Thursday, June 3, 2010
My Four One-Word Writing Prompts
Lately I've come up with a "cheat sheet" sticky note that I keep on my computer monitor to remind me of four basic concepts that I want to include in every scene of the book I'm working on. For my Work in Progress (WiP), the second book in the Rocky Mountain Adventure series, I'm editing chapters to submit to my critique group, then editing them again after I receive comments from the group. As I edit the scenes in each chapter, I look at my cheat sheet to make sure I have evaluated these four concepts in each one.
1. Emotion - Are all of the characters in the scene, especially the POV character, experiencing some kind of emotion, the stronger the better? Am I expressing that emotion in their gestures, actions, speech, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.? Is there any way that I can increase the emotion in this scene? Can I better elicit emotion from the reader?
This usually means evoking the "show not tell" principle. Instead of saying that a character felt nauseated by the blood on the corpse, I have her swallow back the burning bile in her throat, tear her gaze from the body, put a hand to her roiling stomach, and finally involuntarily gag and bend over to splatter her breakfast on the ground below.
2. Conflict - Does the scene include a conflict, either within the POV character or between at least two characters in the scene? If not, how can I introduce conflict into the scene? How can I escalate the conflict if I already have one?
I recently attended a workshop by literary agent Donald Maass at a writers conference about adding micro-tension to scenes and have started to put that into practice. For example, at the beginning of a scene, I have Mandy Tanner, my whitewater river ranger sleuth, putting up her equipment and raft at the end of the day. Her boss comes out in the equipment yard to ask her if she's heard how the fly fishing tournament is going. She says no and suggests they walk over to the event registration area to find out. No conflict there, right? This is just the start of a scene where there's conflict later, but I thought I could add some here, too.
So, I changed the scene so that Mandy had a rough day, having to pick up muddy, rank-smelling trash along the river and she has to heave a heavy, wet trash bag into the dumpster which drips all over her, making her even dirtier and smellier. She wants nothing more than to go home and take a hot shower. But, when her boss asks her about the tournament, she sighs, delays her shower, and suggests they find out about it. More interesting, right?
3. Question - Am I planting a question in the reader's mind during this scene, especially at the end? Is the question strong enough to propel the reader forward and make him or her turn the page? If not, how can I plant a question, or leave out something that I'm explaining in this scene and explain it later?
Having spent years writing technical documentation and user's manuals in my former career as a software engineer, I had a firmly ingrained goal of making my writing clear and straight-forward and explaining everything in a step-by-step way so the reader doesn't become confused. This is exactly what a writer does NOT want to do in a mystery! What this often means is that I delete the last sentence or two from a scene, and many times replace them with a question, either in the POV character's thoughts or spoken aloud. Or my characters refuse to answer each others' questions or do so indirectly or incompletely. Or I describe only part of what my character sees or does.
4. Senses - Am I eliciting all of the reader's senses in this scene (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, etc.)? If not, how can I add to the descriptions in the scene to evoke more senses?
For example, in the opening scene of my WiP, I kept reworking the description below until I had the characters, and the reader, feeling the heat, hearing the wind, seeing the trees, tasting water, and smelling...death.
Heat waves shimmered off the parched ground. Mandy followed Steve's lead, removing her PFD and lifting the end of her strawberry blond ponytail off the damp back of her neck. An early September Monday in Chaffee County, Colorado, this one was showing signs of being a record-breaking scorcher. While Steve took a long pull on his water bottle, Mandy shielded her eyes from the glare of the late morning sun and scanned the Vallie Bridge campground. From the tent sites she could see, it looked deserted.
With the raven now quiet, the only sound was the hot wind soughing through the grasses and nearby copse of stunted pine trees, bringing with it the scent of baking dry needles, and something else...
Mandy wrinkled her nose. "Something smells rank."
Do you have any "cheat sheets," notes, or other writing prompts stuck on your computer monitor to help you remember good writing concepts or avoid bad ones? What are they?