Monday, February 28, 2011

New Zealand Earthquake Relief Effort

Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist is Doing the Write Thing. And it's a great idea.

Margot's putting together a charity raffle to help out the Christchurch, New Zealand earthquake relief efforts. She's looking for authors who are willing to donate signed copies of their books to support the cause.  In her words...

If you are an author who’d like to donate a signed copy of one of your books, please email me at MargotKinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) and let me know that you’d like to be a part of Do the Write Thing and which title you’d like to contribute. Your donation will be greatly appreciated!! If you've already been in touch, thank you! I truly appreciate it.
Margot says ...
Once the list of authors and titles is final, I’ll announce the “book packages.” You’ll then have the opportunity to win one of them. How do you get into the raffle? All we’ll ask is that you make a donation to the New Zealand Red Cross. Once you do that, you’ll be entered into the raffle, and you will have a chance to win a “book package” of terrific reads by very talented authors.

I've already emailed her and offered to donate a copy of Sliding on the Edge. If you can help, please contact her ASAP. Thanks. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

If it Smells Like a Cliché, It is a Cliché. Try Something Different: First Lines lll

The first two posts on First Lines were about Tone and Gimmicks. This one is about that all too horrible animal--the cliché and how you might avoid starting without one. 

Of course, "It was a dark and stormy night;" is the first one that comes to mind, but what are some others? Here are a couple that agents and editors see a lot.

"At first morning's light she opened her eyes and  . . ."

"We would arrive at the new house in only minutes and . . . "

Now, not all cliches in writing are bad; they convey images and information quickly and concisely, and sometimes they are great at characterization; however, unless you're trying to reveal a character, unless the idea of cliche is central to your story, unless there is absolutely no other way to say what you want, I'd not start with one. Well, I wouldn't these days, but that's because I have in the past and had my hand slapped.

So how can you avoid cliches in a world where everyone and his pet hamster are writing and publishing--where social media sends ideas around the world instantly, so that what was fresh and exciting in the morning is stale and . . . clichéd by noon?

Here are some ideas I've pulled together from other writers and people who have real talent in this business of writing and knowing what's good.

Start writing where you feel a spark. Do you really have a character firmly in your head, in your heart? Then write about that character: describe him, let him talk the way you hear his voice, put him into a place that he fits.

Skip writing that first sentence and write the second or the third. Hey, go for broke (cliche alert) and write the second paragraph. Then promise yourself you'll go back later and write the first one. Guess what? You may not have to. You may have already written it.

Pick the most exciting, the most vivid scene in your book. Write that scene. The heck with the opening line. You can always do that later, right?

So, let's say you really write dialog like a New York Times best seller writes it. Don't. Instead, force yourself to start your book with description or narration--something you're not as good at writing. Re-writing is always an option, so you can always go back and do that opening dialog . . . or not.

Do you have some techniques that help you get those first lines just right? Care to share?:

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Goodbye, Lisa . . . with love.

The Write Game is closed for the rest of the week. I'm taking some time off to get used to the world without LK Madigan--a super writer and a good friend.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Those Gimmicky First Lines: Ax 'em!

Last week I said I delete a first line if I don't think it sets the tone for my book, and I promised to discuss the other reasons I delete first lines. The gimmicky line definitely gets the ax in my stories. What's a gimmicky line? It's something that catches the eye, shocks with its intensity, promises something that the author fails to deliver in the following paragraph or the rest of the book. 

Here's an example:

Marge stood at the edge of the canyon, ready to end her life on the count of three. Last year she'd had nothing but wonderful adventures ahead of her--glamorous parties, trips to any place in the world. Her mom and she lived together then, and her mom didn't approve of that kind of lifestyle. She always shook her head when Marge came down the stairs dressed for an evening out or a trip to Paris. What did her dowdy mother know? Nothing. Neither did her dad. He never did much except read the sports pages.

Huh? Just look at the poor reader who thought she was getting into something really exciting. She was promised this count of three, a girl hurling herself off the cliff to sure death, and then suddenly she's back to a year before, discussing Mom and Dad. Maybe this backstory can come later, but not now, not on this first page. On the first page the writer has to maintain the intensity she's established with that opening line.

It took a while for me to decide what was gimmicky rather than intense, interesting and fresh. So here's what I came up with to test the openings I write.  I ask myself these questions:

1) What does that line do to start developing the character?

2) What does it do to show the reader something about the narrator?

3) How about the setting? Does it take the reader where my story will happen?

4)  Does it help to establish the tone of my story?

5) And, of course, does the paragraph that follows sustain my first line? How about the rest of the page? The chapter?

One line can't do all of these things, but I think it should do at least one and do it well. Note that the categories are for discussion and convenience and not always clear-cut, especially when the writer is skilled and can pack a lot into a few words. One thing that I really like to accomplish is to reveal any of these four story elements and jolt the reader at the same time with the unexpected, the tantalizing, the bizarre. 

Okay, so I want something that will keep eyes on my writing, that will get the reader to move on to my first paragraph (where, of course, I still must shine as a writer), and then to the bottom of that first page where I'll make them turn to page two with a brilliant "what's next" sentence. So, you see what I'm saying? The first line is very important, but you can't hang everything on it even when it's the most fabulous first line ever written.

Here are a few first lines I admire. I've tried to separate them out according to the categories I use--again for discussion and convenience. And you'll notice I don't stick with YA and MG; I don't stick with the most recent books either.


"The first time I saw him he couldn't have been more than sixteen years old a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick." Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

"The first thing I did was steal a body." Lester,  Bedeviled 

"I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another despite my feeble attempts to control it." Atwood, Lady Oracle


"If I'd blinked, I would have missed it." Henry, Learning to Swim

"She saw a beach made of ice, and she felt her heart breaking." Lo, Huntress


"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reached out to touch the child sleeping beside him." McCarthy,  The Road

"On rainy days, we don't have to work in the woods, gathering water until our backs ache and our fingers tremble around out spoons." Bachorz, Drought

"Ten minutes before it happened, four-year-old Laurie Kenyon was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the den rearranging the furniture in her dollhouse." Clark, All Around the Town

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rejection or Learning From Those First Line Mistakes-l

If any of you authors visiting here today has never been rejected, stop reading now and go something useful, like wash the dishes or vacuum the car. But if you have suffered that heart-stinging, stomach-wrenching, "Thank you for considering us for your manuscript. Unfortunately,  blah-blah-blah," then read on.

I've been very fortunate to find an editor who likes what I write and who is patient enough to read through my manuscripts, then offer suggestions that will shape them into publishable pieces. But getting to this point has been the most difficult job I've ever tackled and that includes trying to land a Marlin a few years back.

There are many good statements, chapters, books about how to become a published author (and, for now, I'm not including self-publishing as an option and sticking with the traditional route). When I boiled down most of this advice, I came up with a rule for myself.

After three rejections of the same manuscript, I take a  hard look at those opening lines to see if I can find out what's wrong--why agents and editors aren't asking me to read more of my "brilliant" work. What I've decided is that ten to one the problem is in those first lines, that first paragraph, those first 1 to 3 chapters.

I start by deleting that first line when:

it doesn't sufficiently set the tone for my book. 

it's more gimmicky than intense, interesting, fresh.
it has anything that even smells like a cliche.
it's standoffish from what follows next.
it's overblown for what follows next.

In this post I'll deal with tone.

So what is tone? It's your voice that should start at the beginning and continue all the way through your book. Do you want your book to be humorous? How about intimate? Scary? Here are some examples of what I think are strong opening lines to books that sustain the tone these lines establish immediately.

"Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water." Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Shirts

It's her word choice, her pov and the sentence structure that plunks the reader on Alcatraz as seen from her kid's eyes. If you've read her story, you know that's exactly the tone through out--youthful, a touch sarcastic, but with a heap of charm.

"The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go

Notice, "yer" and "don't got nothing." Ness has set up the language and the sarcastic tone for his MC, then he lures us into a futuristic world immediately, a one where dogs learn to talk. One line, folks. One perfect line.

Next post I'll be dealing with gimmicky first lines and why they just don't work--IMHMO. Want to share other notable first lines that set the tone and make you read on? How about sharing one of your own? You've labored over it, maybe someone will learn from what you've created or be able to offer a suggestion that will catch that next agent's or editor's eye. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

YAmore or How Hot Can It Get in February?

Well, here goes. I'm entering That's YAmore Blogfest to have some fun this Valentine season. Shutting my eyes and thinking about steaming up the screen with something hot, but YA suitable. That's a challenge in itself, but to do it in 250 words adds a bit more difficulty. Love scenes are NOT my strongest suit, so cut me some slack when you read and comment here, okay?

Liz starts the movie and leans close. My side goes steamy from her heat. Below my belly button, tiny needles tattoo my skin, and I can’t tell if it hurts or if it feels better than anything I’ve felt in my life.

I keep my eyes on the screen while Neo hacks away at his computer.

Liz pulls my hand around her shoulders, then rubs my palm with her thumbs. 


While Neo’s figuring out what’s real, what isn’t, what’s next, so am I.

She brushes her lips across my knuckles. I miss a scene; my heart misses a beat.

Neo hurtles off walls and into battle, a super human, and I’m thinking Neo wouldn’t sit here, waiting for Liz to take charge. Neo would be the man.

“You like?” She asks.


I pull her around to face me, and plant a kiss almost where I planned but close enough to get her attention. 


Her mouth opens under mine, and now my lips heat up like the rest of me, and I’ve got tiny hearts pumping everywhere. I push harder and she falls back onto the couch with me kneeling over her.


“You’re good, Hutch.” She smiles up at me, and I kiss her again. 


I am good. Everything inside me says, “good to go” when she holds her hands against my chest.

“That’s it.”


“That’s what?”


“I don’t go all the way.”


Those tiny hearts turn into satellites around the thudding planet that’s ready to go nova in my chest.

From The Double Negative, WIP,  © C. Lee McKenzie

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hearts and Flowers

What better time of the year than Valentine's Day to give and receive gifts that show how much people mean to you? I've finished my workshop layout and have used several of the suggestions of friends who posted comments in response to my plea for help. Here's my linky Valentine to you all for those whose suggestions gave me exactly the kind of help I needed.

Lisa Gail Green, you are a sweetheart, indeed. 
I've added a very short bit about 
blending narration with dialog because of 
your idea

I also used Kelly Hashway's idea of having the kids act out the exchanges. I'm sure that will help to involve them much more than simply reading. It should make the workshop fun too.

Catherine Stein made a great contribution: ". . . conversation doesn't always follow. In other words, people often continue along their trajectory, their interests, and when they do that, they're not actually answering the line that went before them." I'll be sure to point this out as a difference between dialog and conversation.

Carin S. shared an interesting and creative way to engage the kids. I'm not sure I can use it at this workshop, but I'm definitely keeping it in mind for the future. Here's her idea: Have the kids go into a store or a mall and write down conversations verbatim, then return to the workshop and share what they overheard. I love it!

The Brain Lair is one of my favorite book review places and this blogger added another super tip.
If you can't take the kids outside or into a crowded store, use a UTube clip or make a quick Animoto video. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Back to Basics-Dialog ii

So in Back to Basics-Dialog 1 we pretty much said:

1. Dialog isn't conversation.
2. It shouldn't have "echoes" like repeated names or phrases.
3. It should make the reader curious.
4. It should create or build conflict by revealing more than the characters actually say.

I thought that for the workshop I'm doing I'd take some samples of dialog, have kids read them aloud, and then ask them to talk about the short scenes, guiding the discussion with specific questions.

Here's one example:

“Wait up, Princess.” When I look back Juan is jogging to catch up. I take out my keys and  hurry to my driver’s door. 
“Late for something?” He’s right behind me.
“I’ve got homework.” I’ve already opened the door and scooted behind the wheel. 
“Sure. Just thought I'd tell you about Keith. See you tomorrow, Princess.”
“I’m not a — What about Keith?”
(From: The Princess of Las Pulgas, 2010)


How does the girl feel about the boy? 

What do you think the boy says after the girl's last line of dialog? 

I might ask them to write that last line and then re-read the dialog with a partner. 

So how does this exercise strike you? Is there more I could do besides another dialog sample and discussion? I think I need to keep these exercises short, varied, and interactive since the kids are from 10 to 13. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Small Pause

I'm taking a short break from my posts on Dialog to share something I haven't felt I should until now. My good friend and super critique partner, L.K. Madigan, is quite ill and undergoing chemotherapy.

I write about this only because she's gone public on her blog and the 2009 Debs have run a contest with the prizes being her books donated by our members. Since Lisa's illness is no longer private I won't be violating her confidence.

The Oregonian has nominated Lisa's Flash Burnout for the Oregonian Reader's Choice Award. I've already voted to help her win, and I'd like to ask my readers to at least consider her book when going here [Oregonian ] to cast your vote.

Thank you all.