Monday, April 26, 2010
Do you believe in ghosts? Asking this question will make most people relate a ghost story, sometimes from their childhood. They immediately say they DON'T believe in ghosts, not really. It's not like anyone has ever proven that there are ghosts.
But some things don't need to be scientifically proven for people to believe in them. People throw salt over their shoulder when they spill it. Not that they believe it's bad luck exactly, but why take chances? There are hundreds of things that we believe in that haven't been proven - like shamrocks being good luck - and weather prediction. (ouch!)
But can we explain why we have those strange feelings when we walk into a house? Those creepy little sensations like someone is watching us? And what about the photos of ghosts that crop up from time to time? Are those real?
Most people either know someone who has seen a ghost or believe they have seen a ghost. They believe in otherworldly activity. Most people believe they have spoken with their dead loved ones, even if they haven't seen them.
I can't debate who's telling the truth and who isn't. But I've seen ghosts. The first one was my great-grandmother when I was about 5 years old. Was she real? I don't know for sure, but I believe she was.
The paranormal will always interest us, with or without the benefit of scientific approval. Maybe we all want to believe that the people we love are still with us. Maybe we see it as our own kind of immortality.
The question is always - Do YOU believe in ghosts?
A Timely Vision
Paranormal Mystery from Berkley - May 4
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
I never thought becoming a writer would change my life so much. I have met so many wonderful people in the 11 years since my first book was published. Terry Prather (pictured with me and Jim at the Friends of the Library luncheon in Kannapolis, NC on Tuesday is one of them.
She is a dynamo, keeping her library going, setting up programs for writers and readers, inspiring people and listening to her library patrons.
She has sent strangers my way, telling them what a wonderful person and writer I am, showing them my books at the library. She has helped me with research and listened when I complained about things I thought weren't fair.
She is a sweetheart and I am glad to call her my friend. One of many people I didn't know were out there until I took up the pen to write.
Wise people have always said that it is the journey that matters as we travel to our destinations in life. Terry, and other friends like her, make me believe.
A Timely Vision
Berkley - May 4
Saturday, April 17, 2010
“Benjamin! Watch our for the mommy!” fussed his mother before apologizing to me.
She kept on scolding, “Honey, you can’t just go running through the store with the cart! You could have hurt this mommy.”
I was—quickly—walking away by this point, but I was struck by the fact that the woman had pegged me, twice, as a mother.
As far as I’d known, I hadn’t put on a “Hello, My Name is Mommy” nametag before leaving the house.
I didn’t have a child with me.
But—I was at the grocery store in the middle of the morning on a work day. I didn’t look at all professional—I wore my usual uniform of a cotton v-neck tee shirt, shorts, and flip flops. And I’m sure I looked distracted— par for the course for most moms. I hadn’t slept well (which is completely normal for me) so there were circles under my eyes. I had “Mini-Moos” green and yellow yogurts in my cart and “Goldfish”-type crackers.
The clues were all there, despite the lack of children.
That’s what I’m aiming for with my character descriptions. I want the clues to be there. I want the reader to pick up on the hints and feel clever about their deductions.
Some things have to be told, but it’s a lot more fun planting clues about our characters for the readers to discover.
Next time I’m at the store, I’m wearing a dress, though.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
There's nothing like cracking open a new book that you've waited for by an author you love. I like to buy books and hurry home to sit and read in a quiet corner somewhere.
But I also love old books. They have a romance and flavor to them that is very attractive. They have been well worn and loved, in any cases. And I'm always eager to see what's inside - not just the words either.
I've found shopping lists in old books. Probably used as a book mark and forgotten. I found a love letter once that was started but never finished. The words haunted me for months, wondering who Rosa was and if her friend ever got up the courage to tell her he loved her.
I've found parking tickets, report cards, memos about going to the vet or the eye doctor. These sneak peeks into other people's lives, people I will probably never meet, are always interesting.
I know some people believe it is wrong to sell these old books - after all, we don't get royalties more than once. But I would have missed so much by not reading them that I hate to think I'll never see another.
The last book I bought, Roses Love Garlic by Louise Riotte, had a pressed rose in it. It is a story in itself. I'll probably wonder about how and when it got there (and make stories up about it) for a long time to come.
A Timely Vision
from Berkley - May 4
Thursday, April 8, 2010
I love festivals! I don't care if they're wine festivals, like the one I'll be at on April 17 with Elizabeth Craig and Kathleen Delaney (The Carolina Conspiracy) or if they're at gold mines or farmer's markets. Going to festivals with my books is a relaxed, happy atmosphere to meet readers.
Some of my favorite memories have been at festivals. I've met so many people while talking about giant radishes or comparing notes on historical happenings. Some of them read my books--some don't. Many pick up a few while we're talking. We compare our favorite authors and their books too.
Sometimes the atmosphere at book stores can be a little tense. People see you sitting at a table full of books and they KNOW you expect them to buy something. I worry about some of them getting whiplash, they turn away so quickly. Some of them come right up to the table then say they don't read books. Others just want to know where the bathroom is.
But at a festival, under a tent, the sun beaming down, people seem to be less fearful. They can stand around and talk for a while. They don't seem to make as many excuses. Sure, there can be weather issues, but it's worth it anyway.
It really doesn't seem to matter if your books have anything to do with the theme of the festival. I have sold dozens of NASCAR mysteries at garden festivals and garden mysteries at Renaissance festivals.
Of course, you know the Ren Fests are my favorite! Huzzah!
Writers, try a few out this spring and see how they work for you. You might be the only one with books at a crowded festival full of happy readers. These things really do happen!
A Timely Vision
May 4, 2010
from Berkley Prime Crime
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
She was a lovely person, but she wasn’t a very good teacher. She had no idea of how to impart knowledge on how to construct a story, build characters, and incorporate tension. Those things I would learn much later. But what she did do was empathize the importance of a good story. And she inadvertently introduced me to the importance of grammar in the telling of that story.
There was a man in the class who, from the first day, interrupted constantly to correct her grammar and everyone else’s. He ignored the story importance entirely and concentrated on correct sentence structure. Poor lady, she didn’t know how to stop him and fumbled around each class, trying to tell him that it didn’t really matter how correct the sentence was if it didn’t say something interesting. If it didn’t push the story line forward, didn’t build empathy for the characters, it didn’t matter if it wasn’t grammatically correct because no one was going to read it anyway. He finally dropped out.
Maybe it was because I grew up in Catholic school, back in the days when they were staffed by nuns in habits who were addicted to diagramming sentences, but I’ve always hated grammar. I didn’t really care if my participles dangled, if my page was littered with commas all in the wrong place, and if my spelling was atrocious. I was a reader; I had no thought of becoming a writer, and didn’t want all those little annoying details to get in the way of a good story.
It is only now, years later, that I realize the importance of grammar. How, for instance, a misplaced comma can impart a very different meaning to a sentence than what you had intended. That a complete sentence is not a luxury but a necessity. That misspelled words are like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle. The story stops while the reader tries to figure out just what that word was exactly and what the writer meant by it. That the best story in the world is no good if poor grammar and misspelling is so distracting to the reader that they put it down in frustration.
Where I have really noticed how distracting poor grammar and spelling can be is in comments put up on the Internet. Especially now, in this climate of vitriolic comments on the government, people of other nations, people of faith other than the commentator’s, or about their neighbor across the street, the one with the kids who dare to play on the sidewalk. The Internet is replete with comments, most of them grammatically incorrect, some of them indecipherable.
When I’m in the mood for a puzzle, I read some of them. Mostly, I don’t feel strong enough to unravel the wandering thoughts that never seem to come to any real conclusion, the lack of punctuation, and the words that are so misspelled you have to guess at them. That’s when I thank Sister Mary St Herbert for her love affair with the semi-colon and Sister Mary Katherine Patrice for her insistence on complete sentences with proper punctuation. Some of what they taught me actually rubbed off.
And I wonder, where were the sixth grade teachers of those who favor us with their thoughts on the Internet? Or are they so intent on getting their pearls of wisdom posted for the entire world to see that they don’t re-read what they have written? Maybe they have missed the button that takes you to spell check. I’m sure they don’t know what the delete button is for, or some of the things posted would come down before they go up.
One of the first things writers learn is to edit. Re-read what you have just written. Does it make sense? Do the sentences flow together to present your thought accurately, and is it a complete thought? Does that comma really belong there? Should there be a question mark at the end?
And, most importantly, if you have something to say, something you think is important, do you really want to say it in a way that makes you sound like an idiot?
More people will read your comments, or your blog, or your posted comments on Facebook than will ever read your novel, which, I am sure, you have re-read and re-written many times. So, whether you are a writer or just the person making the occasional comment, go back and re-read what you just wrote. You may want to revise that a little. Or a lot. And, in case you missed it, Spell check is under Tools on your space bar.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
That doesn’t take away any of my awe of what people in other sports achieve. For instance, I have just enough experience with skiing to know that the bunny hill is terrifying. The thought of going full tilt down those hills, either straight or weaving in and out of poles you can barely see, makes me slightly faint. And the bobsled/luge people! And—we could go on and on. They are all slightly nuts but just about the bravest and most skilled nuts I’ve ever seen.
There was a lot of commentary along those lines, but I was struck by one phrase in particular that came up often as we watched the skiers zoom down the hillsides. The commentators kept talking about “letting the skis run.” That phrase struck a cord.
So hold on, here’s where the writing analogy comes in.
Letting the skis run seems to be a sort of controlled form of pointing them downhill and hoping you stay upright until you get to the bottom.
Writing characters is a little like that. You start out with a character that seems integral to the vague idea you have for a story, and you start to build them. What is this person like? How do they look, walk, what do they sound like? What do they do for a living, why do they do that? Are they happy? Why not? Are they old? Young? Married? Dating? Athletic? A couch potato? Shy? Social? Mean? If so, does that make them evil? Or just mean? Or are they nice? Really nice, not just to impress people. What do they like to eat? And where do they like to eat it? Do they like horse racing? Or NASCAR?
Pretty soon we have a person we think we know. We may like them a lot, or not at all, but we think we know them, and we’d better. The action in our story is going to spring out of those characters, who they are and what they do in any given situation. Remember, no two people will ever act, or react, the same under the same circumstances, What will drive one person to murder may not phase another much at all. What will make one person courageous under stress may make another run for cover.
Stories are about conflict. They wouldn’t be very interesting if they weren’t. Only, sometimes, we don’t let our characters reach their full potential. We hold them back. We throw all kinds of stressful situations at them, murder, mayhem, danger of all sorts, yet we don’t let them react. There they are, little cardboard figures, going through the motions, but without the emotions so essential to telling the story.
So, when you are writing that next tense scene, let your heroine struggle to be brave. She really should be afraid to go down those cellar steps alone, so lets make sure she has a darn good reason to go, one that overrides her very justified reason to stay safely at the top. Lets see that struggle, let’s feel it. We also need to feel the reason the murderer did what he/she did, Maybe he/she is filled with rage at an injustice, perceived or real. Maybe the destructive effect of greed, or pride (remember pride goeth before a fall?) is the motive for murder, or perhaps the fear that for some reason they have boxed themselves into a corner and the only way out is murder.
Whoever they are, and whatever the motivation for their action, let your character sit on top of that hill. Let them take a deep breath, ready to take off and fly to the bottom of the hill, or the end of the story, with a heart stopping run. Go with them. Let those skis run. You’ll have a much better story, and you’ll have a lot more fun, too. So will the reader.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Y’all have caught me at a bad time—I’m really feeling the need to do some spring cleaning (it’s very springy here now in North Carolina), but I’m smack dab up against a huge deadline. Actually, make that 2 deadlines.
So I have cleaning on the brain. :)
There are certain kinds of messes that drive me crazy. If the laundry or the dishes aren’t done, I’m not going to be able to focus on anything until I’ve started a load.
Paper? It can wait a little while. But when it becomes a smallish stack, it starts bothering me, too. Plus I won’t remember to take action on whatever is on the paper if I’ve got it covered up with something else.
So this, for what it’s worth, is my method for dealing with paper:
Act on paper as soon as it comes into the house: RSVP, write the date on the calendar, pay the bill, write the check for the school yearbook, etc.
Write down all the information off the paper onto the calendar or another central location and then throw the piece of paper away.
Open the mail over the recycling bin.
My reminders go in at least one place—sometimes two. I’ve been known to lose my day planner. :)
My writing papers are gathered up at the end of each day and transcribed onto the computer.
I go as paper-free as possible. I unsubscribed myself from the junk mail people, I’ve opted for electronic bills and statements when possible, etc.
I keep only a few back issues of magazines. I can usually find the articles that interest me out of the magazines online when I need them.
Do you have a good clutter-management solution? Please share them with me! :)
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Promotion Madness - it's here again.
Of course, every author promotes all year long. But there's that special time right before and right after a new book comes out that becomes like a crazed journey to see how, where and when you should advertise for that book.
Right now, it's Promotion Madness time for A TIMELY VISION, our May 2010 mystery. The book has been out for reviews since the end of last year - check, some reviews are back and on the website which was just changed - check. Contest in place for the book and a Duck, NC tote bag - check.
Setting up book signings and other events is underway. There will be the familiar and the not familiar places. The book launch party will be the day the book comes out - if Berkley can get copies to the bookstore in time.
There will be magazine ads, local ads in the newspaper. The trailer is progressing. Booksellers have cover flats. Friends and relatives in faraway places are poised to turn all the books face out when they appear on the shelves.
Have we forgotten anything?
Every few weeks there are articles in magazines like this one from the LA Times: www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-book-tour7-2010mar07,0,5647724.story about how books should be promoted and how they are promoted. There are no exact rules to follow, no real guidelines even to know what works and what doesn't. It's a crap shoot.
Does spending a lot of money work? It all depends on who you talk to. Will it help if you get a publicist? We've had a few of those and ended up doing more than they did for a lot less money. But many authors swear by them.
I've known authors who spent thousands of dollars on ads in big glossy magazines that should have produced results. They didn't.
What's an aspiring author to do?
All you can do is read everything you can and do what you can afford. Do what feels right and move on. Will your book be an instant bestseller? Who knows. But if you find what works for you (blogging, chats, radio spots, interviews, guest shots, etc.) keep doing it and hope for the best.
If someone ever finds a sure-fire way to promote a book that leads to a bestseller, we'll all find out about it on Facebook, Twitter and other resources. Until then, I have to get back to checking off my list.
A Timely Vision
Berkley Prime Crime
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
I’ve noticed that many people I know view life through a lens.
Some of them use a political lens—they look at everything in relation to politics.
Many use religious lenses.
There are some that use a financial lens: everything boils down in terms of money.
There are egocentric lenses…how everything in life affects them.
There’s even a motherhood lens—how life’s hardships and joys affect their children or the raising of them.
The big thing that seems to set writers apart, to me, is our lens—it’s an observational one.
It doesn’t seem to be a very analytical device… we’re not so much into the why people behave the way they do as watching it happen.
I do know many different kinds of writers and there are some extroverts in the bunch, but I’d say it’s probably 90% introvert to the 10% extrovert that I know.
Most of the writers I know are happy to sit on the edges of a group or gathering and watch the people. We’re less happy being the center of attention—you can’t observe life as well when all eyes are on you. We’re the perfect bystanders.
We don’t mind the quiet.
We can get so caught up in our writing that we don’t feel self-conscious about taking notes or writing in a public place.
This filter provides us with a little distance from other people. This can be a very welcome distance. I can come across a really annoying person, but through the writing lens they come through as complex and different.
And, yes, still a little annoying. But we need those kinds of people in our books, too.
But the biggest thing that stands out to me is the watching and recording that writers do. We’re listening and looking…jotting down names of people and places, unusual situations, people’s personal conflicts. We’re sorting through ideas.
And I think this note-taking is frequently done in a nonjudgmental way—we’re just relating these life observations to readers. We’re the middlemen…we polish up our notes to make them interesting or entertaining, but it’s truth, on paper.
Do you see yourself as an observer?
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Book covers are exciting or colorful or scary. Or something in between. They have a few seconds to catch a reader's attention before that person's eye moves to something else. Your poor little book can't jump off the shelf into a reader's hand. But a good book cover can make a reader pause, thumb through, and finally buy a book.
Berkley Prime Crime does an awesome job with their covers (which you can see from my book cover from A TIMELY VISION and Elizabeth Spann Craig (writing as Riley Adams) book cover from Delicious and Suspicious).
Readers have remarked many times about how beautiful the covers are for my Peggy Lee Garden Mysteries and that the covers of the Ren Faire Mysteries made them pick up the books because they looked like fun.
Writers don't have a lot to say about their covers. Editors ask what you think as the cover is being drawn up. They ask for suggestions about the art before the cover is started. After that, it's up to the artists who design and create the book covers. They are talented and fast workers. Like everyone else on the team that gets the book ready for stores, they're on a deadline and have to finish the product to keep up with production.
I think one thing that makes Berkley covers so good is that they tend to stay away from animals and people. I don't know why, but figures don't seem to translate well to this form. The people can be too big for their surroundings or their faces can be frightening. Animals are usually just plain weird looking.
People compliment me often on my book covers. I'm not sure what to say since I had nothing to do with it. I usually mutter politely and change the subject. I can only take credit for the writing inside.
So here's to Dan Craig (www.ba-reps.com/artists/dan-craig)
and Lesley Worrell (www.covercafe.com/contest/2005/AR-res05.html)
and all the other Berkley cover artists and designers. You guys rock! You make it easy for writers to get compliments they don't deserve and to sell our books!
PS - Just for the record, I have nothing to do with the change in cover style between large print and mass market paperback either.
A Timely Vision (and another fine cover)
May 2010 from Berkley Prime Crime
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
My husband’s sister and her husband live in Africa where they work as translators. My sister-in-law speaks French fluently and perfectly accented. Her husband speaks 5 or 6 languages, including Swahili.
For years they lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Life there; apart from election violence over a year ago, living in a guarded housing compound, and occasional run-ins with police (who aren’t like our police); was pretty tame compared to life in their current home in Bunia, Congo. Congo hasn’t historically been the calmest place on the globe to live.
Their day to day life is an adventure: for fresh water, reliable utilities, and even a safe place to live. Their country is exotic…the plants and wildlife are different, the language and customs are different.
In many ways, it’s the perfect place to write. But they’re not writers.
In contrast, I look at my life in suburban America. My adventures are pretty tame in comparison. Will I find my daughter’s missing library book before it becomes overdue? Will I make my deadline? Why is the washing machine making that strange noise?
Some of us write fantasy and sci-fi and the appeal there is completely clear—it’s the escape from reality for readers.
But what about those of us who write using everyday settings about everyday people? What’s the appeal there?
I think it must be that our readers can imagine themselves in the same circumstances. That we’ve made a connection with the ordinary reader. That we’ve either 1) created people like themselves who are suddenly facing extraordinary circumstances (they’re accused of murder, won the lottery, gotten lost in a snowstorm), or 2) we’ve created extraordinary people that our readers wish they could be, but aren’t.
My two protagonists both fall under the first category, I think…ordinary people who have been put in extraordinary situations.
What about you? Do your characters fall into either category? Both? Or do you write a genre where the extraordinary part is the escape from reality?
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Maybe you've noticed those signs in front of churches. They're kind of like spiritual billboards trying to point the way to heaven in the two seconds you have to see them as you pass.
I saw one this morning that said 'The sky shall like up with fire'
hmm . . .
No one said the signs had to be correct but the editor in me always cries out for them to make sense. There's a big difference between writing what we write and writing what we mean to write.
I noticed another sign a few miles down the road (not a church sign): The Greenwood Golf Curse will be open starting May 1.
I almost went back and looked at this one again.
As writers, it isn't always easy to spot mistakes in what we write. We seem to be born with an innate skill for words and don't really notice if they need polishing or rethinking. We write what's in our heads but the words don't always make it to the paper (or sign, in this case).
And before you ask, Spellcheck can only do so much for you on this. In fact, my Spellcheck doesn't know the difference between it's and its. If I paid attention to it, I'd always be wrong.
You have to read what you've written to see these glaring mistakes. It may not be exciting but at least you'll be able to spot stupid things that shouldn't be there. Wanting it to be perfect, like saying exactly what you mean, are two different things.
It must have been the day for it, because on the way home, I saw another church sign that read: 'Are you passing threw life without God?'
There is so much wrong with that, I don't know where to start.
But I have a sign of my own that could be helpful: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO READ TO RIGHT!
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
I was in—as usual—the grocery store on Saturday afternoon. As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted with a big smile by a couple of men at a table. I did a mental groan—they wanted me to do something. Sure enough, it was time to update that plastic discount card the grocery store assigns us.
I was at the deli counter getting some ham and trying to put the little loyalty card on my keychain. One of the deli workers said, “So you got your card updated?”
And I said. “Mm-hmm. Last time I came in I just pretended I didn’t see them.” Then I’m sure I looked really cross because I don’t say things like that, I think things like that. Some evil sprite possessed me and made me say something rude.
The counter guy just laughed. “Yeah, you were probably ignoring me. Because I’ve been working that table until tonight.”
Which made me even more cross at myself.
It also made me think that frequently we’re our own worst enemies.
Writing cozy mysteries, I really like to do things on a small scale. Because of the nature of the books, I’m not doing any Hollywoodesque car crashes, explosions, or chase scenes.
I don’t have cataclysmic events in my books—no natural disasters, terrorism, or ghastly epidemics. Although I really enjoy reading books like these, they just don’t fit my genre.
A horrific day in my books? Someone’s slip of the tongue results in their murder. They knew too much.
Think of all the uses faux pas can have. Because we’ve all said things that came out wrong or that people took the wrong way.
A slip of the tongue could result in someone really getting furious with an in-law or other family member. Maybe it represented the last straw for the person—the one that made them decide to end a relationship.
Faux pas can end friendships. Maybe a friend blabbed about the protagonist’s secret. Maybe the slip is viewed as a betrayal by another character.
A slip of the tongue could result in someone getting fired. Maybe someone leaked something that their office wanted to keep strictly confidential.
Military men and women who accidentally disclose too much information involving location during a war, you’re actually endangering lives.
Think of all the politicians who end up saying, “I misspoke.” So many have said thoughtless things, or uttered racially insensitive statements when “misspeaking.”
There are so many different ways to plot around someone sticking their foot in their mouth. And the reader? They won’t think the results are unbelievable at all. Because we all make our little faux pas.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
I know that’s where I got my love of them. My father also was a great storyteller, and oh how we loved to listen to him He grew up in Pipestone, Min. and moved to Lemon, SD when he was a young man, and he made those years alive for my brother and me. They had two ponies, Barney and Dick. Those horses pulled the carriage, took my father and his brother into town and to school, and helped my grandfather plow. The stories were so real, that although I never met those horses, I feel as if I had.
Other stories weren’t so happy. My heart still stands still when I think of how Dad lost his dog, Shep. They were making the move to SD, and Dad was to ride in a boxcar with some of the livestock. He’d broken his leg right before the move, and was on crutches. The dog jumped out of the car during a brief stop, and Dad couldn’t jump out after him. The train started to move and, although Dad frantically called to him out the open boxcar door, the dog couldn’t catch up. The last he ever saw of him, the dog was chasing the train, and loosing ground. They advertised all up and down the tracks, but the dog was never found. I heard that story over sixty years ago and it still brings tears to my eyes.
The stories we loved weren’t all family tales. The Saturday Evening Post came to our house, full of all kinds of stories, but not too many my brother and I were interested in, at least not when we were really young. But there was one series we loved, and reading those stories became a beloved ritual. I don’t remember who wrote them, maybe I never knew, and don’t remember even one title, but to us, they were the Babe and Joe stories. Babe and Little Joe were children about our ages who lived with their father and their Uncle Pete on a ranch somewhere in the mid-west, I think during the depression. Uncle Pete wasn’t very respectable, to be honest, he—drank.
Their mother had died and their father was having a hard time hanging onto his land, but they all somehow made it through each story. My brother and I loved them, and each week we searched the pages for a new Babe and Joe story. If one appeared, the ritual began. The magazine was carefully put on the table beside the chair where my father sat, for one of the best parts of the stories was Dad reading them aloud. We waited impatiently for him to get home from work, then attacked him with the joyful news.
Another Babe and Joe story had come and he needed to read it aloud to all of us, right now. But of course we had to wait. There were clothes to be changed, dinner to eat, and dishes to do. Those were probably the only nights my mother got help with the dishes with absolutely no fussing from us. When all was ready, my father would take his chair, my mother would settle in on the sofa, and my brother and I would sit cross-legged on the floor. Dad would pick up the Post, carefully find the page, and begin.
I’ve wondered if the stories were really that good, or if it was the ritual we made of the reading of them that made them so special. We don’t seem to do that anymore, have those kinds of family rituals. It’s hard to gather the family around the computer, and somehow even congregating around the TV doesn’t quite make those kinds of memories. And today, there is so much out there, we are bombarded with information, social networking, twittering, texting, all kinds of things.
But they’re not stories. Really good stories, about people we like and have learned to care for, will never be replaced with a tweet. At least, I don’t think so. Short blurbs on Facebook will never reduce you to tears, ones that you remember for years, and those blurbs will never make you rejoice for someone you’ve never met when they finally achieve the goal they have been striving for. I know, we’ve all seen the atrocities that are captured by cell phone cameras, and those impressions certainly last.
But stories take us all over the world, they take us back in time, and they take us into the lives of others, They let us experience adventures we might never otherwise have, and they make us care about people we would never otherwise have met. And by doing that, hopefully they give us greater insight into our own lives and relationships. But best of all, stories are about sharing. Whether its your father telling you about his growing up or Dick Francis taking you over fences in a steeplechase in England, you are sharing, experiences and emotions both.
So, get ye to the library, or to the bookstore, or just sit down and talk to your grandma, your elderly aunt, your mom or dad or your kids, and really listen. You just might learn something about one of them you never knew before, something about your family that makes you laugh. Or cry. And, you might even find yourself saying to someone you love—“let me tell you a story.”
Monday, February 1, 2010
Alan Orloff at A Million Blogging Monkeys had a great post last week dealing with scene pacing. As he mentioned, it’s best to start a scene late in the action and end the scene early.
Otherwise, our characters start doing boring things.
My characters love doing boring things. I let them have their way with the manuscript on the first draft, but for the second? They’re not having pointless phone conversations anymore. They’re not walking to the front door, putting on their jacket, and strolling out to the car.
We don’t have to be with the character every step of the way in a book. We don’t have to sit with them through their meals, watch them do their dishes. We don’t have to be there when they go to bed at night or wake up in the morning.
Instead, we can start scenes in the middle of the action.
So instead of having my Memphis BBQ protagonist Lulu get dressed in a floral dress, eat a bowl of Fruit Loops, happily sing along with the radio, arrive at her Aunt Pat’s barbeque restaurant, and discover a body, I could do this instead:
Lulu unlocked the door to the restaurant, reached in, and fumbled for the lights, still humming that tune from South Pacific. Her keys hit the wooden floor with a clunk. There was a body in a pool of blood smack dab in the middle of the dining room.
The reader just assumes that Lulu got ready for her day. I don’t have to shadow Lulu while she decides which of her dozen floral dresses she’s going to put on for the day. The reader assumes that Lulu has gotten dressed. They know she didn’t just show up for work unclothed. And she probably had something to eat, too.
Okay, let’s say we’re spanning two days. We have one event that happens in the early evening (say Lulu finds a clue), then we have something that happens the next afternoon (a suspect is taken in for questioning.)
So Lulu has made a major discovery pertaining to the case. It’s a clue…or maybe a red herring, we don’t know yet. This is a very exciting development for the case. But I’m going to water down that exciting moment if I suddenly go into documentary mode and follow Lulu home, have Lulu turn in, have some time-filling stuff going on all the next morning, lunch, and early afternoon. I’ve just killed my exciting moment.
Instead, I’ll have Lulu’s world rocked. She’s discovered a clue—and it points to the guilt of someone close to her. Lulu’s stomach knots up. End of scene.
How do I transition to the next scene, nearly twenty-four hours later? Very simply: The next afternoon, Lulu was cleaning up after the lunch rush when two police officers strode into the restaurant.
That’s all there is to it. The reader doesn’t even really notice that time lapse…it’s as innocuous as using ‘said’ to tag conversation. Our brains just kind of register it and move on.
Right now, looking at my first draft, my characters are doing all kinds of monotonous stuff. I think, for me, it’s the writing equivalent of using ‘uh’ and ‘um’ in conversation. They’re just cleaning up, dressing, sleeping, and eating while I figure out what to do with them next.
But once I’m in second draft mode, their nonsense is all edited out. With 75,000 words, I don’t have time to waste.
Friday, January 29, 2010
Thanks to Terry Odell for guest posting today. Terry’s books straddle the mystery and romance genres and you can find out more about them here. *******************
I'm not a plotter or an outliner. I tried. Really tried. Went to all those workshops about storyboarding. But after a short time, all I could think was, "enough of this." I don't do character sheets, because that's as much of an "enough of this" exercise as plotting.
For me, writing is a matter of moving in short bursts, and keeping track of what's happened, or where I think I might want to go. But as Nora Roberts is famous for saying, "I can't fix a blank page." So I write and see what happens.
First writing of the day is looking at what I wrote the day before. It's had time to settle, and the typos tend to rise to the top. It also gives me a running start for new material. I have an on-line critique group, and if they've given me feedback, I'll decide what needs to be addressed. If they catch a plot hole, I have to fix it before going further.
Late afternoons and evenings, I write new stuff. That's simply the way my mental rhythms work out; everyone deals with their own schedules.
My current manuscript was my first straight mystery, and I thought I might drag out the storyboard again. Still a no go. But I did find I could use it to keep track of what I'd written, and also of ideas for scenes, plot points, character moments. I used two separate boards: one for the ideas, and one for tracking the story.
First came the ideas. Plain and simple, it was brainstorming. Lots of "what if" thoughts. For previous books, I'd done it on a computer document, but having the physical sticky notes to pick up and move around gave me a better visual, and made it easy to change things. As I dealt with each 'idea' I'd either toss it or put it on the story board in the appropriate chapter box.
Since I've been "trained" in romance, I tend to focus on the big GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict for each character. I would figure out what my characters wanted, why they wanted it, and why they couldn't have it. Again, a lot of trial and error. For example, in the book I just finished, the underlying motivation was for Justin to find a "secret something" (at the beginning of the book, that was enough for me) at his grandparents' home. A big question I ask myself all through the process is "why". So, why would Justin want something? And, the bigger why: Why doesn't he just ask his grandparents for it? They love him; they'd probably give it to him. So figuring out what "it" was required a lot of discarded ideas.
But I don't need to know exactly what it is right away. Heck, I didn't even know who the villain was until at least halfway through the book. I strongly believe that our subconscious minds will know, or at least lead us in that direction.
Using colored post-its made it easy to see at a glance where the story was going. I learned what I needed to track and started adding things like where the scene took place, what secondary characters appeared, what clues were revealed, what day it was, etc. I used big sticky notes for the POV characters; a different color for each. I used smaller ones for the secondary characters, locale, etc. By the end, the story board was jam-packed, and my idea board was almost empty. If I'd looked at the empty board and tried to fill in before I started writing – well, "enough of this."
So, I suppose if I had to summarize my writing technique, it would be plan a little, write a little, fix a little. Rinse. Repeat. When I finally get to "The End" I do tightening edits, but by then, the story should (note "should", not "is") be complete. After the tightening comes the polishing, where I'll find the rest of those problem children that have risen to the top. But, again I don't play by the rules. I can't write scenes out of order. If I'm waiting for feedback on a critical point, rather than write ahead and take the chance everything will unravel when I find out whether the cops can actually do what I want them to, then I'll do some polishing. Maybe I'll plug a chapter into Wordle.net and see what words I'm overusing. Or make sure my transitions are clean, or my dialogue isn't drivel.
If you want to see how my storyboard technique worked for me, there's a summary on my website. http://www.terryodell.com
Hope this helped someone – I'll be happy to answer questions. And I chat about other aspects of writing at my own blog, Terry's Place, http://terryodell.blogspot.com
Thanks so much, Terry! I love finding out how other authors plan and write their books. And that storyboard is very cool-looking—Elizabeth Spann Craig
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
For most of us? Our protagonists are fairly ordinary people—like we are. But something extraordinary happens to them, pulling them out of their routine.
The moment when the story really starts has been called the “Call to Adventure” in the hero’s journey, as detailed by author Joseph Campbell.
In my books? My characters are just minding their own business when they discover a dead body.
There are many other calls that form the genesis of stories.
Are confronted with a challenge—he must go on a dangerous trek to destroy an evil ring in a fiery volcano.
Are put in an extraordinary situation. This could be a plane crash, a sinking ship, a devastating natural disaster or a devastating manmade disaster (war, terrorism, etc.) A group of British schoolboys try to survive on an island after their plane is shot down during World War II. Or...a girl discovers a magical wardrobe is the gateway to another world.
Are asked for help. A Harvard professor gets an emergency phone call in the middle of the night. The curator of the Louvre has been murdered. Can he help solve a mysterious cipher?
Are on a quest for a treasure. Can Charlie find the golden ticket? Can he survive the tour of the factory to obtain a greater prize?
Meet their soul mate…the call of their heart. But the journey to a relationship is a rocky one. Twilight, anyone?
Realize their dream—and follow it. A girl realizes she wants nothing more than to return home. She embarks on a remarkable journey, encountering dangerous obstacles along the way.
The protagonist makes a decision—do they answer this call? Are they reluctant to accept? Are they dutiful, eager, terrified? Their reactions to the call help introduce the reader to the character.
Calls to Adventure usually come fairly early in a book. As a reader, I like knowing what direction the story is heading in—the sooner, the better.
Has your protagonist heard a call? How did he or she answer it?
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Our dog, Bear, died in 2008. He was a black lab, 15 years old (the oldest black lab our vet had ever seen). It was a terrible death because he suffered in the last few days. Then we had to make the decision to have the vet kill him (why call it putting him down?)I kept hoping he'd die during the last night so I wouldn't have to make that decision.
I held him and sobbed as he died. He'd lived a good life, I assured myself. We'd rescued him from the pound when he was barely a year old. He was my shadow after that, moving from place to place with me in the house or outside. He never deserted me.
The day he died, people started telling me I should get a new dog. I couldn't. The memory of Bear's death was too fresh and painful. I couldn't even think about it.
But last year, a friend of mine who'd lost her dog around the same time got a new dog. I started thinking about how much I missed having a dog around the house. I waited, hoping the right dog would come to me. 2009 passed without that happening.
I needed a smaller dog (Bear was very big)and a dog who'd survive being with my cat, Quincy, who is a handful. Again, I felt like the right dog would come to me. I just had to wait. Since being a published writer means being patient, this was easy.
Then Barbara from the Stanly County Animal Rescue League (SCARL) sent me some information about a dog that was found almost starved to death in a local park during a recent cold snap. She sent me a picture and I asked about him. He had the sweetest face.
Monday morning, as the newspaper was set to run a story about the dog found abandoned in the park, Barbara stopped in with him on her way back from the vet. She told me she'd never done anything like that even after rescuing 44 animals with SCARL. She apologized for pushing him on me and said she just felt like he was right for me.
It turned out that she was right. I took Rudi home that day. He's very thin (you can count every bone in his body) but he's holding his own. He hates to go outside which presents some potty issues but I think we can get over that. He's very laid back (which helps with the cat)and all he wants is some love. I can handle that part.
Of course, a new dog means new issues, especially a puppy. But when he looks up at me and wags his little tail, I know he's worth it. I will always love Bear but there is room in my heart for Rudi too.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Do you mind telling people about your WIP (work in progress)? Or does it make you grit your teeth when they ask? Do you wonder why people never ask accountants what they’re working on?
Usually, if you’re out of the writing closet, this is a question that you’re going to get from time to time. I get it pretty frequently from acquaintances who know I write.
Upside of telling them:
You get ideas—If I tell you about my WIP or you’re a first reader and you offer some ideas? I’m not shy about taking them. Sometimes you can even adapt an idea and change it into something really useful. Both Dorte and Hart have given me great ideas for two separate books (one a Myrtle, one a Memphis.) I love ideas. And they’ll be in my acknowledgments section!
You get accountability—The next time you see this person, they’re likely again to ask (right after they finish commenting on the weather), “So how is that book going? The one with the murdered supper club guest. Have you finished it yet?”
You get encouragement—“That’s a cool idea for a book. Where do you get your ideas from?”
You might not have fully formed the plot yet. You might not be able to really even say what exactly it’s about. So you halfway describe it and the person you’re talking to looks confused. Because it is confusing—it’s not a solidified plot.
You might not be in the spot where you want to share your WIP’s plot because it’s malleable. And you don’t want it transformed before you figure out where you’re trying to go with it.
When you share your idea, some people may criticize it or appear disinterested when you tell them about it. When it’s in the formative stages, that’s not fun. Then you start second-guessing your plot.
Accountability in a negative way. I’ve told people about WIPs that later ended up in my manuscript graveyard. Then every time I see these particular people, they ask about it. And it’s been 1 1/2 years since I even picked the darned thing up. I’ll tell them I put it aside to work on something else (something I was paid to write, which is always given a priority!) and they’ll say, “But I really liked that idea!” I want to tell them they’re free to write it…
Reading this over, it looks like I’m seeing more of the downside to WIP sharing. I wouldn’t have said that, going into this post. Maybe it just depends on the person I’m sharing the info with. If he’s a writer, that’s one thing (he’d understand.) If I’m sharing with non-writers? Maybe I should keep it vague.
Do you tell people what you’re working on?
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Books are either set in a real place; Chicago, the Congo, Venezuela, or a place in the writer's imagination: Oz, Mars, an underwater city. Maybe you write stories with characters based in your old hometown or your characters travel to exotic locations you may have never been.
Whatever your setting preference, it can be as important to the story as characters and plot. Setting, in many cases, becomes another character you have to work with in your story. Winter storms set back an investigation, high seas cause chaos or a murder victim is found drowned on a dry, hot day in the desert.
There are also the little details, especially in books where the setting is real. How long does it take to get from the airport to a particular hotel in Boston? What are the streets like in Minneapolis, Minnesota? Can you take a train through Charlotte, North Carolina? These details make readers crazy when they know the right answers and the author telling the story doesn't.
When Jim and I wrote the Peggy Lee Garden Mysteries, we made every detail of the area where Peggy lived and worked as accurate as we could. People actually emailed us that they couldn't find her shop in Brevard Court in Charlotte. Some of them were a little put out because they wanted to stop by and say hello.
Then we started writing the Ren Faire Mysteries. This wasn't a 'real' place at all but rather the best of many places put together in the old Air Force base in Myrtle Beach, SC. We figured that area could handle a full-time Renaissance Faire. Readers seem to get that it isn't a real place, although many have told us they would like to live there if it ever is.
Now we're writing the Missing Pieces Mysteries set in a real place again; Duck, NC. We loved the name and the area when we were down there and thought it would be a great place for mysteries, filled with pirate lore, legend and ghosts. But Duck isn't very big and our editor wasn't sure how people at tiny, one of a kind shops would feel about murder investigations tromping through there.
So we tried to stay as true to the real Duck as we could without actually using real names. The places exist but their names, as it goes, have been changed to protect the innocent. Will people who live in (or visit) Duck know them? I won't know until May when the first book comes out.
But if any Duck, NC shop, hotel or restaurant would LIKE for us to kill someone there, please let us know. We'd be happy to do so, if only for the sake of setting realism.
A Timely Vision
Book 1 in the Missing Pieces Mysteries
May 4, 2010
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Christmas is over, the packages that were wrapped so intriguingly have been ripped open, the gifts examined, cookies have been decorated and devoured, and only the most intrepid poinsettia is still clinging to life.
It was fun. It’s always fun, and, as always, its left me with some lingering thoughts.
This year, I got one of my granddaughters an American Girl doll. Dalia is eight and wanted one desperately. Her mother is a single mom and just couldn’t afford one. Dalia knew that, and didn’t even ask for one, but both her mother and I knew how much she wanted one. So-Grandma got on ebay, a new and rather scary experience, and Dalia got Felicity, an American Girl who lived in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century.
One of the reasons I wanted this doll was because of Felicity’s story. I have taken Dalia and her brother, Ronaldo, to Kings Mountain and to Cowpen’s national monument. We’ve gone through the museum, watched the movie, examined the manikins wearing the Colonial uniforms and the Indians wearing practically nothing, and have walked the trails. They are fascinated. They know that the battle of Cowpens was during the Revolutionary War, and know, and can tell you, some of the stories about the war. They know where Williamsburg is, mainly because Grandma loves Williamsburg and keeps bringing them back stuff from her trips there, and has promised to take them there as well.
Felicity comes with a book, a story about her life during the Revolutionary war, and Dalia was delighted to think her doll was part of what we had been talking about, and is already reading the book. It makes her doll and the period she represents real and personal.
Which brings me to my real point. Stories. Most of the history I know came from novels. Big fat historical novels, thin little stories with lots of pictures, dramatic sagas of terror and courage, they are what brought history alive. Remember Rabble in Arms? I haven’t read that book in years, but it was what brought the American Revolution to life for me, not droning teachers who made me memorize dates and names. Drama was what I wanted, real people in real trouble and a book that could explain why. Much better than reality TV. Want to know about the Civil War? Gone With The Wind will give you one very strong perspective, and when you visit Savannah or Charleston, you’ll share that genteel life with Scarlet. Then read Roots.
But stories don’t just teach us about history, as fascinating as that is. Staying in the south, think about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s a close up look at prejudice and what it does to people, and what it does to people who resist its insidious delights. This book looks at a couple of different kinds of prejudice, or maybe not. Maybe prejudice itself is pretty much the same emotion, it just manifests itself a little differently depending on who the victim is.
Stories teach us about people, because that’s what a story is all about. How did the Revolutionary War effect the everyday life of our great great grandparents, if they were living here then, how did they make their decisions which side to back, and how did the stress of war color their lives? Scarlet lets us know how the Civil War colored hers, and that of her family. Roots tells us in no uncertain terms what it was like to be black during a large part of our countries history, and we can go on and on. Fiction plays an unbelievably valuable part in our understanding of our world, and the people who inhabit it. It helps us understand how people react in times of stress, great stress as in war, or more personal stress as in sickness, divorce, or even murder. Maybe that’s why we of the Carolina Conspiracy write mysteries. We can explore how an ordinary person will react to something as terrifying as unexplained death, and how they cope.
One last thought. Coping. When I was little, I read Pollyanna. Every book. Pollyanna isn’t fashionable any more, and she is usually portrayed as a rather sappy little girl who goes around with a holier than thou attitude, trying to do good and making everyone who’s normal want to throw up. But that’s not what those books were about. They’re about coping, about a little girl who has lost her mother and father, is sent to live with a very grumpy aunt, and is just plain scared. But she had already learned to cope. That’s what the whole book is about, and I’m mighty glad I read it, and that I learned from it. There have been a number of times in my life when that coping skill came in real handy, and this last year was certainly among them. So thanks, Pollyanna, and thanks to all you writers out there who have laid out the world, and the people in it, in stories that help us understand our world a little better, and what makes other people tick. Just maybe you help us understand ourselves a little better as well.
A word to those of you who are writers or are trying to be, when you are mapping out your next plot, remember that adversity is a good thing. More than that, it is a part of life we can’t avoid and the stuff that good stories are made of. So think about Pollyanna, and get your characters to sharpen up those coping skills.
Sometimes, though, we need a little extra help. When I was writing my first book, I was definitely aware of areas where I had shortcomings. I wanted more information on “show, don’t tell.” I wanted to know how to write a well-crafted synopsis. I wanted to learn more about creating well-rounded characters.
So, I took online classes. And they worked out really well.
Like anything, it depends on the instructor. But the classes I had, that were taught by working writers. And I only sought out classes that were in the $30-$50 range. Some of them, like the Blog Book Tour class, were free.
In my experience with online classes, they work like this:
*You go to the website find the class you’re interested in. Usually you pay via PayPal or credit card.
*You then will be joined to a Yahoo group, which goes active on the first day of the class.
*The classes that I took usually lastly four weeks, with two lessons posted a week.
*Everyone in the class will introduce themselves on the email loop. The instructor introduces himself/herself, gives his/her qualifications, and then provides the syllabus.
*The instructor gives a first lesson, usually in some detail, and with examples of vivid characterization, or plotting, or whatever the class is covering.
*The lesson ended with an exercise for the class members to do individually, then post back to the email loop. The instructor gives feedback on each individual person’s assignment and answers any questions. Usually you have a certain number of days to post on an assignment before you’re expected to move to the next posted lesson and assignment.
There are classes online that run into the hundreds of dollars. I really just can’t recommend those. I think you can get much the same experience, on a wide variety of topics, at a much lower rate.
Here are some links to online organizations and sites that sponsor online classes and their calendar of upcoming workshops. The classes range from $15 to $50.
Have you taken any online classes? What did you like or dislike about them?