Thursday, August 26, 2010

Merit Badges For Writers; or, How Do I Know If I'm Making Any Progress?

This week, I stumbled across a Web site that made me giggle: Merit Badges For Writers.* Yep, they're basically electronic badges that you can download and post on your blog, your Facebook, or wherever you'd like. There aren't a lot of them out there yet, but the ones they have are fun. I mean, don't you think I need "Grammar Ninja" on my blog? And "Historical Fiction"? I am so there!

Sometimes, as a writer, it's hard for me to tell whether I'm making any progress in furthering my writing abilities or not. I read a lot of advice, and have digested several books on writing technique, but I can't always tell whether it's having any impact on how I write, and if so, whether that impact is positive or negative. I think I'm making progress on "showing not telling," and I'm struggling hard to resist the urge to head-hop. I'm making a conscious effort to use fewer dialogue tags ("he said," "she asked," etc.); I wrote a dialogue passage last week that didn't contain a single one, yet it was always clear who was speaking, and the passage flowed naturally and easily. Shouldn't something like that deserve at least a little recognition, if only just a good, loud "Attagirl!"?

There are other important milestones in a writer's life, too, a lot of firsts: writing your first short story, your first novel, making your first submission to a critique group or a contest. Not to mention the big ticket items like querying agents or actually publishing something. I don't know about anyone else, but there are times when I would just find it comforting to be able to see, visually, that I really am making forward progress. Wouldn't a row of "merit badges" be a great way to remind yourself that your work is improving, and that the top of the mountain is getting nearer all the time?

I think I'm going to have to work on something like that. And yes, I know that it's possible to collect all of the merit badges and still not reach the summit, but I'd still really like to look back and see the trail behind me, and know that I've overcome all of those obstacles. If I am mighty enough to do all of that, I'm mighty enough to keep pushing onward. Right?

How do other people track their writing achievements? Or do you? If not, do you think you should?

*Actually, they have Merit Badges For Readers as well. They're having far too much fun.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Sex Scene That Wasn't; or, When You Say Yes and the Characters Say No

Something amusing happened to me last weekend.

In one of the stories I'm currently writing, I had reached the point where the next thing in my mental outline was for the main male character to seduce the main female character. I had, in fact, been looking forward to writing the scene with (shall we say) a certain amount of anticipation.

Now, I'm not the sort of writer who goes around throwing gratuitous sex scenes into every story I write, just for the shock factor of it. When I do include them, it's because there's a reason they need to be there. They further the plot, or develop a relationship, or define a character.

In this particular instance, the MMC was supposed to seduce the MFC so that later, when he has to try to persuade her to do something, they've developed the closeness that would allow him to talk her over to his side more easily. So I created a setting, and got them into it, and gave them the space to let it happen...

And then I discovered that the MFC really wasn't the kind of girl who would go hopping into a strange guy's bed on the first date. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't see any way for him to persuade her to take that vital step with him.

The turning point was here:

Then his finger traced the neckline of my dress, and I remembered – for tonight, I was beautiful. I was sexy and voluptuous and wearing a low-cut dress. It seemed a shame to waste that. Would it be so wrong to give in to him?

Yes, said my conscience, in my mother’s voice.
Let's face it. There are some things you just can't argue with. Mom's voice in your head when you're trying to get it on with this hawt dude you just met? That's definitely one of them.

So what do other people do when it's time for your characters to hop into bed together, but they're not inclined? What about the opposite situation, where characters aren't supposed to hook up, but they do anyway?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fan Girl Moment: Brenda Novak

Brenda Novak is coming to the Emerald City Writer’s Conference in October as one of the keynote speakers. She is a best selling author of romantic suspense and has several trilogies to her credit. She has also run an annual online auction to benefit juvenile diabetes (which affects her son). The auction has raised over one million dollars since she started it in 2005.

I have read four books by her – all of them back to back to back to back. The first was the first in a trilogy that I want to revisit, each book featuring one of three friends who run a company that seeks to help victims of violent crime. The last three was the Stillwater trilogy about a family in a small town in Mississippi who have spent the last 20 years covering up the murder of their stepfather/husband.

I got the books in the Stillwater trilogy from the library. From the first page – in fact the first paragraph - you know that this man was killed (accidentally and very much in self defense) by his stepdaughter. What follows are three books that had me sneaking reads in the middle of my work day. When I finished the 2nd and the hold I had on the 3rd from the library hadn’t been filed, I quite literally thought I was going to lose my mind. For the better part of an afternoon I tried to find it from any local bookstore and to my immense relief the book came in to the library the following day.

Novak knows how to wield a mystery. Sure, in the Stillwater trilogy, the reader knows the big “who done it” but knowing more than the outsiders in the book who are trying to solve a mystery can have more suspense than not. Knowing from the first page who killed the “good” reverend had me settled in to see just what the heck she was going to fill 200+ pages with, let alone 2 other books. The characters in her books are very much relatable and have flaws that at times make you not want to cheer for them. In fact the heroine in the first book, Grace, had me so annoyed with her for the first half if it were any other book I think I would have stopped reading it. The settings become characters and add to the flavor of the small town who combine to solve a mystery that will destroy a family. Novak writes suspense the way that I can only dream and to say that I am so not worthy and need to just stick to my little historical westerns is an understatement.

She’s recently got a new triology coming out – the first was released this month (White Heat) with the remaining two in September and October. When the sign up for the book fair came through that she’ll be signing all three at the ECWC book fair, I turned into a 5 year old on Christmas morning. There are only a handful of authors to whom I think I’d ever approach with awe and the nerves I imagine I’d feel if I were to ever meet George Clooney. In the first weekend of October, Brenda Novak will be one of them.

Turns of Phrase; or, I Never Thought Of It Like That

I'm toying with the idea of having a character in one of my stories who uses all sorts of colorful comparisons as one of his quirks. I think it could be a lot of fun, especially if I can figure out a way to work in some of my favorites.

I think my absolute all-time favorite has to be one I got from my father: "Slicker than snot on a glass doorknob." When I was a kid, it never occurred to me to question how he would know about such a thing -- after all I'd been to my grandparents' house, and it did indeed have glass doorknobs. It wasn't until later that I finally figured out that it wasn't something he made up, but rather something he'd heard somewhere and just repeated. I should ask him about it sometime.

But it's a very descriptive phrase. I mostly use it to describe icy roads. And once the people to whom you've said it get over the "ewww!" factor, they know exactly what you mean.

Another phrase to which I can relate is "Like a bull in a china shop". I was a klutzy kid who grew up to be an only slightly less clumsy adult, and proximity to fragile things only makes the likelihood that I'll break something much higher. So I have a great deal of empathy for that poor bull, surrounded by breakables, ones his horns might inadvertently knock off of a shelf, or that might be pulverized by an accidental twitch of his tail. I just want to tell him to get out of there, to run while he still can.

I like describing potentially unpopular ideas as being something that will go over "like a lead balloon." I can just see that doomed balloon, smashing into the ground again and again and again regardless of how much helium you put in it. It also reminds me of one of my favorite lines from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, in which Adams describes the Vogon spaceships by saying that they "hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don't." It's wonderfully whimsical, and perfectly conveys the image of spacecraft that stay in the air even though they look as though they should plummet straight to the ground, do not pass "Go", do not collect $200.

And finally, I do love the way of describing a person you find attractive as saying that you "wouldn't kick him/her out of bed for eating crackers." As in, "You know, Harrison {sigh} Ford isn't as young as he used to be, but I still wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating crackers." Which sort of implies that there are people you would kick out of bed due to the presence of too many cracker crumbs -- and that there was more than a snowball's chance of finding Mr. Ford in your bed in the first place!

Of course, for the character I have in mind, it might be more fun to have him either mangle a common cliche so as to negate its meaning ("like a bull in a mattress shop"), or make up ones of his own that don't quite work ("like a giraffe on an underground train").

What are some colorful descriptions you've encountered? What twists on common ones have made you either laugh or scratch your head?

(p.s. Sorry I'm late with this week's posting. I spent all of yesterday evening in Windows Update Hell, trying to get both of my computers to successfully download and install the last round of updates from Microsoft. Still have not succeeded. I'm about ready to scream...)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

contests, contests, contests...

Last week, the finalists for the Emerald City Opener were announced. I was not one of them. I was disappointed but in 4 years of entering, I've only finaled once (my first year when I won my category). Now, I won't see the comments or scores on my entry till sometime in October, but I'm already anticipating what I've seen as standard with contest entries - One judge will probably love your work and leave a comment like "Can't wait to see this published!" and at least one judge will probably hate your work and tell you that you need to take up knitting or basket weaving.

I try to ignore the extremes and just look for commonalities among the comments. Did all your judges tell you that you need to work on passive voice? Did more than one judge tell you to vary your word choice or sentence length?

Angie James, who heads up Harlequin's digital only imprint Carina Press, had a great post today about when contest judges disagree.

When Contest Judges Disagree

Friday, August 6, 2010

Prompt Time

What the what? Let's pretend my last post wasn't more than a week ago, mmmkay? I also won't regale you with tales of how much I did not write. That was then, this is now. And now here is my response to the prompt: The locked door fascinated and puzzled her.


She was in a closet. That much she knew. The bottom of a musty coat brushed against her face and when she shifted, she heard metal hangers rattle over her head. Why she was in a closet and how she got there, Greta had no idea. The last thing she remembered was dropping her keys outside after she left the gym and bending over to pick them up. Touching her face, Greta felt a lump on her right temple and her mouth was filled with the coppery taste of pennies. Blood. A cut on the inside of her lower lip stung when she ran her tongue over it and her nose ached; she must have done a spectacular face plant in the parking lot.

Reaching out with her hands, Greta felt for the way out. There was no light, natural or otherwise, and so blinded, she groped around herself for the door. A bubble of panic rose from the pit of her stomach, but she tamped it down. There was time enough later for a meltdown- right now she had to get out of here. Her hands found the door. There was no door knob and for a brief moment, the locked door fascinated and puzzled her. Aren’t doors supposed to have knobs?

“Damn.” She released a pent-up breath. There was nothing fascinating about her situation. There was no door knob. There was no light and there was no door knob and there was no way out. The panic bubble broke free from its tether and began to rise even further.

Greta braced herself for a scream when a sound made her freeze in place, mouth open and feet placed against the door ready for a good kick. Heavy footsteps, coming closer.


And with that, I commit once again to writing a weekly post. Next week I'll talk about the Draft That Isn't. Or maybe the Draft That Is Sort Of. We'll see.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

This Week's Prompt: My Response

Well, I didn't quite get a whole story out of this one (or at least, not yet), but it was certainly worth a chapter or thereabouts (around 1,500 words). In order to keep from cluttering things up here, I'm going to post the entire snippet over on my story blog, but here's a teaser for you with a link at the end:

The Locked Door
(c) Sheila McClune, 2010

The locked door puzzled and fascinated her. Why on earth, she wondered, would Gran have locked the door to her attic, when spells had always been sufficient to seal it before? And with a lock of cold iron, no less. Surely she’d have known that would make it impossible for Kintheriny to unlock it, key or no key? After all, Gran had been a spellcaster, too. She made a mental note to ask the solicitor about it tomorrow when they met to finalize arrangements. Perhaps Gran had left her some special instructions in a codicil to her will, or a sealed letter, or something. She’d read about such things happening in books, anyway.

She ran her fingers over the elaborately carved and painted surface of the door. Gran had been extraordinarily skilled in so many ways. The wood had been carved by hand, not through the use of magic, but its surface was still as smooth and as polished as glass. The colors were still as bright as Kintheriny remembered them from the earliest of her childhood visits, when she would sit on the landing and stare in awe at the intricate design. She especially loved the little red dragon down in the corner, the one with eyes as green as Kintheriny’s own. Sometimes she could have sworn that she saw it move...

(The rest is here...)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prompt time again

As you'll remember, a couple months ago, we threw out a prompt for the Melt-Ink Potters to take a crack at. We've decided to do that again this week. Our prompt this time is - The locked door fascinated and puzzled her.

Here is my response to the prompt:

The locked door fascinated and puzzled her. Tara could sit for hours staring at it. She would sit cross-legged in the hall watching the door. She was confident the door was watching her back. The door was just as alive as the rest of the house. To believe the house was a living thing was crazy, her older brother Billy had told her a hundred times. She knew otherwise. Tara had seen and heard too much. Pictures moved, rooms increased in size, doors only allowed particular people to enter; if the house wasn't alive, then she was simply going crazy. No one ever opened this door. Uncle George couldn't even tell her what lay behind the door. He couldn't recall ever having been in the room. It didn't seem to bother him much and he brushed off her questions with a quick dismissal. There are somethings and places that we are better off not knowing, he had told her one night at dinner.