Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Alfred Owle Experience

Time for a little cross-blog promotion! Many of you know that I have been making jewelry and selling it on eBay and Etsy. I have a blog called Jewelry by Scotti. One of my latest pieces of homemade jewelry is the Alfred Owl Necklace (at left).

What does this have to do with writing? Prepare to be amazed (or bored or troubled).

"Alfred Owl" is a name that came from a distant time in my youth. My father took my brother and me to a professional baseball game in St. Louis. It was an exciting experience for us (we were fairly young, maybe ages 10 and 13?) We actually got to see Willie Mays play.

Anyway, all during the game, we kept hearing a vendor shout what sounded to us like: "Get your Alfred Owl buttons right here!" We kept looking at each other. Alfred Owl buttons? What's that? It became a joke between us. We never did find out what the vendor was really saying. There was no baseball player or anyone named Alfred Owl.

As a teenager, I wrote a long, very strange poem called "The Alfred Owle Experience." I am sharing it below. In those days, I just loved to play with words and plunk them down in the midst of things without worrying about how much sense they made together.

Many of my poems contained a "secret message." In this case, just take the first letter of the third word in each line (before you get to "All these are The Experience"). If you read the first letter of the third word in each line from top to bottom, you will see the message.

The Alfred Owle Experience

To be tangible -- in an imaginary, theoretical existence.
To be hollow -- where once there endured the pulsation of life.
To be eternal -- and part of an expansion that wavers but never runs its course.

To be wistful -- sighing at the futility of another endeavor.
To be obdurate -- belligerent in defense of total injustice.
To be romantic -- sentimental and genial, but only at twilight.
To be destined -- and yet without comprehension of a goal.

To be impoverished -- lacking even a sympathetic glance from an itinerant breeze.
To be sagacious -- aware of all eventualities except extinction.

To be loyal -- but betrayed by the subconscious dream.
To be obscure -- yet master of every indigo, emerald, amethyst, scarlet hue of the rainbow.
To be valiant -- even before the sedulous derision of acute grief.
To be enchanted -- possessed by a laughing leprechan of cognac.

All these are The Experience. The Now. The Creation.

But who

Is Alfred Owle?

Do you see the "secret message"? If you read the first letter of the third word in each line from top to bottom, you will see: the word is love. (This was the 1960s after all.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Written Any Good Letters Lately?

I just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. It's a marvelous book that beautifully blends the light and humorous with the dark and sobering. It's written in the form of letters being sent back and forth between the various characters in the novel. In this way, the author gives us various points of view and perspectives as we follow the story of Juliet, a writer from London who falls in love with the island of Guernsey and its inhabitants shortly after World War II.

Reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society made me want to write a novel made up of correspondence between characters. However, although it appears deceptively simple, the letter-writing format (like the diary format) can be difficult to execute well. I remember reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis way back in my youth and thinking I'd like to use that format for something. I ended up placing letters from a character periodically throughout a novel I was working on, but never actually finished that book.

Authors can have many different reasons for choosing the format their book takes. With my children's picture books, one key choice I have to make is whether to write the text in rhyme, blank-verse poetry, or prose. My first picture book, One Wolf Howls, basically wrote itself in rhyme. It flowed very naturally from the beginning.

My second picture book -- Big Cat, Little Kitty (Sylvan Dell Publishing, spring 2011) -- started out as blank-verse poetry. Editor Donna German liked it, but said she thought it might work better written in prose. I was willing to give that a try and quickly found out that she was right. The prose version evolved from the blank-verse stanzas I had written, and both Donna and I were very pleased with the result.

I am now working on a third picture book, and it *feels* like it needs to be in prose.

So -- fellow writers -- how and when do you decide what form your book will take? Have you tried writing a fictional diary or series of letters between characters? What other forms have you tried? Stream of consciousness perhaps?

What comes most naturally for you?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Which comes first: character or story?

Most writers would agree that the first thing you have to have in order to write a story or novel is an IDEA. Something or someone appears in your mind, requesting that you write about it or him or her. Personally, I find that my ideas are usually about a story line. For example: There's a house that's rumored to be haunted. The house looks like a duplex I used to live in.

This idea spawns a number of questions such as: Does anyone live there now? If so, who? Who is supposedly haunting the house? Where (in what city, country) is the house located? Who are the neighbors? Has anyone investigated the rumors? What happened?

From there, I would probably start to hone in on a particular character from whose point of view I think I might like to write -- for example, someone who lives in the house, someone who lives nextdoor, someone who investigates paranormal activity, the ghost him/herself, the house itself.

I usually don't start with a character, but I can see how that could happen. Perhaps in your mind there's a tall, gangly boy with straw-colored hair who is running away from home. From there, you would try to discover who he is, why he's running away, where he plans to go, and so forth.

So what usually comes first for you? A character who insists on your attention or a story that wants to be told?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction?

Once upon a time, when I was in college, a creative writing professor read a draft of the first few chapters of a novel I was trying to write. One of his comments was that it seemed as though I wasn't sure whether I was writing literary fiction or commercial fiction. I got the sense that I needed to choose one or the other.

Fast forward too-many years and here I am, still working on my first novel (the first one I've brought anywhere close to submission status anyway). I'm still wondering about the whole literary fiction vs commercial/genre/popular fiction thing.

My novel is intended for a Young Adult (YA) audience, and I would categorize it as High Fantasy. So it must be genre fiction, right? Well. . . I don't know about that. The book is intended to get people thinking about a serious, complex issue from both a philosophical standpoint and a real-world standpoint. It's not meant to be an "easy read" during which the reader can turn off his mind and simply be entertained. The ending is satisfying, yet leaves a lot of questions (at a higher level) unanswered.

I feel that my writing style in this book is more compatible with literary fiction than commercial fiction, but maybe I'm kidding myself. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Do I need to be concerned that I may be combining literary and genre fiction rather than being firmly in one camp or the other?

I'd love to hear from anyone in the field on this issue. If you are writing or have written a novel, are you clear on whether it's genre (commercial) fiction or literary fiction? What makes this clear to you? How or when did this become clear? What criteria are you using?

Meanwhile, here's an interesting blog post on the subject: Writing YA Literary Fiction: What It Is and Why You Shouldn't Hate It.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How the Picture Book Gets Its Pictures

I just got a sneak peek at color comps for the illustrations for my latest picture book -- Big Cat, Little Kitty (Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2011). I can't show the images here, but I thought I'd offer a few comments on the whole "children's picture book process." (I can show you a preliminary sketch of the cover art, which is also posted on Sylvan Dell's web site.)

When I do library and school visits, adults in the audience are usually surprised to learn that authors of picture books almost never choose their own illustrator, nor do we have any input into who is chosen or what the illustrations should show (other than what we provided in the manuscript itself). An editor at the publishing house that accepts the manuscript is responsible for choosing the illustrator and working with that illustrator to create a finished book.

Why is this?

Well, first of all, editors at publishing houses receive and are familiar with countless portfolios from illustrators. Although I suppose there are authors who have access to illustrator portfolios, I doubt many of them are acquainted with the styles of as many illustrators as the average editor. From this vast storehouse, an editor can choose an illustration style that fits his or her own vision for the book.

Secondly, an editor typically has more experience than the average author in the art of matching illustrations and text, working with illustrators, and keeping the bigger picture (or picture book) in mind.

An author-illustrator (one who both writes and illustrates a book) is in a different category, of course.  

When I do book signings or author appearances with my picture book One Wolf Howls (Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2009) I hear a lot of comments on how perfectly the illustrations complement the text. People assume that Susan Detwiler, the illustrator, and I sat down right next to each other and put everything together.

Nope. But a great editor (like Donna German) and illustrator (like Susan Detwiler) can make it seem like that's what took place.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Thank you, Faith Hunter!

Like most writers, I have had the "Show Don't Tell" mantra pulsing in my brain for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it intertwines with the lyrics to the song "Show Me"  from the musical My Fair Lady.

I can't even read a published novel without periodically exclaiming (usually silently): "Hey, that's a lot of telling instead of showing! How come the author got away with that? Who published this book?!?!"

Recently I came across an article by fantasy author Faith Hunter called "Show, Don't Tell -- Conveying Emotion." It's one of the most useful articles I have seen so far on the subject, especially given that I'm writing a fantasy novel at the moment!

Faith points out that not only do we need to "show, not tell," we need to avoid using worn-out phrases or crutches to do so. She gives examples of crutches, including:

  • "She chewed her lips."
  • "He shuffled his feet."
  • "He sighed."

Faith then proceeds to give an example of a "Bad Scene with too much telling" and a "Better scene," after which she breaks down that "Better scene," explaining why it's better.

What I'm going to do here is quote a list that Faith provided in answer to one of the comments on the article. I will preface the list with the following quotes from Faith:

"Anything done to excess becomes a crutch."

"A good writer never uses just one device at a time, or one part of a scene for only one purpose. A good writer blends them to create a total that is much more than the sum of the parts."

And now, the list.

"Emotion can be demonstrated with:

  • Physical stage direction
  • Dialogue
  • Things happening in the same scene but which are not actually a part of the main action
  • Inner monologue
  • Narrative
  • Dialogue at cross purposes" *
* Two characters discuss two different things, but neither realizes that.

I encourage you to read the entire article HERE . And while you're at it, check out the whole Magical Words site!

Monday, June 14, 2010

What's in a Name?

As a reader...

... I like a character's name to either be "fitting" (it suits the character somehow) or deliberately ill-fitting (for example, an ugly person named Beauty). 

... I don't like characters with similar names (for example, Henry and Harry). 

... I'm also getting pretty tired of female main characters being given traditionally male names. I guess this is supposed to suggest that they are in touch with their masculine side? Or maybe it's supposed to attract male readers?

Fellow Readers: 
Do the names of the characters in books matter to you?
Do you have any pet peeves about the way authors name characters? 
Should a character's name somehow reflect or relate to his or her personality or purpose in the book?

As a writer...

... I use a lot of different sources for names, and I do try to choose "suitable" names. 

... I also try to avoid using the same initial letter for more than two characters' names, especially if they are prominent characters.

Fellow Writers:
How do you name your characters? 
What tips, tricks, or techniques have you learned about naming characters?
What sources do you use?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Warding off those evil vibes

As writers, we are bombarded with reasons why our work won't/can't make it. Our heads become filled with so many "musts" and "shouldn'ts" that we second-guess ourselves at every turn. It isn't pretty.

Sometimes I just have to sit myself down (well, usually I'm already sitting down) and ask myself: "Do you WANT to write this, or not?" If yes, just do it. If not, don't. Write something else. Or don't write at all. Go find something else to do.

It's sort of a "tough love" approach I guess.

So, fellow writers, what do you do to ward off the evil vibes and banish the clouds of pessimism? Let me know!

Meanwhile, I'll be reading a bit of writing advice from George Orwell:

Monday, May 31, 2010

My Thoughts on Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., a day when we acknowledge and express appreciation for the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces and their families.

Every generation seems to have at least one war associated with it. For my parents, it was World War II. For my generation, it was Vietnam. I was twelve years old in 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson expanded U.S. participation in the Vietnam war. I remember feeling proud that our soldiers were fighting to keep people free. It was during that time that I began to write a lot of poetry, much of it in support of our involvement.

In high school I continued to write poetry. I learned to play the guitar and composed songs. I don't remember at what point I began to shift from defending U.S. actions in Vietnam to questioning and later opposing our continued participation. So many horrible things were happening. It wasn't simple to me anymore -- probably because I wasn't a child anymore.

I would like to share a poem I wrote in high school when the suffering and heartbreak caused by the Vietnam war weighed heavily on my mind. The poem is about a dying soldier. It is dedicated to all those who have given their lives in war and to the loved ones left behind. For the freedoms we enjoy because of your sacrifice, we are grateful.

At Last

In silence suspended you lie there and stare
At reflections of candlelight, soft on her hair,
Then you start from your dream as smoke fills the air,
For you know you're leaving at dawn.

The noise and the shouts beat a drum in your brain.
You remember the feeling of fear and of pain,
And an image of jungles, more jungles, and rain,
And you know you're leaving at dawn.

Your thoughts slip away once again to her side,
Through your feverish eyes and the slow-rising tide.
She's too far away. How can you confide
That you know you're leaving at dawn?

How can you tell her goodbye one last time,
That you're sorry you're leaving, you hope she won't cry.
But you see the tears that would soon fill her eyes
If she knew you were leaving at dawn.

Your mind is still throbbing. You feel far away.
You want to tell her; you're trembling with pain.
She must find someone new. She can't sit and wait,
For you know you're leaving at dawn.

Thunder -- then stillness -- then coldness -- then heat.
She's waiting, she's waiting, but she should be free.
Your eyes close in peace. No more will they see.
And how can you tell her you're gone?

Scotti Cohn
(c. 1967)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Plot A or Plot B?

I'm reading the book 179 Ways to Save a Novel by Peter Selgin. Selgin writes, "Remember that there are really only two plots: Plot A, where a character is routinely unhappy and suddenly seizes an opportunity for happiness, and Plot B, where a character is routinely happy but some circumstance or irritant destroys or undermines his happiness, and he must act to reinstate his status quo. The solution to plot is to make sure you are dealing with one of these situations."
Just for grins, I took a look at my work in progress (the revision/rewrite of a finished novel). I feel Plot B is the closest because the story evolves out of something distressing that happens to turn the character's mostly acceptable life upside down. At the same time, the character was not entirely happy with her life before the upsetting incident, and is open to seizing a new opportunity for happiness. She wants to "reinstate the status quo" in some respects but also would welcome change.

What do you think of Selgin's two plots? Would you identify your current WIP as Plot A or Plot B? Why?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Behold the Well-Turned Phrase!

For me, one thing that makes a piece of writing enjoyable to read is when the writer uses what I call "well-turned phrases" regularly throughout the piece. By "well-turned phrase" I mean a phrase that is succinct, evocative, effective, and contains an unusual or unexpected reference or association.

Once again, I'm going to refer to the book I'm currently reading, which is A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. Maguire describes the terrain at one point as "scrappy farms worn grey with wind and regret."

When I read that phrase, I literally stopped (briefly, not long enough to take me out of the story) and smiled.  Why? Because that eight-word phrase conveyed information in way that resonated with me, and in a way that I had not seen dozens of times before.

I am just one person and I'm not a professional writing instructor, but let me try to explain why the phrase works so well for me.

Let's start with "scrappy farms." The word scrappy gives me a sense of two qualities: fragmented or disjointed (composed of scraps) and contentious (or, perhaps in a more positive light, having a fighting spirit). Right away, my mind is filled with images of farms that are not in good shape but also refuse to succumb to defeat.

These farms are "worn grey" -- a color that makes me think of old age, ill health, and shabbiness. The word "worn" itself suggests "worn out" or "worn down" -- weak, struggling, aged.

Finally, the farms are worn grey "with wind and regret." What a difference the word "regret" makes when used in this context. Maguire could have said "with wind and dust" or "with wind and drought." Instead, he pairs a concrete, physical word (wind) with the more abstract term regret. This takes us into the minds and hearts of those who tilled the soil, sowed the seeds, and nurtured the plants. . . or those who failed to nurture the plants, as the case may be. These farms are just-barely-living testimonials to hard times and neglect.

Think about how much more effective "scrappy farms worn grey with wind and regret" is than a phrase such as "the desolate countryside" or "farms that had seen better days."

If you are a writer, perhaps you automatically use well-turned phrases in your writing. If not, take a moment when you're "finished" with a piece to wander back through it. Scout for places where you can replace a flat, colorless, or clunky phrase with one that is well-turned.

In the meantime, I hope you will share a well-turned phrase from your work or someone else's, and tell us briefly what you like about it!

Monday, May 10, 2010

What did you want to be. . . ?

Interviewers often ask, "When did you know you wanted to be a writer?" My first instinct is to say that I can't remember when I didn't want to be a writer. It's true that writing became my favorite thing to do at a very early age. From about first grade on, when I wasn't doing schoolwork or other activities, I could usually be found in my bedroom writing a poem or story or "novel."

But the fact is, at one time (I think when I was in around 5th grade maybe) I thought I might like to be a pediatrician, and around that same time I also thought I would like to be a veterinarian.

Then I found out that in order to be a pediatrician or veterinarian, you had to be good at science. Who knew? I wasn't terribly interested in science, nor did I do all that well at it in school (in other words, I tended to struggle to bring home a B rather than a C, and sometimes did not succeed). I also discovered that in order to pursue those careers, I would probably have to dissect animals in school -- possibly even cats. That put me right off!

So perhaps it's no surprise that at this stage in my writerly life, I am enjoying writing books about animals (veterinarian) for young children (pediatrician). I find that these are the types of books that have the most meaning for me personally, the ones that make me feel the best inside.

It's funny how my earliest interests have stayed with me throughout my life, and how they influence my writing every day.

Do you see a connection between what you thought you wanted to be in your early years and what you write about? Do you tend to write about things that fascinated you or appealed to you during childhood?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Nine Items of Terror for Writers

I recently attended a performance by The Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling  and comedy troupe. They were fabulous!

At the end of the show, they performed their "Terror Trick." This involved juggling nine "items of terror" they had gradually introduced during the show. These items were a cleaver, a torch, a salt shaker, a ukelele, a skillet, a fish, an egg, a block of dry ice, and a bottle of champagne. They juggled all of these at once, then ended up "cooking" the fish and the egg in the skillet and drinking the champagne. So it all came together into a somewhat cohesive whole.

As I left the theater, I thought of a parallel to writing. I wondered what the "nine items of terror" would be for writers -- the disparate elements that writers must expertly juggle and interweave to create a "grand finale" (the completed work)?

Let's see. . . How about we start with Point of View (POV) as Item of Terror Number One. Should I use first person, second person, third person distant, third person close, multiple-person, omniscient, alternating. . . or should I just pour myself a stiff drink and call it a night?

The differences between third-distant and third-close drive me insane. I no sooner think I'm using one than I realize I'm using the other. Omniscient seems easiest, but detached. I think it's harder for the reader (especially a child or young adult) to "connect" with the main character when something is written in omniscient POV. First person POV requires a consistent, age-appropriate voice. You have to choose your vocabulary carefully if the narrator is a child or teen. Would they use that word? Would they perceive things differently? And when you're in first person, you can only comment on things the character sees, hears, knows about, etc.

Recently I came across a tip: If your third-person character is constantly talking out loud "to himself," you may want to switch to first person. That makes quite a lot of sense to me. I tend to stick with third person, but struggle with whether to "zoom in really close" or remain more objective.

I could go on, but I think that's enough for now from my POV.

What "item of terror" would you add and what is "terrifying" about it?

Friday, April 23, 2010

That first paragraph...

I just started reading A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. As I read the first paragraph, I was reminded of how important that paragraph can be when you're trying to hook the reader/agent/editor. Here is the first paragraph of A Lion Among Men:

"The time came for her to die, and she would not die; so perhaps she might waste away, they thought, and she did waste, but not away; and the time came for her to receive final absolution, so they set candles upon her clavicle, but this she would not allow. She blasphemed with gusto and she knocked the scented oils across the shroud they'd readied on a trestle nearby."

This paragraph accomplishes quite a lot. It begins in a serious tone but soon alerts us that there will probably be a dash of humor (albeit black humor) sprinkled into the mix. I wonder who "she" is? She's dying and wasting, but still has enough spunk to knock things around. A religious rite seems to be involved (she's receiving final absolution), but she blasphemes "with gusto."

I'm eager to read on, but I realize not everyone would be. Maguire already has a following, but if he didn't, the publisher who picked up this book would have to believe that a large group of people would find this opening paragraph compelling.

Do you have an opening paragraph from your own work that you would like to share? It can be published or unpublished, finished or unfinished.

Here is the first paragraph from one of the chapters in my book More Than Petticoats: Remarkable North Carolina Women, a nonfiction book containing mini-biographies of women whose lives had an impact on The Tarheel State.

"The young man on the makeshift operating table was in bad shape. Dr. Mary Sloop held her breath as her husband, Dr. Eustace Sloop, made an incision. She stifled a gasp of dismay. Angry red inflammation and signs of infection told her the patient's appendix had ruptured; his condition was even more serious than she had feared."

Come on, somebody, start us off!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Books on Writing: Who Needs 'Em?

Like many writers, I have a shelf or two of “how to write” books in my vast library. I just ordered another one today: 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers by Peter Selgin.

I have a writer-friend who has no use for “how to write” books. She feels that reading good writing is the best way to learn the craft. I can’t really argue with her. She has a literary agent, and her first novel will be published by a major publishing house in the near future. So her approach seems to have worked very well for her.

Although I do believe reading good writing is essential to becoming a good writer, I also find “how to write” books to be not only interesting reading but helpful to me. The topics mentioned in such books often cause me to look at aspects of my own writing that I might not have considered without being prompted.

Below are the titles of three books on writing that I have found particularly enlightening, encouraging, and engaging:

Write Away by Elizabeth George
On Writing by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

How do you feel about “how to write” books? If you read such books, which one(s) have you found to be well worth the time and money you invested? Why?

Do you feel that there is a certain "stage" of a writer's career where such books are helpful, and that good writers eventually "outgrow" that stage?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Let the Search begin!

In addition to being a writer, I have worked as a copy editor for fifteen years. I worked exclusively for one publisher, and they had a Style Manual that I consulted. For things that weren't in the style manual, they wanted me to use the Chicago Manual of Style.

When I first started working for them, I would receive hard copies of the text to copy edit. I had to mark changes in red and attach sticky notes to direct queries to the editor, design people, or author.

Once we moved into the digital age, I received text on disk or as an email attachment. At this point, it became much easier to catch the most common errors because I could do a Search for the wrong thing and replace it. For example, this particular publisher wanted to use contractions to impart a sense of informality. Instead of "you will" they wanted "you'll." Instead of "that is" they wanted "that's" and so forth. So I would search for the un-contracted forms and change them.

This is something we can all do as writers. There are words that we tend to over-use or misspell or misuse, and a search will point these out to us. Past perfect construction (using "had") is undesirable, so do a search for "had" and evaluate each case to make sure you really need to use it.

Do you have trouble with "its" versus "it's" or "there" versus "their"? Do a search for each of those and evaluate whether you have used them correctly (have the "rules" right next to you so you can consult them if you need to). 

Search for the letters "ly" to see if you are using too many adverbs. (Not all adverbs end in "ly" of course, but it's a start.)

If you want to make the best possible impression on editors or agents when you submit your work, it pays to fine tune some of the "little things."

I'd love to hear what the rest of you writers search for (or realize you *should* search for) in your manuscripts!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Going Forward

Although I enjoy my LiveJournal account and will continue to use it, I find their system for posting Comments to be unfriendly. If you don't have a LiveJournal account, you have to comment as "Anonymous" or log in with "Open ID." The reasons for this have been explained by LiveJournal and they are not planning to change.

I'm ready to make this blog -- Writing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics -- an active part of my life. I am hoping to hear from you!

To kick off the resurrection of this blog, I would love to hear from fellow writers on the subject:

What is the best tip (or one of the best) you have received on how to be a better writer?