Write on Wednesday – Full Steam Ahead – September 12, 2018

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For the past two weeks I have been purging my office, culling old files and crawling under the furniture to dust. I brought in a new filing cabinet, removed a piece of furniture and repostioned a ceiling tall bookcase. All in anticipation of getting back the first full critique of the third book of my Caribbean series —  the whole thing. I’ve had helpful critiques on chapters by my Working Writers Forum group, but this was the whole manuscript and I wanted the decks cleared.

That happened on Saturday morning. I have to admit I was anxious. I knew this editor, who is also a friend, would give me her unvarnished opinion. And she did. Some parts she liked and she had some excellent suggestions for how to fix some things I knew just didn’t work. She brought to my attention story threads that had been left hanging.

There were a number of places where she noted that what I knew in my head about the characters had never made it onto the pages. I suppose all of us who write long fiction struggle, at some point in the process, of being too close to the story to know what is missing. She also made a detailed spreadsheet for me which included (among other things) the timeline, where and when characters appeared, and thematic issues. I printed it out on legal size paper and taped pages together.  This will be easier for me to work with than referring to the computer screen.

My next step is to read through all the notes in the manuscript. There are some plot and character arcs that need attention. I need to think about those and make some fix-it notes before I start the rewrite. My goal is to be ready to begin by the end of the weekend.

Full steam ahead.

Write on Wednesday – Revisions Ahead – August 22, 2018

In a week or two I will get back the comments of a writing friend who agreed to look at my third novel in the Caribbean series. I’m anxious. Mostly that’s the way I’m wired. Just ask my patient husband. But I am anxious to get back to the book after not thinking about it for most of the summer. And I’m anxious to see what suggestions she has for improving the story.

Then I will begin revisions.  Don Roff writes, “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”

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I’m hoping I won’t need this.

 

Write on Wednesday: Make Me Care – August 14, 2018

I learn in small increments. If I can come away with a few new things from an hour long talk, I am happy.  This  virtual classroom Ted talk, by Andrew Stanton, is terrific. Not too long, not too short, but with some compelling suggestions for writing our stories.

Here are my take aways:

Make the Reader Care:

  1. When you tell a story, build in anticipation.
  2. Make the reader want to know what will happen next.
  3. Honest conflicts create doubt in what the outcome might be and make the reader wonder how the story will end.

The Secret Sauce:

  1. The best stories invoke wonder.
  2. A strong theme is always running through a well told story.

Use What You Know:

  1. Capture a truth from your own experience.

Storytelling has guidelines but no hard and fast rules. When you do it right, wonder happens.

 

 

Write on Wednesday – The Hook – August 8, 2018

Haruki Murakami, author of Blind Willow and Sleeping Woman asked, “shouldn’t there be cats in a zoo? They’re animals, too, right?” Then he continued, “Cats and dogs are your run-of-the-mill-type animals. Nobody’s going to pay money to see them. Just look around you–they’re everywhere. Same thing with people.”

I don’t know if this Murakami quote was about writing characters, but that’s what it made me ponder.
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Do all my characters need to have something totally unique about them? Is that what makes a reader turn the page? Do people who buy books want to read about ordinary people? Or is it the hook — the out-of-the-ordinary circumstances in which ordinary people find themselves?

I think it’s the hook.  For me to engage with a character I have to relate to them in some way. Age, gender, personality, vocation, avocation, relationship issues, family drama, memories of a previous time in my life. It could be lots of things, but for me to keep reading I want to know what happens to the character. That’s the hook.

J. K. Rowlings captured a whole generation of young readers with her ordinary kids who had something extraordinary in common. As a former therapist I believe those books are a model for mastery. Living is about mastering the new stuff that shows up daily. And the things kids need to master can be scary. If Harry and his friends can master wizardry and all the associated terrifying events, a reader might realize she can get through a new school year, fail a test, or talk to her parents about an embarrasing subject. Mastering a life experience prepares us for the future. And how I loved those books. I could imagine myself as Hermione. They are some of the few hard covers that remain on my bookshelf.

The Hannah Swensen cozy mystery series is about an ordinary young woman who bakes cookies for a living. She just happens to live in a small Minnesota town where other ordinary people get murdered at an alarming rate. Author Joanne Fluke has recently published book 23 in this series. By now the population of the town should be decimated and everyone remaining obese, but fans can’t get enough. Why is that? I think it’s because Hannah is ordinary and readers can relate. She always thinks she needs to lose ten pounds and compares her looks to her stunning sister. Her mother thinks Hannah can’t be happy unless she’s married. Hannah’s is a loving family with lots of family drama. Who can’t relate? And between helping the local law inforcement guys solve all those murders, she eats cookies for breakfast.

The other thing about cozy mysteries is that while people die in sometimes nasty circumstances the author doesn’t dwell on the details. These are easy reads in a time when many of us need diversion from the real world. In cozy mysteries the good guys always prevail.

Recently I put The Light of Fireflies by Paul Pen on my Kindle. I can’t remember why I bought it but I get alot of “hard to resist” offers from Amazon. I might have gotten it for $2.99. I really have a problem buying any e-book that costs more that $10.

I started the Pen book and stopped reading after thirty pages. It was way too creepy for me.  Burned people living in a sealed off basement with no access to the world.  Hints of incest. At first I thought it was a dystopian novel, but it’s personal not global dystopia. What the hell? It’s gotten thousands of four and five star reviews, but I gave it a one star. I don’t care if it was well written. Later I made myself go back to The Light of Fireflies. I couldn’t relate to these people so I didn’t care what the hook was.  Everytime there was a choice people took the wrong one. I plowed my way through it and then archived the novel on my Kindle. If this is what Paul Pen writes I won’t be buying any more of his books.

My reading habits have evolved since I was an English major at Goucher College (back in the day when it was an all women’s school). I now rarely read novels that are considered literary, rather I read for pleasure, entertainment and diversion. And sometimes to put myself back to sleep in the middle of the night. That requires a book I have read before, sometimes many times, so there are no surprises. Nothing grisly or bloody or one of those soft porn romances. I want to go back to sleep. Jan Karon novels do the trick quite nicely.

Here’s what I’ve read in the last six weeks. The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie; The Other Woman by Daniel Silva; The King Tides by James Swain; A Merciful Death by Kendra Elliott; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly; Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder and The Betty Davis Club by Jane Lotter. The last two were re-reads. The book I am currently reading is The Key by Kathryn Hughes. Next in the queue is Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

What have you read recently that you recommend?

 

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Writing Like Stephen King*

One of my favorite books is Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. King talks about how most of his books were written when he was drunk or high – or both – and listening to heavy metal music at ear splitting decibels.

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My writing partner, Laura Ambler, and I wondered if we could write better if we followed King’s writing process and tried writing under the influence. There are always places in our scripts where we put an MB (make better) or MF (make funnier.) This was an hypothesis that needed to be tested. We already had a control of sorts as we’ve completed quite a few scripts without any drugs or alcohol.

We ruled out the heavy metal music. Intrinsic to our writing process is that we talk to each other; loud music would make that a problem. We also ruled out drugs. Too risky and we didn’t know where to get them anyway. Although as I’ve talked to several people about writing this blog post, a surprising number of them told me they have had a ‘connection.’ Who knew!

That left us with alcohol. I just have to open my wine fridge, and, if Laura prefers a martini, the ingredients are already on the bar.

Now we have the means, but logistical problems present themselves. Laura usually comes to my house for our writing sessions. She can’t drive home under the influence. That would be totally irresponsible. I was recounting our dilemma to my husband and he said if we really wanted to pursue this experiment, he would pick up Laura and drive her home. (He is remarkably supportive of my writing, whatever the process, and I know he is much too nice to make a YouTube video of us being silly and post it online.)

As for me, two glasses of wine and I fall asleep which might not be conducive to inspired writing. This plan was beginning to remind me of my woman’s conciousness raising group from the 70’s. This was back when the head of NIH (National Institutes of Health) was saying cocaine was okay. Somebody in my woman’s group came up with the bright idea that our group should try cocaine. We debated that issue for a year. I suppose it took that long because any topic we decided to talk about always circled back to our mothers. Anyway, we finally decided we had talked about it so much that actually doing it held no allure, so we didn’t.

Laura and I haven’t talked the writing a la Stephen King thing to death yet, but we might be getting close. I’ll keep you posted.

*This was first posted on July 24, 2014. We never did get around to testing the King hypothesis.

Plein Air Quick Write*

Would you be able to write if you were outside (maybe under an umbrella to protect you from the scorching sun or a deluge) and had to complete a writing assignment in two hours? And your writing project would be judged and then put up for sale. This is what artists at Easton’s annual Plein Air Festival Quick Draw do. And to make it more difficult it’s a juried show and artists have to submit work in order to even get into the competition. This year the contestants were challenged by downpours.

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So it made me wonder…what would a Plein Air Quick Write Festival look like?

The very thought of trying to write something with other people watching makes me want to throw up. I’m an introvert and I covet alone time. Being closeted with my computer qualifies, and I could never share office space with my husband even though he’s a really nice guy. I know how to do social stuff, but it drains me and I have to have alone time to recharge my batteries. When Laura Ambler and I collaborate on a writing project these lines are blurred, but I have to say there is a huge amount of trust that she is not going to be judgemental when I blurt out something that just wouldn’t work. I grant her the occasional eye roll, but that’s it.

Two hours doesn’t give much time for editing or what I like to call marinating. Sometimes something I’ve written stays in a drawer for a long time before I take it out and look at it again. I read it and think, not too bad, or I read it and wonder why I wasted the paper it was printed on. Usually marinating doesn’t take that long, but, for me, it’s a really important part of the process. It gives my brain time to work without me trying to force it onto a particular path.

Writing using prompts might seem similar to a quick write. There are people sitting near you (which I find really distracting), but you only have to share if you want to. However, your words are not all out in the open for the world to see like a painting would be. I don’t like to think that I am a competitive person, but at the few writing prompt workshops I’ve attended the notion that I want mine to be WONDERFUL always manages to intrude when it’s time to share. When I hear what others have written I judge my effort as unworthy and keep my mouth closed. I am probably the classic neurotic, introverted writer.

A Quick Write Festival doesn’t seem to be in my future, but I’m curious. Would a Quick Write Festival appeal to you?

* This was first posted after Plein Air 2012. There was intermittent rain that year and the Quick Draw exhibit was in the street as it usually is. This year (2018) there was such heavy rain that the Quick Draw viewing was moved into the Tidewater Hotel. Laura and I had lunch with friends on Masons’ porch, as we have done for many years. Over a lunch with Bloody Marys and Bellinis, we judged umbrellas as they passed us by.

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This one deserved a prize. We have reserved the porch for 2019 and hope for better weather.

 

Write on Wednesday: Is Writing My Passion?

There is alot of foot traffic in my neighborhood early in the morning. Runners, parents with strollers and lots of walkers, many with their dogs. I was out in the driveway on Saturday morning loading wheelbarrows of mulch to dress my garden beds and several people stopped to tell me how much they enjoy watching my gardens change through the seasons. Three people actually told me that gardening must be my passion.

That made me stop and think. I’m a writer. Shouldn’t that be my passion?

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I googled passion in one’s life and here’s what I got. “Knowing your passion in life gives you something to build the rest of your life around. Your passion can be anything that simultaneously challenges you, intrigues you and motivates you. Contrary to the idea that doing what you love makes work effortless, a passion puts you to work.”

Do I only get one passion? And how is passion related to self-identity?

Identity is multi-faceted and mine has evolved over the years. I do know one thing about myself. I’ve always loved learning. Part of my identity is being a student.When I was a young mother, my focus was on my children. A large part of my identity was Mother. When my children were in high school, I went back to graduate school and started working for a paycheck. Four kids in college at the same time was a daunting prospect for my husband and me. We had to plan for that. My work identity became Social Worker. When I retired I had an identity crisis for about two weeks so apparently being a Social Worker wasn’t drilled into my soul.

Is my passion writing or gardening? Certainly gardening is more visible. People driving by our house can see what I’ve accomplished. My body of writing work is not very visible, has not made me wealthy and the hard work of writing doesn’t result in people stopping me in my driveway to deliver compliments.

Writing is important to me. It’s an outlet for creativity and in my life I’ve realized that I get a little crazy when I don’t have some creative outlet. But creativity doesn’t have to be writing. It can be cooking or gardening, or an art project. Writing is not the most important thing in my life, and I suspect that’s heresy in some writing circles. It’s the creative part of writing that makes me boot up my computer. 

Since I am a Gemini I’m going to choose two passions. Creativity and learning. For me they go hand in hand and can be applied to both gardening and writing and any other thing my squirrel brain sees that looks interesting.