It Had to Happen Sooner or Later

I finally broke down and bought a laptop.  Years of working as a transcriptionist has damaged my hands, making my usual writing in longhand slow and uncomfortable; and trying to write in the same space I use for the day job was getting me down.

I know, it’s an extravagant thing to buy when I have a perfectly good desktop in the house, but I’m in a screw-it-I-work-my-ass-off-and-deserve-a-break kind of mood.

I’m not one to plot or brainstorm on the computer.  I still like to sit with a pen and paper on the front porch and scribble down notes about characters and plots.  I use the computer once I’ve roughed out the story and want to give it some shape.  Yesterday, new laptop charged and ready to go, I sat on the couch and typed the opening scenes of the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, with a DVD of Salem’s Lot (the David Soul version) playing in the background.  It was glorious.  By saving the draft to One Cloud, I’m able to easily access it from the desktop when I want to print it out for revisions.

I bought a nifty backpack to carry the laptop in, with plenty of space for my notepad and the reference material I need.  My own portable office.  I suddenly feel wonderfully free.

Now to find a suitable coffee shop to haunt.

 

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When It’s Been Too Long

I haven’t done a great deal of writing over the past year.  I’ve worked a lot of hours at the hated day job, just trying to keep the roof over our heads.  I’ve battled some health issues and I’ve been neck-deep in ongoing family crises.

I’m tired.

Now that my husband is back to work after a very long layoff, I’m hoping to get my Sunday writing schedule back on track.  I have the bare bones of the next installment of Winthrop Risk, Detective, but I haven’t figured out the opening line.  Once I get that down, the actual writing of the story will be easier.  I’ve written some of Winthrop’s snappy dialogue and I know what his new case involves.  I have three solid suspects and have worked in a bit of a surprise about the identity of one of them.  My Winthrop character will be more “fleshed out” in this installment.  He’s turning into quite the guy.

I’m excited about it.  I’m also paralyzed.  How is that possible?

I think my enthusiasm for the characters and the story have set my own expectations far too high.  In short, I’m afraid of screwing it up.

Of all the forms of writer’s block, this is the one I dread the most.  If I don’t have a story idea, I know how to trick my brain into coming up with one.  It usually involves doing anything BUT trying to write.  I observe the world without trying to figure it out.  Look and listen without comment.  Jot down interesting names or phrases that I hear or that just pop into my head.  I use the same technique when I don’t know where the plot should go.  No big deal.

Someone once said (Anne Lamott?) that Fear was an especially vicious monster that smiles and wears lace gloves and says things like, “I just don’t want you to look foolish, dear.”

It will do no good to tell her she’s not invited.  Fear is also a narcissistic bitch if ever there was one.  She’ll show up, convinced of her own importance; but today I’ll resist the impulse to let her take a seat.

Today, I’ll gently court the Muse.  I’ll invite her over for a long-overdue visit.  We’ll sit on the porch and read a little bit.  We’ll read about writers and writing.  Then we’ll go over the story notes and I’ll tell her, “See, this isn’t bad.  We have something here.”  If she agrees, she’ll whisper that opening line and the floodgates will open.

I’ll make some tea.  She likes that.

 

Winthrop Risk, Detective

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If you’re a lousy writer…

…what do you do?

A young woman recently posted on a Facebook page for self-published authors how painful it was for her to read the cruel reviews of her book on Amazon.  I read through the comments, and our fellow authors tried very hard to explain to her why the book was tanking.  They were amazingly kind and diplomatic about it.  Several went through the trouble of reading an excerpt and then offering a critique.

The young lady had apparently been through some traumatic experiences and wanted to share her fight with the world.  Her intentions were good.  She hoped reading her story would help someone in a similar situation.

The problem was, she couldn’t write her way out of the proverbial paper bag.  Her spelling was awful, and she didn’t seem to know the basic rules of grammar.  The spellcheck and grammar check functions on her computer were either ignored or disabled.  Her thoughts, according to other writers, were scattered and rambling.  The manuscript read like a very rough first draft.

They all gave what amounted to the same pieces of advice.  She had to pull the book.  She needed a professional editor.  She needed to revise, revise, revise.

To that I added that she should take a refresher course in basic grammar.  Yes, I said it nicely and encouraged her to continue to hone her craft.

I don’t know if she has it in her to become a good writer.  It isn’t enough to have a compelling tale to tell–you have to know how to tell it.

Look, we’re writers and we want to be published.  There’s no shame in that.  The shame lies in manuscripts that are clicked into existence before they’ve been properly bled over.

So, what’s a lousy writer to do?  Well, if you aren’t willing to do the work, stop.  You aren’t a writer.  You’re a wannabe with romantic notions about walnut-paneled offices, tweed jackets, and brandy snifters.  This is real life, not a Hallmark movie.  Get a grip.

Read.  Familiarize yourself with words and how other writers string them like lovely pearls across the page.

Reeducate.  Take a grammar course at your local adult education center or on-line.  All that sentence structure stuff Sister Margaret Mary tried to pound into your skull really does matter.

Read about writing.  I was having trouble getting started because I was trying to write straight through from beginning to end and knew nothing about plotting a story.  I found it helpful to read a couple of books about writing in my genre and figured out where I was going wrong.  But be careful not to let reading about writing take the place of actual writing.  That’s an easy trap to fall into.

Revise your manuscript again and again until you’re satisfied with it, and then give it to an impartial reader for a critique.  Writing groups are excellent for this purpose.

There is a certain wonderful drudgery to writing.  It’s exhausting.  It’s exhilarating.  It’s the most intense love/hate relationship you’ll ever have.  There are days you give up and swear you’ll never go back to it.  But a few days or weeks later, the Muse returns with flowers and chocolates and apologizes for being such a jerk, and off you go.

Finish the sentence for me:  Any job worth doing is worth doing __________.

 

It Doesn’t Have to be Real

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I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.

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.

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.

The Suckiness of the Situation Notwithstanding…

…I did manage to make a small but important step forward in the story. I had an idea of how I wanted a piece of the mystery to look (no footprints where there should have been footprints), but until today I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. I think I have a solution, which should move the story forward a bit.

I hate being stuck on a small detail.

Well, I lost my best buddy last week (Gandalf the cat), my husband’s layoff continues, my son was injured at work and is still waiting for his worker’s compensation claim to go through, my primary transcription customer is a deadbeat, and our financial situation has gone from tough to crushing in the last two weeks, but the writing must go on.

Calm your brain for just a few minutes. Read a little bit about writing. Dabble. The muse will drop by, even if it doesn’t stay long.

How I Got My Writing Groove Back

That nasty cold that’s been going around finally found me. Since I’m unlikely to come up with a new post this week, I’m reblogging this one from last February. It was the second one I posted, so most of you will have missed it the first time around.

Storyteller

I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One…

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