Kathryn Lilley

Apr 012014
 
Did everyone catch the Internet meme started in the wake of the Oscars by author Laura Lippman? Following the widespread criticism of octogenarian actress Kim Novak's appearance during the awards ceremony, Lippman posted a picture of herself without makeup, lighting, or filtering, along with a hashtag, #itsokkimnovak (Which translates to "Its okay, Kim Novak." I must admit that at first I misread the hashtag to read "It's so Kim Novak," which would have sounded a tad less supportive. My bad.)

Within days, everyone I knew on Facebook was jumping on board the auteur tout naturel idea. Someone assembled a montage of the pictures set to music. I'll post it if I can. Or you can scroll back through my FB timeline or Laura's to view it.

It was inspiring, even heartwarming to see a collection of authors put their morning faces forward. Not that we're the ultimate test case. As a species, we writers don't tend to be a glamorous bunch. (Your average writer's conference resembles a scene from The Invasion Of the Extremely Nice People Wearing Comfort Shoes.)

I was a few days late catching up with the trend, but I took a deep breath and posted my photo, seen here. (In response, I got several helpful replies suggesting make-up tips, mostly from Mary Kay and Avon reps. Thanks for that, ladies).


The experience made me question how I approach posting pictures in public. I'm a severe critic of my own photos, even those kept in house. My husband has to snatch the camera or phone away to keep me from deleting 90 per cent of the ones we take during vacations.

My last official author's photo was taken in 2007. I need have another one ready by the end of this year. Last time around, I remember that the photographer kept telling the makeup artist to "vamp it up some more". Next time, I may take a page from Laura's book and go unadorned.

But now I'm taking another look at my #itsokkimnovak photo. I may have to reconsider. I much prefer the girlified look I had in a recent profile in LA Beat Magazine.

Did you all post sans makeup, unfiltered photos online after the Kim Novak thing? Did you learn anything from it? Feel free to post a link to a picture of the "real you" in the Comments!

Breaking News! 2014 WD Award for TKZ

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Mar 272014
 
Hey Gang,

Just jumping in to announce that TKZ has once again been named a top 101 website for writers by Writer's Digest. Congratulations to all our bloggers and readers--we all work together to make TKZ required reading for the writerly set!
Mar 042014
 
There's a tradition on social media called "Throwback Thursday", in which people post pictures of themselves from the past. I was reminded of Throwback Thursday yesterday when I read an article in The Guardian, a British newspaper.

In "From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author's life?", editor Robert McCrum interviews authors who find themselves struggling to adapt to an era of reduced advances from publishers. The article suggests that the mid-list writer is an endangered species. Read the article, and then come back.

I was astonished by the defeatist mindset of the authors who were interviewed in the article. They seemed to assume that if they were no longer getting livable advances from publishers, the game was over. Say what? Has no one in Britain heard of indie publishing? Indie publishing wasn't even mentioned in the article (one reader did describe indie alternatives in the Comments, which sounded a bit like Sir Walter Raleigh  bringing news of the potato and other New World wonders back in 1589.) Other commenters then proceeded to confuse the indie industry with vanity publishing.

Most of all, the article mourns the passing of a more "genteel" era in publishing:
Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were. 
Indeed. When it comes to adapting to a changed publishing model, I think American writers are ahead of the curve. People on this side of the pond are used to changing the way they work. Many former mid-list writers have  reinvented themselves as their own author brands. (And in so doing, have been astonished to discover that they're making more money than they did under the old system.) Other writers are content to remain in the legacy publishing fold, or they become "hybrids" who do both legacy and indie work. It's a matter of finding your own comfort level.

But judging by the Guardian article, one has to conclude that British writers are stuck in the Grief stage about the changed publishing world. 

It's not helpful to remain mired in the past. Maybe we should send our British friends some copies of WHO MOVED MY CHEESE?
Jan 212014
 
"Every one of us needs a purpose that's big enough to call forth the gifts and abilities within us."
           -- Richard J. Leider, Life Skills

Do you live your life "on purpose"? Do you know what that purpose is?

That unsettling question was posed to an audience of about 200 people at a workshop I recently attended.

Many of us don't think too much about the real purpose of our lives, said the workshop's leader, a vivacious woman named Kathleen Terry We know what we like to do, what we're good at, and what we have to do. But if we can discover a purpose behind all those activities, according to Terry, we can develop a richness of spirit and add meaning to our lives.

Terry gave us an actual formula for finding one's purpose:

G + P + V = Purpose

This is how she explained the equation:

"You heed your purpose when you offer your Gifts in service to something you are Passionate about in an environment that is consistent with your core Values."

Next, we set about drafting a Purpose Statement. To identify our Gifts, we were each given a stack of activity cards. We had to sort the activity cards into three piles, with each pile representing our preferences: 
1) Activities we Love to Do 
2) Activities We're Not Sure About
3) Activities we Definitely Don't Like to do.

From the "Love to Do" pile, we had to select our top five favorite activities, then designate one activity as the most important of all.

My Number One activity card turned out to be "Writing Things." My four runner-up cards were "Researching Things," "Discovering Resources," "Analyzing Information," and "Putting the Pieces Together." 

All my activity cards--a.k.a., my "gifts"--identified me as a writer. No big surprise there. At least it was obvious what I like to do.

But I still lacked a purpose. How am I meant to use the  writing in the service of a greater purpose in life? Is that purpose merely to entertain and sell books? (That doesn't sound very noble.) Is my purpose to inspire others to develop their own creativity? Perhaps I could volunteer as a blogger or writer on behalf of a cause I'm passionate about, such as Monarch habitat preservation.

We weren't expected to finalize our purpose statement in the two hours of the workshop, I was relieved to learn. It turns out, sometimes it takes people years to discover their life's purpose.

But I'm glad to be thinking in this general direction. And if you ever have a chance to take a "Finding Your Purpose" workshop, I highly recommend it. 

What about you? Have you given your life's purpose much thought? Is your writing an element of a higher purpose?

Where Have All the Commas Gone?

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Jan 072014
 
It's cranky of me to kick off 2014 with a gripe, I know, but what the heck is going on with commas? They seem to be disappearing from the published word. According to the National Geographic's style manual, "the modern trend is to use fewer commas than we were taught in school."

Well, I don't like that trend. The last couple of books I read were penned by authors who appeared to have an almost complete aversion to commas. These writers didn't merely avoid using the debatable Oxford comma; they seemed to shun commas altogether.

For example, currently I'm reading a book about a major sailing race. The writer seems to be trying to conjure the effect of sailing into hurricane-force winds by her near-total omission of commas.

Here's a random sentence from the book:

The wind had built continuously with gusts now approaching forty-five knots (about fifty-two miles per hour) and the sky had grown darker.

There's nothing technically wrong with that sentence, I realize. But my reader's eye (or should that be "ear"?) was exhausted and needed to take a break before it plunged into "and the sky had grown darker."

Admittedly, as a writer, I overuse commas. (See?) I inject them into my manuscripts during the first draft stage as a stylistic device. I use them as visual indicators of where I want the reader to pause for breath. One of my final editing chores always involves going back through a draft to remove all traces of my over-exuberant fondness for  commas. (Ditto goes for my overuse of em dashes as well--I am a veritable Queen of Em Dashes. See our discussion in the Comments).

But, dang it all--as a reader, I like to see commas. I even resent writers who want to rush me through their comma-less paragraphs.

Has anyone else noticed the gradual decrease in the use of commas in popular literature? If so, are they destined to go the way of the semicolon in prose, do you think? As a writer, are you trying to use them less frequently these days? Or are you a recovering  over-user of commas, like me?

Reader Friday: Creating A Literary Monster

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Dec 202013
 
In 1816, during an unusually cold season caused by volcanic eruptions and circulating ash,  19-year-old Mary Shelley wrote a story about a monster as she and some friends struggled to stay warm. FRANKENSTEIN was born.

If you were to create a literary monster sprung from our own modern era of extreme and changing weather patterns, what would that monster be called? Can you describe it? (Be advised though, that SHARKNADO is already in the lexicon!) :)





Are we ready to hear good advice?

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Sep 242013
 

I have a theory about writers and writing advice: "No advice is good until we're ready to hear it."

Take me, for example. Years ago, having just read Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD, I called up a writer friend to rave about it.
 
After burbling on about the book's awesomeness for about three or four minutes, I heard my friend give an audible sigh.

"I've been telling you about that book for years," she said (a tad ungraciously, I thought).

It was true. I'd heard my friend discuss BIRD BY BIRD before, but I'd never heard it. 

Over the years, different messages and bits of advice have bubbled to the surface of my awareness, depending on where I  was as a writer.



Here are some of the most useful nuggets that have stuck with me over the years.


  • Write every day at the same time.
I can't remember who was first with this classic piece of advice. The bottom line: You have to develop your brain's writing muscle the same way you develop other muscles--by repeatedly exercising it.

  • Slice the salami.
To get unstalled in her writing, Editor and writer Kate White says she had to learn how to break up large projects into small, manageable chunks. She calls it "slicing the salami." She began by writing for fifteen minutes on Saturday and Sunday. Months later, her first book was finished. This was the single most helpful piece of advice that helped me start writing back when I was a single mom with a high-pressure job.


  • Begin and end each paragraph with a short sentence.
This is a simple technique to build pacing and rhythm into your work. The short initial sentence eases the reader's entry into the paragraph, and the short line at the end provides a rhythmic "bounce" into the next paragraph. This advice came from Miss Snark, the literary agent; I've used the technique to good effect. (And if you haven't discovered Miss Snark, you should check out her archived blog. It's filled with tons of great writing advice)
  • Think of your writing as a camera. You're not successful until the reader "sees" the story that's filming in your head.
    I've noticed that there's often a disconnect between a scene that is playing in the writer's mind, and the one that is conveyed on the page. To locate   the reader in your story, you need to add context and positioning details. For example, if a minor character is standing behind the main character, about to do something interesting, you need to establish their positions relative to each other in the reader's mind. Otherwise, readers can quickly become disoriented and untethered from the story, like an astronaut floating in deep space. (See a related post, The Real Secret of Bestsellers.)

So, what nuggets of writing advice have been the most helpful to you, in your career as a writer? 


Sep 102013
 

Today we have a first page from a story called THE CIRCLE. My comments follow.

***

Leigh looked up from her mum’s casket, concentrating on the slatted, pitched ceiling of the church. The familiar voice of the chaplain droned on from the pulpit and she focused not his words, which would surely undo her, but to the soothing and steady cadence. She held the back of her forefinger to her nose, wincing as she touched the swollen, chapped skin.

Reaching in her handbag for a tissue, her searching fingers settled on the age-softened newspaper article her mum had given her just two days ago. A jolt fired through her stomach and she yanked her hand out and clenched her palms in her lap, her fingers twining together until her knuckles blanched.

What had they been like?

The unspoken question itself felt traitorous. A glance to her left confirmed that her dad—that is, the only man she’d ever known as a father—was sitting upright, only the sparkling reflection on his cheeks belied his stoic figure.

Leigh took a steadying breath. Today she would ask Uncle Pete about the article. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see if she could spot him in the pews but her attention was caught by a man near the door in plain green Barrack Dress, staring at her.

She turned around to face forward again, her brow puckered. The military uniform must mean he was a friend of her dad. But surely the man was too young? Her dad had retired from the service when she was a baby. And the man had rudely not looked away when she'd held his gaze.

She turned to look again, but now there was only empty space where he'd stood.

###

Leigh found Uncle Pete at the reception back at the house. He was loading a plate from the buffet of casseroles and cakes in the dining room. When he saw her, he set it down and held out a hand. As she hugged him, he tucked her head under his chin.

“Hey little bit,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Your mum was one of a kind.”

Leigh relaxed into his embrace, hitching in a stuttering sigh. Though they weren’t related, she’d called him uncle as long as she could remember. And now he might be the only one who could help her. “Can I talk to you alone?”


***

My comments: I like the premise the writer establishes in this first page. We immediately know that the narrator is going through multiple crises--her mother has just died, and she just learned that the parents she has always known are not her real parents. There's also a hint of military intrigue to come. This is a good opening situation.

In general, the writing here is strong enough to keep me reading. I would suggest some tweaking to make it even stronger. I put my specific suggestions in bold red.



Leigh looked up from her mum’s casket, concentrating on the slatted, pitched ceiling of the church. The familiar voice of the chaplain 
(Perhaps mention the chaplain by name, if he's familiar?) droned on from the pulpit. She  
(I think this sentence is stronger if broken up) focused not on 
(Missing preposition inserted here) his words, which would surely undo her, but to the soothing and steady cadence. 
(After inserting the missing 'on', the combination with 'to' doesn't read well. Might need to rewrite this sentence)
 She held the back of her forefinger to her nose, wincing as she touched the  swollen, chapped skin. 

(This sounds stronger to me without the 'the'. Also, the first sentence of the paragraph already has a gerund clause. Try to vary the structure of sentences in every paragraph as much as possible, to punch up the rhythm.)

Reaching in her handbag for a tissue, her searching fingers settled on the age-softened newspaper article her mum had given her just two days ago. 

(Another gerund clause, plus there are two "ing" words in the same sentence. As writers, we all tend to overuse one type of structure, punctuation, or phrasing in our first drafts. This writer might want to check for the overuse of 'ing' throughout the manuscript.)
A jolt fired through her stomach and she yanked her hand out and clenched her palms in her lap, her fingers twining together until her knuckles blanched.  
(Here, there are too many actions in one sentence: jolt, yank, clench, twine, and blanch. Consider breaking this sentence up to strengthen the flow.)

What had they been like?  

(I put this in italics to indicate inner thought. This sentence was a bit jarring to me as I read it. It might have worked better if we'd gotten some clue about what was in the newspaper. Perhaps the narrator could glance down and register a word from the headline, a picture, or something that would set up her internal question.)

The unspoken question itself felt traitorous.  

(This sentence felt slightly awkward to me.)   
A glance to her left confirmed that her dad—that is, the only man she’d ever known as a father—was sitting upright. Only the sparkling 
(ING Alert. Break up this sentence to make it stonger. Also, 'sparkling" didn't convey tears to me on the first read) reflection on his cheeks belied his stoic figure
("Belied his stoic figure" seems stiff, somewhat Churchillian. It doesn't match the tone of the rest of the piece.)

Leigh took a steadying breath. Today she would ask Uncle Pete about the article. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to see if she could spot him in the pews but her attention was caught by a man near the door in plain green Barrack Dress, staring at her.  

(ING Alert. And again, there are too many actions in one sentence. Separate the man's action to distinguish it from hers.)

She turned around to face forward again, her brow puckered.  

(This might just be me, but I don't like the word 'puckered'. I think it's because I read so many manuscripts that overdo facial and hand tics.) 
The military uniform must mean he was a friend of her dad. But surely the man was too young? Her dad had retired from the service  when she was a baby. 
(It might be stronger to mention the name of the Service. Specific descriptions give the reader hints about your characters' backgrounds, and adds authenticity to your writing) 
 And the man had rudely not looked away when she'd held his gaze.
(Why is this  rude? Wasn't she staring at him as well? "Rudely not looked away" is slightly awkward, as well. )

She turned to look again, but now there was only empty space where he'd stood.

###

Leigh found Uncle Pete at the reception back at the house. He was loading a plate from the buffet of casseroles and cakes in the dining room. When he saw her, he set it down and held out a hand. As she hugged him, he tucked her head under his chin.

“Hey Little Bit,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Your mum was one of a kind.”

Leigh relaxed into his embrace, hitching in a stuttering sigh. 

(ING Alert) 
Though they weren’t related, she’d called him uncle as long as she could remember. And now he might be the only one who could help her. “Can I talk to you alone?” 
(The formatting of the paragraph detracts from the tension of the scene, and it's slightly unclear who is asking the question.  It might be stronger if you show her voicing a muffled question into the wool of his jacket, or something like that.

***

Overall: I made a lot of suggestions for this page, but the fixes are all fairly minor, and easily made. This is a manuscript that seems very promising to me. It just needs a polish and some tweaking to get it to the next level. The writer should examine the rest of the manuscript for some of the issues we've discussed.

Thank you for submitting this page, Writer! Well done, and keep going with this story!

TKZ'ers, do you have any suggestions or anything you'd like to add?

Setting things up

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May 152012
 
Today's critique is for the first page of THE SET UP. My thoughts follow.

THE SET UP    

    While I wait in line to pass through airport security, I check my pockets.  Just my wallet, cell phone, and a ticket stub for the parking garage.  And the envelope.  No car keys.  No knife.  No gun.
    I left my girlfriend, Carly, in Vlad's Lexus with her iPad and orders to put the windows down if she smokes.  Vlad is real particular about his car.
    A ticket to Philly is in my hand, but I'm not going on any airplane ride.  I just have it in case the TSA agent asks.  I do this kind of thing all the time, but a trickle of sweat runs down under my shirt collar and I flinch.
    They send me through the cattle gate, then wand me, and I grab the plastic tub with my stuff.  Except the envelope.  That's still in my jacket pocket, damp with sweat.  They stop an old lady ahead of me and give her the choice of getting groped or getting radiation sickness.  She must be ninety.
    It's almost eleven o'clock, and it's tough getting around all the moms with baby strollers and the stressed-out business types.  I could use my size to push through, but I look at them and see the exhaustion on their faces and forget using my elbows and just walk.
    I find Gate D11 and slow down to look for the men's room.  The setup is pretty standard.  You pick an airport and name a gate that's inside security, that way both parties have to go unarmed.  Meet in the bathroom, make the exchange.  Simple.
    It's a different Mexican every time, but we've done three trades with them so far and it's gone fine.  I see a stubby guy with a shaved head pop up from his seat, but then he goes to the window and gets on his phone.  Not my guy.
    10:59.  I pat the envelope for the tenth time and go to the bathroom door.  There's a folding yellow sign in front, with a picture of a guy slipping and falling.  I smile and go around it. 
    The bathroom is big and cold.  ...

* * * 


My comments:

I was drawn in by this first page, after stumbling a bit on the title. (The noun version of "to set up" should be "setup" or "set-up".) I like the narrator's straightforward, present-tense voice. Present tense and first-person POV are tricky to handle, but this worked well for me.

I thought the idea of having crooks meet at the TSA-controlled airport was fresh.  I did wonder how the narrator had pulled this rendezvous off repeatedly, what with no-fly lists, and the fact that by now he must be on record for buying tickets he didn't use. If nothing else, I'd think he'd be nervous about that aspect of it. He's described as being generally nervous, but the more specific his fear, the better.


Overall, the setup of THE SET UP was handled efficiently and well. I did object to the use of generics ("Vlad" and "Mexican") was too broad-brush for me, leading me to expect that I'm about to get a familiar Russian mafia vs. Mexican drug ring tale. I think it could use some compelling detail here to bring the reader more into the situation. 

I got confused by the action flow. On the first read-through, when I read "I see a stubby guy with a shaved head pop up from his seat," I assumed the narrator was already in the bathroom, and the guy was popping out of a stall. Later I wondered why the author described the bathroom as "big and cold" when he'd already been in there for a while. I had to pause and reorient myself. By preceding action with "Meet in the bathroom, make the exchange," you've already put the reader's head in the bathroom. Don't then backtrack to the gate area for the guy popping out of his seat.


I thought the tension fell off a bit in the last paragraph, probably because I was confused during the first read, and thought he was exiting from the bathroom. I had no idea why he would smile, since he hadn't made the exchange. 

It should be an easy fix to focus the action so that readers won't get confused by the  flow. I admit that I'm relatively easily thrown as a reader. Not everyone would trip over the issues that misled me, but you don't want to lose any reader on the first page.


Was I the only one who got confused? Anyone else have anything to add?

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