Monday, January 30, 2012

Sea-foam Tinted Lessons

This time of year, the sod on the football field at the city stadium turns from its summertime emerald to a mossy, sea-foam green. As I raced around the track at the field's perimeter during this morning's interval training run, it occurred to me that sea-foam green has colored important moments in my life. And as my mind lost itself in the past (possibly to avoid acknowledging the exhaustion in my legs and burn in my lungs), I couldn't help notice how those lessons learned were again relevant today.

When I was about twelve years old our family owned a small lake cabin in upstate New York. My younger sister and I loved to take Dad's fishing boat out on the water. It was a fourteen-foot, flat-bottom aluminum boat, painted a bright sea-foam green. We loved rowing that boat around the lake. 

In order to row it, I had to sit backwards on the middle seat, facing the stern. My sister would sit all the way to the rear, facing me and the bow of the boat.  We always had a destination, places we'd named ourselves like Loon Island or Beaver Bay. As I pulled with all my strength, the oar pins squeaking in enthusiastic protest, my sister kept an eye on our trajectory. When she indicated the boat was drifting to the right, I pushed the left oar deeper or with more might until she let me know we were back on course. 

In life, it's easy to steer a little off course. Knowing who you can rely upon to tell you the truth makes all the difference when those little adjustments are necessary to get back on track.

Moving forward a couple years, I was in a sorority at the university. We were Omicron Xi, and our colors were medium blue, sea-foam green and white. Each semester we elected officers to manage aspects of our Greek life, and one post was called Pledge Mistress. The PM was in charge of the pledge program. In my view, it was the most desirable position to hold.  I ran for PM every semester for two years, but I was always outvoted. Finally, last semester senior year, I won the election. Looking back, I wish I'd enjoyed the post more. It was as if I'd spent so much energy fighting to win it that once it was mine, I was too emotionally exhausted to give it my all. 

Few truly important things in life come easy. The acquisition of whatever you define as 'wealth' is hard-fought and rich with life lessons, but don't forget to enjoy that which you have achieved. There are lessons in the rewards, too.

Today on the track, I was to run two 1200-meter intervals (three times around the track, or 3/4 of a mile per interval) with a rest of two minutes in-between. My goal was 1200 meters in 6:57. I finished each in 8 minutes. Next, I was to run four 800-meter intervals (twice around the track, or 1/2 of a mile per interval). Those intervals were to be run in 4:34 each. 

I only made my goal during one of the 800-meter intervals. 

But as I cooled down afterwards, walking the track around that sea-foam green grass, I embraced this lesson:  Training is hard, necessary work that yields results at every session -- and though those results may be small, they must be celebrated.

If I only concentrated on the intervals in which I didn't make my time goal, I would feel defeated. This is only the beginning of the fourth week of my ten-week training program (to run faster during the upcoming half-marathon in March). I'm not at the halfway mark yet, and already I beat the clock on one of those intervals. Perseverance can't survive in a negative environment. It's so important to stay positive!

All these sea-foam green lessons apply to my writing; and, though I'd love to go on about that...I don't want this post to be longer than it already is. Suffice it to say that with support from people who have your back, plus a healthy attitude towards acquisition and possession of the stuff of your dreams, added with perseverance to push forward no matter what challenges you face, anything is possible.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rhythm Method

What makes a story dramatic? Obvious answers come to mind, such as suspenseful plot lines, colorful but conflicted characters, and overwhelming obstacles those characters must overcome by the story's end. But many writers skillfully craft each of those elements and still, they have only so-so manuscripts on their hands. Something's missing

The key to dramatic writing is Rhythm.

 Rhythm is an elusive literary element, as hard to teach as it is to learn. Simply put, weak or poor rhythm jeopardizes the emotional impact of the story. It dampens the drama.

 Areas you can concentrate on to create rhythm in your writing are Sentence Lengths, Variations in Sentence Structures, and the use of Cappers.

Sentence Lengths - Decipher a long sentence and you'll find it contains several modifying phrases and/or clauses, strung together with commas (or semi-colons). Sometimes a lengthy sentence is necessary. But it's important to realize that as readers move through all those modifiers, farther and farther away from the sentence's subject and predicate, they may forget the original point of the sentence by the time they reach the period. A story with too many long sentences will shift readers into glazed-eye gear. Monotony leads to boredom.

 Those multiple commas also affect the rhythm of a long sentence. Think about it. Punctuation marks are the story's breath that guides the emotional impact of a passage. Periods are hard stops that demand emphasis, where commas pause, like a sigh. An em-dash holds its breath. Ellipses are airy, uncertain. Unfinished thoughts that drift away... For rhythm to be dynamic, it requires a variety of punctuation to stir the emotional cauldron. So a long sentence with, say, four commas? Well, that's a lot of sighing.

Variations in Sentence Structures - You create rhythm in a paragraph by varying the lengths and structures of the sentences it comprises. And nothing stifles rhythm like stringing several sentences together in exactly the same way.

 Example: After spotting Dan across the room, Emma approached him with a smile. Before he could speak, she raised her hand for silence. Although he'd been upset, he grinned when she leaned in and kissed his cheek.


 In this silly example, each of the three sentences begins with an introductory phrase set apart from the main clause by a comma, and ends with a modifying prepositional or adverbial phrase. The problem with using several identical sentence structures in a row is that the reader will likely slip into a sing-song internal voice, diminishing the moment's dramatic essence into something that sounds like a nursery rhyme.

Rhythm in writing also depends on variety in sentence lengths to establish musicality, or a pleasing "sound" to the mind's ear. Mix it up. A long sentence, followed by a medium length sentence, and then a short sentence before another long sentence will lend a more melodic sound than the constant drone of same-length sentences. Also, the short sentences will carry more emphasis, stand out with greater emotional impact next to their longer counterparts.

Cappers - A short sentence that comes after several longer ones and serves to "cap off" the preceding information with a burst of dramatic flair is called a Capper. A capper is a literary gimmick, and if you overuse them in a story you risk desensitizing your readers. However, used sparingly, these little sentences carry a powerful dramatic punch.

Example: My lungs felt collapsed; I couldn't draw in enough air. I pleaded, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," over and over under my breath as thoughts collided in my brain. I realized I'd never been in danger before this moment in my life. I was at the mercy of these excited, armed men. Whatever they said I had to do, I would have no choice but to obey. And that terrified me.

"And that terrified me" caps off the five sentences that come before it, wrapping up the sentiments of the passage, before the story moves on.

The above excerpt is from one of my own stories, but here's another (better) example. It's by James Alan Gardner from his 2001 article A Seminar on Writing Prose: Rhythm . It illustrates the capper perfectly:

I was just about to lock in the auto-pilot when the navigation screen flashed every color in the rainbow for three and a half seconds, turned fuzzy gray for a second after that, then went completely blank. Naturally, I hit the DIAGNOSTICS button. Nothing happened-for all I knew, the diagnostic suite might be happily running through the nav system circuits, but the screen didn't show me a thing. I spun my chair to face the command console, but its screen had gone blank too. So had the screens for the engines, communications, and life support. I stared stupidly at all those empty screens until it dawned on me that things had gone awfully quiet behind my back: the usual noise of machinery, air ventilators, and cooling fans had fallen silent. 

Then the lights went out. Shit. 

Rhythm is the heartbeat of life. Picture a room full of people dancing. They're twisting and twirling to the same song, but your eyes will go right to that man or woman whose organic movement and natural beat melds in perfect synchronization with the music. Create that rhythmic vibe in your writing, and you will captivate your reading audience with drama in every sentence.

Can you judge the rhythm of your own work, or do you look to reviewers and critique partners to evaluate the fluency of your writing? And, do you think you can Thanks for reading!

[I wrote this article originally to appeared in the January 25, 2012 Drama Newsletter at]


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Time in a Briefcase

Ever since my children can remember, there has been a locked briefcase in the house. Each time they rediscovered it tucked away on a closet shelf, they pulled it down and spun its lock wheels, trying countless  combinations, always in vain. Over time, it had became one of the most excruciating mysteries of their young lives. Years ago, my daughter dubbed it 'The Briefcase That Would Not Open.'

The black leather case was rather heavy. When one side was lifted higher than the other, the contents slid against the end with a suspicious thud. The kids' imaginations were wild with speculation. What could be inside?

I knew the briefcase was a remnant of the days my husband and I lived and worked in Central Africa. It had carried important documents while we traveled. That was circa 1996, three years before our oldest child was born. A dual combination lock system required two three-digit codes to open the case. We'd wracked our brains, but neither my husband nor I could remember the codes. This maddened our children.

Two days ago, daughter Sidney spied the briefcase in its dusty corner. Her passion for opening the case appeared more emphatic than usual, if that was possible. She pressed her father to remember the combinations. And one of us said something that turned a key in hubby's brain. He looked at me with large eyes and said to the kids, "Try Mama's birthday."

1-0-0 on the left and 3-6-6 on the right. It didn't work. The kids' shoulders slumped.

But wait! In France, a date is expressed with the day of the month first, and then the month followed by the year. So the French would write October 3, 1966 as 03/10/66.... When the kids spun the wheels again and set the combination to 0-3-1 on the left and 0-6-6 on the right....the mechanism sprang open. They were in!

We have all really enjoyed discovering the briefcase contents.

Most exciting for the kids were the dinosaur-models laptop computer and printer. The Olivetti is a whooping 2.5 inches thick and weighs about 8 lbs. It runs Windows 97 on MS-DOS. But the kids don't care. Luckily we had a converter on hand and were able to plug the battery charger into the wall socket. I was surprised that a fifteen-year-old-plus computer actually powered up! The keyboard is French, so certain letter keys are in different places and automatically type the accents over the letters, when applicable. The kids are fascinated by it.

Also in the case were documents that reminded us of the lives we were living back in the mid-90s. There were several telephone cards. These cards, we explained to the children, one bought at le Tabac (newspaper vendor's shop) to use in French public telephones back before everyone had cell phones. We found letters we'd received from family and friends in the States, including one from a friend telling me about a bike trip around the perimeter of the US that he was planning to take. In the letter, he mentions a mutual friend of ours was joining him for one leg of the trip. That trip would go on to spark a romance between the two. Today they are married and have a son.

The Briefcase That Would Not Open turned out to be an unexpected time capsule.

This discovery gave us a wonderful project idea. We're going to create a family time capsule!

Each of us is going to contribute several items to the time capsule. We want to include things that represent who we are as individuals in 2012. What are our passions? What makes us tick? Sidney wants to write a letter to her future self. Brilliant!! (I think I'll do that too.)

We also plan to add photos of ourselves. We'll put in our favorite recipes ('cause food is very important to us and we all cook together), and mementos from our family vacations and everyday life.

We won't bury our time capsule in the backyard, for a very simple reason: I don't plan to be in this house for the long term. We'll seal up the capsule and put it in the corner, maybe that dusty corner where The Briefcase That Would Not Open once occupied.

Twenty-five years from now, no matter where in the world we are, the four of us will come together for a family vacation to open the time capsule. I imagine Cody and Sidney with their spouses and children, explaining the significance of the items they put inside as children. Once again, life will be a representation in stories, many significant moments in time. Thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

We can't wait to get started!

Have you ever contributed to a time capsule? Has it been opened? I'd love to hear your stories!


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Critiquing a Friend's MS

Every writer knows the angst of sharing a newly penned story with readers for the first time. We're excited. And nervous. And we desperately want to hear how much the readers enjoyed the story, identified with the characters, shed a tear and laughed out loud.

That anxiety triples when we turn our manuscript over to a critique partner.

I'm still months (years??) away from experiencing that dread as my manuscript is nowhere near ready for critical eyes. No, for now I'm on the other side of the fence. I'm critiquing a friend and fellow author's debut novel. I thought it'd be less difficult, over here. It isn't.

Offering up positive feedback is easy, especially given this particular writer's immense creativity, depth of God-given talent, and vivid, emotional authorial style. She blows me away. But a critique full of glowing compliments centered on what's working in the story isn't going to help ready the manuscript for publication.

Here's what all writers know to be true: When you write a story -- particularly a novel-length story -- the challenge is to convey what's in your head to your readers. We know what's going to happen in chapter 25, so it's very easy to forget to include a vital clue in chapter 10. We understand what makes a secondary character tick, so accidentally omitting the root of her motivations during a heated scene easily goes unnoticed by us. We need a pair (several!) of fresh eyes to point out our lapses in description or holes in our plots.

Also, we get into our creative groove and the inspired scenes pour fast and furious onto the paper/screen. We read and reread and reread our work. Our brains don't notice that four sentences in a row are compound sentences whose clauses are connected by "and." We skim right over that glaring typo. We're so used to reading a passage that the awkwardness of one of the sentence structures sounds smooth to our mind's ear.

It's the job of the critique partner to identify these issues, so the writer can hone her editing and revision energies. But it's so hard to do! And it's particularly excruciating when the author is your dear friend. I know the sting of negative feedback. It just plain sucks. My goal is to comment with the highest level of professionalism, to word my feedback in a way that it will not be misinterpreted as judgement, and to always be as encouraging as I can be. But I worry about hurt feelings, just the same.

I know some of you have walked in my slippers (but do they have fluffy pompoms, like mine?). How do you get through an honest assessment of a fellow writer's work when that writer is also your friend? Would you rather critique a stranger or a friend? Any funny stories to share?


Monday, January 16, 2012

Scrivener ~ Perfect For Me

After the horror subsided of realizing I'd lost 75% of my current WiP, I faced the daunting task of trudging back to point zero and starting over. Since the work I lost was first draft drivel, I felt optimistic that this disaster would work in my favor. I'd write a better draft the second time around. I also decided it was time to try Scrivener, the writer's software about which I'd heard a lot of buzz.
Scrivener is a complete writer's studio for your computer. It's described on the company's website this way: "Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents. While it gives you complete control of the formatting, its focus is on helping you get to the end of that awkward first draft."  I love Scrivener because it caters to my personal writing habits and offers solutions to process pitfalls I've stumbled over in the past.
As I'm sketching characters and imagining the main plot line of a new story, I think in terms of scenes. I like to have a loose outline of the major introductory scenes, the inciting incident, transitory scenes, and the climactic scene(s). As a scene idea comes to me, I scribble a few sentences on an index card. The cards go in sequential order, but I can rearrange them as new ideas come to me and the story's structure evolves. As I write my draft, I take the next card off the stack (or one from the middle, should I work out of order one day). Based on the notes on the card I know, going into the writing session, what my goals are for that scene. 

Luckily, after my WiP was lost, I still had all my scene cards. Scrivener has a Cork Board feature which I absolutely love. Here's how it works.

Every document you open in Scrivener is a page in a virtual binder. You imagine that each document also has an index card attached to it. The document is where you write the scene, chapter, dialog, significant moment, (or however you choose to construct your draft). The index card is where you write a short synopsis of the document's contents. This allows you to view the entire manuscript in synopsis form, via the Cork Board.

You can rearrange the scenes/chapters from the Cork Board, which will move them in the main binder at the same time. You can navigate through the manuscript from here, or view the Cork Board instead as a traditional outline. Your choice!

No more dropping the stack of index cards on the floor. And, you can add keywords to each card which allows you to search the growing manuscript for whatever you need: flashback scenes, scenes with a specific POV, scenes that take place in a certain year or setting, etc., etc. My favorite Cork Board feature though is the ability to add notes to each card. As I'm writing, an idea will come to me about a previous scene or a character trait I need to weave in at an earlier point in time. Scrivener allows you to move to the Cork Board and add notes to other cards with the click of one button. So much better for me than scribbled sticky notes cluttering up the edge of my computer screen, or comments to myself in random margins of a notebook I'll later have to furiously leaf through.

A few of the other wonderful features include:

Collections are arbitrary lists you create to pull sections of your manuscript together for viewing. For instance, you could create a collection of your main character's scenes. The collection will put only those scenes together, one after the other, allowing you to evaluate the strength of that character's arc, without altering their placements within the original manuscript.

Scrivener has a section in the "binder" for your research. You can import media files of all types, link web pages, and build your research files all in one, easily accessible place. You can split the screen and have research documents open side-by-side with the scene as you type, eliminating the need to bounce back and forth to reference dates, images, maps, sound bites, etc.

And perhaps most significant for me, Scrivener allows you to export your work in seconds as any file type you choose: .doc, .docx, .rtf, .xhtml, etc. There is also an auto-backup feature, and options to backup your work in multiple formats, as often as you like.

Some people may look at Scrivener and decide at first glance that it's too technical, too complicated to use. It isn't! If you can figure out Word, navigate through the toolbar tabs, and use many of those features, you can figure out Scrivener. Plus, there are useful video tutorials available for free.

Scrivener only costs $40 (for Microsoft users). In my view, that's money well spent! And there's a free 30-day trial.

If you're on the fence about trying Scrivener or you have questions, feel free to ask away. I'm no expert, but I've been using the software for several weeks and would be happy to share more of what I've learned about it!


Monday, January 9, 2012

Vine Leaves Literary Magazine

There's a new literary magazine on the scene, one which fills a gap previously unnoticed by industry markets. Vine Leaves Literary Magazine highlights the Vignette.

According to Vine Leaves, a "'Vignette' is a word that originally meant 'something that may be written on a vine-leaf.' It’s a snapshot in words. It differs from flash fiction or a short story in that its aim doesn’t lie within the traditional realms of structure or plot. Instead, the vignette focuses on one element, mood, character, setting or object. It's descriptive, excellent for character or theme exploration and wordplay. Through a vignette, you create an atmosphere. "

In the past, I have participated in a creative writing contest called the "15 For 15 Contest." Each day for fifteen consecutive days, the contest moderator posts a photograph. The challenge is to draw inspiration from the day's photo and then write a short piece, writing for only and exactly fifteen minutes. Any genre is acceptable and any format: short story, poem, scene, dialogue, etc.  I generally wound up producing vignettes. (A couple examples are here and here.)

When I learned about Vine Leaves Literary Magazine, I went right to my 15 For 15 files and decided on a piece to submit. I was thrilled to learn it was accepted for publication in the magazine's premier issue!

Issue #01 January 2012 is available for free viewing and/or download now HERE.

There are so many amazing pieces in this issue, ranging from literary to experimental, many from writer-bloggers I know you will recognize. I'm blown away by the caliber of submissions pubbed in this issue, and I know you will be too. I hope you read some of them today!

And a side note: Thank you all who commented on my last post about losing 75% of my WiP. Your encouraging words have been the shoulder I leaned on as I moved past the frustration, and I'm back on track now. Wednesday's post will be about the new love in my life: Scrivener! See you then!


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's Gone; (almost) all gone...

I opened my WiP today and faced the ultimate, authorial nightmare:

Most of my novel-in-progress is GONE.Of the 25,000+ word manuscript, only 5,000 words remain.

How can this be? Where did it go?? So many thoughts coursed through my brain as I searched every folder. I looked everywhere from the Recycle Bin to Auto-Recovery files to files where it couldn't possibly be. It's nowhere. I'm still reeling from the shock.

I didn't actually have my MS saved on my hard drive. Some of you may remember a post about digital storage options I did a while ago in which I wanted to choose a back-up site for my computer files in case of a crash or fire, or whatever. I now use

My MS draft, as well as documents containing research, character sketches, timelines, etc., is stored in my Dropbox. But I'm a careful little girl, so I also save a copy of my files on a USB flash drive.

When I opened my draft today and realized only the first 5k words were there, I had three seconds of panic. And get this: Not only was 75% of the MS missing, but the scene headings were no longer properly formatted. Something scary had gone wrong. But then I remembered the flash drive. Breathe. Everything's going to be okay.

Nope. The copy on the flash drive was exactly the same, mal-formatted and with only the first 5,000 words. What the...?

Here's the only theory I can come up with that makes sense. I had to have accidentally highlighted a giant portion of my MS and unwittingly hit the backspace, then saved the damn thing. Then saved a copy of the damn thing to my flash drive. What are the odds?

So, the only attitude I can take is that it was meant to be. I have to accept that it happened with open arms, welcoming this chance to do it better -- write a more dynamic draft -- take what I know about the story and weave stronger vibes into it.

And review old lessons learned, and take in a few new ones:

Saving your work often during writing sessions is vital -- you never know when an unexpected power outage or system glitch will shut you down. 

Saving your work in more than one place is advisable -- if one copy is compromised, you'll still have others on which to go forward.

Check your whole manuscript over before you hit 'Save.' (If I'd noticed, using the Thumbnail option, that only 22 pages were there -- instead of 108 -- I wouldn't have clicked save!)

I will no longer keep all of my chapters in one long Word document. (I don't care how cool the Document Map feature is!) If I use Word, I will save each individual scene or chapter as its own document. That way, if I lose one document I won't be back at point zero (again).

I guess this is a perfect opportunity to consider downloading Scrivener. Anyone use that program? I'd love to hear what you like and don't like about it. Is it worth the money? Your thoughts are greatly appreciated!