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.