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August 30, 2010

Handling Emotions

Photo by alasdair.d
Some of the toughest scenes to write are those in which emotions reach a crescendo.  It's easy to get carried away, creating melodrama, or to dodge the true feelings, creating instead a vague scene filled with cliches intended to convey emotion. As well as being the toughest to write, these scenes are often the key to drawing the reader in and giving the story its impact.  Getting the tone and pace right takes multiple revisions, and I always keep in mind the advice I received from Gerry Shapiro on a rough draft: "Remember that when you turn the volume a bit lower on the emotional level of the story, readers lean in to get closer, and in doing so, become more emotionally involved in the story.  If you turn it way up, readers tend to pull back."

For today's exercise, select one of your own emotion-packed scenes for revision.  Remove all the adverbs.  Hunt down and take out any dramatic dialogue tags or cliched physical responses (I've cut out enough racing hearts to qualify as a serial killer, yet drumming pulses still keep showing up in my drafts).  If internal dialogue explains the characters' thoughts or feelings, delete that, too.

What remains after those alterations?  Does the scene elicit the feeling you're hoping to convey?  Does it seem too sparse?

Imagine the details that make your characters and the particular situation unique.  Using those small, solid components, rebuild the scene on its existing framework without including any emotional shortcuts or melodrama.  When you're done, compare the original to the re-worked scene and decide which is stronger.

August 27, 2010

Return of the Laptop

Well, the laptop seems to be back in shape thanks to the technician who, "stomped out whatever evil was re-spawning". His description made me smile. It was dead on with my vision of the monster taking over my machine.

My rough draft's nearly complete, and I think I'll write with pen and paper again today since it seems to be working well. I've also begun to consider revisions of an earlier work with a focus on how the story begins and how the narrative is structured. Revision ideas are brewing in the back of my mind, where they'll be bottled until my current rough draft is done.

Signing off now so I can get cracking on the manuscript.

August 20, 2010

The Bug

It forms when darkness is increased by one, by Mark Witton
A nasty virus knocked my laptop out this week, and I'm physically pining for it.  This must be how people feel when they send a kid off to camp.  I'm wondering where my little laptop is right now, what sort of exercises the technician is putting it through, whether it will come back the same as when I put it in his care or changed somehow irrevocably. 

Alright, I'm probably too emotionally invested in that slab of circuitry, but a big chunk of my life is wrapped up in it.  Until it returns, I'll be writing on paper and occasionally venturing into the dungeon-like basement to use the computer.  Since I've already been down here long enough to threaten my shaky sanity, I'm going to give you a link to the book review I did this morning for our group blog, writersvibe, and then I'm heading upstairs to face a blank piece of paper.

Wish me luck!

August 16, 2010

Drawing from Simplicity

For today's writing prompt I've provided a couple simple but ambiguous images.  Use them to practice describing a setting in detail.  Or, you might imagine stories that would take place in these settings and the characters to inhabit them.  Jot a few lines evoking the mood or spirit of the image.  Beyond what you see, what do you sense?   

August 13, 2010

Eva Luna

Ever since I came across Isabel Allende's interview on NPR, I've wanted to read one of her books.  The latest novel wasn't available at my library, so I grabbed Eva Luna.  I'm not disappointed.

 There are so many things I like about this novel and about Allende's writing in general.  Characters flow in and out of the story, which shifts through time and place without causing confusion or interrupting the momentum.  From the beginning there's an undercurrent driving everything together, propelled by a magic that resembles a dreamer's imagination.  The narrator, Eva Luna, is strong yet tender-hearted with a clear, consistent voice and compassion for the other characters.  There's something uplifting about being caught up in her world, even when ugliness and violence intrude.

What impresses me most is Allende's use of indirect dialogue and summary.  She keeps the story alive, providing enough detail to fuel the reader's imagination while skimming over events. Here's an example from page 250 of the Dial Press Edition:
     "You have to take these programs on faith.  You have to believe in them, period," said Mimi, between two of Alejandra's speeches. "If you start analyzing them, you ruin them."

     She argued that anyone can dream up dramas like Belinda's and Luis Alfredo's, but I better than anyone, since I had spent years listening to them in kitchens, believing they were true, and feeling betrayed when I learned that reality was not like the stories on the radio.  Mimi outlined the undeniable advantages of working for television, where there was room for every absurdity and where every character, however extravagant, had a chance to win the hearts of an unsuspecting public--a privilege rarely accorded a book.  That evening she came home carrying a dozen little cakes and a heavy, beautifully wrapped package.  It was a typewriter.  So you can get to work, she said.  We spent part of the night sitting on the bed drinking wine, eating cookies, and discussing the ideal plot--a tangle of passions, divorces, bastards, ingenues and villains, wealthy and destitute that would ensnare the viewers from the first word and keep them glued to the screen through two hundred emotional episodes.  We were tipsy and covered with sugar by the time we went to bed, and I dreamed of blind girls and jealous men. 

Do you see what I'm getting at?

I'm almost finished with Eva Luna and looking forward to reading more of Allende's work.  Any suggestions on authors with similar styles I might enjoy?

August 9, 2010

Another Point of View

Photo by Maschinenraum

Last week I had a breakthrough on my rough draft, and I'm fighting the urge to let the blog slide while I work on my fiction.  After a couple of months of limping along, the words are finally flying.  Where did this momentum come from?  I abandoned my main character (the first person narrator) and wrote a few scenes from other characters' points of view. 

Writing in the first person point of view, I sometimes get bogged down by my narrator's limited perception.  Stepping outside the character to see the motives and actions of those around him often helps me discover how scenes will play out or see new ways for the plot to unfold.

For this week's writing exercise take a scene you've been struggling with or a draft you've abandoned and change the point of view from which it's written.  If you've been writing in third person, pick a character you haven't focused on and filter the scene through his or her eyes.  If you've been writing in first person, pick a different character or step back and take a omniscient point of view. 

How does the scene change?   Do new details emerge?  Do you discover a twist you hadn't envisioned?

If you find the exercise helpful, I'd love to hear your results!

August 4, 2010

What You Don't Know

"Write what you know," the old adage goes. Strong advice. Sensible, but limiting.

What I know would fill the trunk of my beat-up, old Corsica. What I don't know is limitless. And, it's those things I don't know that drive me.

I think the better advice--and maybe the adage's true intent--is: Observe what's around you. Study. Think. Learn. Expand on your experience, and ask yourself, "What if . . . ?". Be an explorer. Be a scientist. Seek what you don't know.

For a writer, inquisitiveness is as valuable a tool as knowlege.

Photo by Marco Bellucci

August 2, 2010


I spent the past weekend back home visiting my mom.  The town's changed plenty in the years since I left.  Familiar houses and buildings have been replaced with vacant lots, new duplexes, and factory-built homes that lack the individuality and history of their two-story predecessors.  Vinyl siding and false-brick facades stare out at streets where big porches with gingerbread trim used to yawn at me.  I suppose it's progress.  After all, my hometown is a living community not a museum of decades past.

Sunday morning I took a long walk past the tennis court to the south end of town and circling back to north edge by the house where I grew up.  The town that confined me as a child seems so expansive now; its broad empty streets, relaxing rather than restricting.  Maybe the quiet refreshes me because I know I'll be leaving soon.  Despite its changes and my own, it's still home to me.  No other place holds me as it does.

Today write about home.  What is your concept of home?  Is home the house in which you live or a wider community?  Is a house a home, or is there a distinction?  You might describe a character's house room by room or concentrate on the details of a single room especially important to your character.  What is the home's mood?  Are there parts of the home your character avoids, and if so why?  How does your character feel about his/her home?