second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Build Emotional Muscle

If real estate is location, location, location, a novel’s second draft is emotion, emotion, emotion. Many writers, myself included, write the first draft focused on what comes next. The second draft is where we need to spend more time on why does what come next matter?

My heroine is a young woman, Marcie, whose best friend, Lorraine, recently died from a poisonous spider bite while on a Caribbean vacation. The island’s police department’s opinion is that her death was a tragic and unavoidable accident.  Neither Lorraine’s mother nor Marcie believe that. Marcie has been interviewing Lorraine’s co-workers who were on vacation with her, and she’s sure Lorraine’s death had something to do with a research project Lorraine’s company is doing.

A sub-plot is Marcie ditching her current boyfriend, who’s a jerk, and getting involved with a police constable she meets in the course of her investigation.


I’m working on the second draft of the scene where she breaks up with the boyfriend. Here’s how it played out in the first draft:

Marcie works at a small manufacturing company in an industrial area. She has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone, so she calls a couple of friends who live close to where she works, but neither of them can come and help her. She calls her boy friend, whose watching a hockey game, and can’t be bothered. This makes Marcie so mad that she throws caution to the wind and leaves.

The business has an alarm system, with a time lock and an over-ride code, so people working late can get out, but once the door has closed, they can’t get back in again. When Marcie gets to her car she discovers she has a flat tire. She has to walk all the way home. By the time she gets there, she’s so angry at her boyfriend that they have a fight and break up, thus paving the way for her to meet the constable a couple of chapters later.


How did I do in the first draft?

  • Does this scene connect in any way to my main plot, solving Lorraine’s murder? Not really.
  • Are there high stakes here? Breaking up with her boyfriend is important to her, but will the reader really care?
  • Is Marcie behaving consistently? No. She’s afraid to walk across a parking lot alone, but willing to walk several miles to get home?
  • Is Marcie showing that she’s a tough, smart heroine? Not really. She has a cell phone. Why doesn’t she call a cab? Or AAA or a garage to come and fix her tire? Come to think of it, if she’s that worried, why does she leave the building in the first place? Spending the night on the receptionist’s couch might not be comfortable, but at least it would be safe.
  • How’s the emotional quotient? Not terrific. She gets mad and does something stupid. Then she gets mad and does something likely stupid. Not much range there.
  • Is there anything else about this scene I don’t like? Phone conversations are notorious tension killers and I have three of them – two with friends and one with the boyfriend.
  • Is there anything about this scene I like? I do like the one-way alarm, that she can get out of the building, but not back in. That forces her to take action.

Fixes for the second draft

  • Find a way to relate this to the main plot.
  • Raise the stakes.
  • Expect Marcie to behave consistently, and act like a tough, smart heroine.
  • Raise the emotional quotient: give her more an emotional range, and varied responses.
  • Make the phone calls much less a part of the scene or delete them all together.
  • Keep the one-way alarm.

Second draft rewrite

Marcie has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone. She considers spending the night on the receptionist’s couch, but she’s emotionally drained after spending all day talking about Lorraine, and she wants the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. It’s a wide open parking lot and her car is parked under a light. She could see if anyone approached her. She calls 911, explains the situation to the dispatcher, and asks her to stay on the line until she’s safely in her car. The dispatcher isn’t keen to do this, but Marcie stands up for what she needs, and the dispatcher agrees.

When Marcie gets to her car, she’s horrified to discover that her car is full of snakes. She screams.

The police dispatcher gets a lot more interested in what’s happening. She’s sending a patrol car and advises Marcie to go back inside the building, which she can’t do because of the one-way alarm. She sees an unmarked car turning into the gate at the far end of the parking lot. It has a flashing red light on it’s dashboard. Relieved, Marcie commends the dispatcher for getting a car to her so quickly.

The dispatcher says she hasn’t yet dispatched a car and, in any case, it would be a patrol car, not an unmarked.

Marcie runs for her life. The car speeds up and aims straight for her. She manages to hide and hears a siren approaching. The person in the unmarked car pulls a U-turn in the parking lot, and crashes through a wooden barrier to get away. The patrol car tries to follow, but the car gets away. The patrol car returns.

The dispatcher convinces Marcie that this is the officer she dispatched, so Marcie comes out of her hiding place. The officer, who’s going to be the new boyfriend, is very kind to her. Together they go back to look at her car. Not only is it full of snakes, but there’s a note taped to the steering wheel. “There are a lot more where these came from. Stop asking questions.”

Now that has emotional muscle.

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 21, for our next instalment about second drafts — how to knead a story like a baker kneads bread. It’s vital to make raggedy bits come together.


Write the Novel — Strengthen Our Voice

I quoted this last week, but it bears repeating.

“You can always fix plot—you can’t fix voice.” ~ Barbara Peters, editor, Poisoned Pen Press

The second draft is where we strengthen and enhance our writer’s voice. What is voice? It’s the qualities we embed in our writing to such an extent that a reader familiar with our work, faced with several sample paragraphs, could invariably tell which one was ours.

At the simplest level, voice is our writing style

Do we hold ourselves to a high standard of correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation?

How do we construct sentences and paragraphs? How frequently do we use simple sentence verses longer, more complex sentences? No one is going to confuse Ernest Hemingway’s voice with that of Bulwer-Lytton.

How often do we use or avoid using qualifiers and distancers?

  • A qualifier is a word that hedges our bets: She was pretty good at tennis./She was good at tennis.
  • A distancer is a word that puts distance between the characters and the reader: If Dennis were going to steal the truck, Tom imagined he would do it tonight./Dennis would steal the truck tonight.

On and on through the hundreds of choices that writers make as we craft words.

At a deeper level, voice holds out a promise of more to come

It’s the way we pace a story, what we tell, and what we withhold.

It’s how fair we play with the reader. Are we honoring a fair contract with the reader, one that shows enough that the reader has an ah-ha moment of recognition that she/he knows the character, but still leave enough room for the reader’s imagination to flourish?

It’s the degree we’re open and honest with the reader. If we’re faking it, readers will know.

At the deepest level, voice represents our values

What’s this story worth to us? What’s our audience’s respect worth to us? Where have we let something slide as good enough in the first draft? How much effort are we going to make to turn good enough into above and beyond expectations?

How bang-on is our research?

Is our character development deep and convoluted enough?

Are our characters saying, doing, or thinking things they would never say, do, or think? It’s important to differentiate between what we believe and what our characters believe. I might have a sad, but realistic, understanding that justice is rarely done, but if my character absolutely believes in justice then my voice when I write that character has to reflect that.

Think of voice like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, but in a nice way. It’s what forms and sustains the story we want to tell.

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 14, for the next part of Second Rewrite — Building Emotional Muscle.

For those of you in Canada, Best wishes for a marvellous Thanksgiving next Monday.

Can hardly wait for the pumpkin pie next week

Can hardly wait for the pumpkin pie next week

Tips, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Habits for meeting deadlines

Last week I wrote about habits we need to build and use each time we start major projects. This week I’m looking at the other end, habits we need to use as a major project draws to a close. That’s a fancy way of saying, surviving deadlines.

“I am so grateful to my husband/wife/spouse/partner/kids for learning to survive on cold pizza/respecting my closed office door/being able to amuse themselves when I was on a deadline.”

In one form or another, I’ve seen this sentence in dozens of book acknowledgments.


That word has a wonderful way of concentrating the attention. We know it’s coming; in many cases we know the exact date it’s coming. Here’s what we need to do to get ready.

Once more, get enough sleep

Just like last week, the first thing we need is enough sleep. Those of us who have faced deadlines are now rolling on the floor laughing because we know that sleep is the first deadline casualty. Just let us survive on three hours of sleep a night for the next two week’s and then, I’ll go to bed and sleep for a week.

The body doesn’t work like that. Research has shown that we can’t recover lost sleep, but we can put deposits into a sleep bank by pre-sleeping. So if we know or even have an inkling that a deadline looms in a couple of weeks, we need to go to bed an hour early or get up an hour later, or take a nap during the day. Every extra hour of sleep that we rack up goes into the sleep bank for withdrawal at deadline time.


Deadline preparation includes pre-everything. Pre-shop for personal items we don’t want to run out of at ten o’clock at night. Pre-cook and freeze meals. Pre-make a list of no-cook/little cook meals and post it on the refrigerator door. Most of all, prepare our friends.

Good, healthy relationships are ones we can take to the bank

Good people, in healthy relationships, love to help. Good people in healthy relationships may have no clue how to really be helpful, so we might have to prime their pumps.

Who do we know who is a good person, with whom we have a healthy relationship? ” Be honest. If we love our sister dearly, but there are issues, deadline time is not the time to rely on her for support. If we have a friend who resembles a remora (a sharksucker fish with an appendage to take a firm hold against the skin of larger marine animals), a voicemail message a la Jim Rockford, may be in our best interests.

“Hi, it’s Sharon. The Wicked Witch of the West and I are on a horrendous deadline until the end of October. Call the witch’s castle after Halloween and we’ll do coffee.” Tip: set our available date a week later than we think it will be. Maybe my deadline is really October 22, but I don’t have to tell anyone that. And I know I will want to use the extra time to decompress.

When we’ve whittled the list down our list to a three to five good, healthy people, ask each of them for one specific thing. “I’m heading for this horrendous deadline. Could you

  • bake me one of your wonderful apple pies?”
  • call me once a day for the next two weeks and leave an encouraging message on my voice mail?”
  • go to the library for me once a week and leave the trashiest romance novels you can find in my mailbox?”
  • come to my house Tuesday at 12:30 and force me to go with you for a quick lunch at Gobbles?”
  • go walking with me for a half-hour every afternoon at 5:00 o’clock?”

The big five for working under pressure

Excuse me for a minute, while I take off my writer’s hat and put on my nursing cap. Yes, I still have one. It makes me look like a sailor on shore leave. Here’s the straight gen on five healthy deadline habits

  • For every cup of coffee or tea we drink, drink one cup of water, too. At the very least, this forces us to take bathroom breaks more often. Also, even 2% dehydration, an amount too small to make us thirsty, decreases our ability to concentrate and be creative.
  • Every hour, work for 50 minutes, and then get up and move for 10. Set a timer if necessary as a reminder.
  • Nibble on raw vegetables, whole grain crackers, fruit, and nuts. If allergies are a concern, find healthy alternatives that provide fibre and, above all, complex carbohydrates, the kind that metabolize slowly. 30 minutes of brain activity lowers brain glucose level by 2 to 5 grams, which we need to replace every 30 minutes. And, no, we can’t save it up by working 6 hours without nourishment, and then eating a few cookies. Energy in has to balance energy out.
  • Some people write with music in the background, some people don’t. In any case, listen to music every day. This does not mean blaring rock. Go for something soothing, inspirational, maybe even mystic.
  • Turn off the television. Really off. Leave it off.

“Background TV is an ever-changing audiovisual distractor that disrupts a child’s ability to sustain various types of play. [It] is potentially a chronic environmental risk factor affecting most American children.” ~Marie Evans Schmidt, research associate, Center on Media and Child Health. Boston’s Children’s Hospital, July 2008. If television is bad for children, it’s gotta be bad for the creative child in all of us.

Above all, remember that deadlines are temporary phenomena, like tornadoes and strobe lighting. We will get by with a little help from our friends.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” ~Douglas Adams, English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

I  hope you’ll be back next week, Tuesday, September 16, for Write the Novel — Flash Symbols, micro-details that, like tertiary plots, add zest and sparkle to a story.

Next Thursday, September 18, we’ll finish up the habits series with Habits for Ending. Far too many of us celebrate far too little when we finish a major project.

Art, I made this, My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – The Value of Negative Space

Once upon a time, there was a rhythm to submitting manuscripts and publishing.

Never submit a manuscript or look for an agent in August. Everyone in New York is out of town in August. As for December, close up and go home. Publish in May to catch the summer readers and in October for the Christmas market. Never, ever release a book in January. No one buys a book right after Christmas.

The seasonal rhythm of writing has vanished like the dodo bird. Finish a book on Tuesday; start writing the next book on Wednesday. Come home from a convention; get ready to go to the next convention. Submit a manuscript or hunt for an agent every day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day itself. With electronic publishing, publish even on Christmas Day.

Negative spaces is what surrounds activities and events. An image is seen not only because of the image itself, but because of the space that surrounds it. Good negative space makes an object pop.

There are no negative spaces in writing any more, except the ones we create for ourselves. That makes them even more important.

The first writing negative space I encountered was in a class I took almost thirty years ago. We were required to keep a daily journal, writing down snippets of overheard dialog, descriptions of people or events, news stories that caught our attention; in short, anything that might make a good story. Only, we weren’t to grab our notebook and write these things down as they happened. The instructor asked us to wait a full twenty-four hours before committing them to paper.

He said that beginning writers were often afraid to lose the moment. Fearful of not getting the dialog or the description word perfect and correct, we focused on immediate retrieval. He said that we needed to train our writer’s mind to do two things: first, to develop memory because there would be times that we simply couldn’t get to a notebook. Second, to let the thing we wanted to remember settle; in essence, adding negative space around it so we saw it more clearly.  If we couldn’t remember it after twenty-four hours, chances were what we thought so brilliant in the moment wouldn’t make a terrific story after all.

It wasn’t easy to wait. My fingers had this intense desire to scrabble in my backpack, pull out my journal and write. Sometimes I grieved over forgetting. If I’d only written it down yesterday . . .

Gradually, I came to realize the dimensions of what he was trying to teach us. There was a huge difference between things remembered in exact detail, and things remembered as fiction. For some experiences it mattered that I could recall the exact smell, the sight, the colors. For others, it was more important to remember the—gestalt, for lack of a better word—how I was moved by the thing rather than the exact details of the thing itself. Both had a place in writing, and learning how to do both made me a better writer.

Over the decades, I learned another lesson about negative space. If the business of writing has become a 24/7 occupation — I believe that it has — then we, as writers, have the freedom to set our own seasons. Yes, there will always be deadlines coming at us faster and harder, with none of this nonsense about taking August off or relaxing in December. But I truly believe that it will be the negative spaces with which we surround our work that will enable us to survive.

We have to develop a whole range of negative spaces in order to survive. Five-minute vacations that we take on a moment’s notice. Ways to shut off that nagging “What am I going to do about Elrod’s lack of motivation in Chapter 7?” long enough for Elrod to work out the answer for himself. Entire days off in which we restore, restock, and replenish those creative gifts we have been given.

Recently, I added Jennifer Louden’s Conditions of Enoughness to my tool box. She says that as creative people we tend to over plan, over commit, and over work ourselves. Her COEs are four steps to limit doing that.

Recently, a rather pompous writing expert pontificated to an audience I was in that, “Writing today demands a full-time commitment. If you’re a part-time writer, you’ll never be successful.” Oh, dear, I have a life outside of writing. I love that life. I guess that means I’m not a real writer.

I came home depressed until I caught site of a mini-quilt I did a couple of months ago.

168 hours = 1 week

168 hours = 1 week

There are 168 hours a week, so unless we’re writing 168 hours at a time — yes, some weeks seem like that — we’re all part-time writers. And many of us are darn good at working part-time.

“It takes peace of mind and clarity to recognize and reorder meaningful, personal priorities . . . Many of us assume that we can continue to get along just by winging it indefinitely. We can’t. We need an antidote for the hurried and harried lives that threaten to tear us apart.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author

Hope to see you back next Tuesday, September 2, for Write the Novel – Secondary and Tertiary Plots, what are they and how do we use them.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Violence as Dialog (VAD)

This is the fourth of our five discussions about critique comments that show up over and over. Today I’m writing about VAD: Violence as dialog.

Think love scenes are hard to write? Try getting violent down on paper. Writing authentic violence is like making authentic Cajun food. A lot of people who think they know how to do it, don’t. My mother, born and raised in south Louisiana, never intentionally blackened a fish and, were she still with us, the average restaurant offering called Jambalaya would send her into hysterics.

Writing violence is one of the times I leave the computer and write in longhand. There is something about pen on paper that lets me get closer to the subject.

Much of what I learned about writing violence came from F. Braun Mcash, a television and movie fight choreographer; and from my husband, who practices a western martial art.

Build to a violent confrontation slowly

Violence should flow out of the story. It is a dialog in which physical actions replace words. Plant seeds early and often that show characters’ abilities to meet violence with violence. The character doesn’t have to be a martial artist expert or have super strength, but if a ninety-pound weakling takes on a motorcycle gang single-handed, with no foreshadowing, it won’t read true.

Start with a small event: a character taking a swing at an inanimate object, or squashing a bug, or getting red-faced, uncontrollably furious when life frustrates him to the max. Show that he has a potential for rage. Also show if he gets off on violence or not. Bonus points if we build in something in his past where violence went horribly wrong.

Build in a physical component. Give her regular exercise, and a reasonable diet. We don’t have to send her to the gun range or the dojo in every other scene, but the reader needs to know that she has a reasonable chance of winning a physical fight.

Violence and setting

In a series, as the character develops, the stakes go up when he is exposed to violence. Part of the power in a violent scene has to do with where it takes place. ~unattributed quote from a panel member, Lover is Murder Conference

Very few violent scenes take place in the front yard of a vine-covered pink cottage. Place can be used to build in an emotional component, too. Maybe it’s a fear of heights. If our character doesn’t like high places, we can get a lot more emotional mileage out of setting the final, violent confrontation on a swinging bridge, or the glass-floor of the Calgary tower, where there seems to be nothing but air and a sheer drop under her feet.

Violence as dialog

Violence may be one of the lines our characters won’t cross, which we all know, really means they won’t cross until this book. Being the crafty authors we are, we’ll poke and prod and twist both the situation and the character until they MUST resort to violence. Watch High Noon, which is a wonderful example of how people behave when faced with violence.

Be as sparing with physical dialog as we are with verbal dialog. It may help to write a verbal exchange, then convert each statement to a physical action.

“Get out of my way.”

“Not this time.”

“I said get out of my way.”

“Make me.”


Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest.

Once action begins, dialog stops.

Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest.

Gerard sneered. “Get out of my way.”

First of all, words stop the flow of action. Second, we have such a hard time resisting throwing in words like sneered, demanded, hissed, and so on, which are likely physically impossible. Try to sneer dialog some time. It’s not easy.


Michael blocked the hall, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest. Gerard tried to go around him. Michael shifted his weight and blocked him. Gerard’s pulled back his fist. They had taken each other down so many times in training, Michael knew Gerard’s body as well as he knew his lovers. As Gerard’s fist came towards his jaw, he moved his upper body to one side, caught Gerard’s arm, found the vulnerable notch in his wrist, and spun his partner around pinning his arm behind his back. With a practiced hand Michael extracted handcuffs from his belt pouch. The first cuff clicked closed around Gerard’s wrist; a louder click sounded as the second cuff encircled the water pipe. He made sure to take Gerard’s handcuff key before he left. Gerard was still cursing when the elevator door closed.


Violence costs

All violence should advance the plot. Match the actions consequences to how importance the violent act is in advancing the plot. Violence on which the story’s resolution turns should have the most emotional and/or physical costs. All violence should be a turning point in a character’s emotional life. A character may discover she loves violence, or hates it, but she should not come away emotionally unaffected.

When violence happens, the body kicks into a flight-or-fight reaction. Time slows down. Senses become more acute. In extreme cases, beserker rage takes over and the person may not remember details. This is also known as a fugue or dissociative state and may cause the person to selectively forget the violent encounter.

If our character goes into a true fugue state, she may not have the capacity to remember because the chemicals coursing through her body may have prevented memory from being laid down. And no, she won’t get her memory back at a convenient point later in the story because the memory was never built in the first place. She will, however, retain the emotional reactions to something she can neither remember nor understand.

All violence has physical costs. It must cost the character something, even if it is only having to buy a new shirt or make a quick trip to the doctor. Physical effects may take hours or days to appear after a fight. This is especially true with a blow to the head. Injuries may not be painful at first. Vomiting and the shakes are common a few minutes after a fight, as is an intense desire to eat uncontrollably and/or to have sex.

The effects of violence linger. It may take days or weeks to recover emotionally from a violent act, even if the physical consequences were minimal. Nightmares after a fight are a common reaction.

Violence is cumulative. There is a huge body of research that shows physical trauma, even as something as innocent appearing as hitting a soccer ball with the head, leads to micro damage. If the action continues over time, it leads to macro damage. The same is true of emotional reactions.

Two Central America proverbs sum it up: Whether the pitcher strike the stone or the stone the pitcher, the pitcher suffers. Dip the pitcher into the water enough and it finally breaks.

Thursday, August 7th, we’re continuing with our Merit Badges for Writers. This week we have Series Maven, Book Tour Survivor, and Extreme Research.

Next Tuesday, August 12th, we finish up our critique series with BBS – Build a Better Segue: ways to glue those pesky story fragments together.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS)

This is the third in our mini-series of critique abbreviations. Today let’s look at Perfectly Nice Syndrome (PNS).

A fellow writer once described to me her elaborate plot, which involved jealousy, revenge, and a woman’s ruined reputation. I was enthralled until she said, “Of course, at the end, it turns out to be all a misunderstanding. None of the characters are really bad; it’s just a case of mistaken identity.”

Her characters suffered from a bad case of perfectly nice syndrome and, in the end, it killed her book. She was never able to publish it.

Robert Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, referred to this as TANSTAAFL, pronounced tan-staffle. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)—a term I learned from the writer Sherry Lewis—is much shorter to write.

Free lunches served in bars was popularized in the United States in the last quarter of the 1800s. The Spanish had been doing for centuries with tapas. We see it today in the bowl of chips or pretzels found in many bars, pubs, and taverns.

Whether the free lunch was the oyster soup, roast meat, and buttered bread found in high-end New Orleans clubs or the sausages, pickles, and cheese in less lofty establishments, free food had one thing in common. Salt: a hidden invitation to purchase more drinks.

In the same way, getting rid of PNS invites the reader to be more involved with the characters and to keep reading. PNS shows up in three ways.

The isn’t really bait-and-switch

An easy way to spot it is isn’t really as in, the protagonist’s landlord isn’t really going to evict her; or boss isn’t really that mean; or the protagonist isn’t really in danger here. We can wring so much more drama out of her really being evicted, or his boss being really that mean, or him really being in danger.

If, as my friend wanted to write, none of the characters are really bad and everything was a case of mistaken identity, what we’re pulling on the reader is a bait-and-switch scam. We lead the reader through a series of events designed to make them mistrust the protagonist’s boyfriend only to discover that the women he escorted around town was not only his cousin, but a nun to boot. The final revelation is akin to Orson Wells coming out of character at the end of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast to say he’d dressed up in a sheet and said “Boo” to the listeners.

Bad things happen to good people

If the character’s coffee is always hot and tasty; there’s always a parking spot; people always cooperate with interviews; and, most especially, the protagonist always dodges consequences, our character has PNS.

Actions should have consequences, and characters should have flaws. Yes, the boyfriend really was cheating on the protagonist. Yes, he did go to bed with the other woman. Yes, she did catch a sexually-transmitted disease from him. Now the protagonist and boyfriend have to deal with the consequences. Maybe they will learn to trust one another again, maybe they won’t, but in either case, the writer has a lot more to work with than an actor, popping out to say, “Boo.”

No reaction to significant events

The third flavor of Perfectly Nice Syndrome is when we, as writers, have our eyes so firmly set on plot that we glosses over significant moments. Suppose our character is in heavy traffic and a guy cuts in front of her.


Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.


What? No reaction to almost creaming into the back of a pickup?

A significant moment tests a character’s perception of herself. It doesn’t have to be a big thing; in fact, most of us have dozens of significant moments every day. A guy changes lanes too fast and we almost slam into his rear bumper. A co-workers makes an comment that angers or hurt us. Our child’s school sends an e-mail that says, “Please make an appointment with the principal as soon as possible.”

Do we react? Of course we do. We might curse the driver or pray for his safety. We might turn on the co-worker or fume silently at our desk. We might grab the phone and demand to see the principal in the next ten minutes, or delete the e-mail, hoping if we pretend that we never got it, the problem, whatever it is, will blow over.

Does that mean our characters must react to each significant event, even a broken fingernail?

Pretty much.

The obvious thing is to leave out events that aren’t significant. Why have the protagonist break a fingernail unless it will lead her to the manicurist who leads her to the victim’s aunt, who knows a clue the protagonist didn’t even know she needed?

The good thing is most reactions can be short.


Pearl slammed on her brakes, stopping inches away from the pickup’s rear bumper. Her heart pounded. She bent her forehead to touch the steering wheel. “Lord, slow that crazy fool down and keep him safe until he has the good sense to listen to You.”

The pick-up turned right, fading out of Pearl’s sight and thought. How in the world was she going to get into the art gallery after hours? Perhaps Mabel would have an idea.


Pearl’s reaction added four sentences, but we learned a lot about her from that short addition. She has good reflexes for a 72-year-old woman. She’s more religious than spiteful, she prays for her enemies, and she has a sense of humor.

Every rose has a thorn. Every beautiful sunset includes bats swarming out of the old mill. Every favor demands payback—preferably at the most inopportune time. For writers and their characters, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Next Tuesday, July 28th, we’re doing the fourth critique abbreviation — VSOP, or Very Special Old Port. This one is not quite as obvious as the three we’ve already done, so I’ll let you guess for a week what it means.

I’m having such a good time with this mini-series that I’m going to do one on Level Thinking, too. Starting in two days, on July 24, we’ll be doing merit badges for adults. After all, it’s summer. Time to go to camp and earn badges.

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking – Lay down our swords and shields

I have an affinity for a techie-guy named Merlin Mann. When I first dove into the Internet and what it could or couldn’t do for me, he was the first guy that said things that made sense. Things like turn off that ding that seduces us to check every new e-mail as it arrives. Things like a simple formula for a successful blog is a successful blog = obsession x voice, which means we speak in authentic ways about something we care about to the point of obsession. Things like this quote:

“Managing time is good, but if all you manage is time, you stand the chance of making something that no one cares about. You can’t make art unless you manage your attention, too. Time and attention are finite. Expectations go up and up; resources go down and down. We get some help in learning the hard skills—the technical stuff—but we get no help in learning the soft skills—how to stand up and say that we’re drowning. If someone was stealing from your wallet, would you stop them? Why don’t we stop people who are stealing our time and attention.” ~Merlin Mann

I found a You Tube video of a speech about time and attention that he gave several years ago to Google employees. In 35 minutes, he covers five ideas. One, about managing e-mail, may not be especially relevant to what I’m writing about today, but it was interesting. The other four, which I am writing about today were

  • Time is a valuable commodity
  • Time is a limited commodity
  • We need to reformat the work we give ourselves or allow others to give us
  • We need to take small steps to change the culture in which we work

 The writers’ culture

I started this serious writing gig in 2001. In the past thirteen years I’ve seen huge cultural shifts in the writing workplace. We, as writers, in addition to that minor activity of turning out great books and stories as fast as we can, are expected not only to know about the following things, but create and use them.

  • Blogs
  • Blog hops
  • Book fairs
  • Book signings
  • Book tours
  • Book trailers
  • Branding
  • Business management
  • Business and marketing plans
  • Contests
  • Conventions
  • E-book conversion
  • Hand-selling
  • Interviews
  • Mail outs
  • Newsletters
  • Niche marketing
  • Platform development
  • Press kits
  • Publicity photos
  • Web sites

Social media sites deserve their own paragraph. The big emphasis is on the final “s.” Not site, sites. Those of us who remember back to Chicken Man, incredibly silly radio plays from the 1960s, may also remember each episode’s ending line. He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere. We can apply that same line to social media expectations that the current writers’ culture has for us.

All of us who think that sounds like a balanced lifestyle, please raise hands. Mine certainly didn’t go up.

Marketing is essential to being a writer, but isn’t it about time we make choices? At what point do we say to agents, publishers, and all of the other people who have advice on what we should or must do, that we are drowning? How do we bring ourselves to a point where we treat marketing as art by focusing time and attention on fewer things done well instead of everything done poorly?

Isn’t it about time we laid down our sword and shield and made our own peace with reformatting our work and taking small steps to change our personal culture? Here are three starter steps:

  1. Start with the above list. Pick three activities that are important to us, whether we are currently doing them or not.
  2. Research each of the three: What does it include? What is it supposed to do for us? All of the media sites have About pages. Take a look at them. If one makes no sense — some don’t — ask ourself how successful will a service be in meeting our needs if it can’t clearly explain it’s own purpose?
  3. Audition the experts. How do we find experts? We google them. Use the term “stuff you should know about [fill in Linkedin, or blog hops, or book trailers, whatever your current search is about].” Or try, “experts on [fill in the blank]. Names will start to pop up. Google +: Guy Kawasaki. Book Trailers: Facebook’s Book Trailer Experts. Find the experts and read what they write. If the first guy or gal doesn’t really turn our cranks, go on to the next one, and the next one, until we’ve assembled about five go-to people whose information makes sense to us, and who we’ve grown to trust.

Once we have the information and the trust, it’s going to be a lot easier to work on reframing and taking small steps to change our work culture.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: What body language conveys emotions?

This is the start of a six part mini-series on things I do over and over in writing; things my critique buddies always catch me out on. In fact, they are so common, that I’ve assigned each one letters to save me or someone else having to write long margin notes, explaining I’ve done it again.

What I’m writing about today is WBL. It stands for What body language will I use to convey the character’s emotional reaction?

In the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at

  • STSS: stop telling, start showing
  • PNS: the perfectly nice syndrome
  • VSOP: ditch the back story; condense the context down, like Very Special Old Port, into something where every drop counts
  • BBS: build better segues, and finally
  • VAD: use violence as another form of dialog

“Good morning. My name is Sharon and I’m a short-hander. For years, I’ve expected my readers to figure out for themselves what was going on emotionally with my characters. It is the single biggest mistake I continue to make. Chapters I get back from my critique partners are littered with WBL written in the margin.”

Let’s start with with Jared, a thirteen-year-old boy.

Jared threw his jacket half on a hanger and kicked his trainers into the bottom of the closet. Food smells rolled from the kitchen. He sniffed. Beans-and-franks. A burning sensation filled the back of his throat. He raced upstairs, two at a time.

Before you scroll down past the photo answer the following questions

  1. What do beans-and-franks mean to Jared?
  2. What is Jarod feeling?
  3. What he will do next?
This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It's here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

This photo has nothing to do with Jared. It’s here so you have a chance to answer the questions before scrolling down.

Possibility #1

Jared lay stomach-down on the floor next to the twin bed he shared with his younger brothers. His hand groped under the bed until he found the locked tackle box. He unlocked the box, taking out precious jars of mustard, relish, and ketchup. Big glass bottles that he’d bought on sale. Seventy per cent off. A treat for his younger brothers and sisters.

It didn’t pay to leave glass around when his mother was high. Broken glass was dangerous. Tonight was going to be okay. Beans-and-franks meant his mother had stayed clean long enough to get a paycheck. He’d stay home tonight, wash the dishes, make sure the precious jars were spirited away after supper and locked up, waiting for the next beans-and-franks night.

Possibility #2

Jared made it to the bathroom before he threw up. Retching into the toilet, bile and saliva dribbling down his chin, he beat his fist against the top of the toilet tank. Why couldn’t Grammy listen? The nurse at the hospital had told her and told her that the chemotherapy made him sick, and that meat smells were the worse of all. He had to eat; Grammy would insist. He hoped make it to the bathroom in time after supper.

Possibility #3

Jared rooted under a pile of clothes for his ball and glove. Flipping the ball into the air as he came down the steps whistling, he bounded for the kitchen.

George Tolliver turned from the stove, “Hey, kid. Your mom’s running late tonight. I told her we could manage supper. It’s just beans-and-franks.”

“Yeah, I know. Omelets and beans-and-franks are the only things you know how to make,” Jared said, grinning so hard his mouth hurt. “How was your trip?”


“You got time to play catch?”

George dished out two plates. “Later. Sit down. Tell me how you’ve been the last couple of weeks.”

If I’d stopped with Jared’s throat burning, and him running up the stairs, in all likelihood the reader would have assumed a different emotional reaction, a different story, than the one I was trying to tell.

In my unfinished manuscript, I hurried through this scene, more a set of notes to myself about what I want the scene to show. Sure enough WBL showed up in the critique. For the rewrite I forced myself to slow down, to think about what George’s infrequent visits meant to both Jared and George.

  • Jared’s really glad to see George , but he’s also can’t believe his good luck of this guy being in his life. He’s afraid every visit is George’s last.
  • George is working hard to convince Jared that he has no intention of disappearing, but he knows Jared is skittish.
  • Hint that there is a problem with the mother.
  • Aim for a bittersweet feeling: the guy cares about Jared, but . . .

I will remember the power of why in plotting. I will try for at least 5 levels of why, in order to raise the stakes and go deep into character motivation.~Jo Beverly, romance writer

Why does Jared relate the way he does with George?

  1. Life is tough for Jared. Why?
  2. His mother is barely hanging on. Why?
  3. She’s overwhelmed raising a teenager boy, alone, working at a low-paying job. Why?
  4. Every man she’s partnered with left her, which destroyed her self-confidence. She passed those feelings on to Jared, which has made him insecure. Why?
  5. Jared thinks any good man who shows an interest in him will disappear out of his life.

Once I knew what was going on with the two guys, I picked strong verbs: rooted—flipping—bounded—skidded—manage: the first four imply movement, the last one has the bittersweet flavor I’m looking for. Jared and George aren’t on top of the world, they’re just managing.

This scene resolved itself easily because I was comfortable in the story and clear on my characters’ motivations. If I’m having real trouble rewriting a scene, this exercise helps break the impasse:

  • Assign colors to four elements that can be used to build a scene. Dialog = red; body language = blue; leftover emotions from previous scenes = yellow; and sensory texture = green.
  • Highlight text that I’ve already written, either on the computer, or a hardcopy with markers.
  • Tape the pages on a wall or, if I’m using the computer, I adjust the page size so I can get all the scene pages on the screen.
  • Walk away from the wall or screen, turn around, and let the colors hit me in the face. The predominant color is easy to see; in my case, it’s almost always red. Lots of dialog, not much of the other three elements.
  • If I still can’t figure out how to rewrite the scene, I assign elements at random: blue—green—green—yellow—red—yellow—blue and so on. Being an old gamer, I still having a jar full of dice. In cases of extreme writers’ block, I use the dice to randomly generate a color pattern.
  • Then I challenge myself to write what those colors represent, in this case, body language—sensory texture—sensory texture—leftover emotion—dialog—leftover emotion—body language.
  • Having done this, I can almost always take the elements, which may be out of order on the first pass, and rearrange them into some meaningful whole.

We need to write a character’s emotional reaction until we can’t add a single new thing to that reaction without changing the entire tenor of the scene.

If we go back to the second possibility, Jared throwing up as a result of chemotherapy, and, instead of ending with Jared fears about throwing up again after supper, we add a total non sequitur, something like . . .

. . .He hoped he’d be able to make it to the bathroom in time after supper. Oh, well, none of that really mattered. Maybe there would be a Simpson’s rerun on TV tonight.

If the reader’s reaction would be, “Huh? What just happened here?” this is a good clue that we’ve reached the end of describing a character emotional reaction.

I hope to see  you again next Tuesday, July 15th, for the next part in our mini-series: STSS, the dreaded stop telling, start showing.

And if you’re overwhelmed with social media and other marketing, I’ll have some thoughts on that on Thursday, July 10, with a piece I call Lay Down Our Sword and Shield.

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters talking about a crate of suddenly freed chickens escaping their pursuers , but footage of a dramatic event, an event which changed the life of the people involved. While we’re watching, count to eight slowly again.

A cut in television parlance is moving from one visual to another. How many cuts were there in the eight-second segment we watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while we watched? Did sports’ scores or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was our set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that we were essentially watching two programs at once?

Back in the day, when I got my news from the Huntley-Brinkley Report—I know this tells my age—cameras would lingered for a full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would be a voice-over talking about the hundred elderly residents evacuated from the burning nursing home in sub-zero weather, but the visual would have been the flames jutting out of the upper windows and, perhaps, a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research done about five years ago by the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California, slow news, like slow dancing and slow food, packs a more powerful wallop.

Research subjects took six to eight seconds to emotionally connect with and develop empathy for another human being in distress. The original report  and a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim were both fascinating.

If six to eight seconds of news coverage include lot of cuts and/or extraneous material, people watching don’t develop empathy. A hundred elderly people who have lost everything in a fire. Yawn. A mother who saw her toddler crushed by a cement truck. Wonder if I can find a rerun of Friends?

The ability to feel empathy is about as basic a human quality as we have. It’s not unique to our species, of course. We know that many animals, probably more than we think, feel, and express empathy. For all we know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings, who are most capable of turning empathy into helping. It’s vital that we keep that skill.

First, as human beings, and second, as writers, we have a responsibility to nurture empathy, in ourselves and in our children. Of only slightly less importance than empathy in our real lives is the question that if we become numb to experiencing empathy, how are we going to create and sustain empathetic characters?

Does this research mean that news programs will go back to the Huntley-Brinkley format? Of course not, but there is at least a simple starting point. The next time you encounter an emotionally-charged news item, close your eyes. Listen to it without the distracting visuals. Think about the people involved. Depending on your spiritual orientation, offer up a prayer or even just a thought for those people. Cultivate not just being in touch with current events, but being touched by events.

I, for one, would prefer not to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of quick-cuts visuals and flashing hockey scores.


Quote for the week:

If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.

~ Immordino-Yang, former teacher and researcher on learning and the brain

See you on Tuesday, July 8, for the first part of the six-part mini-series on techniques to improve our first drafts. We’re starting with how to use body language in place of adverbs.


Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: The First Complete Rewrite

We did it! Finished draft zero, the unfinished manuscript. Wrote all the way to The End, -30-, or Finished, whatever our choice of ending words were.

The first thing to do is celebrate because we’ve beaten the odds. Most people who say they want to write a novel never start. Most people who start, never finish. We’ve overcome tremendous odds by having a finished manuscript.

The second thing to do is to start the first complete rewrite. An unfinished manuscript, draft zero, is the skeleton. The first complete rewrite, which I call draft one,  is where we add muscle to the story. Here’s what most important in a first rewrite.

  • What we don’t write doesn’t exist.
  • We can not assume that readers knows the characters’ emotional reactions, unless we as the author, tell them what that emotion is.
  • We need action, reaction; action, reaction over and over. Create conflict, disaster, or micro-tension on each page.
  • Resist the urge to hurry: stay in the scene from second to second, from goal to disaster.
  • Layer in active voice sentences, strong verbs, dialogue, body language, leftover emotions from a previous scene, sensory texture.

I’m trying something new with this blog. Go here for an attachment that demonstrates a draft zero version of a scene; the same scene with critique comments added; and then a first draft rewrite, based on the comments. Feel free to print this for future use, if you find it helpful.

Note that the rewrite is about 45% longer than the zero draft skeleton. Here are two things that happen with length between the zero and first drafts

  • Outcome #1: word count stays about the same, but the quality of words increases tremendously. What’s happened here is that we’ve tightened our word budget. We’re now spending words only on essential items.
  • Outcome #2: word count increases by 33% to 50%. Not only is our budget tighter, but we’ve given ourselves a bigger budget to work with.
  • It’s all good.

Next week, I’m starting a six-part blog mini-series on key elements needed to write a fantastic first draft. Those six elements are using body language as a replacement for adverbs; stop telling, start showing; avoid perfectly nice syndrome; distill down to the essence; build better segues; and using violence as dialog.

Next Tuesday, July 8, we’ll start with WBL: what body language represents the action we’re trying to describe?

Two days from now, on July 3, I’ll be back with Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop.

Hope to see you again soon.