Archive for November, 2009

Let them speak!

November 30, 2009

Sometimes when you’re writing along on your novel, your gut instinct directs your protagonist to say or do something controversial, but you censor yourself and your character. You decide, almost as fast as you thought of the idea, that it is too harsh, too off the wall, too dangerous. But often that gut instinct is right.

When I was younger I tended to have a character think about saying a certain thing but explain why she doesn’t. Now I try to let my people speak out or act out. Better to let your protagonist get in trouble and then have to get herself out of it. So, let your hero call her boss a name, make an unforgivable joke during a funeral, say what she’s really thinking about a man she’s just met right to his face. Let your characters make their lives messy. It’s more interesting (fun) for you as the writer and readers remember (and love) a character who gets herself out on the end of a skinny limb.


Resist resolution . . .

November 28, 2009

To keep your scenes full of tension, resist the temptation to resolve things. If a character says something terrible to someone she loves, don’t have her apologize. Yet. Let the suspense of that fracture in the relationship span over into another chapter. Or several. Let the readers feel the full impact of the hurt and the betrayal.




One of my favorite examples of creating tension by leaving something hurtful hanging is from the movie The Queen of Hearts (1989, screenplay by Tony Grisoni.) Our protagonist is a little boy who looks up to his older brother and whose best friend was abandoned by his parents and lives with a relative. When the two have a falling out, they say the worst things they can possibly say to each other. The best friend tells our hero, “Your brother works for the villain—he’s a traitor.” Our hero tells his best friend, “Your parents didn’t even want you – they threw you away.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

When I was young, I would’ve immediately had the hero say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” Or I would at least have had him think to himself, “That was a terrible thing to say!” But it’s better not to. Let the reader suffer for a while. It will give the wound in the relationship more impact and make the delayed resolution more satisfying.

Make the bad stuff worse . . .

November 26, 2009

When I landed my excellent agent, Ann Rittenberg, and she offered me advice for rewriting my manuscript so it would sell well, one of the general notes she gave me (that absolutely made A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT a better book) was . . . make the bad stuff worse. When I asked what she meant, she told me to look at all the bad stuff that happens to the characters in my story and make those things even harder for them.

If you suspect you might be treating your characters too kindly (a common problem with first novels) go back through your manuscript and make the problems thrown at your people bigger problems, make the danger more dangerous, make the disturbing circumstances more disturbing. (That’s how the Prayer Corner in SLANT was created.) The higher the stakes, the more the readers will need to keep reading.

Backtracking . . .

November 24, 2009

Another tip for getting a rough draft down faster is to go back and change your path when you start to feel like you don’t love what you’re writing. In my earlier years I would plod along even if I was slowed by the feeling that my story wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be. With age and experience I learned to avoid those periods of sluggish writing by stopping when I feel like I hate my sentences and paragraphs. I learned to backtrack.

Now as soon as I get that “crappy writing” sensation, I stop and look at the sentence I’m composing. Don’t like it? Erase it. The sentence before? Good? No? Delete that one too. I go all the way back to the last great sentence (or really right sentence) that I wrote and start again from there.

In the old days I might have tried to rewrite those sentences, instead of erasing them, but then I would end up with better written crap. The world does not need better written crap. So now I clear them out so I can see the way more clearly. My last great sentence reminds me of what the next sentence should be like.

(Again this may be a quirky thing that only works for me, but, like I’ve said, life’s too short to be shy. I’ll share my tips, weird or reasonable, because you never know.)

Skipping transitions . . .

November 22, 2009

When I’m trying to write a rough draft of a novel fast, as so many people are at this very moment for Nanowrimo, I sometimes find I can get more done if I skip from one scene to another and don’t worry about the transitions.

I list all the scenes I have left to write in the whole book (jane and joe meet at park, jane visits her father at the shop, john gets a call from the priest, and so on) and I simply choose the one I feel like writing at the moment. I don’t worry about the transition from the scenes that will come before and after it. I just type the letters TRANS on the page so later I can easily see which transitions I will have left to smooth out later.

It’s much less daunting if my novel writing  “to do” list says “write 14 transitions” instead of “write the five last chapters.” (Hmmm, this may be one of those weird things that only works for me, but I’m not shy. I like sharing ideas. Hopefully it’ll work for someone else out there.)        =)

To self-publish or not to self-publish . . .

November 19, 2009

Every day it gets easier (and less expensive) to self-publish your writing. And under certain circumstances, it can be a great idea.

Your title here?

Self-publishing is good for people who have a specific topic they teach. They want their students to be able to find their research/examples/philosophy in a concise package. Good idea.

It’s good if you have a niche of special interest you can share with other enthusiasts. My brother, for instance, has researched the possibility of discovering Ropen (similar to pterodactyls) in Pau Pau New Guinea and has self-published his travel adventures – fans of his topic find him on the web every day.

It’s good for people who want to write fiction especially for someone — a picture book tailored to the author’s child or grandchild, for instance.

It’s good for a personal memoir produced for one’s own pleasure or to send to family members and close friends.

But self-publishing is usually not so good for novelists. One of the editors who spoke at a recent Willamette Writers conference told her workshop audience that if you’ve self-published, do NOT tell the agent you are trying to sign with unless you have sold at least 5,000 to 10,000 copies of your book.

Without meaning to, self-publishing a novel while you’re waiting to break into the industry might send one or more of these unintended messages to the agent or editor you are approaching:

I’m not patient enough to wait for a real book deal.

I’m not smart enough to listen to people’s advice about improving my work before I send it out.

I’m not organized enough to market my work to agents and editors successfully.

I don’t really want to put in the work it takes to hone my skills.

I think my writing is great, but actually my novel isn’t good enough.

Once in a while a self-published book can lead to a traditional book deal. For example, in fiction: Eragon by Christopher Paolini (2007), Spartacus by Howard Fast (1952); Non-Fiction: The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer (1931), What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles (1970) were self-published and later picked up by big houses and became bestsellers.

But self-publishing does not usually lead to critical and financial success. For instance, here is a list of extremely important things you probably won’t get with a self-published novel:

Distribution – it’s almost impossible to sell your book in big numbers without getting it into book store chains and distributors’ warehouses;

Reviews — most periodicals don’t review self-published books;

Blurbs – it’s unlikely you’ll get famous authors to endorse your work if you don’t have a publishing house behind you;

Placement on prestigious lists  — recommendations that are sent out to public libraries, school libraries, and indy book stores will probably be out of your reach.

If you want to self publish in order simply to hold your novel in your hands (with your name on the front, an ISBN number on the back, and a nice cover),  to see it listed on Amazon,  to be able to give it as Christmas gifts to your relatives and friends . . . than more power to you. Self-publish away! But if you want to take a step closer to an agent and a nice book deal (and advance) from the publishing house of your dreams, look at the issues before you leap.

If your dream is to make a living as a full-time novelist, to land an agent like William Morris or Ann Rittenberg, to get a fat advance from Random House or Houghton Mifflin and glowing reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times, keep writing. Keep rewriting. Give your work to readers you trust and listen to their notes thoughtfully. Research agents. Take the time to write a well-crafted query letter. Send out those letters and when you get rejections, don’t fret. Keep writing, rewriting, resending. Never give up. Every day you keep trying you’re one day closer to breaking in. (And remember, if you’ve already self-published, it’s okay. Do everything I listed in this paragraph, but don’t mention that you are self-published in your query letter. Believe in your story. All will be well!)



Book By Book

November 15, 2009

After A CERTAIN SLANT OF LIGHT was published, I was honored to be the guest at a Mother-Daughter book club founded by Cindy Hudson. These women and their girls had been reading and exchanging their thoughts about literature since the daughters were in elementary school. And they had great insights, fascinating questions. I loved the experience.

 bk by bk

Now Cindy shares her advice on how to start your own Mother-Daughter reading club in BOOK BY BOOK published by Seal Press in September. Visit her website at She talks about book lists, club guidelines, who to invite, and tips on how to help the club adapt as the girls grow up. A great idea. I highly recommend both the book and the concept. I wish I could have been in a reading group with my own mom.

Culling the Poetry

November 12, 2009

The Heartstorming part of the Shortcut to the Scene exercise (from my last blog) may be a new concept for you. If you’re having trouble letting go and allowing your inner poet to babble, you could try this poetry exercise as a warm up.


          Write a stream of consciousness page on something other than a scene from your novel. It doesn’t matter what you say, but try using a topic that holds plenty of emotion. Something frightening or heartbreaking or hilarious or inexplicable.

          Afterwards, take a highlighter and mark your favorite phrases. Even if you don’t think there’s anything worth keeping, choose ten or more phrases that you like. Start with your very favorites and work down. Then line them up like a poem, enhancing the phrasing or not, whichever appeals to you. Finally, read it back as if it were composed as a poem.

          Have fun. Good luck. And if you come up with something you love, feel free to send it in.

Shortcut to the Scene

November 9, 2009

The exercise from my book NOVEL SHORTCUTS that I found the most useful was Shortcut to the Scene. Using it I found I could write scenes about three times faster and yet the end result needed less rewriting. So, in case some of you Nanowrimonians would like to try it, here is the exercise.



First you write down what needs to happen in the scene: the action, the goal, the conflict. You don’t need to go into a lot of detail. Put down the essentials. Leave yourself space to be creative. One paragraph is usually fine, even if the scene will be several pages long.


Sketch out your best guess about what your characters need to say to each other in the scene. Don’t bother with “he said” and “she said” – just list the lines.


Set a timer and write as fast as you can about the scene for ten minutes. This is your Heartstorm. Don’t over think it. Don’t think at all. Feel the scene, the emotions, the sensations, the wonder. Don’t judge what comes out of you. Be bold and swift. Think of the colors, tastes, scents, textures, sounds. Think of the strangest details and how they affect the characters. What are the characters thinking or feeling that they aren’t saying? Let your mind go anywhere and everywhere, and write as fast as you can. When you’re done, read it back and bold your favorite words and phrases, your best ideas, so they pop out of the page.


Print out the three steps of this exercise with the “what needs to happen” paragraph in regular type at the top, the “projected dialogue” in the middle in bold, and the “ten-minute Heartstorm” material in italics at the bottom. Having the three sections look different from each other makes them easier to track visually. If possible, you want all three to fit on one page so it’s easy to see when you set it next to your keyboard and write the actual scene.

It will look sort of like this mini “faux” version:

What needs to happen: Margaret shows up and confronts George as he’s playing pool. She notices he’s turning into a werewolf. She pretends not to. He also pretends nothing’s wrong.


M -What’s all this I hear about you firing the butler?

G – Don’t be daft. He quit. I’m sure he left a note.

M – What’s wrong with your face?

G – What’s that, dear?

M – Just a trick of the light. I think I’ll go see if I can find that note.

Heartstorm: It’s all way too civilized. He hums. She paces in the doorway, if that’s possible. Tiny feet in four inch heels. He never misses a shot even when his knuckles begin to darken with coarse hair and his nails yellow and curve. She sniffs, the scent of damp dog slipping into the room. She watches him in profile as he lines up a shot and sees the tip of his ear lift through his curls, his five o’clock shadow thicken into fur along his jaw.

For me, this page acts as a menu. I order something from one of the three parts to open the scene. It might be a simple piece of action from part one, then the first line of dialogue, then some bit of reflection or description touched on in my Heartstorm.

I think this exercise works for me because it ensures that I won’t be all in my left brain—organized but lacking magic/emotion/beauty—and not all in my right brain—waxing poetic but all over the place. When I use this exercise (which is almost always now) I know I already have set down some of both sides of my brain to reference while I compose the scene. And it isn’t someone else’s advice or rules lying there beside my computer, needing to be translated in order to be useful—it’s all me.

And here’s to you and your next scene and your word count for the day!

November Give-Away!

November 2, 2009

The winner of the October Give-Away (a signed copy of YOUR FIRST NOVEL) is Tim of Edinburgh, Scotland! I’ll mail that book to you tomorrow, Tim. Congratulations.

This month, in honor of Nanowrimo (the National Novel Writing Month) the Give-Away is a signed copy of NOVEL SHORTCUTS, my new book on craft that came out in April. To enter the drawing, email me your name and address (use the “Email Laura Whitcomb” link on my website at and let me know if you do NOT want to be on a snail mail list (for when my publisher sends me goodies like bookmarks, etc.)


I am doing the word count goal that Nanowrimo participants are shooting for — 50,000 words in one month. I’ll post my daily counts on twitter and facebook each night. Great good luck to all of you Nano peeps.