Friday, March 20, 2009

April in Paris: Writing in Blossom, With Noted Author Jamie Cat Callan

Mention Europe and my imagination takes flight. Mention Paris in spring and, well, mentally anyway, I'm there. So who could resist an opportunity to work with witty and wonderful author Jamie Cat Callan, whose latest book is French Women Don't Sleep Alone. For the month of April, Jamie will be our guest blogger, and we're inviting you to join the fun and win Jamie's acclaimed The Writer's Toolbox: Creative Games and Exercises for Inspiring the 'Write' Side of Your Brain.

Jamie is an amazing woman whose class at Fairfield University in Connecticut was my first taste of creative writing after a many year absence. One of the most amazing things about Jamie is her ability to truly weave a story, and she aimed to teach us the same. Her writing prompts still make me smile—she would come into each class with several of them to encourage us use our senses not only in what we wrote, but as part of the writing process. I still recall one prompt in particular. Each student reached into a grocery bag and selected an item or two, then from another bag, or maybe it was a hat, we chose a slip of paper. From the grocery bag I pulled an old 35 mm film canister, and on my slip of paper were the words, "I'm not sure, but I think someone put poison in my soup."

Now, the roll of flim and that phrase may not seem like a combination a person could make a story from, but that was the point—to create story from seemingly disjointed events or words or thoughts to get us to think out of the box, if not out of the bag, and it worked. My short piece was entitled, "Strange Brew." Sometimes we wrote with music playing in the background to learn how ambiance influences the mood of a piece (and of the writer) and its tone. Every class Jamie kept us guessing, and that kept our imaginations limber.

I'm sure it's her wit and penchant for story that prompted French Women Don't Sleep Alone, which Fear of Flying author Erica Jong calls "Adorable!” And Jamie's desire to pass along the ability to tell a story is undoubtedly what prompted her to create The Writer's Toolbox, wonderfully reviewed in The Writer as a kit that enables writers of all genres and stages to jumpstart their creativity. As mentioned, for the month of April, Jamie will be our guest blogger, and we're inviting you to join the fun. With each post, Jamie will offer a writing prompt. Respond to the prompt by sending your entry to

We'll judge the entries, and the winning entry will be announced and posted on the blog, and the winner will receive The Writer's Toolbox. To get to know Jamie's work in the meantime, visit her Web site

Monday, March 2, 2009

Take Down Your Scaffolding, Reveal Your Art

I’d like to thank Adele for asking me to guest blog for her. I’ve known her since we were in the Wellspring Writers’ Workshop, and I’m thrilled that she’s asked me to share what I’ve learned in my years of writing.

The topic I’m addressing is editing. Not the massive editing that happens after you complete the first draft of your novel. I’m assuming you’ve fixed the plot holes and gotten rid of unnecessary characters. What I’m talking about is much more subtle. Aspects we often overlook or excuse—things often referred to as “scaffolding.”

These instances may seem minor, and you may be tempted to think they're issues for a line editor once you’ve gotten “the deal.” That might have been true 15 or 20 years ago, but not today. Publishers and a very tight market demand nearly “perfect” writing. (We all know poorly written books that made The New York Times bestseller list, but these are exceptions, not the rule.) It’s no longer enough to have a great plot, because if the screener reading the first page of your novel spots enough “amateur” mistakes, your book goes into the rejects pile. No one will get far enough to even consider its other merits. A few days later, you receive the infamous, hateful much-copied rejection letter.

Even if you decide to hire a book editor, you need to learn how to discover amateur mistakes and get rid of them. To do this, I recommend a book called Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, by Chris Roerden. Chris is a former independent book editor for authors published by Intrigue, Midnight Ink, Rodale, St. Martin’s, Viking and others. She highlights which aspects announce that you’re a “beginner,” and gives examples of what to look for, how to fix mistakes and how to break the rules properly.

Here are some pointers I’ve discovered while editing my manuscript. One of the most important things to look for in your writing is “scaffolding.” Every writer uses words and phrases that support the story as they write the first draft. You can’t find the perfect word/phrase the first time around—you’re just trying to get the story on paper while the passion and energy are still hot. (If you struggle with this, I’d recommend Stephen King’s On Writing). But, once the story’s on paper, the scaffolding has to go. When art restorers finish their work, they have to take down the scaffolding; otherwise, the exquisite paintings are blocked from view.

Every writer has his/her structural supports, and here are some of mine. To provide the “beat” my dialogue needs, I often have the character make some physical movement. However, by the end of the first draft, there are so many instances of shook his/her heads that skulls should be rolling on the ground. And there are more look/looked/looking than I believed possible. Not to mention myriad mentions of he/she ran a hand through his/her hair. These all have to be dealt with. Often, they’re not easy to fix, because it’s not enough just to vary the phrases. The way to a beautiful novel is to replace these instances with texture. In other words, if a character is doing something, it has to have meaning—a significance that advances the plot or reveals the character. If not, it’s what I call a “cheap beat,” and it says “I’m an amateur writer” in big, neon letters. Then, you get a rejection letter before the agent has a chance to discover your bold, fascinating storyline.

If you learn to see these things in your writing, you can take them out and your story will shine through. Then, you’ll be on your way to getting that e-mail asking, “Hey, when can we talk about your book?”

For a way to put this method into action, see the top tip below. Good luck, and let us know how it goes.