RSS Feed

Posts Tagged ‘books’

  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. The Summer of the Wasps

    September 5, 2016 by Diane

    Truckee #5

    You go on vacation to escape your life. To set aside the worry, the stress, the gossip, the routine and mundane, the rut that keeps you blinded to anything above and beyond. You go on vacation to widen your view, and what better place to widen it than the top of a granite mountain, above the pines, a 360-degree expanse that gives you a glimpse of what God sees.

    But at the top of that mountain are yellow jackets. A whole gang of them. In fact, the region is rife with angry wasps, and as long as you keep moving, you’re no target. But the minute you stop, the minute you zip open your backpack to reach for your hummus and avocado and tomato, lettuce, pickle sandwich, they’re on you.

    You came here, to the high country, to the mountain lake, to listen. To ponder the dwindling finances, the mounting debt. To sit in quiet reflection until you have a “eureka” moment, a bolt of clarity that lights up your brain. “Ah! I know what to do! I know what path to take! I know how to unmuddle the muddle I’m in!”

    But those yellow jackets. It’s hard to relax, with the gang buzzing around your blue-painted toes, your blue t-shirt. They love blue. That lavender-scented sunblock? Ditch it. They love that, too. And the coconut moisturizer that gives your hair a fighting chance in this dry, high altitude? Lose it. Go au-natural if you want to sit and ponder at the lake.

    Those yellow jackets will challenge your morning meditations, too. Just how long can you sit with that constant buzz? You feel them tease your skin: a prick, a nibble. How long till you jump up and run inside, arms waving?

    They bite your friend instead. His pinky swells to the size of his thumb.

    “Whaddya think?” he says, shoving it at you like you’re the canary in the coal mine.

    If you freak, he’ll be concerned. Lucky for him, you don’t. It’s not your pinky that was bit. If it was, you’d be telling yourself that you’re allergic, you’re dying, there’s something poisonous in the wasps in Truckee, nothing like the ones at ocean level, like the one that bit you nine times in the thigh after buzzing up your pants leg. Nine times. That’s the story you’d be telling yourself.

    But it’s not your pinky.

    “Maybe you should rub some ointment on it,” you say.

    “Nah, I’m fine.”

    The next day, it’s bright red.

    “How about Benadryl.”


    The next day, it’s purple.

    “Lidocaine. Try Lidocaine.”

    If it was your pinky, you’d have a hard time breathing. You’d be afraid of waking up and discovering it’s as big as your head.

    But him? “It’ll go away,” he says, and he’s right. It does. That’s his story.

    Still, doesn’t make it easy, sitting on the piney deck every morning in meditation with the wasps buzzing while your friend sips his coffee and relaxes, eyes closed to the sun, arms crossed on his chest, that pinky turning hues. You leap up, head inside.

    There’s serenity inside.

    But hey! You didn’t travel all that way to gaze out the sliding glass doors from a cush of a couch in your landlady’s “cabin.” So the next morning, you sit longer. There, on the deck of that two-story granite and pine house that you can’t afford to stay in for a night, let alone a week, if it wasn’t for the plant-watering you did for the lady-of-the-land when she was away, and her handyman work your friend did, so the two of you could get away, cost-free. Him, to climb the granite peaks. You, to settle lakeside with a couple of books to lose yourself in, and a stretch of time to ponder your financial state while the cold mountain water laps at your ankles.

    Except for those yellow jackets.

    The only thing you ponder is a hazmat suit.

    No “eureka” moment at the lake this summer. This is the summer of the wasps. Someone will erect a monument in memory. A giant winged insect with dark slashes above bulging black eyes.

    No, your “eureka” moment will come when you arrive home, hanging onto that feeling of freedom, that absence of thought, that in-the-moment stuff you were living up there in Truckee. Your “eureka” moment will come when news leaks out…the bookstore where you work is on the market.

    Tough times for indies. You knew that. Hell, you were commiserating with the owner of the indie up in Truckee not two days previous. “You want to buy the place?” she said, her eyes aglow. You begged off, hands raised. “No, no. Just lending my good wishes that you’ll stay open.”

    Little did you know.

    Ah, who are you fooling? It’s no surprise. The place where you work, for all it’s attributes, reeks poverty-mentality. The broken, the unwanted, saved and displayed on the lunch table, up for grabs. Decapitated Buddha statues. Angels with broken wings. Expired food from someone’s cupboard. “It’s free! Take it! A little dab of glue…” Who are you fooling? Glue won’t hold together a leaky bank account.

    Maybe someone with a wealth-mentality will buy the place. That’s the story you tell yourself.

    Or it will downsize, like the used bookstore that closed and moved to Gilroy where rents are cheap.

    Or you’ll be laid off when the current owners cry, “Uncle!” At what point will the captains abandon the sinking ship, even if that ship is loaded with treasure?

    Time to get your ducks in a row, you hear. Right after, “eureka!”

    But to do that, to get those duckies all lined up, something’s gotta give. Will it be the blog? The novel? You’ve spread yourself thin, and that two-week stint of non-writing felt mighty fine.

    Hard choices ahead.

    But out there among the yellow jackets, you settled into yourself. You settled into that still place that you’d lost in the day-to-day grind. And you’re not willing to lose it again.

  3. How to Rewrite a Novel: Step Four

    August 14, 2016 by Diane

    hand opening red curtain on white.

    Rewriting a novel is like sitting on the edge of a pool. The water’s cold. You can dive right in, get the discomfort over with, splash around to warm up, and then lose yourself in the steady stroke of limbs through water.

    Or, like me, you can hang out on the edge while the sun bakes your skin and your feet turn into prunes.

    Welcome to week five of my novel rewrite.

    This is how rewriting my novel looked:

    I attended an outdoor concert with a Meetup group from The Sierra Club. The club turned out to be a bunch of lively women, ages sixty and up, and a grizzled guy who may have been a sea captain. Another guy, wearing a goofy beach hat, stood around grinning like babies do when they have gas. I sat in my low-slung chair behind a woman in a sleeveless blouse who shaded her eyes with one hand, cutting off my view of the stage with her underarm flab. Occasionally, she dropped her arm, so my view became a vision of Michael Jackson–if Michael Jackson was middle-aged and fifty pounds overweight and stuffed into black leather pants–strutting and doing that pelvic bump, while a four-man horn section dipped and pivoted like the backup for The Temptations.

    After three songs, I folded up my chair and left.

    The next day, I went swimming. The pool was packed. I swam laps in the shallow end. The woman sharing my lane trudged back and forth in hiking boots, talking on her cell phone the entire time. One hundred dollar hiking boots. In chlorinated water. And a cell phone.

    Some days, I stood in the middle of my room, thinking.

    Had I stumbled once again onto Resistance Highway? Or was this non-writing activity actually accomplishing something?

    Well, a little of both.

    I was noodling loglines.

    It’s part of my action plan for rewriting a novel. I had arrived at:

    Step Four

    Write a logline.

    What’s a logline?

    It’s a sentence that describes the novel, and answers the questions:

    Who is the protagonist?
    What does the protagonist want?
    What’s at stake?

    Ya gotta know the who, what, and why-bother, otherwise, how can you rewrite the dang thing?

    So, I contemplated. I gnawed on ideas. I engaged in other activities. And then I took a hike with my niece, who was on a whirlwind visit through town.

    We talked writing. She wanted to know what my novel was about. I launched into a lengthy description and ended with an exasperated, “I just wish I knew what’s driving my protagonist!”

    And my niece said, “It’s funny, we wonder what our characters want, but we’re the ones making it all up.”

    We’re the ones making it all up!

    D’uh. Head slap.

    All I needed to do was pick something, and go with it.

    Write ten possible loglines. Twenty. Twenty-five. Whatever. Then PICK ONE.

    Jump in the pool.

    Stuck? Or Avoiding?

    Sometimes, we get stuck in our writing, and need to occupy ourselves elsewhere so the idea we’re searching for can swim into our consciousness. But there’s a fine line between taking time away, and staying away because the water’s too cold.

    That’s where those vows come in handy. You know, the ones that start: I promise to show up for my writing every day, no matter what.

    So, how do you know what side of the line you’re on?

    Look for signs of resistance.

    I know I’m in resistance when I start doing what comes easy, rather than what comes hard, like rewriting. “I’ll just answer a few emails. Shuffle papers. Blog.”

    I know I’m in resistance when I force myself to write, and I lose track of time.

    But If I force myself to write, and resent it, I know I need to go back to noodling. Nothing wrong with that.

    At least this time, I recognized the highway, and hitched a ride out. I was digging through some boxes of books in storage, looking for some good reads to bring on my vacation, and found a copy of Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence, by Lane Shefter Bishop. A whole book about how to write a logline! Had my intuition guided me to that box? Could be.

    I read the first few chapters. Jotted down a rough idea. Refined it. Refined it again and again and again, eliminating excess words, homing in on the want, the stakes, until…Bingo! I had my logline.

    Is it the perfect logline? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s something I can work with.

    Onward, to Step Five!