Archive for the ‘Deb Auten’ Category

Character: a prompt through example

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013


When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke. They scrambled a noisy “good evenin’ ” and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope. Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate. The porch couldn’t talk for looking.

The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.
But nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody even
–Zora Neale Hurston, When Their Eyes Were Watching God thought to swallow spit until after her gate slammed behind her.

“Won’t you come in?”  She led them into an immaculate sitting room, antimacassars set with grim purpose as though aligned and placed with a template. Everything was exactly as it should be–china lined up in the cabinet, dinner dishes all washed and put away, the faint whiff of lemon oil and disinfectant in the air. It was a space that seemed to Ward essentially and inordinately female, as though it had never been contaminated by a man’s presence. Everything reeked of cleanliness and decorum.

–Erin Hart, Lake of Sorrows

He was most fifty, and he looked it. His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. It was all black, no gray; so was his long, mixed-up whiskers. There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl – a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white. 

–Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

She had one of those guilty smiles, where the corners of the mouth turned upward just in time to keep the lips quiet — leaving a man to wonder if she’d wrecked his car, slept with his best friend, or given all his clothes to the Salvation Army.

She was the kind of woman who would have dated Lee Harvey Oswald in high school.

–Linda Bloodworth Thomason, lines from Designing Women, Dash Goff the Writer

The salesman lifted his gaze. But two boys, far up the gentle slope, lying on the grass. Of a like size and general shape, the boys sat carving twig whistles, talking of olden or future times, content with having left their fingerprints on every movable object in Green Town during summer past and their footprints on every open path between here and the lake and there and the river since school began.
“Howdy, boys!” called the man all dressed in storm-colored clothes. “Folks home?”
The boys shook their heads.
“Got any money, yourselves?”
The boys shook their heads.
“Well –” The salesman walked about three feet, stopped and hunched his shoulders. Suddenly he seemed aware of house windows or the cold sky staring at his neck. He turned slowly, sniffing the air. Wind rattled the empty trees. Sunlight, breaking through a small rift in the clouds, minted a last few oak leaves all gold. But the sun vanished, the coins were spent, the air blew gray; the salesman shook himself from the spell.
The salesman edged slowly up the lawn.
“Boy,” he said. “What’s your name?”
And the first boy, with hair as blond-white as milk thistle, shut up one eye, tilted his head, and looked at the salesman with a single eye as open, bright and clear as a drop of summer rain.
“Will,” he said. “William Halloway.”
The storm gentleman turned. “And you?”
The second boy did not move, but lay stomach down on the autumn grass, debating as if he might make up a name. His hair was wild, thick, and the glossy color of waxed chestnuts. His eyes, fixed to some distant point within himself, were mint rock-crystal green. At last he put a blade of dry grass in his casual mouth.
“Jim Nightshade,” he said.

–Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Tired Minstrel, by De Chirico

The Tired Minstrel, by De Chirico

Character description is so much richer if it includes something beyond the physical, that points to some hint of who that person is beyond hair, eyes or height. These are some of my favorites. Think of the interesting ways these descriptions work: third person observation, juxtaposition of words that give an opposite underlying meaning to what’s on the surface, the use of metaphors so unique they immediately become attached to the character and could never be used to describe someone else, and action as description. Bradbury goes full out and changes the weather, the setting and the entire feel of the day for the salesman when he first sees Jim Nightshade.

Some of these characters are protagonists, but not all. Rich character description, crafting even one devoted paragraph to a secondary character (like the above Erin Hart example), is a way of making flesh out of cardboard.  (These few lines were enough to put her on my personal list of bona fide suspects.)

Is there a secondary character (or two or three) that you need to flesh out? See if any of the above descriptions inspire you to richer characterizations.  (This is also a great starter prompt if you’re having a hard time getting going.)


To review or not to review

Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

Lately I’ve been trying to broaden the pool of authors I read.   In part it’s because I tend to read voraciously through the series of an author I like and inevitably end up bereft and drifting yet again when done, but in part, I consider trying new authors good karma:  if I try out them, somebodysomeday will give me a chance too.

So, Kindle app in hand, I follow the winding trail of searches and suggestions to try to find new people to read.  More karma-inducing reasoning ensues:   I justify spending anywhere from $.99 to $13.99 per book to “research” the authors that float to the top since soon I hope to be one of those.    (And yes, for this particular post  I’m focusing on Amazon and Kindle, though there’s a reference to also.)  I have now learned from a series of frustrations to always, always check out the sample chapters and lately, I always, always check out the two star reviews.

Why the two star reviews?  Because that’s where I know I’ll find the comments on the quality of the writing and grammar that a persnickety reader like me should take into account.  It’s these reviews that influence me to go on to either the higher or lower ratings.

Recently I ignored my own advice.  I googled “If you like Joan Hess”, and obliged with a recommendation.  I glanced at the ratings for the first book by this author which were heavily skewed to four stars and above.  The plot involved a premise I knew I’d love (history professor solves old and new crimes via digging into the past).  It won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery Award.  It was about midnight and I wanted something to read me to sleep.  I bought it.

I wanted to like this book.  I really, really wanted to, even though it was absolutely nothing like Joan Hess except it was set in the south.  Overall, the plot itself was okay.   It was the writing which became so irritating I just began skipping to the end to see if I guessed whodunit right (I had).

Jennifer, our old writing teacher, used to dun into us one of the prime rules of writing:  Show, don’t tell.  That can be a hard lesson:  Why can’t I drone on for five pages about the history of my fictional town starting on page 2?  Why can’t I use an adverb in every other sentence?   The writing issues didn’t stop there, though this was the worst problem.  Point of view changes were abrupt and disorienting.  I enjoy tagless dialogue as much as the next person, but often there were no paragraph breaks between quotes from different speakers.   Tense and subject-verb agreement problems kept cropping up.  The prose was often stilted, the phrasing awkward.  At the end of the book, it was as though the writer just decided she’d stop typing.  I ended up frustrated, even more when I skimmed the plot descriptions of her other books, which I thought sounded great, but I knew I couldn’t make it through another book with this author’s way of writing.

In the Kindle Store, there was only one each of the one and two star reviews.  I still should have read them (one frankly wondered how this book had won the prize it did).  So now, the question arises:  should I add to them?  The idea of karma immediately returns to haunt me, which is the very nature of karma, of course.  Do I weigh in at two stars and say exactly what I think?  Or was my grandmother right when she said that if I didn’t have anything good to say I shouldn’t say anything at all?

Will I hurt this author’s feelings?  Am I just trying to make a deal with the universe that if I don’t hurt her feelings with a bad review it will keep the bad reviews from my book?  After all, I’ve dragged my feet forever about getting my work out there, and she actually had a book published (and seven others too).   Do I have any right to criticize her?  I mean, what if I’m being blind about my own work?

I invite you to chime in on my existential angst on this topic.




Writing Prompt: Using Metaphor as Truth

Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Use a metaphor as truth

So here I begin, using a simile to introduce a list of aphorisms which are are really metaphors.  But words are a writer’s game, and playing with words can make a great prompt!  (And there’s another metaphor.)

I caught myself listening to myself making conversation the other day and being self-conscious about how often I used metaphors and similes (and loads of the other schemes and tropes of figures of speech:  if you want to entertain yourself further, see ) to get my point across (across what?  the point of a pencil? the tip of my tongue?).

I tried to stop.  I stuttered.  I finally realized it’s just a conversation, silly, just use the rich language of metaphor and keep the ball rolling (a green ball? a basketball?  how big is it?)

You may be getting my drift by now (a snow drift?  sand?  how deep?)

We take these phrases for granted, sprinkle them in our speech and use them wryly (or seriously) in our writing, when we use them at all, since we are good little writers and avoid cliches and overused aphorisms.  Yet all of these came about for good reason: they are used to tap into shared experience and collective imagination to call forth a mood or colorfully describe something, in a far more evocative way than regular old everyday language.

Today I am asking you to take them seriously.  Very seriously.  DO NOT use these as metaphors or similes.  Use them REAL – ly.  What happens to someone if they actually have a bee in their bonnet?  If they actually are between the devil and the deep blue sea?  I append the full list below, but for those of you who prefer a game of chance (literally), print them out and cut them up so you can pull from phrases at random.


So here’s a question: does using a metaphor as truth automatically make it a pun?

Finally, is it weird that many of these would make really good plotpoints in a horror movie screenplay?

acid test
ants in his pants
another nail in the coffin
an axe to grind
bee in your bonnet
better the devil you know
to bite the dust
to dice with death
to eat one’s words
to have feet of clay
to put your foot in your mouth
a baptism of fire
blood is thicker than water
open a can of worms
costs an arm and a leg
to keep the wolf from the door
to drink like a fish
not enough room to swing a cat
keep your ear to the ground
to hit the jackpot
you’ll be the death of me
to mend fences
to have a finger in every pie
to give up the ghost
to go on a wild goose chase
to get in each other’s hair
to live in an ivory tower
to keep your head above water
to leave no stone unturned
to go out on a limb
to make a mountain out of a molehill
to cast pearls before swine
to have skeletons in the cupboard
to split hairs
to swallow hook, line and sinker
the writing on the wall
get your ducks in a row
it stinks to high heaven
a frog in the throat
to burst someone’s bubble

You may come out of this exercise with a brand new appreciation of a few tired old phrases!

Posted in Deb Auten |

Leap of Faith

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long time.  I love this book, yet I struggle with it, particularly in that vast grey middle where the heavy lifting of plot gets done, where I can’t help but think of Douglas Adams’ pithy title The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul. 

I’ve always known there was a part missing, something crucial.   I could never bring myself to send it out to make the rounds of agents and publishers, not seriously.  I put it in the metaphorical drawer for years, after working on it for years, only bringing it out again a few months ago.  For a time, I hummed along on the sheer joy of recommitment.  I would finish it this time, I’d let my unconscious work on it enough, I’d make the middle sing!

At least, that’s what I thought until I got there, after  a few happy weeks revising the first few chapters   Apparently my unconscious hadn’t figured it out yet.  My muse was giving me the silent treatment.  My other half-finished books began their siren call, work on me instead, bits of plot flotsam for each floating up to capture my imagination.  (The fact that I have all these unfinished books is another blog post.)

I sternly reminded myself that I’d made my usual over-dramatic pronouncement to the writers’ group that this was the book I had to finish before I could write anything else.  The fact that I had to be stern with myself was almost enough by itself to send me running back to my chick-littish LA mystery.  Writing is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?  I’m supposed to love writing!   And here I was, letting my day job get in the way of my writing again!

Maybe it was over-dramatic, but when I said I needed to finish this book, out loud, to a roomful of people I love and respect, I remembered I was saying what I believed, and the saying it out loud was an act of faith.  I do need to finish this book.  And that meant having faith I could shape the dull void in the middle that obscured what was on the other side, not only an ending I love but the rest of the middle.  Is that what I’ve been afraid of?  Is part of the block fearing that I might come up with something that will affect the rest of the book?

Could be.  I’ve always known that there’s a “darling” or two (or three or…) that might have to go.  But here’s the thing:  the last two prompts in group  (see Barbara Mayfields “First Video Writing Prompt” and stay tuned for Susan Rathjen’s upcoming post on her prompt about completely reversing a belief) have let in some light.  I have a brand new proto-scene.  The void is vanishing.  And joy of joys, this scene actually calls back into the manuscript one I’d liked but abandoned long ago (ahh, electronic storage devices) when it was more of a digression than a furthering of the plot.

Faith works.



The Santa Fe Writers Group

Friday, December 30th, 2011

The name says it all:  we’re an eclectic group of writers who meet weekly who are lucky enough to live in the arts-nurturing environment of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Members write the gamut, fiction to poetry to nonfiction, but what ties us together is the commitment to our writing and supporting each other.

Thirteen years ago, the group started as a seven week course on writing and illustrating children’s books with Jennifer Owings Dewey.  Jennifer is one of those rare authors who can also draw beautifully (and has done one or the other for about 60 books), so we had a good head start.  Two years ago Jennifer moved to California, and we now take it in turns to “run” the group each week.

Our format is simple:  someone brings a prompt each week, we discuss it, and write for anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour or more, depending on the number of people there.  We try to leave enough time for each person to read what they’ve written, with comments by the group following.  Some writers’ groups have rules about critiquing; some even refuse to allow much discussion.  Since we began as a “class,” we not only allow but encourage comments, but there are two precepts.

First, the discussion should begin with a positive.  Second, the criticism should be constructive.

There’s a third we try to live by as well, and I use the word “try” deliberately.  We try not to interfere with the story itself too much.  Sometimes we get excited and ideas come bubbling up – and some of us enjoy that process while others don’t.   Most of us have been in the group long enough that we tend to know who is tolerant of what! And when someone new joins, we try to make a safe place where we can learn about each other.  To be as long-term as we are, and we’ve weathered some ups and downs, respect for each person is paramount.

What underlies everything is that this is not just a cut-and-dry, read-what-you-got and isn’t-that-nice sort of group.  We support each other through the thick and thin not only of the writing life, but of life itself.  We’ve had one member die; a few, sorely missed, have moved away.  We’ve been through divorce, court cases, cancer, the birth of grandchildren, and weddings.  We’ve seen each others’ children grow up.

All of the above is by way of introduction.  Soon we will get some bios up.  Some of our blogs will be sharing our weekly prompts.   Some members want to share inspiration.  Some of us want to talk about our works, published and unpublished.

We hope you enjoy.