Monday, September 29, 2008

Just Do It—Get Vulnerable

Creative Procrastination only takes me so far. At some point, I need to take action, or the decision will be made for me. And then it's a decision made in weakness, not strength.

These moments come into the lives of writers on a regular basis.

One of those moments occurred the first time I sat down to write and transfer the brilliant, fascinating story in my head to paper. It looked wonderful—because I still had it in my head. Not the paper. My moment of truth came when, after learning a bit more about the craft of writing, I re-read the thing. Ouch.

Do you remember the first time you submitted your prose to a critique partner to read? Did you do it with confidence or trepidation?

The first time I entered a writing contest, I was so green I was still sticky. I knew I had a winner and some lucky duck was about to discover me. In the two short months after I entered, my learning curve shot to the moon and I recognized my dewy-faced (if not snot-nosed) entry for what it was. I would have been supremely disappointed if I had won. My faith in the organization sponsoring the contest, and what it could teach me, would have plummeted.

I needn't have worried.

The next writing contest I entered, I placed second and felt validated. (I take my victories where I can find them.)

So. Now. There's this little short story contest. The deadline is tomorrow. They've asked for people not to wait until the last minute.

And here I sit.

I'm waiting for this blast of brilliance. For the words to plow into my head that will weave a stronger character arc and maximize the danger. It probably isn't gonna happen.

But I also know this. I must enter that little contest. I need to exercise my vulnerability muscle or I'll lose it.

Such is the life of a writer.

CR: Still reading Life Expectancy.

Working on: Moving back to normal after two weeks worth of company and four days worth of flu.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Writers Vs. Normals

It's true that unless you live the life of a writer, the life of a writer is difficult to understand. Especially, I think, the life of a suspense novelist.

The story goes, as best I can remember, that my novelist sister's husband had a client of his in the passenger seat of their SUV. He pushed the button expecting music to fill the air. Instead, a discourse with the title "101 Ways to Kill Your Spouse" began playing.

My wonderful husband, who loves me more than he understands me, was a bit disconcerted when my nightstand held both The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker and Serial Killers, The Method and Madness of Monsters by Peter Vronsky. He became more concerned when I began highlighting and making notes in the margins.

An aunt from Utah and a cousin from Texas are visiting me for a while. They are sweet innocents who don't have an inkling of the mind of a novelist. Watching me read a research piece I'd printed to review, one of them asked what it was about. I told them I was confirming that anthrax was the biological threat agent I wanted to use. I should have added it was for my short story, and that by naming the "worst germs known to man", I cut my word count down by four words.


What I'm reading: Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz

What I'm working on: That short story.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Under 1,000 Words

Eek! I've been working on a short story to enter in a contest. One of the rules is that the story must be under 1,000 words—without pictures to help. In addition, the contest requires my entry to contain five specific words.

Which sort of leaves me with only 994 to call my own.

Have you ever tried to write a story . . . an interesting story . . . with 994 words? I have a basic one completed that I don't think is too bad, but one of my cps (critique partners) thinks I need to put my protag in greater imminent danger. Which means I need to punch it around a little more.

And the contest deadline is looming.

A couple of points I've discovered that are helpful in writing a short story:

• Write tight. Every word must be needed. Look for those strong verbs whenever possible.

• You still need a character arc. Between the first word and the last word, your character needs to have been changed.

• For suspense, that character needs to be in imminent danger, not just perceived or possible danger. Aargh.

Just finished reading Kill Me.

Yesterday worked on installing a badly needed new modem. Oy.

Currently working on trying to find a few moments between visiting with company to write . . . anything.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Phobias, Hobbies & Quirks

Part of character development has to include eccentricities and things on which my characters enjoy spending both time and money.

I have trouble with heights. Strike that. I have a lot of trouble with heights. That's one reason why our upper deck is pretty much the domain of my husband. I'm okay as long as I'm looking out at the mountains, but looking down? Three stories? It's like a magnetic spiral with deadly appeal.

If my character has this same phobia, giving her a hobby of rock climbing would not be a very smart move on my part. But I definitely want to consider the possibility of having her out on a girder of a high rise under construction with a menacing something, or someone, right behind her. Wowzer. Terrific conflict.

Same thing if my character is afraid of closed-in places. I will want to have him stuck in a tiny cave at some point.

Quirks, used well, can be tools of endearment. The trick is to not stretch them to the point they seem contrived. A quirk for the sake of a quirk doesn't come off well.

Let's take lipstick for example. (Yes, the current news is bombarding my brain.) It's not whack-o to have my character have a need to reapply lipstick whenever she feels anxious. It would be whack-o for her to break out her entire makeup bag and do the same thing. Not only whack-o, but action stopping.

One of my favorite television programs is Monk. Here is a character who is filled with phobias and quirks and yet remains lovable. But Monk falls more under the label of "cozy" as opposed to suspense.

As a suspense novelist, I need to be selective. It may even be the I have the information (with my background character studies) and these personality traits never meet the light of day. Nothing wrong with that.

Phobias, hobbies and quirks can help to round out a character. And provide fodder for conflict, the spice of life. Well, the spice of fiction.

Still reading Kill Me. It's a good book, I've just been busy with anniversaries and entertaining and getting ready for special company.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, September 8, 2008


In the Writer's Digest book, Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman, Phyllis Whitney talks about pacing and suspense. (Anything attributed to Phyllis Whitney gets my attention.)

. . . give every character a secret. As a writer you need to know about the hidden goals, the past guilts of every character. Such secrets can be used to make your story people behave in mysterious and suspense-building ways. As we think about and develop these secrets, the characters become more real to us, as writers, and thus to our readers. Conflict is likely to grow out of these concealed matters, and of course, this is a main weapon in our suspense arsenal.

I'm an old snoop from way back. My desire to know usually outranks my desire for decorum. I want to know the secrets of all of my characters. Even the secrets they've forgotten about. I want to know what they've got locked away in a trunk somewhere.

Heck, I want to know your secrets. I consider this desire a result of being a student of the human condition. My husband considers it a sickness. I'm counting on more than one reader being similarly afflicted.

Secrets are tantalizing. They can drive characters to do amazing things. If those amazing things create conflict? Well, then . . .

Still reading Kill Me.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, September 5, 2008


From Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Edition: Con•flict: the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.

I'm getting ready to start a new scene. I have some general ideas but what I need to nail down before I get started is the conflict.

In Debra Dixon's GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict she has a couple of warnings regarding conflict:

Unrelenting conflict or throwing "everything but the kitchen sink" at the character can numb the reader.

Okay, I need to be selective. I need to pick the worst thing, not every thing. Got it.

We've all seen movies that we thought would never end. By the time the hero kills/arrests the bad guy, we don't care anymore.

Get in and get out. Make my point (maybe I'll build it up a little) then let go. Also, don't resolve this conflict, then hit my character over the head with another one. Ad infinitum. Got it.

Another pitfall, which stems from fuzzy conflict, is erratic or slow pacing because you wander through scene after scene trying to get a handle on what the real battle is, what the character's real problem is.

Thus this little period of time for me to focus and identify and know for sure this is what my character doesn't want the most, even if they don't know it yet. Hope to get it.

Dixon also makes this very good point: Let me warn you . . . if conflict makes you uncomfortable or you have difficulty wrecking the lives of your characters, you need to consider another line of work.

Donald Maass reminds us in Writing the Breakout Novel to pick a story world that isn't safe. It's hard to write a great novel about the suburbs. Try and pick a place steeped in conflict. Where there is conflict, there is rich soil in which to plant a story.

Continuing later in Breakout: . . . the conflict must matter to us; equally, our interest level will decline in ratio to how removed we feel from those involved in a conflict.

In other words, I need to make sure my character is likable and that the conflict is more than an in-grown toenail. It has to matter. It has to be big. It has to hold my reader's interest.

I think there's one more thing to add about conflict. It has to be relevant. It needs to be believable. No one is going to believe my bookstore owner in Aspen Falls is conflicted by an automobile accident in Amsterdam involving people he doesn't know. Okay, that's a little far-fetched. I'm just saying. . . .

Still reading: Kill Me. I really like this book.

Working on: Off to do a bit of brainstorming about the conflict in my scene and . . . how it moves the story forward.

It's all better with friends.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

New Beginnings

I love this time of year. The process of change is more exciting than the results of change. Seasons slipping from one into another and I'm right there to experience it all.


Right now, nights are cool, almost cold, and mornings are crisp. The sky has taken on a different quality of blue and the light has shifted to an almost magical luminescence. Fall is in the air in Colorado. We'll begin getting teased into autumn and winter very soon.

Sure, I have a little nostalgia for summer. I remember those long, languid days of summer vacation as a kid. Fresh green grass and twilight hours that stretched on and on. Playing outdoors until I heard my dad's whistle—he made his sound different so there could be no excuses.

Then there are my memories of starting school. Fresh. A whole new slate in front of me. New clothes. New shoes. New attitude. I loved the first day of school.

New Year's Day is nice, but there are those pesky goals to feel guilty about.

My preference is the first day of school. And oh yeah, my favorite day of the week is Monday.

Fresh starts. New beginnings. Clear, uncluttered goals.

Now is also a good time for me to dust off those goals I set for the year. Revamp and revise so I can end up strong and confident.

Starting fresh. I love it.

What I'm reading: Kill Me by Stephen White.

What I'm working on: GMC and Breakout and some brand new scenes in my oft-rewritten manuscript.

It's all better with friends.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Clubs

We used to have a little neighborhood book club. I enjoyed it for the most part. Heck, I started it. Got a good friend to pull it together with me and it lasted until people moved or lost interest. It's fun to have several people read the same book and then get together to talk about it.

I'm curious about something, though. Those discussion questions some books have at the end, designed to facilitate book club discussions . . . know the ones I mean?

Reading a book is intense (if it's good) and personal (if it's very good), and discussion questions often leave me cold. The ones I've seen seem to be either shallow ("Duh" comes to mind) or so esoteric that I have to wonder how long it took them to come up with a question to make me feel dumb.

I've learned to pretty much ignore the discussion questions, if I want to continue to enjoy the book weeks after I've finished reading.

There are discussion questions however, and then there are Discussion Questions. As a novelist, the questions and answers I've seen online are remarkable and each one can teach a writer something. I encourage everyone to get involved in a quality, online book discussion. Even if I haven't read the book they're talking about (I never have), I learn about triumphs and tragedies. Things that work for readers and things best avoided.

I haven't been able to find an online group for suspense. If you know of one, please share. But for mystery, there are several. I belong to a couple of yahoo groups (you can find some that fit the bill for you at their website). My favorite (for reader input) is 4 Mystery Addicts. Another wonderful loop (independent of yahoo) is DorothyL, named for Dorothy L. Sayers.

I'm frantically trying to read a book for the DorothyL book club I'd like to get involved with. I just picked up the book today. The discussion starts, um . . . today. Somehow I need to plan better.

The book the group is reading . . . has read . . . is The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. Last month they read a Christie. That one I probably read. This one is new to me so far, but the title rings vaguely familiar.

We often talk about authors from days gone by never making it in today's market. For the most part, that's true. American readers (not so much European in my experience) require a fast-pace. Get to the story. Draw me in.

And Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), at least so far in this book, is doing a bang-up job. His handling of dialogue is superb and worthy of study.

If I forsake a few other things tomorrow, maybe I can get close to being ready for the Big Discussion.

Just finished The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning. You know what I'm currently reading.

It's all better with friends.