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Horse nut/Professor/Writer

My bio on Chuck Suddeth’s site! He’s posting info on sponsors and judges for the Green River Writers 2016 contest, now open. Check out the guidelines! And thanks, Chuck, for sharing!

C. T. Suddeth

V. S. Anderson always been a horse nut, and as a young person, was a rabid horse-racing fan. So it’s no surprise that her first novels were about horses: the Kentucky Derby and the glamour of a Thoroughbred breeding farm—but with a little mystery and mayhem thrown in! For King of the Roses and Blood Lies, she drew on her years of working in the horse world, teaching riding, showing hunters, moonlighting on the racetrack, and for a while, owning and galloping her own racehorse.

Since then she has used her doctorate in English to teach writing at a regional campus of a Midwestern university—right across the river from Louisville and the Derby, in fact! She lives in New Salisbury, Indiana, where she gardens, watches birds, writes mystery/suspense (three novels in progress!), and rides Paddy, her sweet, sweet horse.

Visit her at

www.virginiasanderson.com

www.justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com

www.facebook.com/virginiasanderson.writer

www.amazon.com/author/virginiasanderson

or follow her…

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Don’t Let “Illogic” Suck Readers Out of Your Plot!

Illogic” is my number one pet peeve as a reader.

Writer with questions

Well, one of my number one pet peeves: it’s definitely one of the experiences that throws me right out of a story, like hitting a speed bump at 40.

So what do I mean by “illogic”? Well, the most common form of illogic that I see is:

a character behaving in a way that no normal or ordinary person would behave, not for some logic that the writer has deliberately and strategically built into the character, but because the writer needs the character to behave this way to further the plot.

Perhaps other readers don’t share my sensitivity to these bones of a writer’s process, but for me, they can be quite visible, and usually painfully so.

Frustrated man at typewriter

Now let me stop for a minute to assure you: as a writer, I’m not innocent of these glitches myself. Fortunately, my writing group pays attention. More than once, they’ve pulled me out of the path of my own rush to get to the next scene (thank you all yet again!).

One common form illogic seems to take: the information dump.

A writer needs to convey certain information to his readers. So the story slams to a halt and characters are plunked down in illogical situations that give them a chance to tell readers what the writer needs them to know.

Scenario I (details have been obfuscated):

A character has just undergone major, major surgery and has just been wheeled into the ICU. A second character manages to wheedle his way in for just a few minutes to—one would suppose—convey his well-wishes to the surely woozy patient.

But no. Because the next plot point requires the well-wisher to perform a particular action that needs some justification:

a) the recently anesthesized patient is able to carry on an extended (three-page) coherent conversation, using formal, complex syntax, without even an expression of discomfort;

b) the well-wisher lingers for these three pages exchanging complex information with the patient even after having been ordered from the room by a nurse;

c) the nurse conveniently twiddles her thumbs, giving the conversation exactly the time it needs to wind to the necessary close.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

emoticon face

 

This scene could have been made more palatable by a simple recognition and acknowledgment of the limits of the situation. And a strategic use of them! A patient who must gasp out garbled instructions, a well-wisher who must struggle to make sense of the incoherent drug-slurred communications in the seconds (not minutes) before the nurse storms back in—now the well-wisher has more mental work to do, and the reader’s sense of mystery is deepened, not thrown off track.

A second common form of illogic is the coincidence, the accident that somehow sets up a vital scene—just a little too helpfully for my taste.

Scenario II (this is from a best-seller; you may even recognize this scene, or one like it):

The protagonist and her ally face a violent confrontation with the evil, evil and physically powerful villain. The ally pulls out his cell phone to call for help—and he’s forgotten to charge it. It’s dead.

Speaking of convenience.

Beautiful sexy girl with gun

Folks, cell phones have presented a whole new raft of challenges to mystery/suspense/thriller writers. Those of you who have grown up with cell phones will not recall the days when you could manipulate events by the simple act of preventing your character from finding a handy pay phone. And there were times when few people had answering machines and no one had caller ID. It was waaay easy to make sure someone missed out on an urgent message.

No more. And it’s not fair to exploit the plot devices of the old days by disabling the realities of the present.

Now, if a villain snatches a cell phone and smashes it, that’s one thing. If you must get rid of that phone (and I can certainly imagine, and have needed, scenes where that darn phone creates a real problem), have it happen that way. Or find some clever way to make the phone play a role in the deception.

Here’s my own biggest illogic temptation: in my mystery/suspense novels, it’s often really tough to keep the characters from simply going to the police. But if they go to the police and tell all, the story’s over! I admit to not always being completely convinced I’ve explained away a character’s decision to keep things to him- or herself so the plot will keep to its prescribed route. I’ve tried to build the decision into the characters’ ambivalences, their failures to be completely honest with themselves about their motives, and to make that ambivalence a driving force in the story. I think I’ve had mixed success.

Romantic woman using laptop

What kinds of illogic throw you out of a story? What are your own most insidious temptations? How have you solved the need to pass along information or keep the suspense logical in your own work?

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10 things that red-flag a newbie novelist.

This is one of the best compendia of guidelines for troubleshooting a novel-in-progress that I’ve recently come across. My own constant struggle is the interior monologue, wherein my character thinks through her motives. Some of this is necessary, but in my current very rough draft I’m noting again and again, “Too long! Cut!” Fortunately, I have an excellent writing group that will call me out on this sin.
I’m working on a post about what has stopped me from finishing some of the books I’ve been reading in my quest to understand the indie landscape. Hamilton’s list captures many of the problems that I’ve encountered (and fight like crazy not to commit): 1) Lack of a story arc–in a couple of cases, everything seemed to be resolved mid-novel; why keep reading? 2) Detail-heavy, clunky prose I had to wade through. 3) Pages and pages of setting and character-building before anything happens. I love the comment that we all should wish to see ourselves as others see us! Hooray for honest readers. May they long thrive!

THE PUBLISHING BUSINESS, WRITING CRAFT

10 THINGS THAT RED-FLAG A NEWBIE NOVELIST

Red_flag_waving.svg

by Anne R. Allen

Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy’s happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling

They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.

When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist’s work—the very things I did when I was starting out.

I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives…

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Show, Don’t Tell: Try the Screenplay Exercise

Typewriter and flowersWe fiction, memoir, and essay writers are all bombarded—understandably—with the need to SHOW, not tell. The temptation to tell rather than show—at its simplest level, to write “he felt sad” rather than letting his actions and dialogue reveal his reactions—haunts us all. It’s easier: We don’t have to hunt for ways to describe expressions and behaviors. And after all, “he felt sad” takes up a lot less space than “The room around him seemed to darken, the sounds of cheerful conversation to slow to dirge-like rhythms.” And hey, will readers interpret such descriptions the way you intended? Maybe the guy is just having a heart attack.

Hardest of all may be recognizing when we’ve slipped into telling. In my writing group, we all get called on it regularly.

One exercise I’ve found extremely useful in helping me recognize telling is the SCREENPLAY exercise: convert a troublesome scene to screenplay format.

Typewriter with questions marks

Why does this work? For me, it works because, unless you allow yourself the indulgence of a voice-over, filmgoers must rely on action and dialogue to interpret characters’ moods and thoughts and to understand what’s going on.

The rules are simple: at no point in the conversion of your scene can you indicate in your stage directions that “he thought” or “he worried” or “he felt—afraid, tired, hopeful, disappointed.” You may never enter your character’s mind. After all, your audience can’t. They can only see and hear what’s on the screen.

Too stifling? Surely in a mystery, for example, the character has to speculate internally about the meaning of clues. In a romance, the protagonist has to tell us of her ecstasy. Well, maybe. The screenplay exercise can clarify just how much telling we really have to include.

For a sense of what this exercise can contribute, here are a few lines from my novel King of the Roses and the corresponding lines structured as a screenplay. running horseNote that I converted the whole book, a choice that requires me to scrutinize every word because screenplays are radically length restricted (a 358-page book becomes a 100-page play). But casting individual scenes can provide some of the same benefits.

Set-up: A criminal who demands that Chris hold the Derby favorite finds Chris alone in a restaurant and escalates his threats. The criminal speaks the first line.

From the novel:

“I tried to get a hold of you last night. Why didn’t you answer the phone?”

“I was out.”

“No you weren’t. You just didn’t answer the phone. This isn’t a little romance we have here. This is business. What about it?”

Chris felt his spine crawl as if he were already dead, with demons dancing on his grave. The man stared at him steadily, tilting his head a little so that Chris could see his white, speckled scalp where his hair thinned on top.

“So when would I get paid?”

“You jocks is all the same. Money, money.”

“I haven’t seen any money.”

The man’s lower lip went on curling, but his eyes hardened. He stood up suddenly, clutching his overcoat to his paunch.

“I’ll tell you one thing I bet you have seen,” he said. “I bet you’ve seen what a jock looks like when he falls off in a race and gets his face stepped on. I bet you’ve seen that. Huh?”

From the screenplay:

BALDING MAN

I tried to get hold of you last night. Why didn’t you answer your phone?

CHRIS

I was out.

BALDING MAN

This isn’t a little romance we have here. This is business.

CHRIS

So when would I get paid?

BALDING MAN

You jocks is all the same. Money, money, money.

CHRIS

I haven’t seen any money.

The man stands, clutching his coat to his paunch.

BALDING MAN

I tell you one thing I bet you have seen. I bet you seen what a jock looks like when he falls off and gets his face stepped on. I bet you seen that, huh?

So what has this exercise done for me? Above all, it has forced me to look really hard at the inner reactions I’ve chosen to include in the prose-narrative format. Obviously they aren’t essential to meaning. I get to ask myself whether they add enough to justify the departure from action, from showing.

So the conversion allows me to see where my dialogue on its own takes readers. It also forces me to find the actions that express the characters’ reactions. I have to convert feelings into motion. Once discovered, these motions and actions can go back into my prose.

Again, you don’t have to go this spare. But you might make decisions about where to cut and where to add with more insight if you’ve tried the bare-bones telling that screenplays require.

You don’t need fancy software to do this. For the actual screenplay, I used Microsoft Word’s “styles” to create the various format patterns screenplays require. (The formatting didn’t translate directly into this blog post.) By the way, learning to use “styles” helps when you convert your Word document into the format for various e-publishing contexts. The important thing, however you structure your exercise, is to remember: no “feelings.” Just things viewers can see: action and dialogue.bloody rose finished

Do you have strategies for detecting “telling”? Share!

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Filed under Editing your novel, indie publishing, King of the Roses, Learning to write, self editing for fiction writers, Self-publishing, Writers' groups, Writing, writing novels

3 Lessons, 4 Resolutions from the Indiana Writers’ Workshop, October 24, 2015

Novel!It’s unusual to find a conference that changes the way I think about my novel and about myself as a writer. This one-day conference, less than a day’s drive away, did just that.

The Workshop featured presentations by Brian Klems, online editor for WritersDigest.com. The basic fee covered four all-group presentations by Klems and a “first-page” critique by four agents of randomly selected submissions. Participants could pay extra for ten-minute pitch sessions with up to six agents and for a personal query-letter critique by Chuck Sambuchino, author of a number of books and blogs on writing as well as humor books.

Klems’s presentations covered a huge amount of nuts-and-bolts information most valuable to writers who had not attended many conferences or mined the web for information on the business of writing. The pitch sessions were well-coordinated; all three of the agents I queried were generous listeners. The published schedule did not build in meals or receptions for the social networking that many writers find rewarding.

So what made this conference so productive? Two things: Sambuchino’s critique of my query and the “first-page” session, at which some 20 or so of the first pages submitted were thrown down and stomped upon.

First: Query-Letter Critique

I didn’t receive Sambuchino’s comments until the Thursday night before the conference, and Friday was hectic, so it was evening before I could settle into my motel room to digest the veritable armada of comments he had supplied. Everyone reading this can probably empathize with my stomach-twisting lurch when I realized that the back-of-the-book blurb I had workshopped over and over with multiple audiences was No Good. Basic questions—what is Michael’s wound, his need? What is at stake? How does this event lead to this one?—still loomed. Sambuchino wanted A LOT more information than any back-of-the-book was going to accommodate.

The feeling of utter inadequacy that settled over me produced a complete rewrite. Was that the right strategy? All I know is that when I sat across from agents and talked from the notes they were glad to let me use, not one broke in with a confused frown to tell me I wasn’t making any sense. (Believe me, this has happened.) There’s no experiment that could tell me whether my response to Sambuchino’s comments made the difference. But I do know that when I revise my query letter, the pitch itself will look a lot more like the one I wrote Friday night than the one I have now.

Lesson learned? First let me talk about

First Page Armageddon

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Note to Self: Four Editing Rules to Follow THIS TIME!

Do you have rules for your own self-editing sessions? Can you suggest some I ought to apply?

Editing a manuscript that I wrote some time ago has actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun. The story’s there, almost solid; now it’s time to make sure nothing in my style, my pacing, my voice, keeps it from getting across. Line-editing this novel is a lot like cleaning out a closet and finding out which of my old treasures really are treasures and which ones are junk.letter scatter novel

And the thing that’s great about cleaning up the text of your novel: it’s not quite as likely as a closet to get cluttered again.

Actually, “self-editing” is a little bit of a misnomer. A lot of what I’m doing as I revisit the manuscript of my long-shelved “Sarah” novel is responding to the comments and suggestions of my wonderful Green River Writers critique group (see here, for example, to learn more about how and why they’re wonderful). But at the same time, coming back to my writing after a hiatus changes the way I see and hear it. Distance makes the heart grow smarter? Or am I just hearing myself through other people’s ears now?

Since those of us who want to be read (and published) need more than anything to know what we sound like outside of the wind cave of our own brilliance, I hope I’ve assimilated the collective wisdom of my writing group, in which people just plain tell me when I’ve made them start checking the number of pages to see how much more of my brilliance they have to take.

Typewriter and flowersHere are four editing moves that give me consummate pleasure. Who would have thought that slashing a big X across half a page or a black line through a sentence could be so fun? Continue reading

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Contest! Contest! Contest!

Green River Writers 2015 Writing Contest

Green River Writers 2015 Writing Contest. Two Grand Prizes and 14 other categories, including fiction, non-fiction, & poetry. Over $1700 in prizes. Grand prize categories- $3 each entry for GRW members; $5 each entry for non-members. All other categories- $2 each entry or $12 maximum for GRW members; $3 each entry for non-members, but they may join GRW and receive the member rate.  Deadline: August 31, 2015. Details: http://www.greenriverwriters.org/

Will Lavender, the NYT-bestselling author who recently honored us with an interview, will be judging the “Novel First-Chapter” category I’m sponsoring. If you have a novel in progress, enter your first chapter!

BTW, if you’re in the Louisville area, Green River Writers is a wonderful community. I don’t know what I would do without my monthly GRW group!

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The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own? Continue reading

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Writers’ Conference Saga: Pre-Coda

My abortive meeting with my assigned editor took place on the penultimate afternoon of the conference. The next morning we were to finish up in a group summary meeting with Our Leader.

For some reason I can’t recall, I was eager to meet with him one more time. I made my way to the conference site before daylight in order to be at the front of the line. Along with a woman with whom I had been friendly, I managed to get a slot at the table as we ate breakfast in a crowded coffee shop. What in the world did I want from him at that point? To salvage something from the ruins of my experience (“Is it time travel? Reincarnation? Oh, wait, he must be already dead!”)? To pitch my other book? Who knows.

I do remember that he rewrote my friend’s pitch, ad hoc, in one breath, and that, were I a fan of such topics, I would have found his version immeasurably better. She still had her meeting ahead of her. So she faced the day armed with his words.

I remember as well talking about my other book, my “Sarah” book. He began excitedly weaving a resolution to the deep personal crisis Sarah faces, one that in my formulation would carry her through three books, each with its own sub-crisis and plot. I said, “That sounds like something to consider for the third book.”

“Oh, no,” he responded. “That’s the first book!”

I have already written the first book. I said, “I write my own books, thanks.”

I don’t recall that he took offense at this. Perhaps he secretly did.

Our final meeting consisted of congratulations for all those (most) who had been invited to submit manuscripts to major New York houses. This fortunate group included my friend, who was now supposed to write the book she had been given. I think he generously pretended that I had been given permission to send along my Sarah book. Then he said something I didn’t expect.

“I worry,” he said, “that you’ll all send in your stuff before it’s ready. Don’t do that. Make sure it’s ready.”

My perhaps ungenerous translation: “My business is running these workshops. I have to be able to say that publications come out of them. Most of you have no manuscripts, just ideas. Most of you have never produced anything like a book-length manuscript. You don’t actually know what you’re getting into. Please, some of you, take the time to write something that won’t waste these editors’ time.”

I find myself thinking about several things, remembering this comment. We were apparently selected to attend, to have the chance to meet with REAL EDITORS, on the basis of a one-page synopsis and a bio. Such application materials gave us the chance to make a preliminary pitch and gave the conference planners a chance to verify that we could actually construct reasonable English prose. But I wonder: is that enough? Are you really ready to write a book if you can sell an idea?

I have learned enough about my writing process to know, that for me, the answer is an emphatic NO. For me, there is nothing so demoralizing as knowing that the book isn’t working but that I must deliver. Write a draft. Share the draft with a conscientious critique group. Yes, it takes more time, with no more guarantees of eventual attention from an agent or publisher than if I had simply mailed off the first chapter and a treatment. But it makes the process rewarding. I can write a book that has a chance of working. Not being a genius, and not having a formula, for me, that is feat enough.

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