Tag Archives: writing

My best writing advice: Read good books, watch good movies, TV, plays


You hear the advice a lot at writing conferences and in writing books. Read. Read. Read. As a lover of movies and writer of screenplays, to that advice I will add watch good movies, TV and plays.
Why? Because you learn so damn much about everything. Pacing. Voice. Conflict. Dialogue. Description. Character. In other words, what makes a good story. What makes good writing.
When I started writing a psychological thriller, I read Thomas Harris’ “Red Dragon” about four times. I saw how effective it was to tell both the stories of the antagonist and protagonist. For example, in the case of the killer Francis Dolarhyde we learned how he became a monster and at first feel for the abuse that turned him into one. It also ramped up the conflict when the hero and villain meet. In my book, “The Weeping Woman” (Sunbury Press) I also presented the story through the eyes of villain and the detective hunting her down to show their contrast and similarities.
For a great script taut as a drum, I read Brian Helgeland’s script, “L.A. Confidential” many times.
The power of voice I found in “Funeral for Horses” and “Fight Club.”
How profound point of view can be in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Most any Quentin Tarantino script shows off unique and fantastic dialogue.
In “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” I discovered what makes a great character, namely Walter White and Tony Soprano.
For great writing pure and simple, any Tennessee Williams play.
Grace of language, damn great characters and heart wrenching plot was all found in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.”
You get the picture.
As writers, we don’t want to imitate those other writers, but we should analyze what makes them so good. And hopefully, somewhere find our own voices.
As a bonus, we also get to read great books and watch great movies, TV and plays, which is okay with me.

How writing helped after losing my mother


Writing helped save me.
My mom died at the end of July at the age of 88. She was strong and funny, and lived for her family. She took care of everybody, even volunteering to help low-income people for more than a decade after her retirement and her own personal losses. I not only loved her, but admired her very much.
After she passed, I felt like I was walking through a bad dream from which I could not wake. Food tasted like ash. I wanted to sleep all the time. But I made myself get up and make the bed and clean house.
My family was supportive but they were also dealing with the loss of my mom, who they all loved.
What helped me during those terrible days and months after her death was my writing. I could lose myself in the words and thoughts I was typing, in the stories I was telling. I focused on something else but my own pain.
When I lost my dad years before, writing helped me in a different way.
Flying in from another state, I missed saying good bye to my dad before he died. He passed only minutes before I arrived to the hospital and that tore me up to no end.
I not only had to deal with losing him but not being able to tell him how much I loved him and say good bye. I came home, still crazy with grief, and began a novel. In my story, a young woman gets to say good bye to her father before he died. The moment I wrote that scene was cathartic. It was as if I did tell Dad good bye.
Before my mom passed, I was there with her and got to tell her how much she meant to me.
My sister later wrote me a note to say how proud my mom and dad were of my writing.
My writing.
It saved me.

The craziness of getting it right


I have neared the mouth of madness. I have sat on the tongue of crazy.

And it’s all because I’m working on getting it right. Taking those extra steps to make sure my writing is the best it can be to quote the Army slogan.

This work entails printing out the manuscript, not once, but twice, sometimes three times because reading the print version helps me catch stuff I can’t always see staring into a computer. This also helps me find when I have used a phrase or word over and over.

This means going through and getting rid of adverbs, and declaring war on passive and vague words like there, was, am, it, must, could, and try, among others.

Reading the story for content problems, such as closing gaping holes in plot and that your characters stay in character. Making sure the theme is consistent and your symbolism isn’t overt. Ramping up the conflict in each scene, be it emotional or action. Searching for clichés. Being on the lookout for the times I have changed the name of my characters in midstream (Come on, haven’t you done that?)

Let your critique partners have a go at your work to suggest improvements and what you did right.

One other thing I do is beat back the impetuous urge to send out my first and second draft because I think the work is done. It isn’t. Maybe geniuses will have the perfect novel after two passes. I can’t.

Despite the craziness of rewrites, the more you work on your piece the better it becomes. That makes the madness worth it.

Dealing with that old devil –writers envy


I am a short Latina writer, but when I get in the grip of that old devil envy I wish I was a tall blonde–a tall blonde named J.K. Rowling.

Those are the days I long to be someone with a New York Times Bestseller or with a novel optioned for a movie to be directed by Ridley Scott. I am jealous of those with books in the heavens — the top 100 of Amazon.com.
Or I wonder about how the heck a particularly book has sold so many copies when it sucked.
This is writers envy and you are a better person than me if you have never suffered from it.
When that little devil grabs my ankles, it fills me up with crippling self-doubt and makes me not want to write anymore. It makes me say “what the heck am I knocking myself out for?”
So what happens when that I’m in the grips of writers envy?
I write and write some more. Because as bad as that devil envy makes me feel, not writing makes me fill worse.
I realize that although I can’t write about boy wizards, that I can write about other things, that my voice is unique as are my stories.
Yes my royalities are not in the same hemisphere as those big guys. I mean, come on, few of us have those. But I am grateful for what I have and that I have more stories to tell.

New Year’s resolutions be damned. Get to writing


It is 2013.
A New Year for most of us who aren’t time travelers. This is the time that we’re all making plans and dreams, resolutions and promises to ourselves on what we hope to accomplish in the new year.
Lose weight. Quit smoking. Drink less. Laugh more. Beat that addiction to reality shows.
I make no resolutions. I only decide what I need to do in the coming months.
I plan to finish rewriting one manuscript in one month, then finish my YA mystery by this summer and simultaneously start research on my new adult mystery.
Am I insane? Making all these promises to myself to accomplish all that.
You see, even if it wasn’t the new year, I’d be doing the same thing. Setting writing goals.
With or without the partying (which I did). With or without tuning in to Dick Clark’s New Year’s party (which I did and which is still on TV despite Dick’s passing to my surprise), I have made my plans for what I need to do as a writer.
I am one of those people who must set goals and timelines for myself or nothing will get done. So after putting away all my Christmas décor, which is quite a job, I will tackle the first of my goals and start rewriting my YA manuscript.
I have nothing against New Year’s Resolutions. But they only come once a year.
Setting goals is year round.

What makes a story great? Watch ‘Winchester ’73’


It is no secret I am an uber movie fan. But aside from watching movies for pure entertainment, as a writer I also pay attention to what makes a movie great, particularly the story. Recently, I again watched one of my favs, “Winchester ’73″on TV and again remarked to my husband, “This is one great movie.”
Well, the cast is spectacular–James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, as is the direction by Anthony Mann, and striking Arizon locations.
But it is the story written by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards that makes it more than standard movie fare.
The story revolves around the gun in question, a “One of One Thousand” Winchester ’73 given as a prize in a shooting contest in Dodge City (yes, complete with Will Geer’s cool turn as Wyatt Earp) and how it changes hands, each time introducing new characters and situations.
Throughout is woven the themes of and reflections on revenge, bravery, betrayal. It has also great action, humor, a little romance, chase scenes, and one spectular shoot out. The dialogue is sharp as a Bowie Knife. The characters are wonderful–from Stewart’s Lin McAdams, a man with only revenge on his mind, to the pscyho Waco Johnnie Dean, wonderfully played by Dan Duryea. Watch for bit roles by a young Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.
I have never written a Western, but always want to try one after watching “Winchester ’73.” If mine is half as good, then I will be more than happy.

Postpartum Writing Blues: The let down when you finish a novel


I finished writing a novel recently and it felt like my kid left home and went to college and didn’t write or call.
This is not the first time I’ve had that experience.
Whenever I complete such a project, be it novel or screenplay, there is a let down. I’ll call it the Postpartum Writing Blues.
Like the kind women experience after having a baby, I believe this down-in-the-dumps feeling after the birth of a novel comes from placing so much of yourself into your writing. You push your mind and soul on the page. You step into the heads of your characters. So when it is done, you are left with a big investment of emotion. And unlike babies, which take nine months, our little bundle might usually take longer. My last novel took about one year.

You have so much hope for your project and you want it to do well in the world. Sometimes, it won’t. Sometimes, it will be the perfect successful child.
Still, that failure doesn’t remove anything from the experience of writing. This is a tremendous accomplishment all in itself.
After completing a big novel, I ususally take a break from writing. Then I start in another project.
Afterall, even if I face another case of Postpartum Writing Blues, the excitement of creating something out of nothing is too much to pass up.

Finishing a manuscript and chicken tacos


Nothing is as good as finishing a book, well maybe, chicken tacos.
Within a week or so, I will be ready to pitch my new manuscript, a steampunk mystery. After all the typing, sore back and hands, research, and doubts, it will be complete. After all the searching for the right word and emotion. Making sure there is reaction to action. Adding subtext and removing words like, there, there, saw, thought, etc. After striving to make my characters are interesting and the plot sings. After facing the dreaded question, Why in the hell am I torturing myself?
I am going to enjoy the accomplishment. If you are a writer and have completed a book, be it novel, memoir, nonfiction or short stories, be proud of yourself. You sat down and finished.
But finishing is not the only thing. I am proud that with each new project, I learned something as a writer. Thanks to my fantastic critique group, reading good writers, and going to writing confabs, I hope my work is becoming a little better each time.
So I am going to celebrate with a Japanese dinner with my husband and friends. I am going to catch up on other projects that I neglected while I worked on the book. I am going to take it easy before starting my next writing project.
As for the chicken tacos, I remember the simple joy of eating the ones my dad made for me and my sister.
It is that simple joy I feel right now. Satisfaction and a warm feeling in my belly.
Of course, if I receive several rejections on the manuscript, I will take another go at it to see what I might have missed and how to make it better. But hey, no one is perfect.

P.S. check out my recipe page for my dad’s chicken tacos.

Premiere of my new play; challenging yourself is always a good thing


Tonight is the premiere of my first play, Tears for Llorona. This is so exciting to see my words come to life.

However, the process was a challenge.
About two years ago, Carolyn White with the Magic Valley Arts Council, asked me to consider writing a play with Latino themes and culture to open at the new Twin Falls Center for the Arts. Although I have written screenplays, I had never tackled a play.
I decided to adapt one of my short stories of the same name. In my retelling of the well known Mexican tale of Llorona-the weeping woman, I told the story from the mother’s point of view and what happened in a Mexican village many years ago.
For the play, I also decided to add a modern intro and ending.
I sat down to write. Immediately, I found that writing a play was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.
Unlike screenplays, where you can rely on special effects and in books where you can just end a chapter, everything I needed had to be accomplished on stage.
Moving people around the stage also was daunting. Thanks to my friend Laried Montgomery, a veteran of Broadway, for helping me learn stage left from upstage, and so on. During the rehearsal process, I also have learned a lot from how James Haycock is directing the play.
The challenge was worth it. Actors are giving life to my words, they are telling my story.
So what is the moral to all this? As writers we must face challenges and meet them head on. We must try new things. If I had been too frightened to try, I would never have written my play of which I am proud.
Take a chance in your writing. Meet a challenge.


Taking our breath away


Near the end of the film, “Apocalypto,” young Jaguar Paw runs for his life from Mayan mercenaries who stole people from his village to sacrifice at their temples or enslave in their corrupt society.

These same mercenaries killed his father and his friends, and burned down his home in the jungle. Jaguar Paw is also running out of time because his pregnant wife and son are in a deep hole and it has started to rain.

Although wounded, he has cleverly killed most of the mercenaries by relying on what he has learned in the jungle. Two men, however, are on his heels. He has no more tricks left and runs onto a beach. But in his  eyes, we see something extraordinary has occurred. The camera pans around. Spanish ships float on the water, and groups of Conquistadors and a priest rowing ashore.

My breath stopped.

I think about that moment a lot when I write. That’s because Mel Gibson, who directed and wrote the script with Farhad Safinia, surprised and awed me in the scene. They succeeded in taking my breath away.

How many times have you seen movies or read books and have failed to be surprised or awed? The answer is lots for me. Those times when I can spot an outcome from 20 miles away or walk away uninspired, and unimpressed. I may have well as been ironing as reading or watching a movie.

Unfortunately, this lack of surprise and awe has shown up in some of my own past writing. This occurs when I relied too much on making the story move along instead making it exhale with life. When I have inhabited the piece with stock characters and settings and situations, instead of creating people who are full of surprises and emotions, and scenes of great tension.

Here are some other examples of surprise and awe:

In William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” Sophie reveals her terrible choice. Throughout the book, Styron has masterfully revealed the many layers of Sophie’s heart and heartbreak.

“The Conversation” Gene Hackman’s discovery of how he misinterpreted what he heard during surveillance of a young couple.

Jane Eyre’s learning the identity of the woman in the attack.

In Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” Fergus sees that Dil is not just a beautiful woman. It is a shocking, poignant, sad and funny  moment all at the same time.

So why try to achieve such moments? Why can’t we just make a buck writing crap. (Wait give me a moment to answer that.)


Because creating such moments connects us with our audience — be they in a theatre or reading a book in bed. What a miracle to be touched emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and all other means, by words and images. It truly is. Otherwise, we are just filling pages with words.

I want surprise and awe.