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  1. Your Novel Offers One Big Benefit for Readers

    December 4, 2016 by Diane

    I love strolling the neighborhood at dusk, seeing inside the well-lit houses I pass without the occupants seeing me. There’s a family sitting around a dining table. A teenage boy wearing earphones, dancing in a living room. An old woman watching the weatherman on television. I see framed photographs on a pinewood dresser; an iron bed pushed up against a window that’s steamy from the chorizos frying on the stove; a lacy curtain turned gray. Glimpses of lives being lived.

    Rooms reveal something about the people who live within. Are the walls bare and painted a peach hue, or adobe white, cluttered with photographs? Are the furnishings leather and chrome, cast-offs from the flea market, or Scandinavian minimalist? And the house itself, is it a battleship gray, a sunny yellow, or the color of turds? Is the yard mowed or overgrown, fenced, or unfenced with flagstones leading to the front door? Did someone plant tulips along the walkway, or vegetables in wooden boxes? Is there a sign on the gate: Beware of Dog, or does a cat slumber on a window sill?

    On my evening walks, I view the world through the lens of a writer. I yearn for a home of my own, to be sharing a meal with family. I empathize with the woman alone in front of the TV–could that be me in twenty years? Wait, don’t close the curtains, I’m not done looking.

    I spy on people.

    It’s not what I do in life, but it’s something I do.

    What do you do?

    When meeting someone for the first time, we’re often asked: “What do you do?” Leil Lowndes, the author of How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships, suggests phrasing your answer in a way that says: “Here’s how my life can benefit yours.” She gives these examples:

    Instead of real estate agent, say: “I help people moving into our area find the right home.”

    Instead of hairdresser: “I help a woman find the right hairstyle for her particular face.”

    Instead of financial planner: “I help people plan their financial future.”

    What about fiction writers? How does our work benefit the lives of others?

    Here’s an answer:

    As readers, aren’t we spying on imaginary people? We peer into their lives, listen in on their thoughts, watch their most intimate moments, shadow them through their days. We part the curtains of a book, and lose ourselves in the lives of the characters within. By observing how they think through their problems, and what actions they take to overcome obstacles, we learn to navigate the real world.

    As writers, how do we help readers satisfy that itch to spy? Here are three tips, with exercises to practice:

    1. Engage the reader through their senses

    By choosing a few specific sensory details that describe person, place, and thing, the better the reader can “see” the world they’ve entered. In other words: show, don’t tell. He isn’t mad at his wife; he stiffens his shoulders, sets his jaw, and slams out the door. She isn’t trying to get the boy’s attention at school; she’s tapping her pencil against her binder, reaching out one toe and nudging his calf. The car isn’t old and messy; there’s dog hair on the upholstery, McDonald’s wrappers on the floor. The radio sputters between a Spanish station and Big Band music, and the air smells like French Fries.

    Don’t overload the reader’s senses (something I need to watch out for in my own work); allow room for the reader to engage their own imaginations.

    Practice: Write a scene using sensory details only.

    2. Let the reader in on the character’s thought process

    Readers don’t want the kind of detail provided on Facebook—this is what I’m having for dinner—unless that’s crucial to a scene. If a character’s inner monologue doesn’t move the story along or reveal something about the thinker, it doesn’t belong.

    Readers want to know what’s going on behind a character’s facade. What is the character wrestling with? How do they sort through options? How do they deal with depression, anxiety, or fear? How do they really feel?

    Practice: Write the inner monologue of a nervous man or woman getting ready for a date. Why is this person nervous?

    3.  Hold the reader’s interest through conflict

    Why do we tune into bad news on television? Why, when driving past an accident, do we slow down to look? Why do we gossip? Why do we watch someone on YouTube get slammed in the crotch by a baseball? We want to see the reaction to whatever horrible thing has happened. We want to see how people survive, how they handle getting knocked down, how they band together, how they process bad news. We want to see how rotten life can get for someone else, and how, against all odds, that person rises up. It makes our own lives seem better.

    Practice: Write a scene where something bad happens to a character. Use action, dialogue, and inner monologue to show the character’s reaction, and how they fight to overcome the obstacle. Include a few sensory details to bring the scene to life.

    Remember: outside the window of every work of fiction, there’s a reader peering in. It’s up to writers to open the curtains wide.

  2. Swim with an Overbite, and it’s Happy Hour at the Dentist

    November 27, 2016 by Diane

    The summer before sixth grade, I zipped my lips shut for what I predicted would be the rest of my life. All because of a neighbor’s pool.

    Playing Marco Polo with Chris and Johnny and Robin and Carol, I dove underwater and popped up near the edge of the pool, mouth open in laughter. Due to an unfortunate overbite, I chipped one of my front teeth on the concrete, instantly transforming my once fat pearly-white into a permanent dagger.

    This meant a trip to the dentist. I was terrified of dentists. I avoided them. But there I was, trembling in the chair, as the dentist conferred with his assistant in the hallway. I heard the words “too scared” and “anxious,” and then the dentist returned, unhooked my paper bib, and told me he wanted to leave the tooth as is.

    “I’m saved!” I thought, and then, looking in the mirror again, “I’m doomed!”

    All through sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, I aimed for invisibility. I slunk through the hallways as teachers and classmates said, “Why don’t you smile? Smile, smile!”

    In high school, I mustered the courage to get the thing capped.

    Zoom ahead twenty years.

    I’m flossing after dinner, and—ping!—the cap pops off. In the mirror, I see that scraggly tooth again. I’m back in junior high, slinking along with buttoned lips, hounded by teachers, by classmates, to “smile, smile!”

    I grab the phone. “My tooth fell off!” I tell my friend, whose father is a dentist. “I mean the cap, the cap! What do I do?”

    He gets his father. The dentist-father tells me to buy dental glue from the drugstore, glue it back on, and see him at nine a.m.

    In the morning, I bring my own father for support. He picks up a magazine in the waiting room, and I follow the receptionist down the hallway. The dentist-father is standing by his tools, wearing a white smock. He looks like Ed Sullivan. He invites me to sit in the dental chair.

    Invites me. Like we’re having tea together.

    I grip the arms of the chair. He reclines me slightly.

    “Are you comfortable?” he says.

    Is a cow comfortable before slaughter? 

    He shows me his new gadget, a camera that looks like an oversized thermometer. He inserts it into my mouth. On a large screen, we view my teeth and gums from every nook and cranny. Gone With the Wind was shorter than this viewing.

    Can we just get to it? 

    At intermission, he gets to it.

    He pries off the glued tooth. Shows me his fancy drill, pointing out the features. I’m afraid he’s going to ask me to feel the heft of it.

    “Now, if at any time you feel uncomfortable, raise your left hand. I’ll see it, or Bubbles will see it, or Ramon will see it.” Bubbles the receptionist, also his wife. Ramon his assistant, also People Magazine’s reject for most handsome man in the world. “One of us will see it, and I’ll stop.”

    Zzzzzzz goes the drill. Zzzzz, Zzzzz, Zzzzzz. He leans in and drills that tooth down to a stump. While he’s at it, he shaves the tops off a couple of bottom teeth to make them more even. But not too even. “You want them to be like the columns of the Parthenon,” he says, and gives a long-winded discussion about Greek architecture, holding the drill aloft. Finally, “Would you like to take a break?” he says. “Have a cup of coffee?”

    A cup of coffee? I want out, is what I want. I want to collect my purse and my father and ride home. “Let’s finish this,” I say.

    He glues a temporary cap to the stump, and holds up color samples like an interior decorator, finding the perfect match for my teeth. Bubbles leaves her desk so she can peer into my mouth, along with Ramon and some guy in a leisure suit who pops by to discuss golf scores. They all make appreciative sounds as my eyes dart from one to the other.

    Finally, Happy Hour at the dental office is over. Bubbles, Ramon, and Leisure Suit return to living their lives, and Ed Sullivan backs off, nods, and puts down his toys.

    “We’ll call you when we have the permanent cap,” he says.

    God help me.

    I stagger out to the waiting room.

    My father is staring at a wall. He’s aged ten years.

    At home, I look in the bathroom mirror. I smile. The temporary cap makes me look like Bugs Bunny.

    I zip my lips shut.

  3. This is How a Writer’s Mind Works

    November 20, 2016 by Diane

    Does this ever happen to you?

    You’re trying on a pair of pants, and the zipper gets stuck. It takes five saleswomen to get you out of the pants. And that’s not the end of it. You have to pretend to want to buy them, but everyone knows you’re too fat, or the pants too small. Whatever. It’s not a match made in heaven. So you browse the racks, and the salespeople watch. You make a selection. A pair of striped socks, and you pay for them. But when you walk out the door, the alarm goes off.

    And that’s not all.

    The security guy eating a hotdog at a wrought iron table outside the store is your nemesis from high school days, the boy who flipped burgers at the joint where you worked the counter. You’d turned him down when he asked you to the movies, so he wrote stuff about you on the wall of the employees’ bathroom, at least you think it was him. Fuck you Holcomb. Stuff like that. Not even a comma between “you” and “Holcomb.” And there he is, stuffing his face with a hot dog, when he hears the alarm go off. He tries swaggering over like a real cop, but he doesn’t have the coordination; he swings one side of his body and then the other until he’s right up in your face. You see him remembering. Or trying to. There’s something about you he recognizes, but he can’t place it.

    Does that ever happen to you?

    Yeah, me neither.

    Only in the fictional world in my mind.

    This is how a writer discovers characters.

    * * *

    At the library, I look around.

    A gaunt man wearing glasses, baseball cap, and blue windbreaker types secret messages into the computer, the cords of his neck prominent. A spy?

    A man with a rusty goatee and toupee scouts around, his eyes flicking from table to chair to corner to shelf. He spins on his heel and dashes off. A detective?

    A woman makes a bee-line for the newspaper rack, her oversized shoulder bag hanging diagonally across her body bumping her thighs. Something heavy in that bag. A severed head?

    This is intrigue at its highest. The stuff of an anxious mind. Or a writer spinning plot ideas.

    * * *

    Crossing the street, I find a dollar bill. And another. And a five. What luck! Nearby, someone’s iPhone. Rats. The money has an owner. It’s an expensive phone, with a red leather case that opens like a book. Tucked inside, the owner’s driver’s license.

    A brunette, she smiles with perfect teeth.

    I’m a hundred yards from the police department. It’s Saturday, but the lobby’s open. The receptionist behind the bullet-proof window jots down my name and number. I try to slide the phone and money under the glass, but she stops me.

    “I’ll send someone out,” she says.

    A compact guy in uniform swings through the door, shakes my hand. He opens the leather case and exhales. “Whoa!” he says, inspecting the license. He uses an index finger to scroll through messages on the iPhone. “Looks like her husband is trying to reach her.”

    “I hope you don’t think I stole anything,” I say. “The money’s all there.”

    He laughs, but shoots a look at the receptionist.

    She nods, her eyes cutting to me. “I have her name and number.”

    He gives a thumbs-up.

    Later, I feel funny about the whole thing. I play what if games in my head.

    What if the cop notifies the husband? What if the husband is abusive, and the woman is on the run, in hiding? Now he knows where to hunt her down. What if the woman is already dead, and someone finds her body in a dumpster? My fingerprints are all over that phone. They’ve got my number. Me, a Good Samaritan, suddenly a prime suspect in a murder case.

    This is how a writer mines for story ideas.