Category Archives: Writing

Happy birthday today

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Like lots of people, I like to stroll through the internet, and today while looking up some biographical material, I got caught up in what happened on April 4. Among other things, many cool writerly type people were born.

Robert_Downey_JrFor those who like action films, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor, singer, producer, and screenwriter, was born in 1965.

For those who like television shows (Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, Boston Legal, and Harry’s Law), writer David E. Kelley was born in 1956.

Kitty_Kelley_Photo_by_Raymond_BoydIf you like to read about scandal, another Kelley, this time Kitty Kelley, was born in 1942. She’s the author of many best-selling, unauthorized biographies of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Oprah Winfrey, and Nancy Reagan, among others. Called “the consummate gossip monger,” she claimed to be an “unabashed admirer of transparency.” However, when critics scrutinized her work more carefully, many of her “facts” were found to be unsubstantiated. Readers might not have cared.

MayaAngelouMaya Angelou was born on this day in 1928. To know her life story is to wonder what you’ve been doing with your own. She was a supper club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana, and professor. She was friends with Malcolm X and Billie Holiday. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years. Her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), brought her international recognition and acclaim. Some cities have tried to ban her books from public libraries, but her works, based on themes such as racism, identity, family, and travel, are widely used in schools and universities worldwide.

Robert_E__SherwoodFinally, in 1896, Robert E. Sherwood, playwright and four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was born. One of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table, Sherwood was close friends with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Edna Ferber, and at six feet eight inches, was the tallest among them. He co-wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Best wishes to all.

 

The shoes make the character

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Christian Louboutin. "Printz," Spring/Summer 2013. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photograph: Jay Zukerkorn. Displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum "Killer Heels" exhibit.

Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photograph: Jay Zukerkorn. Displayed as part of the Brooklyn Museum “Killer Heels” exhibit.

Our characters should have an arc, starting in one place and changing as they resolve the conflicts they encounter along the way. One way we can show character change is to show behavioral changes. In the beginning, our hero is immature, at the end he has grown. In the beginning, our heroine was selfish. At the end, she thinks of others. Progress!

Recently I realized that one way I show how characters change is that I change their clothing choices. In one manuscript, my heroine starts out wearing overalls and steel-toed work boots, which, by the end of the book, she’s discarded for palazzo pants and high heels. In my current WIP, my heroine goes from suits and high heels to a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, and then to the skinny jeans and ballet flats that describe her new life.

What’s with the heels? I wondered. Besides that they’re consummate female attire. Except for cowboys.

Cowboys is right. Five hundred years ago, high heels were standard footwear for sixteenth-century Persian horsemen. Then the style moved from Persia to Western Europe, where aristocrats wore high heels to set themselves apart from the hoi polloi. But when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor in 1804, he ended this high-heeled, high-powered fashion statement by wearing flats.

This information is included in a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. The exhibit covers 500 years of high-heeled footwear, exploring the history of the shoes themselves, as well as the history of status, fantasy, innovation, beauty, and sex as told through shoes.

Did my heroines think about this when they either put on or kicked off their high-heeled shoes? You can bet your sweet Manolo Blahniks they did.

My heroine who forsook overalls and steel-toed boots for high heels? They were a special pair, bought for her by a problematic male character (okay, my hero) who thought every woman should have at least one thing that was frivolous. She wore them on her way out the door. (But she came back later. Much later)

My other heroine, who gave up heels for flats by way of saddle shoes—she’s a spy. And spies can’t go running after bad guys in heels.

At least somebody’s practical around here.

Becoming a professional writer

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The new cover!

The new cover!

A while ago, I decided that  one of my self-published books needed a new cover. I’d done the original, back in the days when I thought I could do it all. I have a little graphics experience. I thought I could make it work. But no. If my cover is anything to go by, I best leave cover design to the professionals.

So I commissioned a new cover, and then I thought—in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll move it into print, too. Get it out onto more platforms. Go the whole nine yards. After all, I want to be a professional novelist, right? I have to act like a professional novelist.

To go into print, the cover needs a spine–the part of the cover that faces outward when the book is on the shelf. The spine width is determined by how many pages the book has. So then I thought, I should do a quick edit pass, take out one excerpt from the back, and make sure this book is as tight as it could be.

How much have I edited so far? Not counting the excerpt I deleted, I’ve cut 8,500 words from the original manuscript. I’m happy about it. The book is better, and readers will kill fewer trees when they buy it. Now I have a second edition, edited for conciseness and clarity. I feel that I’ve made a good professional decision in upgrading this book.

Not that my family gets it, exactly. What do you say when your friends and relations ask you what you do? Do you tell them you’re a writer? And if you say that you are a writer, how do you answer the follow-up questions? (Is there a lot of money in that? Where do you get your ideas? How do I get an agent? Can I give you this great idea, and then we can split the profits?)

Tom Coyne, a published author and creative writing teacher at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reminds us that writing is about process, not perfection. See what else he has to say about calling yourself a professional writer.

http://magazine.nd.edu/news/49016/

Dumping Helga

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scissorsI’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)

And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.

Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.

Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.

I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”

I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?

Helga has to go.

I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.

The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.

Helga doesn’t do any of that.

It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.

But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)

I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.

We have to make room for the passengers who really count.

 

 

 

It’s in the eyes

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Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!

 

 

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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A great American writer has joined history. The message of the poem she wrote and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, “On the Pulse of Morning,” about how diversity enriches and strengthens us as a nation, stands in stark contrast to the actions of a young, disturbed madman in Santa Barbara recently.

Many others more eloquent than I have written about her themes of hope, love, inclusion, and dignity. If I can learn to write with one-third her power, I will count myself successful.

To hear her read the poem and find out what it meant to her, go here.

One million words and counting

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Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I read recently that the next (third) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would come out approximately in the year 2034. This seemed like a really long time until I read more. The first edition was proposed in 1858 as a 10-year project. Five years in, the philolgists were up to “ant.” They needed 70 years to pull the first edition together. It came out in 1928.

The second edition was started in 1933 (so they got a little vacation in there) and came out in 1989. The third edition, now underway, began in 1994. It will have one million or more words in it.

These facts were interesting to me because when I was a young editor, I decided that when I was old and established and could afford it, I’d buy a copy of the OED and keep it on a book stand. To me, the OED was like a badge to a cop or a tiara to a princess. It was an emblem of certification, of accomplishment: I’m an editor, see? I have the best dictionary in the world.

For one reason or another, I never bought it. And now it’s probably too late. When the third edition is finished, it will have 40 volumes if it’s published in print. But the current editor, Michael Proffitt, says that unless at the time of publication a market develops for the print version, the reference will be placed online.

The work is going slowly because new words are being added to the vocabulary at an unprecedented rate. Each edition has more words than the last, because once included in the reference, no word is ever taken out. “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor Peter Gilliver in an interview with The New York Times. Gilliver spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the OED.

The current OED text contains, in addition to literary references, blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, and an inscription in a high school yearbook. The philologists want to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word—not certify a word as “proper English.”

I feel a little nostalgic that my first professional icon of editorship—that of owning a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—won’t come to pass. Of course, I could still buy the second edition (20 volumes for about US$1,700), or I could buy an on-line subscription. I probably won’t, though.

But I do love a good reference book. What writer wouldn’t? When you’re looking for just that one perfect word, it’s nice to know that somebody has compiled a million of them for you.

So here’s a little quiz. The following entries are in the OED. See if you know when these terms first appeared in the language.

OMG, I Am, Like, Literally Unfriending You. Whatever!

OMG. The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for “Oh, my God!” comes in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!

LITERALLY. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

LIKE. Few words annoy the purist like “like.”

1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

UNFRIEND. Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

WHATEVER. It’s not as old as “unfriend,” but it’s been around for a while.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to “that’s what I meant.” Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.