fiction writing

Hip Surgery + Writing + Character Insight

“Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me.” Anton Chekhov

So, in November, I’m going to have surgery on my left hip. I’ve never had surgery on anything before, never  been checked into a hospital (not even for birthing my babies). So this is a bit daunting for me–but I’m ready, because I’m tired of this pain.

Funnily enough, for years I’ve been battling knee pain. Like, severe knee pain. I’ve been to two chiropractors, an acupuncturist, two physical therapists (one rather loony), a naturopath, a nurse-practitioner, a specialized knee clinic (charlatans, it turns out) where I paid lots of money for injections that didn’t work, and gotten two cortisone shots in my knee. Finally, I made the decision to go the surgery route and made an appointment with the knee surgeon my primary care doctor recommended. Who promptly sent me back to the x-ray lab to confirm his suspicion it wasn’t a knee but hip problem.

He was right. I’m down to bone-on-bone in my left hip, which explains the pain. Ya think? I’d get surgery tomorrow, despite my dislike of hospitals and general fear of doctors, but I’ve got teaching trips to France and Nashville lined up. And I couldn’t talk the surgeon into doing it before I left for Europe–international travel is not recommended immediately after surgery. Funny thing, that. Not.

Talk about mind blown. All these years I’ve thought it was my knee? All these years doctors and healers have tried to heal my knee? And really it was my hip all time? It was hard to wrap my brain around for a couple of days.

Coincidentally, yesterday I took Debbie to get her second cataract surgery done and sat in the spacious waiting area for several hours reading The Art of Character.  I LOVE this book and highly recommend it. (It’s where I got the above quote.) Author David Corbett writes about how in theater, the term “personalization” is used to describe the act of bringing the actor’s own emotional and sense memory to a portrayal. Which is what he advises doing, at least as a starting point. He has a whole chapter about mining characters from your past for inspiration, and also makes the point that you must know yourself before you can fully understand your characters. He provides  lots of great exercises and prompts to help.

As I read, I pondered  my hip surgery story–how the pain I thought was in my knee for years is actually coming from my hip. How it totally changed the way I think about my body. And that got me thinking about giving my changed view about something of importance  to a fictional characters.

I was also influenced in this line of thinking by the novel I’m currently reading, No One You Know.  Author Michelle Redmond does something similar with the main character–she has spent the past 20 years believing something about a seminal event in her life and suddenly finds out it is not true.

And it is not just a changing world view that might be utilized in fiction. I started thinking about all the ways  my hip experience might play out in a character:

–A character afraid of doctors (that’s me, even though my grandfather was an M.D.)

–A character in denial

–A character not dealing with reality

–A character whose world view is shaken to the core

–A character who has a rigid belief system

–Or, conversely, a character who is so loosey-goosey about things that she just trusts all will work out.

I probably should be embarrassed to admit that all of these scenarios fit me, at least to some degree. And this, my friends, is why being a writer is so great–you can funnel all your neuroses and weirdnesses into your work. I should also add that the ways of the subconscious are mysterious and any of these might combine with something completely unrelated to create a scene in your novel–or become a cornerstone of your theme.

So the point of all this is to look at your own life story for your characters and plot. You don’t have to write a memoir–you can transmute your everyday dilemmas into story gold.  Your missteps become fodder for the conflict in your next story. An added bonus is that writing about things that happen to you through the lens of a fictional character will help you to understand your own self better.

Have you used personal experiences in your fiction? Do tell, please.

And also, I have room for one client this summer.  I can coach you to finish your novel or start it, help you figure out a plan for your career, crack the whip so you send things out, or whatever help you might need. Email me and let’s set up a time to talk!

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Inventive Writing Prompt Round-up #30

Here's my weekly round-up of writing prompts from my Tumblr blog:

#205 The fog wafted and drifted around buildings and through streets, masking and silencing everything in its path.  So it was a shock when it lifted and…..

#206 Today is President’s Day in the United States, and lot of people (but not all) have the day off.  What holidays does your main character take?  What does she or he do on those holidays?

#207 Waiting….waiting….waiting…Was it worth the wait? Or not?

#208  Some people fear spiders, but snakes don’t bother them.  Others are the opposite—they hate snakes, but spiders are fine.  Which way does your main character fall?  What does this say about him/her?

#209 Procrastination.  Does your main character indulge in it?  How does it affect his life? How does he get himself going again?

#210 Certain objects may hold great significance for us.  They can contain memories, remind us of loved ones, act as talismans against evil, or connect us to our creativity.  Does your main character have a special object she loves? What does it represent to her?

#211 Oh, the glory of it all.

Happy writing! What are you working on?  

The (Sometimes) Joy of Rewriting

Just in time for Mercury Retrograde, I am launching into the first big rewrite of my novel.  (More on Mercury Retrograde in a moment.)

The background        


A green door in Pezenas, France. It's a doorway to rewriting, get it?

I started this particular novel last year in late September, and finished it almost a year later, on the last day of August.  By many standards, including mine, that is a slow pace for a first draft.  But there were entire months when I set it aside to work on other projects, so the entire time span of active writing was probably was more like eight months than twelve.

I got the idea for this novel in the shower one day in one of those Eureka moments.  When I started writing, in first person, the voice of the narrator came easily and naturally, much as what happened with my Emma Jean novel.  I love when this happens–you don't have to struggle with voice, it is just there. 

My writing group has been enthusiastic about the story, and responses from people who've read the first 50 pages of it in a MFA alumni writing workshop have been also.  And I already have a ton of ideas of scenes I need to add and ways to deepen certain characters. So, I'm excited to get on with the second draft.

The plan

Thus, I was even more excited when my wonderful client and friend Beverly pointed me towards this page on Rachael Herron's blog.  It presents a coherent, cohesive plan for rewriting.  And, I don't know about you, but in my writing life, coherent, cohesive plans for rewriting have been in short supply, witness this story from my MFA days:

I had finished the first draft of the book I lovingly call my MFA novel (It now resides in a cupboard and will likely never see the light of day) and was ready to rewrite it.  So I asked my MFA mentor, an accomplished novelist, writing teacher, and world traveler (who shall remain nameless only because what follows might sound like I'm dissing her and I don't want anybody to think that because she was amazing) how to go about it.  

"I'll tell you how to do that," she said, tossing her long, thick, red hair.

I leaned forward, excited for more of her words of wisdom.

"You sit in your favorite easy chair and read your novel as if you're reading a book from the bookstore."

I waited.  Then I waited some more.  Being too in awe of her to squawk, "that's it?" I waited longer.  

Finally she broke the painful silence.  "Then you will find a way in."  And she bestowed a smile on me.

So, um, you can see why I'm thrilled that plans for rewriting the novel exist.  And, lord have mercy, said plans involve buying office supplies, like post-it notes! A three-ring binder! 3-hole punched paper! Washi tape!  (Okay, the washi tape wasn't strictly necessary, but how could I resist it?)  I'm in the process of printing out my novel and have already begun following the first part of the plan.

Oh, and today, in my internet travels, I ran across this post from the always helpful Janice Hardy about rewriting.  It's worth a read, also.


A giant ad for the Iphone 6 on an historic building in Paris.

The timing 

And now we come to the part about Mercury Retrograde.  Three times a year, the planet Mercury essentially goes backward.  (Don't ask how, just accept, okay?) Most people intone the words Mercury Retrograde with the same dire tones they use to say black plague, or these days, Ebola virus. Communications go haywire, and technology goes bust.  (Don't even think of buying a new computer or phone during one of these periods.  And whatever you do, don't sign a contract.)  Travel plans tend to go awry.  Fun and games, people, fun and games.


There's always a but, and this is a big one.  At the same time all the above-mentioned crazy stuff is occurring, there's something else afoot–and that is that anything that has the prefix "re" attached to it will be a good activity for you.  So, reorganizing, remembering, renewing, or, ahem, rewriting.  Yes, Mercury Retrograde is the perfect time to return to something you've been working on and a good chance to look at it with new eyes.  So there.  I've just given you reason not to dread Mercury Retrograde.  Just don't get tempted by those new Iphone 6s.  

How do you approach rewriting?

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Viewpoint But Were too Confused to Ask

Antique-spyglass-small-1145005-lThis is the blog post on viewpoint I promised in my last post, wherein I talked about how I judged a writing contest and nearly all the entries had problems with sketchy world building and viewpoint.

Getting viewpoint wrong sinks your manuscript from the get-go.  Send an agent a story rife with viewpoint violations and kiss any chance of representation goodbye.   Viewpoint slips look amateurish and annoy the reader, who may not know exactly why they are annoyed, just that they are. 

And you do not want to annoy the reader.

I am the Chief of the Viewpoint Violation Police, much to the chagrin of my bi-weekly writing group that meets here in town.  You got a viewpoint lapse, even a subtle one, and I'll find it.  And I also have a simple way to master it.  Here goes:

I Am A Camera.

That's actually the name of a Broadway play based on a Christopher Isherwood book, but I've always liked it as a way to remember viewpoint.  Whether you are writing first person or third person, when you are in a character's viewpoint you are in their head and all the reader can see is what that character sees.

I am a camera, or he, she or it is a camera.

So, if you have a scene in which your protagonist (we'll call her Beth) talks to her mother and her mother is riled up about something, Beth can only intuit the upset from her mother's dialogue, facial expressions, body language, and actions.  But Beth cannot leap inside her mother's head and relate how mad she is.

Correct (if clunky): Beth watched as her mother furrowed her brows and tightened her lips.  "You must be joking," her mother said.

Incorrect:  Beth watched as her mother furrowed her brows and tightened her lips.  She felt so angry at her daughter.  "You must be joking."

The incorrect part?  The sentence that dives into Beth's mother's head:  She felt so angry at her daughter.

That's head-hopping, people, and it will make your reader feel they are at a tennis match, watching the ball bounce back and forth across the net.  Remember: your character has a camera in her head, and everything it records, you, as the author can record.  But nuttin else.

Employing multiple viewpoints

If you are using multiple viewpoints, make it clear to the reader when you switch heads, and do it either at the start of a chapter, or the beginning of a scene, i.e., after a white-space break (four single returns).

Remember that any character you choose to write in viewpoint will automatically become better known to the reader (we'll be in his head, after all) so choose accordingly.

Now comes the point where you ask me about using omniscient viewpoint and I say: Don't.  Just don't.  I don't allow any of my students or clients to use because I'm fussy that way and mostly because it is really damn freaking hard to do right and most people screw it up.  Omniscient viewpoint is the God viewpoint where you're jumping into characters' heads at will and done poorly, which it most often is, it simply looks like a viewpoint violation.  

Single viewpoint

If you're writing in first person, odds are good you'll stick to one character's viewpoint.  (It used to be a big no-no to have a multiple first person viewpoint novel but standards have relaxed lately.  It is still not as common, however.)  I'm a single viewpoint kind of gal because I love getting inside a character's head and getting to know her and her world view intimately.  I wrote Emma Jean in a third person singular viewpoint–we're in Emma Jean's head the entire length of the novel (which I admit can get a bit suffocating).  The novel I'm currently plowing through (almost done with the first draft) is written in first person, entirely in the protagonist's point of view.

By the way, most writers I know use the terms viewpoint and point of view interchangeably so don't let that confuse you.


Okay, what have I forgotten?  (I always forget to mention things and then my brilliant readers bring those things up in the comments and that makes me happy.)  If you have a question or problem with viewpoint, leave a comment and I'll answer.  If you don't have a question, I have one for you: do you struggle with viewpoint?  How do you keep it straight?


Guest Post: 15 Fixes for Your Worst Writer’s Block

Please welcome guest poster Julie Duffy today.  Julie and I connected on Twitter and I'm glad we did!  She is a writer and also the creator of A Story A Day--the extreme challenge to write a story every day in May.  (And guess what–you can start any time.  If you get going now, think how many stories you'll have by the end of the month.)  Please join me in welcoming Julie, I think you'll like her ideas for overcoming writers' block.

15 Fixes For Your Worst Writers’ Block JulieDuffyHeadshot200x300

by Julie Duffy

 Writer’s block can come out of nowhere. It can be temporary and related to one project, or it can be chronic, stopping you from writing anything creative. Sometimes, it’s important to figure out the underlying problems that are contributing to the block. Is it a technical problem with the work? Have you lost the plot? Do you hate the characters? Finding out the root cause allows you to start forming strategies for tackling the block. But sometimes you just need to knuckle down and do the work. For those days, here are 15 fundamental fixes to help you work through your worst writers' block.

1 – Lower Your Standards

Don't strive for greatness. Go for entertainment. Especially on a first draft. And a second. Save the sixth revision for making it perfect. For now it's enough to ask: is it fun to read (by that I mean enjoyable and entertaining, even if it's sad)

2 – Rewrite Something

Take a look at something you've written before. Don't waste time worrying about what doesn't work. Start it again, rewrite it  (or sections of it, if it is a longer work) without the use of 'cut and paste'. Just take another stab at it. Or retell a classic story, just to warm up.

3 – Start

Sometimes you literally have to put the pen on the paper and start making shapes. It doesn't matter what you write, but putting something — anything — on the page will snap you out of your terror. Keep the pen moving until you're thinking only about the story and not about yourself. Put your pen on the paper. Put your fingers on the keyboard. Make some words.

4 – Free-Write

If you are horribly blocked, don't try to write a story as soon as you sit down. Free-write. Write about anything: about what you want to do, about why you hate your project, what you're trying to do with this story. You should either solve some of your problems or get so sick of listening to yourself whine that you decide you'd rather be writing a story than complaining any more.

5 – Turn Off Distractions

Turn off the Internet. Yes you can. Unplug the router, if you're home alone, or turn off the WiFi on your laptop. If you can't pull the LAN cable out of the back of your computer without upsetting your techies, do the next best thing: turn off email notifications, Twitter pop ups and Facebook, IM or any other chat windows. Ignore your calendar. Set a timer or a word count and go. If you have an old busted laptop, use that and store your work on a USB key. Turn off your phone if it gets email alerts. Do whatever you have to do to kill all the distractions.

6 – Write From A Different P.O.V

If a scene or a story is not working for you, try writing it (again) from a different character's point of view, or in a different voice. Even if you decide not to use the piece, writing it from a different point of view may show you why it wasn't working before, or why you were resisting working on it.

7 – Work On A Different Part Of The Project

Here's a tip: you don't have to write your story in the right order. If you can't get excited about the scene right after the opening, leap over it and get into a meatier part of the story. Then at least, you'll know exactly what you need to set up in that ho-hum scene that you don't want to write today.

8 – Accept that Writing Is Hard Work

If it wasn't everyone would be doing it (and they're not. Trust me. Even though you know a lot of people who write, there are actually a larger number of people out there who aren't writing. Weird, but true.) Every professional writer who ever gave an honest answer in an interview has said some version of, "I just have to sit down and write, you know? It's a job." You have to take it seriously. No matter how much you love your job, there are days when you'd rather not be doing it. The same goes for writing. But you have to turn up anyway.

9 – Change Projects

It is OK to be working on more than one project at once. Now, don't go crazy because you'll never finish anything if you keep abandoning projects when they get hard. But it is OK to switch between a project or two when you need a change.

10 – Write A Little Then Stop

If you're having trouble writing a lot, then don't worry about writing a lot (unless you have someone standing over you with a contract and a stop watch). Write as much as you can. Write a little bit more, then stop. If you can get away with it, don't make yourself sick of a story by pushing too hard.

11 – Edit Something Out

If your story is stuck, maybe it's because your characters can't take that road trip you've been setting up. Even if you really, really wanted to write about a road trip, maybe you need to accept that this is not the story where it happens. Trying to write something when you know it's not working is a sure route to writer's block.

12 – Write First

Make writing the first thing you do, before the distractions of the day get their claws into you.

13 – Write Every Day, Even If It's Twitter Fiction

The act of writing every day proves to yourself that you are serious about this writing business. Writing something as small as Twitter fiction (140 characters) on a busy day at least means that your imagination knows it can’t go to sleep. If you know you HAVE to write something today, your imagination and your subconscious will keep looking around for ideas. In the process you will pay much more attention to the world around you — something that will pay off later, when you are working on another piece.

14 – Don’t Be Fancy

Use simple words. If you are trying to write something and it’s giving you trouble, just say it as simply as possible. Don’t worry about saying it in a beautiful way.  You can get hung up on searching for the perfect word and it can stall your whole project. Come back and change it later if it needs changed (it probably won't.)

15 – Write What You Love

Maybe you've got high-flown ideas about writing what you think you 'ought' to be writing. Or maybe you've heard that a certain type of fiction sells better, or is better regarded, or is more likely to get you an agent. Maybe all these ideas have got you writing work that isn't you, that you don't love. Take some time out and write something with no thought of publishing. In fact, promise yourself you won't show it to anyone, that it's just for you. Above all, keep writing. Even if it's bad, even if it's just OK. Words on the page can be fixed. So stop worrying and write something!

What about you? What tricks do you use to jumpstart your writing?  

Julie Duffy is a writer and the host of StoryADay May (, a creativity challenge for short story writers.  This article is an excerpt from her ebook Breaking Writers' Block: A StoryADay Guide.

Guest Post: Serving the Song

Please welcome guest poster Casey Stohrer to the blog today.  Casey is a musician in Nashville and she so happens to be a student of mine, too.  It's hard to predict which is going to happen first–acclaim as a writer or a musician.  Either way, it will be well-deserved.  Stay tuned to her up-and-coming career!

Serving the Song

by Casey Stohrer


Casey in the studio

Bullshit is subjective. When it comes to creative endeavors, anyway. Maybe all that taste is, is how much B.S. a person can tolerate. While an artist can project their beliefs on other art, they must also learn how to project it onto their own work. Part of creating is also identifying your own stinky turds and turning them into manure for the promising flowers of your sick imagination (case in point).


I write essays, articles, poems, short fiction, long fiction, medium fiction, research papers for lazy, rich college students, you name it. I also started writing songs about six years ago. The dichotomy between writing fiction and music makes my brain do happy dances. It also drives me insane. Sometimes I have dry spells in my "regular writing" and switch to just writing songs for months, and vice-versa. There is enough of a contrast between the two forms that I can "steal ideas from myself” and keep things funky and fresh.

I joined a country-rock band by the name of Neo Tundra Cowboy a couple years ago. I had never played music in a band before. I had never played music in public before. I had never played bass before. Playing music, to me (and like most other musicians my age), meant getting high in my bedroom and recording my half-serious country songs on a ten-dollar computer microphone, and then posting them to Myspace. But I put myself out there, kept my mind open, and soon I got the call to join NTC and move to Nashville, the place where I always dreamed of having Dolly Parton beehive-hair.

I started to learn bass. I'd played guitar for years, but understanding the role of a bass was something else. Learning to play in a group was something I'd never even thought about. “A good musician knows how to play, but a great musician knows when not to play.” I've heard this saying a thousand times, and I can't tell you how true it is. Playing by yourself, creating anything by yourself, is of course the truest thing you can produce as a sentient being. You are uninhibited and natural. What you are trying to do is be as honest as possible. To yourself. And that is all fine and good. But creating is also an attempt to connect with other people, and that's when you have to learn how to cut and paste and rewrite and overdub. Time and space are intangible until they are needed.

How many times have you seen a crappy band play live? To me, a band is bad when the players have no regard for one another, and just (as I lovingly call it) jack-off all over the place. They seemingly have no idea where they are in the song. The guitarist might be soloing in a way that meshes all wrong with the melodies of the bass player. Or a drummer is playing too many fills, which interrupts the rhythm and throws off the singer. You can play the fanciest, most rippin' solo that anyone has ever heard, but if it doesn't serve the song, then what do you have?

The same goes for writing. James Joyce is a real badass, but sometimes I'm like, “Come on, man.” I like that heavy-hitting, stream-of-consciousness style of experimental writing, but I'm in the business of keeping things as simple as possible. I learned all my artistic philosophies through the Beatles and Charles Bukowski. George Harrison never ripped a 20-minute long guitar solo, but he was still in the greatest pop band of all time. Charles Bukowski never wrote like Shakespeare, but he is the most imitated poet of the 20th century. You know why? Because they knew how to serve the song (or poem). A great musician is not necessarily a technically-perfect performer, but they do know how to listen. A great writer knows how to read. Both Bukowski and George Harrison understood the need for simplicity, to allow negative space to give power to what is already there.

Neo Tundra Cowboy was in the studio last week, and we were recording a sad little country ballad with some honkytonk piano in it. Our guitarist Catfish was laying down this beautiful, jangly piano part, but the producer kept saying it was too much. After some more takes, Catfish had been reduced to playing just the root chords on every fourth beat. It sounded rote and boring on its own, but when the track was being mixed, it sounded perfect. It was just what the song needed to hold it together. Catfish didn't get to showboat on that one, but he didn't care, because the song got what it needed. So many bands have internal drama going on because the players get egos and think they deserve to show-off, all the while the song in question is hanging in the air, waiting for the poor silly humans to get over themselves.

I have stories and songs that hang in the air because I'm too stubborn and proud to change something I really like about them. And then they never go anywhere. The experts call this “writer's block.” Then they say to destroy the thing you love most about your creation, to “kill your darlings,” as you've heard hundreds of times. Then you drink yourself into a stupor and wonder how you came to be a masochist with no money. Then through this degrading process, your ego disappears and then there is nothing but the naked story, the simple root note, which is all you really wanted in the first place. All you had to do was sit back and listen.

Casey Stohrer  plays bass for the band Neo Tundra Cowboy and is currently working on a short story collection about Nashville. 

What about you?  How do you serve your song?  Do you cross-pollinate your writing by creating in different genres?

When to Write in Scene

Reading a manuscript yesterday, I was reminded that, while most writing teachers (myself included) insist advocate that students write in scene, there are also instances when you should not write in scene.

Sometimes writers dramatize events that don't warrant a full scene.  And then the writing just seems flabby.  Not much is happening, but there's a full-blown scene written.  I believe this is a subtle reason that many manuscripts fail.

But how are you supposed to know when to write a scene, then, for God's sake?

I have a couple of answers that should be helpful.

The first is a tidbit from an author and writing teacher whose name I've forgotten. Here it is:

Fast is slow and slow is fast.

What does this mean?  It means that if you would experience the event slowly in real time, write about it fast (i.e., in narrative, which can be used to compress time).  So, for instance, if your character spends a lazy Sunday morning reading the New York Times, dispatch that in a sentence or so.  It it not an event that warrants a scene.  On the other hand, maybe that character steps outside and notices her husband trapped under a car when the jack collapsed.  In a split second, she races to the vehicle and lifts it from him in a rush of adrenaline.  This is an event that you want to slow down and linger over, writing every sensory detail in a full blown scene.

Make sense?

The other helpful tidbit is actually several tidbits, or, a list of guidelines as to when to use scenes.  This has been bouncing around in my mind for years, after reading it somewhere and putting it into use, but I also saw it recently in a discusssion of Sandra Scofield's book on writing scenes, called The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.

Here are three reasons a scene should exist:

1.  To advance the plot

2.  To reveal character

3.  To set up something that will re-occur later

Of the three, I think the first two are the strongest, though certainly the last has its merits as well.  What do you think?  How do you choose which events to put in scene and which to write in narrative?  Any tips for how to write in scene?

Friday Mini-Critique: Jessica Baverstock

And for the next victim person who has volunteered to have her work critiqued, welcome Jessica Baverstock.  You may remember Jessica from her wonderful guest post here a few weeks ago, or you may know her from reading her great blog, Creativity's Workshop, in which creativity herself speaks.  Jessica is a writer who recently moved to China, and you can read interesting posts about that and see the gorgeous color of her bedroom wall at her blog, too.

Excerpt #1

I dabbed the ultramarine liberally along my canvas, outlining the shore. Henry, my cousin, juggled paint tubes nearby.

"In recovery?" I said, checking I had the facts right.

"Yeah." The tight red curls atop his head sat unfazed by his vigorous nod.

"In recovery after surgery?" I said.


I chewed the end of my paintbrush. "Sure you weren’t hallucinating?"

He dropped the burnt umber and scowled at me. "There was a bikie in the next bed chuckin’ his guts. If that’s a hallucination, I want stronger meds."

I shrugged. "I’m just saying: you were recovering from heavy anesthetic. You sure you weren’t –"

He dumped the vermilion and atomic tangerine on the small fold-out table next to me. "Annie, can we get past this and on to what I’m trying to say?"

I squinted at the view, and then turned back to my canvas. "Shoot."

"Thank you," he said. "So this mob boss in the bed across the room – "

I paused mid brushstroke. "How do you know he was a mob boss?"

Henry looked like a cat about sink his claws into a stray furniture leg. "Italian. Deep voice. Large man. Marlon Brando complex."

"Naturally," I said, finishing the swirling wave in my endless ocean.

Henry cleared his throat. "And he’s saying, ‘Buried jewels, by the shell, paperbark, Leschenaultia.’"

"Uh huh," I said. "Sounds delirious to me."

He sniffed. "Probably was. Ingrown toenail, I think. But he said buried jewels."

"Yes, I heard the first time."

My Comments

I love the energy and wit of this piece.  Jessica asked me if the attributions were clear and I think she got a good balance on that.  She leaves enough dialogue tags off that the conversation rips right along, but there are also enough to be clear.  Little things like that can make a huge difference in writing scenes.  She also wanted to know if she did enough showing (as opposed to telling) and the answer is a hearty yes.

My absolute favorite sentence in this excerpt is this one: "Henry, my cousin, juggled paint tubes nearby." This sentence accomplishes so much.  For starters, it is always difficult to find original tics or physical actions for characters.  I've never seen a fictional character–or a real live human, for that matter–juggle paint tubes before.  It immediately tells us a lot, not only about Henry, but about his relationship with his cousin, Annie, as well.  The cousins are close, as he feels close enough to her to juggle her art supplies.  And he's irreverent.  It tells me a bit about Annie, too.  She's a confident painter, perhaps a professional, because she doesn't mind doing it around others.  (Or maybe this is just me, because when I paint, I lock myself away so that nobody seems the lame work I'm doing!) 

One thing I might change about this sentence is the word, "nearby."  It seems a bit vague and doesn't really help me to see where Henry is in relation to Annie.  Even something like, "in front of me" would be more descriptive.  Which brings me to another point.  Overall, I'd like just a little more descriptive grounding in the first paragraph, like one more sentence.  The energy of the dialogue is so great, I really want to know where I am while I'm experiencing it.

I also like the use of color throughout this piece. Henry has "tight red curls."  He dumps "vermillion and atomic tangerine," onto a table.  Color is a great way to make a scene pop, and in this case, Annie is an artist, so she would constantly be noticing and naming color.  Good use of viewpoint.

Second excerpt:

When driving with Henry, the journey is far more endurable if you divert your attention anywhere but the oncoming traffic. I quickly found a topic of conversation.

"What makes you think the mobster wasn’t just speaking random nonsense? I had a friend who came out of anesthetic singing The Star Spangled Banner."

Henry shrugged. "So?"

"He was Lithuanian."

Three empty Pepsi cans and a stray UBD were flung to the left as we rounded a corner. It took a minute before my seatbelt loosened enough to be comfortable again.

"I suppose you need my help to decipher the clues?" I said.

He smiled. "Nope. I’ve got them worked out already."

"Then what do you need me for?"

"You’re my sidekick. Treasure hunting is nowhere near as fun without a sidekick."

"Aren’t sidekicks meant to be younger than the protagonist?" I said through gritted teeth.

He thought about it. "Perhaps, but I’ve been your sidekick heaps of times when we were kids. It’s about time you repaid the favour."

"Yes," I muttered to myself. "But at least my adventures were plausible."

My Comments

The first sentence of this excerpt is great.  Not only is it descriptive, but it establishes the narrator as an authority.  She knows things about Henry and how to deal with him, and she's going to share them with us.  When they round the corner and the three cans of Pepsi fling about the car, I laughed.  And then there's another great, subtle detail–Annie's seatbelt tightens on her.  Who hasn't experienced that?  And yet not everyone would think to use it as a way to describe the wild ride.  Small details like these are what add up to a unique voice.  And we're all looking to find our unique voices, aren't we?

I also love that Jessica has a great balance of characters in these two excerpts.  There's the wild, whimsical Henry and the practical Annie.  I want to go along on their adventure because I know Henry is going to get us into some crazy scrapes, but Annie will be there to pull us through.

The one thing I'd really pay attention to is making sure the dialogue works hard.  In the first excerpt particularly, I felt some of the back and forth was done for effect.  Nothing wrong with effect–it is a large part of our craft.  But it has to feel organic.  In other words, it has to be invisible.  But overall, I loved these two excerpts.  Great job, Jessica!

***If you would like to read the entire piece that Jessica took this from, go here.

Lasagne for Lewis, Pineapple-Upside Down Cake for Emma Jean

Pineapple_upsidedown_cake_9I've just finished making a pan of lasagne for my son's birthday dinner tomorrow.  (Brief aside: on Twitter, the spell check wanted me to spell it lasagne, which I thought was correct.  Here on Typepad, the spelling gods insist it is lasagna.  But I sticking to my e ending.  I like e endings.)

I'm sort of famous for my dislike of cooking, but lately I've been trying out new recipes (cooked pineapple and cheese–thank you, Candace), making old favorites I'd forgotten about (apple, celery, and walnut salad), and creating new dishes (brown rice, black beans, burger, onion garlic, other interesting things I can't remember.  My Mom would call this Icebox Cleanup.)  Fall is in the air and it makes me want to cook.

I've always seen cooking as one more thing that is taking me away from writing, one more thing to rush through so I can get back to what I'm working on.  I've been known to set a pan of some slapped-together concoction on the stovetop and wander away to get back to my work–only to return to find the food a burned mess.

Ah, the writing gods are harsh masters, demanding such fealty that we scribes have time for nothing else.  Certainly not for cooking, or any other hobbies.  Alright, I do knit–but it is a rare occasion when I actually finish something.  Writing always beckons before I have a chance.  And then there's the fact that it is difficult to knit or cook while reading, and let's face it, reading is a critical aspect of writing.

But I'm starting to think I've been missing out.  People always yammer on about how grounding and relaxing cooking is and I roll my eyes and tell them cooking bores me, implying, of course, that I have way better and more important things to do.  And the thing is I admire people who cook.  Deeply admire them.  I think that people who cook are very likeable.  They cook to feed others, to please others, to make others happy, right?  So most cooks are very good people, except those snotty ones who will only use a certain kind of cheese from France and the finest olive oil and all that crappery.

My point in all of this is a confession of sorts.  Part of the reason I've started cooking is that the heroine of my novel is cooking.  Emma Jean has recently informed me that she loves to bake (pineapple-upside down cake and cookies to present at her readings) and cook (I don't know what yet).  I'm happy that Emma Jean has told me this because she is a kick-ass, larger than life character, and kick-ass, larger than life characters are sometimes difficult to write in a sympathetic manner.  But because Emma Jean loves to cook, particularly for others, this will make her more likeable.  Right?  Right? 

And so I have some catching up to do in the cooking department.  Hence the lasagne–everything from scratch–for Lewis.  Try as I might, however, I could not convince him that he needed to choose pineapple-upside down cake for his birthday dessert.  I'll just have to bake it another time, seeing as how it is Emma Jean's specialty.

Photo of Pineapple-upside down cake by Mark Pellegrini, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 license.