Friday, March 26, 2010

5 Tiny Tips

I was told that authors’ blogs, in addition to promoting their books and skills, generally provide tips to writers. However, as I have not succeeded in publishing a novel I was reluctant to offer advice. Surely, I thought, my readers would rightfully question my qualifications. Perhaps they’d be inclined to do the opposite of what I suggest, believing that doing so would give them a better chance at a successful writing career.

However, yesterday as I read the opening chapters of novel submissions on the Harper Collins Authonomy website ( ) it struck me that I’ve learned a fair amount in the past few months. A lot of it simple stuff, but stuff that makes a manuscript shine. Stuff that makes readers/agents/editors choose one story over the thousands out there.

I was once, not too long ago, of the opinion that if one wrote a great story, with a great plot and awesome characters, publishers would buy it and pay an editor to fix up one's writing. Needless to say, I’ve changed my mind. To catch anybody’s eye, one’s writing must shine. It must glisten.

Excellent, powerful, polished writing is more likely to garner a publishing contract than great plots and loveable characters.

Why? Pretend you are an editor with five hundred manuscript submissions on your desk. Or, imagine you’re a reader in a bookstore, thumbing through books looking for one to buy. You choose one and open it to the first page:

“I don’t believe you said that,” Eileen said, turning around and heading toward the door. She was as angry as a wet hen.

“You better believe it,” Cheryl said, rising up and stepping toward her from behind her rich, red mahogany desk.

“You do realize who you are talking to?” Eileen asked, placing her hand around the brass doorknob and turning it.

Okay. So you might be really interested in why Eileen thinks she’s special and what Cheryl said to piss her off. But the writing…is awful!

Five simple things that I’ve learned lately:
use ‘ing’ words sparingly. Although there is nothing intrinsically or grammatically wrong with them, too many slow the pace of the story. I'm speaking of 'ing' words like turning (2), heading, stepping, talking, placing, rising… (Wow! Seven out of the 62 words in the above excerpt are ‘ing’ words.)

#2: watch for repetition of words (In the above four sentences, I twice used ‘turning’ and ‘around’)

#3: get rid of useless words (people can turn instead of turning around. They can rise instead of rising up)

#4: replace clichés with wonderful, powerful phrases that are uniquely yours. For 50 years your readers have been imagining angry wet hens. Today, they pick up your story wanting to experience novelty, participate in adventure, live in a world different than the one with angry hens--the one in which they’ve been living for 50 years.

#5: Within a sentence, tell your readers things in the order that they happened. Readers are using your words to create images in their minds. A good writer ensures her readers can proceed smoothly from one image to the next without having to re-create images to accommodate new information.

So, you set that book down, pick up the next one, open it to the front page and start reading. (Instead of “You start reading the front page of the next book, having set the first one down and opened the second.”)

“I don’t believe you said that!” Eileen shouted. She spun away and headed to the door. The acrid scent of anger trailed her.

Cheryl slowly rose and stepped from behind her rich, red mahogany desk. “You better believe it.”

Eileen paused, her fingers wrapped tightly around the brass knob. “You do realize to whom you’re talking?”

Same story. Same characters. Same setting. Fifty-six vs 62 words. (That would be a difference of six thousand or more words over the length of a novel) Which story would you choose to read?

I invite you to peruse the many novels on the Harper Collins Authonomy website. This site provides writers a great opportunity to study the differences between well-written manuscripts and novice attempts. Anybody can read the books posted by authors. If you register, you can also vote and leave comments.

I'd love you to read the opening chapters of my novel, FIREWALLS, on Authonomy. Let me know what you think:

"He said...She said...They said & we wept--Excuse me, ma’am, your dialogue tags are showing."

Some more tips for the novice writer coming soon!

Eileen Schuh,
Canadian writer

Monday, March 15, 2010

Past and Present Tensions

“I’m sorry,” he said and something about the slant of the spring sun coming in low through the window…perhaps something about the way it flattened itself across the oblate kitchen table… Or was it something in the long shadows that the mellow sun was casting behind me, across the floor and up the wall? Or was it something subliminal, hidden in the ticking of the mantle clock?

Something transported me back in time… Something.

“I’m sorry,” the old man was saying. He smelled like fresh-rolled tobacco and week-old cigarette smoke. He smelled of axle grease and musty hay and warm milk straight from the cow’s udder. He smelled like my father. The bed springs creaked. He rolled me toward him, tightly, so that his shirt buttons dinted my cheek. “It’s all right, now,” he was saying. “You’ll be okay.”

His wrist is pressed against my ear. His watch is ticking. “I’m sorry. Papa’s sorry.”

“Do you still love me?” my husband says.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“I love you,” my father says. An hour later the sun has set. The lantern’s lit. The family sits around the supper table. Father still smells like axel grease and canned tobacco. He is smiling at us all. Mother says please and thank you and passes the bread and dishes out dollops from the hot bowls.

I’m wondering if nothing happened upstairs. I’m thinking that maybe things without words aren’t real. I smile and pass Papa the potatoes. I say, “You’re welcome” and eat everything on my plate. The sun sets and he wanders to the barn, the glow of his cigarette tracing his path in the dark. I heat the water, wash the dishes, and dump the slop. Before he gets back with the milk, I am in bed. I will sleep. In the morning, the sun will rise just as I put my feet on the floor. I will slip on my school clothes, eat porridge beside him, and wave goodbye as I run to the bus. Because he is sorry and nothing happened yesterday upstairs in the low mellow March sun.

“Shadri? Shadri? I’m sorry! Please, talk to me!” Please talk to me and smile and pass me my cigarettes and pretend nothing happened. Please? Because I said I’m sorry. Can I touch you? Can I kiss you? Can I make you feel better?

“Would you like some coffee? I’ll make some. Please, sit…”…in the mellow low spring sun and cast your long shadow behind you back in time while the clock ticks. “Shadri?”

He’s sorry for what? For hitting? Hitting too hard? Too often? For hurting? For not stopping? For what happened next? For keeping secrets? Maybe it's just money. His money. His secret. Maybe he is sorry.

“Shadri, I didn’t mean…”

Didn’t mean… Didn’t realize… Let me comfort… Let me hold… Let me wipe tears… silence your sobs… hold you… touch you… whisper…

“Shadri, come here. Give me a hug! Forgive me…”

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Can I kiss you? Can I hold you? Can I touch you? Can I rub you? Can I make it better? Will you kiss me?

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I’m sorry do you love me here’s your coffee I love you pass the potatoes please look in my eyes please sit please forgive smile you’re all right it’s okay I love you please put your fingers here...

Nothing happened, okay?

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Eileen Schuh,
Canadian writer