ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY
66, 000 words
I admire my therapist’s evenly cuffed jeans as I comb and count rug fringe on her office floor. The rug’s a tangle of fringe that needs my attention—which is why I’m bent over it, combing each thread straight. Like that matters.
It does to me.
Mom’s idea to sign me up for therapy after the last six months of my life turned into a television reality show for closet organizers.
“How does that make you feel, Zinnia? The rug. Better? Is the…sizzling in your chest gone?” Lisa the Scribbler flips through pages then sets the pad down and folds her hands in her lap.
I shrug. “I guess.”
Today’s our fourth session in two months, and her office is still a mess. Papers pile on her desk; some in folders, some not.
“Like I said, if something eases your nerves, and no one’s getting hurt, go for it.” Lisa tucks a purple streak of hair behind her ear. What is she…twenty-five?
No diplomas on her wall, just weird posters.
I can’t stand the silence, so I blurt out the question I’ve been chewing on for two months: “Is it true anxiety’s passed down? I mean, my mom’s the least organized person I know, but…”
“What’s your dad like?”
The million dollar question. I swallow. “Never met him.”
“Oh.” She lifts her pad and scribbles. “Is he alive?”
God, I never even thought of that. Thanks, Lisa. “I don’t know. Mom keeps him a secret.”
“I see. Well, I’m sure she has a good reason for that.”
I'd love your feedback on this opening page. Please post your comments below or any questions or advice you have about writing.
This is my story, what's yours?
Winter usually means hibernation time for several animals, including me. I've notice that two seasons force me to retreat for weeks in my writing cave: summer and winter. I can't say why, but it's a pattern, so I'm going with it.
Shutting myself away to pen voices and verse allows me to shed the real world and build fictional ones. There are so many rules out here and news events that stifle my creative mind. The more I'm detached from what's actually happening, the more I can focus on worlds I wish were happening.
This new year, I started a new writing routine. It was painful at first, but I've managed to get it to normal. I set my alarm thirty minutes earlier during the work week. This gives me 30-40 minutes of silent writing time. At first, I was working on my projects, but I found that it took me almost that much time to warm up, so by the time I got to anything juicy, it was time to go to work.
Plan B: exercise.
On my shelf, I found a writing book I'd bought but never read. (Actually, I found a few, but I chose this one for now.) The book has become my morning Bible. It's chock full of great writing exercises that give my imagination the jump start it needs. As my work day moves along, the exercises continue to do their magic. By the end of the week, I've completed a handful of them, and Saturday morning, there's no writer's block. I'm ready to roll.
The book: NAMING THE WORLD edited by Bret Anthony Johnston
Inside: Johnston collected a variety of writing exercises from known and unknown writers and teachers. Each writer introduces his exercise. The book is divided into sections that focus on things like, Getting Started, Character, Plot, etc.
Here's one to get you going. If you like it, I'll be sharing more, but I highly recommend this book. It's saved my writing life.
The first exercise in the book comes from writer John Dufresne.
Start with a line: "Most things will never happen; this one will." It's a line taken from Philip Larkin ("with liberties).
Try it out, and see where it takes you. You might be surprised. Good luck!
That's my story, what's yours?
Before you continue, there isn't really an answer to this question.
No, that's not true. There is, but it'll be different for everyone. I've read so many articles by writers and editors claiming formulas to finding your story's best place to begin, but the truth is, you won't find it until you've written the end. Even then, you will need to go through several edits and revisions until you discover it beneath layers of pre-story.
So, if you do want one answer: write your story.
Below are several original openings to a stroy I'm working on. Each time I'd found a new opening, I was sure it was the right one. Then I'd edit and revise from that point only to discover a new place to start.
My current WIP is called STARS IN MY POCKET. It's a YA Dark Contemporary. Here's my current pitch: A teen believes he must replace his dad’s telescope if he’s to earn his dead parents’ forgiveness for the horrible thing he said when they died, but doing so puts his best friend in danger.
Here's how it went down for the first hundred.
A thorny bush wraps itself around our back railing like it owns the place. I used to believe the damn spiky she-devil stole my parents. I used to kick it, spit on it, yell at. Gran always says be careful around her. Her. Like the damn bush is alive. It is, I guess. It takes stuff. Its thorns grab hold, and if you go hunting underneath, you're bound to get hurt.
So of course when I finally fish my key from my back pocket and try to jam it into the doorknob, I drop it. Right into the bush.
"Damnbit!" I'm not exactly enunciating tonight. "Idiot."
What doesn't work: Too many female unknowns in first paragraph (bush, mother, grandmother). Flow is off.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world --anger, hurt, dysfunction.
Don't they know you can't see stars with ground lights on? Lame-ass skatepark. Those stupid street lamps have the park shut down for maintenance tonight, and I'm stuck dodging cars along the overpass with my dweeb of a guardian angel.
"Hey, Guy, watch it!" Jase grabs my shoulders and pushes me out of the path of a speeding semi, but I slip in its wake.
"Asshole!" I yell, flipping the driver the bird before I faceplant into a patch of dirt.
What doesn't work: Wrong place to start. We don't need the skatepark info first. That can wait.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world--anger, hurt, risk-taking. Dialogue sets tone and pulls reader into the scene. We meet MC and his pal, setting up friendship as a theme.
In fourteen days, I’ll make my sixth journey. Hah, “journey,” what a joke. It’s like a three-minute walk from my porch, but from where I stand right now that painful patch of dirt is as far away as Orion’s Belt.
Every year, for the past five years, I’ve trekked from my back yard to a patch of dirt in the town’s vacant wash land so I can leave my parents a gift. And every year I laugh at myself, this anonymous suburbanite who will do whatever it takes to see his dead parents one more time.
What doesn't work: The goal is unclear. Sarcasm isn't working. Why is he leaving gifts? How will they help him see his parents? Why does he need to see them--besides the obvious reason? Who is this kid, and why should we care about him?
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world-- hurt, regret. Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his pain and inner turmoil. We are clear he misses his parents, that they're dead, and that he's trying to accomplish something by leaving gifts.
Round Four (and current contender:
In seven days, I’ll make my sixth pilgrimage to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them one more time. It's a journey I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I only call it a pilgrimage because I think it'll bring me peace.
It never does, and from where I stand tonight, that chance might be as far away as Orion’s Belt. In real life, it's a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry.
What doesn't work: (my question for you)
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world- hurt, regret, hopelessness, Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his inner turmoil: he misses his dead parents, and he's following some kind of legend or ritual in a book to help him earn their forgiveness.
Why this works best: We have a clear goal (earn parents' forgiveness), an obstacle (something magical needs to happen, and this is clearly an ordinary world), and sympathy (he's pained with regret for something). Finally, we have a reason to keep reading: will he achieve his goal? what will happen along the way?
What do you think? I'd love to hear which opening works and why. Please share your comments. Please also share your story's opening and why you think it does or doesn't start in the right spot.
That's my story, what's yours?
Everyone has favorites: double chocolate fudge, purple, David Bowie, Peru, that scene in Contact when Jodie Foster's character meets her dad on the beach in the moonlight (only it's not a beach).
Sometimes we know why we love a certain ice cream flavor--it reminds me of my dad. Sometimes we don't. My favorite color has varied since I was a little girl (pink) to high school (black) to now (cinnamon orange one day, deep purple another). One thing we know, what we love will change and grow throughout our lives.
For me, my list of favorite books changes from year to year...because I've read new books that must be on that list. (If you want to see more of my reviews, look here.)
I know that if I want to improve my writing, I need to read good books. There's a pile TBR on my nightstand, a collection in my Kindle, and a list on my phone. One day, I might even read them all, and my favorites list will be miles long!
Today, these are my top five favorites, plus a little reason why.
ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume - read it in elementary school. Margaret asked all the questions I had about life, and she taught me how to be tough and caring.
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen - read in high school. While my classmates groaned, I engaged in one-on-one conversations about the Bennett girls and their interests in marriage. Yes, I was that girl.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers - read it freshman year of college. Drove around to every used bookstore in Los Angeles, buying all of McCullers' books and devoured each one. This one introduced me to a different kind of love: that between the two men and that between Mick and her world.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - read it senior year of college. Marquez' sprinkling of magic in all of his stories transports me to another time and place. The colors in this story still live in my mind.
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt - read it as an adult. Tartt's writing is equisite. I've loved all of her books (all three?), but this is my favorite because of how lovingly she wrote Theo's story. My heart ached for him, but I also shook my head at his unrequited love, his dangerous friendship, his wayward path. Then I got to cheer a little in the end. Beautiful.
I haven't finished THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, but I'm halfway through it, and I'm sure it will be on my favorites list next. Why? Voice. I haven't seen the movie because I wanted to read the book first. I'm glad I waited. Wow. Again... Voice. This is a book I'm reading, laughing out loud, loving, but I'm also studying the writing (when I'm not lost in the story). Because he's nailed the voice of his MC so well, the technicalities in the story (I still don't have a clue what a Hab or MAV are entirely or how he can grow potatoes ) that are lost on me don't matter. This book is a classic. Mark Watney is a character to live as long as Sherlock Holmes or Holden Caufield. He's iconic.
What's your favorite book? What are you reading right now? Please share!
That's my story, what's yours?
I haven't blogged here in so long, I had to look up my website's password. Not good.
But, hey, I'm baaack!
How is everyone? More imortantly, what are ya'all writing?
I have been busy these past two months on two projects. One, a dark YA contemporary, STARS IN MY POCKETS. After some awesome edits via the incomparable Judi Lauren, I believe my story's truly alive. It's out in query-form to a few agents. Fingers crossed.
My second project was my NaNoWriMo2016. Yes, I won. Woohoo! But you can sense the lack of enthusiasm there, I'm sure. I didn't get a chance to plot the story before writing, so it's just a bunch of formless words on the page right now. More than 50,000 formless words, nonetheless. It's my first attempt at historical fantasy. Working title: JACKY INDIANA WEARS PURPLE POLISH. It's for the middle grade or younger young adult audiences.
Like my 2015 NaNo, this will sit for the next few months, marinating in its magical juices, until I return to it for major revision work.
Unlike bears who are preparing for their winter hibernation about now, I'm preparing to come out of my writing cave because this time of year always makes me want to connect more. So here I am, and I really did miss you all!
Right now, I'm revising my 2015 NaNo : MAGENTA WISE: PLASTIC WRAP. It's a young adult mystery--also my first attempt at this genre.
Although I spent all last summer plotting the story, after I finished it last November, I realized it wasn't what I'd expected. I revised it some, shared it with my critique partners and beta readers. Then I let it sit again while I worked on those above stories.
This week, I spent time at OneStopForWriters where I plotted it again. And let me just say, people, I love Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. If you don't know OneStop, get over there! These ladies have put together an amazing closet of tools to prep and preen your pretty baby and make her shine.
So, enough about me. Tell me what you're working on. If you use OneStop, I'd love to hear what sparkles the most for you.
That's my story, what's yours?
How often have you stopped to look at your story only to realize it jumped genres somewhere between the inciting incident and the midpoint?
Fiction genres are transforming as fast as technology. In fact, computers in a story once indicated the tale was science fiction. Today, it's realistic fiction. Unless, of course, that computer talks or exhibits human features. However, we all know, soon that will be commonplace as well.
Most of my stories have elements of magic. They aren't fantasy. They aren't fully magical realism, but they do contain allusions to magic, sparkly moments of serendipity, unbelievable coincidences.
Isn't that what fiction is? Isn't our job as writers to infuse a story with a little bit of that "wow, what?" or "wait, huh?"
Some books are poster children for genres:
Harry Potter-dragons, magic, and trolls, oh my! (Fantasy)
Carrie-blood, creepy events, fear of turning the page (Horror)
The Lunar Chronicles-androids, outerspace beings (Science Fiction)
Some books leave us wondering where they'd be shelved:
Breakfast of Champions-referred to as metafiction since the author's alter-ego dances across the pages. Plain weird. Plain awesome.
The Bone Clocks-funny, dramatic, grounding, dark.
This is where new genres emerge. Most recently, writers are buzzing about magical realism. The best examples of this genre can be found in the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism is very much like folklore or mythology. The story might begin in this present world but all of a sudden you find yourself with strange characters and stranger events. Magical realism is lyrical and lovely--exactly what writing should be.
Take a look at your story. Determine its main genre and delve deeper. Are there elements of mystery, romance, dark fantasy, or other genres? When you're ready to query, be sure you've asked beta readers or critique partners what they think. You might be surprised.
Just remember, your book is more than a label. However, you need to market it to agents and readers, so they know which audience might be the best fit. From there, hopefully, you can draw in a wider readership through reviews.
You are a storyteller. Tell your story in its truest and best form.
That's my story, what's yours?
As the darker months approach, I emerge from my summer writing cave, bleary eyed but invigorated. Because I am a teacher, I relish the off-time to work on my writing. This past summer, I spent ten-twelve hours each day editing and revising my current manuscript.
I'd like to share a little bit of my process with you, then I'd love to hear how you revise. Something I hear from other writers: how do you know when you're finished?
Revising is like running down hill: you have to put on the brakes at some point and try not to scrape your face. I think I am at that point. I think.
This post is not about setting up a new story. It's about what to do once you've written your first draft and combed through it at least once or twice to see what you've written. I don't consider those revision stages. That's still part of the writing. For me, when I'm pumping out my story, I just go. I have a plan, that's true, but I'm writing non-stop. When I get to the end, I go back, read it, fix stuff, read it again, fix more stuff. I do this until it feels solid.
Then I put it away.
When I come back to it--weeks or months later--I see it through fresh eyes. Now I'm ready to revise.
Here's what revision looks like for me:
1. Brew coffee
2. Drink coffee
3. Turn off social media
4. Gather resources nearby
5. Get chocolate
6. Eat chocolate; think about lunch; turn social media back on...
7. Return to step 1
8. Open my document (yes, there are distractions until I get down to business)
9. Send my document to my Kindle
10. Read my story like a book (this is an amazing trick I learned from an author)
11. Mark up awkward phrases, typos, grammatical errors, etc., using NOTES
12. Re-open my document (for me, this is in Scrivener); make corrections from my Kindle NOTES
13. Share my story, chapters, opening, whatever, with my Critique Partners
14. Review their feedback; decide what to take and what to leave (remember, it's your story)
15. Now I revise.
Revision is the tearing apart and reconstruction of your story. When you first sit down, you might not even know what the story is really about until you get to the end. That's how it is for me. Steps 1-14 are actually the foreplay to revising.
Revision is messy, heart-breaking, frustrating, really, really hard. You have to get rid of characters who are in the way, develop characters who are too thin, tighten plots, destroy plots.
It's not easy, but when you get through this process, you have a story. And that's a beautiful thing.
What is your process? I'd love to hear it.
That's my story, what's yours?
The best part of a writing community includes more than personal feedback to your work. It's about the resources you might not have discovered on your own.
Even though I publish this blog, I subscribe to other writers and regularly visit several websites for tips and advice. In addition, I receive scheduled emails from established organizations: The New York Times Book Review, Writer's Digest, and Publisher's Weekly.
Each of the latter three groups provides outstanding articles on writing, authors, books, theory and practice. In addition, WD posts writing conference dates from around the US.
Today, I want to share an article I read in PW. This is no plug for an author's new book, and the interview with him that follows is priceless. Not every established writer has something new to say. When this man talks, however, I listen.
Disclaimer, I am madly, deeply in love with Donald Ray Pollock's writing. Here's one reason why.
Accompanied by the best Clint Eastwood look alike photo ever by an author, Pollock shares his favorite five writing tips. Okay, maybe they're not his favorite, but he likes them, they work, and they are easy to try.
We all have our favorite tips, so I won't go into Pollock's five here. You can simply click the link above and read them. I want to talk about Number 2.
2. Type out other people's stuff. That's exactly what it says. Go ahead and check.
There's no great process for me to describe here because you literally do what that title says. Pollock recalls typing up to seventy-five separate short stories over that many weeks. These were stories by other writers (Flannery O-Conner, Amy Hempel, etc.). He notes how doing this brought him closer to these writers' processes, how they transitioned scenes or scored dialogue.
At first, I was like, huh? Then I tried it...
Let me tell you people, this is a great exercise!
I started with my favorite story because I figured, I love this and want to write like this. For the past two weeks, I've been transcribing THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers. After the first paragraph, I became hyperaware of the punctuation--or lack thereof. She did not use commas how I was taught. I had to get over that.
Once I could ignore stylistic issues, I focussed on the actual writing, the story, character development. Whoa... amazeballs! I could see the two mutes' differences so quickly, and why she drew them the way she did, and how she was letting us know what might be a problem for them in the future of the tale.
I'm not going to transcribe the entire book because I want to explore other writing. Next, I want to write out Stephen King's THE BODY. That's the short story that became the movie, STAND BY ME.
Try this technique and tell us about your experience. Don't choose just any story. Find a writer you admire. Type out the book you want to write. Can you absorb their mystery, their vibe? Trust me, you will learn something.
Pollock says Hunter S. Thompson transcribed THE GREAT GATSBY because "he wanted to see what it felt like to write a great book."
That's my story, what's yours?
As a teacher and mother of grown children (23 and 19), I love summer. Lots of time to catch up on writing projects, but most importantly: tons of lazing in the sunshine reading.
This summer, I managed to devour five delicious stories. Because I write contemporary young adult, I read books from that genre. However, I also gobble up my favorite adult fiction.
If you want to follow my reading rants, check out my Goodreads page, or click this link to reviews I post here.
Now, check out these five writing tips I learned from the books I read this summer.
High Fidelity: find a line or phrase that ties into your story’s theme. Repeat it throughout your novel. Nick Hornby makes lists. He has a Top Five for almost everything in his life. This works really well for the character (a lonely and serial boyfriend record shop owner) and the theme (finding happiness with one thing).
Al Capone Does My Shirts: make your setting do extra work. In this middle grade read, author Gennifer Choldenko uses 1950s Alcatraz as a backdrop to seventh grader Moose’s caged life looking after his autistic older sister. If she had set this story in the city of San Francisco—where some scenes take place—it wouldn’t have worked as well. The island prison says so much metaphorically for Moose and his family.
Misery: every summer needs at least one creepy Stephen King read. Since I never read the book—just saw the film—I decided I could handle the suspense while reading in the bright sunlight on a California beach. There is so much to learn from this man, but in the case of Misery, it’s all about characters. King knows how to make the most repulsive people likable. Annie Wilkes is a monster, but she’s also a tormented woman with a troubled past, a town against her, and a compulsion for sweets after she’s been BAD. If you write mean characters in your stories, give them a quality that makes readers say, “oh, well, yeah she chopped his leg off, but come one, she’s got those cute porcelain statues.”
That Time I Joined the Circus: like High Fidelity, this story has great recurring hooks and phrases that help us feel safe in an unfamiliar world. JJ Howard introduces us to a young girl who meets tragedy and must leave home to find home. She takes her quirks with her, though. Of course. One thing the girl likes is music. She’s always comparing an event to a song she heard. Howard uses the song title and a lyric in her chapter headings. As we journey from circus land to circus land, from New York to Miami, we always feel at home because of the music.
It Should Have Been a #GoodDay: if you are working on a story with multiple POVs, you might check this quick read by Natalie Corbett Sampson. There are four narrators, each taking us through the same day. As the story heats up, we use the varying perspectives to figure out how things might pan out. One of the narrators is an autistic teenager. His voice is stellar. Because we hear the other characters’ thoughts and feelings, we learn a lot about how other kids see those with differences. This is a perfect format to showcase autism and the fears and prejudices we can carry.
What are you reading? If you picked up a great idea for your writing, please share it in the comments below.
That’s my story, what’s yours?
You've heard the terms plotter and pantser. Which one are you?
I'll give you a hint about me: I'm a Virgo.
In my own regular life, I plan my day, leave myself sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, set alarms to remind me about appointments or what to pick up at the store. I don't leave things to chance. Certainly not my memory.
I plot my day, so of course I plot my books.
Why? For me, it sends events in motion. If I know what's coming, I can lay the groundwork with intention. Instead of taking the fun out of writing, planing keeps me on point and my stories tighter. That makes me happy.
Here are my five plotter must have's:
1. Alarm Clock: you can't write if you're still in bed. I teach, so for most of the year, I'm working during my favorite time to write. What to do? I set my alarm clock thirty minutes or more before I need to get up. Since getting up is usually at 6:30, I try to get up at 6 or 5:30. Otherwise, I will write at night. It all depends on my day. You can't schedule creative, so I need to write when time avails me.
2. Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT: I discovered Snyder's easy to follow beats two years ago at a SCBWI conference. Three authors attested to it, gave us all a quick how-to and why-to, and I was sold. I outline my plot to the beats of Snyder's three-act outline, tweak what I need to, and follow this when I set up my chapters and map my character arcs. This saves time and frees me up to focus on the story and creative process.
3. Scrivener: Oh, how I love my Scrivener! This writing app puts everything I need at my fingertips (my keyboard fingertips). I have written many blog posts about this tool's awesome features; check them out if you want. The best part of Scrivener? I can't choose one thing, but I do love the character and setting templates and the ability to upload pictures for both. Right now, I'm editing my new YA mystery. The revision mode lets you write in a different color, which makes it easy to find your new ideas after hours of editing.
4. Critique partners: Of course you can have critique partners if you pants your way through stories, but I can't let a blog post like this go by without a shout-out to my dear crits Gwynne Jackson and Jessica Gruner. Critique partners are vital at each stage of your writing. Whether you are planning, writing, editing, or revising, these smart people will give you the feedback you need to make your story better. I brainstorm plots, pluck their brains when a plot point goes awry, and take in their suggestions when I finished my story and am preparing to edit.
5. A good kind of pressure: This can come from anyone and anywhere. Your family, friends, Twitter buddies, neighbors, or colleagues. But no one can apply that necessary pressure to get you writing and thinking about your story if you don't tell them what you are up to. Let the world know you are writing the next bestseller. Locate beta readers for feedback, too. Their feedback and suggestions or whoops and wows will motivate you to keep going.
Whether you plan your story scene-to-scene before you write or sit down in front of a blank page and let it flow, you need support. I love to connect with other writers. Please find me on Twitter or Facebook. Let's connect and support each other.
That's my story; what's yours?