Saturday, June 29, 2013

WIFYR Recap #3: Children's Writing Cliches to Avoid

I'm guilty. If you're not sure you are, do a manuscript search. See how many times your characters roll their eyes, get various pains in their stomachs, have pounding hearts, or breathe deeply. I, for one, know my characters should have asthma to justify all the times I call attention to their lungs.

In Martine Leavitt's workshop at WIFYR, she talked about cliches. Any description of emotion that refers to internal organs--lungs included--is cliche. She says even vomiting is hard to do without sounding trite.

I've sometimes gone to absurd lengths to describe fear, sadness, or grief in a more original way, only to sound a little weird. "Her heart line-danced in her chest" or "His stomach mooed" may not be much of an improvement over pounding hearts or growling stomachs.

Martine suggested that instead of looking for new variations on old cliches, we try metaphor. One caveat: metaphors should be used sparingly, and should feel natural rather than superimposed on the scene.

In TOM FINDER, Martine Leavitt used gravity as a metaphor. In HECK SUPERHERO, she used quantum physics.We can find what works in our manuscripts by looking for patterns. She said our inner creative genius may come up in the repetition. To see it, we  must read our work over and over, looking carefully.

Martine spoke of the book, THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURINA TATE, and how the author spends pages describing how Calpurnia's mother, in her layers of long clothing, suffers from the heat. By contrast, Calpurnia sets off to discover a new species. In making this comparison, the author effectively shows how Calpurnia is destined to become a different species of woman.

She suggested when we're tempted to use a cliche, we instead have the character pause for a beat, then use objects specific to character and setting to describe the emotion. I took ten pages of a story I'm beginning, and was surprised to learn she liked the part where the character is upset with her father at breakfast. Instead of saying how angry she is, my mc looks down at her plate (the specific object) and says, "I hate poached eggs. It looks like a giant eyeball."

 As Martine Leavitt said, a good metaphor surprises with the unlikeness of things compared, while at the same time making reader marvel at how it fits.

My challenge for all of us is to look for the patterns already in our writing, and deepen them into relevant metaphors. Don't you love the idea of making a reader marvel?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Injured Wings and Writing Tics

The ER doc said my arm wasn't broken. So no big deal, right? Almost two weeks later, I'm still wearing the brace and typing with an ice pack draped over my splint. This does not make writing easy. Yes, I'm complaining (sorry), but this isn't meant to be a pity post.

Instead, considering my bad wing has me thinking about things that keep our manuscripts from flying. Writing Tics, as Martine Leavitt calls them. All writers have these. Some of us have to go back and consciously insert setting into our work. Others have to add a sense of time or insert dialogue into pages of description.

At WIFYR, Martine Leavitt spoke of a need for restraint. Agent Stephen Fraser calls a similar tendency "chatter," and Alane Ferguson called a similar concept "burying your lead."

In essence, when you write the perfect line, don’t run right past it and on to more words. Pull back a little. As you edit, one way to look for this tic is to underline phrases that contain key points, then read the sentence that comes next. Even if humorous or cute, when these words detract from the previous important message, they may need a red pen death.

Similarly, when Martine told us to avoid cliche in describing emotion, she said a lot can be accomplished by having our characters simply pause. Not a long, dramatic pause that stops the action, but a moment for the character to absorb what just happened. In doing this, the reader will recognize its import as well.

Whether it's a character pausing briefly in the scene, or slashing a useless attention hog of a sentence, restraint can streamline our work and help us avoid one dreaded writer tic.

Tomorrow: more on cliche descriptions.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

WIFYR Recap #1: Jennifer Nielsen on Creating a Memorable First Chapter

I just got back from a terrific week at the WIFYR Conference. This year my workshop instructor was Martine Leavitt, award-winning author and faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. We all had an amazing experience in her workshop. Martine taught us how to look at our own manuscripts in a totally different way, and I know many of us had important plot epiphanies. Our workshop group was also full of terrific, talented writers, and the critiques were both positive and helpful.

I've got a manuscript to revise following Martine's specific instructions for me, and I thought as I go over my notes, I could post some of what I learned on this blog.

In no particular order, I'm starting with Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE FALSE PRINCE series. In her afternoon lecture, she gave us tips on how to make our first chapters stand out.


Include at least one of these elements for a good first chapter/scene:

  • emotions—fear, anxiety, worried about character’s outcome. 
  • anticipation
  • curiosity—mystery element—get hero in such a bad fix, don’t know they’ll get out of it.
  • surprise
  • use one of these in first pages to hook agent
  • the moment right before the first kiss, holding breath kind of anticipation. 

Ways to do this include:
10 ways:
1.Make a great hero. (protag) 
  • in trouble, but not stupid trouble they could have/should have avoided
  • likely to lose
  • goal
  • fatal flaw
2. Great villain
  • no villain is ever just crazy. round character.
  • likely to win.
  • have an advantage the hero lacks.
3. Add mystery or a big question

4. Foreshadowing of something bad that might happen. 
Game of Thrones: because viewer knows author is willing to kill off his good characters, increases suspense that main guys won’t always be safe. 

5. Exploit relationships
  • romantic tension
  • friction between characters
  • betrayal
  • suspicion
  • loss of Mentor (the hero’s journey)
  • has inner demons
6. Raise the stakes. You should constantly be looking for ways, in each scene, to make things worse. 
Caveat: heroes fortunes must rise and fall. (but mostly they are falling). A steady decline from bad to good is boring and predictable. The inconsistency is what makes a story unpredictable. 

7. Shorten the timeline—like Dorothy and wizard of Oz, the big hourglass, timeline builds tension. constantly remind hero of the time limit, then cut timeline in half. slow down key scenes. 

8. Create unexpected turns—perfect example—Katniss and Peta, can let two people survive, but then the capitol changes it and says only one. Twists and turns must be logical. If use a gun in act 3, better be on mantle in act 1. and if it’s in act 1, have to use in act 3.

9. Setting

10. Dilemmas –Jean Val Jean—Mayor of town, people rely on him, but if I speak I am condemned, if I stay silent, I am damned. 

Great suspense comes from cruel authors. Be willing to be tough on your characters—I noticed Jennifer Nielsen does this in her first book, which I'm reading—she kills off one of the boys early on to show the uncertainty of an antagonist who is willing to do that.