Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Getting to Know You

Characterization. You can have the greatest plot in the world, but if you don't have good characters to whom the reader can relate, you can forget about your book hitting the best seller list. Keep in mind that your characters have to have a reason for being. What do I mean by this? Just as too many cooks can spoil the broth, too many characters can clutter the story. I recently read a book by an author who modeled characters after people that he knew. I think he created a character for every single person that he knew, consequently, there were a lot of scenes in the novel that ended up just not going anywhere. There were scenes written about characters who were never seen again after the end of that particular chapter. I think the writer, himself, even had trouble keeping up with his characters because at one point he inadvertently resurrected someone he had killed off in a previous scene.

It's also important to KNOW your characters and make sure that they stay in character. If you remember classic Star Trek, you had your three main characters-- the dashing, heroic Captain Kirk, the logical, unemotional Mr. Spock and the crusty, emotional Dr. McCoy. These beloved characters were stereotypes, of course, but then the writers fell all over themselves trying to find ways to make them break character. How many episodes did we have with Spock smiling or crying or showing some kind of emotion due to some outside influence that had caused him to forget his Vulcan training? The actors always liked a chance to get out of character because it allowed them to stretch their skills, but it made for very inconsistent characterization.

Develop back stories for your main characters. Think about what kind of people they are and what made them that way. What makes them tick? For instance, Winnie the Pooh is motivated by honey. Dagwood Bumstead is motivated by food and naps. The creature Gollum is motivated by his attachment to the Ring.

What are their mannerisms, their peculiarities, their favorite sayings? Think of famous quotes from TV shows or movies and how they are associated with those characters. If I say "Hasta la vista, baby!" the image of the Terminator probably pops right into your head. If I say, "Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" you probably think of Mae West. If I say "Super-cali-fragi-listic-expi-ali-docious!" you probably think of Mary Poppins. Look at your characters and write dialogue and scenes for them so that the reader can tell who you are talking about without having to see the character's name.

One of the world's most famous characters is James Bond. ("Bond. James Bond." and "Shaken, not stirred.") He has been played by several different actors, who have each put their own spin on the character, but have retained the essential elements of the secret agent. James Bond is immediately recognizable whether he is played by Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan. He is suave, resourceful, slightly vulnerable, impulsive, and very, very sexy.

Characters can also be defined by what others say about them. Remember Star Wars, "Let the Wookie win." What did that tell you about Chewbacca's character? No one ever actually said, "Beam me up, Scotty," but that line was indelibly associated with the character of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott of the Starship Enterprise. The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was affectionately referred to as the "Great Bird of the Galaxy." What does that tell you about him?

There are many ways you can define your characters in your stories. Just remember to make them REAL, make them CONSISTENT, and make them RELEVANT.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Color in between the Lines when You Write

I tend to think of the art of writing as being like a coloring book. Beginning writers give an outline of the setting. Experienced writers fill in the colors. Successful writers pull the readers into the scene and make them lose themselves in the story by placing them right smack dab in the middle of it. To do this, remember that you have five senses and you need to use every single one of them to create atmosphere.

Imagine a harbor cruise on a clipper ship. Now of course, you will see water, boats, buoys, shore, birds, maybe even some fish or dolphins. But what will you smell? Dead fish, for one thing! But you may also smell tar from the boat, water-soaked wood, and moisture. You will taste the salt spray in the air, and you will feel the damp breeze cooling your skin, rustling through your hair and spattering drops of water on your face. You will hear the waves lapping against the sides of the boat, the creaking of the wood, the sound of the birds, the light splash from a fish jumping out of the water, sounds from other boats, and the sail flapping in the breeze. You may hear
the ropes groaning as the sail is pulled tight. When you write about your cruise, you need to include all of these, and more.

Read some of Ray Bradbury's early work. He was a master of description, of putting readers into his world. Close your eyes for a few minutes. Then pick a sense and write down everything you smelled or heard or felt or tasted while your eyes were closed. Beginning writers tend to remember the importance of visual description, but the successful writers remember that there
are five senses.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Raven Only Needed One Word, The Rest of Us Need Dialogue

"So I said that he was a big fat ninny head, and he said I was a stupid dodo, and I called him a purple people eater, and he said I should go to heck and-"

I suppose I should thank Ernest Hemingway for all the writing that comes in to me with long strings of really boring dialogue that goes on forever and ever and ever. Hemingway could get away with it because he was a genius and he knew how to craft those long pages of
dialogue into the story. Sadly, very few of us are Hemingways (actually I've never really cared for Hemingway so I'm not that sad about it.)

If you have characters in your book or story, they probably talk to each other, which means you have dialogue. (Actually, even if they don't talk, they probably communicate, but that's another blog.) So for this blog about writing dialogue, let's start by talking about the mechanics of dialogue. First of all, very rarely is it okay to have more than one person talking in the same paragraph:
John said, "Marsha, I love you," and Marsha said, "John, I love you too."

Not only is this lousy dialogue, but it needs to be broken up into two paragraphs. Very rarely is it okay to have more than one speaker in the same paragraph. One example of a time when it might be okay is when you want to convey that the action is happening so fast that individual quotes cannot be distinguished:
With a crash a large fist crunched into the side of my head, and I was falling
to the ground. someone screamed, "The king is hit," as another voice howled,
"Die you fiend!" I heard the swords clashing and grunts and screams of men and
horses as my body folded onto the ground, my shield bouncing off my face as an
additional insult. The last thing I heard before the blessed black overtook me
was my beloved Herb crying, "No! No! Carolyn come back!"

Another thing about the mechanics of dialogue is to remember your attributions. This does not mean that you have to put "He said" or "She said" after every single quote. But you do have to find a way of helping the reader to keep track of who is speaking so s/he does not have to count backwards through several lines of dialogue to figure out who is saying what. As a general rule, I would make sure that you have an attribution about once in every three lines of dialogue. If you have more than two people talking, then you must find a way of attributing the dialogue or the reader will be hopelessly confused.

To write good dialogue, you need to listen to conversations. I am a shameless eavesdropper-- I like to sit myself down on a bench in the mall and listen to the flow of conversations around me. I enjoy hearing what the people in the booth behind me at a restaurant are saying, and even like listening to one side of a phone conversation to try to imagine what's happening on the other end of the line. After I listen to the conversations, I try to recreate them, but then I go a step further, because, let's face it, a lot of daily conversation is replete with, "Uh" and "Ya know" and grunts and other odd little sounds that don't really make for scintillating dialogue. I listen to conversations to get an idea of the flow, of how people actually talk, but then I examine dialogue in books to see how authors take that flow and turn it into good, solid writing.

I have found that it helps to sometimes just write a script of my characters talking to each other. In scripts, you can't afford to have any wasted lines-- every word uttered has to move the story along somehow. I also find that it helps to read my dialogue aloud-it's even better if I can get a partner who will read it with me. If, as I am reading, the words don't flow easily, something is wrong.

One last thing-- it's okay to use the word "said" as an attributive. I know that we were all taught in school to try to use something more descriptive than "said" but, trust me, "said" is a perfectly good word. It's non-obtrusive and doesn't get in the way of the dialogue. You can do it, because I SAID so.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

If This Is a Mystery, Where's the Stiff?

"I knew right away something was wrong as I hauled my suitcases into the house after being gone for two weeks. It wasn't the fact that my five cats and one dog were all gathered around the door to greet me--that was only to be expected, after all. And it wasn't even the fact that my mail was scattered on the entry hall floor-- David, the man who watches my house while I'm gone tends to just drop my mail and papers on the entry hall floor, leaving me a sea of paper to wade through every time I come home. It wasn't even the smell-- in a house with six animals, one of them extremely elderly, I get used to odd smells. No, I immediately knew something was wrong because at the end of the entry hall I saw a foot with a blue-jeaned leg attached to it. Someone was lying on the floor of my living room. Glancing at the wall I saw splatters of brownish-red, which stood out in stark contrast to my recent "eggshell white" paint job. It's not for nothing that I am a mystery writer. Immediately I realized that there was a body on the floor of my living room, and from the smell and the look of the blood splatters, that body was probably a dead one."

The beginning paragraphs of your book are like a store display-- you want them to reach out and grab the reader and pull him/her into the story. I have a 100-page rule when I am reading for pleasure-- if I am not completely into the book after 100 pages, I stop reading it because my time is very valuable. When reading manuscripts, the bar is much lower. If the writer hasn't grabbed me within the first five pages, it's a huge blackmark against the submission. I go ahead and skim through the remaining sample pages to see if the weak beginning can be redeemed, but it's really hard to recover from a weak start.

Here's a good rule to remember, "If this is a mystery, where's the stiff?" I ask that because I once had someone submit a manuscript to me that they described as a mystery, but 100 pages into the manuscript, not only were there no dead bodies, but there was no element of suspense whatsoever. One good way to tell if your beginning is NOT a grabber is if you find yourself picking chapters from later in the book to send to the publisher because "that's where it really starts to get good." If your first three chapters are not the ones you are using to try to convince the publisher to offer you a contract, then you probably need to take a good look at the structure of your book. Maybe you need to move the "Really good" chapters up to the beginning.

Now if you'll excuse me, the police have come and gone, and I have to try to get the bloodstains off of my wall.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Read to Write

If you want to be a good writer, you need to READ. This may seem
self-evident, but you would be amazed at how many writers I talk to
who do not ever read. I hear excuses such as:
1. I don't have time
2. I can't afford to buy books (libraries folks!)
3. I don't really like to read much

You read for several reasons:
1. To keep current in your genre
2. To absorb the art of writing
3. To learn how other writers handle various writing elements

If you have problems writing dialogue, then grab some of your
favorite books and analyze the dialogue. See how it flows. How does
the author handle interjections, long conversations between two
people without resorting to "he said/she said" or, worse, "he
said/he said." (With two speakers of the same sex it is very easy to get ripped up in trying to figure out which one is speaking.)

If you see a descriptive phrase that you like, write it down. If you
write action scenes, then find a really good action scene to analyze
and see how the writer pulls you into the scene.

If you like a book, determine why you like it. If you don't like a book, what is it specifically about the book that you don't like?

And here's a good tip: After you read a book, go to Amazon.com and
write a reader review of it. This is a great way to focus on whether a book “works” or not and the book’s main strengths or flaws. It's very simple-- if you have an Amazon account then you can write a review (you can even use your signature line to promo your own material!) After you've written your review and posted it, read through the other reader reviews and see if others agreed with you or if they disagreed.

So don’t just sit at home in the evening watching the idiot box. Grab a book and improve your writing skills by reading!

Monday, December 11, 2006

The First Blog

This is a writing blog, for, by and about writers. It's also a transformation of the SK Writers Critique Club, which was a radio show we did for a while. During the radio show, I would read passages from works submitted by authors and critique them on the air. We had a lot of fun, but the show ended up costing too much money, and I was not getting enough of a return out of it.

I did some looking for another venue for the show, but decided that the radio show does not really give me the flexibility I want for something like this. So I'm starting a blog and changing the nature, but not the spirit of the Club.

On this blog I will offer articles about writing. I will also continue to critique samples of work that people send to me. If you want to submit a work for critique, you can send it to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com. Keep in mind that I will be giving an honest appraisal of your work-- if you aren't able to take it, don't submit your work. I'll also be inviting others to critique material.

If you have writing questions, go ahead and ask them, either in our comments section or via email. This is YOUR chance to talk to a publisher and editor about writing. So don't let it go to waste.