Tuesday, March 31, 2015


The old chicken-and-egg debate has a writerly version. Should you start from plot, or from character?

My usual answer would be that it doesn't matter as long as you start. Don’t delay. Don’t think, mull, or pray. Do it.
At least that’s what I tell reluctant self when, once again, reluctant self professes that it doesn’t know where to start.

I've read variations of this discussion on writers’ blogs, How-to books, and in interviews with great writers. I was aware that most literary writing is firmly anchored in character, and in some cases barely has a plot. I noted that many bestsellers (“commercial fiction”) are impressively plotted while the characters seem more stock. Not everyone can write like Dickens and excel in both. (And speaking of Dickens, I don't think there was a consistently better writer of first paragraphs, but I digress.)
But when I reflected on my own process, I realized that with a few exceptions, most of my stories began stewing with neither. They began with theme.

didn't know what* happened, and I didn't know who** was there. What I knew was that I wanted to find a way to think about something***, and that the way was through conjuring a story.


Oh, dear. I just complicated the chicken-and-egg thing. I added the nutritional information bar. Maybe this is a good place to stop mulling about, and start.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I have a dear Beta reader whose logical mind helps catch inconsistencies and discontinuities in my stories. Every writer should be so lucky as to have such a reader go over their work. When she puts in the margins “this does not make sense to me”—  I know it is not a reaction to something that does not exist in the real world, but something that could not exist in the story’s created world.

The story’s scenario must make sense from within. Because the rules of our every day world may not apply, it must really truly absolutely make sense. In the same way that a story told from the point of view of an insane narrator creates an internal perspective that is coherent even if delusional, we must strive to take a reader with us into a delusional state.
Sounds crazy? It sort of is.

Protagonist: “Close the window, it’s cold outside.”
Antagonist: “And if I close the window, will it be warm outside?”

Logic is overrated when it comes to any spiritual flight, and a good story provides just that—
 a magical ride.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Newbery/Dinglebery Syndrome

A cleverer writer coined this wonderful expression of artistic bipolar mood disorder. It struck me as an apt description of what every creative person in a competitive field goes through:
The Newbery/Dinglebery Syndrome.

Readers of fiction in English know The Newbery. It’s the Oscars of kid-lit, the Pulitzer of books for pre-teens. There’s only one Newbery medal awarded, but as many as eight Newbery honor books each year. They represent exquisite literary accomplishment in children’s books.

Haven't heard of The Dinglebery? There’s a reason for that.

In the process of writing, revising, and submitting to agents or publishers, most every writer goes through an astonishing rollercoaster of feeling their work is so very good it amazes even them, and that it is so worthless even the trash-bin would not accept it for disposal. All in one week.

Some of it is external. Got a rejection? Another one? Must not be half as good at this as I imagine, I mean one-tenth as good… who am I kidding. Not one-hundredth as good.

Got a request for a partial? This is a busy uber-editor/agent and they don’t ask unless the premise stands out. A request for the full manuscript? Nobody asks for those unless the premise shines and the partial sparkles. I must be good at what I do. Got a YES to the whole thing? The Newbery Medal is calling.

Some of this rollercoaster ride is internal. Staring at a blank page and there is nothing in my head? Staring at a pivotal chapter in need of writing and there’s nothing coming? Having written said chapter, and every word feels wrong? Ding-ding-Dinglebery.

Having a day where the words flow out and things get written by a seemingly invisible hand with cadence worthy of Mozart? Zingers are pouring out worthy of Groucho Marx? Insights that are deep and entertaining  at once,  reminiscent of Twain? I’m in Newbery territory here.

I've been there, in both places and a few in between. It is part of the course. It’s just the way it goes. In truth most of our work falls somewhere between a Newbery and a Dinglebery, but the process is much more like these extremes.

Don't let anyone tell you to never doubt yourself and always believe in your work. It’s not possible, and not that healthy, either. But don't let them tell you to give up, either.

Having a Newbery week, and wishing the same to you~

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


One of the many writerly rules is to avoid the passive voice.
I'm on record as ranting about “rules” and the slavish following of these tenets. Sure, the How To books on the art of writing would be out of business if only folks like me existed. But there is no danger of that. Books that promise to make an artist out of anyone are doing fine, thank you. Better than the books they promise they'll help you create.

I get an achy feeling every time I see yet another suggestion that ignores powerful and effective writing because it breaks some rule learned in rule-going-school. I do think it’s good to understand the rationale of those edicts, but only apply them when the writing is limping, and the application of the rule hits the Vagus nerve as a clear step up. Y’ know, an “AH-AH!”

I have the tendency to use a lot of passive construction. I have acquired the discipline to minimize this proclivity in my fiction writing. This is a good thing, as my wonderful agent has a particular pet peeve regarding the passive voice. She and I agree that USE WITH CAUTION should guide professional writing.
But don't take it away from me when I write Emails, blog-posts, or even when I speak.
Something about being vague that I find comforting and less confrontational.

That is my point. The passive construction has a place. It is useful. Think of a film shot with a lot of fog. It’s mysterious and unclear and it is not the same film shot with a crisp lens.
wouldn't write a business proposal using passive construction. A clear and dynamic voice is important for such. But many a fiction story would benefit from some veiling.

I do think the phrase “a good time was had by all” is an example of misuse, so abuse of the passive voice is something I recognize.
I’m in the use-don't-abuse camp.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Why Do We Hunger for Sequels?

The hysterically enthusiastic reaction to the announcement that Harper Lee, the author of the American literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird, will publish another novel, (this one the original version of the story written before the published masterpiece) was both understandable and also, if I dare say, a bit pathetic.

On the Blogosphere I read writers and readers who chimed in that they already pre-ordered the second book, could hardly wait, and that the discovery of an abandoned manuscript made their day.

Ms. Lee, by all accounts a reclusive person who had said until last year that she would never publish another book, had apparently changed her mind. Or was it her new Lawyer who changed it for her? Or, perhaps, was it pressure from family members who would like to have more $$ in Ms. Lee’s estate? The conspiracists were already weaving their tales.  
What is the truth? Who knows? How much does it matter? It’s a great story. Our hunger for great stories is the one thing certain.

This whole evolving sequel to what was expected to be a quiet retirement by a great storyteller left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It echoes our obsession, even demand, for sequels. Even if in this tale the sequel was written first and the published first book is really a prequel, and so forth and so on… whatever. 

Loved the book? Please, please may the writer write a sequel. A great movie? I can't wait for the sequel. 
A stand-alone story better have a nailed-shut ending, maybe one like Hamlet’s, where everyone who matters dies. But wait, why isn't there a sequel to Hamlet? Maybe he can come back, y’know, like the ghost his father did in the original.

I’m not a fan of sequels. I even like ambiguous endings, and I don't need “the rest of the story.” To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. There have been more than twenty published sequels to it, by other writers, that took nothing but added nothing to the original.

Don't blame the publishers. Sequels are cash-cows and publishing is a business. Don't blame the writers of series, because some stories were meant to be, and were originally written as, series.

But some, I am certain, are stand-alone stories, and should be left alone, people.

I’ll stand alone for standalones. Best. Books. Ever.