Friday, May 27, 2011

The Delight of Surprise

by Scott Rhoades

It doesn't matter what genre you write, what age group you write for, whether you rhyme or swear or rely on pictures to tell most of your story. Whether people remember your work comes down to one thing: delight.

We've all read books that we really liked, or that had an artistry or depth or literariness that we enjoyed and appreciated, but that we didn't quite love. Likewise, we've read books that we know might not quite have the literary value of many of the books we enjoy reading and displaying on our shelves, but they've become instant favorites or guilty pleasures. A book sticks with you for many different reasons, but the books that make your eyes light up when they are mentioned have less to do with quality than they do with the sheer delight of reading them.

What creates this sense of delight varies from reader to reader, but I think most of are delighted by similar things, including:

  • Surprise
  • Use of language (see surprise)
  • Humor (see surprise)
  • Originality (see surprise)
I could make this list longer but, as you might guess, the one element that is sure to delight us is surprise. An unexpected turn of phrase, twist of plot, reaction of character or, really, an unexpected whatever triggers a pleasure reaction in our brains. It's why a unique combination of verbs and nouns brings more joy than a cliche, even if the cliche is perfect for a particular situation. It's why a writer like J.K. Rowling can delight us with an unusual combination of elements we've seen in books by Roald Dahl and other authors.

Think of two of my favorite authors, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. Both of these men were prolific authors whose works vary greatly in quality. Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he also wrote Tom Sawyer, Detective and The American Claimant. Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, but he also wrote Burning Bright and The Short Reign of Pippin IV. I mention the "also wrotes" not to put them down or to call them bad, but to make a point. Twain and Steinbeck fans like those other books, maybe even love them. Why? Because each of these writers, even when relatively off, delight their readers with the way they write. Even if the characters aren't his best or the story is not quite up to snuff, there's just something about the way our favorites write that makes us forgive, or even ignore, the shortcomings of their lesser works because we know we're going to find something delightful.

That's the kind of writer you want to be.

All of this came to mind today while I was driving home for lunch, with a Tom Lehrer CD in the player. People my age most likely know a few of Tom Lehrer's songs, thanks to the Dr. Demento radio show. Songs like "The Masochism Tango" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" have a delightfully twisted humor, a darkness that makes us laugh and remember the songs. I love that about his songs. But there are a lot of funny and dark comedy songwriters. Lehrer is pushed to the top by the kind of intelligence you'd expect from a mathematics professor at major universities, like Lehrer was.

But that's not what really delights me about Tom Lehrer. I'm a word nerd, and (as you may have gathered by now) I love surprises. Few, if any, songwriters can turn a great phrase or rhyme that surprises me as much as Tom Lehrer.

How many rhymes do you know for funeral? Check this out:

When you attend a funeral,
It is sad to think that sooner or
Later those you love will do the same for you.

It doesn't come out right on the page. You have to hear it to believe it. He does it over and over in his songs. And it's not only the rhymes. Check out the astounding list of -ity words in "When You Are Old And Gray." The song would be hilarious without it, but with that list, it becomes something special. Or check out the unexpected place that his tender love song "I Hold Your Hand In Mine" takes us.

Lehrer's songs are packed full of surprises, usually layers of them, in his rhymes, word choices, subject matter, and twists. And so, even the songs that nobody will ever consider classics delight me. I enjoy even the songs that are not among his best, because I know they'll surprise me, even after I've heard them several times. Not many writers can do that. Dr. Seuss can. Shel Silverstein can. And now you know (if you didn't already) that Tom Lehrer can.

We all want to delight our readers so they come back to our work again and again, so they know when they see something with our names on it they can't count on a good time. Look at your favorite writers and figure out what it is that makes them mean what they do to you, then personalize that and have some fun delighting yourself as you write.

Next time I post on this blog, I'll write about two particular genres that rely on surprise, two genres that many people might think of as near opposites, but that are really very similar. But if I told you now which two genres I mean, I'd spoil the surprise, so you'll just have to wait a week.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fairness and you Monkey Brain

by Deren Hansen

On of the ideas I picked up from a biography of the Buddha is the
Zen notion of the monkey brain. The first image of a monkey brain that springs to mind is likely that of a frenzied simian bouncing around the cage of desires in which Buddhists would say we are trapped. There's clearly good writing advice to be mined from this image about creating a writing space, whether virtual or actual, where one can be free from distractions.

But I found another, intriguing association with the phrase, "monkey brain."

I came across a study that showed brown capuchin monkeys have a strong sense of fairness. The monkeys were trained to trade pebbles with researchers for food, usually pieces of cucumber but sometimes grapes. If pairs of monkeys made the trade and one of them got a better deal (i.e., grapes), the other would throw a fit.

Does this sound familiar?

What if I replace, "monkey," with, "writer," and, "researcher," with, "publisher?"

More familiar now?

This isn't a rehash of my advice to, "keep your eyes on your own test," though the points are related. No, this is about your basic expectations.

The fact of the matter is that the business of publishing is grossly unfair.

Your options are to throw a fit and go sulk in the far corner of your cage, or to transcend your monkey brain--particularly the part that keeps oh-so-careful track of how fair the situation is--and keep writing.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Death by Description

By Julie Daines

Description. The story needs it to survive, but too much can kill it. Here are a few tips I've found helpful when writing description:

- Description should match the POV character. In my mind, this is the number one rule. Everyone sees things differently based on their own unique life experiences. Take that into account when writing description.

A girl walks in wearing a tight, low cut dress and sparkly Jimmy Choos. What's a guy going to notice first? What is a girl? An environmentalist will notice things differently than a factory worker. A person from the country visits the city--what do they see?

- There is a fine line between too much and too little. Too little and the reader is disoriented. Too much and the reader is bored. Readers only need a taste, then let their imagination fill in the rest.

Too much detail tires the reader's mind as they try to align their mental image with the detailed description in the book. Obviously some fantasy and science fiction requires more description for world building, but the same general principle applies.

- Many writers feel the need to describe a new location/character/feeling in full detail the first time it's introduced. What if you were listening to a friend tell you about a conversation she had, and she started off with, "I was talking with Jane at the beach, she was wearing a navy-blue tankini with a matching swim skirt, fire engine red flip-flops, she had her hair in a pony tail and her skin was moist with sunscreen, and she had braces, and tortoise-shell reflective sunglasses, and her green, floral beach towel was spread out on the sand..."?

All you need to give the reader is the part that's important to the POV character. You can fill in other details later.

- An exception to the above rule is when the description is needed to show the difference from the norm. A hot dog is a hot dog. No need to describe it. Unless it's different. A starving kid finds a withered half eaten hot dog in a dumpster--then you might want to describe the smell, the look, the taste.

- Break up description with action or dialogue.

- A general rule of thumb: use only two to three senses per description to avoid sensory overload.

- Avoid cliche. How many icy-cold fingers, rolling waves, and cars crunching on gravel do we need. It's a challenge, but writers have to come up with new and different ways to describe common things.

Saturday, May 21, 2011


At long last, a great wrong is being undone. In October, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain will finally be available in a box set again.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Is Music Your Muse?

Do you listen to music when you write?

I know writers who insist on silence. I know others who need or like music when they write, but it can't have lyrics. Classical is a favorite for many of those writers. Others need to rock.

I often have music playing. I have a lot of music on my computer, and often I'll put it on shuffle. Sometimes, I want a certain kind of music for the right mood for a scene. And, sometimes, if I'm trying to tackle a tough problem in a story, the music becomes too distracting and I have to turn it off. Usually, though, I need the music to help block out other household or office noises. It becomes a kind of white noise for me, although I usually notice what's playing. I don't understand the mechanics of it, but the music seems to distract a certain part of my mind that needs to be distracted when I write.

Occasionally, music intrudes a little more than I want, like if a song particularly interests me because I really like it, didn't expect to hear it, or makes me want to immediately hit the skip button. I think that's fairly rare, though. The deeper my writing focus, the less I actually notice which song is playing.

But then, I wonder if that's really true. I'm betting that if I could track my reaction to music while I write without the tracking becoming a distraction of its own, I'd notice that it distracts me more than I think.

In any case, music seems to help me when I use it as background noise when I work.

How about you?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Where Eagles Dare Soar

“When it rains, most birds head for shelter; the Eagle is the only bird that, in order to avoid the rain, starts flying above the cloud.” Unknown

Isn't that an interesting fact? The eagle flies above the storm!
How does this quote apply to writing? Bear with me.
There is a lot of confusion in the writing world right now:
E-publishing is the best way.
Traditional publishing still the best way.
Don't break any writing rules.
Break the writing rules.
Write for now, not the current trends.
Research the trends.
This agent is accepting new authors.
Wait. No, she's not. 
Put your best work out there.
Don't edit your work to death.

Anyway, do you get the point? All of the good and bad advice/help/ideas out in the world can hurt our creativity.
A storm of confusion, raining down on us! (Ah!)
As writers we must rise above the dark clouds and naysayers.
Write. Your. Book.
It's there, inside you, waiting for an outlet. Waiting for you to be brave, to soar.
Now go forth and write, my brilliant eagles!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Unique in Context

by Deren Hansen

Nearly every agent holds a querying author's claim that there's nothing on the market like the proffered manuscript as a major strike against that query. And not without reason: such a boast is usually a good indicator that the writer is not a reader.

And yet, at a certain level, every writer must believe their work is unique. If it isn't, if it's simply a knock-off of something else, why bother? Why put in all the agonizing time and effort to produce something that proudly shouts, "I'm a clone! I'm derivative!" The very act of writing implies (even if the ultimate product is derivative) that we believe we have something new to say, something to add to the conversation, or something that hasn't been said in quite the way we want to say it.

When it comes time to promote the work, however, everyone from agents and editors to readers wants to know what it's like. The classic Hollywood log-line, where we say {new movie} is like {movie A} meets {movie B}, is an extreme, but concise way of putting a new project in context. The same is true for the genera, audience, and comparable books we're supposed to include in our query letters.

The frustrated author might ask, "How can my work be both unique and at the same time like something else?"

The enlightened answer to this zen riddle arises from understanding that uniqueness is relative and only measurable in context.(Thus is it possible to be unique and similar.) Uniqueness* is best understood as a measure of the degree to which the new work exceeds or changes the expectations defined by the context in which the work is experienced. The original Star Wars movie (Episode Four for you young-uns), was unique when it premiered because its special effects gave it an almost documentary feel compared to contemporary space operas.

The deeper problem, of course, is the implication that the claim of uniqueness entitles the author to instant market recognition with no further effort. It's the literary equivalent of walking into a cocktail party and shouting, "Everybody shut up and listen to me."

Your job is to add something relatively unique to the conversation. But before you can add, you must be a part of the conversation and understand the context.

* I'm talking, of course, about novelty, not rarity.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Plotting Problems by T. Lynn Adams

One of the biggest worries writers have is how much plotting they should do before they start writing.

I have followed plot outlines faithfully and they work. However, I am generally so anxious to start writing that I have been known to begin with only a simple idea or two.

However, all stories need main plots, secondary plots, and plot twists. Here is a great formula. It helps me remember when and where to include all those necessities. You don't have to follow it exactly--just use it as a great base.

CHAPTER ONE: Hero is introduced.

CHAPTER TWO: Villain and his evil plan are introduced. Hero expresses a concern, goal or value he feels is important and wonders how he will achieve it. This concern is seemingly unrelated to the plot but later becomes a key part of the story. 

CHAPTER THREE: The villain and his plan are still followed. Hero faces a problem with a matter of heart. This matter of heart connection will continue through the story. It could be romantic or some other situation that pulls at his heart strings. Hero’s problem in chapter two appears resolved.

CHAPTER FOUR: The villain crosses paths with the hero for the first time, though the hero doesn't know it yet. A secondary plot line develops in this chapter and runs through most of the rest of the book. This secondary plot line involves a second character or problem.

CHAPTER FIVE:  The hero faces an unexpected problem (plot twist) that casts doubt about the problem resolution discussed in chapter three. Stories with the matter of heart and the secondary plot continue.

CHAPTER SIX: The hero faces problems with the matter of heart and the unexpected problem started in chapter five continues. The secondary plot continues and now begins to directly involve the hero.

CHAPTER SEVEN: Hero solves chapter five's problem but still struggles with the matter of heart problem. In this chapter, a large plot twist develops that tells the hero his problems are bigger than he thought and something ‘evil’ is going on. Hero still does not know the villain. Secondary plot problems continue to grow.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Hero thinks he has solved the secondary plot problem as well as the ‘evil’ problem he discovered in chapter seven. He also enjoys resolution with his matter of heart. Things are fine until the end of this chapter when a new problem (plot twist) surfaces that brings the villain back in a new and more dangerous way. This plot twist also combines both the main and secondary plots into one big problem.

CHAPTER NINE: The hero is shocked to discover the villain and focuses on conquering the him and the big problem that developed at the end of chapter eight. Hero neglects the matter of heart.

CHAPTER TEN: The hero continues his quest to conquer the problem and the evil villain. Danger from the villain increases.

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Hero appears to get the upper hand and resolves the problem; but this short-term-victory only slows the villain and does not stop him.

CHAPTER TWELVE: Disaster occurs which threatens the matter of heart. This disaster can be orchestrated by the villain or by natural events.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: The hero is distracted from the villain and more concerned about the matter of heart. This distraction gives the villain an edge on the hero. 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Because the villain is angry at the hero's interference, the villain’s quest to destroy the hero becomes 'personal'.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: The villain starts to systematically destroy everything of value to the hero.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: After suffering an initial wave of losses, the hero re-evaluates his priorities and decides the matter of heart and his personal goal or value (mentioned in chapter two) are the most important. The hero is ready to walk away from the conflict and give up the smaller priorities.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: The villain orchestrates a major disaster that threatens both the matter of heart and the hero's main goal or value.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: The hero must decide between the matter of heart or his goal. The hero chooses the matter of heart and works to save the matter of heart.

CHAPTER NINETEEN: With the matter of heart safe, the hero realizes he can no longer walk away from the conflict. To honor and protect his values and the matter of heart in the future, the hero must now face the villain personally.

CHAPTER TWENTY: Things go physically wrong for the hero and it appears he has lost. The hero makes a sacrificial decision which gives the villain victory. A surprising twist units the hero with the matter of heart or his main goal and value. Using the strength that comes from that union, the hero is able to bring down the villain and win.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: All problems are resolved. The hero is reunited with the matter of heart, knows he has protected his main goal or value, and the book ends with the hint of 'more' coming for the hero. This ‘more’ can be more matter of heart or more danger. You decide!

Good luck this summer!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Queries: Forests and Trees

by Deren Hansen

In geometry, you need two points to define a line, and a minimum of three points to have a trend. I sensed a trend when I came across theses three pieces of advice about queries in the course of a single day:

Holly Root, of the Waxman Literary Agency offers the following advice on what matters in query:
"Write the best book you can, then the best query you can. Submit written materials to agents. The worst they can say is no so don’t worry about fine-tuning that to the nanometer, just look for the right ballpark (i.e., alive, still in the business). Then press send."
Michael Bourret had a similar post titled, Queries: It's not about the details

And then Nathan Bransford (formerly of Curtis Brown) chimed in with Get the Big Stuff Right:
"I was thinking I'd discuss how if you just familiarize yourself with agent blogs and use your best judgment and act in good faith and send the best query you can you're going to be fine and there's no need to sweat the tiny details."
Nathan goes on to say,
"It is about the details in the sense that we are actually making a decision based on a short letter and maybe some sample pages and so of course it's about the details."
Here's his list of things to sweat:
  1. "Overall look - Around the right length, a reasonable font, 10 or 12 point font, broken into reasonable paragraphs, no fiddling with margins, pictures, indenting, colors, etc. Just a clean, professional-looking letter. Don't sweat if it's a little long or a little short, and definitely do not start messing around to try and make it look creative or different. When it comes to letters, "creative" tends to look "insane." It's like showing up to a job interview in a clown costume. When you're formatting your query: wear a boring suit."
  2. "The description of your work. Get. This. Right. Get it right. Get it right, get it right, get it right. Get it right. Sweat this. This is what we care about. We're looking for a good story idea and good writing, and you want both to jump out in the query.
  3. Annnnd, we're done!
One of the things that sets us apart as novelists is our ability not to lose sight of the big picture. We may agonize over a word or phrase, but we (the ideal we) keep in mind the role of those words in the scene and the role of the scene in the larger story.

In a similar vein, we need the ability to see the bigger picture on the business and marketing side of the endeavour. (Or we need an agent to do that job.) I suspect that one of the subtle differences between a pro and a wanabe is that pros don't lose sight of the forest and obsess about a particular tree.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Juvenile Detention Writing Blog

I've been teaching a writing class at a local juvenile detention center for over a year and a half and have collected amazing stories and poems over that time. I finally got around to asking permission from the staff at the center to create a blog to share the teens' writing as a way of providing outreach for the center and an outlet for my kids.

Slowly, but surely, I am getting their writing posted and each week they are giving me new material to add. Their stories are heartbreaking. Some days it's all I can do to write it down. If you want real and raw insight into the lives of teens who have been dealt a harsh hand in life, you'll find it here. Keep checking back because there is new material added daily.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Can Fiction Be Fiction?

By Julie Daines

I've been following the story of Greg Mortenson and his book "Three Cups of Tea." So sad. And yet, it is the perfect reminder to me of why I tend prefer the novel over nonfiction and memoir. How do I know what the author wrote is true? Everyone is prone to embellishment. But when it's out there in a book, it doesn't feel like embellishment, it feels like lies.

So then I started wondering ... is there room for embellishment in fiction? We watch TV and movies where stuff that could never happen happens all the time. And we say, "Cool! They just figured out who the killer is and saved the world based on a grain of sand." Or "Wow, that car just did a triple back flip over a cliff and the driver didn't get hurt at all." We accept it and move on. Maybe with film, seeing is believing.

It seems harder to get away with stuff like that in a book. I don't know why. Maybe the printed word carries more weight. Maybe we don't have that "real life" visual image to help us suspend disbelief. Instead, we read with skepticism, questioning the "reality" of what is happening in a book of fiction. Then we scoff and say, "Ha! I don't buy it."

Every genre of fiction has different standards of realism, of course. And things have to fit into their specific realm of reality--all with some sense of believability.

But it makes me laugh when a child looks up from a book and says, "Mom, I don't think a giant, poisonous worm would actually be strong enough to crack the mountain like that." 

So why is it that fiction can't just be fiction?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Finding Time to Write with Ronda Eden Illustrator of The Brothers Foot and author Stephen Cormey

Many writers, especially those first starting out, have to find writing time around full-time jobs and even family life in most cases. But what many don’t realize is finding time to writer will always be a change, even if you do become a full-time writer.

Today, we have Ronda Eden, writer and illustrator, and Steve Cormey song writer and children’s book author here to share a bit about how they find time to write and illustrate around their busy life styles. You’ll find they both don’t use the “Butt in Chair” method when it comes to writing.

Ronda: Finding time to write/illustrate, I feel, is a very personal thing. What schedule works for one will not work for another. This is why it is good to have a lot of ideas to choose from. Try each one out and see what works for you. Then, as things change in your life (as we all know they do) you can modify what you do in accordance to what’s going on at any given time. Be realistic! I have found that I don’t need a lot of time. What I need is quality time where I can be still and quiet, and let the word and images just flow in. Too much time finds me floating about with no direction. That’s sort of nice, but not productive. Approximately 1½ hour time slots locked in my studio work best for me. I also need to move around and be active so this allows me to get my blood flowing, so I don’t nod off to sleep.

 Here is my average day (Is there really any such thing as average?) I take short breaks and sometimes a nap.
5:30am – 6:00 do yoga or stare at the wall with a cup of coffee.
6:00 – 7:30am - fiddle about on the computer answering emails or surfing the web.
7:30 – 9:30 am - horse chores (we have a horse boarding facility with approximately 70 equines.
Break -10 – 11:30 am Studio (uninterrupted)
Break – 12 noon – 1:30pm horse chores (we feed hay and goodies 3 times per day)
Break – 2pm – 4pm studio (uninterrupted) sometimes I do actually fall asleep here but I consider that an investment in future energy.
4-6 pm Exercise or train endurance horses
6 pm evening horse chores
7:30 pm break read and fiddle about on the computer.

During the Summer I travel to endurance rides so much of this goes out the window. I will jot down ideas as they come to me during this time. They enter into a sort of gestation period. Then I get back into a solid routine it in bouts. I need to be very flexible, go with the flow and roll with the punches.

Steve Cormey: Finding the time to write is not too difficult for me. I work nights and usually have a few hours in the afternoon to journey up into the mountains with a notebook (in the summer) and jot down some thoughts. There’s always time to sit at the computer no matter what the weather. 
I don’t put aside a certain time or block of hours to write. If I feel inspired, then I make time. Some days, I’ll wake up with an idea and jot it down, go back to sleep and look at it later to see if I think it’s worth doing more with.
I usually save everything I write down and file it away even if I’m not going to do anything with it right away because I might be working on something else later and remember a line or two that I saved and can ‘plug it in’ some other project.


About our Guests:
Ronda Eden is the illustrator of The Brothers Foot written by Stephen Cormey. Ronda’s been a teacher, storyteller, writer, touring art curator, gallery owner, horse trainer and artist A.O.T. (Among Other Things). Ronda’s hobbies include the joy of  hiking, climbing, wind surfing, belly dancing, jogging, traveling, swimming, daydreaming, listening to music and of course, horse riding. Apart from the later, none of these activities get much of her attention these days. Especially travel! Ronda loves it right where she is, doing exactly what she is doing.
Steve Cormey has entertained the people of Grand County and Colorado for over thirty years. An award winning songwriter, he has written, produced and released six very successful CDs while playing an always full schedule of live performances.

His background in Folk ,bluegrass, rock and traditional music is evident whether live or on CD. Colorado Blue, Somewhere with a Beach, Never Summer..forever home, Walking Stick and the all solo-acoustic Pure & Simple CDs offer a potpourri of musical styles, and his Old Fashioned Christmas is a Yule Tide favorite. Steve’s live performances show off a talented mix of danceable music, humor and fun! 

Stories for Children Publishing will be touring “The Brothers Foot” children’s book, written by Steve Cormey and illustrated by Ronda Eden all month long in May 2011.

You can find out more about “The Brothers Foot” World of Ink Author/Book Tour schedule at There will be giveaways, reviews, interviews, guest posts and more. Make sure to stop by and interact with Steve Cormey, Ronda Eden and the hosts at the different stops by leaving comments and/or questions. Steve and Ronda will be checking in throughout the tour.

In addition, come listen to Blog Talk Radio’s World of Ink Network show: Stories for Children at The hosts VS Grenier, Kris Quinn Chirstopherson and Irene Roth will chat with Ronda Eden and Steve Cormey about “The Brothers Foot”, writing, the publishing industry and experiences with virtual tours. Renee will also be sharing writing tips and trials, and tribulations of the writer’s life.

The show will be live May 16, 2011 at 1pm EST (12pm Central, 11am MST, and 10am PST). You can tune in at the World of Ink Network site at You can listen/call in at (714) 242-5259. (Note: if you can’t make the show, you can listen on demand at the same link.)

To learn more visit Stories for Children Publishing at: