Monday, May 30, 2011

Writing Craft: Rounding Out Characters, Part The Second

The title of this post is a hint at what I'm going to talk about today: speech patterns and dialogue.

I was on the phone to different plant nurseries yesterday, looking for a specific plant in a specific size, and everyone I talked to gave me the usual, "Just one second and I'll go check." Polite, professional, blah.

Then when I called the third place and I told the guy who answered what I was asking for, he did something different. He repeated it back to me and followed it up with, "Stand by."

I immediately decided that I liked this guy. He was funny, friendly, a little quirky, and original. And I wondered what it is about him that made him use that term: did he come from a military family? Is he a math and sci-fi geek? Is he a college student on track for NASA working part-time for some spare cash? With those two words, he went from being "the guy who works at the plant store" to being an interesting person whom I wanted to know more about.

In books, as in life, people who use interesting words and turns of phrase do more than just stand out. They become memorable, and more importantly, they become interesting and endearing. So bear this in mind when you're writing dialogue. Give one of your characters a catchphrase that tells the reader a little more about who he is. Let the history teacher invent cuss words. Got a makeup freak in your book? Maybe whenever someone compliments her looks, she tells them the shade of her eyeshadow. Pick out those little details that distinguish each character from the others and let them show.

Who are some of the most memorable people in your life, and what did they always say that made them memorable?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Favorites: Finale Season!

It's May Sweeps!

For those of you who don't lurk on TV show fan boards like I do *ahem*, that means this is the time of year when all the prime time networked shows (which are basically the only ones I watch, aside from cartoons with my kids and the Weather Channel) wind up their seasons and go on hiatus for the summer.

Which means this is when things heat up. Cliffhangers galore, guys. Get ready to be left dangling.

SO, which season finales did you like, and which ones did you hate?

I thought the best offering by far was the 2-hour delight that was The Mentalist. I loved the twist towards the end of the first hour - I had been wondering how they would wind up the whole bomb scenario, and I thought they did it really nicely. And the ending! In a food court, of all places! All I can say is, wow. You need to watch this one, guys. And if that isn't enough to convince you, then check this guy out:

Simon Baker

Bet you want to watch now, don't you? He totally rocks the character of Patrick Jane: damaged, enigmatic, impetuous, and brilliant. How could you not want to watch this show?

Of course, there were other good moments.

Grey's Anatomy did a super job of reversing pretty much every single relationship on the show in one hour without leaving this viewer feeling depressed and hopeless about it all, which was quite a feat.

They can't believe it, either.

Castle finally (FINALLY!) said those three little words - although it's a toss-up as to whether Beckett will remember by the time Season 4 opens in September. (For the reason, you'll have to go back and watch the finale if you missed it.) I'm looking forward to finding out!

She knows.

The New Directions lost at Nationals on Glee, but can anybody honestly say they were surprised? I mean, the oldest members of the Glee Club are Juniors. They've got one more year of high school, and we're writers. Do you put the climax 2/3 of the way through the book? No, you do not. So, no surprises there. But, there was an awesome moment between Kurt and Blaine.

Brittany and Santana: MVPs for the season.

But the best, in my book? The Mentalist FTW!

How about you? What was your favorite finale?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesdays: The Shower Reflex

No, I'm not going there. That's a whole other blog, folks. Trust me, this is a writing thing!

When I was at the SCBWI Writers' Retreat and Conference in Niagara Falls the other weekend, I had the enormous privilege of attending a workshop by Terri Farley, author of the Phantom Stallion series and the new YA novel, SEVEN TEARS INTO THE SEA (which is about, among other things, the legend of Selkies, magical creatures who can shed their sealskins to take human form, so I am super-excited to have a copy of this book!).

And I'm not going to blow the whole workshop; that would be unfair to Terri, and I'd do you a disservice, because I could never sum up all that Terri covered in one blog post. But there was one thing that I often do anyway, so I feel okay about sharing this one tip.

Terri called it "The Shower Reflex."

You know, that moment when you think you're done, and then you go get involved in something else (like taking a shower, or doing yard work) and your muse shows up and goes, "Hey, this is what you should have done in that scene!"

For me, this moment usually comes after I've submitted my manuscript. Which is obviously not ideal.

So, my wisdom for today is not to wait until the last minute to make those revisions. To make them a week (or five) before you need to have them done. Give yourself time for the Shower Reflex. Pretend you've submitted it. Really let go of it. Then go take a shower.

Do you make last-minute revisions like me and then live to regret it? Or do you give yourself time to subconsciously reflect before submitting?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing Craft: Rounding Out Characters, Part One

There are lot sand lots of ways to develop your characters more, so I'm going to tackle them one-at-a-time in these Monday posts for the next few weeks.

This week, we're going to talk about hobbies and passions. If you really think about it, everyone has a hobby, apart from their job, that they take seriously. Maybe it's a sport, like my neigbor; maybe it's antique cars; maybe it's a craft, like knitting or crocheting; maybe, like me, you know a few sci-fi buffs. It could be anything, but everybody has something.

The thing is, if you want your characters to be believable, they should have hobbies and passions, too. And those hobbies and passions should inform their internal thoughts and their dialogue.

Teresa Toten's YA novel ME AND THE BLONDES is a great example of this. In it, the main character, who tells the story, is the captain of her basketball team, so her inner thoughts are filled with sports references. When she uses a metaphor, it's often basketball-related. Not every time, but enough that we really understand that this is a kid who plays basketball seriously.

Additionally, her mother is a film buff, so her dialogue is peppered with movie quotes. And every character is like this.

There are challenges with this. If the hobby is one you don't know anything about, there will be research involved. And then there's the question of blank-slate-style relatability, which I'll get into in another post. There is a balance to be struck here, and it will take a lot of attention to detail and hard work in the revision stage. But it's hard work that will pay off.

Are you already doing this in your WiP? Did it improve your manuscript?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Shout-Outs!

It's been a while since I've done any shout-outs, and I'm thrilled to have some doubly-great news to share this week. Two of my picture book critters, Peggy Collins and Brian Cretney, have a new book coming out!

Peggy is the brilliant, kind, very funny author-illustrator of IN THE GARDEN and IN THE SNOW. More importantly, she was one of the very first people to encourage me on my writing journey, when I met her at an SCBWI event two years ago. I am thrilled and honoured to be in a critique group with her.

Brian is the author-illustrator of LAST IN LINE, and he's someone I am just getting to know, but I can say without a doubt that he is generous and kind and talented, and I am really looking forward to getting to know him better over the coming months.

And these two incredible people have collaborated on their newest creation, TOOTER'S STINKY WISH, out at the end of this month! Written by Brian and illustrated by Peggy, this fabulous picture book chronicles the adventures of one very un-stinky skunk who wants nothing more than to stink like any skunk should. Check out the super-cool (and hilarious) book trailer here. Check out the details for their launch party in St. Catharine's, ON here. And pre-order their book HERE!

And make sure to check out their websites and congratulate them!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesdays: On Friendship

I just came back from an amazing weekend at the SCBWI Canada East Writers' Retreat and Conference in Niagara Falls. Yeah, I know. AMAZING, RIGHT?

Not only were the workshops practical and useful and incredible, but so were the critique sessions. And the fact that there was even time scheduled in to take the critique into consideration and work on a revision.

But the best part was the people. Eating meals at the same table and talking about everything but writing; laughing our way through who knows how much wine and cake; holding each others' hands in the hallways while we sweated bullets over our impending critique sessions; and being there for each other in the hallways as we came out afterwards, our minds swirling with new ideas and uncertainties, reassuring each other that "you'll figure it out."

Yes, you have to make room for the writing. But don't do it at the cost of forging bonds with other writers. We hold each other up. Individually, we are all a mess: overworked, undernourished, living off a steady stream of caffeine and the pure adrenaline rush of creating. But together, we can make miracles happen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesdays: What We Can Learn From Nike

Confession time: I have been procrastinating. Oh, have I ever been procrastinating. It's yard work season, people.

But last night, I just couldn't wait any longer. I had two deadlines staring me in the face, and I just had to get off my butt and do some serious writing and revising. So, I dragged my sorry butt away from the TV, and I hid my books where I can't see them, and I hauled myself down to my basement office, and I made myself type something. I made myself focus. I made myself produce. Butt In Chair.

And you know what?

It totally worked! And now I'm so into my story that even though it's after midnight while I'm typing this, I don't want to stop and go to bed.

Which is stupid, because I have kids to feed and pack lunches for in the morning. And after the yard work, I could really use a shower. I think I might be wearing half my garden in my hair.

So I'm going to stop, and shower, and go to bed. I will dream about my WIP. And I know that tomorrow, if I just do it, I'll be sucked right back in. And that's a great feeling.

So, if you're stuck? Or just dreading that BIC time? Just Do It.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Writing Craft: Expecting the Unexpected

I was watching one of my never-miss, the phone is unplugged, just let that person at the door think we're dead shows with the hubster a while ago, and it features yet another will-they, won't-they couples. In this episode, there was a scene at the end where the woman basically told the man that she loves him, but not using those actual words, and then there's a moment during which neither of them says anything while their eyes do the talking, and THEN she puts on a sad sort-of smile, turns away, and the camera fades to black.

Needless to say, thew end of this scene caused some rather heated debate at my house. The hubster was certain that the woman just needed more time to process (since she is, of course, involved with someone else at the moment), while I had dramatic twists and turns pouring out of my ears. I finally settled on one of two things: either there has been a proposal from the actual boyfriend, or she's pregnant. Both scenarios would give the writers the most time to spin out the will-they/won't-they for yet another season, while delivering the highest level of immediate impact for big drama and high stakes.

And then we waited with bated breath to find out what would happen.

And then last week, what happened was that we saw her decide to make a move on this guy (FINALLY!), only to miss out by seconds.

In other words, she wasn't pregnant, and she was also probably not engaged. And nothing else was going on, either. It was predictable. It was kind of blah. And you know what else?

It was refreshing.

I have begun to expect the unexpected in books and film, and when the normal happens, it's actually kind of a nice change. And I think there's a lesson here.

When we write, yes, high drama is important. Yes, we need to keep the stakes high. But there's a balance to be struck: we need a few moments of ordinary in there, too. Sometimes, the best way to take our reader by surprise is not to try to surprise them at all.

What do you think? Do you expect the unexpected, and get surprised by the normal? Do you look to have a balance of both in your writing, or is it high drama all the way? What works for you as a reader? As a writer?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Favorites: Blockbuster

Those of you who regularly read the blog know that I'm a TV and movie freak. I have my don't-miss, the-phone-is-off-the-hook shows, like this one: 


And of course, this one:

Grey's Anatomy

And I love movies. Especially with popcorn. So last winter, when faced with the prospect of getting to watch my choice of movie after a 20-minute walk through the snow, a search through the shelves, and another 20-minute walk back, versus joining Netflix and having unlimited access to whatever I wanted to watch from the comfort of my own home without having to go ANYWHERE in the snow, you know what I picked. Of course I joined Netflix. Who wouldn't?

But as I sifted through Netflix's offerings, I quicly realized that Netflix didn't have most of what I wanted. So, I watched some things on Netflix (like kids' TV with the kids), and I went to Blockbuster for the rest. Like my local librarians and my local bookstore proprietors, I love my local Blockbuster staff members. They know my face. More importantly, they know my tastes. I need them like I need air. I knew that even if Blockbuster didn't have what I was looking for, there would be a friendly staff member who would be more than happy to look into ordering it in for me.

Only now Blockbuster Canada has gone into receivership.

Which does not bode well for this customer.

Because when Blockbuster is gone, where will I be able to go to find those old gems that Netflix doesn't offer? My choices will be limited by a handful of nameless, faceless people who I have no relationship with and no way of reaching.

I hate that.

What does the loss of brick-and-mortar places like Blockbuster and Borders mean for you? Do you care? Why or why not?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wisdom on Wednesdays: Looking Up

In a previous life, I was a chambermaid at a small inn in Maine. It was fun, but we had to follow the strictest standards: every room had to be cleaner than clean! One of the things the head chambermaid always used to say to us was, "Before you leave the room, remember to look UP!" She was reminding us that by just looking straight ahead and down, which is where our natural sightlines are, we might miss something important.

I think of her every time I go for an "inspiration walk." Her words are a reminder that if we keep our eyes open and our heads up, we'll see the things that most people miss. It might be the shifting pattern of a flock of birds, or the paint peeling off the water pump at the park, or a starling poking its head out of someone's roof gutter. It might be up high, or it might be on the ground in the shadows. It might be the cornerstone that holds our next story together. But if we don't remind ourselves to look in those unusual places, we'll never see it.

Have you been "looking up"? What have you seen lately that you normally would have missed?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Writing Craft: A Brief Note on Concept Books

IT'S INTERNATIONAL PICTURE BOOK WRITING WEEK! More on that at the end of this post. And, I still have family in town, so this is going to have to be a quickie, but I just wanted to throw out another note on concept books, which is:

You still need a hook. In fact, since concept books are so plentiful and the possibility of another concept book out there being on the same subject as yours is so huge (like, there almost definitely, most certainly, without a doubt IS*), a hook is pretty much mandatory. So, whether it's that your book rhymes, or has a craft project at the end, or involves the counting of fish by pink feathery aliens living in a yellow submarine, figure out what it is, and include it in your cover/query letter.

And now:

IT'S INTERNATIONAL PICTURE BOOK WRITING WEEK! In which PB-ers the world over commit to writing one first draft of one picture book every day for a whole week! Because way back in November we did something called PiBoIdMo and now we have 30 ideas that we still haven't done anything with! *ahem* #notme #iswear #okaymaybe

Actually, I think NaPiBoWriWee is a great idea, and I think Paula Yoo is pretty cool for thinking of it and for putting it all together, so I'm joining in. Go here to do the same.  It's a great way to give yourself a kick in the pants if you've let the writing slide, and it's a great way to experience some camaraderie if you've been trucking along all on your writerly lonesome for the first part of the year.

So, join in! Have fun! Go nuts! Keep me posted! And remember your hook!

*Unless your book is about seasons on Mars. In which case, your topic IS your hook.