before him: wife, son, mother, stepfather.

The group had been there for a long time, standing at what seemed to be the edge of the world. They were looking up into the sky. A rainbow shimmered where the sky kissed the earth. It hovered for a while, bringing hope that fluttered back and forth like a fragile butterfly.

Now, the rainbow quivered, and sank below the horizon as black clouds filled the sky. Hope, like the butterfly, was gone.

The group turned, as one, and looked at the solitary man. He took a step forward into the long black tunnel that beckoned him. He smiled because he didn't know, didn't understand that the tunnel had no end, no return.

No cure. No treatment. Those words had pierced the hearts of these people for many months, as they waited patiently, hopefully, for new theories to come forth, new medicines to be discovered. None came. And the words continued to bounce back and forth, almost like a dodge ball game. Except this was no game, this was life. His life.

The man took another step into the tunnel. The group cried out to him, to no avail. Now, he did not know them, did not remember the life he once had. He stepped deeper into the tunnel, not knowing, not understanding this was a journey from which he would not return, and one that he would travel alone.

The journey is almost over. The tunnel has been long, dark, desolate. Those he will leave behind have nothing left now but their memories: the mother remembers  a small, laughing, inquisitive boy: the stepfather remembers a young man with an exciting future, the wife remembers a loving husband; and the son remembers a close and warm relationship with a loving father.

Shattered lives, shattered dreams.
My heart cries. He... is my son.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday's Focus: Finding Filler Phrases and Words

Since I just finished the final edits for my novel coming out in April, and am in the midst of editing my still-unfinished WIP, I thought I would talk a little about those pesky "filler words/phrases" that we all use, and shouldn't.

A filler phrase is the phrase you begin ( usually) a sentence with, that shows the reader what is going on. However, you are doing it through the eyes of the main character...again, usually.

When you use filler phrases, you are taking the reader out of the action of the story, and making her visualize what is happening, instead of showing her what is happening.

Let's talk about a few of these filler words:

1. to see:  I saw the truck run the red light, scattering pedestrians. Without "I saw:" The truck ran the red light, scattering pedestrians onto the sidewalks. You are in the action here, rather than trying to visualize it through someone else's mind.

2.  to hear: I heard the sound of glass shattering, and I knew someone had broken in downstairs. Here there are three different filler words in one sentence: I heard, the sound, and I knew. Without these filler words: The glass shattered, breaking the night's silence. Someone was downstairs.

3.  to realize: She realized there was no turning back, she had no choice but to continue on alone. Without "she realized:" There was no turning back, and no choice left but to continue on alone. However, in this sentence is also the phrase "there was", another of those You can do without phrases. So you could say, She had no choice left but to continue on alone, and do without the "no turning back" phrase.

4.  to seem or seem like:  It seemed like the class went on forever, and I noticed the professor never stopped talking long enough to answer a question.  Without "it seemed like" and "I noticed:" The class went on forever, and the professor never stopped talking long enough to answer a single question.

These are just a few of the filler words and phrases we all use in our writing, and should do without. Listed below are some filler words to watch out for. Add others that you have found to this list.

** to see
** to hear
** to touch
** to sound or sound like
** to realize
** to seem or seem like
** to be able to
** to look or look like or look for
** to feel or feel like
** to notice
** to decide
** to watch
** to listen to or listen for (This is sometimes necessary to the content of the sentence, but not always. Think of other ways to express your meaning before using it. Ex: She listened for his whistle, knowing it meant she was safe. His whistle came softly through the night air. She was safe.)

Remember that any and all tenses of these words count, too. We all use them, and think nothing of it, but if you go through your manuscript line by line, you'll find them. Once you do, try different ways of writing that sentence without using the phrase. You probably will be pleasantly surprised. I know I was, and I give all the credit to my line editor who found those fillers for me...and oh yes, a thousand or so "commas" that I didn't need!

Until next time,
That's a wrap.