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‘Behind the Writer’s Curtain’ Category

  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 battleship gray, sunny yellow, or dull as mud? 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. 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, bumps 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.

  3. The One Thing Every Writer Needs to Know

    September 25, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    You want to be a published writer. So you write–words and sentences and paragraphs–and it makes sense, whatever it is you’re creating out of those piles. It sounds just right in your head. But here’s the thing:

    You don’t know how it sounds in your reader’s head.

    In your reader’s head, your story might sound like a funeral march.

    In yours, it’s Mardi Gras.

    Now, you can let it be Mardi Gras in your head, and shrug when you see those funeral marchers with their long faces.

    But you can’t help notice: there’s more than one soul marching. There’s at least a dozen, all in black. How could a dozen people think a party was a funeral?

    Well, maybe that’s how they read the invitation.

    Maybe it’s not their fault at all—it’s the writer’s.

    I had a creative writing teacher in college who read each student’s work out loud to the class, so no one knew who wrote it. That left the rest of us free to rip into it with claws and fangs and red-faced vigor, without knowing that the meat we were cutting into was someone’s pet dog.

    Well, one night I added my short story to the stack, a work so profoundly funny, I chuckled over each line as I wrote it. I couldn’t wait to hear the response. When the teacher picked up my manuscript and read the title, I settled back, ready for the guffaws.

    Then he read the first line of dialogue…in a tone meant for a Tolstoy novel.

    What the…? It’s supposed to be a comedy!

    On and on he read in that serious tone, and I grew more and more horrified. I knew how comedians felt when they bombed. I wanted to turn into goo, like in the cartoons, and slide down my chair and out the door.

    Instead I sat there, pretending to take notes, blinking away tears.

    I don’t remember the comments the other students made; the gist was, the entire universe—or at least the entire universe in that room—was in agreement. My story stunk.

    When the class ended, I waited for everyone to leave, then snatched the pages on my way out.

    It was the best lesson I’d ever learned.

    Last week, that lesson came back to haunt me.

    If you haven’t read my previous post, it’s called “What Would the Wives Do?” Hurry, read it. And then read the comments. Wait—I’ll save you the trouble. Suffice it to say, some of my readers had strong reactions to the piece. Reactions which, to me, were unexpected.

    I wasn’t saying I wanted to be one of the wives.

    Oh yeah? Well that’s how it read, bucko. You shoulda made it clear. Delete the post, quick, before anyone else reads it!

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop the madness.

    Those are the kind of squirrelly thoughts we have when our writing is interpreted in a way we hadn’t intended. We’re surprised, defensive, maybe a bit ornery, and then we call ourselves idiots. We groan, knock back a few drinks, whine to our fellow writers at the bar, and then wake up the next day with a hell of a headache, ready to take a good look at whatever feedback we were so upset about.

    Last week, I did all of that.

    Except the drinking.

    And the whining.

    And the headache.

    I did a lot of groaning. And sinking my face into my hands.

    I couldn’t blame my readers for their comments; they were reacting to the material I had provided. And I asked them to!

    In fact, I agreed with them. Mostly.

    So I thought about lopping off the last third of the post, ending with, “And I cook, but I’m lousy at it,” a sort of acceptance of myself as is.

    I thought about inserting a line near the beginning about how those wives may have felt like trophies, but then again, some of them may have been happy in the life they chose, and who was I to judge?

    I thought about adding: “From where I sit, being supported by a wealthy guy that I’m crazy about looks pretty darn groovy—as long as it doesn’t involve losing my independence or self-respect.”

    Yeah, I could have edited the piece to hone my meaning.

    But I’m leaving it as a fine example of the lesson that it is. The comments were valid. And I’m grateful for each one.

    There’s one thing you need to know if you want to be a published writer: how does your work sound in your reader’s head? You need to know, even if it hurts to hear. And the only way to know, is to share. You’ve got to let eyes other than your own see it. You’ve got to roll onto your back and expose your soft belly, knowing that it might not be a nice rub you get.

    That’s how it is with writing.

    That’s how you develop that thick muscle, that protective shell around your tender, artistic soul. And that’s how you become a stronger writer.

    Now, about that funny short story I mentioned earlier?

    There were two mobsters in a diner arguing over a bottle of Catsup…