Friday, March 23, 2012

Launch a Description the way Anthony Burgess Does

Get inspiration from unexpected places

You have that new page shining empty in front of you. You feel that moment when an invisible hand grips your throat: “Gawd,” you gasp, “what will I ever write?”

If that’s you (or even if it’s not), try some exercises to loosen up the muses a bit.

Anthony Burgess, asked by a popular magazine about his writing rituals and methods, had this to say:

“I’ll tell you a thing that will shock you. What I often do nowadays when I have to, say, describe a room, is to take a page of a dictionary, any page at all, and see if with the words suggested by that one page in the dictionary I can build up a room, build up a scene. I even did it in a novel I wrote called MF. There’s a description of a hotel vestibule whose properties are derived from Page 167 in R.J. Wilkinson’s Malay-English Dictionary. Nobody has noticed. As most things in life are arbitrary anyway, you’re really doing what nature does. I do recommend it to young writers.”

That gave me a start, so of course I immediately ran for a dictionary. I found American Heritage too technical, with words like mescaline and metagalaxy, and settled on Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, which I have here in front of me. The print is big, so I will use two pages, 1208-1209. I see words like responsibility, restraint, restrict and resting place. To me these suggest not only an idea for a setting, but for character, too.

Here goes!

Leonard had to take responsibility for his own desk. His mom would brook no excuses. Should she find a pencil or rubber band out of place, she would sweep everything to the floor with a flourish. He aligned his pencil cups, books and diary with the discipline of a soldier. He tried to keep these items to a minimum, to ensure himself a much-needed resting place for his elbows.

You could say my effort was a failure: I included only two of the words I selected. I would have included restraint, as well, but switched to discipline. However, a glance at these dry dictionary pages, seen in a new light with a new purpose, gave life to a setting and a character I didn’t know I had in me. The selection of words immediately brought to mind a tired, repressed individual, and I tried to bring that out in the description of his environment. This handful of lines will not be getting me a Pulitzer ever, but the exercise gave me a springboard and a direction with virtually no effort. And it's fun. Try it!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Aim for money? Dream the dream?

Decisions, decisions....
How much to court fame and money, and how much to chase your dream?

We all face this question in our writing; we can choose a trendy topic, or we can go with our own fancy and see where it takes us.

Partly it comes down to an old saw oft repeated at writer’s workshops: write what you know. This tidbit of wisdom has taken fire lately from some writers, and often spurs fledgling authors to transcribe a bagatelle of personal experiences onto the page, hoping for the “write what you know magic” to produce a story. And if you aim at, say, science fiction, how can you write what you know, short of coming from outer space?

But in a sense, you are what you read. If you read westerns throughout your youth, then perhaps that genre is what you know. If it is romance, then that is what you know. Don’t forget, whatever sub-genre tops the trend heap right now will not necessarily do so by the time you finish your opus and pimp it around to several agents. Your work may provide the change of pace that editors will look for.

Nora Roberts had this to say:

“The most important thing is you can’t write what you wouldn’t read for pleasure. It’s a mistake to analyze the market thinking you can write whatever is hot. You can’t say you’re going to write romance when you don’t even like it. You need to write what you would read if you expect anybody else to read it.”

Naturally, we couch our queries in such a way as to highlight similar, successful works. But we also must demonstrate that we aim for a niche that now stands empty, and that our work in some way differs from anything else out there. And you can’t do that by cloning off the top hits.

So write what you know. You are, after all, an expert on books. Or you should be. If not, hit your local bookseller right away. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Write a Cascade!

The lines tumble down as if in a cascade
The cascade is a form which can be fun and rewarding to write. It gives you some of the elbow room of free verse – there are no rhymes or required number of syllables per line – but each line of the first stanza repeats as the last line of the subsequent stanzas. Thus the first line of the poem will be the last line of the second stanza, the second line of the poem will be the last line of the third stanza, and so on. This lends some form to the verse, and provides a little challenge and creative stimulus for the poet.

The number of lines in the first stanza thus determines the number of stanzas in your whole poem. In a tercet scheme, the line arrangement would look like this: ABC, abA, cdB, efC. For a quatrain, you would use ABCD, abcA, defB, ghiC, jklD.

Let’s have an example, the first cascade I ever wrote, to test the form:

The boy asks his father
the meaning of rain,
but the father does not listen. 
The rain patters on the windowsill,
tickling the fantasy, when
the boy asks his father. 
But the father is working, connecting the dots.
He’s not thinking about
the meaning of rain. 
The drops call out to the open heart
and the flitting mind.
But the father does not listen.

Try writing one now; you’ll enjoy it! Feel free to submit your own cascades here on the blog.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tips for Titles

Title time
by Pamela Love

What do these works have in common?

Black Beauty; The Princess and the Pea; Anne of Green Gables.

Answer:  Alliteration.  It’s the repetition of a beginning sound in words, and it’s a quick and easy way to make your titles memorable.  I’ve been writing children’s fiction since 1995, and I’ve sold nearly four dozen pieces with alliteration (for example, my picture books A Loon Alone and A Moose’s Morning) or some other form of word play in the title. It can be useful to think of a common saying or phrase and substitute a word for something relevant to your tale (as I did in my short stories “Where There’s a Well, There’s a Way,” and “Glide and Seek”). 

One way to do this is by naming your protagonist something which will make forming an alliterative title easy.  That’s why the little boy with autism is named Simon in my short story “Simon Says,” in the anthology Family Matters: Thirteen Short Stories. Overall, use this technique with care when writing for adults; you will find the adjustment easy to make. Consider the sexy contemporary romantic comedy Charmed and Dangerous by Lori Wilde, or Jasper Fforde's hilarious satire First among Sequels, or Wishful Drinking, the uproariously sober memoir by Carrie Fisher. All of these titles target a more mature audience with a sly wink in the title.

Titles in general are very important. Do what you can to make yours stand out from the others in the pile of manuscripts on the editor’s desk, and (with luck) the row of books on the library or bookstore shelf!
After working as a teacher and in marketing, Pamela Love became a children’s writer in 1995. Scholastic/Children’s Books published her easy reader Two Feet Up, Two Feet Down. Down East Books published her four picture books: A Loon Alone, Lighthouse Seeds, A Cub Explores, and A Moose’s Morning. Her stories, poems, and plays have appeared in such magazines as Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket, Pockets, and Jack and Jill, among others, and in two anthologies. She lives in Columbia, Maryland.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Racking up the slips

Mile after mile
James Lee Burke submitted his fourth book, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, 111 times. After more than a decade of rejection, the book was published and nominated for a Pulitzer. One publisher informed aspiring author Rudyard Kipling “‘I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” And let’s not forget “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” rejected for containing – gasp! – “unpleasant elements.”

Sometimes it seems like the writer’s main task is to withstand the slings and arrows of the wrathful editor. It can be useful to think of the rejection slip as a kind of toll payment slip. If I’m in a truck carrying 25 tons of lumber from Augusta down to Tallahassee, I’m going to collect a lot of toll slips. Should I lose heart? Far from it. Each newly acquired slip – though hardly cause for celebration – is a sign that I am on my way.

True, there are no convenient road signs reassuring the writer “Publication: 60 miles.” But bear in mind that a rejection is categorically the opinion of an individual. Like that squeamish fellow who rejected Oscar Wilde. In fact, your rejection may not be an “opinion” at all. The editor may be seeking piece this month that is shorter than yours. Or longer. Or, if your piece is humorous, she may already have a humor piece for that month.

So be proud! These dreaded banes are just indicators of miles traveled.
“Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil - but there is no way around them.”
                                                                                                     - Isaac Asimov