Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Tools of the Trade

Like most writers, I love words. I love learning about words: how they’re spelled, how they’re pronounced, what they mean and most of all, where they come from.

One of my favorite reference books is the Dictionary of Word Origins written by Joseph T. Shipley and published by the Philosophical Library in 1945. It is perhaps not the most practical book of its type for a writer of contemporary fiction, as it doesn't have words that originated in the past 60 years, and it does have some words that are not in use anymore or whose meanings have since changed. Still, I love to leaf through it and read Shipley's notes.

Here are a few cool entries (though, yes, at the time, “cool” just meant “chilly”). See if you can guess at the origins:


“Cereal” is taken from the name of the daughter of Saturn and Vesta. Ceres was the goddess of the harvest.

“Fiasco” is related to the word “flask.” When Venetian glassmakers messed up on one of their masterpieces, they would put the flawed glass aside to use to make bottles, or far fiasco. Fiasco came to represent failure.

“Muscle” is taken from the word musculum, which is the Latin diminutive of the word mus, which means … mouse! Apparently to the Romans, rippling muscles brought to mind little mice running around beneath the skin. Eww.

Do you know of any interesting word origins? Any you’d like me to look up for you? (I’ll be happy to!)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Decisions, Decisions

I spent part of this afternoon reading Date Him or Dump Him: The Campfire Crush, by Cylin Busby (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, May 2007). It’s a “Choose Your Boyfriend Book,” one of those paperbacks where the reader gets to make decisions along the way. (For the record, I ended up dumping sort-of-a-jerk Seth and dating not-my-usual-type-but-very-sweet Eric.)

As a reader and a writer, I have mixed opinions on this type of book.

Pro: The story places you, the reader, in the story. The author does not give a name for the main character (you are supposed to use your own), and she uses a situation that is so general, any kid can relate to it (going to camp and meeting a bunch of new boys). I found myself transported back to my early teens, with all the insecurities and drama that period entailed.

Con: A few of the main character’s actions did not ring true for me. I found myself thinking, I would never do that, which took me out of the story. Still, given that the book is supposed to fit just about everyone who reads it, the author did a great job of tapping into experiences and emotions that are universal to tween girls.

Pro: It can be fun to direct the plot. I imagine this would be even more important for kids. There is so much they can’t control in their lives, being able to play Master of the Universe as they read would be a nice change.

Con: Half the fun of reading a book is not knowing what happens next. I found myself getting drawn into a story line and wondering where it would go, only to realize, Oh, yeah, it could go either way. I’m the one who decides. Kind of a letdown, for me, anyway.

Pro: The decisions the book asked me to make weren’t always easy. Side with your best friend or with the cute boy? Give sort-of-a-jerk Seth another chance or not? It made me think about Big Things such as my values and my self worth. I’m sure that would be even more pronounced for tweens. (The one exception to this was the question about whether I would try catch the snake in my cabin by myself or run for help. Um. Easy one.)

Con: Sometimes the choices presented didn’t accurately reflect what I would do. I had to pick “A” or “B,” when I knew in reality I would do something in between. On the other hand, being forced to choose did make me dig a little deeper inside to figure out my true feelings about things, so that was kind of cool.

As a kid, did you enjoy “choose your own ending” books? Any favorites?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I'd Like to Thank My Parents...

I just took the Weblog Author Personality Quiz, and here's my profile:

"Congratulations! You're a totally normal person. If you had a weblog, it'd probably be a great one! Why are you even taking this survey? You're obviously completely normal. You probably look on weblogs with the same disdain shown by all people of your elite personal perfection; however, if you do like weblogs, I'm sure you have a damned good reason. Kudos to you for retaining some measure of sanity in this mixed-up, shook-up, f'ed-up world. We thank you for taking time out of your busy normal life to look this survey over."

No applause, please. Just throw comments.

What is your profile?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Retreat Lesson 3: Finding Your Voice

Editors and agents are forever saying they want to find a strong voice, a fresh voice, a compelling voice.

But what is voice?

During the Novel Revision Retreat, we had a real live editor who could answer this for us firsthand. In her presentation,"Talking the Talk: Developing Voice and Narration," Julie Romeis defined voice as ... drumroll, please ... "kind of indefinable."


OK, so like everything else in this business, there are no easy answers. Still, Julie did share some helpful advice for those of us struggling with voice and narration, including:

1. Don't be afraid to experiment with point of view. Play with writing your novel from different characters' points of view, and from third-person point of view (omniscient and close). Dare to try something different. The Book Thief is narrated by Death itself. The Lemony Snicket books have an author-as-narrator-as-character. In both of these examples, the authors write portions in the second person, addressing "you," the reader.

2. Though tough to define, voice can be characterized by certain qualities. Among the qualities that make up "voice" are sentence lengths, word choice, rhythm and diction. Voice speaks to the age, gender and education level of your main character(s) and sets the tone for your story.

3. You can't please everyone. Some people love Lemony Snicket's books, some despise them. Don't worry about appealing to everyone. Tell your story the way you need to tell it. That said, your voice does need to be believable and suited to the intended age group.

Thus end my notes from the Novel Revision Retreat. Many thanks to Julie for all her hard work preparing for the retreat and for allowing me to share some of the highlights here. Your thoughts on voice, revision, first pages and any other aspect of writing are welcome!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Retreat Lesson 2: Revising Your Manuscript

You've written your manuscript and revised, revised, revised, until at last a publishing house has offered you a contract. Congratulations! Now what? Umm ... more revisions. (Sorry.)

For the second lesson at last weekend's Novel Revision Retreat, Julie Romeis discussed "Jumping Hurdles: Navigating the Ins and Outs of the Revision Process."

Julie shared the work she and author Lisa Klein did on the recently published Ophelia. The revision process for that book involved eight versions over a span of two years, as editor and author worked together to bring the manuscript to its full potential. Not all of those versions entailed substantive revisions ... several were copyedits and proofs ... but still!

Among the main points Julie shared:

1. Keep your eyes on the finish line. Don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed by focusing on each individual hurdle in the revision process. You and your "coach" - whether that be an editor, agent or critique partner - should share a vision for the story. The point of revising it is to get closer and closer to that vision.

2. Every step counts. This is the flip side of point #1. In hurdles, the difference between winning and losing can be 1/100 of a second. In writing and revising, the difference between a good sentence and a great sentence can be a single word. Your editor will work with you on big-picture items such as story arcs, mood, emotion, clarity. He or she also will work with you on "little things" such as word choice. Be prepared to work hard to find just the right word or phrase, especially for the key scenes in your story, as your editor will want those scenes to soar.

3. In the end, it's your race to run. What do you do if your coach suggests a change that doesn't feel quite right? First, recognize that the reason he or she suggested a change is most likely because something in the original version didn't work. Try to define the underlying problem and see whether you can come up with a solution that works for you. This is your story, and you need to be happy with the end result.

Do you have any revision stories or tips to share?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Retreat Lesson 1: Hooking Your Reader

We've heard it many times: The first page of your manuscript has to grab the reader's attention.

How do we do that? Julie Romeis of Bloomsbury USA Children's Books shared her thoughts on this during our retreat's first lecture, "Goin' Fishin': How to Hook Your Reader."

Julie started out by sharing some of her favorite first pages, including Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," Louis Sachar's "Holes" and Rick Yancey's "The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp."

Next, she shared several manuscripts rejected based on their first few pages, showing us (not merely telling us!) the difference between what works and what doesn't.

Editors read thousands of manuscripts every year, so the bar is set pretty high. Here are some ways you can make your first page stand out:

1. Start with the unusual. If your story starts with a kid's alarm going off on a Monday morning, take my advice: Change it. Your story needs to start when the action begins, where the conflict kicks off. It needs to shine, shimmer and move in interesting ways to catch your reader's attention and entice them to chase the bait.

2. Raise questions. Too often we want our readers to know everything we know about our characters, our setting, our backstory. But if we fill them up right away rather than give them reasons to be curious, there's no reason for them to chomp down on the hook.

3. Bring on the tension. No one wants to read a story about happy, carefree people. Without tension, you have no story. And without tension on the first page, you can't reel in your reader. Note that the tension need not be overt ... it can be implied ... but it must appear right away.

What are some of your favorite first pages? Does the first page of your manuscript hook the reader?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Down to the Nitty Critty

Just returned from a Novel Revision Retreat at Skyline Drive in the lovely Shenandoah mountains. The theme was "Warts and All," and each participant was asked to bring a trouble spot from her manuscript for critique and suggestions.

The retreat was fantastic ... 15 writers, all with a lot of talent, all with great insights into each other's work. Bloomsbury Editor Julie Romeis joined us as our guest speaker and participated in the critiques.

My only regret? That I forgot a camera. I so wish I could post the view I had from my room ... a breathtaking vista of the valley! You can check out the resort here ... it's a terrific place to get away from it all ... to write or just to be.

With Julie's permission, I plan to share some of my notes from her presentations over the next couple of days ... my brain is shot tonight, in case you can't tell ... so please stop back and see what Julie had to say about hooking your reader, the revision process, establishing voice and more!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

This Explains a Lot, Actually

Want to know how your brain works? I found this cool brain test on RJ Anderson's Journal.

Here's my Brain Usage Profile:

Auditory : 61%
Visual : 38%
Left : 38%
Right : 61%

And the highlights of my summary:

Linda, you show a slight right-hemisphere dominance with a moderate preference for auditory processing, an unusual and somewhat paradoxical combination of characteristics.

You are drawn to a random and sometimes nonchalant synthesis of material. You learn as it seems important to a specific situation and might develop a resentment of others who attempt to direct your learning down a specific channel.

You process entire swatches of reality, overlooking details. You are emotional in your reactions and perceptual more than logical, though you can impose structure and a language base when necessary. Your tendency to be creative and free-flowing is accompanied by sufficient ability to organize and be logical.

You prefer the abstract and are a theoretician at heart while retaining the ability to be practical. You find the symbolism in a great deal of what you encounter and are something of a "mystic." You have the mentality which would be good as a philosopher, writer, journalist, or instructor, or possibly as a systems designer or social worker. Perhaps most important is your ability to "listen to your inner voice" as a mode of skipping over unnecessary steps to achieve your goals.

* * *
Hmm, looks as though RJ and I were separated at birth ... we have the exact same profile (though our percentages are off just slightly). Interesting.

Monday, May 14, 2007

What Jack Bauer Can Teach Us About Writing

My husband and I are "24" addicts.

The first five seasons of the show were amazing. Don't-answer- the-door-or-the-phone-or-the-cell-phone-or-that-cute-little-you've- got-mail-ding-because-Jack-Bauer-is-saving-the-world-again amazing.

The sixth season? Not so much.

What made the show so good for the past five years? What is missing this year? I've been contemplating this tonight (after yet another disappointing episode), and I think "24" offers several good lessons for those of us who are writing fiction, particularly mysteries.

Lesson 1: Give your protagonist a deadline. The whole point of "24" is that the show takes place in "real time" over the course of a single day ... an intense and eventful day in which our hero saves the world (or at least some small part of it) three or four times over. Usually Jack has less than one or two hours before the bomb goes off, or the hostages get killed, or the bad guy boards the plane to the tropics, or whatever. Always there is a clear deadline, and always we watch as the clock ticks away. Even in season six, this has held true. The show's writers are the masters of suspense. What is your hero's deadline?

Lesson 2: Make the reader care. Terrorists are about to blow up Los Angeles. Yawn, you say? Righto. So would most viewers, except that one of the residents of Los Angeles happens to be Jack's daughter, the one person he loves more than anyone in the world. He hasn't been the best dad ... always off saving the world and such ... and he is desperate to renew his relationship with her. She's a great kid, very spunky and smart. We don't want this beautiful young girl to die. This is one area where season six has flopped. Too much international intrigue, not enough characters we care about. Good stories are not about plots, they are about characters.

Lesson 3: Keep 'em guessing You never know which good guys will turn out to be bad guys, which bad guys will turn out to be good guys, when the plot is going to take its next incredible twist or who is going to get killed off before the end of the season. (As we fans have learned all too well, "24" is not afraid to kill off even the most well-loved characters.) Season six is lacking in this regard: We've seen only a couple of twists, and after the first few hours the good guys vs. bad guys distinctions became disappointingly clear. In a good mystery, there should be a hint of suspicion over every character except the protagonist. And without a plot twist or two, books are, well, predictable.

Lesson 4: Pile on the hooks. "What? We have to wait a whole week to find out what happens?" For the first five seasons of "24," my husband and I shouted this at the end of pretty much every episode. In season six, we either (a) haven't cared what happens next or (b) have been able to guess what happens next. Not good. End every chapter with a hook and keep the reader turning those pages.

What has your favorite show taught you about writing? Let me know, and together we writers can try to do our part to save the world!

Blogger's note: Many of these lessons have been reinforced in mystery writing classes taught by mystery writer Noreen Wald (aka Nora Charles).

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Blast from the Past

My husband gave me an amazing Mother's Day present ... tickets to see The Clarks last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. I went to college with the guys in The Clarks (many) years ago.

They've built quite a name for themselves in the Pittsburgh area and were on Letterman a few years back. Every once in a while they come to Northern VA, but I've never gotten out to see them.

So last night was a real blast from my past. And I do mean blast. Those guys have improved with time. Amazing.

Check out their sound at

And Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Show, Don't Tell

Remember "Show and Tell" from your kindergarten days? The kids who opted to "show" caught my attention more than those who decided to "tell." (Yes, the fact that five-year-olds tend to have lousy public speaking skills may have had something to do with it, but bear with me.)

In writing, we are told, "Show, don't tell." What does that mean?

In my day job, I do a lot of marketing writing. Effective marketing is all about showing.

You can tell people your product is fabulous (new! improved! the best thing since sliced bread!), but unless you show them how it will make their lives better, easier, more meaningful, you're not going to get very far. Think about the last time you saw an advertisement or read about a product and it made you reach for your wallet. Go back and re-read that ad or article. Chances are, it's a great example of "Show, don't tell."

The same holds true in fiction. If you show your reader what is happening and what your main character is thinking, they're more likely to "buy it" than if you merely tell them.

Here's an example:

Option 1: I spotted a spider on the edge of my pillow. I hate spiders. I leaped out of bed and screamed. This is telling.

Option 2: I spotted a spider on the edge of my pillow. My skin felt creepy crawly. I leaped out of bed and screamed. This is better. We know the character hates spiders without being told. But, at least according to Dial Editor Nancy Mercado, describing body language and physical feelings is still a form of telling. How can we take this a step further?

Option 3: I spotted a spider on the edge of my pillow. One of it's long, hairy legs twitched as its beady eyes stared into mine. "Aaagh!" My feet hit the floor in two seconds flat. Though this still may not be Pulitzer-worthy, I think it works better. We see the spider from the character's point of view, and with that twitching leg and those beady eyes, we can feel the character's skin crawl. Heck, as the world's biggest arachnophobe, I feel my own skin crawl.

I think the key to "Show, Don't Tell" is to get into the character's head and to really relate the scene as he or she experiences it. I'm still working on this concept, so if you have examples you'd like to share, I'd love to see them!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Help! I'm Falling for My Antagonist!

This week I've been stuck. Something in my story isn't working, and until I figure out what's wrong, I know writing will be a struggle.

So, as a way to take a break from my mystery without abandoning it, I decided to try an exercise. I wrote a short piece from the point of view of one of my suspects. Really got into her head to find out what makes her tick.

Come to find out, she's not such a bad chick. Sure, she's self-involved and kind of bitter, and she takes the who "emo" thing a little too far. But she's had a tough time of it. Her mother's a total stage mom, living vicariously through her, and she's suffered some serious disappointments in her life.

You have to cut a girl like that some slack. Plus, she's funny. And smart. And not afraid to be a little different. Heck, in some ways, she's even more interesting and likeable than some of the "good guys" in my story.

How did that happen? Sure does complicate things. Makes me wish I'd never tried that stupid exercise. Except I'm really glad I did.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What Does Your Drawing Say About You?

drawing personality

Stole this post from fellow writer and blogger lboylecrompton ( I am the world's worst illustrator, but I have to say I'm kind of proud of this piece. Only thing it's missing is a few acorns.

Anyway, here's what it says about me:

You are a thoughtful and cautious person. You like to think about your method, seeking to pursue your goal in the most effective way. You like following the rules and being objective. You are precise and meticulous, and like to evaluate decisions before making them. You have a sunny, cheerful disposition.

Pretty accurate, actually.

Want to know what your drawing says about you? Check it out!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Writing Genius

I once got a fortune cookie that said, "Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains."

Now, I usually hate those types of "fortunes." Do I really need a lecture from my dessert? But this one resonated, so I kept it and taped it above my home office desk.

To write well takes a certain genius, and the last time I checked, my IQ fell short of that mark. The only hope I have is to take great pains. That means to revise, revise and revise again.

Through the magic of Google, I learned that this was no random fortune but is in fact a quote from Scottish philospher and author Thomas Carlyle. And through the magic of, I found that Thomas Carlyle also said, "Writing is a dreadful labor, but not so dreadful as idleness."

It's as if this guy knows me.

BTW, Carlyle also said, "When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze."

Monday, May 7, 2007

100 Words A Day

At a recent dinner, author Virginia Hartman ("A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories About the Modern Wedding") told a group of writers about an experiment she and a friend have undertaken. Every day for one year, they have committed to writing at least 100 words and then calling each other to read their work. Every day.

My friend Heather and I liked the idea so much, we decided to try it. We figured this would be a good way to get that "butt-in-chair" time we're both so adept at avoiding.

(Our other idea was to reward ourselves with a chocolate milkshake for every hour we spent writing, but then we realized that although that would increase butt-in-chair time, it would also increase butt in chair.)

Anyway, 100 words is a small, realistic goal, and the commitment to consistency is what matters most here. I've found that because 100 words isn't daunting, it frees me up to get started, and of course, sometimes once I get started, it's easy to keep going.

What are your ideas for boosting butt-in-chair time?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Why "Just Like the Nut"?

Welcome to Post #1 of "Just Like the Nut"!

I am a children's writer working on a mystery series. If (when!) a publishing house decides to buy my book(s), I am planning to publish under a pen name ... my maiden name, to be specific.

Linda Acorn.

Until I married seven years ago, whenever I told someone my last name, they'd give me a quizzical look.

"Acorn?" they'd ask.

"Yes," I'd reply. "Just like the nut."