Monday, March 31, 2014

No Virginia, There's No Such Thing as The First Draft

Last week, I announced on Facebook that I had completed the first draft of my WIP.

My mother read on Facebook that I had completed the first draft of my WIP. She asked to read it.
I laughed and laughed.

No way anyone is reading that puppy.

I lied about completing the first draft.

Or. Maybe not.

I can't be certain.

What I know is if anyone read the draft it would be like what I imagine a magician would feel like revealing his or her secrets.

My first draft is a blabber mouth. It explains how I do all my tricks.

There is so much rough stuff inside that first draft, so many side notes, and highlighted ALL CAPS messages to myself that should anyone read it they'd think, Shazam, I know exactly how she twists the plot, rearranges time, and spaces out plot reveals that I could just go home and write the thing myself.

And we can't have that.

I have come to a startling conclusion:

I don't believe in first drafts.

Meaning, I doubt they exist. I would love to believe there are writers out there who pound out a story so well crafted that the second draft is only so much polishing. If you told me that is exactly how you write, I'd smile and nod and later I'd draw pictures of you with the eyes X'ed out.

My second draft isn't polishing. It's major reconstructive surgery. And not the out patient kind. The you're going to be here for awhile so you might as well get comfortable and for heaven's sake stop abusing the nurse call button.

You can't read my second draft, either.

Sure, I've tucked away most of the dead giveaways, spun the scenes so they glisten just enough to distract you from what I don't want you to see.


And I'm being butt-neeked honest here.

But, that second draft (meaning the manuscript after I've moved through it fully from the opening chapter to THE END) has a face only a mother could love. Still more voice and jazz hands than breathless pacing and didn't-see-it-coming-but-now-that-it's-here-it-couldn't-have-happened-any-other-way plot twists.

After the third time through the novel I've tucked away the how-to secrets, buried the plot twists, sped up that pacing and layered on the subtle elements of story-world, sub-plot, running jokes (this story has a few running jokes. Cuz I like running jokes and it's my story so there), character traits, time line (cursed thing, that time line. Bane of my writing existence), and break-neck speed ending.

After the third time through, I might consider letting some very close friends have a peek. Only because I begged them.

And what would I call that draft?

In my email to my close friends begging them to read the thing I would say this: Please, please, please, pretty please read this first draft and let me know how much needs to change/be rewritten/be burned at the stake.

Yep. I'd call that one my first draft.

Which is total ca-ca.

And also absolutely true.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Out Of the Garden, Part 9

Read the story from the beginning here
Part 9 by Kathleen Popa
I shoved the shoe box under the bed, and hurried out, grabbing a tissue from the box on the dresser and shutting the bedroom door firmly behind me.

"My new shoes," I said. "The green  pumps. I meant to wear them, but the heel is broken. I'll have to take them back."

"Pumps?" Margaret seemed ready to take my temperature. "Are you going somewhere?"

"Granny? New shoes?” Bree seemed impressed. “Can I see?"

"No! No no no." I said it at least one time too many, because of course I hadn't bought new shoes. "I wanted to run out for a few things, some dessert, some artificial sweetener."

Margaret frowned, so I kept going. "Of course, there's no need to dress up to go to the store. Not at my age."

"When did you ever?" Margaret mumbled, and her eyes met Bree's.

"Why don't we all go?" I asked.

"I'll stay here,” said Bree. “Settle in." For just a moment, her eyes wandered toward my closed bedroom door.

I wished for a lock on the bedroom door. "Come along," I coaxed, "and pick out the ice cream." When I returned, I could find a better place to hide The Her.

But when we walked back through the front door, we found Peta and Klaus sitting so stiffly in the living room, she in the chair and he on the couch, their smiles so tight, that I keenly sensed that they had halted a conversation mid-sentence when they heard the car in the drive. The tension between them was so palpable, I hesitated to enter the room.

Margaret slipped in around me. “’Scuse, Mom. Don’t want the ice cream to…” she began, but then, she stopped.

“What is it?” she asked.

Peta glanced at me, then at Klaus, and then she chuckled. A pair of diaphanous wings popped out from behind Peta. Just like the Her's, only much, much larger.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Keep Your Hands on the Keyboard

I used to believe that when my kids grew up I would have no trouble writing.  But while I have more time now, I am still so busy that I have difficulty keeping my focus on my writing when I do sit down at my computer. It turns out that my kids were just one distraction among many.  So I'm brushing up on how to keep focused to make the best use of the time I've got.  Here are a few things that help, if I will apply them consistently.

  • Schedule writing time and make a chart to keep track of word count. This drives home the point that this is a job and inspires organization and control. My boss wouldn't let me get away with being a slouch, so why should I indulge myself?
  • Do research first and leave blanks when more information is needed, rather than interrupting the flow to find the answer.
  • Write a synopsis/outline/loose outline/list of scenes to point the story in the right direction when the flow of ideas fizzles out. This is for SOTP writers, too.
  • Read over the last scene you wrote at your last writing session just to get the juices flowing, but DO NOT stop to make edits. This is to help you pick up where you left off.
  • Do not stop to look up details such as the name of the protagonist's dog, the color of her vehicle, her street name, etc.  Leave a blank and fill it in during the editing which comes much later. OR type up a list of these details and pin them to the wall behind your computer screen so you can glance up for the answer without removing your hands from the keyboard.
  • Clear your writing space of distractions. Personal effects on your desk or walls are fine unless they remind you of your last vacation when your toes were in the sand and you get a sudden craving for fish tacos and start thinking of what you should make for dinner. Leaving things out in your peripheral vision can steal your attention.
  • Keep creature comforts close at hand to discourage you from being tempted to get up and retrieve them.  Kleenex, a drink or snacks of choice, Chap Stick, whatever you need, keep it nearby. Your cell phone does not count as a creature comfort.
  • Get comfortable.  Invest in a chair that keeps you from pitching forward toward the screen in a slouch or doesn't cut off circulation in your legs because they don't touch the floor.
  • Turn off all electronic devices - except the document you are working on. All social networking is taboo while writing. 
  • Set a timer signaling a break or the end of your writing time.  Promise yourself you will not get up until it rings and resist the urge to hold it to your ear frequently to make sure it's still ticking.
  • Leave a scene/sentence/word/idea unfinished at the end of the writing time so there is a thread to pick up for the next session which makes it easier to get back into the story. Scribble down the basic direction, in case of forgetfulness.
  • If all else fails, at least keep your hands on the keyboard.

We all have to learn tricks that keep us focused on our stories and that make the best use of our writing time.  Can you think of suggestions to add to my list? We'd love to hear!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Guest Author - Wendy Paine Miller

We are excited to have Wendy Paine Miller as our guest author today as she shares with us about her novella, The Disappearing Key. Wendy is part of our Novel Matters community, and we couldn't be more proud of her. The Disappearing Key is currently available in paperback and on Kindle. Here is a brief synopsis:

Gabrielle Bivane never expected parenting a teenager would be this hard, but she never expected stillborn Oriana to live to see fourteen, either. The night of Oriana's birth, Gabrielle and her husband Roy fused their genetic and engineering geniuses to bring back all that was lost to them---at a cost. The secret must be kept. Oriana Bivane senses she's not like the other girls her age, but the time has come for her to change all that. She's tired of secrets, but does she confide in the wrong person? The life-giving key, suddenly missing, must be found.

Novel Matters:  Welcome, Wendy. Can you tell us where the inspiration for The Disappearing Key came from?

Wendy Paine Miller:  As is the case with all my books, it came from a culmination of experiences. My husband and I went through a season when we experienced infertility. After going through that, I imagined what it might be like to bear great loss alone, keeping it a secret from the world, without the incredible support we were shown. Years ago, I learned the devastating news that a friend from college delivered a stillborn baby. As someone with great empathy for others, I'm convinced her loss led me to write this story.

NM:  Experience certainly is the seed bed of inspiration. Writing from our own emotions deepens a novel like nothing else can. Were there other experiences that added to the creation of The Disappearing Key?

WPM:  My mother has Ménière’s Disease, an inner ear affliction much like vertigo. She receives steroid shots in the ear as treatment, and without giving away elements of my plot, I brought that concept into the story, using a much different item to add a mystical component to The Disappearing Key.

NM:  That mystical component is what makes the story so intriguing. I've read it twice, and enjoyed it even more the second time. How long did it take you to write?

WPM:  It took four months to write, and at least that long to edit.

NM:  Four months? That's impressive, especially considering the in-depth medical/scientific elements that are woven so interestingly and seamlessly into the story. What is your background in that, and how much research was involved?

WPM:  I research as I write, mostly online, but I also talked to doctors to discuss details with them. I've always been fascinated with brain anomalies, and have read numerous books and articles on the subject.

NM:  Is that where you learned about synesthesia, which is a condition that affects Oriana? And what exactly is it?

WPM:  I stumbled across an article about synesthesia years ago and tucked it in the back of my mind, knowing it was something I'd write about one day. Simply put, synesthesia is the blending of senses, such as a color evoking a specific smell. Because the method of treatment in The Disappearing Key is so avant-garde, I thought it would be fun to create Oriana with synesthesia, inciting readers to wonder what the key is capable of ... or not.

NM:  It's certainly an interesting element to the story. Regarding your writing style, are you a plotter, a seat-of-the-pantser, or something in between?

WPM:  For me, it's a combination. I loosely plot each work, establishing conflict points. But they've been known to change on me. My style might equate to planning a vacation: I pack my bag, know where I'm headed, but when I enter the zone I'm pleasantly surprised by the people and places I come into contact with.

NM:  That's a nice analogy. Tell us about your path to publication.

WPM:  I graduated college with a degree in writing concentration. My first love was non-fiction, but something happened after I had my children. I fell in love with characters. They busted in and never left.

A few years ago I signed with my wonderful agent, Rachelle Gardner, who champions my work. I'd been exploring the indie route, and we agreed that The Disappearing Key, being a novella, seemed the ideal project to publish in that fashion. So that's what I've done, and I've learned invaluable things about the publishing process along the way.

NM:  Having gone the indie route, what are you doing to market The Disappearing Key, and what's working best for you?

WPM:  I hosted my launch party at a coffee shop where I help with their social networking. Over 40 people came to celebrate the release of my novella, and I sold every copy I'd brought with me. Many of the attendees had already purchased and read my book, and yet they bought other copies to give away. That's what I call support!

I've attended over a dozen local book clubs that have read the book, and Skyped with others online. I'm in my element with these groups, and I absolutely love the conversation stirred up by The Disappearing Key.

I've been on blog tours, I promote the book on my Facebook page, I have influencers who promote it as well. I visit local libraries and book stores. Essentially, I stay hungry to have my book read. Rather than waiting for people to find my book, I go out and find them.

NM:  "Stay hungry to have my book read." I like how you put that. The Disappearing Key is a fascinating, well-written story. What's next for you?

WPM:  I'm actually preparing to announce the exciting news in a few weeks. Think early summer. Think flowers. Think full-length. Stay tuned!

NM:  We will indeed! Is there anything else about the writing process you'd like to add as we conclude?

WPM:  I feel most alive when I write. When the light grows dim along the publishing path, I always come back to the writing. It lights me up, and fuels me to use story to incite valuable conversations. With every story I write I'm improving, not just as a writer, but as a human being.

NM:  Thank you, Wendy, for sharing your story with us. We wish you all the best, and look forward to your next novel.

Leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for a copy of  The Disappearing Key. Visit Wendy Paine Miller at her blog, Thoughts that Move, and her Author Page at Amazon.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Out of the Garden, part 8

Read the story from the beginning here.

Part 8 by Vila Gingerich

My words ruffled the delicate hair and wings of the Her. “Mythical creatures: a figment of who you dream to be. Could that be true?”
Dreams? Bree would raise her eyebrows at the thought. She considered me a dottery grandmother with one sensible shoe in the grave.
Even so, I still had my stash of somedays, my valise of what-ifs, my shoe box of—
Maybe this magical creature, this Her, embodied my fancies of what I could be, could do—submit that story, see Venice, run that marathon.
A rustle came from the box and I leaned closer. Tiny limbs stretched, then straightened, and a wince puckered Her face. No fresh blood welled, though, and I let out the breath I hadn’t know I’d been holding.
With an index finger, I scooted the lid of honey closer.
Her tiny nose twitched. Asking this elegant being to put her face down and drink like a dog seemed preposterous.
“I’m sorry.” My face burned. “I didn’t think. Maybe—”
A hand fluttered out and downward, like a baby moth, and then—a droplet of honey glistened in her palm. She held it to her lips, paused, and the golden head nodded.
At me. For me.
My heart clutched and tears pricked behind my eyelids.
As the Her drank and my knees grew stiff from kneeling, I became aware of voices outside the window.
“What’s wrong with Grandma?” Bree’s voice sounded sharp as glass.
“You noticed too?” Margaret speaking. “She meant to slam the door in our faces earlier. I mean, it’s not like we weren’t invited. Oh, and she forgot my diet. She had nothing but sugar for the Earl Grey.”
“Well, right now she’s in her bedroom, crying into a shoe box,” Bree said.
I glanced over my shoulder and gasped. The bedroom door stood ajar.

Vila is a very good friend at Novel Matters. She won our essay contest on why novels matter in 2012. You can read her essay here. She is currently a humanitarian aid worker in Eastern Romania with her husband. Learn more about Vila here.

Thank you, Vila!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Battle On!

Resistance is anything that keeps us from doing art. And Resistance is evil.

I learned this from Steven Pressfield in his book, The War of Art. I've written about his book before. Such a powerful tool for those of us who are driven to create art but don't necessarily have the heart of a lion or the skin of a hippo.

I have known rejection. I felt it in my gut, and without saying the words, vowed to avoid that feeling again.

It hurt.

I have also come face to face with Resistance, even when I was experiencing "success." There is something about beauty and truth that Resistance can't tolerate.

Most recently, Resistance has gotten brazen. He shouts rather than whispers in my ear that what I'm creating is icky poo-poo. This makes going to critique group similar to standing in line to be flayed. Ouch!

The key, according to Pressfield and experienced by moi, is to separate myself from my work.

I am me, the creator of stories. My stories are something I make, not me, not flesh and bone, certainly not my children. And my work always benefits from skilled eyes evaluating and guiding. This is why authors gush about the help they've had along the way in their acknowledgements.

We don't write in a vacuum, people.

Creating stories to send out into the world may be the most courageous thing we ever do, and we must do the telling with our whole hearts and souls.

Or who will care?

Battle on!

(I recommend Mr. Pressfield's book as a daily devotional for writers, especially if you need a swift kick in the pants now and again. The "chapters" are very short, sometimes not even a page long. BTW, I don't get a cut.)

How good are you at separating yourself from your work? Is critiquing something you welcome or something you dread? Is having someone point out a flaw in logic in your work a source of celebration or a crushing defeat? In what form does Resistance come to you?

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Skill of Failure

I always enjoy reading Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine when I’m on a flight.  I usually find an article that makes a connection with writing in some way.  March’s issue had an article titled ‘The New American Dream’ highlighting entrepreneurs who quit their day jobs in order to pursue work completely outside their chosen professions. (article here) I found it especially interesting that so many people working in tech or other high paying business related jobs quit to ‘do something with their hands.’  Craftsmanship is becoming more recognized and personal satisfaction more valued. 

But none was an overnight success. The way they handled failure ultimately made them successful. Jay Heinrichs, the Editorial Director, points out that in some fields, failure is a necessity.  “Body builders lift to failure, pumping iron until they can’t get in another rep. Judo novices learn the art of falling. Engineers push devices until they break…”   

The writing profession is built on a series of successes and failures.  We can take classes and read books on writing technique, but until we actually write and critique what we’ve written, we don’t know where we have failed and how to improve it.  We can’t be afraid to write stinky, smelly first drafts, because without those, we have nothing to perfect, nothing to be successful with.

It can be very frustrating, even heartbreaking, to spend months or years on a manuscript, only to have it rejected by a publisher or agent. Or by several.  Every writer I know has experienced it.   Some writers can’t handle rejection of their work and they quit altogether. The lucky ones are those who receive feedback from the editor and the smart ones act on those suggestions and resubmit.  The ones who haven’t learned to handle failure don’t follow through.  I have heard editors say they have made comments for specific improvements and encouraged writers to resubmit, but many don’t.  

As writers, we need a strategy for recovering from failure and using the experience to our advantage.  If the editor has made suggestions that we can live with, following through is the most effective means toward success.  Sending the manuscript for a professional paid critique is also beneficial, as long as it is a trusted source.  At a minimum, we must ensure that we have followed submission guidelines and researched the best publisher for the manuscript. We need writer friends to use as a sounding board when these disappointments leave us low or threaten to derail us.  We may need to step back briefly and gain a fresh perspective. We don’t need to push our writing to the breaking point, but we must learn to see failure as an opportunity for future success.  And we don't quit our day jobs - stress is a creativity killer.

How do you handle the disappointment of failure?  Perhaps you have a quote or cartoon or your favorite author’s bio which outlines their ultimate success after experiencing failure.  Please share it with us. We’d love to hear!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Out of the Garden, Part 7

Read the story from the beginning here.

Part 7 by Cherry Odelberg.

“I’m your grandmother, Bree.”    
“I know that, Gran. I didn’t ask who you are. What are you?”
“A widow,”  I faltered. Not just any widow, Don’s widow.  
“So? That’s no big reveal.”  
“I haven’t taken to widowhood very well.”
“There are rules about that?”
“I . . . I’ve been trying to cope, I . . .”
Bree studied me for a moment with that frank stare of today’s generation.
“I’ve been under a doctor’s care. A psychiatrist.”
“Peta thinks you’re a crazy lady?”
For a moment, I wished I could tell Bree everything--share with her the way Granny and I did when I was young. Someone should know about Peta and me, about when we were kids, and about Peta and me, and Don as teenagers. Should know about Granny and her magical stories. About my loneliness now. Would Bree believe the Her? I wasn’t even sure how to believe the Her.
“Got hold of yourself yet?” Peta intruded a second time. 
A feline yowl erupted somewhere in the vicinity of my right knee. 
“A cat!” spat Peta. “You and Don and your shared love of cats.” She sneezed. “Get it out of here.”
Silently, I collected the lid of honey from the counter and followed Hector down the hall to the bedroom.  He marched on velvet paws, tail at full mast. I sagged against the door and breathed, “I need a drink.” 
I thirst, I thought. Give me to drink. Neachtar.
I filled a tumbler with water from the master bath sink and drank. I flicked a few drops of water into the honey, and swirled the lid. On my knees, I offered it to the fragile being lying in the shoebox.
“What are you?” I repeated the question of the day.
I knew what Granny would say. Fairies, Angels, Mythical creatures, they’re real. They are all representations of someone you know and love-or fear. Maybe they are a figment of who you are, or who you dream to be.
“What are you?” I whispered again.  

Cherry Odelberg is a longtime friend of Novel Matters. She loves to play piano (so much, she teaches it) and hike in the gorgeous mountains surrounding her Colorado home. She has every readers dream job, managing a bookstore. She always adds zest and insight to the Novel Matters community. Thanks so much, Cherry!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Tell Me a Story

Whenever I tell people what I'm about to tell you, it feels like I've opened the closet door, and the skeleton has clattered to my feet. I hope you'll think only a little less of me when I confess: I listen to audiobooks.

In my English-major days, I never dreamt of it. That would be like skipping the book and watching the movie. Or like reading the Cliffs Notes for Moby Dick.

Only wait - I did read the Cliffs Notes for Moby Dick. I did it because I was cornered: I had five literature classes, and was assigned to read a novel a week for each one. If you know anything about my reading style, you know I might better have majored in Physics, because I was more likely to discover Cold Fusion than to read five novels in a week. Ever.

It was a similar desperation that drove me to audiobooks.

I was a young mom, with a home-based night job that kept me entering data long into the next morning, and then left me cross-eyed the following day. With a toddler. And no time to read.

A story-deprived life is no life at all.  And besides, something had to keep me awake so I could enter the data. For a while, it was a whacked out radio announcer named Art Bell, who interviewed UFO abductees and werewolves. But even Art Bell went to bed before I did.

Enter Blackstone Audio. In those days, you could go to their website and stream their books - for free, sometimes - over the internet, and they had authors like John Gresham and Maeve Binchy, and those two can keep you awake for hours. Free books, and they helped me stay up and make money. People have gotten hooked on cigarettes for less reason.

I eventually quit the job, but by then, my relationship with audiobooks was established. I found I could exercise and take in a Ray Bradbury story. I could clean house and hear what Malcolm Gladwell had to say.

I could light a candle, lower the lights, lay back in a warm bubblebath, and close my eyes while someone with a wonderful voice read me an absolutely delicious story.

Can you tell? I love that best of all.

Now that my life is busier than it ever has been, I need my audiobooks more than ever. Otherwise I'd starve on only the few minutes in bed I'm awake before I drift off to an exhausted sleep. In effect, I'd practically give up reading altogether. And a story-deprived life is no life at all.

Now Amazon has a nice little thing they call Whispersync, which allows me to read for those few minutes before I fall asleep, picking up right where the audiobook last left off, and then starting the audiobook in the morning right where I stopped reading.

But it's more than mere necessity, this vice of mine.

I'll tell you a secret: Some readers perform the character's voices in ways that make stories even more delicious. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is like that. So is The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Or The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski.

How about you? Do you listen to audiobooks? Got any favorites, any with wonderful voices?

Please do tell. I'd love to find another story for my candlelit bubblebath times.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday Movies with Novel Matters

Jodi Picoult is one of the best selling authors today, both in the US and internationally. She's published more than 20 novels, all that deal with cutting-edge topics, and many of which have been best sellers. In this interview, she talks about her characters, her research, and future books she'd like to write. We hope you enjoy.

What did you most get out of this interview that you could apply to your own writing? Do you have a favorite Jodi Picoult novel?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Out of the Garden - Part 6

Read the story from the beginning here.

Part 6 by Megan Sayer

Peta’s words winded me like a blow to the chest. I breathed deeply, holding the summer air in my lungs until my heart regained its rhythm, then breathed out slowly in a low, guttural sigh.
A hundred thoughts fought like dogs within me—Tea leaves on the floor. The dustpan. Pantry. Focus. Breathe.
Surely the fragile creature in a shoebox needed me more than ancient history needed reviving, but what to do? The clock ticked its wordless seconds, and through the window came the hum of idle chatter from the garden. I felt my shoulders relax; the guests were settled. I found the broom, swept the spill.
Margaret doesn’t eat sugar. How could I forget?
I hunted through my china cabinet for a saucer that once belonged to my—our—grandmother and twizzled some honey into it for the tray.
Margaret had been on a sugar-free diet for two months, and raved about weight loss and health benefits, about the natural healing properties in good organic…
Honey is made from nectar. Could it help the Her? I rummaged quickly and rescued an old jar lid from the back of the pantry, just the size to cradle a teaspoon of honey. Surely just enough time…
Gentle laughter sounded outside, overlaid by the sharp, biting laugh of Peta. Her parting words pricked my soul again, an aftershock of memory.
Just don’t forget what you are.
“I know exactly what I am!”
A cough sounded behind me. I hadn’t heard the screen door open.
“Mom sent me to check you were okay.” My granddaughter’s bored expression had been replaced by curiosity. Her eyes flicked to the honey in my hand.
“So what are you then, Gran?”

Megan Sayer is a long-time friend of Novel Matters. Given that she lives in Tasmania, Australia, it's surprising that 5 out of 6 of us have met her in person and have fallen in love with her. She says she's addicted to fiction, which doesn't surprise us one bit, especially now that we've seen her writing. She's also a wife and mum (speaking Australian!) of 3 beautiful children. You can read more from Megan on her blog at and get to know her on FaceBook. She's finished one novel and is working on a second.

Thank you, Megan!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Your Brain on Novels

When Sharon wrote about the reader's state of mind on Monday, she wasn't thinking about that soft, squishy stuff inside our skulls.

But I am. 

Cognition and its workings are a bit of a hobby for me. When I nosed around for some science of reading stuff, I found an enlightening (pun intended) article.

Let me start by saying that my new goal as a fiction writer is to light up brains. That's what good fiction does according to "Your Brain on Fiction" by Annie Murphy Paul in the NY Times. The fMRI machine is giving us a glimpse of how the brain reacts to all of the old chestnuts of writing we've been practicing.

For instance, if someone laying in a fMRI machine reads a cliche, the result in the brain is absolutely nothing. No lights. No rush of blood. Darkness. But if the person reads a metaphor, like "the singer had a velvet voice," the part of the brain that processes texture/touch lights up. 

Lights up!

And those strong (specific) nouns and vivid verbs we've been harping on lately, they light up the visual cortex by creating a picture for the reader to "see."

Even nouns associated with smell, like "perfume," "coffee," and "popcorn" turn the lights on in the olfactory part of the brain. This is wild, and yet, so understandable for those of us who read voraciously. (I hankered for pork ribs while reading Gap Creek.)

"The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated." 

It gets even better. As fiction writers, we can give the reader a vicarious experience that teaches to be more empathetic and social. 

And here's why: 

"Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings...that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective."

For me, this means word choice does matter, that exquisitely crafted characters and stories are worth the time I invest, and that we have scientific proof of what we've known all along: Storytellers play an incredibly important role in the preservation, enhancement, and healing of societies.

How does this information change the way you think about your craft?

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Reader's State of Mind

There aren't very many books I'll read a second time, but the few I've opted to re-read seldom disappoint. Only rarely do I ask myself, "What was I thinking?" when that second read does disappoint.

Even more rare is the book I'll give a second chance when the first attempt fell flat. I did that recently, and I blush to tell you the title. It was Marilynne Robinson's debut novel, Housekeeping. Housekeeping won several prestigious awards, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Marilyn Robinson's second novel, Gilead, did win the Pulitzer.

So what was my problem the first time I attempted to read Housekeeping? I'd heard so many great things about the novel from all the writers I interact with, but I just couldn't get into it. Still, I held onto it, thinking someday I'll give it another try. Well that "someday" came a few weeks ago, and from the opening page I was hooked, and asked myself countless times throughout the reading, "What on earth did I miss that first time?" The answer: "I have no idea."

I've tried to evaluate my state of mind when I made that first attempt three years ago, to see if there are clues as to why I didn't like it then, but there's not enough that's different in my life from then 'til now to explain it. I'm just glad I did give it a second chance, because I really liked the story. Or at least I very much liked the writing. The story certainly had its dark side, but there was enough good about the writing that I was willing to stay with it for the duration . . . this time. And who knows, maybe the bottom line is that the dark side of the story was too uncomfortable for me three years ago.

The point is, it's not very often a reader will give a writer a second chance when we fail to grab them the first time around. When I'm looking for a book to read/purchase, I'll read two, maybe three paragraphs of the opening page at the most, and if I'm not intrigued enough to keep reading at that point, I put that book down and go on to the next. Strong openings, particularly opening sentences, are so important. As you write and edit your opening pages, keep that in mind. We have precious few seconds to hook a reader, and even less to hook an agent or editor. Hone that opening page to the sharpest precision, but the subsequent writing must be equally enticing to keep the reader engaged. Keep your writing tight, your characters engaging, your story on target, each scene important, or the reader will be on to the next book on her list.

Is there a book you've given a second chance, and wondered what you missed the first time around? Or if you've once given up on a book, is that it, no second chance?