Questions and Answers:

October 13, 2010

Q. How do you handle multiple POVs in a short story?

A. Do it fast. Set the pattern right away. Paragraph 1, POV1, Paragraph 2 POV2. If you’ve got a third POV, get in fast. If you wait too long to switch, you lose your reader. Here’s an example from Max Detrano’s latest novella called The Transplant © 2010


Michael took a right turn on Queen Anne Avenue heading down the steep Counterbalance Hill toward downtown and the Pike Place Market. The old Schwinn began to pick up speed. Michael loved zooming down the steep grade, but it was dangerous when there was traffic. It was a long, steep, straight hill with moguls and waves, like an amusement ride. Today for some reason, dumb luck, he thought, he had the hill to himself. He put his arms straight out to his side as if getting ready to fly.


Parked on a hill on Olympic Place, a small curving street a block from the bottom of the counterbalance, Jesus Menendez wrestled to get a lawnmower out of the back of the trailer of his landscaping truck. The handle of the mower was tangled in the railings. The rakes and collection bins had not been stored correctly the night before. The old Chevy truck was parked facing down the hill. A block of wood was forced under the right rear tire which was old and bald. The block of wood was black with grease and age.


Michael went airborne as he came off the first mogul. He felt his ass rise right up off the seat and his stomach leap into his mouth. He gripped the handle bars to keep the bike from tearing out from under him. Usually this was the point in the ride that he began to brake, but today the pavement was dry. There were no cars in front of him. There were no cars behind him. There were no cars climbing the hill. There were no buses. This was THE day if ever there was one to ride like there was no tomorrow.


As Michael Peretti raced to meet his fate at the bottom of the Counterbalance Hill, Betty Ann McNamara was walking to her job on Western Ave. She had parked in the garage at the corner of First and Yesler and begun her familiar trek, past the old Trattoria Mitchelli building and north on Western Avenue. Seattle Monthly occupied the top floor of the CD Boren building, which was mid-block between Columbia and Marion Street. Betty Ann was in a hurry. She had a lot on her mind this morning. The fall fashion shoot with this afternoon. Her brain was full of layouts and designs, because that was her job….

October 10, 2010

Q: Okay, gotta question for you guys. I majored in English back in the day. Worked for Big Oil where I learned computers. Took early retirement and went back to literature, my first love, in a fancy MFA program. I’m the oldest guy in the program, and the only one who doesn’t think plot is a dirty word. My instructor, a cute little gal whose claim to fame is two thin books of short stories – all of which open with the narrator waking up in the morning and nothing happens after that – has us reading no-action, zero-plot books. Whoa! Back up the truck! Long story short – took a mystery writing course at a conference. Got a reading list and I barfed on page one which opened, you guessed it, with the sleuth yawning, waking up in bed. So here’s my question: what would you guys read that opens somewhere but in bed with the sleuth?

A: Read a Sue Grafton book for the first-person female narrator and setting. For an analysis, see The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. Read Raymond Chandler for the first-person male PI. Analyze the first three pages of The Big Sleep – setting, sleuth onstage, tone, character entrances. Chandler’s So-Cal landscapes set the bar for setting. Read Christie for brevity: she packs it tight. In the book (WNWAM) we used A Body in the Library as a cozy-model. Read Gorky Park. M. Cruz Smith’s third-person POV operates like first-person – stays inside the narrator’s head. Study the way he develops the killer, John Osborn. Count Osborn’s kills. For film-world cuts, study John Sandford’s later Prey books. He wrings speed from white-space. Super for alternating the POV. For dialogue, read Robert B. Parker, the Spencer books. Several wise friends recommend Smilla’s Sense of Snow because of the feisty female protag. Stop reading like a consumer, read like a writer. Go slow, grab techniques you can use.

October 5, 2010

Q: I’m writing a memoir about a terrible event that happened to a member of my family. It concerns incest and child abuse. Everyone in the family knows about these crimes, but no one has ever talked about them, least of all in family gatherings, where everyone drinks too much, and there is a forced gaiety, with which they are trying to cover up the event which went on for several years between an adult and a child-victim. I started writing this memoir in a history class – I was researching my family history, a lot of immigrants between 1890-1900 – and the teacher advised me to take a memoir class, where they told us to write the truth, because otherwise you were just wasting your time trying to be nice. You must know that my energy for this was nothing at first, when I started putting pen to paper, but how amazed was I to see that change! Now I want to finish the memoir, put it behind me, and write some fiction. So because people read a lot of fiction, what do you think about fictionalizing my memoir?

A: Good question, bad idea. Your memories will smother your fiction. Your fiction will create new pathways that you cannot take because it didn’t happen that way in real life. If you check the memoir section on this blog, you’ll see how we get our writers to develop a memoir. Some timed writing – I want to write about, Firsts and Lasts – until you have 100 pages typed and stored on your computer. Then you make two diagrams: Birth to Now and a Natural Journey. Study our diagram.  It’s a mantra in image-form. When you are happy with your Natural Journey, start writing Memoir Moments. So many writers have that notion about novelizing the memoir. So you’re not alone. Good luck.

Q: So like my style feels flat as a beer can run over by a semi. How can I get my writing juice back? I notice you keep rubbing our noses in verbs. Is that your answer for me? Hit me, guys. I’m a tough guy. Old, but still tough. But my language, jeez, it sucks.

A: Go to syntactic flex. Read the examples, then set your timer for five minutes and write nothing but See Spot Run short sentences. Use the same five minutes for chaining, the long sentence release, and fragments. Don’t worry how it sounds when you read aloud. You’re training your brain to see what happens when you change your syntax. It might not make journalistic sense, but listen to the music, man. Then, when you’ve mastered syntactic flex, take a shot at Robert Harris’s Writing With Clarity and Style.

October 1, 2010

Q: I’m writing a series of short stories about animals who think they are people. At the end of this note, please find a sample of my prose, which my friends, as well as my writing group, maintain is passive. I’ve been published online. Therefore, I think they (my critics) are jealous. I take a lot of writing courses at our community college and every single teacher praises my writing. It flows, they say. It evokes lovely images. It is so rare, they say, to encounter a student my age (I’m 29) who is trying her darndest to write literature.

A: Your prose is smooth as glass, but your verbs are weak. In any sentence, you have a four to one chance of using a weak verb instead of a strong verb. To make them stronger, you need to retrain your writer’s brain. Check our verb section in Style.

Q: I’m a member of a Natalie Goldberg writing group. We meet every two weeks to do timed writing based on the Goldberg writing marathon, as outlined in her book called Writing Down the Bones. In case you don’t remember, it’s 5-10-15-5. I’m totally okay with the writing part (I must admit, selfishly, that I majored in English in college, where my classmates consulted me for help with their grammar), but reading out loud to the group makes me sweaty. I get nervous and my voice cracks and often I start crying and can’t finish. When I’m done, no one says Good Job or What a fine writer you are. I, on the other hand, take special care to say nice things to everyone. If I don’t care to read, they give me dirty looks. Is there a solution to my dilemma?

A: Natalie has a name for what ails you: Monkey Mind. Take these steps:

1. Read about Monkey Mind at this link. (Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind, p. 34).
2. The next time you write with your group, fold your pages in half to shorten your line. Short lines force you to use better verbs, to create sharper images.
3. When you read, remember to breathe.
4. When you cry, feel happy – that’s your ego dying.
5. Next up, Nirvana.

Q: Okay, so I’ve been working on this novel for seven-eight years and Yikes! that sucker just keeps getting bigger. When I chop a character, three more scream “Let me in!” because they want to fill the shoes of the departed one. Everyone digs my writing. They say I’ve got the gift. They ask when am I going to finish. I say, I don’t know. The novel is over 200,000 words and growing. What can I do?

A: Hit the link for Scene List. That’s your first task – to list every scene in your manuscript, tag it with information like this: name of the scene, place in the structure (is it a key scene? Does it appear in Act 1, Act 2 or Act 3?), setting, character, POV, objects, action. To make it easier, build a grid using the Table function in MSFT Word. If your scene list doesn’t help you compress, list some polarities (raw/cooked, rich/poor, thick/thin, order/chaos, etc) and run each scene through the Spinefinder.  If that doesn’t tighten your book enough, cut some subplots.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Q: My writing group says my story lacks tension. What can I do?

A: Tension comes from dramatic conflict. Conflict comes from intense competition for a resource base – the protagonist wants something; the antagonist blocks the way. For more tension, ratchet up the evil in your antagonist. See Character Profile in The Weekend Novelist. In the blog, see motive. If you’re eager to write, use this startline: My name is… I am the killer….I made my first kill at the age of ….. in a town called…… I discovered I liked killing because….

Q: Everyone says I’m a great writer, but my story flops around. They say it goes out of focus, then comes back. How can I fix this?

A: You need to create a list of scenes, starting with your opening scene – Page One and After – stretching through the book to the climax. To create a helpful scene list, you need to name the scenes. See scenes and scene work in The Weekend Novelist, The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, and The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel. See modular scenes in this blog. When your scene list is done, lock down your key scenes: Page One and After, Plot Point One. Midpoint, Plot Point Two, Climax, Ending, and First Encounter.

Q. I’ve started five novels. All my friends really love the writing. So I make it through three or four chapters – that’s 50 pages or so – and then it runs out of gas. I’m going crazy, starting and not finishing. Can this be fixed?

A: If you’re not doing writing practice (timed writing under the clock), then start now. You can jump from page 50 to the climax. Profile the climax with the Scene Template (WN Rewrites book, WN Mystery book) and then write the scene. The climax is super-important because that’s where the hero wins and the bad guy (or girl) dies. If you kill off your hero or heroine, you are writing literature. See List of Scenes above.