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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Reading your writing out loud

Sharon A. Crawford almost reached her tripping point reading from Beyond the Tripping Point

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.                                                                                            ~P.J. O’Rourke

The stage was set for the public reading. The host introduced me and I grabbed the author copy of my book Beyond the Tripping Point. I walked up to the lectern, took the mic, opened the book, prepared to read…

And could barely see the words.

No, folks I wasn’t going blind. And my glasses were (and are) just fine.

The culprit was not enough light. Only dim ceiling lights. The restaurant had supplied the lectern and mic but did they forget we would need to see to read? I wasn’t the only one who had problems seeing. Usually I enjoying reading in public and am told I do it very well. Not last Thursday evening’s session in the patio room at a Toronto restaurant. I was reading as part of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Authors Association season launch, which outside of the restaurant’s gaff with the lack of light, went very well and brought in record numbers for the branch. I was proud to be reading as part of the CAA program. And yes I did manage to stumble through the short passage I read (and was actually heard as others told me afterward). However, I was so disconcerted by the lighting situation that I forgot to mention the date of my book launch (November 4, 2012). My publisher did, when he went up to the lectern.

My publisher since told me to print out my reading excerpt from my Word copy double-spaced in 14 point. Another author told me to use sans serif font and print all caps. Not sure whether my eyes could deal with the latter, but the large print sans serif sounds good. I might also bring a flashlight or a clip-on book light – if I can find new batteries for my book light and figure out how to insert them. Never again will I complain about bright lights shining in my eyes as I do a public reading.

Fortunately, this reading was a dry run (as my publisher put it) for the book launch.

This reading experience made me think how much reading out loud can help the manuscript in-the-works. Sometimes hearing what you have written puts your story in a different perspective. And your setup for reading-out-loud can bring out different experiences. If you read out loud, record it and play it back, you can hear your words as if coming from another person. If you merely read out loud, you hear the sound from inside your head.

Both methods can give you excellent feedback. You might discover:

Something in the plot sounds jarring and doesn’t work.

One character’s dialogue doesn’t sound right for the character or for the scene.

The point of view you have used may not work. For example if you wrote it from the third person omniscient – see all and hear all – like looking down from a cloud – it might sound cold and distant for what is intended to be an intimate story. (We will be covering the ins and outs of point of view in an upcoming blog. Soon).

You will hear your word errors – words that don’t fit exactly for what you mean, words left out or repeated.

Reading out loud can be an enlightening experience (pun on word intended). You can hear your characters live, breath, and speak. Reading out loud is an excellent tool to help you improve your writing. Playing back what you read works even better.

And if you are going to read in public, be prepared. Bring a large printout of your reading material and a book light or small flashlight. And practice beforehand. That latter (and my experience reading in public) was my saving grace last Thursday evening. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to walk away without reading.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of Beyond the Tripping Point

http://www.bluedenimpress.com

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Fiction-writing lessons from my students and more

Cover of my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
                                    ~ Anaïs Nin

Tuesday evening I taught a workshop on Developing Character and Dialogue in Fiction at the Runnymede Public library branch in Toronto. We covered what I’ve been blogging about the past few weeks and a bit more. I used excerpts from my mystery short story collection, Beyond the Tripping Point, to illustrate some points – which I’ve been doing here. There was one big difference – I had the proof copy of my book in my hands. This is very exciting and I’m putting the book cover up at the top of this post. You can find out more about Beyond the Tripping Point at my publisher’s website www.bluedenimpress.com.

Okay, back to the workshop.

One thing I really like about these workshops is the sharing and the learning. I always learn something. A student amazed me with his beginning of a story about a teenager starting the first day at high school. The student was a girl and that means he wrote it from a female perspective and did so very well. We will be covering this aspect and others for Point of View in writing fiction in future posts.

This story was one of three scenarios suggested to write the beginning of a story (novel or short story) focusing on bringing out the characters. The first time round they wrote using everything but dialogue, i.e., character actions, thoughts and working in what they see going on around them. After we talked about dialogue, they went back to their story and added some dialogue. It was interesting to see that most of them chose the student starting high school scenario.

Here are the three suggested scenarios:

a)      A teenage girl’s first day attending high school.

b)      A former bully returns to her high school reunion. She is 40ish and a psychiatrist.

c)      A man sits in court waiting for the verdict to a criminal charge for a crime he did not commit.

All of them conjure up various ideas. For a) the participants in this workshop had somewhat shy students. I don’t want to reveal their plots because they may want to develop them into their own stories. However, some ways to show the character as shy would be to have her hang back from the others, maybe get sick to her stomach before she leaves home, get lost trying to find her first class. And what would be really different is if the student was a guy. Usually guys would be more brash but what about making the fellow shy. How would he react? Would he get bullied? What story lines can you come up with?

For b) you would be taking the other side of the fence – the bully returning to her alma mater, especially when she (or it could be a he) is now a psychiatrist. How would the ex-bully feel about even going to the reunion? Would he or she go alone or insist a spouse or best friend come along for moral support? Maybe the ex-bully hasn’t told friends or spouse about his or her checkered background. How does being a psychiatrist influence? What happens as the ex-bully walks in the school front door, the auditorium? Especially when he or she spots one or more former classmates that were bullied? The scenarios are endless here.

For c), which a couple of students tackled, you might go inside the accused’s head as he waits for the jury to return? How does the accused feel? Remember this accused did not commit the crime. How are the others in the courtroom behaving – his lawyer, the prosecutor, etc.? What is the courtroom like in relation to how it makes the accused feel? Has the accused locked his thoughts onto one juror and watches Juror No. whatever to see what this juror’s face shows. And when the jury returns and the foreperson is delivering the verdict, how does the accused feel as the foreperson speaks? And after? If found guilty? If found not guilty? Again, the scenarios are endless.

Try writing the beginning of a short story for all suggested scenarios and see what you come up with. Pay attention to developing your character and use dialogue. You never know; you might have the beginning of a good story.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Start your story with a bang

“If in the first chapter a hurricane is going to blow down an oak tree which falls through the kitchen roof, there’s no need to first describe the kitchen.”

— James Thayer, Author Magazine

We’ve all read short stories and novels that begin with a long description of a scene or a lot of telling about one of the major characters which may or may not include the character’s back story.

None of those is bad in itself. It is when these story beginnings are presented as a dull almost-exposition that leaves the reader yawning. I don’t know about you, but I always read the first page of a novel before deciding whether to buy the book or borrow it from the library. If I start flipping through the pages for something to grab my interest, I usually put the book back in the shelf.

Thayer says it so succinctly above. Why would you describe the kitchen first?

Some authors might figure they are building up the suspense slowly. News flash: This is the story or novel’s beginning. Sure, you want to create suspense but you want to jump right in with any suspense, not draw it out – leave the latter to later in your plot.

Let’s look at one of my earlier beginnings for my short story “Porcelain Doll.”

Sarah Holden eyeballed the porcelain doll in the window.  It sat among old tea sets and silver candleholders in Hanover’s newly opened antique shop. The doll’s eyes hypnotized Sarah back to 1965.  She saw another porcelain doll, her father dealing cards, and her last train ride.*

Although this isn’t the worst of beginnings, it is far from the best. It tries to grab the reader’s attention by trying to insinuate that something happened in 1965 but it doesn’t really excite the reader.

The first sentence in the second paragraph doesn’t help much either.

Sarah shuddered.  Her thoughts fastened on to that train ride.*

Maybe a little enticement with the “shuddered.” But the third paragraph nullifies any reader-grabbing potential.

That 1965 train trip started much the same as any other summer’s trip.  Sarah’s father worked for the railway which guaranteed the Holden family free train rides.*

*(All excerpts above Copyright 2002 Sharon A. Crawford)

You could get away with the above if you had a dynamite beginning. But with a weak beginning, the reader doesn’t care.

Flash forward to many, many versions later and to the final being published…

I can’t stop staring at the porcelain doll in the window. It sits among old tea sets and silver candleholders in Hanover’s newest antique shop. I keep trying to look away, but I can’t, despite my heart dancing inside my chest and my breath trying to keep time with it.

I have no business coming back to this area. I should have left the past with Mama when she died last fall from a tumble down the cellar stairs. But when I sorted through her clothes, a newspaper clipping fell from a dress pocket. Of course I had to read it. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)

The biggest difference is changing the Point of View from third person to first person (and we will cover POV in future posts.) That draws in the reader. We also still have Sarah staring in the window. But we also get her emotions as she does so. The reader wonders why and wants to read on.

The next paragraph goes into the past – but not back to 1965 yet. Here we get more teasers and realize there is more to this story than Sarah just looking at a doll in the window of an antique store.

So how can you start a story to grab the reader”

  • Create suspense as in “Porcelain Doll” above.
  • Start with dialogue but make it interesting. Don’t talk about the kitchen décor but get right into it. For example, my story “Gone Missing” begins with

The police can’t find her, Ms Bowman,” Robin Morgrave says. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)

You can also use a newspaper, radio or TV news excerpt (real or made up for your story), e-mail or text message to start. Just make sure it ties in with your story. For example a news story about a hurricane in Florida beginning a story about finding a missing child in Toronto won’t work – unless the search takes the main character to Florida or the hurricane spreads to Toronto and figures in the climax.

  • Blend in the setting with the story as I do in “Unfinished Business.” This also is an example of a longer lead.

Lilly Clark sat cross-legged on the park bench. She leaned forward, resting elbows on tanned knees. The background hum of cars on the nearby expressway competed with her daughter’s singing Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You while flying high on the swing.

Trish, at 12, was perched on the edge of womanhood.

Lilly, at 12, had lost her childhood and fought the urge to revisit it. She’d only faltered once, but even then hadn’t given in completely.

      Until today. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)

  • Create a mood consistent with your story. The cliché is a character hearing footsteps in the fog. Come up with an original mood – this works in mystery and suspense stories. Just make sure you put the character in the scene and show the character’s feelings and actions. I start “My Brother’s Keeper” with

Dear Danny:

It’s a bleak hide-inside winter’s day. Did the wind shudder that day you went to your studio for the last time? Did you have to push through deep snow from the house to the end of the driveway? Why the studio? Were you making an artistic statement setting the scene among the clay sculptures and paintings that, since Ellen’s death, were all you had left? (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press)

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of Beyond the Tripping Point

See http://www.bluedenimpress.com

 

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Making your characters speak – Part 2

Often I’ll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go.

– Doug Lawson

In my short story, “No Breaks,” Millie and her friend Jessica are driving up to a cottage when the main brakes fail. The following excerpt shows Millie going where she would rather not go but her only other choice is a possible collision.

This calls for controlled action, Millie decides. She steers the car over to the shoulder of the road, hits the parking brake, and when the vehicle slides into a stop, switches on the car’s double blinkers. The shakiness sweeps through her body. Her fingers smash against her open purse, knocking out most of its contents.

“Shit,” she says.

“Millie,” Jessica replies. But it is only a half-hearted reprimand. Jessica is bent almost into a ball ready to roll onto the floor. But she’s still hanging onto The Berry. Mille can see it peeking out from her right hand.

“You okay, pal?” Millie asks. “Hey, come on, we’re going to make it…”

(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press).

As you can see from the above passage, readers find out about your characters from what they say, what they do, what they think and what other characters say about them. What they do ties in with Doug Lawson’s quote above. And it is better to show what your characters are doing instead of telling the reader. That can be incorporated with the other three criteria.

Let’s look at what characters say and how their dialogue shows them to the reader. In the above conversation between Jessica and Millie, we can see that Millie is irreverent, speaks first and thinks later, has a short fuse, is probably scared and is definitely not pleased at the situation she finds them in. When Millie really looks at her friend, she realizes how scared she is and tries to reassure her.

We can also see from Jessica’s actions that she is scared. She is bent over double but she’s still hanging onto her BlackBerry (nicknamed The Berry by Millie, which also shows something about Millie – that comes earlier in the story – Millie is not a fan of current technology).

Both women are scared, but they each react differently.

Let’s look at another excerpt from further along in the same story. Millie and Jessica have finally found a gas station with a bay. While waiting their turn to get the brakes fixed, they go for a sundae at the attached fast food place.

“Want a sundae, pal?”she asks Jessica.

“All right. But no whipped cream.”

Jessica develops stubbornness to a fine art when the pasty-faced counter girl oozes whipped cream on top of her vanilla sundae.

“Remove the whipped cream,” Jessica says.

“But it comes with the order,” the girl replies.

“Then take it off.”

“I can’t. It’s already on.”

“Oh, here,” Millie says. “Give me that sundae, and the other one you make you just hold the whipped cream. Get it?”

“But you wanted chocolate.”

“So? Here, let me.” Millie grabs the spoon, removes the whipped cream, places it on a napkin and pushes the sundae towards the girl. “Okay, now you can bring the chocolate. And I want the whipped cream.” (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Book available fall 2012 from Blue Denim Press).

Here we have a problem with a food order where the server messes up. Instead of telling the reader what happens, the dialogue and the characters’ actions show the reader. We learn that Jessica isn’t just the scaredy-cat we might have thought and we also see that she is particular about her food. It is also her way of gaining some control in the bad situation of the main plot. The server is shown as someone who won’t accept responsibility for her mistakes. Millie again shows she is impatient and has to take some action so she butts in. We can visualize this scenario and relate to it because we’ve all had bad restaurant service at some time and maybe we didn’t have the nerve to do more about it than complain to our dinner companion. So, here we are connecting to the reader emotionally as well in an “aha” way.

The other points to remember about creating dialogue (besides showing the reader the characters) are:

  1. Dialogue must be relevant to the story, not just the characters, and move the plot along. The first dialogue excerpt above does this.
  2. Dialogue must be relevant to the characters. We’ve looked at what the characters are like from their dialogue but you wouldn’t have characters speak out of well, character. For example, an uneducated young man would probably say “ain’t” but wouldn’t speak like a university professor or vice-versa. However, remember, characters can change as the story progresses and they have to learn how to deal with their situation. That won’t make the uneducated young man suddenly talk posh – unless he goes through a Professor Henry Higging remake as in the play and movie, My Fair Lady.
  3. You can also work a character’s looks into dialogue. In “No Breaks,” at one point Jessica says that Millie has a nice heart-shaped face.
  4. Incorporate the character’s emotions into what she says rather than telling the reader. In the second excerpt above, it is clear that Millie is riled by their brake situation and so uses the sundae episode to try to take control…of something.
  5. Remember, the reader should be able to hear your characters speak.

Show not tell

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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