Friday, November 30, 2007

Stomping out your story killers

So this week, instead of blogging about what I’ve been consuming (aka Diet and Exercise), I want to blog about what’s been consuming me.

And recently, I’ve been consumed by all things associated with writing.

No surprise there: today, Friday November 30th, 2007, is Deadline Day for the first draft of A KILLER WORKOUT, the Number Two Book in the Fat City Mysteries.

Not to bury the lead, but I already pressed the Send button that emailed the first draft of A KILLER WORKOUT to my editor in NY. But despite having met that milestone, so far there’s been no letup in my writing focus.

This is because, during the brief hiatus that I have between submitting First Draft and receiving Editor’s Notes, I must give presentations about writing to audiences in large southwestern states. (Does everyone know how large southwestern states really are? I once drove across the country. When I hit Texas, I reported home for several nights in a row, "I'm still in Texas." I grew up hanging around the puny state-doms of New England. So, really—I never knew what Panhandle states could be like, size-wise).
And like a fool, I'm driving to these appearances next week. So if you don't hear anything from me for a couple of weeks, I'm probably still in Texas.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should say to these good folks in the southern-westest states about the writing process.

Basically, it’s this:

Don’t kill your story.
What does that mean, exactly? The answer depends on where you are on the writing continuum.An advanced writer on the continuum would be Shakespeare, (He’s a safe choice: no one will throw Schadenfreude darts his way, because he’s been dead for just under four-hundred years. And because he’s Shakespeare, dammit).
A less-advanced writer on the continuum would be someone who has written all her life, but mostly on bits of scrap paper. Personally, I come from a long line of paper-scrap writers.
For the less-advanced writers on the continuum, I have some suggestions:

Join a writing critique group

When you think you’re done with your draft, keep rewriting.

Avoid most adverbs at all costs.

Don’t have your main character’s description occur by virtue of gazing into a mirror.

Batch and separate different characters’ actions by separating them with paragraph breaks.

Vary your sentence structure. Repeated structures are boring.

When a beta reader explains, shyly, that a particular section didn’t work for her, nod politely and make a note. If you don’t agree with the feedback, nod and pretend to take a note. Don’t launch into an impassioned, tortured explanation of why this nonworking section must remain in your draft.

Be on the lookout for your personal “writing tic.” Every writer has a writing tic. Before I was published, my writing tic was to overuse dashes, until a much more experienced author pointed it out. I was—to put it mildly—the Queen of Dashes.

Have some kind of conflict on every page.

Don’t over-describe every action of your main character. We really don’t need to know that your heroine reached for her purse, pulled out her wallet, extracted her credit card, put the card back into her wallet, put the wallet back into her purse, zipped up her purse, slung the purse strap onto her shoulder, put her hand on the doorknob…

See what I mean?

These things are on my mind this morning because I’m preparing a workshop called “Stomping out your storykillers.” I’m looking forward to talking to other writers about the writing journey.

The one thing I’m not going to do is what some masters of writing do (I call them the Grand Pooh-Bahs), which is to lean back at the beginning of a talk or seminar and ask the assembled audience why they want to write. The only acceptable answer, ultimately, is this: a person writes because he or she must write.

And I say to that—Bull Puckey!

Knowing you “have” to write is like knowing you have to diet to stay thin: easy to know, hard to do.

It is hard to write every single day, come hell or high water. I write every day in the wee hours of the morning. (I just checked my computer clock; it’s 4:07 AM, Pacific Time). The only days I missed writing over the past two years was 1) when I was stuck in an airplane all day, thanks to Delta Airlines. (I can’t write in an airplane. If I could convince my husband to let us travel first class, that might change), and 2) when I was projectile-vomiting from a bout of stomach flu.

Anyway, I’m having a lot of fun thinking about writing this morning, now that the draft is done and I don’t have to be obsessed with doing it for the moment.

So what are your personal writing tics, or your least favorite ones in famous writers? I’d love to hear about them, just so that I’ll feel better about my own tics.

Write on!


Deb Baker said...

Mine are (were) overuse of 'apparently' and 'obviously'.

But obviously I'm over it.

I love the day my ms goes out. Celebrate.

Joe Moore said...

Congratulations on finishing your draft. Now you can sit back, put your feet up and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment for an hour or so before getting back to work.

My tics include the overuse of the word ‘suddenly’. I also hate the word ‘very’. It’s meaningless and I try not to let it suddenly show up in my writing, even in dialog. And there’s the tic I call 'surely' the mystery woman. She seems to suddenly show up as a new character in a lot of stories. No surely allowed in my stuff.

Suddenly I realized that I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley. :-)

Kathryn Lilley said...

Deb and Joe, you've inspired me to do a global search on my draft for all instances of apparently, obviously, very, suddenly, and of course, surely. I hadn't thought to look for any of those! I hope I'm not going to discover yet another tic that I have to stomp in my draft! One of my other least favorite ones is "Somehow." Somehow, something happens. Out it goes.

Camille Minichino said...

I just do global searches for those words, just so easy to overuse. And the word that comes up most is just! It's just so handy.

Another favorite:" By the time ...."

I think the hardest to find are the repetitious sentence patterns. Reading out loud is a good way to find those.

Linda O. Johnston said...

I've found that I just overuse the word "just" if I'm not careful. Just imagine how boring that could get!

Kathryn Lilley said...

Just put "just" on my stomper list, lol!

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I'm with you ladies: "just" and "now," are my constant (and much deleted companions). After those two culprits come: "look". Aye, eye, aye, that little stinker is a hard one to replace, eh? And I still am a fan of "dropped her eyes." I don't care if some English teacher somewhere said it's gross, it's a phrase that has a specific meaning. See, "looked down" or "dropped her gaze" doesn't have the same effect! Something about "dropped her eyes" implies a sense of shame, doesn't it?