Friday, April 6, 2012

Description Infusion

Ever since I was a child, I hated reading descriptions in books. I would skim right over long sections of paragraphs until I reached the dialogue. This was why I used to enjoy writing plays, television scripts, and screenplays. As I moved into my career as a teacher, my interest shifted to pictures books — because once again, I didn’t need it when a picture would support the text. Then in 2006, I had to get over my feud with description if I was going to attempt a middle grade series.
I still start with mostly dialogue in my early drafts; the descriptions usually come later through a process I like to call Description Infusion. I read through the dialogue and close my eyes trying to picture the scene. I see the fog rolling through darkness or the leaves falling from branches as the impending winter moves in. I hear the waves crash against the shore, feel the spray of the mist against my skin. I see the nick in the table as the character focuses on a tiny detail that takes her attention away from a conversation she would rather not be having. A minor detail can transform the whole mood of a scene — and all it takes is a few words.
In conversations, especially ones that require a deeper reflection, I often fix my attention on something without even realizing it. I might notice a loose thread in a curtain or an ant moving along a crack in the sidewalk. So wouldn’t my characters do the same thing? By attaching a minor detail to a conversation in a scene, you are adding a new dimension to your writing. Perhaps you would like that scene to convey the message that the character feels as though her life is coming undone. Now wouldn’t that loose thread in the curtain help support the feelings your character is conveying through her words?
It is not the pages of details that make a story but the tiny ones that are infused within the scene to set just the right mood for your readers.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Lessons from a Critique

Critique. It is that dreaded word for writers. You mean someone is going to point out all my flaws in my work? Someone’s going to tell me there is no chance of ever putting this out into the world because it is just like everything else in the market? Yes, that’s part of it, but stop the nail biting right now. Let’s break this down and take one step at a time.
The first critique I ever had was a group of my peers. And yes, this can be just as nerve-racking, especially if you are eight years old and a group of your peers is a class of third graders who have no problem stating their thoughts to whoever will listen. Once again, this was part of the revision process that my teacher designed for me. On this day, however, my teacher was not there. A substitute carried out the plans for the critique, making the whole thing even more stressful. Because remember, I was eight, and hated to read in front of the class. But these were my words. I loved them; my teacher loved them. Everyone else was going to love them too, right?
Never walk into a critique thinking everyone is going to love your work just because you do.
I remember reading in front of the class and listening to the comments. The sub did little to soften their blow. I don’t remember everything that was said that day. Only, that it was one of the hardest things I had done up until that point. One comment still stands out to me even now: “She used the word ‘he’ too much.” These might not have even been the exact words but the idea is still the same.
After a critique, you will only take with you the pieces of advice that will improve your work. You might remember how the comments made you feel but it will all be worth it.
I’ve had many critiques since that first one. I am a member of two critique groups that have changed my life and my writing. I’ve met with agents and editors who have rejected me, but in those rejections came a truth about my own work. After all is said and critiqued, stop and realize that you have just made another step in the process that is writing.
And remember, a critique is just one person’s opinion –For What It’s Worth. One person is telling you his or her thoughts. And who is to say that one person's thoughts are going to be the same as someone else?
Doesn’t seem so scary when you say it like that, now does it?

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Importance of Revision

If you are in the writing community like I am, then you already know that a writer is only as good as his revisions. Or in my case, her revisions. I love the process of discovering my characters and watching the events unfold before them. It is equally as pleasing, however, to fiddle with those events once they are down on paper and create just the right mood to pull your readers into the lives of those characters. I care about the people in my stories and I want that to show on every page of my work. But the only way to do that is through the process.
Perhaps it was my first experience with revisions that made me realize the importance of it. I was eight and in the third grade. And as all good stories begin, it started with a fuzzy idea and some crude sketches on some scrap paper. This wasn’t the first story I ever wrote but it was the first that I would take through the revision process. Because stories, no matter how skilled the author, do not start like this:

Not that this is any great hook to pull in your reader, but remember I was only eight. And while most eight-year-olds would probably write a first draft like this, my journey took a bit longer. Especially since this page in my first draft looked like this:

To this day, I still wonder how my teacher was able to look at this rough (and I mean rough) draft and see what I saw in my own work. In my head, the pages were already color illustrations and the words printed text that any reader could understand.
It wasn’t.
It took a lot of hard work to bring my book to that place. My teacher took time out of her own day to work one–on-one with me to bring the revision process to my level. I explained what I was trying to say, though it was quite obvious to me at the time, and my teacher wrote my words on the final draft. I replaced my pencils sketches (if you want t to call them that) with the colored illustration I saw in my head. And pages that once looked like this:

Became pages that made sense:

It was slow going but it was the process that I loved.

But unfortunately, third grade did not last forever. Summer came and my teacher made me promise that I would finish the book. I said that I would.
But I never did.
To this day, I stare at those back pages of my story, the ones still not translated, and I wonder what I was trying to say and where the story would have gone if I had only finished my revisions. I remember something about Mitten throwing a party while his owners were away, and perhaps that helps to decode pages like these:

But I still wonder what this book could have been if only I didn’t let other distractions get in the way. Maybe that is why I am so determined now in my writing. The rejection letters might stream in, but they are my motivation, my reason to revise and make the story what it already is in my own head.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Art of Character Journaling

I often kept a journal as a child. My early entries at the age of eight are quite funny to read, but somewhere along the way, I lost interest. Most days, I resorted to writing about the weather, because for some odd reason, I thought that in the future I might care that it had been rainy and cold on this exact day some twenty years earlier. It wasn’t until my teen years that my entries got interesting as I searched for a deeper meaning. But it is my current journals that I find the most intriguing. Not because I have some great wisdom on all things big and small, but because these entries are not my own. They belong to my characters. Taking one chapter at a time and writing a journal from each character’s point of view has helped me get to know them — thankfully, none of them are as interested in the weather as I was. Character journals have opened my eyes to the truth behind even the most minor character. During revisions, I can take one look at a character’s actions, dialogue, and thoughts and know whether it is something they would actually say or do if I were to meet them in person. If you are a writer and have never tried this, I suggest you give it a chance. But then again, this is just one person’s opinion… For What It’s Worth.