Words of Healing, Words of Fun

Tonight is No Whine, Just Champagne, my live discussion on Gather.com, and the host of the discussion chose to discuss — among other writing concerns — jingles, verses, word play, greeting card sentiments. It should be fun — I tend to take writing too seriously, but my love of writing started with a love of playing with words. Long before I started writing novels, I wrote snippets of poetry. I’d spend hours looking for the perfect word, for the perfect rhythm, the perfect innuendo. Some of those snippets fit nicely into tonight’s discussion, because they would make great greeting card sentiments . . . for a cynic. I’ve started posting these snippets on my Quantum (Uni)Verse blog, but here are a few that fit with tonight’s theme:

Quantum (Uni)Verse #1

I thought it was only a story
But now I find it’s true —
You smile at me and I’m happy;
You ignore me and I’m blue. 

Quantum (Uni)Verse #5

ours was no great love
but even so
whenever our eyes chanced to meet
we shared a sudden joy 

Quantum (Uni)Verse #18

of course
I want more
much much more
but even if I never saw you again
I’d still be content
with all that I’ve had
with everything you’ve given me 

Quantum (Uni)Verse #19

i want to tell you I love you
      but my heart gets all tongue-tied
              and the words just can’t get through . . .

It’s summertime, so let’s play . . . with words.

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No Whine, Just Champagne Writing Discussion

Another week of summer has passed since my chat group No Whine, Just Champagne last met. Don’t know whether to be glad the heat is going to be leaving us, or whether to be sorry that winter is creeping up. There. Now don’t you feel just a trifle cooler imagining the coming snow? Lately, I’ve been thinking about how writing is a way of playing with our readers, making them worry about the outcome of the story, making them think one thing is going to happen and surprising them with another, making them feel what you want them to feel. Words are powerful tools, and writing is a wonderful way to use one’s time.

I’m in the midst of editing my final manuscript which means that this winter I will have no good excuse not to get back to writing. I’m sure my poor hero will be thrilled. I can’t remember if he’s still feeling angry under a blood-gushing red sun, or if he’s feeling playful under an orange one. Either way, it’s long past time for me to do some creative writing. And, for the first time in a very long time, I’m looking forward to getting back to my story world. I have learned a lot in these many months of editing, and I know one thing — I will not make the mistake of using too many wases. It’s agonizing — and time consuming — to get rid of them.

I’m also at a standstill with promotion. Don’t know where to go from here, so it’s just as well I have all these manuscripts to edit. 

So, that’s where I am in my writing life. Where are you in yours? Do you have any writing concerns you’d like to talk about? Anything new, such as a different direction you’d like to take or a technique you’ve learned? How have you been manipulating your reader? Have you learned the secret of promotion?

Let’s talk.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will meet at the group Discussion #74  for a live discussion about **** on July 16, 2009 at 9:00pm ET. I hope you will stop by. At least this time you cannot use the excuse that we don’t talk about what you want to talk about.

**** Insert your choice of topic here. 

If you can’t make it to the live discussion, post your comments here. I’m listening.

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Where Do We Go From Here?

I’m sure it won’t come as any surprise to those of you who follow my blog and my comments, but I am at a crossroads in my life. I’ve spent most of the past eight years learning to write, writing my four novels, studying the publishing industry, sending out query letters, dealing with hundreds of rejections, finally finding a publisher, preparing the books for publication, and then waiting for their release. Two of my novels have already been published and the other two will be published later this year — Daughter Am I in August and Light Bringer in November. Daughter Am I is in the proof stage right now, and I am doing the final edits of Light Bringer. (Have I mentioned how much I hate doing that? It’s the one phase of writing that I truly abhor — de-wasing the manuscript, getting rid of the justs and onlys, the ups and downs, and all the other extraneous words that only serve to dilute the story.)

Eventually though, the books will be put to rest — in readers’ hands, I hope. And then what? The overall theme for these four books has been public lies and hidden truths, but Light Bringer pulls it all together and kills the need to write any more on the topic. I do have another book in the works, which is about half finished. I thought I was writing a book about freedom vs. security, but it turns out that I write what I live, and so the book is really about change. Lots of changes. Perhaps the reason I haven’t been able to work on that particular manuscript is that I need to first rethink my journey as a writer and decide where to go from here.

Which brings me to tonight’s discussion. One thing I am rethinking is this group. Members come and go, though a few people have participated in most of the discussions. Considering the few participants recently, I’ve been wondering if I should disband the group, but the fact is, I still enjoy it. So, even if I end up monologuing, I will continue. But . . . should I restructure to make it more user friendly? Set it up at another time? Perhaps 7:30 to 8:30 pm ET? Change the focus of the discussions? We’ve talked about many different aspects of writing, but perhaps there are topics that you would like to discuss that we haven’t touched on. Perhaps you would like to post bits of writing for critiquing? (Though I have to tell you that I can’t really participate in such discussions — I no longer feel that I have the right to give my opinion about other people’s writing since I don’t follow the rules myself.) Also, I have become a bit self-conscious about asking people to host. It seems to be a bit of an imposition, especially since there are so few regulars. So do I continue doing that? Or do I post the discussions myself until someone volunteers?

Besides talking about where this group should go from here, let’s also talk about where we each will go from here. I know I’m not the only one at a crossroads. Some of you are getting published, others are doing the final revisions on their books or beginning the querying process. Still others are setting up new websites with a look to the future. Maybe together we can figure out the next step.

On Thursday, June 11, 2009 at 9:00 pm ET, the group No Whine, Just Champagne will discuss where we go from here, both as a group and as individuals. I hope you can make it. I’m interested in what you have to say. Everyone  is welcome to participate, and I hope you will!

Click here to join the live discussion: Where Do We Go From Here? If you prefer, you can leave your comments here on the blog. I would like to know where you are going.  

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Writing Discussion: Beverages

I know that everyone prefers general discussions about writing, but I like to mix things up at times and get specific. So today we’re going to be talking about beverages. What your characters drink, how they drink, how the drink personifies them, how it propels the plot forward, how it helps create atmosphere and setting.

An obvious use for a beverage is the poisoned drink. That certainly propels a plot! Another use of beverage (which I hope you’re all staying away from because it’s been done to death) is the cop with a drinking problem. As soon as I see that in a book now, I don’t even bother to read it. Unless of course, the drinking problem is more along the lines of Robert Hays’ drinking problem in the movie Airplane!. But even that has become stale.

Think of the feelings, the characterizations, the mood these drinks invoke:

Hot buttered rum
Mulled cider
Hot chocolate
Ice cold beer
Herb tea
Fruit punch
Well water
Orange juice

I could list hundreds of drinks, and every one would remind you of something. Like every other element in a story, what your characters drink (or don’t drink — mine seldom drink coffee) needs to be more than simple window dressing.

Here’s an example of how a drink becomes significant. It’s a 100-word story called “Colorized”:

The drab little man in the gray suit entered the bar at five o’clock as usual, huddled on the same bar stool he always did, and waited to order his usual martini.

An almost pretty woman perched on the next stool smiled at him as if they were going to be good friends. Then a fellow wearing a loud shirt approached and handed her a rose. As she got up to follow him, a single petal fluttered to the floor.

“Your usual?” the bartender asked.

The man glanced at the rose petal, straightened his shoulders. “I’ll have red wine today.”

So, what do your characters drink? How does the drink aid in characterization? Does the drink have a greater significance in the story than simply something for the characters to do? Where do your characters drink? Most stories, especially those with a mythic twist, make use of the “watering hole,” a place where the characters gather to drink, talk, plan. Does this place have any significance to your story?

Grab your drink of choice and join the group No Whine, Just Champagne on Thursday, February 12 at 9:00pm ET for a live chat about beverages. Hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it, we can discuss beverages here.

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Who Are Your Writing Influences?

During my No Whine, Just Champagne writing chat on Gather.com last night, we discussed our styles and who influenced us the most. I’d never really thought about it before, but if anyone influenced me, it would probably be Taylor Caldwell for two vastly different reasons. One, I like books that tell of unknown events or show history in a different light or speak of real life conspiracies, and she did that very well. Two, she had an execrable style (in one book I swear she used the word inexorable on every other page. About drove me nuts.) which taught me to pay attention to what I want to say, don’t duplicate words or effects, and write shorter books.

As fellow Nowhiner, Sia McKye wrote, “I liked some of her story premises, but damn, I swear that woman could spend 15 pages describing the turning of a leaf, or a field. sheesh. You could condense her story by 40% and not lose the story, just the extra stuff.” Amen to that. So, I have tried to tell interesting stories with an historical/conspiratorial slant, and while I do put in a bit of historical background, I do not spend pages describing leaves. Nor have I ever used the word inexorable. Okay, once as a private joke, but that’s all.

Another Nowhiner, one of the best style mimics I ever came across, posted the following piece:

I would have to say that there is nothing in life sweeter than partaking of a nice piece of cheesecake at the Broadway Deli, saying hello to the dames as they walk by, talking with my friends from the track, and reading Damon Runyon, whose style is unique among mortals.

Or Hemingway. I read him in college. He was good.

Elmore Leonard walked into my living room with a large suitcase, a gun and an attitude. “Whats up” I asked him. He didn’t answer or smile, before he shot me through the heart. Now there is some style, I thought just before I died.

Ann Tyler, invited me to her large house in Baltimore, and allowed me to sit in her parlor, while she continued her often interrupted monologue with Silky, the cat who had belonged to her first husband’s daughter’s girl friend Ramona. The third time the phone rang, it was Ramona herself, and the monologue became a dialog, from which I learned a good deal about the complex relationships among those who had inhabited this world.

See what you’re missing? You are welcome to join us any time. The group No Whine, Just Champagne meets every Thursday at 9:00 pm ET for a live chat, though the discussion continues on unlive after the chat is finished.

So, I told you my writing influence; who are yours?

Style: The Search for a Voice — NWJC Writing Discussion #44

My writing group on Gather.com — No Whine, Just Champagne — meets every Thursday at 9:00pm ET for a live discussion, and you are all invited. Tonight’s host is Suzanne Francis, author of the Song of the Arkafina series from Mushroom Books, and her topic is Style: The Search for a Voice. Suzanne writes:

Where do you find it? Is it lurking in the keyboard, in the classroom, or in the back of your mind? How do you know when you have a voice to call your own?

Today’s discussion will focus on how we, as authors, find authentic style.

Style begins with competence. (Unless you want to be known as one of those writers for whom ineptitude seems to be a defining trait. I won’t name names…)

One of my friends, a teacher, once told me that competence has four levels.

They are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence–This is where I started. I wrote and wrote, thousands of words a day, and I thought every one of them was pure gold. I was surprised and offended when my critiquers pointed out that there were flaws, inconsistencies, poorly constructed sentences, flabby paragraphs etc. etc. Sadly, many writers these days seem to be published while they are still in this stage.

2. Conscious Incompetence–The great eye opener. You realize that your work is mostly crap. Some people quit here, because they don’t want to do the work of objectively editing their work down into something readable. But if you keep at it, you’ll eventually graduate to…

3. Conscious Competence–I like to think that I am here, on a good day. I can see when the pace drags, when I am telling instead of showing. I work hard, examine my prose, recognize the flaws and fix them! I don’t get them all, but when my writing buddy finds something else I fix that too.

4. Unconscious Competence–Sometimes, very rarely, I get to visit this place, but I don’t live here. I’m sure you have had those moments when the words just pour from your fingers. Perfect fully formed sentences spring forth like Athene from the forehead of Zeus. I imagine there might be some writers who are able to keep this up long term, but I am not one of them. 

So once you have achieved level 3, or level 4 if you are very talented, do you have a style?


Now you have to do a little detective work–look at your writing and listen to your instincts. Which words sing out from the page? Where do the characters say just what they need to? What settings add heft and bedrock to the action, or transcendent beauty?

That is where your style is hiding. Read those passages again and again. Zero in on what makes them tick; why they are so successful. Then, slowly, carefully, begin to put those discoveries to use in other places. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And eventually you find your style, a distillation of your very best writing, enriching every page.

Let me make one thing clear…

Style isn’t about following rules, despite what I said about competence earlier. We have all read things that were grammatically correct and well-structured, but still left us cold. The warmth in writing comes from our ability to know when to break a convention in order to add impact. It takes time, and the patience to write and read many, many thousands of words. There is no substitute for the hard work involved. But the moment we realize that we have written something that is recognizably ours and ours alone, can be very rewarding.

So–how and when did you discover your own style?  Do you think style should be dictated by genre, ie hard boiled for mystery, flowery for romance?  Are there any authors whose style you particularly admire?  Is your style evolving and if so, in which direction?

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will discuss these questions and more during our Live Discussion on Thursday, December 4th at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (A reminder: to participate, you need to be a member of gather, but it’s free. And to see the discussion, you will have to keep refreshing the page. It’s not like IM.)

Writing Discussion: Playing Fair With Your Readers

A novel is a writer’s contract with readers. The author promises to keep readers interested, to not waste their time, to play fair. The reader promises nothing, except perhaps to read the book if the writer fulfills the contract.

To a great extent, genre is about fulfilling the contract of reader expectations. In a romance novel, the story conflict revolves around the romantic relationship between two people and is characterized by romantic tension, desire, and often an ending that unites the couple. In mystery, the story conflict revolves around a crime and is characterized by clues leading to answers, increased tension, and often danger as the solution nears. If a story strays too far from the reader’s expectations, the reader will feel as if the author is reneging on the contract and might not finish reading the book. Even worse, they might not buy the author’s next one. That isn’t to say a writer can’t follow unexpected storylines, but somehow that difference must be conveyed to readers so they know the author is playing fair.

Suspense is considered a genre, yet suspense should be part of every novel, part of the contract with the reader. If readers are not at least bit curious about the outcome, if the story or the ending is obvious, readers have no reason to read. On the other hand, if the author withholds vital information to release at the end, it creates suspicion, not suspense, and the reader feels cheated.

So, let’s discuss playing fair with the reader. How do you create suspense in your genre? How do you gradually release the needed information, so that at the end, your reader feels surprise mingled with “Of course!” What is your contract with your contract with your readers, and how are you going about fulfilling it? How do you keep from cheating your readers? And for the reader in all of us, have you ever read books that made you angry because the authors did not fulfill their contract?

My online writing group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about playing fair with readers during our live discussion on Thursday, November 6 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

How do You Solve the Problem of Exposition in Your Writing?

“Exposition is a device for introducing characters, to provide setting, for creating tone, to explain ideas, to analyze background. Exposition should be immediately related to the event that causes its presence. The subject should be relevant to the circumstances, otherwise it’s a distraction that does not contribute.” -Leonard Bishop, Dare to Be a Great Writer

We all know enough about writing to understand that in today’s market, we need to keep exposition should to a minimum. Despite that, we often have to support our premises with facts or explain the reasoning behind that premise.

For my novel Light Bringer, I created a discussion group for people who believed in conspiracies. While each argued for his or pet conspiracy theory, sometimes quite humorously, I was able to expose an alternate view of history without having one character giving a long and boring lecture. The group also functioned as a cast to pull from whenever I needed a character to play a bit part.

For Daughter Am I, I created a character who loved to lecture. Though perhaps he told too much, it did go to character.

For A Spark of Heavenly Fire and More Deaths Than One, I had characters go in search of the information because I thought that if characters wanted the information badly enough, readers would also want the information and hence tolerate the intrusion of fact.

So how do you solve the problem of exposition? Do you dump it in all at once to get it over with? Do you parcel it out a bit at a time? Do you have one character tell another? Do you have a character seek it out? Do they read it somewhere, such as in an article or online? And how do you make it interesting for the reader?

My writing discussion group No Whine, Just Champagne on Gather.com will exchange ideas about exposition during our Live Discussion on Thursday, October 16 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

Free Exclamation Points for Everyone!!!

In celebration of National Punctuation Day (it was four days ago, but who’s counting?) I’m giving away exclamation points to everyone to use as you wish. Or better yet, to not use.

During an online discussion about punctuation, a participant said she wanted one basic rule for exclamation points. My response: “If you want just one rule for exclamation points? Don’t use them.” We get so used to flinging exclamation points around in online comments and emails that we think they belong everywhere, but an exclamation point is often an unnecessary elbow nudge.

“Oh, how fun.”

“Oh, how fun!”

“Oh, how fun,” he exclaimed.

“Oh, how fun!” he exclaimed.

The exclamation in the first example is understood, so a period works just fine. The middle two examples are gramatically correct, though they do tend to poke you in the side to make sure you get the point. The exclamation point in the fourth example is redundant if you use the speaker attribute. And the speaker attribute is telling something we already know if you use the exclamation point. Of course, pointing this out will not change your ways; despite rules and helpful hints, we all have our own quirks when it comes to punctuation, and as I learned during the discussion, we will argue our points even when proven wrong.

So, use or do not use your free exclamation points. They are yours. A gift from me.