Images vs. Descriptions

I just read this quote about writing character descriptions:

“Learning someone’s age, eye color, or height, in inches or centimeters, is not compelling, which is why we don’t consider drivers’ licenses literature.”  Harley Jane Kozak in Now Write! Mysteries, edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson.

Likewise, our character descriptions shouldn’t sound like a crime victim describing their attacker to a police sketch artist.

In Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (available on Amazon and Kindle), the main character (a boy of about 9 or 10 years old) offers his descriptions of people and situations this way:

“Roger, the class bully.  Ran the playground at Chandler Elementary like a shark in a fishbowl.  Even picked on the little guys in kindergarten.  A bad egg.”

Or, speaking of his teacher, Mrs. Obermeyer:

I clapped the erasers together right next to Mrs. Obermeyer’s desk.  She started to sneeze–squeaky little sneezes that squeezed their way out of a nose that matched her size 12 feet.

We know Winthrop is smaller than the other kids in his class when his friend, Dash, rescues him from Roger.  And we learn that Dash is a strong, confident girl.

“Let him go, Roger!”  It was Dash, and boy, was her nose out of joint.

“You gonna let a girl fight your battles, Risk?”

“A kid my size can’t be too picky, Roger.  Thanks for saving my neck, Dash.”

What does the school playground look like just before the bell rings?

The playground was covered with kids–like ants on a dropped lollipop.

You get the idea.  These are images we’re creating, not mug shots.  And maybe that’s what we should keep in mind.  The old adage that we should show, not tell, can be tough to apply.  We don’t want to give the reader a point by point description that doesn’t serve the plot.  A classic example I’ve noted in the past (see “It’s That Time of Year Again” from 2014) is Washington Irving’s rich description of Ichabod Crane, which not only tells us a lot about his physical appearance but serves to make the Headless Horseman chase scene that much more vivid.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an atmospheric piece that was written at a time when stories were told at a more leisurely pace, and Irving’s little gem is a wonderful example that broke our modern rules for description and  was spot on in having done so.

So, in painting your word picture, broad brush strokes are OK and coloring within the lines isn’t always necessary.

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We’re All Still Writing

I just read a wonderful book about writing, “Still Writing–The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” (Grove Press) by Dani Shapiro @danijshapiro, so let me start by saying I give it very high marks and strongly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about the fastest way to get an agent or the latest marketing gimmicks.  It’s about writing and being a writer.

What a relief.

I’ve read several books about writing over the years. They serve as a sort of creative boost for me when I can’t seem to get the words out. I feel, in some way, that these books give me permission to want to write.  I wish I could explain that.  I guess I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into the lobby of a private club and I don’t have an ID card to show to the guy at the desk.  I keep expecting the bouncer to show up and tell me I have no business being there.

When I read an interview with a writer, the thing I most want to hear about isn’t how they got their agent or how they got published–I want to hear about their process.  What is their day like?  Do they write at home or in a café?  In pajamas in bed, or dressed and in an office?  Are they outliners or do they write as they go along?  It’s not that I can’t figure out my own writing process (I know very well how my brain works), but I continue to be fascinated by how other writers get the job done.

Other writers.  Did I just include myself in that category?

Confession:  For those who don’t know me, I am a newly self-published children’s author (Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle).  Check it out.

I remember years ago when the idea of self-publishing was considered something to be embarrassed about, as if people were sitting in their basements writing porn.  “Vanity publishing” they called it back then, because obviously anyone who thought they knew better than the publishing world had to possess a monstrous ego.  Picture a would-be author spending a small fortune to have their book printed, only to be left with boxes of unsold books stuffed in an attic someplace.  There was no Amazon back then, no Kindle.   It was risky, and I don’t know if anyone was actually successful at it.

The simple truth is that if you can’t get agents or publishers to consider your work (or you just want to bypass them altogether and maintain creative control) and you decide to self-publish, you had better be sure the publishing gatekeepers are wrong.  Very wrong.

The ease of self-publishing has, I understand, cluttered the literary landscape with a lot of badly written or badly edited books.  I guess for some people the desire to be published races past their desire to write and edit well and the result is…unfortunate.  I think I’ve avoided that particular pitfall.  I hope you will, too.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

To tweet or not to tweet…

I have no idea why I started a Twitter account, but everyone seems to think a writer should have one. Quite frankly, as a writer, I find it rather irritating. I don’t like the limited space. I don’t like the choppy “tweets”.  I don’t like sounding like a poorly educated urchin.

And it looks so sloppy.

Anyway, I’m over there trying to figure it out. The fun part is I get to drop in on Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) occasionally and see what he’s up to.  *sigh*

If you’re on Twitter, pop on by @BelkoMj .

Oh, and #WinthropRiskDetective .

Word-2-Kindle Rocks!

You’ll recall I had pulled my new book, Winthrop Risk, Detective, from Kindle because I couldn’t get the formatting right.  A little Google search turned up a service called  Word-2-Kindle.com and with a little help from the wonderful Nick Caya, my book is professionally formatted and is officially for sale on Kindle!

Amazon’s CreateSpace wanted $79 to format the book for Amazon’s Kindle.  Displeased with Amazon scratching its own back at my expense, I went in search of a more reasonably priced and responsive service.  Enter Nick of Word-2-Kindle!  For $49, he had my book reformatted within 2 days.  When I had trouble opening the file (not Nick’s fault but due to my own lack of computer savvy), my plea for help was answered in just minutes and I was able to finish the Kindle publishing process.

As self-published authors, we have to wear a lot of hats:  writer, creative director, publicist, marketing guru, etc.  One thing I can’t be is a computer whiz. I tried.  Believe me, I tried. I figured I could keep trying and failing or I could admit my shortcomings and employ someone who knew what they were doing. I think I made a good call.

 

 

 

Quite the Learning Curve

There’s a lot you don’t know when you set about to self-publish your book.  Getting the manuscript to Amazon, ordering a proof, and getting it out there was pretty easy.  I did change the font and line spacing. Keep in mind that what looks OK on typewritten pages is pretty hard on the eyes in book form. Choose something bolder than Courier and definitely spend a few bucks (mine was about $5) and order a printed proof of your book. You won’t regret it. It’s probably something you can write off as a business expense; but since I have to pay someone to do my taxes because I can’t get past the part where I fill out my name, you might want to check with your accountant.  Just sayin’.

Then there’s Kindle. Create Space and Kindle are both Amazon related, so you would think the conversion of your book from the print form of Create Space would translate easily to the e-book form of Kindle. Shockingly, this is not so.  In fact, for those of us who are not computer literate (i.e., the over 50 crowd), the process can be quite frustrating. I kept doing what they said to do (at least what I thought they said to do) and the manuscript on the Kindle preview still looked choppy and ridiculous. I don’t do choppy and ridiculous.

Create Space will generously (wink, wink) reformat your manuscript to work on Kindle for a paltry sum of $79 (US).  In my more paranoid moments, I think Create Space is just drumming up business for itself by screwing up the manuscripts it sends over to Kindle. Not one to be hornswoggled, I found another service that will do the deed for $49. If they do a good job I’ll sing their praises here.  If they screw it up, the blog post will be lengthy and vitriolic.

Anyway, I’m going to enjoy an adult beverage while I wait to hear back from the formatting dude.  Hopefully, I’ll have good news in the next day or so.

Well, that was anticlimactic.

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A few days ago, I announced to my Facebook friends that I had just self-published my first children’s book on Amazon, Winthrop Risk, Detective.  Aside from my husband and one of my sons (the other isn’t on Facebook), nobody responded.  Not one “like”.  Not one expression of congratulations.  Nothing.

I can still hear the crickets.

The day after my big flop of an announcement, a man delivered a bouquet of flowers to my house.  They were from my husband, John (my pet name for him is Bear).  That’s the card he sent with the flowers.

“Congratulations, it’s a boy! And his name is Winthrop Risk.  All my love, all my life.  Love, your Bear.”

Pretty cool, huh?

 

The Frustration Mounts

Getting a book self-published on Amazon is pretty easy and you can order a proof that lets you hold a physical copy of your book on actual paper and see how it looks. After ordering my first proof of Winthrop Risk, Detective, I realized the font I had chosen was too small and faint, so I resubmitted it in a different font and ordered a new proof. The second time around, the proof looked good and I put it up for sale on Amazon.

Then there’s Kindle.  I dutifully uploaded the book file, which they were then supposed to convert to be readable on a Kindle device. Unfortunately, what you submit as a Word document comes out a little messed up on Kindle. Some of the page breaks were bad, some of the paragraph spacing was wrong, and sometimes there were gaps in sentences that didn’t belong there.  After about an hour of trying to comprehend what they meant by formatting a Word document as an html whatever, I pulled the book from Kindle. I can’t fix the formatting and I don’t want the book to be published in a medium that makes it look slapped together. So my apologies, but the book will only be available as an actual physical book for the foreseeable future.

And so, the deed is done…

I did it. My first book, Winthrop Risk, Detective, is officially listed on Amazon and will also be available on Kindle in a few days.

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Now I have to get the word out. When I was submitting the story to traditional publishers, I had trouble categorizing the book, and that may have hurt my chances with them. It isn’t a picture book but it isn’t a novel, either. It’s a four chapter book that falls somewhere in between. A child of about 9 years of age should be able to handle it alone.  It runs about 36 pages and is a fun read, if I do say so myself.  Because the hero in the story uses a child’s version of 1930s detective vernacular, I included a little glossary of terms in the back of the book.  I hope you’ll check it out.  I plan for it to be a series (The Winthrop Risk Mysteries) and book two is in the very rough first draft stage.  Many thanks to the Lake Saint Clair Writers group for critiquing the manuscript for the first book and giving me the thumbs up.

OK, I’ve Been Neglecting You

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That little guy up there is Winthrop Risk.  He’s the lead character in my children’s book, Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster.

I just did the final touches on the book in Amazon’s Create Space, a self-publishing site. I’m nervously waiting for the final review before the book can be offered for sale. Needless to say, I’m a bit of a wreck.

So, where have I been for almost a year? Right here, working. But it’s been an all-around tough year. To sum up, my mother has been at death’s door since last fall and this has churned up all sorts of childhood crap, my husband’s last layoff lasted longer than expected so I’ve worked longer hours, we had to put the dog down, we got a puppy, my lovely mother-in-law passed away, and they recently found something suspicious on my mammogram (they’re 97% sure it isn’t cancer but I have to wait six months and do another mammogram).

Kind of takes the wind out of the creative sails, so to speak.

So why did I jump to self-publishing? Because I could. Because this isn’t a picture book. Because the children’s publishing scene looks so grim. Because the children’s book section is choked with slapped together stories based on cartoon characters. Because publishers don’t seem to be interested in original stories right now.

But mainly because I could.

I haven’t given up on doing the illustrations for my own picture books. In fact, I recently purchased an art kit for beginners. Did you know they make watercolor pencils?! With my first book in the chute, I can turn some of my attention to the picture aspect of the picture books and hopefully turn out something I can sell.

So, I just wanted to pop in and say hello. Hope my followers are all still out there. I’ll post an update when the book is actually for sale, which should be a few days.

Happy tales.

 

 

 

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