One scene at a time

Well, I went to Austin Mystery Writers tonight (it’s a critique group I started three years ago when I decided to get serious about the whole mystery-writing thing, and it’s still going strong), and as is our wont, when we were done slicing and dicing everyone’s chapters, we started talking about craft. (And no, I don’t mean the kind that involves newts’ tails and cauldrons.)

We were talking, specifically, about scenes. And what made a good one. And I was reminded of something a very talented and prolific writer (who shall remain nameless in this post) said when I met her at Malice Domestic. She was telling me about a 15-week novel-writing class she taught recently. The first week, she said, she told everyone that novels are made up of scenes, and that every scene should either move the plot forward or deepen character development.

And then she didn’t know what to do for the next 14 weeks. (I’m sure she did just fine, but I totally understand where she’s coming from.)

It seems simple, but it can be hard to put into practice. When you’re revising — or before you sit down to write — it’s important ask yourself what the goal of the scene is. Action is almost always interesting. But if the plot doesn’t move too much, do you reveal something intriguing about the character? Enough to get us to turn the page? Description is nice. Backstory is nice. But the scene must move to keep the reader interested.

Just what you needed, right? Something to think about when you’re pounding away at the keyboard. And speaking of scenes, I’d better go revise one now… more soon!

Agents, Editors, and Susan Wittig Albert!

Well, I just went to the Writers’ League of Texas annual Agents and Editors conference yesterday, to do a talk on agent-hunting… and what good timing, since BookEnds just published my query letter on their new (and fabulous, if you’re a writer looking for an agent) blog. The whole process is a challenge — you need to steel yourself for rejection, and keep on writing even when it gets hard.

One of the things that really hit me on Sunday is how hard it can be sometimes to find a ‘hook’ for what you’re working on. (Or, rather, find the hook.) We get so involved in our work that it’s challenging to step back and see what the essence of it is — or how to position it so that an agent will understand, just from the query letter, why it is that she or he will want to take on your project.

A good way to do it is to look at cover copy of books similar to yours. Since your query is essentially a sales tool (just like book covers), they’re a good place to start. How do book blurbs hook readers? What kind of language do they use? What aspects of the book do they focus on? Read a lot of them — and then apply what you’ve learned to your own letter. It’s hard at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to do it almost without thinking about it.

And on another note, it was nice to see that I’m not the only one who occasionally loses momentum; even greats like Susan Wittig Albert have off days. She was kind enough to mention me — and Murder on the Rocks AND Poisoned Pen Letters — on her wonderful weblog, Lifescapes. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out on a treat. (You might also want to check out her most recent release, BLEEDING HEARTS, which is a great read… and she’s got a third book in the Beatrix Potter series on the way any day now. Check it out!

Onward!

Well, this morning I finished editing that scene I was talking about (it’s at 90 percent, anyway, which will just have to do) and fixed up a few other things. And I found myself sitting there with only ten minutes left to write… procrastinating. You know, finding words (most of which are already in reasonably good order) to rearrange instead of actually doing something?

That’s because some of my momentum’s gone. I needed to fix that scene, but by using my precious writing time to do it — particularly just before a weekend — some of the forward thrust has faded.

Fortunately for me, I’ve dealt with this many times before, and know that by going right back to my 1K words/day schedule tomorrow, everything will be roaring along by Wednesday. But I think a lot of writers tend to stall out in situations like this. It’s easy to take a little break — now that I’ve fixed this, you think, why don’t I go back and check everything else? Then you start rereading things umpteen thousand times and deciding it wasn’t that good in the first place, and that maybe you should work on this other great idea you had last week instead…

You get the picture.

Coincidentally, I ran into a friend of mine today, and she asked me about how you sustain the writing of a book. Perhaps because we ran into each other at a gym, I told her writing a book was a lot like training for a race. You have little injuries, or technique issues you need to address — and sometimes you’re sidelined for a few days — but if you stick to the schedule, you’ll be prepared come race day. And you don’t worry so much about how the swimming or the biking or the running looks. Sure, you do the best you can — and there will always be things you can work on — but the main thing is just showing up. Because if you don’t show up, nothing will get done.

Writing’s the same way — you just have to stick with it. So don’t stop! Don’t get mired in editing your first three — or thirty-three — chapters! If you have to, do your daily quota first — and then go back and tinker. But approach writing just as you would training — only instead of running X miles, you’ll be writing X words daily. (With the occasional rest day, of course — I take weekends off.) Keep to the schedule, and in the end, you — and your book — will be fit as a fiddle!

Well, now that I’ve gotten up on my online soapbox instead of taking the nap I intended to (thank you, Mary Poppins), I’m off to clear a spot on the kitchen counter and cook dinner for my dad. (No, it’s not Shake ‘n’ Bake.)

In the meantime, keep writing… and I’ll be back soon!

What a party!

My wonderful in-laws and husband threw me a fabulous party last night, with enough Wicked Blueberry Coffee Cake, Blackout Brownies and chocolate chip cookies to sink a ship. So many of my friends came — writing friends, school friends, neighbors, friends I’ve known for years — it was wonderful to have so many people I care about in one place! (Not to mention two cases of wine.) And my husband and kiddos got me a brand new signing pen — a beautiful Waterford with a felt-tip. No more begging Bic pens from booksellers!

Speaking of booksellers, I’ll be at Borders in Austin today (by the south Central Market); feel free to stop by and say hi! I’ll have chocolate chip cookies and blueberry coffee cake, but I’m afraid I’m out of wine!

On the writing front, Friday was a rewrite day — have you ever written a scene and know you’ve only got 60 percent of what you could get out of it? Well, I spent Friday morning wringing out another 20 percent. And with one more day — thankfully, my schedule will be back to normal come Monday, with Abby in camp and Ian in school — I hope to hit 100 percent, or close to it. It will be good to be back on schedule. I haven’t walked in a week, and although my daughter has been more than patient (an unlimited book budget, lots of lemon cake and a ton of orange soda has helped) sitting in Starbucks while I work, I think everyone will prefer this arrangement.

BTW, I’ll be teaching another course called Gotta Get that Novel Out at the Writers’ League of Texas this fall… and next week, at the Agents and Editors conference, I’ll be doing a breakout session on agent hunting.

Oh — and if you’ll be in Plano next weekend, my signing has moved from 12 to 1, and I’ll be in Mesquite at 2:00. I’ll also be on CCTV Books in Review!

Gosh… with all this excitement, I think I need a nap…

Kayak Escape

It’s hot, hot, hot here. But it’s not too hot when you’re on the water!

Today I abandoned my laptop and took Abby to Zilker Park, where we ponied up ten dollars and hopped into a kayak. I’ve never kayaked before, and I have no idea why — it was glorious! Like being in a glass-bottomed boat — but quiet, only the splash of your paddle in the water. The mayflies (I think they’re mayflies) are everywhere right now, hanging from the willows and water hemlock like a second set of leaves, than billowing up in grayish clouds when a bird or a breeze disturbs them. From a distance, they look like dandelion seeds on the wind — magical. (To me, anyway — Abby wasn’t too crazy about the ones who landed on her bathing suit.)

It was hot on the trail, but sweet, cool and shady under cottonwoods, sycamores, and pecan trees. (Particularly with all of the water running off the paddle into my lap.) We passed over an underwater forest of hydrilla and other aquatic plants, like extra-tall aqueous pine trees, swaying in the current, and little fish (perch? I should know) darting between them, joined occasionally by a bass or positively prehistoric alligator gar. Wow, they’re huge — tan with brown polka-dots, a long narrow jaw — and the marvelous thing about kayaks is that you just glide right over them, and they hardly notice you! And turtles, turtles, everywhere — including Snappy the alligator snapping turtle.

I’ve walked around that lake hundreds — probably thousands — of times, but saw it in an entirely new way today. (We even paddled over to my favorite ‘thinking spot’ — the voodoo pew on the other side of the lake.) And I’ll have to do it again.

(Tomorrow, however, it’s back to the keyboard…)

Oh — and by the way — the Cozy Chicks blog is up! Lots of fun stuff coming down the pipeline…

Summer vacation (ha)

Well, at least one of my children is out of school for the summer. And I’m so desperate for writing time I took my six-year-old to Starbucks this morning, where I bought her a Frappuccino and let her listen to The Smiths on my iPod for over an hour. I don’t think it was the CD with “Girlfriend in a Coma” on it. Have to check that.

On the plus side, I did get 850 words done. (843, actually, but who’s counting?)

At any rate, I apologize for the lack of recipes lately, but we’ve been eating a lot of Shake ‘n’ Bake around here. How do I break up the monotony, you ask? Why, Barbecue, Tangy Honey, and Original, of course. (My children abhor Hot ‘n’ Spicy, but I like it.) Now, I know just what you’re thinking: watch out Gourmet Magazine. HOWEVER, since the galleys of Dead and Berried are going to print next month, I have some recipe testing coming up… I’ll let you know how it goes.

On the signing schedule, I’ll be in San Antonio this coming weekend (if I get around to getting a hotel room), Austin the following weekend, and Dallas the weekend of the 23rd. The books are coming along swimmingly — I’m past the 33% mark on my new werewolf mystery — and I got a call from Berkley yesterday about Barbara’s beading book. (Currently titled Tourmaline Teal, but that evidently will change.) They’re working on the cover now; I can’t wait to see it!

Happy summer everyone, and to all of you SAHMs and SAHDs, I’m right there with you. (Parenting tip of the day: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is good for at least an hour — and it’s got catchy Oompah Loompah tunes, too! Toss in some microwave popcorn and you might get to squeeze in a shower!)

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