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Archive for February, 2010

I’ve often heard that each chapter in a book should end in a cliffhanger. According to the Encarta Dictionary, a cliffhanger is a noun meaning:

1. ending left teasingly unresolved: an unresolved ending in a part of a serialized drama or book that leaves the audience or reader eager to know what will happen next
2. tense situation: a situation full of tension or suspense because it is not clear what will happen next

The goal of using a cliffhanger is to keep the reader turning the pages instead of stopping at the end of a chapter. The cliffhanger is a mini-climax, and the following chapter (if it’s by the same point of view character) usually shows the reaction to it, followed by an evaluation of the character’s options, and the decision he or she must make to move forward toward the long-term goal. That gives the character a new short-term goal, builds tension, creates rising action, and moves the story towards its major climax.

 

Do you like cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, or do you think it becomes too predictable/repetitive? What makes the best cliffhangers—danger, emotional tension, a new clue to what’s going on? What books have you read that use cliffhangers effectively?

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Last night I spent 4 hours online picking out a medicine cabinet, lights, and faucets for our bathtub and sinks for the remodelers to install next week. Since my husband fell asleep before I made my final selections, I thoughtfully printed off copies of the spec sheets and photos of my first and second choices in case he wanted some real input in the decision. (He never cares, but he likes to be consulted.)

I stapled together the ones that were meant as a group so there would be no confusion, totaled up the prices, including tax, and double-checked everything to make sure my presentation would be professional and my preference would be obvious. That’s when things fell apart.

What I failed to notice in my 4 hour analysis of bathroom fixtures was that even though both my first and second choice were available on the 22nd—which I interpreted as meaning they were in stock since yesterday was the 22nd —it said 3/22/10, not 2/22/10. That one little number difference meant I could wait a month and hope the installers would still be available, or I could pick out a third choice.

To relate this to writing, therefore keeping this post from being a whiny rant, I’d like to stress the importance of timeframes in a story. Just as the bathroom remodeling could not be done the way I envisioned it within the time our contractor had allowed, our stories will not be believable if the plot couldn’t happen within the period the story spans. (If you’ve ever watched the show 24, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Sorry you 24 fans—I used to be one of you.)

I noticed this problem in my own novel when I realized the protagonist’s dog grew from a tiny puppy to a hulking 70-pounder within 3 months. No, he wasn’t on steroids; I forgot his age and what type of dog he was and made him fit the story needs.

Readers are smart. They catch things writers miss. Maybe it’s because we “know” what’s happening, so we overlook the inconsistencies, but errors in the timeframe will ruin the flow of a story. Take time to figure out the timeline and make sure the scenes are in order. Having Christmas dinner and then a scene with Christmas Eve is fine if you intend it as a flashback, but if it’s just an oversight, your story will lose credibility. (No, I didn’t do that. There were a few other scenes out of order though.)

Timeframes must also be considered when selecting the proper tense to use. Present, past, and future tenses are pretty easy to understand, but can still confuse the reader when shifts in the tense are made improperly. Due to the complexity of many stories, you may also need to use progressive or perfect tenses. They can be a bit tricky, and are hard to explain, so rather than go into detail myself, here’s an excellent site that will clarify how to handle shifts in tense within a story:

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/601/08/  Verb Tense Consistency

 

Here’s a site that talks about adhering to believable time lines, and other important things writers need to understand. It’s pretty deep, but has lots of gems to think about:

http://www.storyinliteraryfiction.com/essays-on-writing/strong-voice-attention-to-time/

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How do you keep track of the timelines in your stories? What other types of inconsistencies annoy you as a reader? Do you know of any quick-growing dogs that I could give my protagonist?

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My friend Stephen Book, at Powder Burns and Bullets, has bestowed the Honest Scrap Award upon me. Apparently this award is “for bloggers who put their heart on display as they write from the depths of their soul.” I’m deeply honored to receive it.

I’m supposed to write 10 things about myself, but since I used up the most exciting details in an earlier post, I haven’t much of interest to add. However, being an ardent writer, I won’t let that stop me.

Here are 10 more things you probably don’t know about me, all of which are related to writing or books.

1. My favorite suspense author is Dean Koontz, and I especially love his Odd Thomas series.

2. I own, and have read, the entire set of Tarzan books (paperback), by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

3. The book I value most is the old King James Version Bible that my mother gave to my grandmother in 1967, and then gave to me after my grandmother’s death.

4. Some of my favorite classic books are: To Kill a Mockingbird; The Odyssey; Tom Sawyer; and Don Quixote de la Mancha.

5. While in college, I wrote all my notes and stories in shorthand, including some highly philosophical essays. Years later when I tried to transcribe them, I couldn’t read my own writing. 

6. I’m currently reading Dare to Lose, by Shari Lieberman, which recommends a weight loss regime based on lifestyle changes.

7. One of my favorite children’s books is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle. I’m pretty sure I can still recite it by heart as I read it out loud to my kids at least a bazillion times.

8. One of my favorite series of books is the tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card.

9. I read A Dog of Flanders once when I was a child, and I still feel like crying when I think of how it ended.

10. My favorite stories as a child were fairy tales. Now that I’m older, those same stories are too violent for my taste.

It was hard to narrow down my choices for bloggers deserving the Honest Scrap Award. I wanted to give it to people who haven’t already received it, and who touch my heart whenever I read their blogs. I spend lots of time reading blogs, but there are only a few that I check every day. Two of my favorites are Carla’s Writing to Distraction, and Elizabeth’s Ramblings. Both of these ladies write from their hearts.

Carla always has inspiring posts, and she shares her thoughts about writing and life in a sincere, interesting way. I enjoy following her writing journey, and am rooting for her to achieve her goals.

Elizabeth shares personal anecdotes from her life, and comments on what she sees going on around her. She is the friend I turn to for support when life feels overwhelming. She never lets me down.

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What book from your childhood still sticks with you? What’s your favorite genre to read? What type of book are you currently working on?   

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One of the search terms that keeps coming up in my blog statistics is “writing prompts,” so I thought I’d spend some time talking about them. In earlier posts I mentioned where to look for ideas to write about, but I didn’t discuss how to get started developing them into a story. Here are some suggestions on what to do with writing prompts.

Start out by spending a few minutes free writing thoughts generated by the prompt. By that I mean jotting down whatever comes to your mind, without self-editing or crossing things out. Some of the ideas will be garbage, but there may be some real gems there, too.

When the ideas stop flowing, pick one of them that seems interesting and try to write a paragraph about it. In my opinion, if you can’t come up with a paragraph within a few minutes, it will be hard to develop that idea into a story. See if something else you wrote down works better. The point is to get your writing started and to stimulate creativity. If one prompt doesn’t do that, there are plenty more to choose from.

Jot down plot points or conflicts that might be used to turn the idea into a short story, add in a character or two, and think of a potential ending. Don’t feel like you have to include everything you come up with; the idea is to generate possibilities, with a loose structure you can use to build a complete story.

Here are a couple of pictures that give me lots to think about; maybe they’ll spark ideas for you, too.

 

If you prefer written prompts, perhaps one of these will help get you started:

*  Why did your neighbors come home from their vacation 5 days early?

*  What was that guy in the red pickup doing parked in front of your house when you were leaving for work?

*  How did the squirrel get into your son’s bedroom when he wasn’t even home?

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What type of prompts do you like to use to get your creativity flowing? Where do you get your best ideas?

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Two of my blogging friends, Jai and Elizabeth, have awarded me the Fabulous Sugar Doll Blogger Award. I’m not sure what the criteria are for receiving this, but since they think I deserve it, I humbly accept. This comes with the responsibility of mentioning 10 things other people may not know about me, and also passing on the award to other deserving bloggers.

I’m sure there are many of you who deserve it, so I would like to offer you all the opportunity to nominate your own blog, or someone else’s, for this award. Leave a short comment telling me why you or the person you’re nominating is a Sugar Doll, along with a link to the blog. I will visit those blogs, and if I agree they qualify I will post the links in a special spot on my Blogs I Like page, and pass on the award.

Now, for 10 things most of you don’t know about me:

1.  I hate to cook, but I make awesome chicken noodle soup.

2.  My favorite television show is Hoarders, on A&E.

3.  My favorite vacation spot (so far) is Orlando, Florida.

4.  I used to raise pheasants until a hunting club opened up down the road.

5.  I received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, and a minor in Spanish, from Purdue University.

6.  My parents had 9 children. I’m the youngest, and the only one born in a hospital.

7.  I worked in Chicago for 13 years before moving to the country.

8.  Making my bed as soon as I get up in the morning is the only household chore I’m fanatical about.

9.  My favorite game is Scrabble, and I can beat everyone I know except my mother.

10. I enjoy collecting salt and pepper shakers and keychains.

Well, that was really hard. I didn’t realize my life was boring until I tried to come up with things people might think are interesting.

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What’s interesting about you? What’s your hobby? Do you deserve the Sugar Doll Award?

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Years ago, when I was young and clueless, my sister and I went for a walk with my brother-in-law (B-I-L), who’s blind. The three of us were strolling along arm in arm, with my B-I-L in the middle, when we encountered a huge light pole in the middle of the path. I let go of his arm and curved to the left to avoid it; at the same time, my sister let go of his other arm and curved to the right. Yup, my B-I-L kept going straight and slammed right into the pole.

Since we did NOT do it on purpose, we all felt terrible, especially my B-I-L, who almost knocked himself out when he hit that steel pole. After I quit laughing (It was sooo 3 Stooges-ish) I realized I’d learned a valuable lesson. Actually, I guess I learned several things:

1. Sight is a wonderful blessing which many of us take for granted.

2. You can get around most obstacles if you see them coming, but they’ll stop you in your tracks if you don’t.

3. If you have no idea where you’re going, you need a reliable guide to help you get there.

4. Don’t assume others know what’s going on, even if it seems obvious to you.

5. For people to see the world through your eyes, you have to make sure you give them sufficient information.

So, you’re probably wondering how this relates to writing. Or maybe you’re wondering if my B-I-L got mad after he recovered enough to speak: yes, he did. (And he still doesn’t think it was funny!)

I could clearly see the pole looming ahead of us that day long ago, but it was a critical piece of information my B-I-L was missing. It broke the flow of our stroll, just as a lack of crucial details can interrupt the flow of a story when readers must stop to figure out what’s going on.

We use the sense of sight to describe what the characters look like, to give details regarding the setting, to add suspense, to reveal clues about people’s emotions and actions, and to paint a vivid picture of what we want our readers to see. With so many visual images to choose from, we sometimes overload our stories with unnecessary details, but in other cases we fail to point out things the reader needs to know.

Our goal should be to create clear images with our words so the story we’re telling progresses smoothly from beginning to end. If there are poles along the way, we must guide our readers around them. Let them see the world through your characters’ eyes by having the characters see through yours.

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What type of visual details do you think are most important to share with readers?  Do you have any funny stories to share about something you saw—or didn’t see?

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The sense of taste is closely related to the sense of smell. Both are chemical reactions that send messages to the brain, where the different flavors and odors are identified. When there’s a problem with the ability to smell, the sense of taste is also affected. Age, smoking, certain medications, head injuries, illness, and chemical exposure are among the things that can affect a person’s sense of taste.

Taste is difficult to use in many stories as quick-paced plots don’t allow much time for enjoying a meal. When the character gets a chance to eat, take advantage of it to include sensory details that will make the reader relate to what is going on. They can associate their own experiences with what the character is eating.

For example, if a truck driver sits at the counter eating chili, the reader knows he likes spicy food. Adding extra hot sauce may suggest he’s older, or a smoker, and has lost some of his taste buds. If he orders apple pie à la mode he’s a guy who has fond memories of his childhood (that’s my interpretation, not necessarily accurate). Even if you don’t mention the actual taste, reading about familiar foods will invoke a reaction in the reader’s mind.

To give a character an extra flaw, you could show the loss of taste affecting the person’s ability to detect spoiled food, or causing them to add so much extra salt for flavor that people think they’re weird—and it gives them uncontrolled high blood pressure. Lots of opportunities for taste to spice up a story. (Lame attempt at humor, I know…)

One of my favorite books, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is rich with details that bring his characters and setting to life. It has wonderful descriptions of the food for sale in the market. The following excerpt goes against the writing advice we read nowadays, but I love it:

“There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.”

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What foods do you crave when you are worried or depressed? Which foods do you associate with happy memories? If you were stuck on a deserted island with only one type of food available, which food would you hope it would be? (My answer for all of those: butter pecan ice cream)

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