Thursday, March 12, 2009

AIMING FOR THE BULLSEYE IN WRITING


BY: DEBBIE KAUFMAN

I believe that we can all tell a good story. It’s telling a good story in an extraordinary way that separates one manuscript from another, the unpublished writer from the published, and a mid-list author from a New York Times Bestseller. Okay, there's more to that for a NY Times Bestseller, but that's another post entirely.

Some people would say that what makes one story stand out in the crowd has to do with voice, and I wouldn’t disagree. Some would say that it has to do with characters to which the reader strongly relates. I really wouldn’t disagree there either. I would say you can have an exceptional voice, sympathetic characters, and still fail to hit that top mark in publishing. Would you agree?

It reminds me of throwing darts, something that really isn’t my best sport. Now, I can hit the dartboard almost every time. Of course, there’s the fact that all my friends ducked behind something substantial before the dart actually left my hand! With practice, I can get better, but I’ll never be a champion without help. What I really need is a trainer. Someone who can tell me how to adjust my technique to hit the bullseye. Accurately. Every time.

People who read my early first drafts consistently said that I had a great voice. Most wanted to read more and got into the story. (Warm fuzzy glow here.) One even said that I had a best seller on my hands. Okay, okay, that was my husband. The one who reads technical manuals for fun and loves me unconditionally. The truth was that I had a decent story, a good voice, and mediocre writing. Let’s face it, none of us are very good in the beginning. But, I believe that, just like improving your accuracy on the dartboard, you can take the less than stellar dart throws you've been making and move them much closer to the bullseye - if you are willing to learn.

Before I share one of our Thursday snippets of a work in progress, let me tell you the four things that have helped me improve my aim:

1. Working with a regular critique partner. Mine is a fellow blogger and GRW member, Sandra Elzie.

2. Studying other authors' writings.

3. A Margie Lawson workshop at GRW's Moonlight & Magnolias Conference.

4. A critique of my first 20 pages by a published author.

5. The Break Into Fiction Workshop by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love.


When I evaluate my own writing, I know I haven't hit the bullseye... yet. But, I am getting closer. Let me share two very different drafts of my current project, a single title romantic suspense called Redemption in Blood.

Clipart Picture of a Red Bullseye. Click Here to Get Free Images at Clipart Guide.comHERE’S THE WILD THROW OF THE DART: (Be kind, it was a first draft of my first ever manuscript!)

Micah walked the last two miles to the cabin in a pain filled fog. By necessity, he had hidden the car he had stolen from the Atlanta airport terminal and carefully removed the traces of its leaving the pavement. By the time anyone traced him this far, he hoped that his efforts would buy more time. He didn’t doubt that they would find him, but he refused to make it easy. So he paralleled the long dirt track to the cabin, stumbling in the dark, carrying a small athletic bag. A flashlight was out of the question. Micah knew that the seclusion of the cabin made it unlikely that a flashlight would be seen. He also knew that a lot could have changed in the last fifteen years. He didn’t take the chance.

Coming here after all these years was already the biggest gamble of his life. He took it on faith that the cabin he sought would even still be standing.


(I’m stopping here because what I originally wrote took up two pages and an amazing amount of time to get the poor wounded Micah up five steps and into the cabin)

NOW HERE’S SOMETHING CLOSER TO A BULLSEYE:

Getting shot was a bitch.

Every time.

Micah wasn’t focusing on the Fall leaves turning red. He wasn’t focusing on the beauty of the rolling Georgia mountains. He wasn’t focusing on anything but his burning desire not to die.

He had camouflaged the stolen car among the trees off the main road and forced himself to stumble forward using an ancient red maple as his beacon to find the cabin through the woods. The pain burned, throbbed, and drove him toward his goal. The rustic cabin, the source of the only good memories from his youth, was almost hidden in the shadows cast by the fading light. No lights illuminated the windows. Nobody home. His shoulders slumped in relief. He wasn’t in any shape for her inevitable questions.

Questions would only force him to lie…again. Keeping secrets was his stock-in-trade, a survival mechanism he finely-honed as an adult in a business that demanded it. But someone had betrayed him. He would find out who the Judas was, but right now he had a more immediate problem.

Ragged breaths punctuated his efforts as he struggled up each of the five steps, one hand clamped to his side and the other clutching the step railing. A few more feet to safety. Don’t pass out now.

Micah managed a smiling grimace when he realized the door wasn’t locked. He shook his head at the thought that anyone would still feel safe enough to do that. He realized his mistake when a wave of lightheadedness swept over him. He got inside before the roaring in his ears and the frantic pounding of his heart told him he was worse than he thought.

Oh shit. Micah felt his knees buckle, saw the floor, saw the darkness, saw nothing.


Okay, so maybe this still isn't the be all and end all of writing. But I'm learning to throw the dart more accurately. It took the willingness to believe that the first draft is almost always not the sacred words we would like to think they are.

If you're a writer, tell me how you get closer to the bullseye. Grab your darts and I'll duck! If you're a reader, would you want to know what happens next?

29 comments:

Sandy Elzie said...

Hi Debbie,

Hey, I'm a writer and your critique partner, and I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!

Seriously, I don't duck when you pull out the darts to throw because I know you'll hit the target...closer to the center each time...because you WANT to improve.

I agree that good writing can become great writing if the person can humble themself, admit that their words aren't gifts from above to the editor who should be smart enough to snap up this gem and the masses who will read and rave.

I think even published authors, the smart ones, will constantly stay in the learning mode.

You've come a long way girl and I will be the first in line to applaude your success when this book is snatched up by a publisher.

I think the constant encouragement of GRW members has helped me, the information shared each meeting and the one-day workshops. (not to mention the fantastic information I got at the M&M workshops)

My personal motto: Never assume you've arrived, there is always room for improvement.

Great post.

Sandy

Debbie Kaufman said...

Morning Sandy:
Folks, I couldn't have done a lot of it without Sandy! We meet regularly and she is a real powerhouse going through my meager offerings! When I grow up, I want to be able to be as focused and prolific as Sandy! Love the motto, girlfriend.

Marilyn Baron said...

You hit the bullseye with this post and your writing. I would read more. The second version sparkled.

I agree with Sandy that you get closer by going to GRW chapter meeting workshops and Moonlight & Magnolias workshops. And by writing. It's just hard work to revise and make your work the best it can be.

Marilyn Baron

Barbara Vey said...

As a reader, I always want to know what happens next. Even if it's a bad book, I keep hoping it will get better. The difference is, with a good book, you don't notice the time it's taking because you're too into the story.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Marilyn and Barbara:

Marilyn, I absolutely would not be anywhere with writing with GRW meetings and the Moonlight & Magnolias Conference.

Barbara: Thanks for stopping by. I know your anniversary party is in full swing already today. Folks, after you leave a comment here, go visit and comment at Beyond Her Book, Barbara's blog with Publisher's Weekly. She has a huge bash with lots, lots, lots of giveaways.
http://www.publishersweekly.com/blog/880000288.html

Darcy Crowder said...

Hi Debbie

Love the second version, the opening few lines pulled me right in! I thoroughly enjoy a book that starts right in the middle of things, then catches us up as we move forward. Nice job. :)

I agree about GRW/M&M. One of the most beneficial things a new writer can do for themselves is get involved in a local chapter and go to conferences - especially Moonlight & Magnolias, which is so packed with information, activities and inspiration.

And certainly a good critique partner/writing friend is worth her weight in gold! Way to go, Sandy. :)

Carol Burnside said...

I'm ducking in a little late this morning. Stopped by Barbara Vey's place. Got frisked by Jade Lee looking for...dragon's eggs (?) and had to linger a bit over those bleeding cupcakes. Wow. What a party!

I enjoyed the second version much better. There's a marked contrast, with the second feeling much more like a book off the store shelves.

No, really. You've got the opening hook, immediate tension, named your character and gave us the setting right away. In the next few paragraphs, you keep the tension going while dropping in hints regarding his profession, the situation that landed him here and a woman in his past that he obviously feels he can trust.

Isn't it wonderful to look back at our early work and realize we're growing as writers, reaching for heights we didn't even know existed when we started?

Great job! I'd definitely like to know what happens next. :)

One/Six Photography said...

I want those other pages you promised. Ha ha. I told Matt you need to hurry and finish because I really want to know what happens! I'm so proud of you and impressed with the changes and the hard work that you are putting into your book. Thank you for sharing it with us!

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Darcy:
I had to learn to stop dumping backstory in the first few pages. Like you said, start in the action and play catch up later! But don't we love to tell ALL we know, lol.

Hey Carol:
Yeah, I heard dragon eggs were missing since yesterday's party at Barbara's blog. That Regency punch is really something. I'll keep working on what comes next.

Hey Caroline:
I'm rewriting some of those pages after my overall plot was "Diannaized" at the Break Into Fiction workshop. She definitely helped me take it to a new level with more conflict. New pages soon, baby girl. Love, Mom

Thanks for stopping by my post, ladies.

babs m said...

I too am often puzzled by rejections of pieces that readers rave about. Fortunately I had the chance this winter to have the first 10K words of my WIP reviewed by Tim Esaias, a writer and professor of fiction at Seton Hill. He really opened my eyes to some patterns and grammatical mistakes that weren't glaring but definitely reduced the professional feel of my text. In addition to having a fabulous Pennwriters critique group, I'd say that helped the most.

What a difference in your two pieces! Congratulation on your growth as a writer. Keep up the good work!

babs

Debbie Kaufman said...

Thanks Babs. I know what you mean about patterns that you don't see. I was amazed at how much I used a passive voice before someone helped me with this. Thanks for stopping by and stick with those that help and encourage you.

Judi Romaine said...

Ditto for me! I would definitely read on, and I'm picky! As for getting closer to the mark, I like the Malcolm Gladwell's (Outliers) approach - it takes 10,000 times of doing anything to make a great anything - whether it be golfer, computer geek, or writer. Just keep on trudgin'
Lynn Romaine
Long Run Home due 09/09 The Wild Rose Press

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Judi:
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hadn't heard Gladwell's approach before. Guess that puts paid to the idea that anyone is going to hit the home run the first time out! It always gets better with practice. Now, if I could just convince my fourteen-year-old of that :)

Betsey said...

Debbie:

Wow. I've heard you talk about your writing, but to actually READ your writing (even the very small, not-enough snippet teaser that it is)is just a whole 'nother thing. And a very good thing, too! Want. More. Seriously. I do believe you need someone who knows absolutely nothing about any techniques of writing to give you a layman's opinion. 'Cause a I'm getting it first read would be just the ticket. Think about it.

Tami Brothers said...

Cool, Cool, Cool!!! Can't wait to read more. I love these days because we get to see a side of our friends we had no idea existed. Some people look so sweet and innocent, the next thing you know they are talking about murder!!!

LOVE IT!!!!

Keep up the excellent writing, Debbie.

Tami

Cyrano said...

Yes! I want to read more. You've piqued my interest. Is the story finished?
I loved your dart analogy Debbie. It is tough to hit that bulls eye. It's a challenge to hit one of the inner rings actually. But with practice, persistence and the help of my critique partners I hope to hit that bright red center one of these days.
Let me ask you something, How long was it between the two drafts? I'm really curious about that. Plus, I'm also glad you shared the 2 versions with us. It's great to see your progress and growth right there in black and white.
Loved the post!
Have a super devine evening all,
Tamara

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Betsey! You're going to have to stand in line behind Caroline :) But you're right. Laymen read it differently. Writers start talking about the technical points and pure readers just tell you about the story.

Tami, I feel the same way when I read what everyone else is writing. Today, my Caroline was designing business cards for me and she came up with this absolutely elegant design and I'm saying things like, "But couldn't you do blood splatter."


Tamara, I stuck with the first draft for a while. But after taking Margie Lawson's class at Moonlight and Magnolia's last October, I revised the opening. I also got her lecture packets. They were very helpful.

Susan May said...

Debbie,
You look better with your clothes off than I do. I hope my darts are getting closer to the mark with each book I write. I do know that I'm always learning, and we are never too old or to good to do that.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Okay everybody, please go read Susan May's previous post before you jump to conclusions about her comment. :))

Susan, we may just have different styles and that doesn't make one better! Keep learning. I think my next job is just to rework plot and get word count now. Are you going to the Deb Dixon workshop in April? That's my next point of training.

Kelly L Stone said...

Thanks for a great post Debbie. It's important to remember that we have to practice writing in order to hit the bulls-eye some of the time. I like to say that it's making those little positive efforts for the good every day-- they do build up over time, although it's often only in hindsight that we can see how.

The second version of this is terrific. I hope I'll get to read more about poor Micah!

Enjoyed meeting you at the BIF workshop last weekend, too. :-)

Kelly

Debbie Kaufman said...

Kelly, thanks for stopping by to visit! Yes, great meeting you at the Break Into Fiction workshop. So fun to meet in real life instead of just "e-life." I agree, sometimes we see a sudden result, but it is really an accumulation of effort.

Dianna Love said...

First Debbie, I have to say WOW what a great change in that opening. I got chills on the second one. Very interesting and very active. Sharp voice.

Second - you are RIGHT about the stories making a difference in how far we go as writers. We're all readers first and know what we like, what we recommend and what we re-read ten times at least. That happens because an author engaged our emotions. So we "know" what we have to do as writers.

I so enjoyed meeting you and the gaggle of our GRW members this weekend. "g" Made for a very fun and creative group. I'm really impressed with your opening. I can tell that you have a quick learning curve.

Now...finish THAT book and get it on an editors desk. You don't want me hounding you. And I will. I want to hear lots of good news from this group.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Will do! Your "hounding" is legendary. :)) Thanks so much for exploding my plot at the workshop. It has so much more depth now.

Linsey Lanier said...

That's an amazing contrast, Debbie. The second excerpt has genuine POV. I can feel what the character is feeling. "The pain burned, throbbed, and drove him toward his goal." Great sentence. The first two sentences are very effective, too. Pulled me right in. I want to read more, too.

I love your bullseye analogy, too. I'll remember that one. How do I try to get closer? Revise, revise, revise. And, like you, take lots of workshops - GRW meetings, M&M, etc. I wasn't able to attend Dianne's fabulous Break into Fiction workshop, but I sure wanted to. When is that book coming out?

Linsey

bobjo said...

I'm all in...not a writer..yet...but a reader who wants to turn the page....the anticipation is there...press on woman!!

Mary Marvella said...

WOW, girl! Love what you did with that opening. Yes you have a strong voice and I'll be waiting to see the finished book.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Hey Linsey: The Break Into Fiction Book is available for pre-order through amazon right now.

Bobbie Jo: Thanks for stopping by. Kind of different from what I do at Bible study :))

Hey Mary: Thanks for taking time out from your Pinkfuzzyslippers blog to stop by. I just got up with the urge to write, so I'm going back off the internet and getting to work!

Chiron said...

I want to know!!

What a difference. You've really improved your aim.

Another place you hit the mark is the 'willingness to believe that the first draft is almost always not the sacred words we would like to think they are.'

Well-done!

For me the process started with reading books. Craft books for ideas and other authors to study how they accomplished my dream. *smile*

Second step: Critique partners. Such a crucial part of the process! What would we do without our CP's?

Third step: Write more books! Each new book taught me more than editing the same book repeatedly ever could.

Now I'm lucky enough to have the fourth step--an editor going over my novel and once again training my eyes to See.

Thanks for a fabulous post!

Smiles,
Chiron O'Keefe
www.chironokeefe.blogspot.com

bobjo said...

I LOVE THE MYSTERY!!! HA! never a dull life with a Kaufman woman.