Thursday, June 22, 2017

Virgin or Seasoned PRO - Details

Each week, I download multiple books to my e-reader.

Some I will finish and be excited that I’ve discovered great writing, a new author.
Some I will finish because I’ve discovered an innovative plot line.
Some I will finish because there is witty dialogue, superlative character development, or the use of literary device that is a struggle for me.

Many . . . many, I will not finish.

I’ll return them through my Kindle Unlimited – or simply delete from all my devices and take a hit on the cost.

Why?

Because reading time is precious and obvious mistakes in the first few pages of a book, does not bode well.

Sound pompous? Sorry for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are only 24-hours in any daily calendar.

After the writing, a bit of cooking, straightening, more writing, research, networking, working (the day job), family, more writing/editing . . .

You get the point.

Time is too precious of a commodity to waste on bad writing. (As a writer, I understand bad writing – only too well. However, that bad writing is edited to good writing or it goes into the delete folder. What doesn’t it do? See the light of readers’ e-readers.)

This mini-rant focuses on DETAILS.

Ancient adage: the devil is in the details.

This is never truer than in writing – good writing, that is.

Whether VIRGIN (newbie writer) or SEASONED PRO (established author), basic mistakes are unforgiveable to the reader.

I’ve chosen one selection from the many that have recently visited my e-reader. For the sake of literary discussion, I’ll term the selection: the red dress book. (Not anywhere in the title so don’t bother with a search.)

Why purchase this particular e-book?

Cover: Dramatic. Eye-catching
Title: Witty
Book blurb: Concise, Enticing
Even better it was listed as 9th in this author’s series, but it was billed as a stand-alone.

The problem with my purchase started on page 1 and continued through page 4.
Perhaps, the problem went further.

I did not.

The first 4 first pages of dialogue - whining dialogue, I’m sorry to say – contained no scene-setting, little character introduction, no backstory, or emotional meat. Who were these characters? Where were these characters? Why were they here in this moment in time, and MOST IMPORTANTLY – why should I the reader care about them?

Broken down into simplest form:

QUESTION: What did the characters reveal to the reader through their actions/observations?

ANSWER: Almost nothing.

Let’s start at the beginning. The characters are captured in a ‘surprise’ attack, held ‘somewhere’ by ‘someone’ for ‘some’ reason. Oh yes, they were chloroformed during the capture.

Have you ever undergone general anesthesia?
Been to the dentist for major oral work and received lots of Novocain?
Received muscle relaxers or pain meds while recovering from an injury?

Cement that instance in your mind.

Did you wake up instantly?

Or did you come back to your surroundings slowly? Take stock? Hear muffled sounds? Feel the sturdy bed beneath you? Or the cool sheets against your skin? Was there a stale taste in your mouth? Did you roll your shoulders, flex your fingers, or stretch your legs?

Chances are - what you didn’t do was immediately start into a bickering conversation in full sentences, filled with biting innuendos. Yes, you guessed it. That was the writing sin of the characters in the red dress selection.

If you, brilliant writer that you are, can’t accomplish this linguistic feat, neither can your characters.

Let’s return to our chatty characters.

QUESTION: What did the author reveal through the characters’ eyes?

ANSWER: read on . . .

The characters are restrained, sitting back to back, tied at the wrists. How? It’s a mystery as the author chooses not to tell and, more crucially, not to show.

Did I, as the reader, feel abrasive rope? Biting metal handcuffs? Sticky unforgiving duct tape? The cutting edge of ‘cop’ zip ties? Nope, because the author missed this small, but important detail.





The characters were sitting on the floor. What kind of floor? Was it cold concrete? Smooth laminate? Damp dirt or shifting sand? Again, the reader doesn’t know because the author missed the opportunity to scene set.

The female character wore an expensive red evening dress -- one she valued because she lamented its loss, but that's it. One tiny detail revealed. The size of the room: did it echo their whispers? Or muffle the sound? Is there cool air against (bare) arms? – I’m speculating on that evening dress – or humid heavy air? How dark is the dark? The pitch black of nothing? Or light edging around near/distant windows? Were there any other sounds? The hum of equipment? The scratching of mice/rats? Any noise from outside? Traffic? Wind? What smells were in the room? Damp and dank? Clinical and antiseptic?

Does an author need to put all those answers on the first four pages? Absolutely not.

Details in an opening scene can be likened to inviting a first-time guest into your home. Said guest will use all of his/her senses upon entering. Does each detail register to consciousness? Of course not. But if you’ve burned dinner – they’ll know. If the electricity is out and it’s dark as a tomb or hot as a Texas summer afternoon – they’ll know. If kids are slamming doors, exchanging sibling love at full holler – they’ll know.

So the author’s choice, more succinctly put, the author’s obligation is to present details.

Details add to the scene.
Details reveal or ‘show’ more than plain dialogue.
Details enhance the readers’ enjoyment.


Once again, back to our chatty character:

QUESTION: What did the author reveal about backstory?

ANSWER: Read on . . .

What relationship existed between the two characters?
1) Lovers – current or ex?
2) Professional associates?
3) Business adversaries?
4) Arch enemies?

Why was the female with this man? Right then? At that exact moment when the story began?

None of these answers were revealed during the 4-page conversation.

However witty the dialogue, if it does not move the plot or scene forward, then it is wasted page space.

What did the author reveal?

The characters had been taken during a surprise attack. Both of them. Both were PIs, or at least trained as investigators of some type. Both surprised from behind. Neither suspected. Neither heard anything. Neither felt the air move behind them, heard twigs snap, doors ease shut?

Why?

If the author doesn’t provide a reason on page . . .
that makes the character inept, newbies, or TSTL (too stupid to live).
Inept or newbies can be trained during the story’s evolution, repaired by another character, or simply highly humorous. Case-in-point: a Stephanie Plum novel or a Pink Panther movie.

TSTL is not repairable. It’s replaceable. Characters must be cheered on, rooted for, and supported even, and especially during, their darkest periods. Only characters who are worthy of investment will keep readers turning the page.

Final QUESTION: What were the characters’ emotions on page?

ANSWER: No shock. No fear. No panic. No sense of urgency to be free. Unfortunately, the author provided a void of reaction.

Do we, as readers, believe that lack of reaction?

Do we commit to the characters?

Do we keep reading?

Answer - I didn't.

My surprise - this was the 9th book in this series by this author. How had this author missed so many, tiny and grand, details?

If you, as an author,
1) Aren’t utilizing ‘beta’ readers, you should.
2) Don’t work with critique partners, you should.
3) Especially an established author - haven’t had your recent work critiqued, you should.

As writers:
We’re never too smart to learn.
We’re never too busy to edit/review/critique.
We’re never too highly published to work the craft.

VIRGIN or SEASONED PRO – the devil’s in the details.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sly as a Fox

Common phrases can be trite and throw-away.

Or they can layer on depth and provide alternative options to explore characterization.

Today animal phrases are roaming (pardon the pun) through my brain.

Why?

On an early hours’ walk, a fox crossed my path. Not unique for loads of people who enjoy country living, but considering that I’m buried in a ‘metropolis’ of suburbia, pretty unusual for me.



So the fox crosses my path and now I’m wondering (at a quick pace, I might add) what does it mean?


Is it like the crossing of a black cat? (bad luck)
Is it like crossing paths with a crow? (change on the way)
Is it like a path-crossing tortoise? (A sign to stay steady, stay true to the course)


A visit to an ‘animal symbol' site: What’s Your Sign (catchy), a click on the fox and I discovered that depending on the ancient belief system of choice, the meaning will alter.

Celtic beliefs – the fox successfully negotiated the twists and turns of the forest and it was viewed as a guide.

Native American beliefs – (Northern Tribes) viewed the fox as an animal of wisdom and as that of a messenger.

Another site – Spirit Animals holds that the fox is again a guide and will foretell of resolutions to problems. ‘Solitude and Silence’ are required as the fox is a stealthily animal.

(Note also that when the fox hunts, he/she will point straight toward the prey and be fully focused.)
Not a bad thought for the writer's life.


From a phraseology standpoint, I discovered a number of common ‘catch’ phrases:

Sly as a fox.
Clever as a fox
Cunning like a fox
Crazy like a fox


Whatever the phrase, remember how long the wily fox has existed in literature:

The Gingerbread Man – folk tale. ...
Fox In Sox by Dr. Seuss. ...



The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl. ...
Aesop's Fables. ...


Breaking characters down into bit pieces and then connecting the pieces in an interesting puzzle-like fashion is the goal of any established writer.

A few famous characters that could easily be likened to the fox:

1) Sherlock Holmes
2) Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo
3) Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple
4) Flynn Rider in Rapunzel

5) Will in Robin Hood
6) Vizzini in The Princess Bride
7) Even the everyday run of the mill – teenager.

Point made?


Characteristics of the clever and sly fox can be artfully woven in a written work, can show intrinsic layers and depth to a character, and can provide reader insight with the clarity of minute details.

Whether protagonist or secondary lead, hero or heel, victim or villain, the fox can add complexity to any character.

At times, the simplest of phrases can open doors of development for characters.

A cliché, trite and overused, never belongs on page . . .

but the deeper meaning, a clearer understanding of the cliché can mean the difference between readers who root for a character, cheering them on, shedding tears for their losses, and would never dream of putting the book aside until all is resolved . . . and readers who can and will toss away an author’s earnest words.

Here’s hoping that ‘the turn of a phrase’ makes all the difference in your writing.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Too Much to Swallow - Plotting

However great the storyteller, however well published the author – one truth remains constant. Plotting, beast that it is, can never be side-stepped, shortened or eliminated. Short story to novel, fiction to non-fiction, romance to suspense, each writer must face the daunting task of basic plotting.

Breaking the process of plotting down into specific bites can make the entire process more palatable.

Who . . . What . . . When . . . Where . . . and Why:
basic questions guaranteed to cook up plotting
BRILLIANCE

Who – be specific, which character is the target of this plotting session.

1) One of the protagonists?
2) The villain?
3) A secondary character who’s crucial to plot development?
Tami Hoag's, The 9th Girl, is expertly plotted, with twists and turns that actively involve the reader throughout the story. If we take Ms. Hoag's female protagonist, Detective Nikki Liska from a plotting standpoint, this is an established character, secure in her life choices - or so it seems on the surface - who is embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer.



What – be specific about the goal of the plotting.

Not necessarily which scene or chapter; that’s actually irrelevant. Much more important is the character arc. Will this session deal with tricky external plot points? Or the deeper, more emotional internal conflict layers? Or the difficult task of intertwining the external with the internal? Always think of bite-sized pieces no matter how complicated the plotting goal.

Supersized may be wonderful at your favorite fast-food restaurant, but it’s likely to lead to difficult digestion with plotting. With internal (emotional) conflict, the character will grow (arc) through more than one learning experience. Knowing and truly understanding what the character must absorb in order to aid this growth will greatly enhance the writer’s ability to slice the character’s education into morsels for the reader to devour.

REMEMBER, those kiddie plates for our little ones?



Sectioned off so their peas didn’t roll into mashed potatoes? Capture those slots in your mind. If the character must learn to trust, spoon out the ‘life’ lessons into smaller parcels until the plate (or the lesson) is complete. While most characters transition over the course of the story, understanding that multiple bites will be necessary for this process, keeps the writer truer to the process. And helps alleviate that worst of worst: the disappointed reader.

We’ve all encountered books that left us wanting more. That frustrated because those plotting steps that allowed us, as readers, to grow, to stretch, to learn right beside the character from beginning to end were somehow incomplete. Something of that ‘real’ process was missing. Plotting . . . at least, doing it well . . . will prevent those missing steps.

In The 9th Girl, Nikki Liska is overtaxed mentally and physically. As the job of hunting the killer cuts into sleep hours, parenting time with her two sons, even sitting still for a decent meal, single mom Nikki finds her personal life in turmoil. Fighting the age-old conflict between home and career, millions of single moms, moms with demanding careers, and women who find themselves often alone in raising their children, can and will identify with the character of Nikki Liska. What appears to be early story filler turns out to be plot-driven necessary information. Ms. Hoag sets up her protagonist as an in-the-dark overworked mom of a 15-year-old son. Through the choice of a reserved, hard-to-understand teenager as a secondary character, Ms. Hoag offers nibbles of insight into the internal conflict that Nikka Liska is experiencing, but also weaves a complicated external plot to the ultimate necessity to catch the killer.

Who and What belong to the story, to the characters, to the plot.

When – belongs to the writer. A writer should focus on his/her body rhythms.

When are ideas freshest? Most open to new twists and turns? Daydreaming? During the day, is there allotted time to actually let go and allow imagination free reign? Identifying those times, scheduling quiet hours, a secluded walk and hitting the time-frame when it aligns with our body will inherently equal more successful plotting.

Where – not quite as simple as the question implies, also belongs to the writer.

1) Is plotting time better at home with a white board/chalk board/stack of sticky notes?


2) Perhaps being AWAY from home with a recorder? Is plotting better in motion like on a walk, or in a swing, or rocker? Does the motion literally force your brain into forward motion? OR perhaps a drive down country lanes?

IMPORTANT **If so, consider how to best accomplish a good recording of these imagination trips. I often work with the recording app on my phone and a Bluetooth. But I’ve checked the recording quality in different environments so I know when I can literally hear myself think . . . and when there’s just too much background noise.


3) Perhaps as a plotter, you work better in stillness, calm surroundings, in a space specifically designed and designated for writing?
4) Or is this process better completely away from home? A writer’s retreat with critique partners? Or a mini-vacation with a spouse or significant other? If so, make certain to set clear partner perimeters. What you expect to accomplish and when you’ll be available for them. Same goes with critique partners. How much time is allotted to each partner? Make a schedule. And always allow for quiet time then to flesh out the plotting that you’ve accomplished together. The quiet is as important as these great brainic sessions.
5) Learn to avoid those places that are mental drags. I cannot plot in my breakfast nook even though I love the furniture. Why? Because when I look up, my glance is constantly drawn to something else that needs to be done.

And finally, Why – this step reinforces the ‘What’. And is back to characters, story and the basics of plotting.

1) Why does your character need to learn this particular ‘What’ task?
2) Why does this ‘What’ internal conflict need to be resolved at this part of the story? The ‘Why’ is crucial to on-going plotting.

*Ever-so-often, this one piece of the puzzle will lead to further plotting. Internal conflict resolution must take place in a logical and often linear manner. For writers, this can be taxing. Our brains have a tendency to jump from Point A to Point M, skipping over everything in between: mainly because we don’t know our characters or the story well enough at this point to fill in each individual phase.

**However, through the ‘why’ stage, a writer can boil it down to the bare bones. Then the writer is free to explore and open the character up to each point of the ‘conflict resolution’.

*BONUS*

Through this process, the writer will often discover exact scenes for character enlightenment, whom (which other characters) must be on page at the time, where the discoveries will take place, and exactly how much the character will learn at that precise moment.

Early in The 9th Girl, Detective Nikka Liska's shy and reserved, but good student son is suddenly in big trouble at his private artistic school. Nikka is forced to breach the proprietary walls of the school and her own son's privacy in order to first, protect her child, and second, to hunt a killer. While a limited amount of information is released to Nikka at this early juncture, the groundwork is set for several necessary school and school friend scenes. From the initial conflict at her son's private institution, Nikka is firmly entrenched on this path. And what turns out to be the twisted path to find the actual killer of The 9th Girl.

Almost done, but not quite.

For the final and easy to overlook step – don’t forget to capture all this greatness in useful format. If it’s a recorder, make certain to transcribe notes. If it’s a white/chalk board, take a picture and upload to your ‘progress of plotting’ file. Sticky notes get added onto the greater plot board. (I’ve used a corkboard, divided up into the appropriate number of chapters then added the sticky notes to the correct chapter.) As I can type (and delete) faster than hand-writing, I currently use a Trello board app. With its cut and paste, drag and drop, highlight and illuminate features, the Trello app covers all the bases for me. It’s also available on my phone and tablet. I can connect anywhere with this app and upload my momentary brilliance.

Spooning out plotting into manageable and thoughtful bites can make the task of gnawing through this often overwhelming process of writing so much easier to swallow.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Brilliance of Layering

I am a bit of a DIY nut. Not the most talented rehab expert, but darned persistent when I need to learn a task in order to complete a make-over.
When necessity demanded, I’ve tackled walls and ceilings: tape & bedding, trim-out work, baseboards, texturing, priming then painting, tiling (yes, you can tile a bathroom wall), to floors that have been stripped, sanded, leveled, prepped, tiled, grouted and finally sealed. At our home, we've changed light fixtures, ceiling fans, plumbing fixtures, even a few main internal water lines. I've removed old, leaky doors, sealed framing, stuffed installation, and floated in a couple of walls. Then there were old dated external doors out and new insulated ones framed-in.

I've discovered that while not a master tradesman (and my hat off to those who are), I'm a fair Jack {or Jill, if you will} of many a trade.

To me writing is the birth or rebirth of an idea. I rather like taking some nugget of a scene/conversation/characteristic and allowing my imagination to run wild. In the real life of my home, I face limitations: color, texture, my expertise or the overall expense, but in my mind, there are no limits.

If I can dream up the plot line, then it only remains I find a 'writing' solution to bring it to conclusion.


I must give my characters the knowledge, the experience, the obstacles or challenges that will build them equal to the tasks of the plot. Whether my characters are midget or giants in stature, stick-pole skinny or pin-up curvaceous, pimple-faced young or lined with maturity, there are no limits, except . . . and this is the most important 'except', he/she must be the perfect hero/heroine/ally/nemesis for my book at that precise moment.

Sounds more than a touch intimidating, doesn't it?

Each author that you could interview would provide a different way to achieve the 'perfect' character for a specific role. Each would be right, if that technique works for their, well, their work.

That's the brilliance of layering.

Many have used and coined the phrase: 'A character is like an onion. As writers, you must peel away each layer until you find the center.'
As an experienced chef, I will tell you the center of the onion isn't all that great. It's smelly, and if you let that onion sit too long, it's mushy and then more smelly.

Instead of onions, I consider my character and their layers rather like a remodel project.

Wherever a character starts at the beginning of the story is NOT where he or she will end up at the end. It's call a 'character arc' for a reason.
Consider the character as a DIY remodel project.

The first step must be removal; repair/replacement/alteration/new treatment cannot take place until the old is gone.

Characters are the same.

Until the old is broken, stripped away, obliterated, the new cannot began. Besides, demolition is its own reward.


1) Consider what habits the character will need to change to start their path in the story line.
In Christina Dodd's Just The Way You Are,

main character tycoon, Zach Givens never does for himself. He commands his minions to retrieve messages, run errands, act as butler, chef, housekeeper. Until he crosses paths with main character, Hope Prescott and gets a dose of her reality, he's content to live in the world of his making. But to prove he's not the monster that this fiercely independent woman, struggling student, and joyful burst of sunshine believes him to be . . . Zach must give up many of his selfish and narrow-visioned habits.



2) More, consider what beliefs must be challenged then altered for real character growth.
In Susan Elizabeth Phillips', Kiss An Angel,

broody, secretive protagonist Alex Markov refuses to believe that an age-old marriage and mating between the Markov & Devereaux holds any merit. Even married & mated to Daisy Devereaux, to the woman who brings equal measures of joy and chaos to his life, Alex continues to deny that he'll ever become a father and allow his ancestry to live on. The destruction of this belief system shape the hero's character arc and spans the entire book. Under Susan Elizabeth Phillips' careful tutelage, the introduction of this inherent and embedded belief and its constant re-iteration, the hero's well-honed prejudices are ultimately destroyed and laid at the feet of the heroine.


Now, consider what I call the 'married' phase.

1) What habits are so ingrained, so necessary, so 'revealing' that the character must retain them?
In the 'In Death' series by JD Robb,

main character, Roark carries a button in his pocket. A gray button. A gray button that fell from a female cop's suit jacket. A gray button that belongs to the cop who becomes his love, who becomes his wife. Is he a man with a button fetish? A retired criminal who steals without reason? Or does the button, which is constantly in his pant's pocket, which never leaves his side, is the button a symbol? A touchstone? By its very presence, does it represent something so small, that which could be easily overlooked? Or does the author take this simplistic item and by its existence turn it into an integral glimpse into this character?

2) What part of the character's belief system is at their very core and cannot and must not be changed?
Take another Roark (Howard Roark) of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.

Howard Roark's belief system is that which drives the entire book, that which all the other characters fight against, and finally embrace, or fall to devastation because it is unshakable and resolute. That is a belief system so intrinsic to the plot line, to the characters' developments that it cannot change through the course of the story.

That which you, as the writer, must solidify on page, must marry for the duration of writing the story.

As with any good DIY project, knowing what goes and what stays is crucial. To layer a character with brilliance, the writer, a writer, any writer must first determine what parts of the characters: habits & beliefs need to be challenged, to be rattled, then to be broken. Equally important, is the determination of what parts of the character are inherent and intrinsic and must be nurtured and protect through the writing.

Writers are gods of their own creations.

What a fabulous opportunity each writer enjoys: the ability to condemn and to condone, to abandon or assure. Fabulous business is this writing world. The power of the pen is etched into the writing through an author's conquest of layering.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Weekend Craving . . . hunting burgers!

This weekend's craving was for the perfect Veggie Burger.

Now, don't immediately click off the blog.

Veggie burgers can be great.

Case in point, the one that was served @ Mellow Mushroom until last week. (Note there's no link, because they're on my bad side.) Apparently, the powers-that-be @ Mellow Mushroom didn't find sales of their Herbed Veggie Burger high enough and it's been pulled from the menu.

Hubby and I went for lunch today, ordered the burger, then after a 25-minute wait we were told the burger had been pulled from the menu.

1st - shame on waiter/management that it took 25 minutes to tell us what we ordered was no longer available.
2nd - I did order one of their Gluten-Free Pizza options (again, don't say ick! - Gluten Free means that a different type of flour is used in the crust. I promise if you have the right homemade crust from alternate flour, you won't complain, most likely won't know.) The pizza was fine. However, when one is really jonesing for a burger, then pizza - even good pizza - isn't the answer.

Now, I'm on the hunt for the perfect Veggie Burger recipe, but it's specific. I want kale/brown rice/quinoa and mushrooms in my basic burger.

My Twitter account is in high drive at the moment as I've sent out scads of personal messages to fellow 'weekend chefs'.

If you've dropped by my porch and have a suggestion on a recipe, pop me a note on where to find it.

OH, and if you want a great pizza (just don't ask what the crust is made from) go to: Across The Pond



(of course, living near or visiting Fort Worth, TX is helpful.) If you don't have an Across the Pond, experiment a bit with Gluten-Free alternative pizza options.

Best Suggestion - visit restaurants that advertise Vegetarian/Vegan/Gluten Free options. Someone in the kitchen will know what they're doing and you'll more than likely (I didn't give an absolute guarantee) be pleased.

Happy Cow
is a great phone app for this type of search.





Texas sayings

~Watch your step! Cacti, tumbleweeds, and an occasional armadillo might be ahead.

~Welcome to the land of tar-bubbling summers, gas-guzzling pickup trucks, standard Stetson headgear, and mile-high hair.

~Welcome to the Lone Star State, and Romance With A Texas Twist!

Quote of the Day