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Cheryl's Musings

Cheryl's Musings: May 2008

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


What we'll do in the name of writing....

Disclaimer: This is a sort-of continuation of Thursday's post, so if you're confused, don't blame me :).

That are ten ideas for how you might stretch yourself this summer:

  1. Spend a week traveling in a country where you don't speak the language. (Obviously, but I had to recommend it.)

  2. For the fantasy writer: learn pottery, archery, sword making, paper-making, or another craft that might be useful to your fantasy character.

  3. Jump out of an airplane (with supervision and a parachute, of course.)

  4. Learn to ride a horse, sail a boat, or raise emus.

  5. Provide a home for an assistance dog-in-training.

  6. Learn to sail a boat.

  7. Volunteer somewhere you usually wouldn't. Like China or Haiti.

  8. Take lifeguard training.

  9. Sleep outside under the stars.

  10. Hike the Appalachian trail.

And in case you're not convinced, take a look at Dick Francis's books. Each of his characters has a different profession and half the book involves learning about it. Or check out Alane Ferguson's Forensic Mystery series or Elizabeth Wrenn's Around the Next Corner. To various degrees, these awesome writers all lived their research. When we let ourselves meet life-changing experiences, we gain the insight to write about characters who do the same.

:) Cheryl

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Thought for Thursday

I've been thinking (dangerous, I know) and have come to a really cool conclusion: people like to read about characters facing new situations, learning new things, and generally being stretched to become more than they were at the start of a story. (In writer-speak, I guess that's called the character arc.) So, if we love to read about people who are in new situations and learning new things, we'll be better writers if we jump into the occasional new situation, too.

I've been following this thought-trail because of my current book project, a story about a girl who runs away to Peru to find her missing mother and finds love, instead. It's been the speediest story ever to fly from my pen. I write every day until I run out of time and/or energy and the story shows little sign of stopping. Why?

Here's my theory: I think it's because I underwent Luciana's journey when I visited Peru this past January. No, I wasn't running away from home, and no, my mother wasn't missing--but I walked the paths Lu is walking in my story, physically and, in some ways, emotionally. I collected two and a half weeks' worth of stories in Peru and now they're spilling out.

It's easy for writers to stay in our cozy writing rooms and create...but if we really want to portray characters who have to grow and change, we have to face the occasional new situation ourselves. It might be travel, or an art class, or learning archery, or volunteering in a homeless shelter--but find something, somewhere, that makes you a little uncomfortable and a little bit, well, more, than you were before. Then pour the experience into your next character.

:) Cheryl

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Writing update...

Lu's Story (as it's very, very unofficially called, for lack of a better title) is flying from my fingers whenever I can find an hour or so to write. Sixty pages and counting....Yay!



Building Your Descriptive Muscles

Read and study others' writing: writing craft books often repeat this advice, but they don't often explain how. I mean, yes, it's useful to pay attention to what works and what doesn't work when you're reading a great book, but I think there are more efficient ways to exercise your writing muscles. How do we build every other sort of muscle? By using them--and by using, I mean performing specific exercises to strengthen specific muscles.

I think that's the best way to develop our writing muscles, too: perform specific exercises designed to strengthen specific writing muscles (okay, skills....) Here's where studying books comes in. You can use a great passage from a great book as a model for rewriting one of your own scenes.

For instance, Cassandra Clare has some clean, evocative descriptions in her urban fantasy, The City of Bones.

p. 65--start of new scene: "The library was circular, with a ceiling that tapered to a point, as if it had been built inside a tower. The walls were lined with books, the shelves so high that tall ladders set on casters were placed along them at intervals. These were no ordinary books, either--these were books bound in leather and velvet, clasped with sturdy-looking locks and hinges made of brass and silver. Their spines were studded with dully glowing jewels and illuminated with gold script. They looked worn in a way that made it clear that these books were not just old but were well-used, and had been loved."

This passage continues for two more paragraphs of description. The main character, who is seeing all this for the first time, doesn't notice the room's other occupant until the end of paragraph 3.

Want to give your own descriptive writing a boost? Take this passage and rewrite it in your voice, using a setting from your story. Start with the big picture (The library was circular...) and zoom in to the specifics. What about your setting merits three sentences full of sensory detail and emotional reaction? Give it a try. You'll like the result. Really.

And the next time you're writing description, your writing muscles will be a little better tuned to the job.

:) Cheryl

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Update on the disorganization front...

I was right! I had "cleaned up" my writing notebook, to a newly designated spot for conference info, and eventually I re-discovered it. I'll peruse it for more useful info to share.

Meanwhile, I've been writing up a storm on a new book--the book that takes place in Peru. I LOVE starting a new project, especially one that's been simmering in the back of my mind for so long. Maybe it's a good thing I couldn't start writing it when I wanted. Now I have an overflow of ideas, just waiting for me to take time to pour them onto the page.

Since I've been dying to share, here are a few opening paragraphs:

I didn’t even realize Eric was late until my dad startled me back into the real world. I was trying to color Eric’s eyes the right shade of blue and couldn’t, not from memory, even though I’d spent four delirious hours swimming in them last night. I planned to make him sit for me a few minutes when he arrived, until I find the right mix of gray and sky.

That’s when my dad touched my elbow. I leapt a foot sideways, bumped my head on the banister, and dropped my sketchpad. Pencils went clattering down the stairs in a broken rainbow of color.
Yes, that’s me: Luciana Rose, queen of the lost-in-space rendition. I hadn’t heard my Dad pull in the drive or open the garage or let himself in. Did I mention that I was drawing? I’m very focused when I draw. I call it focused; some less than charitable classmates just call me a space case whenever I draw—or when I read, or when I’m thinking, or pretty much most of the time. Sometimes I hate that about myself, especially when my father shocks me in the middle of daydreaming about the most wonderful, adorable, kissable guy in Denver.

Not that I’d kissed many of them. Guys, I mean.

Now you can sympathize with my current obsession/delight! I have to hurry up and write it before I get back comments on Juggling the Keystone.

:) Cheryl

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Disorganization Attack

I intended to write another post on the Pikes Peak Writers Conference--but I can't find my notebook. It's one of a number of items lost in the vicinity of my desk and computer right now. The worst is that they're almost certainly lost because I decided to clean up. What can I say? I kind of like seeing a bit of desktop now and again :).

Here's my problem: I like to write (and read and, yes, research) a WHOLE lot more than I like to file or clean or de-clutter. I was doing okay--until the past two months, when I finished rewriting Juggling the Keystone, drafted 45 pages of one book, drafted 15 pages of another, finished up a nonfiction article, was away from the keyboard two weeks with a bout of tendonitis, worked many hours doing medical writing, and read a TON of lovely books (yum.) I'm not writing all this to impress you; it's more to reassure myself that there's a good reason the clutter is catching up to me.

So before next post, I hope to accomplish enough organization that all the materials for each project are located in a single location. Or, at least, I can find my PPWC notes again, because they'd be a bummer to lose!

:) Cheryl


Take-homes from Kate McKean

Despite a last-minute decision to participate in a Read-and-Critique session, I obtained a Friday afternoon reading slot with agent Kate McKean at last weekend's PPWC conference. If you haven't participated in a R&C, see my May1 post for more info. They're intense, but give you a chance to receive feedback on your work in progress and to hear how an agent's mind works.

In this particular case, the agent was commenting on 15 lines of text--less than a single page--so I think the session held more benefit for the writers than the agents. We got to hear her on-the-spot comments on a dozen different manuscripts; she only got to hear whether we could write an intriguing hook and a few pleasing paragraphs. I'm glad I attended, though--I got to see another sharp-minded agent thinking on her toes!

Here are some tidbits gleaned from the session. They aren't necessarily "new," but they're so important for tight writing, they're worth repeating. These were her comments on polished, high-quality manuscripts:
  • Cut, cut, cut those adjectives

  • Cut, cut, cut excess dialog tags. (From me: after this session, I started paging through some of my favorite books to see how many tags published writers use. I was amazed! This is a lesson worth applying and re-applying to my own writing.)

  • Establish the world's rules within the first few paragraphs

  • Lists can be an effective form of description, but limit them to the five most effective items

  • Use specifics in the log line. Don't say "running for her life" but report why and from whom

  • Identify your purpose in every line of prose--and don't fulfill the same purpose twice.

  • You can often cut out the prologue or the first few paragraphs of a novel. They're often written to get the writer's gears moving, but they aren't necessarily the right place for the story to begin.

  • Point the reader's attention like a movie camera, focusing on what's important and not unnecessary details.

  • DO include visceral, clear images. For ex., a rat climbing onto a girl's hair to avoid drowning

If you read my May 1st post, you'll notice some similarities to the take-home from Laurie McLean's session. I don't think they pow-wowed beforehand: I think that writers everywhere need to cut and slash to make their writing the tightest, most powerful, clearest prose it can be.

Hmm. Does that mean that, as a writer, my main job is to cut out most of what I've written? That describes my rewriting process: I pare away words until one page of rambling reveals the one clear, powerful image underneath. That's my focus this week as I rewrite!!

:) Cheryl

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PPWC Report: Agent Kate McKean

Kate McKean: Kate works with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency ( She reports that she is very interested in young adult, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and lots of light nonfiction. She does NOT want space odyssey science fiction, high fantasy, or sword and sorcery fantasy. She also doesn't like serious and dark fiction.

What has she seen too much of?
  • Query letters that start with questions

  • Women's fiction about a divorced woman who is starting life over

  • Any fiction with more than one brand name on the first page

  • Reruns of whatever's on the shelves right now. If a topic is hot right now, it's what agents were reading a few years ago.

  • She's NOT tired of vampires.

What is she not seeing that she'd like to see?

  • Paranormal westerns

  • More YA romance, even "issue" YA--BUT it has to be told in a convincing voice

  • More middle grade fantasy that's not trying to be Harry Potter. Fantasy that's perhaps a little more serious, not cartoonish

  • Lots more urban fantasy!

Note: Kate McKean also reported that she prefers email submissions, a detail not reflected on the agency's listings in Publisher's Weekly or Agent Query.

Tomorrow: Take-homes from her Read-and-Critique session.

:) Cheryl



Take-homes from Laurie McLean

On my first day of the conference, I had the chance to sit in on a Read-and-Critique session with agent Laurie McLean ( If you've never been to a R&C, here's how it works: writers bring a page or three of their WIP (preferably the first pages, usually specified in the R&C rules,) read them to a small audience that includes an editor or agent, and the editor/agent provides deep and life-changing comments in 3-5 minutes. Usually a session moderator sits in the corner, stopwatch in hand, to make sure everyone sticks to the schedule--which means that everyone who signed up gets a chance to read. It's a little scary to be the author in the hot seat, but is a great opportunity to 1) share your work with an audience, and 2) receive feedback from an industry professional. And although it seldom occurs, most of us continue to hope that the editor or agent will swoon in admiration and offer a contract on the spot.

IMO, it's also incredibly difficult for the editor/agent to formulate intelligent comments in this setting. That said--Laurie McLean impressed me with her ability to pick out what did and didn't work in the pieces presented. She's blunt, but so darned good-humored that you can't take offense--especially if you really do attend with the intent to learn rather than the intent to find a fairy godmother agent.

Here are some bits of writing wisdom gathered from her comments:
  1. In fantasy or paranormal, define unusual rules or objects in the first few pages. Make sure the story is magical up front so the reader isn't confused, for instance, about whether the MC is human or elf.

  2. Cut scene details that the reader will already know.

  3. Keep text tight, tight, tight! Less is more. For instance, "tin can with wings" is better than "tin can with wings that I used to fly in".

  4. And on the same theme--choose your details wisely. If you're using two descriptions in the same sentence, see if you can cut one. What adds the most to your setting, story, and mood?

  5. Cut excess dialog. A little goes a long way and too much is cumbersome.

  6. Streamline text so that the action is clear.

  7. Be careful not to introduce too much (too many characters, too much background info, too many plot details) too quickly.

  8. Prologues don't belong in a story except when absolutely essential. Usually, prologues are cheats to get the reader hooked in the story.

  9. Exception: prologues are often useful in a thriller, especially used to show a scene that happens before the story in which a character dies.

  10. Know your genre so you can avoid overdone plots, story concepts, and characters.

To sum up: LESS IS MORE. I'm going to post that over my computer as I rewrite!


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