Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ripped from Today's Headlines

Remember this expression? The TV show, “Law and Order”, right? I often think of that show when people who don’t write fiction ask me where I get my ideas for stories. Where don’t I get ideas???

The stories push themselves into my consciousness as I notice a mom and recalcitrant toddler at the grocery store, when I see the woman facing away from the man in the car at the traffic light beside me, when I read a “Dear Abby” entry. I am unable to escape the stories. I often respond that I feel as if I am downloading life into my computer and won’t come close to living long enough to complete the task.

To those who don’t write fiction professionally, it must seem like magic of some sort that we see stories all around us. That the hard part of writing is not the story idea, but in bringing life to the idea with characters the readers care about.

But, for those who might be reading this who are not bombarded with stories, let me share some other things I do on a regular basis to keep the story well filled with water. My sons would say that saving this stuff is just further evidence of my OCD problem, but, in the interest of art, I’ll put up with their abuse.

Decades ago I began collecting Chinese fortune cookies slips. Sometimes these are fortunes, sometimes they are aphorisms, but either way, they are story topics. I have hundreds of these, and have even strung some of them together in a story outline about my best friend, Pat, and I who meet together every year for Chinese food and then the intervening chapters tell about how our cookie fortunes play out between our yearly dinners.

Another source is the newspaper. I have stacks of feature articles (typically feel-good stories about locals who overcome obstacles) and piles of advice columns. These provide a structure for your story way beyond the kernel of fortunes. Who hasn’t imagined what the letter writer did after getting the professional’s advice about whether she should dump the chump she wrote in about?

I practice describing settings and characters while traveling. It’s something to do to while away the time. The airport and plane are filled with opportunities to bring what you see to life. Sometimes you need a background character for a scene and having a set handy can help. Even if you don’t ever use them, just paying attention and describing is a good writing exercise.

I collect overheard conversation bits as I am walking down the street, in a meeting, or buying pickles. People talk on their phones as if they are in the phone booths of long ago. Hello! We all can hear that conversation! Another great source of conversation bits is in restaurants. Again, people carry on the most intimate of conversations in the most crowded locations! Always keep a notebook at the ready.

The world is stories. Keep an eye and ear out for all those you happen upon every hour of every day.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

First Lines in a Novel

We’ve all heard that we have to have a hook, that the first line/paragraph/page must grab the reader’s attention or don’t even think you will get an editor to publish your novel. Well, while that advice is no doubt sound and certainly what we budding novelists need to aim for, an experience I had over the holidays made me question the oft-offered saw.

Our son, John, and new daughter-in-law, Faith, were visiting and given our family’s decades old focus on playing games whenever at least two of us are in a room together, we were gathered around the living room coffee table discussing game options. Faith and John play a game with their friends called, “Novel First Lines”. I offer a brief recitation of the rules here and suggest you give it a try. Great fun!

We gathered a stack of novels so that every player had more choices than number of rounds in the game and the number of players. Each player also had a writing utensil (all pens or all pencils so as not to tip off who wrote what) and paper scraps.

Each person picked shis first book (I wrote an journal article once on non-sexist pronouns; this is one) and we selected one player to begin. That player read the book blurb to us, told us the author, and any other pertinent info from the cover (National Book Award winner, etc.). Then, each player wrote what heesh thought the first line of the book could be. The blurb reader wrote the actual first line. The blurb reader mixed up all the entries submitted along with the actual first line and read them each aloud. Each person, other than the blurb reader, selected what they thought the actual first line was. A point was awarded for correctly guessing the first line and a point was awarded to the writer of detractor first lines that others erroneously selected. Play continued until all had had a chance to be blurb reader at least once, and then we did another round with a whole new group of books.

But, as a novelist, what was interesting to me was that we often picked one another’s first lines rather than the actual one. We wrote engaging hooks, for the most part. We rarely found that the author had superseded our offerings, even though we might have selected it anyway for some reason.

Playing this game was one of the best writing workshops I have participated in. Give it a try, and then go back to your novel and “play the game” again so you can rework your first lines. In fact, have your novelist friends bring along manuscripts and play the game at your next critique group meeting. You might end up with a better hook than you could do on your own.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Literary Magazines and Land's End

An agent I met with at SCWC told me that what I wrote wasn’t a novel. Later, in my cover letter I called my submission a short story collection. And that’s what it is. For years, I have used the misnomer, novel, when talking about Land’s End, but no more.

It’s like a big Duh! for me. Of course, Land’s End isn’t a novel. It is a series of vignettes—short stories—that are linked by place not characters. I think some of us toss around the vernacular so loosely because those are the words our non-writing friends and relatives understand. “I am a novelist,” I told our new neighbors last week at a cocktail party. “What do you write?” “Oh, one novel is about blah blah, and then there is another novel about characters who rent successive weeks at a beach condo in Rhode Island.” See. Easy to fall into the novel language.

Though the agent really liked the excerpt I showed her (no suggestions for change), she said it is nearly impossible for her to sell a short story collection. Oh, yeah, if you’re Robert Olen Butler (Had a Good Time, a series of short stories inspired by the messages on old post cards—a great read!), she could sell it to a publisher. But for us mortal folk, we need to establish our creds. She suggested two avenues for me to pursue.

Smaller presses might take a chance on a newbie writer of a short story collection. And she suggested one to try. She also suggested that I publish some of the collection in literary magazines to establish external validation. Then, if I am successful with either or both of those routes, I should contact her for representation.

I was walking on air. Easy peasy, right? I practically have an agent in hand.

Well, do you know how daunting is the task of sending off to literary magazines? As luck would have it, that same day at the conference, Midge Raymond presented a session on literary magazine submissions and gave us many resources for identifying the right venues for our work. Wonderful session!

Still, when I searched the sites (listed at the end of this blog) I was astounded at the sheer number of opportunities. Nor is it as easy as clicking on one and sending off my stuff. No. Each has very different submission guidelines of course (as do book publishers), but they also have different dates when they accept submissions.

I am creating my data base for those literary magazines that accept the kind of work I do with headings like: address, max number of words, submission dates, editor’s name, date submitted, response date and action, and so on. I

It is going to take me longer to create the data base than it took to write some of the stories. Join me in the fun! Look up these sites if you write short stories, too. Literary journals and magazines list courtesy of Midge Raymond: LitLine--; O. Henry Magazine--; New Pages—

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Have You Published?

“What have you published?”

As soon as you tell people you are a novelist, they want to know what you have written. Are you a celebrity they should know? Can they find you at the local bookstore? It’s natural. I’ve been guilty of it myself in the old days. The question stings when it happens. I feel defensive. But I smile and say, "Not yet!"

I am a novelist as yet unpublished. That doesn’t make me less of a novelist. Does it? Of course not. Being a novelist is what I do, not who I am. Who I am is a multilayered person of many interests and quirks. “Novelist” is only one of the identities I claim.

Still, I face my own insecurities about my babies, my works when queried on my publishing track record. It really doesn’t matter to the neighbors whether I have published numerous articles in professional journals and have a dozen professional books published. Their eyes glaze over as you explain to them how you spent your 39 years in the teaching profession and wrote extensively about how to teach reading to children. Can you get that at Barnes and Noble? No, but check me out on!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In Defense of Formula Writing

While a university professor, I taught classes for aspiring teachers on children’s literature. I love fine literature of the children’s sort as well as adult. But, I am not a literary snob.

For my own children, I bought Eric Carle and his ilk, but I also bought the Goosebumps and Animorph series. Of my own literary diet, I like to say that I have some junk food along with the gourmet. Why, you might ask, would I support feeding my children the equivalent of junk food literature?

Working with struggling readers and later with the teachers of struggling readers for so many years, I observed that way too many kids didn’t know how to think along with text as they were reading. They didn’t know their brains were supposed to be busy processing and questioning and wondering along with the author.

I believe that most of us (I can’t say all, of course—but the majority from my analysis) became “active readers” (those who process, question, and wonder) at the feet of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Goosebumps, et al. Reading those formula books inculcated the basics of story structure, because, believe me, when I was a child eons ago, no teacher addressed those elements now taught in kindergarten.

Through Nancy’s struggles (which I always knew she would overcome, the fun was in how she’d do it this time), I learned about plot structure, how important connecting to characters is, and how necessary a satisfying conclusion is to the reader. To this day, I read formula writing. I love culinary mysteries.

When I read my first Diane Mott Davidson, I was hooked. She is the reigning queen. And his court is studded with others almost like her whom I also read. Why, you might wonder, does someone who enjoys award-winning literary fiction read highly commercial fiction? Because, even though I know how it will end, the trip there is still fun.

You live with characters in series fiction, genre fiction. You know how they will react from your familiarity with them and rejoice when you learn more of their back story. Even though you know them, you always find out more in each book.

I am currently writing a culinary mystery in my “Dinner is Served” series with personal chef partners Gina and Allie. Go to my website to read an excerpt at and let me know what you think.

You know, the reading of genre fiction is easy, but the writing . . . not so much. I have a lot of respect for “Carolyn Keene” keeping me reeled in with Nancy for so many years.