Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Guest Post: Smoothing Things Out - Wilkins MacQueen

A Half Tongue-in-Cheek Look at Writing

Wilkins MacQueen (“Mac” to those of us around here) is a frequent commenter not only here but on Evil Editor’s site. A Canadian expat, she lives in Thailand where she teaches English to Thai students. She blogs about life in Thailand, cultural differences, and the difficulties of motivating a reluctant nation to gain the tools needed to interface with a modern world likely to pass them by otherwise. I enjoy the cultural insights, woman-on-the-street pictures (sometimes of elephants!), and glimpses of Mac’s earlier life that included training horses and maybe doing a little modeling on the side.

Today, she offers us reminders about craft and some observations about how we can strengthen our stories and our queries.

After reading many writing sites for a long time I’ve learned a few things. If you are an experienced writer, please go somewhere else. Kidding! That was mean wasn’t it? I tricked you, never a nice thing to do to your reader.

“Too many tags,” Bob said.

“Well Bob, I don’t agree,” said Ted, chortling at the thought there could be too many dialogue tags in an illustration about tags. Offenders include unnecessary tags, use of names when two people speak, repetition and odd use of an odd word. I invite you to use "chortle" in a sentence. Baby references are not allowed. Now try it.

Too many flowery adjectives and dramatically used adverbs kill the impacted sentence. Impacted can be used in reference to a tooth or bowel problem. Odd use of words again, plus to change a noun this way is wrong and won’t work in this sense or any other. Will it?

That makes my next point, which is clarity, necessary in any piece you write. I lack clarity in the above paragraph.

A weak main character that moves around in the story reacting to events won’t engage the reader. All characters need to face decisions and choices with the same consequences real people face. Flat characters bore. A reader needs a reason to care about the character. I want a connection, a reason to bond with whomever is spending the next few days in my head.

Perfect teeth in either sex bother me. If they are the heroine’s, she’s not coming across in a realistic manner; if they are in a man’s head, I believe him to be villainous and slick with Brylcreem.

Contrived plots don’t work. Look for logic problems. Study the plot arc. You need 8 points in a classic story.

No-see-ums/writing tics -- These are words the writer’s brain refuses to acknowledge appear on the screen although we have liberally sprinkled our ms with them. We all have a favorite unconscious word or two ready to pop out like popcorn from the popper that makes readers want to pop a cork or pop the writer in the pie hole while sipping on a soda pop. Using “find” from the tool bar can help if you want to check a suspect (for example: that, just, said, but, was). Three on a page is a suspect. This link takes you to a good article on this problem.

Dragging a scene out for pages when a paragraph is sufficient bores. Long descriptions are not tolerated these days. Setup and back story stall and slow stories. The minimum is the maximum. Move it baby.

Telling? Reading is a participatory hobby. When you tell, I lose my active part in your story. Are you writing for me (reader) or you (writer)?

Language needs to fit the genre. Keep words in character with the story.

Control your writing. Analyze a couple of your favorite stories. What got you and kept you interested? Character and plot?

Clichés, movie and movie star comparisons tell the reader you aren’t bringing something fresh to the page. These date you and your work. Using clichés is a choice. An absence of clichés is refreshing and builds my trust in the writer.

If you read a lot of query sites you will see over-used words. Words/phrases I’d avoid are: beloved, dark secret, malevolent, woeful, just, obviously, sighs from anyone, sardonic laughter, cruel twists of fate or mouths, rhetorical questions, stating the MC made a choice when no choice was in sight, use of “till” instead of “until”, adverbs, destiny, fate.

Read enough queries and common problems appear. What does the MC want? What interferes? What choices and consequences are there? The plot needs to be clear. Organizing the progression of the plot is important for the query to build and flow.

Many critters ask over and over what is the story about? Often we don’t get the answer in the next revision. That could be the hardest part of query writing: Don’t rewrite the same query using different words. I’ll be very succinct: The query needs a new M.O. if you get clarity comments. That means you must change the approach and reveal the story.

A plot outline is valuable. "Just the facts, ma’am," is a good start.

If you mention something or someone once, can you cut it from the query? If it is important, time for another revision that shows us the importance of the sword, the jam or the Doberman.

Last Pieces of Advice

Surprise is something rarely mentioned in writer bits. I love a surprise that sneaks up on me when I read -- one I didn’t see coming.

The sense of smell is a strong tool to support and strengthen writing that is seldom used. We all see in our mind’s eye. But if I can make you smell that rich coffee at the crack of daybreak and inhale the heady aroma of sweet feed, thick with rich Jamaican molasses and make you hungry over hot golden cinnamon buns from my oven, laced with sweet, fresh butter covered in dew drops, I’ve done my job.

I’ve got this problem with food scenes. (Ed: as in all things, moderation, Mac :o) – Phoenix)

Why do we spend so much time on hearing -- describing the staccato heels clicking, the shower, rain -- but give the sense of smell minor lip service? Smell is another deep sensation. I can smell my grandmother’s kitchen today although it has been more decades than I care to think since I was in it. It was full of cloves, cinnamon, allspice, beautiful dark brown sugar and sage. I can smell it now. A rich memory from childhood as vivid as ever.

Thanks for reading!

(Remember, if you'd like to be a guest here, just send along something writing-related that's meaningful to you. I'll be happy to schedule it in with the query critiques! - Phoenix)

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