Thursday, December 25, 2014

Getting Emotional

I heard a writer comment that one of his readers had pointed out a problem in his manuscript: His protagonist didn’t show a lot of emotion. When faced with a personal situation, like a death, the protagonist hardly reacted and went on about his business after a sentence or two.

This struck a chord. It happened to me, too.

When I only had 30 pages presentable enough to share, I had it pointed out that my protagonist, a female, who discovered a crime scene and a body early in the story, was very matter-of-fact about it. I was told that no one outside of a police procedural would react like that, or rather, not react. So I had a choice to make: Make my protagonist more emotionally clued in or make her even less so.

I seriously considered creating an autistic character like the one in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

I probably could have done it. But I didn’t go there. Instead, I added moist eyes, a runny nose, a tear-streaked puffy face, a breathless aching chest filled with trembling quaking heartbeats, nightmares, and so on.

In a similar vein, I also had problems with a fight scene later in the book. My first attempt ran a whole paragraph. I got called on that one, too. I made it better. Had to. It couldn’t get worse.

I wrote about my three-step system of getting through a scene in my Aug. 18th blog post: I start with the dialog, add motion, and lastly—work in the emotions. The process has helped me deal with these pesky problems.
Also, by adding the emotional low spots, I’ve given my protagonist a better starting point on her character arc.

The result: Things are looking up—for both of us.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Present Tense Revisited

I devoted my Nov. 21st blog post to talking about the merits of writing novels and stories in first person, present tense. I cited two books as examples of main stream fiction using what appears to be this current trend. Those examples came from the two book clubs I’ve been attending.

At the monthly meetings of those respective books clubs I asked people their feelings about this issue. I thought I might get some useful comments. Judging by what I read on, where several readers expressed very strong opinions against books written in present tense, one went so far as to say she’d stop reading a book if she noticed present tense verbs, I expected some negative reactions.

The results of my very informal poll: No one cared all that much. They just read the book. Enjoyed the story. Didn’t think much about the technical aspect of verbs.

I have to admit that the first time I read The Hunger Games and The Art Forger I never noticed either. I was just reading for the story with the former and looking for artsy terminology in the latter. I didn’t pick up the finer points of the verb usage until the second reading when I focused on how the writers were working things out.

I don’t know what this means. I’ll have to keep asking for more opinions. I guess that’s called research.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Writing Simply

It's the birthday of anthologist and writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (books by this author), born in Cornwall in 1863. Quiller-Couch published fiction and literary criticism under the pen name "Q" and was best known at the time for his publication of the Oxford Book of English Verse (1250-1900), a book that remained the most popular anthology of its kind for nearly 70 years.
He is remembered by writers today for one of the most enduring but non-attributed pieces of writing advice ever given. He wrote in his 1916 book On the Art of Writing, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — whole-heartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press: Murder your darlings." Now a popular catchphrase among editors especially, "murder your darlings" admonishes writers to refrain from being too precious about their prose and to trust in the values of simplicity and efficiency.

I don’t think I understood what that meant before hearing this piece from the Writer’s Almanac. I thought the phrase “kill your darlings” referred to clever ideas, neato scenes, or maybe dramatic action sequences. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of sentence structure.

Old style writing can be florid and overwrought. Side trips into extraneous digression. I’ve seen examples, long torturous examples, so long in fact that they ultimately made no sense whatsoever.

Yes, I have found myself showing off every once in a while with a long sentence complete with semi colons. Or sometimes I’ve made up a list of things so I can legitimately use a colon.

Now I know why simplicity and efficiency are best. And I only had to go back to one hundred years or so to find the source.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Art and Real Life Meet in Bishop Hill

People gathered too commemorate the 176th birthday of Olof Krans with cake and ice cream, live entertainment, and the release of a new book that documented all know works of the folk artist.

Then it turned into a surprise party.

The revelation of another work, previously unknown, was announced by the Bishop Hill Museum’s curator. The names of the owners were withheld.

Olof Krans was an important figure because he documented the early life of the Bishop Hill Colony, a religious communal society founded in 1846 by Swedish immigrants.

According to the Nov. 7th edition of the Galva News: “There were dozens of other religious settlements: the Shakers, the Quakers, the Mennonites. No other colony had its portrait painted like Olof had.”

Olof Krans has a unique place in American folk art.

Olof Krans has a unique place in my novel.

It’s so exciting to have art and real life meet like this.

A mystery unfolding in real time to go with the one I created in a fictional past.

Who would have thought it possible?

Oh, wait—I did.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

I am thankful for:

·        Going over 50,000 words on Thanksgiving Day.

I made my pumpkin pie and got to type away thanks to a very helpful husband who put the turkey in the oven and watched it until it was golden brown and done.

·        Still having more writing to do because my novel has more than the minimum 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo.

·        Liking the changes I’ve made so far.

The change to first person from third person is going well. I find myself satisfied with the results more often than not. Actually, I haven’t found anywhere that it hasn’t worked out for the better.

When I’ve read comparison pieces at the Writer’s Studio, the results were always evenly split. No clear winner.

·        Having this opportunity to work on my novel. So many things could have gotten in the way.

Too bad it’s taken so long to get it done. But I wanted to make it the best effort I could manage. And let’s face facts—I had a lot to learn.

Best thing to be thankful for:

·        I’m in the home stretch.

I have so much to be thankful for.

Friday, November 21, 2014

First Person, Present Tense

How do I improve the “immediacy” of my novel? The request has me thinking. Do I go with first person point of view over third person? There are advantages and disadvantages.

I like third person. It goes a long way in shaping the story. I can reveal information and have multiple characters speak their minds. Important stuff on the way to developing theme, motivation, as well as action. Works well for the new writer.

But, I can see how first person shines the spotlight on the protagonist and forces his or her character formation to take center stage. A pretty good thing for me to consider.

However, what becomes problematic about this quest for “immediacy” is the use of present tense over past tense for my verbs.

Using present tense flies in the face of most writing advice. To avoid fuzzy abstractions and passiveness, I get lots of encouragement to “swat your Bs.”

The Bs in this case: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, and been.

I’m currently reading two books for local book clubs that feature first person, present tense: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro. I’m finding lots of Bs in both books. Lots. But they don’t appear to stand in the way of developing action or story. Every once in a while, there’s a really awkward sounding sentence that makes me pause and reread. Not good for the flow of the narrative, but then I am being picky.

I have to be picky if I’m going to consider such a drastic change in my manuscript. After all, it is one thing to practice first person, present tense in a small piece such as a blog post, it’ll be quite another to keep it up for an entire novel. 

And what about all those other voices I want to hear from? Those voices I feel the need to hear from. I have to find a way for them to speak their minds and add other dimensions to my work, more layers of meaning.

Such is my experiment in progress for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

Wish me luck. I’ll need it. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Focus Group

Last weekend I attended a focus group meeting for the Midwest Writing Center.

We had a good discussion of MWC's present programs and services and gave our thoughts on what we might want in the future.

When I got home, I decided to go through my pile of MWC workshop folders and handouts.

I’ve saved everything since I started attending events in 2008. I like to dig them out every once in a while, sort through them, and see if I can throw anything away. Never happens. It's all good reference material for some part of my writer's journey.

The current finds:
·        Jane VanVooren Rogers's tips on editing, 2008.
·        Vonda N. McIntyre's manuscript preparation, 2010.
·        Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction, 2011.

Five years from now--the MWC needs to be right here fulfilling its mission so the shy, quiet people in the back of the room can continue to develop and grow into real writers.

Survey question #10: How will the world be a better place when MWC fulfills its mission?

My answer: When my book is finished, published, and for sale.

My husband’s answer: The world will be a better place with a community of fully aware and independent thinking readers and writers.

He had the better answer.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tighten, Tighten, Tighten!

I spent last week editing down a submission for Chicken Soup for the Soul. This lead came from a recommendation on the Funds for Writers website. Apparently a lot of people have their first freelance writing sales with this series.

The topic for the prospective book I was aiming for: Hope and Miracles.

I thought I had my story in pretty good shape from an earlier essay submission that didn’t pan out. No rejection via standardized email, just nothing. Not unexpected from a national magazine that would have had thousands of entries.

The website for Chicken Soup for the Soul had guidelines for its submissions: what they should be—what they should not be. The final note: Tighten, Tighten, Tighten!

I began rereading my piece smugly thinking, “This won’t need much tightening. I’ve been over it lots times already.”

My writing style usually involves a rough draft with a great many rounds of rereading, rewriting, taking a break, and then doing it all over again—more times than I care to keep track of.

When I began reviewing my essay, I was initially dismayed with the mistakes I found. So much for my proof reading ability. (I definitely need to develop a better eye—or hire someone.) I kept at it. Every time I would think “This is it. I can’t go any further,” I’d take a break and come back to find more spots where I could make cuts and not hurt anything, even make it clearer, stronger.

The editing took my word count from 1125 to 979 over two days. It became a personal contest with each reread: What can I take out? How much fat could there be? Do I really need that?

Stephen King’s book On Writing strongly encourages taking out 20 percent. My trimming took out 146 words for 13 percent.

First to go, those pesky and unneeded adjectives and adverbs: big, quickly, etc. Next, those dangling independent and dependant clauses I have a habit of inserting—not needed. The real prizes—whole sentences. Windfalls to stringent editing.

Tighten, Tighten, Tighten! Probably a good motto for all short stories and flash fiction. However, I’m not going to go overboard for my novel. I need to keep those extra juicy little tidbits of color and drama to make things interesting—at least for now.

I mention this journey because this philosophy of economy, this appeal for brevity runs totally opposite to what’s needed for National Novel Writing Month. The first rule for NaNoWriMo is: turn off your internal editor and write, write, write!
I’m glad I got the editing out of the way last week. Now is the time to write with abandon.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Writing Rituals

Long ago, I developed a ritual where I had to clean and straighten things up before starting a new craft project. For better or worse, that process has been extended to my writing.

National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo, starts soon and my writing space hasn’t looked this good since I moved in three years ago. It took two days, but every EFS (Exposed Flat Surface) has been cleared of extraneous clutter and contains only the essential stuff for the writing mission ahead.

·        I have my main desk devoted to book materials: notes, character studies, background info, etc.
·        Another desk is cleared out so it can act as a staging area.
·        I dusted my reference shelves.
·        Pads of clean paper are close at hand—should I need to jot down some profound thoughts while away from the computer.
·        The plant area is organized so all I have to do is remember to add the water.
·        The emergency stash of Halloween candy is tucked away. That I will remember.

Cleaning is a wonderful tradition. I’ve found all kinds of things that were missing from my life. Like some extra mechanical pencils—my favorites. More pads of sticky notes—all colors. Projects I need to finish up before Christmas—gifts and such.

The list could go on, but I will stop. It’s time to go off and write. 1667 words per day will not magically appear without some effort.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Night of Poet Laureates

I attended the Midwest Writing Center’s fundraising event that featured Mary Swander and Kevin Stein, Iowa and Illinois poets laureate.

It was my birthday and I chose to celebrate with poetry.

The poets were introduced by Dick Stahl, Quad Cities own poet laureate and frequent Writer’s Studio attendee. He read his own piece written to commemorate this joint appearance. As he read, I waited for him to mention the Mississippi River. I knew from experience how he liked to insert the great river into his poems whenever possible. I wasn’t disappointed. Toward the end, he allowed it to flow through.

What followed was a round robin of poems between Ms. Swander and Mr. Stein, each introducing their selection and placing it within the context of their lives in the Midwest.

Everything went smoothly until what should have been the last poem delivered by Mr. Stein. It was a dog poem. Ms. Swander felt compelled to respond with one last dog poem of her own. I’ve seen this before. Dogs and cats seem to have that effect on poets.

A question and answer period followed and I was taken by one of the last asked: What do you have on your nightstand?

Ms. Swander talked about the poems and a biography of Emily Dickinson she was currently reading, saying she liked to study authors in depth.

Mr. Klein came to the podium and kind of sheepishly admitted he wasn’t reading any poetry at the moment and actually hadn’t for quite a while. He had read a lot of poetry in his earlier years and now was more focused on his own work. If anything were on his nightstand, he said it would have to be a newspaper. Newspapers supplied him with all the information and prompts he needed to spark ideas for his work.

I really liked his response, both as an endorsement for keeping newsprint around and for making a commitment to his own creativity and voice.

Being creative and having a unique voice—things we all aspire to as writers. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Radio Advice

I have to attend the funeral for my mother-in-law, Christina, on Saturday and in order to have a blog post ready for this Friday I knew I needed help—maybe even a miracle.

The radio came through with a miracle.

I don’t always make myself listen to WVIK every weekday morning to catch Garrison Keillor’s broadcast of The Writer’s Almanac. But on Thursday I tuned in late and only caught the tail end, the part where he recites a poem. I went online to read about what I had missed. Then, on a whim, I went to the previous day’s transcript, the day when my mother-in-law passed away after a nearly week long struggle. I was totally surprised to find writing advice that was very pertinent to my novel.

This is what I read:
It's the birthday of novelist P.G. Wodehouse (books by this author), born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in Guildford, England (1881).

He said: "Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start.

I think the success of every novel — if it's a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, 'Which are my big scenes?' and then get every drop of juice out of them.

The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through?

I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, 'This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,' you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them."

I do believe in signs and this one came as a wonderful surprise. I will try to make the most of it—in Christina’s memory.

The Writer's Almanac:

Friday, October 10, 2014

Reviewing Rewrites by Word Count

First Draft: 50,365
Take 2: 50,628
Take 3: 30,125

The first draft of my novel came together for the 2010 National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. As I’ve mentioned before, I reached the 50K word goal, but the work definitely failed to come together as a novel. I had bits and pieces of character development, some scenes worth salvaging, and two endings. The next two attempts at rewrites didn’t progress very far and I abandoned it for the most part.

Version 4.0: 5,832
Version 4.1: 18,718
Version 4.2: 42,515

The Version 4s started over and slowly progressed with renamed characters and a reworked plot. My biggest failings were still pretty much the same as before—revealing too much too soon and assuming the reader would know as much as I did about the life and times of the Bishop Hill of my imagination. Not so good by any count.

Version 5.0: 48,146
Version 5.1: 59,485
Version 5.2: 66,832

Version 5 and beyond were definite improvements thanks to loads and loads of the small rewrites and little tweaks I inserted whenever and wherever the mood struck. Better in a lot of respects, but I knew the end result wasn’t necessarily a smooth product.

Version 5.3: 68,503

Version 5.3 was produced during the 2013 NaNoWriMo marathon month of writing. I joined a writing group at Books-A-Million and sat in the coffee shop with a paper printout of V5.2 and totally retyped the whole thing. That had the advantage of finding many of the rough spots and as well as adding new material. I thought this version good enough to send out with agent query letters.

Version 5.5: 69,252 (ongoing)

Version 5.5 is what I’m working on now using some feedback from a potential agent. I was asked for “polish” and “immediacy.”

I think I know what “polish” means. It’s all the little technical things I wasn’t sure about and had glossed over because a copy editor would probably fix them for me. Sometime. Down the road. Well, this is down the road and I have to deal with them.

“Immediacy” will be a bit trickier. This seems to be more of a style and substance issue. This is improving my characters and their interactions. This is me improving the character arc for my protagonist. This is getting all my ducks in a row from subtle clues to the final denouement.

Fortunately for me, Version 5.3 was fun and less of the hard work of all the previous attempts. Version 5.5 is also shaping up to be much easier and more enjoyable. I hope this means I’m finally getting the hang of this novel writing thing. It would be nice because the next NaNoWriMo is coming up and my tentative title is: Book Two.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Humour (US humor) n. the quality of being amusing… [OED]

I didn’t let the fun stop with the old lady. Not me, the other one. The one I mentioned in last week’s blog post.

For better or worse, I tried to interject humor into my novel. I attempted some jokes, made some puns, and retold an unusual story.

For instance, I had fun with one particular name by using it—a lot.

Again, it started early on when I got bogged down with creating Swedish names for my characters. I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes—name wise, but trying to invent clever new ones was taking up too much time. It was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and I had to get my daily quota of 1667 words. So, instead of going with the unusual or the rare, I went with the maximum common. I swear that at one time I was told there were three main families at some point in the early days of Bishop Hill. In a stroke that combined inspiration and desperation, I turned them all into Anderson’s. If you check out a Quad City telephone book, an antiquated paper one, you’ll find page after page of Andersons. I opted for safety in numbers and maybe a little tribute to The Matrix. So far I’ve kept most of those Andersons alive and well.

Then I decided to continue the fun for one Anderson in particular. I was inspired by someone who, at one time, made a creative change to his name. I used that idea to turn a character’s middle name into a running gag. I just took the letter “J” and came up with as many substitutions as I could. Of the many possibilities, here are just a few: jerk, jinx, jealous, jovial, jolly, jester, juvenile, justice, and journey. I made three or four jokes before I had to give the poor guy a break, apologize, and promise to stop.

At another point in the book, I have a scene with vigilantes hiding in the shadows. Something similar to that really happened, not like I have written it, but in the ball park, so to speak. I heard about it well after it happened, so by that time it seemed humorous to me. I’d like to think that using it in the book lets me remember a couple of guys who went out of their way to help us all out.

These are the main points where I tried to add a humorous twist to the story and some color through conflict for a few characters. They do say that humor is subjective: What is funny for one person is not funny at all for another. I imagine some of my attempts at humor will come across better than others—or maybe not at all.

All I can say is, “I had to try.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

What About Age

Last month, I quizzed my Galva Beta reader about age. I showed her a newspaper clipping about a 101-year-old man who still went in to work a few days every week.

She had seen it.

I mentioned the centenarian I saw on a late night TV show. The lady was thin, frail looking, but was cracking jokes and holding her own.

She hadn’t seen that.

She also hadn’t heard of the Delany sisters. Bessie Delany lived to 104 and her sister Sadie to 109. Their book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, was a best seller in the 90s.

She did know of a Galva woman who made it 103 and about the other lady who escaped from a Galva senior center. It wasn’t much of an escape; she wanted lunch in Bishop Hill, so she got into a car and drove away. Not sure whose car it was, but it certainly shocked the staff and some relatives. She got her lunch and a chauffeured ride back to Galva.

My point: out there in the mass of humanity are folks called super agers. They are oldsters who have lively brains for their age. They are mobile, intelligent, and interesting.

I have to believe in them, because I used one to get my story going. I named her Pearl Mabel after my grandmother.

Originally, I dreamed up this character in desperation. I was barely into the first couple of chapters of my book when I started to get too tired and too confused with trying to describe how someone’s great-great-great-grandfather interacted with someone else’s great-great-great-grandfather. I probably could have found other ways of coping with this problem, other writers certainly had, but I settled on my super ager to span the gap in time and never looked back.

I’m not a bit sorry. She’s been fun. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Dreaded Synopsis

Making mistakes. Fixing those mistakes. Definitely not the most fun thing in the world to have to do. But sometimes that is the reality.

I’m not talking about grammar here. Or plot. Or style. My most recent lapse in judgment involves thinking that I could write a synopsis without looking up some examples.

What I’ve learned so far:

·        Don’t produce a laundry of characters. It isn’t necessary. Introduce the main characters and limit the number to five or six. Put each name in capitals when first mentioned.

·        Do show the protagonist’s progression through the three acts of the story.

·        Make sure there are at least three acts. And yes, this includes a conclusion. No teasers. No coy hints or allusions to the ending. No cheating.

·        Create a narrative written in present tense, third person. Each paragraph needs to flow logically into the next. If switching ideas, build a transition to connect the paragraphs. Use the same writing style as the book itself.

·        Give a clear idea of what it’s all about. Define conflicts and convey what’s at stake for the characters. What will be won or lost.

·        Do have an opening hook to capture interest. Avoid grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes.

In short, make an effort to find out what’s acceptable to the industry and don’t try to wing it—it will save time and aggravation.

And check out Writer’s Digest for well-written examples by Chuck Sambuchino.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Scalzi on Writing

John Scalzi said it was good to be back at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. It had been seven years, seven eventful years, since he’d been there. Best selling books, awards, and hinted at television deals gave him an overflow audience on a cool, rainy evening.

My goal was to see the well-known author, hear about the new book, buy a copy, and hopefully get back to Davenport without getting too wet or running into any wildlife. I came away with a bit more.

I particularly liked Scalzi’s explanation of how he used “the new normal” for building the reality for Lock In, his new book. In setting the scene for his reading, he explained how “the new normal” meant the ensuing acceptance of unusual situations after the passage of time. It’s a function of human adaptability. For this book, it meant years after the survivors of a viral plague, who’d been locked inside physically useless bodies, had become, by virtue of technology, normal parts of society. So normal that, in chapter five, finding a new apartment was an inconvenience and not an insurmountable big deal for remotely controlled androids.

The phrase really hit home for me. I spent over a year going to grief recovery meetings where it was used a lot, but in relation to adjusting to life without a loved one. I hadn’t thought about how important it would be for crafting a fictional setting in a make-believe world.

I appreciated the fact that he didn’t use outlines. Redshirts took five weeks to write. He said he went with the flow and cleaned it up later; making it look like that’s how it was meant to be all along. I know the process, but never at that speed or with those results.

I also liked his comments about how hard he worked to get the teenage girl’s voice for Zoe’s Tale. A lot of feminine feedback led to a lot of rewrites and eventually to some major honors.

It was a rare opportunity for me to see and listen to John Scalzi. The rain slowed the trip home down to a crawl in some places, but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Beta Readers

What I needed from my Beta readers:
·        They couldn’t be overly nice. Writing has to develop and grow—“It’s all great,” won’t make that happen.
·        They had to point out the weaknesses, the things that dropped them out of the narrative.
·        They had to tell me the truth. Will the parts make up a greater whole?
What I’ve gotten back from them so far—the gamut between great, insightful responses and…nothing.

My husband has been my first reader ever since I became brave enough to let someone else in on my writing.

He started out his college career as an English literature major before the sciences won him over.  He has always been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, as well as history and economics, to name a few of his interests. I trust his experience and expertise. He’ll always be my first reader, but I needed more variety.

Since I’ve waited a few years to get to this point with my first novel, I figured I had to count my adult sons among my Beta readers. It would be a stretch; they spent their teen years playing video games and reading science fiction and fantasy novels like their dad. What I’ve written wouldn’t be their cup of tea, but I would especially value remarks related to dialogue and current technological aspects. They were good sports and agreed to give it a go.

I chose two other readers who have roots in the Bishop Hill/Galva area. Both of these people are knowledgeable readers with writing experience. I wanted them to let me know if the tone and themes rang true, or if I went too far off base to be believable.

My husband got back to me first with corrections and suggestions. He probably felt a little pressure, but it worked out for me. I used his feedback right away.

My kids got started, but didn’t finish. I need to find out how far they’d gotten before their work and travel got in the way.

Another reader got part way through, but couldn’t finish because of a variety of things that included having a body part replaced. Ouch! She still gave me some good stuff.

The last reader is MIA. To be fair, she warned me. But it’s in my nature to be ever hopeful.

I spent a lot of time over these choices for Beta readers and I will make due with the feedback I receive. I know I will owe them a lot for their time and care. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Butterflies & Writing Opportunities

I’ve had Monarch butterflies on the brain since last April when I read about their decline in several local print articles. People were encouraged to plant waystations that contained nectar sources and host plants for that species. The timing was perfect for me and I got on board.

The point I want to make—not only did I plant my new flower bed with the needed plants—I wrote about it.

I began with a letter to the editor that expressed my appreciation for the original news item and told how it influenced me. I took time to make sure it was concise and as grammatically correct as I could manage, and then sent it off.

Not such a big thing. But remember: this was writing practice.

Things that get printed in the newspapers, like press releases for clubs or organizations, get noticed and can potentially lead to bigger things. The best outcome would be the feature article. Newspaper editors love a story written in a timeless fashion. They are important for filling in empty spaces. Becoming one of an editor’s reliable sources would never be a bad thing.

All this was part of my progression: I got my writing out there and seen by more people; by working with an editor, I developed useful skills for the writing craft; and I built a resume.

Then there’s the nice little ego boost of seeing your name as a byline in print.

It’s all good.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Library, the Book Club & the Banned

Reading is vitally important for becoming a writer and reading a wide range of well written books provides an excellent background of skills to draw upon. But for the past few of years, I focused my reading into a narrow range: first novels. I wanted to see how the author started out. How a series began. Get an idea of how they developed their craft. It was helpful, but limiting.

Last January, in an effort to read more of a variety, I joined two groups—one for books and one for short stories—both meet at the Fairmont branch of the Davenport Public Library.

The group that gets together for the discussion of short stories also serves up sweets, hence the name, Shorts and Sweets. Food must bring out the best in people, because attendance is always high and so is the participation. I’m exposed to so much thoughtful literary introspection I could swear I’m in a college class. I always learn something. The treats are a nice bonus.

I can’t fault the selection. I’ve liked some of the short stories so much that I’ve had to share them with others. Free Radicals by Alice Munro was a recent example. The way the elderly protagonist turned the tables on her adversary still makes me smile. A very clever treat.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is another example of good writing that impresses, stirs the imagination, and satisfies the need to be exposed to quality writing.

My favorite passage: “Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.”

To me, that quote speaks volumes about writing, the unique journey between the beginning and the end, and why every book has value.

However, instead of discussing artistic merits of The Book Thief at the last meeting of the West End Book Club, we spent most of the time on the topic of banned books.

The young protagonist of The Book Thief rescued a banned book from the ashes of a Nazi bonfire. The image of flames brought the group’s discussion to the recent riots in Missouri and how the banning of books still goes on there and in many other states and communities in our free country. Here are a few lists to check out:

I’ve read quite a few of those books. Some made no impression and I have to wonder why they were ever found offensive. Others have disturbed me. And others have stretched my world and challenged my definition of right and wrong, good and evil. I’m not the worse off for having read any of them. I’m still a mild-mannered Midwestern soul who will say “Hello” to anyone who crosses my path.  

I am thankful that Davenport, my new home, is not on any of those lists. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

What’s in a Title?

Picture Perfect seemed like a good working title for my mystery. I liked the play on picture, as in artwork, and on perfect, as it related to Erik Jansson—he wanted so much to be perfect. (Don’t we all.) It would be good enough for the short term.

I knew going in that it couldn’t last, a quick Google search confirmed that it’s been used quite a few times.

Unfortunately, good enough had to do for some time because nothing else came to me.

While working on some thoughts about who was on the inside and who was on the outside, as in society and the art world, I made a mistake in typing. My typo: Outsider morphed into Oursider.

I almost corrected this transposition of letters automatically without thinking, but I stopped and took a few moments to take in the significance. Oursider as a term sure seemed to fit the tone for one of my characters. He had his own lifestyle, his own way of creating art. He had a way with words and could certainly use the label: Oursider Art. I decided I had to keep the typo and work with it.

After a little experimentation, I thought it best to divide the word and the book title became Our Side of Perfect. That’s what I’ve been using in my query letters and it will have to do—unless something better comes along.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Named Characters

I made a list of my named characters and did a head count: twenty-seven.

I didn’t start out with twenty-seven. I began with the main ones, ten or so, and just kept adding people as I needed them.

Since twenty-seven amounts to a fair number of folks to keep track of, early on, I went to great lengths to make up a chart, complete with pictures, to keep them all straight. It’s been very helpful.

My list includes two historical figures, long deceased. One comes back to an elderly woman in dreamlike flashbacks—he sets the stage for the fictional mystery. Another is only talked about in passing, but you could say—he is the key to the mystery.

My list includes two dogs with very different personalities: one’s an opportunistic beggar, while the other one’s protective and therapeutic.

Obviously, the protagonist tops the list, along with the main ally and a few important, but lesser, allies.

The villains are equally important. So much so, that I became reluctant to get rid of any of them. Why waste a nasty character? A good villain ought to come back and do more villainy at some point.

That leaves the many minor characters. The funny thing I discovered about them—they can grow on you.

I had several minor characters who started with small walk-on parts who came back to do more important things. They surprised me on more than one occasion by being useful and wise.

What I don’t include on this list of named characters are the towns in Henry County I used for settings. I went out of my way to use as many as I could, because, as a former long-time resident, they’re all important to me.

First of all, Bishop Hill. I wouldn’t have a story without it. I thought about changing the name, but I’m glad I didn’t. I just fictionalized it to suit my narrative needs. Make believe is fun, but the real thing can be discovered any time someone wants to be a tourist.

Second, Galva. I shopped there, my kids went to school there, and many friends live there still. I only wish I could have used it more. Maybe next time.

Cambridge, Alpha, Altona, and the interconnected back roads all play important parts.

And there are more—my list keeps on growing. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Two More Reasons to Write

I finally got around to checking out The River Cities’ Reader’s 2014 short fiction contest: I’m with the Banned.

Out of the 20 listed prompts, I found a two I liked well enough to sit down and work with for a couple of days. The 250 word limit was a challenge, but that was the general idea.

I developed my story and wrote it in first person. I’d been meaning to try an experiment, so I rewrote it in third person. I’m going to test the results out at Saturday’s Writer's Studio at the Midwest Writing Center.

My next writing experiment came to me by way of Funds for Writers, a website devoted to helping writers to actually make money with their words.

I perused July 25th issue and found a freelance opportunity that suited me. I liked the idea of retelling a fairy tale and had been thinking of doing something kind of like that anyway. I don’t know about you, but I can spend a lot of time thinking about doing something without actually doing that something in any kind of timely manner, if at all. Well, this opportunity came with a deadline. And this deadline was four days away.

I asked myself, “Can you do this?”

The answer, “Sure.”

I spent one day in deep preliminary thinking and attending to miscellaneous matters, but the following three days were devoted to serious writing and frantic rewriting. I made the deadline with a story I found fun to write and which suited my needs. I’ll get their response after Aug. 15th.

So, my word count was 500 for the flash fiction and 3400 for the subversive fairy tale.

A total of 3900 pretty good words made for a pretty good week.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cozy is the Word

I’ve finally found out how this novel of mine should be classified. Before, when asked what I was working on, I said simply, “It’s a mystery.” Now, I know better. I know more. It’s a cozy mystery.

I discovered my category while looking up definitions for the kind of work agents were requesting and found a list of classifications in mystery fiction. And there it was—cozy.

According to Wikipedia, the cozy mystery is a subgenre of crime fiction with the following aspects:

·        “Sex and violence is downplayed or treated humorously.”  

That’s me.

·        “The crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.”

That’s me.

·        “The detectives in such stories are nearly always amateurs.”

That’s me.

·        “The emphasis is placed on puzzle-solving over suspense.”

That’s me.

·        “Focus on hobbies or occupations are all frequent elements of cozy mysteries.”

That’s me.

·        “Must like cats and dogs.”

Okay, it didn’t actually say that, but it could have. It’s still me.

Now that I know my niche and its proper title, I have to admit—I’m comfy with cozies.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My Three Step Plan

One of my Beta readers sent me a compliment. She liked my dialogue. It was very kind of her and very much appreciated.

I responded by explaining a little about my three steps to building a scene.

When I first begin blocking out a scene, I think about what I want to accomplish and how best to advance the plot. Then I chose the characters I need. Since I’ve gotten most of my characters developed to the point I can hear them when they speak—I let them. Step one: I run through the scene with dialogue.

After I get a good sense of who’s saying what, who’s placing the important clue, who’s dropping the snarky remark, who’s making a joke—I get on with step two: making them move around within a defined space.

Step two takes awhile. I blame it on my high school English teacher, a no-nonsense WWII vet who marked down any padded writing that crossed his desk. It left me with a natural inclination for sparseness and brevity, good traits for a short story or an essay, but not so much for a novel. In a novel, the reader wants more details about everything.

As hard as it is for me, after I get the furnishings in the room, the room in a building, and the building in Bishop Hill, I’m faced with my most difficult task—step three: giving them emotions.

Seriously, at an early point, I considered the merits of an autistic protagonist. But I kept at it using the feedback I was given in workshops, writing groups, and from my primary reader, my husband.

Every time I revisit a scene I find something to fix, improve, and polish. All the little changes build up to enrich and add more depth. It reminds me of layers of varnish and wear on an old table, part of the whole that sets it apart, makes it unique.

This three step plan works most of the time. Once in awhile, one of my characters will take off on their own. I have to follow. It usually works out for the best. I’ve discovered that I need to pay attention to their dialogue. They know what they’re talking about.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pie in the Sky or Becoming Unstuck

Blocked. Stuck. Waiting for the Muse. Every writer has to develop ways to overcome the obstacles to writing. Here are a few of the things that I have tried:

·        Lie down for a nap
·        Go for a drive
·        Take a walk
·        Weed a flower bed
·        Cook something

I know what you’re thinking—laying down for a nap is pure hedonism. I’ll admit there’s a certain element of indulgence involved, but more often than not, it works out in my favor. I’ll be stewing over a scene, a bit of dialogue, or need some character development and when I close the door, darken the room, and tune out the world my subconscious mind kicks in and the answers come to me. It’s pretty neat when it works. On those other times, I wake up refreshed and ready to go back to work.

Going for a drive is another way to get to the subconscious, but I can’t do it the way I used to when I lived in Bishop Hill. Back then it was a 15 minute drive to Galva, 25 minutes to Kewanee, and 40 minutes to Galesburg. Since the roads didn’t usually have that much traffic, I could shift the mental gears to automatic and let the brain wonder a bit. (Unless it was deer season of course and you have to stay with the here and now.)

Since moving to the big city, I can’t drive like that anymore. I’m watching the cars in front of me, on either side, and behind. I’m waiting for the lights to change and trying not to get lost. Definitely not the time to relax and seek the Muse.

That leaves the healthiest choice—walking. I walk. I get ideas. I solve problems. I get exercise. What’s not to like?

I do think walking in Bishop Hill was easier. I walked to the post office. I walked to work. I walked to visit people. I walked for lunch. It was much easier to get “out and about” as an old coffee buddy used to say.

Bishop Hill had the ideal set up. The centrally located green space, actually a state park, was perfect for walking laps. Once around the park was a quarter mile loop. Work your way out to the next circle of streets and you added another quarter mile. Because of Bishop Hill’s smallness, there were only two more loops to be had, so you could work up to a mile and a half. Anything more required some creativity or branching off onto the country roads.

I’m getting better at taking walks in the city. I’m finding my way around the local neighborhoods. I can make it to the closest shopping center, the big mall, and even the YMCA. 

The last items on my list can explain themselves. The cooking, and the eating, can be healthy—or not.

Now, my main outlet is making gluten free bread. A much better alternative to what I used to call the “Bishop Hill pie diet.” Imagine the three o’clock doldrums within easy reach of five restaurants and their dessert menus. It often gave me an added incentive to walk the long way home and ponder other scenarios and better choices. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Pitches, Blogs & Microphones

I went to the pitch sessions I’d signed up for at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference and a funny thing happened—I did okay.

Yes, I gave each one my best shot. I answered questions and made my points about character arcs, conflicts, and themes; filled my allotted ten minutes with thoughtful conversation about my novel; and came away amazed.

I don’t think I could have done that even a few months ago. If asked the simplest question: What’s it about? I would have been hard pressed to say anything coherent.

So what’s changed?

For one thing—this blog.

I’ve been working on these weekly articles about the novel since April and I believe they’ve made me become better acquainted with my own work, in part and in whole.

It wasn’t an intended goal. I just felt I was far enough along with the process that I could write about it for awhile. It seemed like a good idea.

The second thing that’s changed—I’ve done more public readings.

Most recently, I went to the conference gathering at Rozz-Tox in Rock Island. Following the faculty readings, the mic was open to conference attendees, so I signed up. I chose to read some poems. A brave thing to do, since I’m NOT a poet. I figured with one good free verse poem and three short limericks I could get up, practice speaking, and get out of the way fairly quickly.

Microphones are wonderful things, especially that one—once I got it into position. I stepped up, spoke into it, and could be heard. And by the comments I received afterward, appreciated.

Strange things happen all the time. A simple cat poem can become a confidence builder.

A Cat’s Ode to the Left-Over Pot Roast
By Mary Davidsaver

Eat a cow?
Eat it now?
It may be cold.
It may be old. it anyhow.

(You had to have been there.)

So, my pitches weren’t perfect, but I did well enough for an agent to request fifty pages. At this stage of the game, that’s a win.

Pretty cool stuff for a shy person.