Monday, March 29, 2010


Nine Year Old Son: (Looking quizzically at one of his books) Well, that’s queer!

Me: What?!!!

Son: (blink, blink) what?

Me: What does ‘queer’ mean?

Son: Weird or strange (pause) kind of like you asking me what ‘queer’ means.

Apparently my nine year old uses, you know, the actual definition for the word, rather than the skewed reference I’ve heard bandied about by dunderheaded nitwits. Funny, because I don’t normally consider myself one of the politically correct people – you know, sooo concerned with people getting offended by non-issues. But I think I’m overly sensitive to what terms my kids learn and use, and what they’re picking up from the world... because the world can suck on occasion.

And I can get into whole discussions on what wrongheaded idiocy the world might teach your kid if you’re not paying good enough attention and opening the conversation... but really that’s not what this post is about. It’s about words.

If you ever need proof that words and their meanings change over short spans of time, just hang out with a kid. Apparently, my kids and their friends do use the word ‘queer’, but for the actual definition, not the ignorant one. I know this because they say it in front of adults... when they know they’re saying something wrong, they take great pains not to get caught.

For someone writing middle grade or YA, this information is imperative. I can’t have my characters use the same vernacular I used at that age, it’s outdated... okay, most of it’s outdated – there are a number of phrases kids think are so cool and original that were really old hat when I was a kid... but sometimes, they don’t mean the same thing.

My kid might say, “tricked” and what she means is updated or fresh. Like, “Her room is all tricked out.” - which basically means one of her friends redecorated her room. Not really a new phrase, either, we used to use it the same way to refer to cars...

But when I was a kid, ‘tricked’ or ‘trick’ usually meant to snitch. “Don’t be a trick” meant don’t run and tell your mom, or don’t whine. Depending on the situation, because really it started as a gang reference for someone who “tricked you out” to the cops. Kids pick it up and use it for their own purpose, though... and in fiction I think this phrase might only work in certain neighborhoods. Kids in upper middle class neighborhoods probably aren’t all that familiar with “tricks”.

Now, in fiction, I love a good voice. And a unique voice often means that they use phrases and words in a way you haven’t heard before, so I don’t think all phrases are out the window if they don’t exactly match real life – real life isn’t fiction, fiction is like real life on great drugs – it’s more fun with higher stakes. But I think, being wordsmiths, we have to be up on exactly what these words and phrases mean today or in the time frame we’re working with.

How about you? Have you used any words or phrases in your fiction and then looked back at it and though, “okay, this kid would never say this; my grandmother would’ve said it, maybe...”? Have you read a published book that used outdated phrasing? And what are your favorite current or past sayings?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Getting From Point A to B

There are a million things I do in my day-to-day life that are boring. They’re just not noteworthy. I have to drive to school to drop off the kids, clean the dishes, odds and ends, just like everyone else.

Getting in my car and driving to the doctor’s office is on auto-pilot. It’s not something you pay more attention to than you have to, and most of us won’t even remember the drive if it’s a place you drive often enough. Now, if on the way to my doctor’s office, someone in a mask holding a bag of loot from a bank heist jumps into my car and orders me to drive, and throws me into the middle of a police chase – well, that’s noteworthy. That would definitely make it into the story, in fact, it probably is the story.

Working on my wip, I notice the points I get a little stuck, that I have to write through, are the transitions. You have to get your characters from point A to point B. Often, you can skip the middle. Your reader doesn’t need to see them driving to the next destination. Sometimes skipping over the interim is awkward, it leaves your reader a little in the dark because they don’t know how they got from this scene to that scene. Most of the time, this can be cleared up in a simple sentence or paragraph, though.

The thing I keep reminding myself is that every sentence I write needs to serve a purpose to THE STORY. I bold that because it’s something I need to remember. My writing doesn’t need to serve me as the author, but the story as a whole. When I get stuck at those transitional scenes, for me the biggest question is, “What purpose does this serve to the story?” It might flesh out the character or propel the plot – the best scenes will do both. But if all I’m doing is trying to get from this bit of action to that bit of action, it’s probably going to get cut. It doesn’t need to be there.

Novels don’t work like real life and it’s something that I need to constantly remind my own self of. If I look back at the work and know that I’d skim all that bullshit if I was reading someone else’s novel, I know I need to cut it in mine.

So how about you? How do you get your characters from point A to point B? Do you write it all out and cut some later? Do you not worry about transitions and just write from scene to scene? And do you ever get stuck trying to figure out how to get these people from here to there without either boring or confusing your audience?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Talk is Cheap

Most of the time, telling someone what you’re going to do doesn’t go over so well.

“I’m going to write the great American novel.”

If they’re polite, they’ll murmur words of encouragement. If you watch really close, they’re trying not to laugh in your face. This is mostly your fault. You’ve dumped this lofty goal on their head with nothing to back it up.

Of course, creative people know that non-creative people don’t always understand our goals. They use words like pipe-dream and delusions of grandeur. Most people stop being so cynical your creative ambitions once you’ve reached this level or that level, though not always. Creative people aren’t the only people these rules apply to, though, they apply to everyone.

The guy who talks endlessly about gardening, telling you where each vegetable and flower should be planted, but he doesn’t have a garden. The guy who can tell you brick by brick how he’s going to build a fabulous new addition, but five years later there’s not a lick of work done... he’s still talking about it, though.

With big dreams and goals, it does help to plan out how you’re going to get there. It does help to have people to bounce your progress off of and who support you. But it’s a fine line – are you talking about it, or are you working toward it? If the act of discussing it diminishes the drive to do it in any way, go out and buy some duct tape and apply it to your mouth. You’ll thank me later.

Talk is cheap in life – telling someone what you’re going to do has little impact. Showing them what you’ve done speaks volumes. The same rule applies to fiction. This, of course, directly correlates to the oft-repeated Show, Don’t Tell thing. But I’m finding that, show, don’t tell, is more nuanced than I realized at first.

I’ll use first person as an example. First person can be comfortable and awesome to read. You sink into it and it almost feels like this great friend is leading you through the story, when the author is very capable. And because it’s comfortable and easy to read, it looks a lot easier to write than it is. There are limitations with first person that can be hard to get around and I notice that some authors take short cuts to get over this. They tell.

You’re in the main character’s head already, so instead of writing out scenes of importance, the character tells you what happened. Or worse, they tell you what they feel, and if the character has a good enough voice, it can keep the reader in it for a while, but it diminishes the impact of the story. It’s just not believable. Most people don’t talk to themselves in such detail that another person (if they could listen in to your head) would know what the hell you’re talking about). So using internal thoughts to drop backstory, or give foreshadowing, or tell us what the character’s real motives, etc. etc... it doesn’t ring true. First of all, we don’t explain what we already know to ourselves. Second, and probably more important, most people aren’t that honest with themselves – we don’t always understand our own real motives. When we do understand our own motives, we don’t always admit to them.

But from the story standpoint, the most important thing is the effect this has on the reader. Showing them the reactions, scenes, little hints of what your character is about is how your reader engages in your story. If you tell them everything, they don’t get the fun of figuring it out, of playing along, of getting to know your character. Whether intentional or not, it reads as a lack of confidence in your readers’ ability to understand the story. And there’s nothing quite worse than getting the feeling the author thinks you’re stupid.

I haven’t yet mastered first person writing – not sure if it’s just not my speed as a writer or if I just haven’t worked on a story it’s a good fit for yet. I tend to be more comfortable with close third person, but the same foibles apply here. If you go on long winding internal dialogue in close third, it’ll take the same things away from the story.

How about you? Do you notice some of these ‘tells’ in your favorite books or in your own work? And do you find talking about your work in progress is a good way to work out the kinks or does it just diminish your urge to write it?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

God Complexes and Other Handy Writing Tools

My muse is an airhead. Just thought I’d get it out there. Okay, airhead’s a little strong – she’s just not detail-oriented. I often say things like, “The characters tell me the story, I’m just along for the ride.” And it’s true in its way. There is a certain element of my story that kind of lands in my head. I don’t feel right taking credit for it, because it doesn’t seem like there was any work in thinking those things up. Blam – there it is.

But then there’s the other thing. See, my muse hands me emotions. My muse drops things, like these great, witty lines and vivid pictures into my head. She shows me who my characters are when I’m doing something mindless, like singing in my car or zoning out in front of the glowing computer screen. But my muse only works in the abstract. She only cares what it makes me feel – and she doesn’t give a shit about the story.

Do these scenes make sense in a chronological order? Where are the plot points? What’s the point of that quirky character my muse keeps bugging me about, when they don’t have any part in the overall story but they can drop a killer line that makes me laugh out loud?

My muse doesn’t care about any of that. That’s my job. There’s the easy, effortless part of writing that’s all about going on the adventure. It’s all about feeling and being in the scene and loving these people who really only exist in my skewed little noggin. But then there’s the hard bit – plotting and pacing and paying attention to the facts of the world I’m writing. Not allowing myself to get so lost in the fun stuff that I let the real pieces of story slide. Because my muse might not give a damn, but I know that the story is all. Without it, all of the emotion and wit and work on craft mean nothing.

So when I say that my characters told me the story, it’s only part way true. I think they lead a lot, but there’s a very real, very hard bit of work involved on my end – the end that thinks it out logically. The end that cuts characters who I’d really like to hang out with – like Logan from Missouri who had this awesome bit of fiery dialogue with one of our antagonists. I loved Logan, but he was only necessary in one scene. No where near the overall arc. Out he went, into the world on his own... maybe my muse will bring him back one day. I think she’s still a little mad at me for axing him, but I had to.

We like to put all of this into romantic terms – we’re writers, regardless of our genre, poetic romanticism is our true currency. But the story is really ours. Our responsibility. Our job. Our decision. While I think it’s important to be true to the story, it’s our story we have to be true to – so when we make these mighty decisions on our characters’ futures and struggles, we chose it. Down deep in there, it wasn’t a predestined muse, or at least if she was involved, we made the decision to go with her there.

So what do you think? How much of your writing is you being true to the story and how much of it is hard-earned, well thought out decision making?