Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Art of Anticipation

Before I say anything substantive about last night's Grub Street class, I would like to thank our instructor, Hallie Ephron, and my classmates for being so patient and kind with me... and with Serious Girl. I actually brought Serious Girl to class with me last night, because Husband was in South Dakota overnight, and I was unable to line up any of the babysitters SG trusts (it's not a long list).

So, from 7-9:30pm, SG sat on my coat in the corner of the classroom, eating dinner and watching The Backyardigans on the iPad. In this (intentionally) dark and low-res photo, you can see her holding one headphone to her ear, while holding her spoon with the other. There are two stuffed Backyardigans along the wall, and she's actually under a large easel. Class went until 10pm, but I decided not to push my luck or SG's bedtime any further and left at 9:30, taking the last writing assignment home with me.

Serious Girl, you were a nearly silent all evening, and you were a ROCK STAR. Hallie and my fellow students, thank you so much for giving us a chance and I hope we never disturbed your class experience.

So! Last night's class was called Writing Suspense. I am simply going to share some of Hallie's insights in bullet-point form:
  • Suspense is the potential that something bad is going to happen. When something bad actually happens, that's not suspense, that's conflict or action.

  • Suspense often involves taking ordinary objects and imbuing them with a sense of menace.

  • Suspense requires a clear sense of scene (time, place, etc.) because you cannot build suspense if the reader isn't grounded.

  • Suspense requires the laying of groundwork... if the reader doesn't have the critical information before the moments of tension, it's not suspense, it's surprise. As a writer, chances are you won't know what this critical information is until you've written the key scenes. That's what editing is for: go back and put that gun in the closet, that cell phone in the hospital room, that cliff near where the car chase will eventually happen.

  • Explanation ruins tension, which is another reason why the writer must provide any critical information and/or backstory before the suspenseful scenes, not during them.

  • Suspense can often be created by giving the reader information that the characters don't have (although some people can't read this kind of story at all).

  • The writer must raise the stakes so that characters will do things no normal person would. You know how you scream at the movie screen for characters in a horror flick not to go down to the basement? Make it so that the reader understands why the hero has no choice but to go into that basement.
Suspense and tension can be built through slowing the pace, creating a vivid sensory setting, putting the reader side-by-side with the character in peril (the "closeup" camera angle), juxtaposing the innocent with the unnerving, having the critical elements already established, and raising the stakes.

Suspense and tension can be eased by action, the anticipated bad thing actually happening (the payoff), something unexpected but harmless happening (the false payoff), humor, distancing the reader from the story (the "long shot" camera angle), summarizing or cutting away from the scene, or providing back story in the scene.

This class was a delight, and I'm picking up a copy of Hallie Ephron's Never Tell A Lie today. Hallie also authored Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, which a mystery-writing crit partner of mine recommends most highly.

Any suspense-writers here? What are your favorite techniques? Or, like me, do you just like the have the occasional moment of reader anticipation thrown in? What are your favorite suspense books?

Friday, September 17, 2010

You are NOT lazy.

Image found at the Visual Ambassador

On Sunday I took (yet another) Grub Street class, called "Time of Your Life." Taught by Hillary Rettig, the class focused on ways to find time to write for those of us who cannot give up our day jobs and/or are unwilling to sacrifice family, friends, and everything else in the name of our art.

Hillary spoke to us about living a conscious life: if you do not manage your time, someone else will be happy to manage it for you, and you'll end up working hard to fulfill someone else's dreams, not your own. She also spoke to us about PROCRASTINATION.

She spoke of the "laziness myth." Writers don't procrastinate because writing is "too hard." If it was really just too hard and we were lazy, well, we'd probably just give up trying to write altogether, and focus on watching t.v. instead. We could embrace the lazy lifestyle. But no, we want to write. We want to do this hard thing because it fulfills us and gives us joy in some way. We know that the work pays off with rewards. So then why do we put it off?


It's not going to be as good as it is in my head. It's not going to be as good as that other author who writes in the same genre. The first 20 pages came out magically awesome, and the rest won't be as good. The first 20 pages came out kinda crappy, and surely the rest will be worse. I don't have the knowledge I need to write this well enough. I only have a few minutes, that's not enough time to write anything worthwhile... and suddenly we're doing the laundry instead of writing. Or doing more research when we probably have enough to get started. Or surfing the internet looking for a new blog that will give us the secret key to writing like James Joyce and getting published like Stephenie Meyers.

I don't have the answer to help you figure out which fear is yours, but I do know that this is a powerful message, and it should be passed along: YOU ARE NOT LAZY. Procrastination doesn't make you a bad person or bad writer... in fact, it's a pretty common-sense defense mechanism that protects you from feeling terrified of failing. But if you face the fear down? Then you can write anything you want.

Hillary has an ebook available for download on this subject as well: The Little Guide To Beating Procrastination, Perfectionism and Blocks (she told us that she no longer teaches the section on "hypersensitivity", but that the rest is still recommended material).

I've gotten some positive feedback on a project, and I'm scared of messing it up. But I have to edit, and have to finish, or I'll never get any further. And this project DESERVES to go all the way. HOW ABOUT YOU?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Oh, thank goodness.

Finished First Draft Badge
from Merit Badger's badges for writers and readers

I finally finished my edits to a short story that I adore. In some ways it's a first draft, because it's the first version that didn't have actual story gaps in it. In other ways, it's almost a final draft, because I almost never write anything straight through. When I write longer pieces (more than 1K words), I pretty consistently end up at some point with a draft that is 85-95% complete, mostly revised and edited, but still missing some connecting scenes that would get the reader from Important Plot Point A to Important Plot Point B. This is apparently my style.

So, once these last scenes finally make it into the draft (in this case, saved Version #4), I'm actually, well, done. Those scenes are freshly written, but they've been mulled over for quite a while, and they're of a pretty reasonable quality to begin with. But I'm making sure to leave it alone for at least a few days just in case. I'll let it settle, try to forget about it, get beta readings from the two writers who were with me when the idea for this short story was inspired, and THEN do a final polish before submitting. And then I will have earned this badge:

The Finished Final Draft Badge.

I can't tell you how glad I am to have this done. This is the same short story I was telling you about when discussing methods of editing, and it's also the one that was inspired by my Monsters & Mayhem class at Grub Street back in Jan-Feb-March of this year. That's long enough to be working on a 7K-word story.

Seven thousand words! Most of my short stories are fewer than 1,500 words. Have I mentioned how thrilled I am to have this written?


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Maybe we'll get it right next year.

This post first ran in my blog on 9/11/09. I thought that since 9/11 falls on a Saturday this year, maybe I'd get to skip blogging about it. But I'm seeing the same inanity and self-serving posturing and misuse of real tragedy and other people's pain... and so I'm going to repeat myself, too. Goddammit.

Here's last year's post.

I wasn't going to write about this. I had a bad and insecure day yesterday, and I was going to blog about how you pick yourself up when you feel like you've made an ass of yourself all day long... and this is a writing blog, not a political, or social, or personal one... but then I read a few posts this morning on the subject... and now I have to talk about it.

If you don't want to read about 9/11, stop here.

If you don't want to read profanity, stop here.

I am from NYC. On 2001, I was working at a law office in midtown Manhattan, but on September 11th in particular I was part of a group of attorneys doing document review in Newark, NJ. My train that morning went under the WTC pretty much moments before the first plane hit. I arrived at the NJ location to see people glued to a tiny t.v. that was black & white, and full of static. But we were just over the river and could see the towers out the floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the NJ office. We kept on the radio, and the t.v., and we saw the towers collapse as we watched through the window.

I had a cell phone, and my then-boyfriend-now-husband relayed messages between myself and my parents as we confirmed everyone was safe. NY-to-NY calls wouldn't go through (too many local cell phone towers down, I guess), but my husband was out of state, and we could call him.

One of the attorneys on site that day had a boyfriend in NJ, so we stayed at his place overnight. I wanted so badly to get back to the city, but even just across the river, it couldn't be done. Our hosts drove me to the train station, but the trains weren't running. I just wanted to go home. Not to my boyfriend in Boston. Not to my parents, even, because I knew they were way uptown and safe, but to MY home. My home in Manhattan. My apartment on 63rd and First. To my little green parrot. I wanted to be alone with my small pet, in my city.

I came home the next morning. I've never seen the city so empty. Silent. Even when there were people on the street, there was no noise. No cell phones, no chatter, nothing.

And then there was the smell. The haze of the smoke that enveloped everything, even miles uptown. I remember the smell.

I went back to work right away, I think. Everything felt hollow. Our company donated office space to lawyers displaced from downtown, and asked us to spend the company money in the WTC area whenever possible. We did all our business lunches downtown, from the first moment that the area was open to us.

There was an earthquake in Manhattan not too long after 9/11, and that vibration was the most horrifying thing I'd ever felt. And a month or two later I saw a low-flying plane disappear behind the Prudential Center Tower in Boston, and I screamed.

There was a tribute concert on television shortly after the attack, and it ran on damn near every station, and it made me furious. Who did these people think they were? Who did they think we were? If a New Yorker had time or money or blood to give, they'd already given it. I didn't want to think about this shit anymore. I didn't want to watch Celine fucking Dion singing in front of a backdrop of how my city used to look. I didn't want to read on the internet about how traumatized people were, when they lived in totally different states where there was no chance of a similar attack ever happening, had never so much as known a single person in NYC. They saw it on television, and I'd seen it out my goddamn window, and I smelled it every day, and I saw how empty the subways were every day, and I saw the military presence on the streets, near the courthouses, in the 14th Street station on the platform for the 6, every day. And I didn't even think I had any particular right to be "traumatized," because I didn't have any damn bodies falling on me. I didn't lose anyone I loved.

My dad was already retired, but his company had an office on the 105th floor in the South Tower. Some of his friends got out. But he went to funerals for about 3 weeks straight. I went to dinner with one of his best friends, who had lost one of her best friends. The friend she'd lost had also been her weight-loss buddy, and now she knew exactly how little his remains had weighed after he'd jumped out the window. That is some fucking trauma. So who were these shitheads singing on my television? I switched to the SciFi channel, then a DVD.

People like to talk about how the crisis brought out the best in people in America. Hell, all over the world. (And, personally, I think we squandered some of that potential, but I'm going to try not to get political on top of being morbid.) But I saw it bring out the worst as well. One of my coworkers that day lived right in the shadow of the towers. Her kids went to school right next door. She couldn't get back to the city, so she called her ex-husband who was still in the city, and asked him to pick them up and take them somewhere safe. He agreed.

And then he kidnapped them. Custodial interference, technically. But he took those kids out of the state, and enrolled them in another school and moved to get new custody papers -- claiming his ex-wife abandoned the kids during the 9/11 crisis -- because the NYC courthouses were completely out of commission, and there was no paperwork available to contradict his new story. (Yes, she got them back, with a little assistance from some lawyer friends and a cop or two.)

There is no grand lesson to be learned from 9/11. People can be evil. Life can be short. We already knew that. If you were motivated to do something great after 9/11, or after Katrina... can you go do it again, now? Donate blood, donate time to a homeless shelter, visit kids in a hospital, something? Just do it. It's not about a motivating crisis. I think New Yorkers know this. It has a reputation as a harsh city, but it never really was. New York is certainly more welcoming to strangers and visitors and new residents than Boston is. (I love you Boston, but seriously, you're pretty clique-ish.) New Yorkers got on with life because we had to. We don't forget, we just don't fucking talk about it. If 9/11 made you want to be a better person, then just get off your ass and go be a better person.

I had a bad day yesterday, and I may well have made an ass of myself on multiple occasions. It doesn't fucking matter. I'm going to go do something worthwhile today. And maybe tomorrow. And hopefully the day after that. Not because of 9/11, but because it's the right thing to do.

I was born in Tokyo. I grew up in Manhattan. I live in Boston.
I am from New York City.

This is my city.

This is my city.

This is my city.

This is my city.

To read the comments to this post from last year, click here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


I am here to share a cautionary tale.

Once upon a time, there was a reasonably intelligent writer-type who happened to have grown up in New York City (Manhattan, to be precise), where driving is unnecessary, and owning a car -- let alone trying to park the damn thing -- is actually a burden. Once, when this writer-type was a child, someone asked her what color her family's car was, and after some thought, she replied "Yellow." Neither of her parents had a license, and her mother had never learned how to drive.

And still, there came a time in this young writer's life when driving seemed like a Thing To Do. A universally-required Life Skill To Be Learned, even. So, she bravely went down to the RMV to obtain a learner's permit. This permit would be granted upon the correct answering of 18 out of 25 multiple choice questions, most of which were insulting to said writer-type's intelligence. For example, "What color is a stop sign?" The writer-type additionally has a history of handling standardized testing quite well (see, e.g., SAT, LSAT, NY bar exam, MA bar exam).

HOWEVER. This writer-type is also 36. Therefore, when preparing for this exam she thoughtlessly skipped the section on Junior Operator Licenses and the rules governing the drivers holding such licenses, who are exclusively between the ages of 16.5 and 18. "I'm thirty-f*cking-six," she said to herself, "None of this will ever apply to me."

The computer that chose her 25 questions, however, had no way of knowing if she was 17 or 77. And so, the computer (and possibly the gods of hubris) "randomly" chose a large number of questions regarding the rules of drivers in possession of Junior Operator Licenses, with an additional emphasis on the non-intuitive state-specific penalties for underage drinking and driving, drag racing, and driving past curfew without being accompanied by a parent. This very clever writer-type then failed her driver's permit exam, much to her embarrassment and annoyance, and her husband's great amusement.

This writer-type learned her lesson. She proceeded to restudy the driver's manual, reading everything in it, no matter how random it seemed to her at the time, which was a good move, because the next day she was able to retake and pass her learner's permit exam despite the bizarrely disproportionate number of questions about motorcycle safety. She tells this story so that you will also READ EVERYTHING (such as, perhaps, any submission guidelines when querying or submitting a short story to a lit mag for consideration), so that you will not be similarly embarrassed or annoyed, or have to pay another $30 exam fee plus babysitting costs to sit in the f*cking RMV for 4 hours on a busy Friday in order to rectify one's sloppy mistakes.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.