Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dump & Bump

In between cleaning and cutlets, laundry and life, I've been working on the evaluation of my plot.

In the time honored tradition of suspense novelists everywhere, I've decided to kill someone. A character who had been alive and well will meet their fate and cease to exist. This is something we have over all other genres. Suspense writers can just knock someone off when they're not sure what to do at a given point in the story. Is that cool, or what?

I will dump some inane filler and bump up the action with a murder. Now all I have to do is come up with a sufficient motive so I know who killed the um . . . corpse. And make sure it all ties into my main plot.

I confess that in the Dark Hours I came up with something bizarre. Unreal. Unnatural. So over the top it could be completely perfect. But it scares me a little. Can I pull it off?

My quill is aquiver.

Currently reading: No Time for Goodbye (an intriguing premise, by the way) by Linwood Barclay

It's all better with friends.

Monday, July 28, 2008


I'm one of those people who gets two or three steps up a ladder and freezes. This past weekend, I was determined not to embarrass either my husband or myself. I was also determined not to die.

We took a little road trip to southwestern Colorado to visit Mesa Verde. I hadn't been since I was a kid. And it sounded like fun.

Did I say fun?

This guided tour is called Balcony House (there are others), and involves some climbing on ladders (this one is 32 feet--you can click to enlarge), some climbing on stone steps carved into the cliff (even scarier), and some tunneling through places that are only 18" wide and about 24" high. Balcony House showed the risks these people lived with more than anything else we could have experienced.

Skeletal remains indicate that men lived for 30-35 years, women 20-25. Most women died in childbirth. I wondered what would make a people, hoping for better lives for themselves and their children, live in a place where death waited literally right outside their door.

I also wondered about love and laughter and storytelling.

Did they gather around a fire, share some corn and tell stories about their great exploits, drawing out the suspense until no one could stand it? Or a love story about their ancestors?

The owner of the B&B where we stayed (Flagstone Meadows Ranch, if you're interested) is half English and half Navajo. He has a sculpture for sale of an elder surrounded by small children. In the Navajo tradition, the first snowfall of the season is one to celebrate with grandparents. They snuggle together and Grandma or Grandpa regale the little ones with stories.

What a wonderful idea.

I didn't get much reading done, so To The Power of Three is still on my nightstand.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I thought adding layers had to do primarily with the five senses. You know. Making sure each of my scenes incorporate smell, sight, touch, sound, and oh yeah . . . taste. Some combination of those.

Man, was I wrong.

A section of the course being taught by Colleen Coble through ACFW deals with adding layers to our stories. And she's not referring to cake. Darn. Any excuse will do . . .

The concept, on the surface quite clear but difficult for me to work through once I got into it, is that layers have nothing to do with feelings. Nothing to do with character. Nothing to do with history or backstory. Nothing.

Layers in the writing world are the elements in life that are edgy. Burdensome. Problems. Little blisters that pop all over my otherwise pristine world. Poking and jabbing sticks that threaten my supreme focus. Layers are external conflict that mean I'm alive. Or rather, that my character is alive.

These external conflicts, not associated with my main story, create a full life for my character. One readers can identify with. Unlike subplots that eventually must tie in with my main plot, layers for my characters are uniquely theirs.

A layer could be the brother-in-law who is having an affair but expects my character to keep it a secret. Or the constant call from an old flame, bent on "re-connecting." It could be an ill parent, or a sibling who is constantly in trouble. It could also be the car that is constantly breaking down, or the rental unit that is a cash sucker-upper.

How my character handles these layers will end up building her credibility in the eyes of my readers, but that's as internal as they get.

So today, after continuing to work on my plot evaluation, I have extra stickies that have been added. Many of them say "Add layers."

Now I'll know what I mean.

For those of you who thought my initial concept of layers was too funny for words, you should've been around when the idea of POV first came up. Point of view? Well, duh. What's complicated about that? Everything I write is MY point of view.


Still reading To the Power of Three.
You know what I'm working on.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Switchin' Things Up

Today is gonna be a big day. I'm crackin' the whip and not letting up.

I'm taking my VERY rough draft and playing with plot. I've promised myself that it's okay to let it go. It's okay to switch things up. The basic premise won't change, but a whole lot else is likely to. I may lose a lot, but because of my progress with craft, I hope to gain a lot more.

A lot of this comes from a course I'm taking online through ACFW. One of my mentors, Colleen Coble, is doing an awesome job taking us through things that in theory sound easy, but in practice . . . well, I have felt like a third grader trying to grasp the meaning of Einstein's Theory of Relativity—as taught in Mandarin.

The rest comes from my need to get back in the saddle and not look back. My characters are coming with me, because I need their support. I know them. I'm building them. They're building me.

The thing that will be weird? Brainstorming. I LOVE brainstorming, but there's usually more than just me involved. And I'm usually brainstorming someone else's project.

So, my stained glass plot window may be up for a re-do.

Still reading To the Power of Three.
And working on that Maass exercise. I may have had a breakthrough. If so, I'll let you know.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Setting as Character

Developing my setting has been an interesting exercise. Especially since I thought I had it all figured out.

Even though I have a fairly unique little fictional town—Aspen Falls, Colorado—the idea is that the general setting should be so specific that Aspen Falls could never be confused with a little town in Georgia or Maine or anywhere else. Since AF is geographically close to it's more famous counterpart, and is similar to another Colorado town, Boulder, I need to read a few local papers to see what sort of conflict is going on unique to those communities. Off-hand, something to do with land comes to mind, but that alone wouldn't set it apart.

Just as I do in-depth character studies for my main guys, I need to do an in-depth character study for my setting. It'll be fun to see how my different, cognizant, characters react to it.

And then there are settings inside of settings. Where I stage my scenes.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel: Are any of the scenes in your current novel set in a kitchen? Aha! Caught you! Kitchens, living rooms, offices and other commonplace settings are familiar and easy, but what resonance do they have? Usually very little. Think canyons, sports stadiums, airports, squad cars, life rafts, recovery rooms, whatever. Settings that are emptier or more crowded than usual, or that have change or inherent drama built into them can envelop your scenes with the unfolding of other destinies.

So, yeah. I have at least one scene set in a kitchen. And way too many set in very routine places. Although I have a few unique settings, I know I can do better.

Finally I've learned that setting is more than "It was a dark and stormy night . . ."

Currently reading: To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman
Currently working on: Maass's exercise to weave my plot layers together. Plot layers??? Oy.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Thing About Continued Characters . . .

See the wolf? Know who the wolf is? Know why the wolf is there? Did he dress himself or did he have help? Do we even care about the wolf? Or that sheep that seems to be leading the pack? Flock? Herd? Whatever?

I'm reading my first book in what is not a series, but also is not a stand-alone. It's a book (as far as I can tell) that is simply another story featuring a specific character. You know what I'm talking about . . . "A Miss Marple Mystery" kind of thing.

The problem is I didn't start with the first book for this character and this story doesn't give me much in the way of character identification. I'm about half-way through and I'm still not sure I care about the female protagonist, even though I know I should.

The danger of writing a continued character is that I would have to risk a new reader feeling a little blasé about the story, or boring faithful readers who've been with me from the beginning. I'm not sure how you find that kind of balance.

As a reader, I want to know about that danged wolf. He looks like the bad guy, but maybe it's the Evil Sheep who are trying to get even with everyone who ever enjoyed a lamb chop. That guy leading the sheep might be the ringleader I need to be looking out for.

Or it could be that someone with two legs has been poisoning the sheep and they've recruited the wolf for a little muscle.

But too much information (backstory) stops the real story and everyone who knows everything about the wolf from the last book gets frustrated.

See what I mean?

John Sandford does it very well. His Prey series is excellent and you can pick up any book any time and be there. Maybe I need to dissect one of his novels a bit and see if I can find the solution.

Still reading Dead Famous and although it's a well-written story, I'm struggling a bit with Mallory.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cookin' My Book

The truth is, even if I had a recipe for writing, I probably wouldn't follow it. But wouldn't it be cool to have a choice?

I enjoy cooking. I enjoy trying new recipes and then quirking them up a bit.

Strike that.

I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes as long as I have the tools and ingredients. And time. Oh, and the audience. Picky, picky.

The tools for writing are up to us to discover and implement. Online courses, hands-on classes, books on writing, critique groups, reading, Google, reference librarians and good ol' bichoking. Nothing is handed to us. Some tools will work and some won't. But they're all part of the cooking process, and belong in my kitchen.

My writing recipe included some ingredients that didn't go well together. My good friend Joni pointed out the mismatched and flawed ingredients to me over lunch last Friday. She kindly referred to parts of my premise as "truthful fiction." Sheesh. Together, we came up with some options to revise my recipe.

Thankful that my manuscript isn't polished and ready for representation, I've squared my shoulders and made the decision to be a responsible chef and get the recipe right.

So, starting yesterday, I'm reading through from the beginning and tweaking to make the character of Chase Waters more plausible. It will probably force me to eliminate some scenes all together, but I'm hopeful to find some new little gems . . . er, ingredients.

Still reading Dead Famous. It's making me think about series vs. continued characters vs. stand-alones. . . .

It's all better with friends.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Book Review: SILENT THUNDER by Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen

Marine architect Hannah Bryson is on top of her game when she's contracted to inspect the Soviet submarine, Silent Thunder, which has recently been acquired by a U.S. maritime museum. Her task is to ready the nuclear attack sub for public exhibition. Hannah's brother and frequent partner, joins her on the project.

It's a simple stop-gap job meant to fill a couple of weeks before she moves on to something else. Simple. Until it goes horribly wrong when Silent Thunder and all souls aboard suffer a deadly attack.

Determined to discover the identity and deal with whoever is responsible, Hannah finds herself straddling a fine line between Russian connections and the CIA, wondering who she can trust.

The mother-son Johansen team has put together an engrossing read. Detail and action, together with a solid plot, bring this well written co-effort together into a story that will absorb you. A few wonderful twists keep the forward propulsion working, and the interaction between Hannah and a dangerous, drive man with no compulsion to follow the rules, keeps the reader wondering.

Silent Thunder should be on everyone's reading list. It's sure to be on the New York Time's.

Highly recommended.

Currently Reading: Dead Famous by Carol O'Connell

It's all better with friends.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Character vs. Plot

I had dinner last night with a wonderful group of women, many of whom I hadn't seen in almost ten years.

Driving home, I got to thinking about relationships, and like everything else in my life, those thoughts got me thinking about writing.

Prevalent thought is that suspense is plot driven, and in general, characters are quite secondary to the story. I'm thinking that's a dangerous thought to subscribe to.

I want my characters to matter, because if they don't, how can I expect to have anyone care about the plot? The greatest, supsensiest plot in the world is irrelevant if the characters are flat and unconnected.

The plot does not always propel itself, but connected characters who I care about sure can.

I recently finished reading Silent Thunder, the terrific new book by Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen. Definitely a well constructed suspense novel, the characters were just as three-dimensional as the plot—even a couple of the secondaries.

So, I played "What if?" about the illustrious group of women who sat around a table in a busy restaurant Monday night.

What if one of them was being stalked?

What if one of them was a stalker?

What if they were being used because of their careers and relationships to unknowingly help a terrorist group?

Relationships. Suspense. Yeah.

Currently reading: Step on a Crack by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

It's all better with friends.