Five Writing Things I've Learned From "How to Get Away With Murder"
I admit it. I'm ga-ga for Viola Davis. Her facial muscles, her voice, her physical gestures... they're all instruments she plays, with the same talent that Itzhak Perlman plays his violin.
Unfortunately, I often fall asleep before the credits roll on the show How to Get Away With Murder
. (It's an edge-of-your-seat show, but my exhaustion usually trumps every
level of excitement.) The Thursday I was crafting this post was no exception. To make matters worse, it was the two-hour season finale. I dozed a bit, then woke up, watched the plot thicken even more, the events began to crescendo to the point I thought the show was over. And I switched channels (too early), figuring there was nothing left but credits. Which leads me to
Lesson #1: Don't give up.
I have been trying to get in contact with a man in Washington, D.C. for months. He has an important document, a first-person account of the event my current WIP focuses on. I've left phone messages until his voicemail box filled up. I've emailed him. I even tried to bribe him by sending him what I planned on writing in my forward about him. Nothing.
This week, I called again, figuring it'd be in vain. Again, as it has been futile so many times over the months. I almost doused my pantyliner when he actually answered. We spoke, he suggested some books, and perhaps I might get access to the document. Perhaps not, but at least it got me hopeful and energized again about the manuscript.
Lesson #2: It's all in the details.
Characters reveal themselves through their gestures. Their habits. They should become familiar to the reader in moments, gradually spread out, just like Davis, as Annalise Keating, does in this scene
Lesson #3: It's (also) all about the heart.
What a character wants--deep down--is crucial. If a writer doesn't know what their main characters desire at their inner core level, their plot will flounder. On Viola Davis' show, the lawyers peel off their exteriors like an onion getting peeled. Over the seasons, more and more of their interior is revealed.
Lesson #4: Include some twists.
How to Get Away With Murder
twists and turns. If you run into the kitchen, you might miss an OMG moment. Make sure your plot isn't plodding at a boring pace. Surprise the reader with some well-crafted and well-placed twists--the reader will thank you for it.
Lesson #5: End at the edge of a cliff.
I've heard famous authors say they end their writing day in the middle of a scene... that way, when they begin writing the next day, they won't have to prime the pump. Instead, they can jump right in. How to Get Away With Murder
screeches to a stop, teetering on the edge, at the end of every episode.
And now--very soon--I will be getting back to my WIP... 'cause one phone call made all the difference between hope and despondency.
What about you? What television or movie characters fascinate you?
was in awe over high school chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad
, mourns the lost days of Josiah Bartlet as president, Allison Janney as White House press secretary and Aaron Sorkin as speechwriter (The West Wing
), wishes all doctors were like most of the ones on St. Elsewhere
, and loved the cops on Hill Street Blues
. When not falling asleep in front of a television, she's teaching incredibly talented middle-schoolers or rescuing dogs for Love a Golden Rescue. To read more of her mumbled meanderings, go to her blog
Labels: Hill Street Blues, How to Get Away With Murder, St. Elsewhere, The West Wing, Viola Davis
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s A Writing Superhero!
So there I was, backed into a corner with a flailing manuscript. Despite feedback from writing partners, critique groups, and all my usual best efforts, it still needed something. But what?
“Help! HELPPPPP!” I hollered. And suddenly, I heard the cry, reverberating through my speakers. (It sounded a lot like Mighty Mouse singing, “Here I come to save the daaayyyyy!”) Look! Through the interwebs! In my Inbox! Swooping in with all kinds of ideas was…
Independent Editor Person!
So how do you know when it’s time to call for help? When might you
need an indie editor? Here are a few tips that could point you in that direction:
If you’re sending out your manuscript to agents and getting lots of requests for a full but no offers of representati
on, it might be beneficial to get an editor. Chances are good, you’ve probably got an interesting premise—yay! You’ve written a compelling query, too—yay! And your writing in the first ten pages—the standard number of pages in a query—must be great. Double yay! But somewhere past those ten pages and query, the writing’s falling apart—boo!
An editorial letter, three to five pages of feedback, might just save the writing day for you, clearing up the plot problems or character snafus that are keeping those agents from committing.
So ask your published writing friends, preferably friends who are published where you
want to be published, for editor recommendations. The cost of an indie editor varies widely, depending on the manuscript length, from reasonable ($50) to quite expensive ($4,000) so you’ll want to do your homework before you make a commitment.
If you have an agent who’s sent your manuscript out on round after round after round of submissions and it’s not selling,
it might be time to call an editor. When you and your agent have worked on the story and firmly believe it’s ready, when you both love the story, and especially if your feedback is very basic, it can be hard to see what’s stopping the sale. A fresh pair of professional eyes can open your
eyes to what needs revision.
An agent may know of editors that clients have used and make that recommendation, but again, it’s often enough to put out the request to friends in your genre. Reliable names come up on a reliable basis.
And finally, if your manuscript is winning multiple contests in professional writing organizations, like RWA or SCBWI, but then going nowhere fast,
an editor might be able to get that story over the finish line. It’s possible that the manuscript’s sagging somewhere in the middle and you need feedback on the whole
That’s what a superhero editor can do for you: look at the whole story and make suggestions for improvement. And believe me, it’ll feel like he—or she—has saved the writing day!
Cathy C. Hall is a kidlit author and humor writer.
She'll be attending an SCBWI conference in Decatur, Georgia, on March 10th--12th. She'd love to see you there!
Labels: Cathy C. Hall, editor help, revision tips, Romance Writers of America, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, writing advice
Learn From the Books That Move You
We have a lot of children's and YA writers that read this blog and take our classes. If you're writing for this audience (or if you have kids/grandkids), I want to tell you about an amazing picture book I read a couple years ago, and recently re-discovered while I was cleaning out my daughter's bookshelf.
Children's author, Paula Yoo, wrote a beautiful book, Twenty-two Cents,
Muhammad Yunus and his work in Bangladesh to help people borrow money,
as low as 22 cents, and pay it back without huge interest rates. His
inspiration came from the poverty he witnessed as a child in Bangladesh. Before he started his village bank, he was an economics
professor. Most people used the money he loaned them to start their own
businesses and become self-sufficient. He is responsible for loaning
more than ten billion US dollars in micro-credit and empowering people,
especially women, to take care of their families and break the cycle of
Why did this book bring tears to my eyes? I was touched by this man and his story and how Paula Yoo was able to
put such difficult concepts into ideas kids could understand. The
wonderful illustrations by Jamel Akib just add to the book’s beauty.
That is the thing about children's authors--they are so talented and take so much time with sentence structure, word choice, and imagery--very similar to poets. They are writing about difficult topics in terms kids can understand. Illustrators are creating works of art, and Twenty-two Cents
is a perfect example of all of this.
|Yoo and Yunus|
When I had my blog with my critique group, we were lucky enough to have Paula Yoo
write a few things about this book for a post, and I wanted to share an excerpt with you today, too.
Paula said about her picture book:
"But in flipping through the pages, I suddenly realized how much hard
work went into the making of this book. Writing a children’s picture
book biography is like sculpting a statue. At first, you’re presented
with a giant, heavy block of marble that you must slowly chip and chisel
away in order to carve a shape out of nothing. You can’t carve a statue
out of marble overnight. It takes a lot of time and patience. But if
you work steadily, a shape soon emerges. . .
"After all that work, I still had to make sure there was a
compelling and interesting STORY about a character that readers would
root for and care about. So I re-read and revised the manuscript
according to Muhammad Yunus’s emotional journey from a compassionate
child to an adult activist determined to eradicate poverty from the
world. How could this book about such a complicated topic (micro
lending) and epic theme (battling poverty) resonate with children? If
this book were a sculpture, I would now be polishing it into a high
sheen with this final revision process.
"In the end, I finally held what was a very slim and compact 32-page
picture book in my hands. But each word and each image represented
months and even years of hard work to tell Muhammad Yunus’s life story
in the best way possible. The book felt light in my hands, but I knew
its topic was epic in weight. I was finally able to step back and admire
the final shape that had emerged from this book."
I know you've heard that one of the best things you can do as a writer is to read. You can receive an entire workshop through reading Twenty-two Cents
or other books you love. Study the language. Look at how the authors chipped away at the topic. See how they introduced characters and themes. When you read, love the story, but also pay attention to the artistry you're enjoying at your fingertips.
Margo L. Dill is a writing instructor, editor, and children's author. Check out more at http://www.margoldill.com or sign up for her novel writing course here.
Labels: Margo L. Dill, Paula Yoo, picture book writing, reading as a writer
Other Jobs Writers Take
|Just a few of my furry clients.|
Recently a friend interviewed me for a video he was putting together for college grads hoping to start a career in the writing and publishing industry. Because I mostly freelance (occasionally I’ll take a contract job where I go on site somewhere for a few months) he was curious about the different ways I bring home a paycheck. I think he was surprised to find that a lot of what I do falls more under the editing and proofreading umbrella, because it’s a great way to earn supplemental income.
One of my main contract jobs is the calendar editor for a local magazine, which requires a lot of compiling data, entering it into our system, and then turning that content into places the readers go for things to do during the week, weekend. Other times I turn copy points from advertisers into sponsored content. Or I proofread and fact check directories on the website for extra cash.
I know a lot of writers who don’t just write as a way to bring in the income. Some teach classes (in person and online here
for WOW!), some do manuscript editing or editing for websites and magazines, some work in bookstores, etc. But me, I took on a job not too long ago that has nothing to do with writing but brings me tremendous joy each day.
I became a dog walker.
Many of you already know I love dogs. If you follow me on social media I gush over my two constantly—their funny little personalities keep me entertained through the day as I’m working from home and get lonely sometimes. Last fall I got an assignment for a regional magazine to interview a pet sitter who offered wedding day services for pet owners. I loved the idea for her business so much, and was so impressed with her credentials, that I hired the company a few months later to watch my own dogs when I went on vacation. While scrolling on Facebook not long ago (because that’s what we writers love to do during periods of procrastination!) I noticed the company was looking for mid-day dog walkers in my area.
“Hmm,” I thought to myself. “I’m usually around mid-day and that could be a good way to pick up a little extra cash each month.” I mulled it over for a few days and finally sent the owner and e-mail. She got back to me immediately for a meeting, as she was about to have a baby and trying to get her team together.
So. For the past month, I have become a full-fledged dog walker and pet sitter. Business is booming, and with my regular writing clients and growing list of pups who need mid-day walks while their owners are at work or on vacation, I’m keeping busy. And keeping fit. When you do two to three dog walks a day several times a week you’re going to lose some weight. So there’s that. While we’re out walking I get to marvel in the beautiful weather we’ve been having, enjoy the happiness of the dogs (and sometimes cats!) as I walk through the door to see them, and have lots of extra time to think about storylines I’m working on while spending time with a whole host of energetic and unique animals. It’s been an uplifting experience.
As a writer, how do you make extra money? I’d love to hear about your own endeavors, because as we all know, strictly writing doesn’t always pay the bills!
Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who is always looking for extra ways to make money to support her household of budding musicians and their various instruments and music lessons. Find her online at FinishedPages.com.
Labels: dog walking, Renee Roberson, supplemental income for writers, ways to make extra money, writing advice
Two Little Words...Thank You
I'm going to try really hard to keep this post writerly (and readerly), but I have a pet peeve and it's just two little words: THANK YOU
You bloggers often publish book reviews on your blogs, right? Sometimes it's part of a book blog tour, and sometimes it's because you read a book and felt moved to share your thoughts. Either way, how do you feel when there are no comments? You probably feel the same way I do when I hold the door for someone at the grocery store and they can't even get off their smartphone long enough to say those two little words...grrrr....
What about life as a writer? Do you take the time to thank those who write reviews or help spread the word about your work? Whether it be a blog post or a novel, without the help of word of mouth, your marketing plan is going to fall short. Do you use google alerts to make sure you don't miss what is being said about you online? How do you get in touch and say those two little words? When you send someone a copy of your book, do you include a hand-written thank you card asking the person to leave a review? What sorts of things have you implemented or should you implement so you don't forget those two little words?
Feedback is so important. The best way to say thank you to an author is to leave a review. As authors
we can encourage this behavior by in-turn thanking the reviewer. I often receive a thank you or a 'like' on Amazon after reviewing a book or product. Do you make this a common practice in your writing life?
Gratitude isn't always a natural thing in today's society. There's often a feeling of entitlement. How do you become more thankful in your life? If you are thankful already, what suggestions or tips do you have for others?
Here's something I like to remember each day:
I choose my attitude each day; I can be thankful for what I have or I can choose to be sad about what I don't have. I CHOOSE GRATITUDE!
Crystal is a secretary and musician at her church, babywearing cloth diapering mama (aka crunchy mama), business owner, active journaler, writer and blogger, Blog Tour Manager with WOW! Women on Writing, Publicist with Dream of Things Publishing, Press Corp teammate for the DairyGirl Network, Unicorn Mom Ambassador, as well as a dairy farmer. She lives in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin with her husband, four young children (Carmen 9, Andre 8, Breccan 3, and Delphine 1), two dogs, two rabbits, four little piggies, a handful of cats and kittens, and over 230 Holsteins.
You can find Crystal riding unicorns, taking the ordinary and giving it a little extra (making it extraordinary), blogging and reviewing books, baby carriers, cloth diapers, and all sorts of other stuff here, and at her personal blog.
Labels: being grateful, gratitude, reviews, saying thanks, thank readers, thank writers, thank you
Pacing: Fast or Slow, Make the Adjustments Your Story Needs
Recently, my critique group noticed that one person's chapter just seemed to be dragging. That was an unusual problem for this particular writer but there was no doubt about it. Although dialogue was clever and his main character still captivated us, it just felt slow. We spend some time discussing how to speed things up so I was already thinking about the topic when I saw this post
by K.M. Weiland.
First things first, lets start with three ways to speed things up because what we were discussing in critique group were scenes that drag:
- Cut as much narrative and description as possible. This isn't to say that you should write as if the story takes place in a vacuum but this isn't the place to wax rhapsodic about the carpet or the drapes.
- Make your dialogue tight. When are characters speak, sometimes they have a tendency to go on and on. Make sure every word, phrase and sentence is essential. Cut the dialogue that doesn't move the story forward.
- Add a time element. You can give your story a sense of urgency if a particular task must be carried out by X time. One second later and . . . BOOM.
Just as important as speeding things up is slowing things down. This is most often a problem when we are writing a high-impact high action scene. How do you make a fist fight last for two or three pages? Or we are writing one of those important squirm inducing scenes. If this is a your climax or other pivotal scene, you have to give it the weight of a length. Do this by slowing things down. Here are three ways you can do this.
- Vary your sentence structure and make sure you have some complicated or compound sentence. Don't just write subject verb object. Add in some dependent clauses.
- Add some internal dialogue or internal narrative. What is going through your characters head as he fights the villain? What does he think each time he lands a punch? This doesn't have to be lengthy but make it matter. This would be a good time to show his regret that it has come to this.
- Be sure to add some description. Yes, it is going to have to be description that matters but what do you notice about the room as you are waiting to be fired? What catches your eye about the protagonist who has made your life hell? Include details that set the mood and reveal something about the characters.
Pacing is a pivotal part of fiction writing. If it is too fast for too long, you will wear your reader out. If it is too slow, you will bore them. Learn to adjust things as needed and make your writing sing.
Labels: dialogue, narrative, pacing, plot, Sue Bradford Edwards
The resting process
Last time I wrote about letting your words rest before publishing them. While that's still true, some of the resting involves a lot of work. Here's a typical timeline for my blog posts.
Five days before deadline, and immediately after hitting save:
Finishing my blog post feels great. I think it's a good one!
One minute later:
Oh no, I forgot to put in that great story about how my cat once wrote a haiku, and placed higher than I did in a poetry contest. So after adding the story, I read it again and realize it's now too long and need to take out something. But every word is a gem, there's no way I can delete anything and maintain the integrity of my writing.
Five minutes later:
Did I spell the name of my old professor correctly? I look it up online, and realize both the name of the professor and the department are wrong, so I correct them.
One hour later:
I happen to read an article about tense changes. I edit for consistency.
Four days before deadline:
Oh no, I repeat myself in paragraphs one and three, and condense them, which takes care of the word-count problem. As I'm reading for the fifteenth time, I notice many of the sentences are about the same length, so I adjust them to make some shorter and others longer to improve variety while maintaining flow.
Three days before deadline:
This is the worst thing I've ever written. I never should have become a writer.
Two days before deadline:
Friend wins writing prize in a contest that I also entered. I feel like a failure.
One day before deadline:
Open computer to read the article, but instead open Netflix (accidentally) to watch a movie about writer who finds a new, successful career in the wine industry.
One hour after the movie:
Search for new career in the wine industry.
Two hours after the movie:
Realize that a new career won't work, decide to eat some cookies and binge watch something more uplifting, but can't decide, so scroll through Facebook posts.
Deadline day, morning:
Re-read article and decide that my main idea is not consistent and two paragraphs contradict each other.
Deadline day, afternoon:
While teaching thesis statements at school, realize I need to follow my own advice and get rid of everything that doesn't support the main idea. Duh!
Deadline day, evening:
Assign a symbol to each paragraph by topic. I have three symbols. Determine which message is most effective.
Deadline day, late evening:
Put symbol paragraphs together and delete those that don't support that topic/have that symbol. Somehow, it works. Finishing my blog post feels great. I think it's a good one!
What's your resting process?
Mary Horner is the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, and an adjunct professor at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.
Labels: editing for tense consistency, feeling like a failure, The resting process, writing blog posts, writing timeline