Lessons From the Netflix Sweet Tooth Series

Has anyone watched the Netflix series “Sweet Tooth”? It’s a show plotted like so many these days: some event happens, some people (in this case children) are endowed with special characteristics, people are out to get them but they are the future, the hope, the salvation for the earth. It’s crazy how this theme is repeated over and over only made entertaining by how creative the setting or inciting event is.
But that’s not what this blog post is about.

In the first episode of Sweet Tooth, and this is not a spoiler, so no worries, there’s a man with a baby strapped to his chest and a huge awkward pack on his back. He is walking through the woods and comes upon a log cabin partially hidden by trees and overgrown plants. The next scene, the man and baby are moved in and have all they need for a happy life.
My literal, realist self jumped on that with a complaint. Old, dirty, abandoned cabin turns into a homestead without showing any of the transition, really? How did he do that with a baby to take care of? What about windows? They couldn’t all be not broken. What about food until that garden started producing? Questions, questions, questions. Yes, there was a part of me that wanted all the logistics worked out, explained, made plausible (plausibility is greatly lacking in these copy cat plots). But then there was the part of me that really just wanted to get on with the show.
Did I really need any of those details? No. In fact sometimes I wish life could sail past the boring stuff of, “and then”, “and then”, “and then”.

Well, guess what? Good writing, especially fiction, not only can depict lives sailing past the mundane details of life, it should. Jumping to the next place or circumstance without explaining how everything got to that point is a tool to keep the reader focused on what’s important.

Look through your latest work. Do you get too deep in the details and call it world building? Do you feel the need for events to be clearly chronological? Have you used words to answer questions that really have nothing to do with the plot?

Seriously, I may have had my doubts about how that cabin became so perfect, but I can assure you the plot moved right on and I didn’t miss it because I was drawn into the story.

Write on, but don’t sweat the details or gaps.

Say it Like This – Fiction Character Names

Reading an article about a charity that helped families in Honduras with sustainable farming, I noted that the author devoted precious word count to provide the correct pronunciation of one of the men’s names. His name is Nortie pronounced – “Nor-ti-a” . That got me thinking. Considering that it was a printed article and not likely to be read aloud or in audio format, how important is it that as I read I say with my inner voice, “Nortia ”? Hmm, to be real, even after being educated in the correct sound of Nortie’s name, I still heard it exactly the way an American would say it. I think possibly the pronunciation was included to educate and to show respect to the individual. I’m good with that.

Names and spelling of names of fictional characters though are not bound by the reality of an actual person having the name exactly as its printed. Why then do some authors choose unusual spellings for names? Fantasy novels are especially guilty if this unnecessary complication for a reader and some even provide ‘proper pronunciation’. For a book like Watership Down, by Richard Adams (my childhood favorite) where a language with an extensive vocabulary is part of the novel and key to the world being understood as being in the context of a different species, this makes sense. But for ordinary novels, epic romances, mysteries, even space sci-fi, weird spellings for names and weird names at all for people or cities or countries, I think are distracting and are just the indulgence of the author. Of course, I shouldn’t judge too much, I’m talking about published authors of books that despite the annoying names, I keep reading. What do you think? Would you rather that Jasmine be Jasmine, instead of Jaehzmene?
Write on! Read on!

Stranger Inspiration

Once upon a time, we lived in a small awkward house that had issues. When we pulled up the mustard yellow carpet, we found makeshift spacers in the wood floor where walls used to be. Who knew there were walls before? The hallway had a a random bend in it. The kitchen cabinets were layered with paint, the linoleum was worn through to the layer beneath at places. That’s just a few of the non-standard features. It was our first house, affordable and what we gave up in finished and pretty, we gained in space and potential. Then we had our second baby in fifteen months.

We were in that house a bunch of years without changing a thing except the windows, which were a must since in the winter a sheet of ice formed on the single panes. One day, my brother in law whom we rarely saw, stopped over with his latest girlfriend. She came in and walked around surveying the house saying things like, “how cute”, “is that an original stove?”, “there’s a lot to be done. How long have you lived here?” She was a stranger to me who acted as though we were familiar which I thoroughly rejected. I’m glad because in those days if I took offense, I would not keep quiet about it.

The only thing is, her comment that insinuated that we were sitting around and doing nothing to improve our surroundings didn’t fade from my consciousness. She planted a seed whether she had the right to or not. I admit, she inspired me, woke me up, gave me a perspective I had lost sight of. I looked around and realized we had settled for ugly as though it were the only option. We got going on several projects after that. I never told my husband what sparked the initial ‘why don’t we put up some tile?”.

I learned something through that random visit. Inspiration can come from many sources and it should never be shut down. I needed something outside of me to get to the place where, a bunch of years later we sold that house for double what we paid. Not everyone has family that guides them to know how to live well. Some of us have to learn from others. That’s okay.

It’s also okay if you’re writing away and someone comes along and says, “why don’t you fix this?” or “maybe the character should not win the race. How about he trips and falls and eats dirt instead?”.
It’s okay if your writer’s block is broken by some random person who takes your story concept and solves the riddle plaguing your brain coming up with an idea that screams blockbuster. It’s still your book to write. Inspiration doesn’t have to only come from your creative wealth. It can be granted to you. You’re still worthy of the credit as the author for the finished product.

Write on! Grab inspiration or trip over it, just go with it every time.

Color My World

“We all live in a yellow submarine.” How many of you are singing that song in your head now? How many see a bright yellow submarine of sorts? Words to music, especially whimsical, stay in our minds but I want to point out how the use of color in writing, brings out a vivid picture.
Writing effective description that doesn’t scream, “I can write a lot of flowy words because I’m a literary writer” or “clichés are best because everyone gets it”, is a skill. My first pass of writing a novel, I’m usually lean on description, though I’m improving on that. Part of that problem is needing to gush out the story that is unfolding in my head. I’ve learned to write with less urgency (not meaning I can’t keep a schedule – NaNoWriMo 2020 proved that is not an issue). Even so, there’s nothing wrong with employing the second draft to work on translating the imagery that is in your mind into words. Where it’s appropriate it will add depth without being one long, yawning break from the plot. Third draft can weed that out again!

Back to our yellow submarine. Here’s an example from my WIP where I think a dash of color adds a fuller picture:
As soon as we enter the windowless room, it’s clear this is serious business. A long computer desk stretches across the back wall with multiple monitors and swivel chairs. There’s a coffee bar where an urn silently wafts steam. White ceramic mugs and spoons are lined up next to a pitcher of cream, a bowl of sugar and a platter of packaged muffins. Off to the side is a small table and two chairs under a blue glass pendant light.

I’m offering this example because when I read it after having put it aside for several weeks, the last sentence immediately created a picture for me. The ‘blue’ glass pendant light was like the ‘yellow’ submarine sans the song. It reminded me of how a little smattering of color can create a tone for a scene. In the example above there is also “white” used to describe ceramic mugs. This use of color is less impactful, because ceramic mugs being white are not uncommon. I could cut the ‘white’ and just say ‘ceramic mugs’ and chances are it would create the same picture as ‘white ceramic’. But just saying “under a pendant light”, feels like a flat photo as opposed to 3D. While my mind runs through all the possibilities of how that light actually looks, I’ve lost my way and distanced myself from the intended atmosphere of the room. Add back the blue, and there’s a glow of cool blue, pleasing but not warm.
What do you think? Am I right?
Color your writing like an artist, purposeful; bold where bold makes a difference and subtle where less produces the emotion and feels best.
My hope is that this post brings the tool of color to your attention or back to your attention.
Write on!

Who is Ed? – Lessons from the Comics

It matters how something is said. We all know that. But it also matters how something is thought to be said. Our lesson from the Comics today is from “Pickles”by Brian Crane. The cartoon is of retired couple Opal and Earl. A recent episode featured Earl jealous of a text he sees on her phone which he believes is a reminder to call “Ed”. Opal explains that it doesn’t say, “call Ed”. It simply says, “called”.
It’s funny in a cartoon but if confusion is in a novel or short story, not so much.

What am I talking about? Not simple reading errors but word placement that causes confusion or maybe a whole different meaning.
For example, “You can hop on the tube and eat lunch at Harrow’s Grill for three dollars.” Someone might think it only costs three dollars for lunch at Harrows when it really costs twelve bucks for the cheapest dish. Should say, “For three dollars you can catch the tube to Harrows Grill and get some lunch.” Whole different point.
Here’s another, “After eating my bird whistles.” Hmm, does that mean someone is eating a bird?
How about, “My favorite foods are fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly and pizza covered with anchovies.” Is that peanut butter and jelly with anchovies?
These are just simple examples of poor word order and missing commas, but you get the idea. I’ve heard the best way to catch these types of mistakes is to read what you write aloud. When you read your writing, if you stumble at speaking it, chances are a reader will stumble at reading it.
In the cartoon, the momentary confusion almost led to a serious issue between Opal and Earl. Hopefully we can avoid even near misses. When my novel gets before an agent or publisher the last thing I want is for even one sentence to leave her scratching her head saying, “What?”
I’m fairly certain that would be followed by a, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Write on but take the time to read aloud!

Cooking / Writing 101 – don’t burn your chances

Some recipes are complicated like eggplant rolitini. There’s the eggplant to prepare, the sauce, the ricotta filling. I’m thinking of the entree from Luigi’s where I used to live. I haven’t made it myself but maybe I should since I miss the Italian food from the northeast so much. There’s nothing like it. I did make a recipe the other day. It wasn’t very complicated : Chorizo in a simple sauce of fire roasted tomatoes, red, yellow and green peppers, a heavy dose of fresh garlic, basil and oregano.
The kitchen smelled amazing. I plated it with linguini and topped it with some Asiago cheese shavings. If there were a good bakery in a thirty mile radius, Italian bread would have been on the side. (Is there a complaint in there?) We had such anticipation of enjoying the savory hot spice of the chorizo with the fresh light sauce. It was going to be a feel good dinner. But that’s not how it went. I put that plate down and my husband took a taste so fast that he burned his tongue terribly. He couldn’t enjoy the rest of the meal. It was so disappointing.
While I prepared the meal, I was thinking of how good it would be. The aroma took over the kitchen. My husband smiled every time he walked past the simmering pot. He kept asking, “What did you put in it?” (Does he not trust me? I haven’t secretly fried up tofu crumble to pass as beef taco for a long time.) I told no secrets but said it was all good but the whole point of the effort was so that the meal would be enjoyed. (Fortunately he was able to, as left overs the next day.)

It kind of reminds me of sending out first pages or a query letter and a moment after or worse yet a day later, reading through it, and finding an error. It never fails! All the work, the build up, the careful typing, reading, re-reading, and still there’s one mistake, one faux pas and it’s ruined.
Well not exactly, there’s always tomorrow. Fix the problem, present the dish again, I mean, the writing and get on with it. Don’t give up! This post is for me, the one who sent out one round of pathetic query letters and has been revising for several months now.

Write on (and cook on, while you’re at it. Writer’s need to eat too!)

What Are You Thinking? The Writer’s Mind.

A writer’s mind is a scary place, unless it’s put down on paper, nice and neat, telling a story. What can be expected from someone who conjures up, and toils over the right words to describe an emotion that is not reflective of their current true state of mind? Inside there has to be the ability to feel every gamut of emotion. It is a cruel thing we do to ourselves, isn’t it? Diving into sometimes deeply dark places in humanity to create suffering, merciless villains, and heartless, betraying friends or up to that place where two people fall in love, a dream comes true, a hero is born. And we do it all in the name of stirring the emotions of the reader so that they experience for the hours it takes to read a novel, a place they’ve never been and person they are not.

So how to get the characters and drama inside the mind out onto the page? Here’s another tip I learned from a writer’s conference: For particularly strong or difficult scenes, set up the atmosphere in your writing area (which may be a laptop and earbuds) with music, aroma, video or pictures that match the emotion or scene you need to write. Sad music even without words can make me cry! Likewise, fast pace rhythmic music will make my heart beat faster. Add the scent of lavender for a calm scene, cinnamon for sharp but warm scene, vinegar for sharp with no warmth, whatever works. As much as is possible submerge in the environment of the scene and then let the words flow.

Have you tried this technique before? How do you create a scene specific environment?

Write on! It won’t be all in your head.

“What’s That Doing Here?” The art of description

It happens every, no I mean really, every year: Candy canes hanging around until at least Easter. Why? Because I have a hard time throwing away perfectly good candy. I have visions of peppermint bark in the middle of the summer or a sprinkle of crushed candy in my natural peppermint tea.
I’ve tried buying less, or buying none at all but invariably Christmas just doesn’t seem complete without a few candy canes hanging around. Not to mention that I wax nostalgic every time I see them since they used to be my son’s favorite. Back in the day if I brought home a box his face would light up like it was treasure. One year I gave him one of those giant candy canes. He was so excited when he unwrapped it. I found it months later rolled under his bed with all kinds of fuzz stuck to it. I think that was the end of the candy cane era for him, erased by peppermint overload.
Why do I make this confession? Because as I look at the bowl of Christmas candy while the weather warms and colors turn pastel everywhere, it is clear to me it is very much out of place. My attention is sharp with the contrast. That my friends is a great tool in writing; the unexpected, the incongruent, objects that elicit an instant understanding or emotion.
For example:
“She saw the bowl of candy canes on the coffee table, the dry, prickly tree festooned with strings of shriveled cranberries and desiccated popcorn but it was the unopened gifts under the tree that broke Anne down to tears.”
I don’t have to say, the room was frozen at Christmas Day. I don’t even have to mention Christmas.
Use something memorable, outrageous, more than Christmas décor in the Spring. For example, the first thing a character sees is a stuffed moose in the living room of her new boyfriend’s parent’s house. What does that say about his family? What does it not say? With a brief description a whole lot of information is conveyed with great word economy. It starts with knowing what you want to convey about the surroundings. In a natural setting, to create peace instead of, “gentle winds, fluffy clouds, birds singing” , “a hillside with the gentle curves of a sleeping baby.” If the intent is danger instead of a “dark stormy sky, scorpions skittering and misty air”, “rising up like a citadel, six foot black rocks, teeth ready to bite.”
In the home of very wealthy people instead of swinging the camera lens around and describing all the paintings, the marble floor, the Persian rugs, find that one thing that is the epitome of wealth and zoom in on that. For example, enter the foyer of an eclectic uber rich indulgent couple:
“A live tree grew straight out of the floor with branches reaching up three floors, on every twig dangled crystals, maybe diamonds. I wanted to stop right there and sit under the dazzling, embrace of this tree and that was just the foyer.”

Full disclaimer, this principle of using dramatic, memorable, but less words is not something I figured out. I was taught this concept at a conference. It was a small conference with no agents or editors! Imagine that, no pitch sessions but a whole lot of teaching. Sometimes leaving behind the rat race to get a publisher’s attention and just focusing on the craft, is the best way to go!

Writing is fun don’t you think? Be challenged! Write on!

And the Owl Says…The Art of Sound

Through the fog sleep came the gentle, almost comical “who, who, who”. I didn’t hear a “t” at the end but in my blurred state of wakefulness, I still knew the morning alarm was an owl. With that recognition, a picture of him was clear.

I’ve seen this owl twice in six years. It is small and as mysteriously graceful and wise looking as any owl can be. I know he is a ‘he’ because his early morning hooting is actually wooing his mate. Although he woke me up an hour before my planned time, no resentment came to my mind. It makes me supremely happy to know this little creature has taken up residence near my home.

So my day has started with happy thoughts just by a sound. That’s a powerful means to create an emotion. You know what that means? Describing a sound is a powerful tool for a writer to have. But it’s not just about words, it’s about the right mix of recognizable phraseology and fresh insightful ways to conjure up a sound from a page instead of a speaker.

Take for example the sound of water dripping in a dark, distant place. Is it the plunk, plunk, plunk echoing in the next room that tells the reader there’s a pool of water nearby? Or is it the dissonant music of water being swallowed up by water one drop at a time that suggests there’s a dark creepy pool of water nearby?

Give it a try. Add your best description of water dripping in a comment or post on your blog and ping back to here to share with the rest of us.

Thanks and have a great day! I’m betting I will thanks to the gentle, knocking on my brain from a wise little owl.

Writing Tips From the “Funnies”

Writing advice is free all around us but there’s no place more fun to get it than the Comics. What a challenge comic strip writers have: tell a story, make it funny and often times also impactful, all in three to five frames. There’s a lot to learn but not just tight story structure.

Take the message in a recent cartoon called “Zits”by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman about sixteen year old teenager Jeremy. His mom asks how his day was and he says, “It started. It ended.” Mom of course wants more and asks for the missing ‘middle’. He tells that part is in ‘on a need’ to know basis.

It’s easy to know where a new novel is going to start, and even we Pansters usually have some general idea of how it will end, but the middle is the stuff that makes or breaks it.

Between “it began” and “it ended” what would Jeremy’s mom really want to know? How he walked to school, opened his locker got out his history book, math book and a beat up pad of paper and then dropped his one and only pen, chased it down the hall, and barely made it to home room where he had to listen to ten minutes of announcements including that chocolate milk will no longer be served in the cafeteria? Would she care to know that Mr Perkins wore a striped shirt again and Joe McGinnis called him a clown to his face and got detention or that the he got spearmint gum stuck on the bottom of his sneaker? No she would not.

The description of his day could be told with literary prowess, amazing accuracy, the best writing ever and still be duller than a tax form. What mom might have wanted to know was that he asked Suzy out and now has a girlfriend. Or that an enormous crack appeared in the gym floor and some kids fell into it. Anything but the well, defined mundane happenings of the day.

Point being, make sure the middle of your story is not bulked up with a lot of great scenes that no one cares about.

There’s another gem hidden in this cartoon. The idea of dispensing information little by little on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mom might need to know there would be no gym for a few months or the school would be shut down for repairs, but she doesn’t need to know about Suzy until it’s prom time and he has to rent a tucks (or a limo).

This is a hard one. I often find myself getting caught in the trap of laying down a framework to build my story on. A critique partner recently hinted at this, pointing out how I had a lot of background information but that she likes to give out only a little explanation and then let the questions and gaps lead the reader to find out more.

It’s good advice. I put that into practice with the newest round of revisions. It’s amazing what a story can do without once you start chopping!

To tie it all up, two simple pieces of writing advice – make sure what’s in the middle is what ‘mom’ would really want to know and don’t give her all the news at once.

Write on and write well!