Thursday, July 1, 2010

Stretching Ourselves as Writers: by Deborah Sharp

DSHARP1emaillarge I'd like to thank Deb for guest hosting today. Deb is a friend of mine and fellow Mystery Ink author and I'm a huge fan of her humorous Southern mysteries. I'm honored she's at Mystery Writing is Murder today--the day her new Mace Bauer mystery, Mama Gets Hitched, is released. Welcome, Deb!

Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for inviting me to guest at ''Mystery Writing is Murder.'' A lot of truth in that blog title, honey. If you're a writer, you should be able to write anywhere, right? I was embracing that dictum recently while barreling south on the Florida Turnpike, cruise control set somewhere north of 70 mph. Don't get your knickers in a knot, safe driving advocates. Both hands were firmly on the wheel. My husband was in the passenger seat with his laptop, typing away as the two of us collaborated on a writing project. I'd toss out a line; he'd type. He'd toss out a line; I'd wrinkle my nose because it wasn't exactly the same line I would write. Anything Goes Husband and Control Freak Wife as collaborators. Weird, and the subject of a whole 'nother blog post. Kerry Sanders and I have been married for 21 years, both from journalism backgrounds. He's in TV, and I come from print, which is definitely apples and oranges. I read last month on Elizabeth's blog about stretching as a writer. It was great advice, and it was exactly what I was doing at 70-some mph (Okay: 80. You get flattened if you go any slower in South Florida, where even the cops pass you at 70). Kerry volunteered us to write a script for a short film competition, despite my imminent launch for MAMA GETS HITCHED, and the fact that the man travels more than 200 days of the year reporting for NBC. We typically communicate via sticky notes and Facebook. Oh, yeah. Did I mention neither of us had ever written a screenplay? ''When are we supposed to write this movie?'' I asked, my voice edged with wifely exasperation and a touch of hysteria. ''Don't worry. It'll work out,'' Kerry said, which is pretty much his answer to everything. Kerry flew from Louisiana, where he'd been covering the oil spill, to meet me in Boston, where our nieces were graduating. To get home, we had a three-hour plane ride, together for change. We squeezed in most of the writing then. Once back to Florida, he had barely enough time for expenses and laundry before it was back to the Gulf. But first, we did a little turnpike writing on a two-hour drive to an event he couldn't cancel. With three of my funny ''Mace Bauer Mysteries'' published, and a fourth out next year, I'm in sync with Mace, Mama, and the town I created in Himmarshee, Fla. By now, the books feel like a favorite pair of shoes: Gently worn, but still shiny. Writing a script, especially with such a narrow time window, was like wearing new dress shoes: They pinch, and if you're unused to heels, like I am, there's always the chance you'll teeter and fall on your face. Exhilarating, right? If you're looking for a way to stretch, though, try writing a short movie script (Each minute on film is about a page; so we ended up with 10 pages.) There are plenty of resources to learn the format online or at the library. The experience may sharpen your prose, too. A screenplay forces you to concentrate on skills every novelist needs: 1. Advancing plot with dialogue and action. No room -- or audience patience -- for long narrative passages. 2. Conveying character quickly through clothing, props, and gestures. (One of our characters carried a tiny designer purse and a long cigarette holder: an instant visual to tell the viewer --or reader-- this woman is different from someone who might wear owlish glasses and clutch a book.) 3. Deciding what's essential and stripping away the rest. (We cut an entire character and his dialogue when we realized he was making the same point we'd already gotten across). 4. Starting your work ''in scene.'' Beginning writers can rarely resist the urge to explain how their characters got to the point where the story's action truly starts. Our little movie begins at a train station, where a crowd is assembled waiting for a ''beloved'' Hollywood icon. She's returning to the small town she couldn't wait to quit; the same town she's trashed during the intervening decades as a backwater hicksville. The scene is set, the characters and action are underway, the train whistle sounds. Kerry and I didn't start with what the characters had for breakfast; what route they drove to the station; or the phone call they got two weeks earlier inviting them to come. We started In scene. The process definitely made me stretch as a writer. I even stretched a bit as a wife. I have to admit Kerry was right. (Mark this day in your calendars, folks!) It did work out. Deborah Sharp, a former USA Today reporter, sets her ''Mace Bauer Mysteries'' in a rodeo-and-ranching slice of her native Florida. She and husband Kerry Sanders live in Fort Lauderdale. No kids; no pets. They had a couple of goldfish once. It turned out badly. You can visit Deborah's website here.