Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Magical Baboquivari!

Every time I visit the unspoiled Sonoran desert on the Tohono O'odham reservation, I remind myself of two things - how incredibly fortunate I am to be in the here and now, in such a remarkable place, and how important the preservation of these natural areas is for all of us and future generations. What I find here in the purity and solitude is very special. I use the term purity with the utmost respect, regarding not just the flora, but the fauna as well.

On a recent hike into the Baboquivari wilderness, to the foothills of that magnificent peak, rising to a 7,700' summit, I was joined by a pack of coyotes, who clearly had my scent and were circling in to whet their curiosity. They remained at a safe distance - I picked up occasional glimpses through the desert undergrowth as they moved about, some 30 - 40 yards away. They communicated constantly with yips and yaps; signaling which I sensed was not a result of nervousness or alarm, but only to verify each other's location in relationship to mine, and likely to warn me of their territorial authority. There were numerous signs of scat about, and perhaps a den nearby. The smells associated with my SUV parked on a rocky flat below the scene probably added a sense of confusion to their investigation. I felt completely unthreatened by their presence - a feeling I have developed from many encounters with coyotes in the desert around my Arizona home.

And so, revisiting the purity theme, I can say without hesitation that these coyotes were instinctively pure of heart in both action and reaction. As all animals are; pure of heart and soul. Delusional to think that we could be the same. They circled a while longer before settling into position to simply monitor and observe. The loud communication died away, leaving just  occasional whining to let me know they were still there.

I did some circling of my own, around a giant saguaro, replete with cozy cactus wren nest about half way up its massive main trunk. Several curling arms rose skyward, not reaching the height of the center spire - some thirty feet above the ground. A two hundred year-old specimen, no doubt. Just a six-foot baby when Geronimo walked this land.

Hauling out my trusty Nikon, I took a few pictures of the surroundings, the mountain backdrop, the thick, tough, semi-arid greenery, and even one of a coyote who kept pacing back and forth along a ridge line off to the east. Then I retraced my route back toward the SUV, listening for movement from my companions all the while. Next to the vehicle I turn to take a last look back at the saguaro.

I will return to Baboquivari as often as I am able. My spirits are greatly lifted with each visit. My soul finds peace here with each message the desert sends me. I cannot claim to be 'Coyote-meeter.' That title, among the O'odham, is reserved for one who experiences a quest-like, one-on-one encounter. An encounter involving a pairing of spirits - man and animal together. But maybe some day. A mystery to contemplate, if there ever was one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Creating strong 'hook,' Part 3

February 22, 2012

Suzanne Collins'  hook in 'The Hunger Games'

God! Look at that opening!

'When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out; seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.'

The mood here is so ominous - hook. The word selection is so dangerous - hook. The final sentence in the paragraph provides such tension. Your eyes have no choice but to leap forward to the next paragraph - hook. Your mind is already at war with your emotions - outstanding hook.

No wonder this novel raced to the top of the YA charts. You are tossed 'smack dab' into the middle of this scene, with little choice about it, and absolutely no escape route. Collins has you, and she has worked too hard at crafting this opening to let you go. You are putty in her hands, and isn't that a great feeling?

Notice also Collins's powerful use of nouns, not adjectives. One more adjective might have killed this scene. The paragraph seems simple enough, but if you think it was easy to craft, think again.

Short, choppy sentences. Say it! Don't mess around with words. Don't insult your reader, go for their heart. This is the key to good writing and a great opening to a novel.

I admire so much that Collins created such a powerful opening scene using rumination - a character's thought process. She does not utilize back and forth dialogue or fast action, but instead relies on a first-person glimpse into the mind of her character. A mind that is insecure, fearful. In fact, so ominous is this scene, that it leaves the reader unsettled. Big time unsettled. Unsettled a'la Stephen King.

All of us who write fiction strive to achieve what Suzanne Collins succeeds with in 'The Hunger Games.' Give your readers great escape, great connection. Make them feel for your characters. Empathy - ask for their heart and give them closure in return.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What's in the coffee?!

In an earlier post title, the word would be 'formatting.'

Creating strong 'hook' continued...

Let's start with Jeff Kinney's bestseller, 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid.' What strategies does he use to draw you in?

1. He starts in the middle of the action. It's Tuesday in his opening JOURNAL entry; a random day, and that's the point--spontaneity says what? Natural. Real. Young readers want stories they can identify with, and right away this kid sounds real, like they are.
   Also, there is no backstory, no history right off the bat. That's a very good thing with young readers who want to get to the 'meat' right away--Patience is a virtue. Yeah, right! When was the last time a nine year-old in your family was patient? Backstory can come in snippets, distributed cautiously.

2. His main character has a bone to pick. In fact, several bones to pick: With his mom for buying him a journal that says 'diary' on it. With people who write in 'diaries.' With the school bully (by inference and a page illustration) who's looking for any reason to slug him. With his teacher too, again by connecting the dots. The Kid: 'How many times do I have to tell you? This is a JOURNAL, not a diary.' And along with this formal complaint is a vow to fight it. Tension. Nothing very serious to an adult, but this book is not for adults, although they might enjoy reading it too, if they can still remember what it was like to be a kid. A middle school kid's day is ruined because of a locker that won't open? Please...
   So, tension. And you can tell from the opening to this book that his troubles aren't going away soon. A great formula for a tough-to-put-down book.

3. Does Kinney inject personality into his character? Right away, on the first page. Kids who moan, groan, and otherwise complain all the time regularly draw the ire of parents...and classmates. No one likes a whiner. Suck it up! But again, this is more about what is lovable, funny, quirky, immature, insightful, etc., etc. in the main character.

One final thought about Kinney's 'hook:' This story is all about 'show, don't tell'--a successful writer's dictum. There isn't a boring word in it. And he makes you laugh at every turn. Now, how can that not be a winning combination?

What other devices did you identify in Kinney's opening? In the first chapter?

Please feel free to share your thoughts.


My apologies for the fotmatting issue!

This last blog submission on writing was copied/pasted from my other blog site at I hope the line jumps weren't too distracting, and that you got a good sense of where I'm going with future postings that continue the subject. Watch for a second installment on 'hook' coming along today (2/9). Many thanks!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Creating Strong 'Hook' (in a fiction novel, short story)

If the rejections have been piling up, maybe the culprit is your story's opening. That opening must be compelling--very compelling. Agents and editors have experience with a large segment of the reading public. They know what that readership likes well enough to buy.

Here is an assignment for you. Go to your local public library (You have a library card, don't you!). Bring along a pen and writing pad. Find the young reader section (sometimes called

'children's' or 'teens'). Sign out to read or take to a chair/table to read any TWO of the following titles:

'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' Jeff Kinney

'The Hunger Games' Suzanne Collins

'The Lightning Thief' - from the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series Rick Riordan

'The Revealers' Doug Wilhelm

'Bridge to Terabithia' Katherine Paterson

'The Invention of Hugo Cabret' Brian Selznick

You are particularly interested in the FIRST PAGE of each book you choose. In

your writing pad, try to identify (describe) the devices or strategies used by these authors to draw you into their story. Can't find any? Try using the following short list (add your personal preferences once you get the gist of it):

1. The story starts IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION, through the use of descriptive passage and/or dialogue. Give an example.

2. A character(s) PERSONALITY is revealed, particularly anxiety-driven, funny, quirky, etc. Can you relate?

3. An ISSUE/PROBLEM/STRESS-CAUSER is being identified by a character(s), often using dialogue or rumination (talking to oneself). There is TENSION present and you feel it. How does this tension affect you?

Start with the above prompts and see how you fare. Good luck!

We will be discussing your notes in the next few posts, and drawing comparisons between these very effective openings and examples that perhaps need a power boost! I am open to questions/comments at any time.

Best writing,