Writer's life

Level Thinking: The Convention Agenda

Start with several hundred people, each of whom has a separate agenda. Subject many of them to security checks, crowded airplanes, bad food, and crossing through customs. Know as a certainty that some of them have come to the convention even though they are not feeling well, have had to have a pet put down, their car is in the shop after an accident, a family member was just diagnosed with a serious illness, or their agent told them on Friday that their publisher is dropping them.

Combine them in unfamiliar surroundings for three days, with more activities going on than they could do in three weeks. Add alcohol, hotel food, and freezing air conditioning. Tell them to have a good time.

Strangely enough, most people do.

Welcome to the world of writing conventions

Writing conventions come in two varieties

  • A fan convention is a mix of the people who do (writers, actors, producers, agents, book sellers), people who want to do (aspiring writers, actors, etc.) and people who enjoy (fans). Some of the program is about writing, and there are lots of other events.
  • A writing convention (often called a workshop) is a serious writing week/weekend. The focus is writing, writing, and more writing.

One kind is not better than the other, only different. It’s a good idea to check out which kind you’re going to ahead of time. Conventions have web sites and a quick stroll through there will give us what kinds of activities are scheduled.

Metabolism and Personality

I am a morning person? 7 AM breakfast meeting? Fine with me. Back-to-back morning workshops. I’m up for it. But by 3 PM, I start to fade and by 5 PM, that’s it. I’ve had it for the day. As much as I’d love to, I’m not going to the radio drama that starts at 10 PM.

Can you go for long stretches at top speed and collapse afterwards, or do you need some quiet, down time every hour or so? Does meeting new people give you an energy rush or absolutely terrify you? It’s important to answer questions like this before we arrive at the convention.

Whatever we’re like at home, we’ll be doubly so at a convention. Plus, at a convention, there is always the temptation to cram in as much as we can. After all, we’ve spent a lot of money to get here. We need to make it worthwhile. Right?

Wrong. The best way to enjoy a convention, and profit from it, is to stay as close to our normal rhythms as possible.

Try to get two real meals (not sandwiches and chips) every day and five hours of sleep a night. Reversing these don’t work; that is, trying for five meals and two hours of sleep will not keep us going.

Eat as though we’re in training, because we are. Sure, treat ourselves, whether it be a sticky dessert or a bit of alcohol, but also keep doing that vegetable-fruit-whole grain thing.

Hotels and convention centers are notoriously dry. Drink water. So have some coffee, tea, juice, etc., but remember water, water, water.

When we get our convention program, sit down and divide the program into three lists: absolutely must do, would really like to do, and everything else. Work our eating and sleeping schedule around the absolutely must do things, with a few really like to do things thrown in. Let everything else go. If we get to something else, fine; if we don’t, fine.

Aim for a few up-close and personal contacts. We might talk to someone sitting in an alcove or to the other six people at our banquet table. We don’t have to force ourselves to be gregarious when you aren’t.

Look for opportunities to spend time with individuals and small groups. Smile at someone eating alone and ask if we can join them. Check our the hospitality rooms. Be a volunteer. Volunteering gives us a chance to see and be seen behind the scenes.

We’re there to network, to get our names out for future reference. Give out business cards; collect all the business cards we can. When we get home, send everyone e-cards or e-mails, saying we enjoyed meeting them.

Bathrooms and hero worship

Give the gal (or guy) a break. Just because I’ve spotted my absolutely favorite author of all times, or the agent I would die, just die, to have as my very own, I will not accost them in the bathroom, or the elevator, or break into the dinner conversation they are having with a publisher, or invite myself along to the private dinner they are having with friends.

But I will take note of  what they’re wearing, so I can spot them later on. When they’re not otherwise engaged, I’ll go up and introduce myself. Really. To anyone. If it’s done politely, it’s okay.

I once introduced myself to a writer who had just been given a major award. I totally blanked on the name of her latest book, which I admitted that to her. She winked and said, “I can’t remember the names of my books, either.” Then we had a lovely conversation.

Strut our stuff

We are on display. Yes, us, whether we’re pre-published, or have one book out, or are working on book twenty. People will remember us.

A few conventions have a dress code. Most don’t. Wear nice casual or nice dressy, depending on the tone of the convention. Jeans and sweatshirts are out, but also dress to be comfortable. It’s part of that being in training thing. If we are great-looking, but uncomfortable, by the end of the day, we’ll be in a terrible mood.

Smile. A few hours of volunteering to help at the convention will not only endear you to the convention organizers, but you’ll also have a great time. Smile. Say nice things about other writers. Smile. Well, you should have the idea by now.

Dealing with rejection: The free world does not hang in the balance. You are only writing a book. ~Sue Grafton, mystery writer.

My paraphrase about conventions on what Ms. Grafton said is, “It’s only one convention.” If this turns out to be the worst convention you’ve ever attended in your entire life, take a deep breath, cry if it helps, and keep going. There will be another convention soon. If it’s been the best convention you’ve ever attended, celebrate, and don’t forget to write an e-mail to the organizers telling them that when you get home.

For mystery writers or fans, here’s a list of the conventions coming up in 2014. Same after the location means it’s held in the same place each year; moves means the convention location changes each year. Some conventions remain in the same state, but change cities in that state.

This isn’t a mystery convention, but it has an extra-special place in my heart. Story Circle Network’s Stories From the Heart Convention, Austin, Texas (same, happens every two years), will be held April 11 to 13. This gathering is devoted to women’s journaling, memoirs, family histories, life writing, and so on. SCN is  for Women with Stories to Tell.

At this same spot, next Tuesday, March 4, I begin a series of four Writing the Novel blogs on character development. Hope to see you here.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Hooks

According to writing teachers, there are only 4, 7, 10, 37 (or the number of your choice) plots. This implies that it’s all been written before, so we might as well give up. We’re never going to write an original story.

That’s true if we stick to Big Ideas.

Big ideas are known as The First Things That Swim By. They swim by first because [popular culture] has cut such deep grooves in our consciousness that our imagination shoots down these grooves faster than dumped water down sluices. We must learn to not take the first thing that swims by. Piddle around with our passions and perceptions until we come up with a fresher idea. ~Claudia Hunter Johnson, Pulitzer nominee, playwright and writing teacher, Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect  (Sorry, I could not find a website for her)

Here’s an alternative to Big Ideas: mix and twist hooks. A hook is a thing that catches our attention. It might be an author’s name. We spot a new book by [fill in the name of our favorite author] and our feet automatically carry us towards it. We’re hooked. A hook might also be a character — Navy SEALS, cowgirls, forensic experts, or Scottish lairds — or a plot — second chance at love, computer hacking, cold case mysteries, or paranormal romance. The mixing and twisting comes from throwing the things we love into a bowl, giving them a good stir, and picking out pairs (or more) to put together.

I have a 70-item list of hooks that I use all the time. It would be easier — but not nearly so much fun — if I could just spoon feed you that list. Fortunately, it’s copyrighted material from on-line classes taught by Suzanne McMinn and Patricia Kay , and I promised not to share.

So we’re just going to have to have the fun of starting from scratch. It’s possible to assemble a list by ourselves, but it’s a lot more fun to do it with a few friends, something good to drink, and a few nibbles.

How to Hook, Mix, and Twist

Decide how long a list we want. I recommend between 50 and 100 hooks, with about 1/3 being character groups and 2/3 plot situations. That’s only a suggestion.

Brainstorm a list of character groups. Character groups should encompass the widest number of characters possible. Deputy sheriff isn’t a group; people in uniform is because it can include beat cops, detectives, firefighters, arson investigators, sheriffs, deputies, EMTs, soldiers, Federal Marshals, FBI profilers, on and on and on. Single mother is not a group; parents is. Got the idea?

Brainstorm a list of plot situations. Again go for more inclusive plots. Illegal financial gain rather than bank robbery. Babies rather than father doesn’t know about his child.

Once we have our completed list, an easy way to mix them is to write each hook on a separate piece of paper, toss them in a bowl and pick between two and four at random. Anything above four gets too complicated.

If we’ve been a gamer, or know someone who games, an alternative is to use two D-10s. To make it easier, some D-10s are marked with 2-digit numbers (00, 10, 20, etc.) and some with 1-digit (0, 1, 2, etc.) I like to use one of each.

We can set our own rules. My rules are that a 00 throw is a wild card. I can pick anything I want from the list. Since my hook list is only 70 items long, I ignore any roll higher than 70 and roll again. If we’ve constructed a 100-item list we can use any dice roll.

Roll the dice

  • 46 + 00 = pirate + item of my choice. I pick office romance. I know that doesn’t look like it goes together, but wait for the twist.
  • 10 + 32 = burned out love + irresistible offer
  • 29 + 42 = guardian angel + opposites attract

Two of these combinations have one character + one plot. The second one, burned out love + irresistible offer is two plots. That’s fine. Two plots can suggest characters. Two characters can suggest plots.

Add the twist

How about the pirate and the office romance? We don’t think of pirates as having offices, but what if, instead of the headscarf and cutlass kind of pirate she’s a corporate raider. He is the administrative assistant she’s guaranteed to lure away to her company? He wants to change jobs, but his goal is to work at the rival company for which she headhunts. He’ll do anything to get that job.

The twists: pirate as corporate raider and gender reversal — it’s often women who are administrative assistants. The First Thing That Swims By would be to make him content in his job, with no desire to leave. We twist that so that he’s desperate to change jobs, but only if he can work for her company’s competition.

All of this is a fun exercise with which to while away an afternoon or evening, but how do we translate this to the novels we have in progress? Chances are we can find our character and plot elements on our list of hooks. For Whiskeyjack, the novel I’m writing as I write this series of blogs, these are the hooks that seem to best describe my intended plot.

Beta male + fish out of water + adventurer heroine

If I can convert my hooks into a 100-word synopsis, chances are I’ve got a good understanding of my hook, mix, and twist. Bonus points if I work the book’s title into the synopsis.

Johnny Randall is no one’s hero. A recovering alcoholic, with an acne-scarred face, he spent his life doing the opposite of whatever his father wanted. Now that his parents have retired to Arizona, he’s in charge of running his family’s logging business and the town of Whiskeyjack, which amounts to the same thing. The company is the town. The first thing Johnny does is hire an American nurse, Meg Porter, to work at the nursing station. Meg knows nothing about Canada, northern Alberta, or working in a nursing station. Was hiring her Johnny’s first decision or his first mistake?

The twists: an American in Canada (fish out of water), Johnny being the least likely person to run the town well (fish out of water and he’s always been the beta male to his father), and pairing Johnny and Meg (the adventurer and the beta, which we usually see in alpha male and sidekick combinations, but Meg is no one’s sidekick).

I hope you’ll come back on Thursday for this week’s Level Thinking blog: The Convention Agenda. If you’ve never been to a writers’ convention, should you try one? If you’re an old convention hand, are you getting the best out of the experience?

Next Tuesday I start a four-part blog on character development, one of the most important steps in writing a novel.

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Nuts and bolts

Level Thinking: Hobby Writer

I’m a quilter. I’ve made over 50 quilts and wall hangings, ranging in size from a queen-size bed quilt that I designed and made to celebrate my first book being published, to a 3” miniature, which one of my stuffed bears uses as his security blanket.

One of  my quilts, titled Turtles All the Way Down

One of my quilts, titled Turtles All the Way Down

I’ve quilted pillows, book bags, cosmetic cases, coin purses, tea cozies, vests, beaded bags, and miniature treasure bags, just big enough to hold a trinket and 2 pieces of designer chocolate. I’ve even been paid three times for commissioned work.

I remain a hobby quilter. I quilt for my own amusement, to make gifts, or simply to relieve stress. I have no desire to be a quilting teacher, or write a quilting book, or take my quilts on the road in a trunk show. For all I know, “hobby quilter” is a applied to me pejoratively behind my back by the more haute couture quilters of my acquaintance.

Hobby writer is certainly pejorative. “She’ll never be anything but a hobby writer,” a woman says cattily over lunch.

“Maybe you should try being a hobby writer,” members of a critique group suggest gently.

In both cases, there’s an implication that a hobby writer, is, somehow, less talented, less dedicated, or not quite up to scratch. Frankly, my dear,  not one of us.

So where’s the line? Does a writer go to bed one night a hobby writer and wake up the next morning as a professional writer? Or vice versa? The demarcation certainly is not in writing quality. I’ve read spectacular pieces by people who openly call themselves hobby writers and have no desire to turn pro. I’ve read published books that, in my personal opinion, should not have been published without extensive editing.

Nor is the line crossed if an author occasionally publishes or makes money, in the same way that my three forays into quilting on commission didn’t turn me into a professional quilter. Contrary to urban myths, the Internal Revenue Service does not have hard and fast rule about what makes writing a hobby versus a legitimate tax deduction.

It’s not even attitude. Many hobby writers say they write professionally, but are not professional writers. To write professionally means to keep learning the craft and try to make each piece a little better than the one before, which is what I try to do both in my writing and in my quilts.

With my personal opinion hat firmly in place, I think the difference between a hobby writer and a professional writer is how much time the professional writer devotes to business.

Ah, the business. Submissions. Query letters. Knowing the market. Filing taxes. Keeping up with the publishing world. Doing an inventory of what’s in our home office and our storage closet. Making and sticking to a business budget. Writing a business plan. Marketing, marketing, and more marketing. Getting our name out there even before we have a book to sell and keeping our name out there in front of readers. If we’re doing that stuff, even if we don’t like doing that stuff, we’ve turned pro.

I think hobby writer is a term we can do without. Writers are, for the most part, generous people. There’s lots of room in our hearts, and in our community, for people who get sheer joy and pleasure out of writing without caring one whit about turning what they do into a business. Everyone is welcome here.

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Platforms

Last week I wrote about brand, which are a writer’s personal filters.  Though a writer usually has one brand, she or he may have different platforms for different book, series, or genres.

These days platform has several meanings. Social media platforms are how a writer chooses to present herself and her work on the Internet. That is not what this blog is about.

Our platform discussion is about connecting books to a writer’s real-world skills. It’s where life meets writing. Platforms come out of our education, work, causes, hobbies, and personal interests. Platforms are important because they lead to book signings, guest appearances, and book reviews.

Plain, vanilla book-signing are dead. Bookstores can’t risk an event where less than ten people might show up. If we tell the bookstore we can add to the signing a short talk on “How I came to write this book” or “Five ways to develop your characters,” we’re still preaching to the converted. The only people likely show up for our signing are family, friends, and other writers. Kinship/friendship with the author or wanting the author to help them get published are the top two reasons that people come to book signings.

Cynical, but true.

What about reviews? I live in a big city. So do thousands of other writers. Being local and a writer doesn’t cut it any more as far as getting a review. We have to break out of the family/friends/other writers ghetto. That means we tie into current events with an article, speech, or guest appearance that has real-world relevance. If you were feature editor for the local paper, which voice mail message would you answer?

“I’ve just had my first book published. Your paper should review me because I’m a local author.”

OR

“I’m a local chemist and I’ve got a scary perspective on the current recycling craze. People are putting their health at risk with some things they do in the name of ‘being green.’ I’d love to talk to you about a possible article.”

The editor will grab the article. The author’s platform has given her a foot in the door.

Many writers come to their platform through their day job. It’s no accident that Susan Wittig Albert, who is a gardener and herbalist, has a protagonist who is a gardener and the owner of an herb shop. Or that Dana Stabenow, who sets her books in Alaska was born, raised, and still lives in that state. Or that Alafair Burke, a former prosecutor, has police detective and prosecutor protagonists.

What we do outside of writing gives us strong platforms because we can speak on current issues from a real-life perspective.

Work isn’t the only way to build a platform. Our stories might spring from where we live (or have lived) or from our interests, hobbies. The important things are that we know our subject well and that we can convey that knowledge to other people.

So what’s a gal to do if she doesn’t think she has a platform? She builds one while she researches and writes her book.

Maybe our writer an administrative assistant in an insurance agency, but her book takes place about as far away from an insurance agency as she can get, on the glittering runways of high fashion. Writing that book requires research. Somewhere in that research our admin assistant will discover what are hot issues in high fashion.

Several years go Spain banned anorexic-appearing models from their runways. Our author—the mother of two pre-teen daughters—finds a connection between conversations she and her girls have about body image, and the fashion industry taking a stand on what body shapes should or shouldn’t be allowed on the runway. Her platform pitch would run like this.

“I’ve just written a romantic mystery set in the world of high fashion. As the mother of two pre-teen daughters, I’m concerned about how fashion magazines and television programs influence girls’ and women’s self-esteem.”

 How to develop a Platform

  • Start by going back to our brand. What qualities and issues show up there?
  • Call on personal experience and/or research to identify real-world hot topics.
  • Check out what’s appearing in newspapers, magazines, and on-line about those topics. Look especially for groups or organizations that are already addressing these topics. At the very least, follow what they’re doing. Sometimes, we might get involved with those groups.
  • Passion is the key to platform. Develop a passion. It might be something we would really like to see change.
  • As we write our book(s), continue to collect material. Seek out places to write or speak passionately. Start small. Build street cred. Think of having  writing on our front burners, and our platforms simmering on  back burners.

Whiskeyjack, the book I’m writing as I write these blogs, takes place in the late 1970s. My protagonist is a nurse in a nursing station in northern Alberta. What were hot issues for northern nurses then aren’t necessarily hot issues now, though you might be surprised that, thirty-five years later, some things haven’t changed. Instead of seeking to change a current issue, part of my platform will be about remembering and honoring contributions that nurses made to rural northern nursing. That’s often a different way that historical writers can approach platforms.

Your biggest problems and your worst obsessions contain the seeds of your own growth and development. ~Dr. Sara Halprin, (died 2006), author, therapist, teacher, and filmmaker

I hope you’ll come back on Thursday for my Level Thinking Blog on Hobby Writers. Let’s get rid of that derogatory term, shall we?

Next Tuesday on Write the Novel, I’ll discuss one of my favorite topics, Hooks.

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Art, I wish I'd made this, Writer's life

Level Thinking: Generous Chemicals

Since hearts and flowers day is tomorrow, I’m doing some level thinking about the chemistry of like versus the chemistry of love.

But first, if you haven’t already found that perfect Valentine for your loved one, you’re running out of time. Stop reading this blog and go over to book artist Ginger Burrell’s blog.  She’s posted a wonderful flutter book, which can be made by downloading and printing the .pdf she’s provided. Bingo, instant Valentine, and you made it yourself, which is a big bonus.

When you’re ready to come back from art to amygdala, let’s look at the chemistry of liking someone. Amygdalae are almond-shaped tissue deep inside the temporal (over the ears) lobes of our brain. Being good little mammals, our brains are chemically-wired to find a mate, conceive offspring, raise them, and then find another mate. It’s better for the survival of a species to have different genetic mix for each litter.

The problem are

  1. raising human offspring takes decades
  2. society has built a lot of legal, religious, financial, and emotional barriers around taking a new mate every few months
  3. you just might like the guy/gal you’re with and thrill in the thought of a long-term relationship.

When human beings come together passionately, the amygdalae simultaneously produces two different sets of brain chemicals. One says “Wow!” One says, “Go away; leave me alone; I’m furious at you; and I never want to see you again.” It doesn’t seem fair, but the “Wow” chemicals last under an hour and the “Go away, etc.” chemicals last for about two weeks, particularly in women. A surprising number of people report feelings of intense anger, even rage, for up to two weeks after an intimate experience.

Fortunately those glorious little amygdalae are wired to produce a third set of chemicals in response to what are called generous behaviors. Nurturing creates comfort and safety, and the bonding chemicals can help sustain a relationship indefinitely, but you have to do the behaviors that produce them frequently. Every day is best, even if it is only for a single minute. The more generous behaviors you do, the more sensitive your brain becomes to their positive effects.

Several years ago there was an article in Psychology Today about what behaviors activated those generous chemicals. Here are some suitable-for-general-viewing behaviors from that list:

  • Smile while making eye contact
  • Provide a treat without being asked
  • Give unsolicited approval, via smiles or compliments
  • Gaze into each other’s eyes
  • Listen intently, and restate what you hear
  • Forgive or overlook an error or thoughtless remark, past or present
  • Synchronize breathing
  • Hug with intent to comfort
  • Quietly share the same space

So even though tomorrow will be the usual riot of flowers, cards, prezzies, dinners, etc., how about on Saturday morning, and all mornings from here on out, we spend  quiet time looking at and listening to one another, synchronizing our breathing, and providing small treats? I have a feeling the world can use all the generous chemicals we can get.

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Art, I made this, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Brand

Brand is the thread that runs through everything we write. It gives rise to voice, that quality that makes our writing uniquely ours.

Brand is like theatrical lighting. It adds colors and textures that enhance our readers’ emotional experience, but most of our readers aren’t aware of how it’s being used; they only notice the effects.

Brands are our private stakes. They’re at the heart of what we mean when we say we write the kind of story we’d like to read.

One of the things I love about brands is that discovering them is so much fun. A brand is where cliches, pop culture, art, and music come together. It usually takes about half a day to put a brand together, so make a play date with yourself to do this.

 Start by writing down the answers to these questions. Yes, really write them down, don’t just think the answers.

  • What photographs and images appeal to you? Why?
  • What articles?
  • What movies and television shows?
  • What Internet sites, videos, and blogs?
  • What music, especially pop songs?
  • What cliches, even though you know they are cliches and would never use them in writing?
  • What quotes?
  • Who are your heroes and heroines?

As you move down that list of questions, revisit some of your favorite things. Listen to the music. Find clip art and assemble an electronic collage. You can do this non-electronically with magazines, scissors, glue etc, though I find the Internet so much neater and there aren’t all of those scraps of magazine pages to recycle afterwards.

Here’s a collage I made when I was recently updating my brand. The only image in here that I own copyright to is the Mexican mask. If you own the copyright to one of these other photos, and object to having it here, please let me know, and I will remove it.

Sharon Wildwind's Brand Collage

Sharon Wildwind’s Brand Collage

Because I have a military background, it was inevitable that the military would show up in my collage, like the Doonsbury cartoon; Frances Turley, the Gold Star Mother with the flag; the plaque on a street in London; and General Anne Dunwoody, the first woman to receive a 4-star rank. There are kid images, too, because I’ve never outgrown being a kid: a colorful paper mache mask; Big Bird and his teddy, Radar (named after Radar O’Reilly); the boy and the chickadee; and the generous bunny sharing her carrot. Train wreck ballads fascinate me. So do old things, like that marvellous wood-burning stove, which I plan to saddle a character with in a future book.

The rest of the images are strong women: two gorgeously-dressed women from the Advanced Style blog, where I get daily inspiration; Rosa Parks, who refused to move to the back of the bus; the inimitable British actress Dame Margaret Smith;  Ida Arbeit, who still teaches dance at 99; firefighter Andre Peterson; and Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya, the first woman to be elected as a bishop of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Looking at this collage, I came to the conclusion that a lot of my brand revolves around strong women. The further I went through the list, the more this was confirmed.

After you do all of the questions, massage what you’ve learned about what attracts you into a brand statement.This should be two to three sentences, written in present tense and active voice. Under those sentences write three to five key statements. Use cliches or quotes, if you wish.

 My Brand and Key Points

Strong women enjoy adventure, but everything comes at a price. The past overtakes everyone, but it doesn’t have to overwhelm everyone. Transformation comes through courage, strength, and honorable relationships; healing comes through reflection and honesty.

  • There’s strength in adventure and adventure in strength. (my own wording)
  • To those who fight for it, life has a flavor that the protected never know. (something Special Forces said, back in the day)
  • All combat takes place at night, in the rain, at the junction of four map segments. (Conrad Breen, Wag the Dog)
  • When the ship lifts, all debts are paid. (Robert A. Heinlein, Notebooks of Lazarus Long )

Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected. ~William Plomer (1903 – 1973), South African and British novelist, poet, and literary editor

Remember how characters should have both public and private stakes? So should writers. Brands are our private stakes; platforms are our public stakes, the way we connect to non writers. I hope you’ll come back next Tuesday for a discussion of platforms.

On Thursday, I’ll look at some aspect of the writer’s life. Haven’t decided what yet.

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My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Writers, Celebrate Our Families Day

What passion won’t do for us, deadlines will. Sometimes, I write in passionate frenzy for love of the story. Other times, it’s plough straight ahead, blinders on, because I have a deadline on my tail. In both cases, the end results are the same.

Odd meals. Food in the refrigerator that wasn’t green to start with; or was green to start with, but now isn’t. Piles of unopened mail. A level of housekeeping somewhat below my mother’s standards, possibly below the Board of Health’s standards.

I’ve lost count of the number of books in which the author ends the acknowledgments by thanking her family for putting up with dirty laundry, too many pizza take-outs, and weeks of being somewhere else, a.k.a. lost in an imaginary world.

Fortunate writers live in families who take these things in stride.

We mystery writers are especially fortunate because we live in families who, in addition to the usual writing stresses, comprehend that it’s normal to wander through the house at 1:00 in the morning, asking anyone still awake if they remember the difference between “bodily harm” and “grievous assault.”

They accept that stabbing a raw chicken with a stiletto to see how much pressure it takes to puncture the skin is a rational act, and don’t fret too much about where we acquired a stiletto in the first place.

They become accustomed to seeing e-mail lying around with subject lines such as “My thoughts on exotic poisons,” or “10 basic rules of car-jacking.”
Our loving family members go to great lengths to encourage our writing. When I declared that I wanted to turn writing from a serious hobby into a business, the first thing my husband did was take a cooking class called, “Men, Get a Life: Learn to Cook.” He now proudly boasts, “I can cook supper. I’ve had special training.”

Most of all, they have a deep-seated belief that we can do this. We can write stories, finish them, meet deadlines, and be published. If we’re fortunate enough to win awards, they’ll be there in the audience, dressed to the nines, to cheer us on.

I propose that we, as writers, start an annual Writers Celebrate Their Families day. On that day we shut down our word processors and do something nice with those wonderfully supportive people with whom we live.

Since this might take a bit of planning around deadlines, and we really should plan something special,  I’m telling you new holiday this early. Let’s plan on celebrating  July 12  as the first WCTF day. Why July 12? Because on July 12, 1965 Snoopy dragged a portable typewriter to his dog house for the first time, sat down, and typed those immortal words, “It was a dark and stormy night. . .”

What’s your strangest writing quirk?

What’s the nicest thing a family member has said to you about your writing?

What do you think we should do on July 12th to celebrate our families?

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Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: The Dreaded Back Story

Back story is what happened in the characters’ lives before the book begins.

Romance writer Jo Beverly says, “Back story is for the author, not the reader. We want to show how much we planned, how hard we worked at research, now clever we are. In fact, the reader can get by with only skeleton hints. Back story is different from context. We must set the context, which tells the reader why the current action is significant to the character. We should be able to do this in one or two sentences.”

When I read a work in progress that drips back story, and ask the author why it’s all in there, the inevitable answer is, “The reader needs to know this in order to hook into the story.”

Think again. Human beings get by nicely on a paucity of information. Imagine we’re meeting for coffee. You arrive and say, “My neighbor has gone missing.”

I don’t know a thing about your neighbor, not their name, gender, age, circumstances, life history, etc, but I guarantee you that my response will be shock, horror, and fear because I’m reacting to an event happening at this moment. If you said, “My neighbor disappeared thirty-five years ago,” my reaction would have likely been, “Who cares?”

Someone is missing. I know we live in a world where bad things happen to people. I fear for another human being. I fear for myself a little. If something has happened to them, could it happen to me?

If my response is, “Start at the beginning. Tell me everything,” we both know—or we should know—that I’m not asking about when you moved next door forty years ago, her disastrous first marriage, her career as a bookkeeper, her cruise up the Inland Passage to Alaska, or that she raises prize-winning roses. I want the story that begins when her daughter came to visit yesterday afternoon, found the front door unlocked and her mom gone.

Because we are good story tellers, we know what kind of details set context, and we select those details to build a story that implies what we think has happened.

  • Context one: She’s not confused. She takes it into her head to have adventures. This has happened before. A suitcase and some clothes are missing.
  • Context two: She’s sometimes confused. It’s never happened before. Everything, including her purse, is still in the house.

Because of the context details, I’m going to become calmer or more fearful.  I still won’t either know or care about the first marriage, bookkeeping career, cruise, or roses, and that’s okay.

Maybe the plot does hinge on one of those things we don’t yet know, but there’s no need to salt the story with a premature mention of the disastrous first marriage. Allow the first husband to show up some pages later. Once he’s appeared in the story, then the protagonist has a legitimate reason for delving into the marriage story.

If there are extensive references to another time and place in the first 100 pages of the book, consider writing the first part in that time and place rather than using back story to convey information.

  • Part 1, Chicago, 1974
  • Part 2, Calgary, 2014

This is different from a prolog. I admit to an absolute personal prejudice against prologs. I always skip them. Always.

The reason is I feel the writer is jerking me around. She wants me to spend a couple of pages in a different time and place, not only remember what I read, but carry the emotions I felt with me while she makes me jump to the time and place where the real story takes place. Readers go where the writers take them. By the time I realize I have to leave the prolog’s world and go somewhere else, I don’t trust the author. If she doesn’t care enough about my feelings at the beginning of the book, what kinds of trick is she going to play on me later?

It’s possible to create a character and a tense situation without knowing reams of information about what happened before the book began. If we can answer three essential question about our main characters, we can set the context.

 What three utterly defining moments—each of which relate to the theme—are in our protagonist’s/antagonist’s pasts?

Defining moments are points at which the character’s life changed. Back story is knowing our character’s favorite breakfast when she was nine. A defining moment is, “When I was nine, I came down to breakfast, and my grandmother told me my mother was dead. Three days later I went to live with my aunt. I  hate bad news that comes at breakfast.” Context in three sentences.

 What games are to be played with the reader?

It’s so much more fun to build ambiguity in the reader’s mind. It keeps them turning pages to find out which version of many is true.

 What secrets are to be kept from the reader?

Back story wants to reveal everything up front. Where’s the fun in that? Secrets want to hold back  important stuff until the right moment.

Show me a character whose life arouses my curiosity, and my flesh begins crawling with suspense. ~Fawn M. Brodie (1915 – 1981), biographer and history professor

Thursday of this week on Level Thinking, we celebrate author’s families.

Next Tuesday on Write the Novel: How to Develop a Brand

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