Tag Archives: scenes

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Continue reading

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

So This is Voice

 

 

I’m big on beginning novels in media res (in the middle of things), meaning jumping into a scene before explaining who’s who or what’s what, no back-story.

But if you insist on starting with a character who talks to the reader, do it well. Make it fresh. Aspire to do it the way Lamar Giles does in Endangered. He’s mastered this sort of opening. Here are some of the lines in his first chapter:

 

 

      I’ve haunted my school for the last three years.
      I’m not a real ghost; this isn’t one of  those stories. At Portside High I’m a Hall Ghost. A person who’s there, but isn’t…
      Jocks don’t bump into me, and mean girls don’t tease me, and teachers don’t call on me because I don’t want them to. Hiding in plain sight is a skill, one I’ve honed. My best friend, Ocie, calls me a Jedi ninja, which is maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant. But it’s also kind of true…
      We’re all something we don’t know we are…
     

      My target is stationary, in a parked car, one hundred yards away. A quick lens adjustment turns her face from fuzzy to sharp despite the darkness. An easy shot. Which I take.
      Keachin Myer’s head snaps forward, whiplash quick.
      I shoot again.
      Her head snaps back this time, she’s laughing so hard. Odd, I was under the impression the soulless skank had no sense of humor…
      I rub my tired eyes, and switch my Nikon D800 to display mode… Keachin—rendered in stark monochrome thanks to the night-vision adaptor fitted between my lens and my camera’s body—belly-laughing at whatever joke the current guy trying to get in her pants is telling. Basically, Keachin being what everyone in Portside knows she is. Rich, spoiled, and popular. Nothing the world hasn’t already gleaned about this girl. Nothing real.
      I intend to fix that. If she ever gives me something good.
      Keachin Myer is as clueless about what she is as anyone else. And being unfortunately named is not the part she’s unaware of. If you let her tell it, her parents strapped her with such an ugly handle because, well, she couldn’t be perfect, right?

 

Maybe a mixed metaphor and redundant… An ugly handle. This is smart writing—tight, engaging, real. And I’m thrilled that the author is here to share his process in crafting such a compelling voice.

Lamar Giles burst onto the YA fiction scene last year with Fake ID, a finalist for the Edgar Award. He’s a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and now has multiple contracts with HarperCollins and Scholastic for forthcoming books. The guy is so busy writing, he couldn’t do this interview when I first asked. I had to wait a few months.

A.B. Westrick: Lamar, welcome! And thank you for taking time away from fiction-writing to tell us a little about your process. I read Endangered in two days—it’s the classic can’t-put-it-down.

Lamar Giles: Thank you for having me! I’m glad you found ENDANGERED unputdownable.

ABW: So let’s start with that voice. Would you talk a little about where it came from? What was your inspiration for this character, who goes by Lauren… or Panda… or Gray, depending on circumstances? Continue reading

Slush Pile Reading

I recently read and commented on a number of submissions for Hunger Mountain, Vermont College of Fine Arts’ journal for the arts, and James River WritersBest Unpublished Novel Contest, and it was really time consuming, but wow—so helpful! Recognizing shortcomings in the writing of others helped me identify shortcomings in my own.

Some of the submissions I read were good, and others were brimming with stereotypes—characters I already knew, or ones the writer assumed I knew. The football player. The cheerleader. The abusive boyfriend. Then there was the backstory. And the telling instead of showing. But you know what? It hit me that my stories used to sound like those. I received more than a decade’s worth of rejections before Brotherhood came out, and in the years since its release, I’ve gotten two more. I’m still learning. I appreciate that writing is hard, and these writers are trying hard. I applaud them for trying! I’m still trying, too.

I don’t have any sort of neat, simple how-to guide for writing fiction, but after all that reading, I suppose I do have a few tips…

slush pile

For what it’s worth, if you’re looking to dazzle an agent or editor or little old slush pile reader like me, my meagre advice is that before submitting your project, you take the time to revise it like crazy.

  • Begin in media res—in the middle of a moment that matters to your protagonist and helps the reader understand what the character wants.
  • If a scene doesn’t impact the protagonist’s desire line, let it fall by the wayside.
  • Cut as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
  • Describe your characters’ actions in ways that allow readers to infer the emotions (without you naming the emotions).
  • Include sensory details (especially smells, tastes and textures).

Along the way, my hope for all of you is the same as my hope for myself—that we embrace the process. Love the process! I’ve found that I do love it, and I hope I keep loving it. If you haven’t fallen in love with writing, then find something else to love. Gardening, perhaps…? Puppies…? Getting Congress to… Okay, I think I’ll stop there. Happy writing!

Author Wendy Wan-Long Shang Talks Craft

What a joy to feature Wendy Wan-Long Shang on my blog today! Wendy is the author of the award-winning novel The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, and tomorrow (April 28th) her second book for young readers, The Way Home Looks Now, comes out from Scholastic. Welcome, Wendy!

A.B. Westrick: This is a fabulous book—not only beautifully written, but so compelling. At times it’s sad, at other times funny, and more than once surprising (but no spoilers here!). Let’s talk about the beginning. I’m interested in the way you chose to start the story, or as I like to think of it, the place where you invite readers to enter in.

We meet the protagonist, Peter Lee, as he arrives home to find something very wrong with his mother, but it’s a wrongness he’s come to expect. Readers don’t understand at first, and we’re curious, and by the end of chapter three, we get it: there’s been a death in the family. My question for you is this: was this opening always your opening? How did you come to settle on this particular scene for chapter one?

Wendy Wan-Long Shang: I had to go to my drafts folder for this one, and I’m so glad you asked because I had forgotten about some of my early drafts until now. In my earliest attempt, I tried to work completely chronologically, so that the death happens in “real time.” What I discovered, though, was that I wasn’t getting quickly enough to the heart of what I wanted to talk about—how Peter’s relationship with his father changes.

In Chapter One, Peter and his sister are locked out of the house, even though his mother is inside. I developed this opening because I wanted it to serve as a sketch of Peter’s situationhe is literally shut out of his mother’s life, and he wants very much to re-connect with her, while at the same time wanting to protect his sister from getting hurt. Continue reading

Write Me a Bed of Lilies

We live in a 45 year-old house just beyond the county utility lines, so we’ve got a septic tank out back, and a few months ago, the system collapsed. Here’s a December 2014 shot of guys repairing the drain fields. In the process, they plowed through a bed of lilies—one I’d planted in 1990 with ten bulbs or so. Over the years, those lilies multiplied a hundred fold, but the only photo I could find was one with our golden retriever, taken when the dogwood and red bud were in bloom (two months before the lilies opened). By June when the lilies blossomed, they’d stretch so tall they’d dwarf the dog, and she’d nap smack-dab in the middle of them.

In December when the guys filled in the trenches, well… let’s just say that this spring our yard is coming up lilies. Over the past few weeks, I’ve moved a bunch out of the lawnmower’s path, and although I keep watching for more to sprout through the mud, it might be that at this point, I’ve found all that are destined to survive.

I considered returning the survivors to the 1990 location, but when I realized that I could put them wherever I wanted, I got excited. I can change the landscape if I want to. Yes! I can change.

As I began to draft this blog post, it hit me that progress on my manuscript feels a lot like moving lilies. I’m landscaping a story. I’ve taken a bulldozer to many chapters, overhauling some, burying others. A few gems—a phrase here, a paragraph there—stuck in otherwise muddy scenes have managed to sprout, getting my attention by waving little green shoots in the slanted spring sunlight, and I’ve resurrected them, leaving the mud behind.

Soon we’ll spread topsoil and reseed the backyard, and by next year we’ll have forgotten the scattered lilies that failed to surface. Soon the revised novel will be ready for comments from trusted readers, and they’ll never encounter the story’s early but unnecessary characters, its deleted scenes, its buried bulbs. The new landscape will feature only the strongest bits, the most compelling.

Of course, the possibility for change existed before the backhoe destroyed the lily bed, but change doesn’t come easy. A complete overhaul is a lot of work. It’s hard to envision… hard to require that much from a landscaper, or from yourself. The lilies bloomed each year. The story moved along, and I thought it would work with four alternating points of view.

But once I stood back and mulled over the whole yard, I decided to plant the lilies in a new location. In the novel, I’ve deleted two points of view and re-envisioned the emotional arc for the two main characters that remain. If the new version flourishes in the way I hope the relocated lily bed will, perhaps it will captivate readers and their numbers will multiply a hundred fold, and every June when bees and butterflies swarm around our yellow-orange blossoms, I will smile.

Ahhhh… the dreams of a writer emerging from a particularly cold winter…

 

Mistakes Writers Repeat

Oops, I did it again.

No, no, I haven’t broken a guy’s heart à la Britney Spears, but I’ve repeated the same mistake that earned me a decade-worth of rejection letters: writing from my head. Allowing my scenes to drift into the safe world of ideas. Into thoughts and concepts and heady stuff, and out of the dangerous world of feelings and sensory responses. I need to stop pretending that I have my act together and instead revisit the times I’ve felt vulnerable, insecure, embarrassed, and scared.

From Where You DreamThis month I’m re-reading Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream in order to shake myself up, wake up my writing, and dig deeper into each moment. I’ve challenged myself to craft a novel in alternating points-of-view (four characters), and it’s coming along, but lemme tell you… thinking is easy. Feeling is hard. People often ask writers where they get their ideas, and for me this question misses the mark. Ask me how I tap into emotions. (I’ll tell you I’m working on it.) Butler says:

… in order to get through childhood and puberty and adolescence and young adulthood, broken relationships and a marriage or two, or four—you have identified with your mind… you’ve got this self-conscious metavoice going all the time… That voice wants to drag you up into your head… [but] the only way to create a work of literary art is to stop that voice. Your total attention needs to be on the sensual flow of experience from the unconscious.

You’ll need to read the book to grasp everything he’s saying, but for now let’s call it digging deeply for the unconscious physical responses that accompany the emotions we feel. Digging really, really deeply. An author who has mastered the ability Butler talks about is Patrick Ness. Right now I’m reading Ness’s latest novel More than This, and I want to show you the opening sequence so you can see the way he’s crafted a “sensual flow of experience.” Check this out:

more-than-thisHere is the boy, drowning.

In these last moments, it’s not the water that’s finally done for him; it’s the cold. It has bled all the energy from his body and contracted his muscles into a painful uselessness, no matter how much he fights to keep himself about the surface. He is strong, and young, nearly seventeen, but the wintry waves keep coming, each one seemingly larger than the last. They spin him round, topple him over, force him deeper down and down. Even when he can catch his breath in the few terrified seconds he manages to push his face into the air, he is shaking so badly he can barely get half a lungful before he’s under again. It isn’t enough, grows less each time, and he feels a terrible yearning in his chest as he aches, fruitlessly, for more.

He is in full panic now…

Wow. These paragraphs draw me into the present moment of the story. I don’t know how the character ended up in the water—and it will be many chapters before Ness supplies the backstory—but already, I care about this character. I’m beside him in the water, and I’ll keep reading to find out what happens.

Years ago I read Butler’s book and it helped me understand “show, don’t tell” (I blogged about details), but this time I’m digging deeper than details. I’m going into places that feel dangerous, places where my characters feel vulnerable, places that are a whole lot harder than details to tap into.

All of this is to say that I’ve developed coping mechanisms to avoid emotional black holes, but these same mechanisms—the ones that keep me sane—block my fiction. They block a reader’s ability to connect with my characters on an emotional (subconscious) level. I need to let myself feel scared again, or angry, or embarrassed, or humiliated. Really feel it. Then I must write scenes without using words like scared, angry, embarrassed, or humiliated. I must write the sensory details of the experience.

(An aside: my sister is a nutritionist and dietician who specializes in eating disorders, and just last week was telling me that she’ll sometimes ask her clients to sit still—just sit for as long as they can, for an hour even, or two hours—and allow themselves to feel. To experience their own emotions. It can be a terrifying exercise, but she promises them they won’t die in the process. They might cry, tremble, rage, etc., but they’ll survive. The technique has helped some of her clients, and it got me thinking (oooh, here I am, thinking again): I need to tap into the place where I tremble.)

I’m guilty not only of writing from my head, but of repeating this mistake even though I’m aware of it. How about you? What are your mistakes? What is your comfort zone—your default button—the place you retreat to, where you pat yourself on the back for having penned another scene that sounds oh, so good when the truth is that it’s nowhere near honest? Not yet.

Begin with the unbelievable

Carrie Brown

Carrie Brown

After attending an excellent James River Writers panel discussion (“The Writing Show”) and Master Class in April with authors John Gregory Brown and Carrie Brown, I went home and revised my novel.

The Browns gave the audience some great tips, and one that particularly intrigued me was this: take the most unbelievable moment in your story, and put it first. Right up front. The opening paragraph. The opening sentence. Just lay it out there. Readers enter into a story on the first line. It’s the place where they’re most willing to suspend disbelief, so don’t delay that suspension. Hook them and take off running.

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown

John Gregory Brown noted that if Kafka had waited until page three to tell us that Gregor Samsa had turned into a cockroach, we might have questioned and dismissed that bizarre transformation. Here is Kafka’s opening line to The Metamorphosis:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.

We might quibble with other aspects of this sentence (waking up is oh-so-overdone as an opening, and the participle isn’t as effective as straight-on past tense, and passive voice is oh-so-distancing), but hey—the unbelievable happens right away. It launches us into the story. And that was Brown’s point: readers will accept the unbelievable when a writer gives it to them straight-up. If you wait to give it to them later, you may have missed your chance.

The Last First DayBut here’s the thing: most writers can’t know what their first sentence or paragraph or chapter will be until they’ve written the last sentence. If you’re worrying about your opening before you’ve finished the first draft, I think you’re wasting time. Sure, it’s part of the process, and you can pat yourself on the back for that. But I think you need to push yourself all the way to the end before stewing over the beginning. Figure out what your story is really all about. Identify the essential conflict. Identify the most unbelievable moment in the story, the one that will strain your readers’ credibility. Then put that moment first and see how the story falls out from there.

The other take-away from my April visit to this James River Writers’ program was the reminder of how good it is to be part of a creative community. Richmond is a fabulous town in which to be a writer. While I love spending hours alone at my writing desk, I find that getting out and engaging with other writers juices me up.

Audubons WatchJohn Gregory Brown teaches at Sweet Briar College, and Carrie Brown at Hollins University, and I don’t have to be enrolled in either of their esteemed institutions to encounter them and benefit from their insights. I just have to seek out opportunities in my town. There are a lot of them (from conferences to workshops to panel discussions), and if I glean so much as (or as little as) one tidbit from each outing, my writing benefits. It’s all good.

 

 

 

 

Restless Manuscript Syndrome

“Restless Leg Syndrome? Oh, that’s an electrolyte imbalance,” said a doctor-friend. “Just drink Gatorade.” I shrugged. Couldn’t hurt. So I downed a juice glass-worth of Gatorade and voilà—my legs stopped twitching. Thirty years of restless leg syndrome gone. Done. Relief! All I have to do is drink a little Gatorade every evening, and I sleep through the night. And for what it’s worth, let me just say that I really like that “cool blue” flavor, but if I get tired of it, there’s mango extreme, rain berry, lime cucumber…

If only writing were so easy. If only there were quick fixes for years of rejection letters, for the restless places in our manuscripts. If only finding the voice of a story were as easy as trying a new flavor.

Come on, we’re all about quick fixes, right? We have no shortage of elixirs for lowering cholesterol or losing pounds. Combine free Internet access with the ease of digital printing and everybody and their second cousin once removed has published a memoir or mystery or children’s book or dystopian fantasy. Publication promises immortality, right? What are you waiting for? Publish that baby! Now! Quick!

Ahhh… but if only every book or essay or short story were worth reading.

So the question is: how does a writer make a manuscript worth someone else’s time? Earlier this month, I attended SCBWI’s regional conference in Austin, TX, and heard author Matt de la Peña tell writers to slow down. “Let a scene play out… Let readers participate more… The micro-level of a scene matters…” It was just what I needed to hear. I returned home to my work-in-progress and made myself linger inside scenes. I paused to identify smells and sounds, to let my characters touch smooth surfaces and rough ones. I threw out scenes that didn’t matter to the emotional arc of the story, and dug deeply into those that did.

Then I read de la Peña’s award-winning young adult novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, and loved it. No matter that I’m not into baseball and this is a baseball book. It’s well written. Period. I savored the flow of it, the way he wove memories into present-action scenes and orchestrated the unfolding of an unlikely friendship. And then there were the baseball moments. The pitcher. The batter. The wind-up. The challenge. The threat. The way he raised the stakes. Again. And again. And again. Not only did he have me on the edge of my seat, but a week later I found myself suggesting to my book group (a bunch of middle aged white ladies) that we read and discuss this book and get tickets to a Flying Squirrels game. (That’s our local minor league team. Great name, huh?)

By slowing down each scene in Mexican WhiteBoy, de la Peña got me to engage with characters whose world was foreign to me. He invited me to read as if I were a participant in the action… there on the edge of the baseball diamond… cringing, cheering, sneezing when the dust got too thick… I felt it all because he invited me in. No quick tonics. Lots of sensory details. Amazing dialogue. And the irony, okay? Is that he left me restless… eager to read his other critically-acclaimed novels.

Sure, I’d like to hurry up and finish my current work-in-progress, get something new to my agent, have a second book in print. But not if it means hindering readers from entering into the scenes I’m writing. I value my readers’ time, so it’s worth my time to slow down. Getting readers to participate in my characters’ lives is everything, and if I can pull it off, I’ll have penned a novel that’s worth their time. Thank you, Matt.

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means

What does “show, don’t tell” really mean, anyway?

Last week Chuck Sambuchino posted my article “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” on his Writer’s Digest blog, Guide to Literary Agents, and one of my seven things was this:

Show Don’t Tell = Action. Early-on, I thought “show don’t tell” meant showing every little detail in a character’s life. It doesn’t. It means that when you’re writing a scene, you describe—physically—what your characters are doing. You don’t interpret the characters’ actions for the reader. You don’t label their emotions, such as, “Stephanie felt sad or angry or frustrated or confused.” Instead, you show what Stephanie does and let readers infer the meaning of her actions. So you might write, “Stephanie slammed her fist into the wall” or “chewed the left side of her lip until it bled” or whatever. You draw the reader into a scene using the five senses—taste, smell, sound, sight and touch.

Here’s an example of a moment in Brotherhood, in which I don’t tell the reader what to feel. Instead, I describe what the character hears. What you need to know is that it’s dark and Shad is standing alone on a street corner, having trouble seeing through the little eyeholes in his Klan garb:

The closer the men got to Shad, the slower their footsteps. He heard caution in their feet, heard the pitch of their voices drop from easy to hushed. They’d seen him, and they were working out what to do, whether to approach, how wide of a berth to give him.

What would you feel if that were you in the dark on that street corner? Here are two more scenes. Read these snippets and enter into these moments and see what emotions come up inside you:

Nicholas Bullen’s hand silences me again. Long fingers for a man his size, I notice; they’d look even longer if he wore a smaller ring. I imagine that hand closing around my throat, squeezing the words back into my belly. I realize I am stretching my neck as if inviting him to do this. As if I deserve punishment. (From A Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal.)

…[I] drop to my knees. I know a sharp piece of stone has just ripped through my tembon, my knee is likely bleeding, but I can barely feel it… I lean one arm in front of me and hold my head down. I can feel the sun striking the back of my neck as sweat drips into my clothing. I dry heave… (From the advance reader copy of The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi; this novel will be released on Sept. 2, 2014.)

 

When characters feel something, they act. They do stuff. They move. Their physical bodies reflect the emotions that they feel, and it’s the writer’s job not to name the emotion but to describe the physicality. Showing it rather than telling it invites the reader to feel it.

People often ask where I get my story ideas, and I say ideas are over-rated. I can get totally caught up in ideas—so deep inside my own head, so full of thoughts—that when I try to turn them into a story, my writing quickly becomes idea-heavy, sensory-light and I tell rather than show. I’ve had to learn to let go of ideas and write sensory details, instead.

I’ve learned a bunch of other stuff, too, and on Chuck Sambuchino’s blog you can read the rest of my “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far.” There’s also a giveaway of Brotherhood going on until Feb. 5. (Leave a comment on Chuck’s blog, The Guide to Literary Agents for a chance to win a signed copy.)

Meanwhile, notice the spots in your own writing where you identify emotions by name and think of those as placeholders, waiting for you to return and revise with action and sensory details.