Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Character Backstory

A character backstory seems like kind of an anal retentive thing to create, but it does help, right? What I do is think about my characters—a lot. But I’ve read a lot of books that recommend writing out a sheet of background information so you can get to know your main character better.

This post is really about detail, because knowing the details intimately about your character will help you understand why they do what they do. As I can barely understand why I do what I do at the best of times, this seems logical. Blogger Marsha had a great post last week that really stuck with me: is your main character you, or is it who you want to be? I can definitely pick out both cases in two different stories.

One of the people in my critique group is very detailed and in one of his critiques for me asked all kinds of detailed questions about the job that my main character has. I loved it because although I didn’t care about the job, or the people at the job, I loved knowing that level of detail. It all reflects back on the character and her actions. Example: how many people are employed at the company? Do they outsource their healthcare? Is healthcare even offered? What kind of retirement benefits do they get? Who administers it? Oh yes, you’re thinking. Who gives a flying fig about THAT. Well, as it happens, one of the other major characters in the book works at the company and might be in a position to know something about my main character purely based on the fact of her position at the company. So, in fact, it’s best to know.

You don’t have to create boring essays on who your character is. You can be fun. You can create lists. Here’s one about my current story that I’m editing:

List of Things My MC is Grateful for (at the start of the novel):
  1. She is relatively healthy.
  2. She is able to support herself.
  3. She is no longer with her stupid and controlling ex-husband.
  4. She has a great love interest.
  5. She does not have a conjoined twin growing out of her neck.

This kind of says that not a lot is great apart from her circumstances. I actually DO go through life being thankful that I do not have a conjoined twin growing out of my neck, but that’s me. I recognize that other people might be thankful for such a thing only when everything else is crappy.

List of Things My MC is Adamant About:
  1. Feeding her cat only the finest deli chicken salad. (He was a stray and when she found him, he was starving and eating poop. So she never wants him to suffer again. What does this say about her?)
  2. Making sure her current relationship works out. (Ah….this will suck when it doesn’t happen then, won’t it!)
  3. Having fun and experiencing new, exciting things in life. (Ah….and how will she feel when this doesn’t happen? What will she do to make sure she does experience such things?)
Incidentally, Lists of this sort are a character trait of my MC. So this works for me.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Visualizing Your Plot

I am a very visual person and find that it's often most helpful to see the big picture of my novel so I can easily add, delete, or move elements around conceptually. I know a lot of writers use post it notes and other diagram contraptions. Some people stick notes on the wall, some use flashcards. Some use software.

I use an 11 x 17 piece of paper. I draw a box for each chapter and put them linearly, on both sides of the paper. With in each box I just put the chapter number, a simple description (four words at the most) of what happens, and a one word (if possible) description of the goal, conflict, and disaster for that chapter. It doesn't always work but I have definitely been able to see where certain scenes lack using this method. I also can see the entire book in one go. I can draw which chapters have the major plot elements (act 1, climax, midpoint, etc.). I use the tiny sized post it notes to write notes to myself about changes or move things around.

YA author Janice Hardy
, who by the way is giving a nice interview on publishing here the week of October 6 (when her new book The Shifter comes out!), has a great writing blog and had this awesome post on scene diagnostics, and I liked it so much that I visualized it. Here it is in PDF form.

(You'll need Adobe Acrobat viewer to see it.)

Finally, Plot Builder software is very interesting; I like how visual it is. It's not for me, but I LOVE this simple and effective representation of the story, which they call the "Excitement Graph":

I love the simple lines, uncluttered labels, and easy way to see the way stuff should go. Easy enough to draw on a piece of paper, really.

Anyone else use other methods for visualizing their stories, and/or keeping things straight?

More methods:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Swearing in Fiction

I love swearing, in appropriate doses. In women's fiction and especially chick lit, there's a lot of good swearing as modern women are freer with their emotions. I will not be swearing in this post because I don't want my name plus the swear word coming up in Google searches (although I recognize that the likelihood of someone Googling my name plus the word is somewhat slim, and if someone does, then things are far worse than I thought).

So, when and where is it appropriate to swear in fiction? How to do it without turning readers off?

First, let's look at a few different ways to do it.

Swearing not the same in the UK
English and Scottish (and sure, let's go ahead and include the Republic of Ireland Irish even though they're not in the UK) people use swearing less as epithets and more as punctuation. In Scotland, the c-word (you know the one) is common place, with "ya cant" (notice the a) is commonplace when referring to one another. Example: "Afternoon, ya cant. How are you?" It's nice. Of course, Americans readers might not think so, so keep that in mind. I very, very, very much want to drop a "ya cant" in my stories, but I can't. :)

I recently read this Newsweek article about the c-word and how it's losing its "bite." The author starts out by saying she can't say it in front of her mother, and all I can say is that a) I've said it in front of my mother, b) it has NOT lost its bite, and c) yes, I still recognize the potency of its power. It's still the worst one.

Creative swearing
I once heard someone say that swear words are a lazy person's way of expressing what they don't know how to do with other words. Certainly, creative swearing can be hilarious and delightful. Let's take the Scots again. They prove you don't have to be dirty with the swearing to make an epithet. For example: "Away and boil yer head, you miserable shower of vomit." One of my favorite ways to swear without actually swearing is to say "Get to," which is the short hand version of "Get to f**k," a common insult in the UK. (It means "Go away, as you are a disgusting human and I do not care to hear any more of your drivel." Roughly.)

So, where does that leave us?
Every time I write a swear word, I feel a little flutter of excitement, like I've gotten over on something--perhaps my ladylikeness. (Right.) But probably no matter what, you'll offend a staunch non-swearer out there, one who doesn't appreciate, um, anything. You have to take that risk and weigh whether it's the most effective thing for the sentence. Swearing carries a heck of a lot of weight.

When swearing is used as a hateful tool, such as a racial slur, it is wrong and has no place in a civilized society, including stories. When it's used as spice where something else just doesn't suffice, then I think it works. Example: You fall down a manhole and break your leg. Do you say "Oh, dang it"? No. You scream out obscenities, starting with f, and ending with any variety of creative consonants.

I found these guidelines on another site about swearing. (I heartily apologize for losing the link. If I find it, I'll come back and edit this post.) I think they're pretty good:

  • Is this usage appropriate for the setting?
  • Does this usage achieve the message I wish to purvey?
  • Am I using this profane term because no other will suffice?
  • Am I willing to risk isolating my audience?
On the last point--yes, you'll always offend some reader out there who's uppity about swear words. Author Allison Winn Scotch recently tweeted about a review some soulless person left on Amazon who gave one of Allison's books a one-star review and said that it was "full of fowl [sic] language." I think most people agree: they don't want chickens like that person reading their books. That kind of reviewer will have her feathers up in a dander about anything, proving herself a real turkey. I cluck in distaste.

Cripes. I'm off to read some CHICK lit.

I'll stop.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What We All Aspire To

Today, I give you the extremes of what we all aspire to as authors. Oh sure, we all want to make enough money to quit our day jobs (that's totally going to be me). Sure, I'd take a little NYT bestseller status. Oh, all RIGHT. Fine. I'll take your Booker prize, just please stop shoving it down my throat already! (And anyway you've mistakenly shoved it because I'm not a citizen of the UK.)

We all know JK Rowling, who is so rich that she's richer than JK Rowling, has ascended to the height of fantastical author dreams, especially when you consider how poor she was and probably sleeping in gutters when she started. But I bet she never expected (no, not the Inquisition) a THEME PARK based on her books. Holy Krakow!

Check this little gem out:
“Wizarding World, drawing on Ms. Rowling’s legions of fans, will allow Universal to ease its reliance on the Marvel characters and, to some degree, attractions based on the movies of Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg has a spectacularly rich consulting contract that gives him about 2 percent of the resort’s gross, or an estimated $20 million a year, in perpetuity.”


But let's press the elevator's down button, shall we? Having people blog about your rank-rotten writing, as they did to poor wee Dan Brown in "Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences" has got to be pretty awful. I'm sure he was expecting this kind of vitriol in the bruhaha following The Lost Symbol, but no writer, however crappy, wants to be told they don't write well, and then have that shared with millions of people. Oh, shivers.

(And, by the way, some of the lines listed are overly picky and pedantic, and not in a fun way. I was all set to gleefully agree and chortle over Dan's poor mastery of the language, but I found myself feeling sorry for him instead. Yikes, how many times have I committed the mistakes listed? Worse, how many times have I committed them AND THEY HAVEN'T BEEN CAUGHT YET?)

Back up a few floors. What do you really realistically want out of your writing? Probably, you can't stop. Probably, validation that you're not writing crud is reward enough. Those are mine (but come on, I'll take riches too). What are yours?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting Ideas

Author Matthew Pearl recently discussed what it's like trying to think about what to come up with next. Marian Keyes has also famously and frequently discussed that she lives in fear of running out of ideas. I have the same fear--I worry that the well will run dry. After all, it takes a lot to put together a whole story with a plot and engaging characters. On top of that, the story idea has to be unique! Cripes! Not easy!

I current have about three more ideas cooking in my head on low heat. Mostly, they revolve around themes. Since I write women's fiction, I tend to want to explore themes that women identify with (or perhaps just me) like love, motherhood, confidence. But I also selfishly focus on my own demons: being an adult, making the right decisions, not being an arse. In my current work (the one in revision), one of the themes is identifying mistakes you've made, something I constantly try to do.

I once read this on Amazon from Sophie Kinsella and it stayed with me:

It's hard, in hindsight, to say exactly how a book comes into being. There are so many ideas and themes that get explored and discarded along the way; so many layers that are built up. Plus it's a bit like having a baby—once the hard work is over it becomes a blur!

But with all my novels, I usually start with one little kernel of an idea--and gradually build it up over months of thinking, plotting, the "coffee shop stage" as I call it. With Can you Keep A Secret? it was: what if you told someone all your secrets? With Remember Me? it was: what if you woke up and didn't recognize your life? What if you lost three years of memory--and everything had changed in that time?

And Les Edgarton in his book "Hooked" says that a common fear among beginning writers is that the well of ideas will run dry. (Although Matthew Pearl's post and Marian Keyes disprove that it's an affliction of beginning writers.) Edgarton says that in fact, there will not be enough time in our lives to get all the ideas out. I kind of liked that.

Where do you get ideas? What inspires you?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Surface Elements of Books

Book titles and cover design are interesting elements of books. We all know that it’s what’s inside the covers that makes a great book, but we surely can’t deny that covers and titles make a huge difference as well.


Titles are incredibly important and can set the expectation as to the story. An overly ironic or jokey title can offset the importance of the story, while a long, drawn-out title can set unnecessary expectations.

Jessica at BookEnds has a great post on titles, and the comments are worth reading too.

Kristin Nelson did a great title post a while ago too, which was helpful to me in cutting down my long and overblown title into something short and succinct. Unfortunatley I can't find that post, but I did find a few thoughts from her on her client Janice Hardy's title.

And then there’s giving classics titles of today here and here. My fav: Then: Little Women; Now: Concord 01742


I’ve said before, and will say again, how swayed by covers I am, and in particular, The Portable Dorthy Parker. Oh, how I love this cover. I love it so much that I am unable to read the text, so swept off my feet am I every time I attempt having a go at it. One of my favorite blogs is The NYT Book Design Review.

Much has been said on covers that I don't need to rehash here including two very good Pimp My Novel posts here and here.

What are your thoughts on titles and covers? I prefer short and sweet titles, but that's also my genre speaking. What are some of your favorite titles and covers? I admit to being swayed to read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" purely based on the title, although the cover didn't do too much for me. Likewise the book "F*ck" sounded promising but was just odd and ultimately unreadable for me. I think that for women's fiction, if the titles are contrived then it can be a turn off. All of Irish author Cathy Kelly's titles are a bit contrived for me, yet I like most of her books (except "Lessons in Heartbreak" which didn't pull me in and I couldn't read it.) Other titles from her include "Best of Friends," "Always and Forever," and "Past Secrets," all of which spell B-A-R-F, although they were enjoyable stories. Now, I obviously read her books anyway, but it took another recommendation from someone to read her because if I had known nothing about her, I might not have been drawn in enough to pick up the book. As for covers, I'm pretty much done picking up anything with martini glasses or high heels on the cover, but I am not above pastel.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Blog Design

You might notice a new look to the blog. (That's because there is one.)

I got the template from but the templates for not for the faint of heart. They are easy enough to install--download the zip file, upload the XML file using Blogger's Upload Template feature--but I did a lot of customization to this. I don't know XML but I was able to go through and by trial and error, pick out stuff.

Anyway, is awesome and if you want something a little different for your site, check it out.

In the conversion, my embedded comments have disappeared and now we have an annoying pop up box for comments, but at least they're there. I'm still looking for a fix.

I also found a whole collection of very cool-looking RSS Feed images that you can use for your own site, like this one:

Find this and more here.

Finally, one thing I've been using for a while on the blog is SiteMeter. I can't speak highly enough of this free tool. It shows how many visitors your blog gets, the country them come from (hi, Belgian visitor! I appreciate your repeated visits! You're awesome!), how long they spent and even the referring page in--so if someone does a Google search for me or a term and this blog turns up, then I know it. It's really great and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Query Letters

There is a lot of skepticism, fear, uncertainty, and ignorance about query letters and the query letter process. There is just as much effort from agents and editors to show writers what query letters SHOULD be. One angle of looking at them that I've never seen: a query letter is a business communication.

Before I go any further, let me stop here and say that I see no problem whatsoever with the query letter system or query letters in general. In fact, I think they're great.

In every job I've applied for or gotten, I've sent a cover letter. And, when I was the hiring manager, I read hundreds of them from prospective applicants. I remember getting over 100 resumes and accompanying cover letters for a junior tech writing position, and out of those, perhaps five applicants had acceptable resumes and cover letters. As far as I can tell from what agents say on blogs, this is about the same with query letters for novels, except perhaps even fewer than 5/150 are acceptable. Resume cover letters aren't terribly different from query letters: they have to represent you and your skills, they must stand out in a good way, and they must entice the reader to ask for more (an interview or a manuscript). A cover letter is standard practice, and yet I have never once seen anyone complain about them. In the technical writing industry, your cover letter should demonstrate your writing skills just as a query letter does. Personalizing cover letters makes the hiring manager take notice, as it does with agents and editors reading query letters.

It's not easy writing cover or query letters, golly no. They're hard work. They are why designing business cards is super hard too: cramming succinct information in a small amount of space is a challenge, and it's not for everyone. That's why there are so many crappy cover letters out there, and why so many people get query letters wrong. That being said, query letters, like cover letters, are not only an initial inquiry. They're a demonstration of your ability to complete an assignment,* and a demonstration of your professionalism.

* Some readers will recognize this gem from my dad, who uses that statement to describe why completing school and getting a degree is so important: it shows people (employers, really) that you have demonstrated the ability to complete an assignment.

Now, agents and editors do want to see some specifics in a query letter. I see those specifics this way:

What the story is about
They want to hear what the plot is, what the climactic point is, what's at stake, and what the potential resolution is. If your story is weak on any of those points, you will have trouble crafting the language around those points. (Query letters are good practice for discovering early on if your story has weak points for this reason.) I know this because my first query letter attempts showed a novel weak on those points.

Your credentials
Are you professional? Have you published before? If not, keep it clear and simple. Don't moan. One cover letter I read once said "I know your company is an equal opportunity employer so you won't mind the fact that I'm wheelchair bound and can't move my upper arms." You're right, the company didn't mind it. What we minded was that it was too much information, and it contained a veiled threat of discrimination on the company's part. Don't be snarky or self-defeating or give too much information in this section. And don't be cocky, either. In one cover letter I got for a tech writer position, the person gave us a "free evaluation" of our web site and pointed several "errors." Too bad I was the one who managed the web site. As well, there were a ton of liars who said "I once took a journalism class and love to write, therefore tech writing should be a snap for me." Um, right. Likewise with query letters-- you don't want to say "Hi, yes, I write some awesome graffiti and have only been caught once, and I love to write so this book should be a bestseller."

Why you are contacting them
Same as cover letters for a job, no one wants to be blind cc'd and no one wants their name spelled wrong. I loved the cover letters I got for a tech writer position that called my company a different name, or obviously had no clue what the company did because they hadn't taken the time to Google it. Likewise, when I got my current gig, I Googled the company, read a few press releases from them, and then referenced those in my cover letter. In fact I even said something like "I read that the company plans to build X amount of X by the end of the year, based on a recent interview with your CEO in X magazine. I am excited about working for a company like that." (Or some such arse-lickey language, but the reference was there.) Do some research and be respectful.

That's it! It really is!
(Full disclosure: I have had to sweat over my own query letter just as much as everyone else. It's hard to write one. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quick Hits on Grammar

Oh, I love grammar. I never used to, until I started being paid as a technical writer. My first employer who took a chance on me as a tech writer based on the fact that my resume was in color and he was easily swayed by colors, and also that I had taken a class in tech writing and cleverly used my class projects as portfolio pieces. But, in fact, I was a terrible writer then. I didn't know anything, the least of which was the difference between its and it's, a most grievous shortcoming.

I've learned, over time and mostly with the aid of the deliciously pedantic Chicago Manual of Style. (To be fair, I have lots of other style books too, notably Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh, a favorite, and the AP style manual.) I am no grammar expert, to be sure. I couldn't tell you what a past participle or a split infinitive is. I CAN tell you when something doesn't sound right, though--a sign that over the years I have absorbed the rules and usage. (I do hope that my newfound love of grammar isn't steeped in secret glee over being pedantic.)

Grammar can be tricky because there's lot of rules. But, here in a nice short digestive biscuit size, are a few quick novel writing-related highlights, culled from this very excellent post: 5 Mistakes that Make you Sound Like a Chimp. My favorites (and, not coincidentally, things I trip up on) are these (the text under the headings is a direct repeat from the original post):

Improper use of “myself”

This is one that people make because they think that complicating the language needlessly will make them sound smart.

(It’s the same principle as a barely literate inner-city tenant telling me haughtily that her brother is “presently incarcerated in a corrections facility.”)

Unfortunately, misuse of “myself” isn’t just needlessly complicated. It’s also wrong.

Here’s a typical incorrect use:

“The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and myself.”

In this circumstance, “me” is the right choice. In general, “myself” is a word you shouldn’t find much use for, so if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong. “Myself” should only be used reflexively, to refer back to the subject.

Was vs. were

Everyone makes this mistake, so don’t beat yourself up if you do. But you should also fix it.

Here’s the incorrect use:

“If I was rich, I’d buy lots and lots of pants.”

However, the correct choice here would be were, not was.

Were here would be correctly used in the subjunctive mood — a case in which what you’re saying is hypothetical. If you’ve used “if,” that’s a pretty good indicator that were is appropriate:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

(You’re not me, so it’s subjunctive)


“If I were at work right now, I’d be eating a waffle.”

Remember, you use “were” because you’re actually not at work right now. But if you were writing about an actual past event, you’d use “was” (e.g. “When I was at work”).

But wait! There are three grammar rules you SHOULD break!

This one talks about:
1. Ending a sentence with a preposition
2. Beginning a sentence with “and” or “but”

3. Splitting infinitives (cripes, I don't know what that means but it says: "How often have you heard that you’re not allowed to let another word come between “to” and its verb? Some people hold that construction with the same reverence as is typically given to marriage: that which the writer hath wrought together, let no man tear asunder. Except that it’s really not that big of a deal. Come on: “to go boldly where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “to boldly go.” If it sounds better to split the infinitive, then take an axe to it!")

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Just back from a few days of camping among the giant sentries of California: the coastal redwood trees in Big Basin State Park, just north of Santa Cruz. I have fond memories of Big Basin from my childhood—in particular I remember a hike that some friends and I took across a fallen redwood tree that acted as a bridge, up a switchback path, and across rock pools to where we found a sunny perch high above the tree tips. This week's trip was really no different in terms of loveliness, and I have to say I feel really wonderful and new. It will probably last a week.

This was the first time we’ve been camping in several years, and the first with the whippersnapper. We had a great camp site--good thing too since I made us go back three times to the park reservation headquarters before we settled on it (oh, but it was the best one). Our site was nestled between four absolutely massive redwood trees, two of which had burned and created a hollow to walk in (which we didn’t, because they were probably toilets).

Our camp site, and indeed perhaps all of Big Basin, was a favorite with Steller’s blue jays. These birds are generously described in park literature as “gregarious” but a more accurate term would start with A and end with Holes because these birds were bold and obnoxious. The whippersnapper enjoyed shouting “boom!” at them to make them go away if they came too near, which they frequently did. The only thing nice about these pests was their pretty blue feathers. They were also the first to start screeching in the dawn chorus, which we were awake for because the whippersnapper woke up well before light. The little mucker looks nice enough in the picture above, but it's not. No, it's not.

Lounging in a chair and looking up at the sunlight filtering through the trees yesterday, I finally thought of the title for the new novel I’m working on, which I hadn’t been able to do so far, so that was really nice. It came to me, just like that. And that’s the title: Just Like That. I promise it makes more sense once you hear what it’s about.

The whippersnapper also made a friend: a little girl about two years old was interested in him (and who wouldn't be? it's not every little boy who shouts "boom!" at blue jays) as she and her mother came by our site on the way to the bathroom. I said “Hi, what’s your name?” to the little girl.

Fast as shot, the whippersnapper said, “Honk Konk.”

I said, “What? That’s not her name. You can't name her.”

But he only nodded mysteriously and stuck to his guns that her name was Honk Konk. And you know, it has a certain ring to it. The whippersnapper has a fondness for giving things strange but hugely original names. He named his two favorite action figures Pom Pom and Macock. And he says that if he ever has a little brother, he would prefer his name to be Nyah-huh. Anyway, Honk Konk and her mother came by every day to say hi. It was nice.

Finally, this post would not be complete without mentioning The Kitchen. The Kitchen is a massive camping gadget that the husband ordered online from Cabela’s. When it got here, I was appalled because it took UP OUR WHOLE LIVING ROOM. That being said, it’s kind of cool: it has a sink and drain, three counters, lantern hooks, a pantry, a spice rack, and all folds up into a case about the size of a card table (but about the width of three card tables). In the picture at right, the center counter is covering the sink. I did suggest that perhaps the husband might have gotten a smaller version, but he said that people would be stopping by the campsite to complement him us on such a wonderful and magnificent camping kitchen. I bet him that if no one did, he would have to massage my feet. He agreed.

Well, listen. It really was the most awesome kitchen and didn’t look nearly as big as it had in our living room, and was incredibly useful as it turned out. And, yes, two parties of admirers stopped to take a look at it and I did not win my foot massage. On the flipside, the husband forgot to name what he would win, so I was off scott-free.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sex (Gasp!) Scenes

Ceee-ripes! I'm here to tell you, I have a very difficult time writing sex scenes. This is, I’m sure, because I’m a naturally conservative girl. I know that not every sex scene has to be porn, but all the same it’s not easy for me. I have to push myself a bit and I always worry that readers will think it’s too much. (No one ever has yet, which should be a clue.)

In my current novel, The Snap, there is this:

“What’s the matter?” she asked, suspicious.

“I can’t go just yet,” he said, his tone cheerful.

“Why’s that?”

He leaned in. “You’ve made me so hard, I can’t stand up. I’ll shock all the ladies present.” His teeth gleamed in the dim light.

She was shocked, no question. She sat back down with a thump, her face on fire. He made her wait a full fifteen minutes during which her face never returned to its normal color. Fifteen minutes for an erection to die down that she knew about and—presumably—caused. On the other hand, she couldn’t help thinking about it. When they finally did stand to go (or rather, he gave her the signal that she could stand), he didn’t appear to have any problems with his anatomy. He could have been faking the whole thing, making her wait because he could. Her vote went either way on that one.

Putting this on the blog is making me cringe. So imagine me sitting there in my writing group listening to the men in the group PICK THIS OUT and mention that it was a good scene, and one guy even READ IT OUT LOUD. I nearly died, I tell you. I sat there, face flaming red just like the poor girl in the excerpt above, and finally just covered my eyes.

I know this is silly, but there you have it. The psychology of that aside, I imagine that sex scenes can be difficult to write if you’re not into writing explicitly. The folks at Redlines and Deadlines have a nice post about this with some very helpful tips on writing sex scenes, like avoiding euphemisms. Good idea. I can’t stand them and every time I come across a “throbbing man rod” I want to puke. Likewise with female ones, like “love cave.” Gross! Just say the things without being all nasty about it. No one finds euphemisms hot, I tell you—because they’re all ridiculous.

Another excellent point is to make sure you play up the emotional aspect. I can’t agree more, especially in women’s fiction. Women are all about the emotional connection: we want to know that a man is desperately—and I mean absolutely soul-givingly—in love with us as we have sex. It gets our oxytocin going, and that’s heart-healthy, don’t you know. Also: no empty modifiers, like “This was super good lovin.’” That tells us nothing.

I don't know how other writers -- and readers-- feel about this issue. Feel free to chime in in the comments.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Bad in the Head

In my writing group last night, we talked about the point many writers reach or are in danger of reaching: getting Bad in the Head.

The recipe for being Bad in the Head is simple enough:

  • 1 cup working too long and too hard on your project without taking a break
  • 1/2 cup critique that points out the deeper meaning of your story, which you bypassed entirely when you wrote it
  • 1/4 cup of critique that was really thinly-veiled dislike for your work
  • 1 tablespoon of reading other brilliant writers and realizing you'll never approach their level, ever, even if you sit in a room with 1000 other monkeys and bang on a typewriter for a million years
  • 1/2 teaspoon of refusal to stop
  • 1/2 teaspoon of telling yourself you are a piss poor writer
  • Heavy dollop of exhaustion

Mix together and bake at 350 for 45 mins. What you will have is a perfectly formed Bad in the Head.

Getting out of having a Bad in the Head takes a little effort. You can:
  • Work on another project
  • Watch television instead of writing
  • Play video games instead of writing (I recommend something really aggro like Grand Theft Auto, particularly Vice City in which you can just run around and steal people's cars and shoot people up---no strategy required and a most wonderful stress relief; mind the polis though, they get on to you quickly. Luckily there's a shop in Vice City that will give your stolen car a new paint job, no questions asked. You have to find it quickly though.)
I am currently in danger of approaching being Bad in the Head. I can hear the control tower shouting: "Warning! Warning! Attention! Danger, Sierra Godfrey! Bad in the Head alert!" This is because I am finished with my novel but still have some work to do--things to fix, pieces to shape up--and it really annoys me. So I work and work and work and do not stop. This week I got had Bad in the Head, thinking "Oh God I was deluding myself, I'm CRAP" and "this is RIDICULOUS. I am wasting everyone's time and especially my own" and "What was I thinking? Who was I trying to kid?" But I didn't stop. I didn't play Grand Theft Auto (although I might now because it sounds fun again). I didn't watch television. I chose to work through it, which you'll notice is not on my list of recommended remedies above. The result is that I'm less Bad in the Head but some of it still lingers; I don't really trust myself fully. It's still entirely possible that I'm kidding everyone here.

So don't do that-- try one of my other patented solutions (and I wouldn't say no if you wanted to send me a money order for $9.95 for them). Bad in the Head can vary in its severity, and I think everyone gets it from time to time. Maybe the really brilliant people don't get it--or the non-brilliant, but 5-million-first-printing-best-selling-pap writers do. I don't know. (Not knowing is also a sign of Bad in the Head.)

What I do know is that writing is my crack pipe; I cannot stop and so I risk frequent flareups of Bad in the Head . I'm still going to work, though. Screw everything, I'm going for broke.

What do you do to avoid getting Bad in the Head?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Things about Thursday

1. I do not like Marin County drivers. They drive too slow and they talk on their cell phones without a hands-free device. Outrage!

2. This morning when dropping the whippersnapper off at daycare, all the little boys got into a Very Serious discussion about feeding ducks, should they have the opportunity to feed ducks. They were all extremely clear whether they would, or would not, feed ducks. They tried to rope me in to the conversation: “Whippersnapper’s Mommy! Do you feed ducks?” But then they were distracted en masse by the appearance of jelly for their breakfast.

3. When I was driving to Berkeley yesterday evening (yes, technically this is a Thing About Wednesday), the evening sun made everything golden and copper and I just loved it and I felt happy. In that light, I had the idea for a thousand stories, a million characters, a pile of lines. I wished I could enjoy that light every day but alas I can’t so instead of lamenting the fact, I enjoyed it while I could.

4. I snickered when I read this morning that Chelsea is banned from signing any new players until January 2011. Snap!

5. I am feeling very happy today despite the Tylenol I had to take for a teeth-grinding induced headache. My happiness is unexplainable and most likely to do with hormones because I am completely enslaved to my hormones. Sometimes I secretly fear that my hormones are actually what make my personality, but that is a bad path to go down.

6. Please. Enjoy some Rez:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tweeting: Some Thoughts

Twitter is still confusing to some, but to others it’s the preferred short-hand way of communication, quickly, with the world. I personally love it. I love that I can only say things under 140 characters, and I love that I only have to read things under 140 characters from other people. This means information is faster. I also like the personal connection of hearing from musicians or writers or friends, and I like that it’s easy to randomly follow people who are interesting. I have a few random followers myself. I don’t know how they found me, but I like it. (Note: I do not like the explicit followers. They're like errant chin hairs: you have to keep a constant watch for them. As I tweeted earlier in the week, I am not your target audience, you gobshites. )

There’s lots of columns and posts out there about Twitter etiquette, like not tweeting that you’ve just taken a poop, but I would just like to add one that I haven’t seen: it’s good to keep conservatism of tweets in mind in addition to all the non-tweetable subjects. I kind of dislike noisy Tweeters. You're a bit of a saddo if you tweet every four seconds. The flipside of that is consistency. If you tweet at least once or twice per day throughout the day, that’s consistent and nice.

I think the biggest problem people might have with Twitter, when just starting out with it, is having something meaningful to say. This, indeed, is a challenge if your brain is empty most of the time like mine is. That’s when you start reverting to feelings of the moment (“I am angry and hateful and want to smack a coworker”) or recent actions (“I just vomited, and now my shirt smells”). Try to avoid that—just keep quiet if you can’t think of anything to say. But do say things when you have them, consistently.

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