Monday, September 9, 2013

SCBWI Squam Lake Writer's Retreat - Day 1 - Voice Lessons

It's Friday, September 6, 2013. I'm here on the site of Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in Holderness NH for the SCBWI Writer's Retreat at Squam Lake, where On Golden Pond was filmed. I am deep deep in the woods. It's beautiful up here. It's dark out here at night. Really dark. No city lights, no street lights, no tv lights mucking up the sky. I forgot my flashlight. That nifty flashlight app on my phone helped some, but it's so dark here that the darkness has shadows.

Back in my room, writing this post, some animal is scritch-scratching on the roof over my bed. I'm too afraid to open my window and see what it is. I'll give it some time and pray that the animal settles down for the night or, even better, leaves.

Today we had an opportunity to submit a first page to be read aloud and then critiqued by the faculty: 
Scott Nash (illustrator & marketing guru)
John Cusick (writer & agent @ Greenhouse Literary)
Andrea Martin (associate editor at Harper Collins)

Wouldn't you know it, one of mine got picked.  This one was a page from The Other Side of Normal, my YA about a dead homecoming queen hell-bent on winning back her crown.

I received some interesting feedback from the panel. All of them said my writing is "very visual" and "sophisticated" (yay me!), that they "easily pictured the scene in slow motion," which they found "cool." John Cusick said "the images are fascinating." Andrea Martin said, "It sounds like this will be a fun book."

And then the shit hit the fan. 

3 out of 4 said that they wanted more voice so that they had a better sense of the main character. VOICE.  I was laughing (crying) inside. Voice? Immediately, my MC let loose a torrent of verbal thrashing in my head. Then suddenly, she stopped. She stopped because these panel experts were unanimous in their opinion and they weren't kidding.

So, what the hell happened?

1) Shock & Denial:
Uh, yeah. First draft - bound to be some problems. Don't sweat it. 

2) Pain & Guilt:
I am so embarrassed! Why did I ever put my page in there to be read? Why did I want my page to be read? Here I am thinking I'm a good solid writer and *sniff* I was so wrong. I made a huge mistake giving up my other career.

3) Anger & Bargaining: 
Wait a minute. This was so not my fault. Hearing what is written can be very different than reading what is written. If the speaker leaves out the pauses, skips the beats, doesn't emphasize italics, misses the taglines, and doesn't read it like I would... voice suffers. In other words, it wasn't the writer, it wasn't the listeners, it was the reader who didn't get voice - this was not my fault. It really wasn't.

4) Depression, Reflection, Loneliness:
This was not the reader's fault. This was not the listeners' fault. This was my fault. I now understand what they were saying and know for certain that this complete and total social and career embarrassment was absolutely, completely, and totally my fault. My page sucks. My writing sucks. I suck. Nobody likes the way I write. I'll never be a master writer. I'll never be a good enough conduit for these stories. And all these friends I made here? They're going to shun me.

5) The Upward Turn:
Okay, I've taken a breath. I've calmed down. I've admitted to several people now that my first page was read. They're still friendly towards me. Sure, I was rejected, but not completely rejected. I'm starting to take this in stride. I'm looking over my notes. Really, this wasn't a complete disaster. I have a lot of material to work with. My writing has even improved since I first drafted this material. Why don't I give this scene another shot?

6) Reconstruction and Working Through:
Oh, wow, this experience of having someone else read my work was damn near perfect instruction. It was like listening to an audiobook. I love listening to audiobooks. Someday my own novels will be available in that format. It's truly helpful to hear my writing spoken aloud BY SOMEONE ELSE BESIDES ME! I know how my characters sound. I can mimic their inflections when I say their lines. I can get their meaning and subtleties across just by the tone and rhythm of my voice. But random reader probably imagines a different voice than mine. She won't know my MC is an insecure schemer unless I show it on the page... and, gasp, even if I didn't do it here, I know I CAN DO THAT!

7) Acceptance and Hope:
Okay, so this was both embarrassing and informative. I'm going to use what I've learned this weekend about myself, about the craft, and about the market, to improve my writing. What's more, I'm going to pay it forward and share a few pointers on voice, just in case you, dear reader, one day are slapped with a cold fish of similar feedback across your bright innocent cheeks.

Basically, voice in a nutshell is the opinions and commentary of the POV character. Scenes should be filtered through this person's POV and emotions. Example: You know those annoying people who have an opinion on like EVERYTHING, yah well, ding ding ding, that's what the market wants. Especially include opinions on things that matter to the MC, the things she pauses and especially fixates on, those are key. EMOTE. Have feelings. In other words, show why your POV character is nuts.

What's next for me?
Well, that animal on my roof has settled down for the night. It's freaking freezing here in the woods, so I'm going to double up my socks and snuggle down in my bed with all the covers. I'll probably dream of highlighters finding all those places where my MC might show her particular brand of insanity. She's going to love that. I have a premonition that my readers will, too.

What about you? Ever get slapped in the face with a cold wet fish? In other words, do you ever struggle with voice in your writing?  How willing are you to wave your crazy flag?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pain Builds Character

I found this wonderful guide on Darcy Patterson's Fict!on Notes blog where she makes the point that emotional pain creates strong stories. Darcy took the visual pain scale commonly displayed on hospital walls and compared it to how much pain a character should be feeling at any point in a novel.

You can find her post here:

Darcy has some great ideas and I've taken plenty of liberties with them.
Here's a variation on the visual guide Darcy used, and my take on it...

Assess the Pain

No pain. If your character, especially your main character, is feeling no pain, you ain't got a story my friend.

Mild pain. You can start here when you're introducing your main character (MC) and her problem. You can end here, too, with tying up story threads and smoothing over residual pain. But when you move on, remember that meaty middle needs some punch!

Moderate pain. Your MC wants something but obstacles crop up that interfere with your MC obtaining her goal. You punch her in the gut. She's surprised. She's annoyed. She's frustrated. She's angry. She's holding her breath because she's afraid. Did you know fear is another word for emotional pain? Yep. By invading her personal space, her physical and/or non-physical boundaries, you've introduced some primal fear. Tap into that pain and pay attention to how she reacts.

You can read more about fear and creating a character's emotional arc in my May 2012 posts, starting here: Identifying a Character's Emotional Arc

N.B., If you find your action is fury fast, be sure to provide your readers with breathing space by contrasting the active stress with some emotional rest.

Severe pain. Consider yourself a knife thrower. Your MC experiences severe pain when you throw a knife in her shoulder and then walk over and twist it. I'll bet your MC is wondering what the heck just happened. Then maybe she's panicking. It's crisis time. Oh, wait, there's another knife in the air and she forgot to duck. Zing! Struck again.

Worst pain. @#$% the knife is heading for her heart! Nothing motivates a character more than facing death. The death of her. The death of a loved one. The death of her dream. The death of her ideals. You get the picture. You are now at the climax of the story. Your MC's animal instincts kick in and she's in fight or flight mode. Either way, she can't take the pain anymore and something big has to happen. There must be some resolution, like maybe now she's the knife thrower and you're the target. Jeesh! Seriously though, most people in pain must find a release. For some people, that means taking it out on someone else. How does your MC react to the worst pain ever?

Pain in Perspective

So, let's put this pain scale in perspective. Don't throw knives at young children. What I mean to say is picture books don't need such an intense level of pain. Young children cry when something is taken away from them. Losing control over an object can elicit painful responses. Really, melt their ice cream cone, and that's about the level of intense emotion you want to aim for.

For a middle grade child, emotional pain becomes more personal and now maybe they've fear losing or have lost a friend, or a pet, or a teacher. Or, maybe they're the teacher's pet and they fear losing their status.

Young adult and beyond, even more personal, they're losing their self-identity. They thought they were a certain kind of person and now they're not so sure. Then BAM! now they're doing something they never thought they'd do and who does this make them now? Can they ever go back? Do they want to?

Painful POV

If you're having trouble figuring out point-of-view for your story, examine the key points in your story and find the character who is in the most pain. If you consistently find a secondary character in more pain than your protagonist, consider switching point-of-view. And, if you find characters in no pain or in only mild pain, refer to the chart above! Those characters can and will be ignored, so either delete them or figure out how to inflict some emotional pain on them.

Do you find the pain assessment tool useful for planning and/or reviewing your MC's emotional arc? As a writer, are you mean enough? I look forward to reading all about how you torture your characters. Leave your comments below.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Some recent reviews of books I've read...

Melissa's bookshelf: read

Eleanor and Park
5 of 5 stars
This has to be one of the best books about teenage love I have ever read. Ever. The emotions are so honest, immediate and vulnerable that they practically render themselves sacred. I was so wrapped up in their story, I put aside everythi...
Mink River
5 of 5 stars
Achingly beautiful. This is one of those books that I just can't read in one sitting. Brian Doyle has stepped into my life as a favorite author. An author who speaks to my heart and my truth, his prose is elegant and easy and beautiful. ...
Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything
4 of 5 stars

spirituality, self-help, and non-fiction
The Dovekeepers
5 of 5 stars
The Dovekeepers is a historical novel blown through by the winds of ancient Jewish and Egyptian magic and mysticism. The setting is ancient Judea in 70 C.E., a time of Roman domination and pogroms against the Jews. The story traces four ...
historical-fiction and supernatural
Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d'Art
5 of 5 stars
Christopher Moore is one of my writer heroes. Nothing is better than a writer who is courageous enough to challenge themselves to improve their craft and not bend to industry standards. Here again, we find multiple POVs and a roster seco...
historical-fiction and supernatural

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What is this sh!t?

I've been an organic gardener longer than I've recognized that I'm a writer. I've gardened in front yards, side yards, backyards. In my hubris I've grown sunflowers on a balcony in Switzerland overlooking an enormous field of sunflowers. I've even guerrilla gardened, which, for the uninitiated, is not growing guerrillas but rather gardening in random public areas that need a bit of pretty.

I've smiled, laughed, cried, gone numb, shouted in complete frustration, and fallen in love in my garden.  When the garden's in full bloom, I pass the time weeding and watering, rapt with attention to every leaf and bloom, fruit, veg, herb, insect, and bird, and I often think about my latest WIP and feel my way through how the next scene wants to play out.

Now, early May, my garden is not in full bloom. It's lying there sleeping under a very thick layer of composted cow manure reminding me of the story I'm working on. That story, like my garden, is lean and mean and right now buried under a thick layer of bullsh!t author insecurity because I've changed my writing method from channeled download to structure structure structure and, true to her personality, my main character stubbornly veers off course between my fingerfalls on the keyboard.

Back to my garden. I thought I was doing my garden a favor. Years ago, in another garden, I did this very thing, adding composted manure to my garden, or so I thought. Now my memory comes back that years ago that composted manure was mixed with topsoil before I laid it on my garden beds.  This recent delivery of cow manure is simply composted cow manure from organically fed cows. There's minimal smell and it is indeed composted, but it's also thick and solid and mixed with hay or straw or some other unwieldy long grass that winds around the tiller blades and grinds them to a halt.  Plus, there's such a thick layer of cow manure that I cannot reach the soil underneath.  That sh!t is so thick I can't even hack my way through it.

If it were a writing/editing exercise, I'd offload it onto a separate document or maybe just delete the whole sh!tload of it and start again. It's not a writing exercise though. It's my garden space. Maybe there's a lesson in here. Maybe in my writing I'm expecting too much perfection from a first draft.

Or maybe, next time, I'll get my compost from a modern unicorn and my stories will write themselves.

For more information on organic gardening, go here:
For more information on guerrilla gardening, go here:
For more information on a 1936 modern unicorn, go here:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Find Me

My library overfloweth.

I have 8 bookcases with double deep rows of books, read and unread, plus tippy "read this soon" bedside stacks, a well-worn public library card, a Sony e-reader, a Nook, and a Kindle.

Find me and my reviews here: Melissa's Goodreads

If there are any good reads you're reading, do share!

What are you reading now?

If- by Rudyard Kipling

Writing, to me, is a way to experience life through another lens.  I push my characters to the brink of disaster and then allow them to fall over the edge.  Why? Because I want to know how they react. Under that, I want to know how I might react if I were them and then measure it against what I feel would be true for me in the same situation.  Of course, inherent in writing fiction and probably in examining our own lives and comparing them to someone else's is that false sense of self. Sometimes we can't see our own faults, and we don't recognize our own blessings. With that in mind, I'll leave you with the words of Rudyard Kipling, and the encouragement to build scenes that test your characters' morals and their dreams of leading meaningful lives.


By Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!