Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Professional Writer (or: Better Sex, Part 1)

How does one go from being a professional-something-else (in my case, a veterinarian) to becoming a professional writer?

The answer: It Depends.

On what, you ask?

The journey depends entirely on the type of writer you want to become.

If blogging is your thing, the path is simple: Study your target audience (a.k.a.-future revenue source), decide on the best topics to attract said audience, create a killer web platform, then compose-measure-refine your message based on the results.

Repeat until you're sick of blogging or have become the next Pioneer Woman.

If you're a left brain sort, maybe your future lies in non-fiction. Say you're an expert at growing garlic the size of baseballs or a whiz at organizing socks. Perhaps you've produced eleven children and delivered them into adulthood without so much as a single detention slip or snotty eye roll. If so, condense those wisdomy pearls into something called a book proposal, then query agents who represent your particular flavor of non-fiction. Based on what I'm seeing on the grocery store racks these days, you shouldn't have much trouble selling.

Kicked your embarrassing butternut squash addiction? Lost half your body weight on a diet comprised of dill pickles, kale, and Diet Mt. Dew? Tell us how you did it in 1200 words or less (don't forget the bullet points) and send it to Men's/Women's/Kid's Health magazine.

Want a sure thing? Use the words 'Better Sex' in the title, regardless of topic.

Don't get me wrong. I understand how difficult it is to blog regularly and successfully. How tough it is to write (and sell) non-fiction books or magazine articles. In my veterinary practice I devoted long hours to writing client brochures and how-to handouts. In deciding to sell my practice to write full-time, I considered writing articles for equine publications in order to pay the bills. (And even now haven't completely ruled it out.)

But if you really want a tear-your-still-beating-heart-out-of-your-chest thrill, try becoming a professional writer of fiction.

To start, you find--and fall hopelessly in love with--characters who exist solely in your imagination. Maybe (like me) your first book begins as a lovely, vivid dream you can't shake. Just to clear your head, you write the scene down in a ratty spiral notebook. When it's done you shove it under the bed, then get up the next day and go back to your real job.

But when you come home that night, you can't wait to dig out the notebook and see what happens next. Soon, you're stealing moments to work on your story: sick days, lunch hours, that magic time in the morning before the kids get up. Your characters feel real, as if they're telling you what to write.

Before you know it, you've bought two more spiral notebooks and a package of really good black pens. Then, like a junkie with an ever-worsening need, you spring for a used laptop and download Word or Scrivener to keep track of all your chapters, character descriptions, and plot points.

At this point it hits: You don't want to just write this story. You want people to read it...and thinks it's good.

Problem is, you don't actually know how to write a book. Sure, you're a voracious reader, but appreciating a thing isn't the same as knowing how to do it. (Karaoke, anyone?)

Enter the next phase: Soaking-up-information-like-a-Brawny-towel-on-steroids.

(to be continued)

Monday, December 10, 2012

To Save A Life...

Last week I, um, borrowed an idea from another author (I swear I'll make it up to her somehow.)

After a few tweaks, it went like this: Like my author page on Facebook before 10pm Wednesday, December 5th and I'll donate two bucks to the Broken Arrow Animal Shelter.

Since the challenge only ran a few hours I was surprised by the results: Fifty eight dollars. Way to go, Facebookers! Even better, my cousin, Tim--a devastatingly talented West Coast actor--matched the donation at his local shelter. (I'll try to post the link to his experience on my FB page.)

Friday I went to our sparkling new animal shelter and whipped out my writing account checkbook. The manager gratefully accepted the check, and said our donation will go to buy toys, fluffies, and treats for the animals until they're adopted.

Afterward, an officer showed me around so I could take pictures for the blog.

My first impression: Clean, nice-smelling (shocking, right?) and well-managed. Cats have a cool jungle-gym setup with lots of glass. Dogs have four indoor kennels with solid-poured floors, which means easy cleanup and no odor. There are skylights in every room. And the officers do a tough, heartbreaking job with empathy, professionalism and kindness.

Surprisingly, most shelter cats eventually find homes. Cats are easy to care for, and who can resist a fuzzy-haired kitten?

So I asked to see the dogs. We entered the first kennel and met three lovely boys: A chihuahua cross, an elderly Rottie, and a slick-hair spotted creature of mixed heritage who quietly watched us walk by.

"How about that one?" I pointed to the big black-and-white, who looked as if he'd fit in at a biker bar.

The officer shrugged. "You're the vet."

"Hey buddy." I bent down in front of the run. "I can't take you home, but how 'bout posing for some pictures?" At this point the dog, who'd been the only one not to raise Cain when we arrived, reared up on both hind legs and let out a fusillade of ear-piercing bark/howls that made my brain hurt. He was a head taller than me--and a good twenty pounds heavier--and had no problem letting me know what he thought of me.

"He says 'No Thanks'," the officer said, trying not to laugh.

"What?" Biker Dog hadn't finished letting us know he was Large and In Charge.  The officer pointed to the door, and we beat feet out to the hall.

"Next kennel?" I resisted the urge to explain I've always been an equine veterinarian--a horse doctor. When my dogs get sick I take them to my husband's veterinary clinic.

The officer grinned and led us to the second--mercifully quiet--kennel. That's where I met Goldman.

Gorgeous dog. A youngish yellow Lab with deep brown eyes, soft coat the color of milk-with-honey, and a thick tail that lazily waved the air as we walked by. We stopped in front of his kennel and Goldman politely sat down, tail grazing the floor.

Then he smiled.

If you're a dog person, you know what I mean. For those who aren't, a dog smile is a wide-open, trusting grin that says, "We're going to like each other, aren't we?" It's irresistible, and before you know it you're smiling back.

"You're a good boy, aren't you?"

Goldman's grin got bigger. He stood and did a little dance, looking expectantly at the gate latch. The officer wanted to go in first, just in case the Lab tried to rush past. He slipped inside without trouble, and the dog greeted him joyfully, winding around his legs, nuzzling his hands.

"He's fine. I'll hold him and you can come in."

The next fifteen minutes made me wish we could adopt a third dog.

Sadly, we're already at maximum rescued-dog capacity. But as I write this, I'm getting tears in my eyes. Because Goldman is the kind of dog who rides shotgun in your pickup; who leans against your legs and looks up at you like you're a dead-on genius; who licks your daughter's bare toes and makes her giggle in her high chair.

Goldman is the kind of dog who becomes family.

Anyone interested in a lifelong romance with a gentle, well-behaved yellow Lab should contact the Broken Arrow Animal shelter 

And if you're on the run from the mob and need a rambunctious, ready-made bodyguard, drop by Kennel #1. Bring an industrial-sized bag of treats, a strong leash...and earplugs.

And don't mention my name.

Cheers...and Happy Adopting!


Monday, November 26, 2012

A Great Location to Inspire You...

This is the San Francisco Cliff house. A seven-story Victorian with a 200-ft observation tower, the third version of the building (the previous one had been destroyed by a ship loaded with dynamite) was known as the 'Gingerbread Palace.' It survived the 1906 earthquake, then burned to the ground one year later.

Irresistibly creepy, right? What if I told you the walls were white, and the roof was a
cheery shade of red...
But on a moonlit night--a different place. I can imagine a woman screaming,
then tumbling from the balcony to the rocks below.

The most famous photo was taken by T. Imei, a Japanese photographer. A copy hangs in my writing room where it creates a wonderful, moody atmosphere.

Sadly, the artist's signature is missing from my print. My hope is that Mr. Imei's estate profited from the sale of his work, though it seems unlikely.

Here's a Tintype from that era:

Someday I'd like to tell a story about these two women (maybe from the horse's point of view?)

I think their names are Emma and Rose.

If you've ever been inspired by a setting, I'd love to hear about it. (And see pics, too!)

(Thanks to the Cliff House Project for the great photos and history.)

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Friday, November 23, 2012

The sound froze Yvonne's heart mid-beat: A shotgun being racked.


During his thirty years with the Department, her Walt had described the sound as the gates of Hell closing.

Now she understood why.

What Yvonne didn't understand, what her sleep-fogged brain couldn't measure in the dark stillness of her own lonely bedroom: Why the sound had come from the foot of her bed.

Panic roared in her ears. Her mouth, dry as cotton. And though her heart had restarted and was beating like a moth trapped inside her chest, Yvonne remained perfectly still. Listening. Waiting.

It was him.

Being a County Sheriff's wife had been its own kind of hell. But it also taught Yvonne to be prepared for the day some lowlife scumbag smoked enough courage to take revenge on the lawman's family. Walt had been taken a year ago, yet she still slept with a loaded Walther P99 under her pillow. In three decades she'd fired it in earnest once, to shoot a rattlesnake that had crawled inside her kitchen cabinet.

Tonight she'd be killing a different kind of serpent.

Keeping her breath slow, Yvonne scanned the room with slit-lidded eyes, searching for a black shape in the darkness like a hole in the night sky. The 9mm was near her right hand. She raised her head a fraction of an inch and felt for the weapon that would become the Hammer of God, Dispenser of Justice.

There! Virgil Sims. Had to be, by the size of him. The scum was coming around the side of the bed, starlight from the window silhouetting the shotgun he hadn't yet leveled at Yvonne.

His mistake.

He's cocky. Probably hoped this old woman would see him and beg for mercy. Else, why wait to rack the gun? Why not sneak in here ready and pull the trigger?

Walt's strong, kind voice came to her. "If you have the advantage, Vonnie, use it. Bad guys don't fight fair. Only good people do...and they wind up dead."

In one smooth motion Yvonne pulled the gun from under her pillow and fired four rounds at the shadow. Virgil's shotgun went off, deafening her. It splintered the headboard and sent shards of hand-carved Arkansas oak into Yvonne's scalp and cheek. Her skin caught fire, but Yvonne's hand held steady.

The shotgun dropped to the floor beside the bed. Virgil crumpled into a heap.

Blood streaming onto her cotton nightgown, Yvonne sat up and slowly emptied the magazine into his body, saying her children's names with each shot.

"That's for Jenny...and Harden...and Melissa. That's for my grandbabies, who miss their Papaw."

Yvonne knew exactly how many bullets she'd used: Fourteen.

She pointed her gun at the man-shape--where Virgil's heart would be if he'd ever had one--and pulled the trigger one last time.

"And that's for Walter James Scofield--" Her voice had been strong--from the adrenaline, she supposed--but dissolved into a heartbroken whisper, "who loved me more than life itself."

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Friday, November 16, 2012

When the Dog (Barks), When the Bee Stings...

We still sit down and get to work.

But what glorious work; this all-consuming art, this heart-wrenching craft.

This writing!

Truth is, writing's a pretty good gig--with some noteworthy caveats: Isolation, lack of structure, frequent rejections, and an inward-looking, sedentary life; occupational hazards that led to the demise of gifted authors like Woolf and Hemingway.

In making the shift from veterinarian to writer, I wondered whether I'd wind up hunched over the keyboard, swearing at faceless agents blind to my talent, stuffing myself into the same sweats I'd worn all week, skipping showers and overeating my way to an early grave.

Happily, my experience has been just the opposite. I'm healthier--physically, emotionally, and spiritually--than when I devoted sixty hours a week to my veterinary practice.

Oddly, I've found spirituality is the area I can't afford to neglect.

I can skip my run, eat junk food, or stay up all night and still write fairly well (at least in the short-term).  But when I forget to be grateful, when I'm too busy to notice--and then express--my profound wonder at the rightness of the universe, my writing falters.

Maybe, as some have suggested, we need inner silence to hear our Muse.

I prefer to think of it as taking care of what's important--or as Dr. Covey puts it: Sharpening the Saw.

This used to seem backward to me. As someone driven to succeed, I used to make lists for myself, convinced I'd be happy once I crossed the last item off my agenda. For years it worked--sort of.

Attending college, earning my veterinary degree, owning a practice--even learning to write fiction-- became badges of honor; proof of my right to take up space in this world.

Problem is, there's always another list.

That's where sprituality comes in. When I put my focus on seeing--and appreciating--my tiny-but-significant place in the universe, I'm free to pursue the best course for me, regardless of whether that course leads to my old definition of success.

Do I want to see my work published? Heck yeah!

But far more important than selling books, I want my stories to move readers; to make them feel strongly--and maybe think differently--about the themes we explore together.

When I nurture my spiritual self, writing a beautiful story matters more than being recognized. And, strangely, it's also easier to write through distractions like a barking dog or blaring television.

But if I neglect spirituality, I forget how much I love writing. Soon, I'm focused on achieving the great prize--publication--and snap at my kids for interrupting me. "Be quiet," I say. "Mommie has work to do. Once I get an agent I need to finish the next book in the series...and the one after that. Then there's the blockbuster thriller sitting in my idea drawer. My God, that'll take a year to write, so I'd better hurry..."

Can you see the lists? I can.

Yes, it's a business. And I do take it seriously. Every day, rain or shine, good mood or bad--I sit down and write.

But when I take time to sharpen the saw, the work is effortless. The saw zips smoothly through the heart of the tree, chips pile up with amazing speed. I'm making real progress, and it feels good. I inhale deeply, smell the pines and the sharp tang of fresh sap, hear the birds in the trees above.

I close my eyes, feel the sun on my face, and think, "Man, I love this job!"

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What I've Learned About Critque (Part 2)

While writing my first book I had the good luck to meet an editor who--for a modest hourly fee--taught me the most important lesson of writing: Accept critique gracefully.

Easier said than done, believe me.

Her first email went something like this: "Nice job. I can see you've got talent, but you've taken eleven pages to tell what happened to the heroine years ago. Instead use dialogue, direct action, and internal thought on every page. Skip the back story (b.s.) and show us what happens--today."

I still remember thinking, "But this is how I write, and she wants me to change it. She's destroying my voice!" Yet I'd asked for her help--was paying for it. If I chose not to listen, who was I cheating?

So even though she hadn't fallen to the ground in awe of my writing ability, I followed her suggestions as best I could. Some lessons stung worse than others, like when she noted my story lacked something called Plot, and then said the conflict between hero and heroine could be resolved with a simple conversation.

Ouch. (But I'm sorry to report she was also right.)

So I resolved to change how I view critique, whether from online sources, beta-readers, or contests. Here's what I've learned.

1) Classes that cost money make me a better listener. 

I traded hard-earned dollars for my editor friend's time and experience. I didn't always like what she said, and often had to let her advice soak in before I could apply it to the manuscript. But her guidance was sound, her suggestions delivered with kindness and encouragement. The money I spent with her made me a far better writer, and I'm grateful for her help.

Margie Lawson's online course has been a great investment. She provides a systematic approach for evaluating the story using colored highlighters, creating an objectivity I couldn't achieve on my own. With her system I've seen where my current ms falls short on emotion and internal thought--both critical elements to establishing an emotional connection with the reader.

And my first conference--Colorado Gold in Denver--had classes brimming with good advice. With online courses and conferences my biggest problem is discerning which technique (of a dozen good ones) will improve my story the most. So I pick one, give it a try (after saving the original in a separate document) and see if I like the results.

2) Beta-Readers: Big-Picture Gold (when you're lucky enough to find them).

I've been blessed to have some wonderful friends and acquaintances willing to read my works-in-progress. Here's what I've learned about beta-readers:

They're busy with their own lives, and every moment they give to your manuscript deserves thanks.

Beta-readers are great for spotting the holes in a mystery, for discovering where you failed to hold interest, for finding where emotion/motive/character development is lacking. Some bring outside knowledge (guns!) to the table. Some are brilliant proofreaders.

The key is to set your expectations at the proper level. My book is more important to me than to anyone else, and if a reader doesn't have the time/interest/inclination to read it I thank them anyway.

Beta-readers are bonus miles; sprinkles on a chocolate sundae; a twenty-dollar bill in the jeans you just took out of the dryer. They are an unexpected gift, and should be liberally praised for helping any way they can (then formally thanked on the first page of your bestseller!)

They are always a good thing, unlike my next subject.

3) Contests are a Roll of the Dice...

...Or a box of chocolates from Hogwarts' (earwax, anyone?)

I've entered contests; done well in a few--and not so well in others. The feedback is...shall we say...interesting. Sometimes it's wildly helpful--as in the case of the Colorado Gold, where the judges were published in my genre and gave kind but definite suggestions on improving the story. (You guessed it--more emotion!)

Other contests have been more confusing.

My favorite example is a contest where my entry scored close to perfect (123/125) for three judges, and the fourth gave it a 70! The judge who disliked the story didn't pull his/her punches, and by the time I finished reading the critique I was hopping mad. But I wrote a Thank You note, sent it, and took my wounded ego out for a Mocha Latte.

Six months later, I can still remember everything he/she said...and now I'm inclined to agree (though I still wish it had been delivered less acidly). While the suggestions may have been dead right, I nearly disregarded this judge's advice because of the tone, and I'm now very careful in how I make suggestions to other writers.

Critique is like a fine steak; it loses its appeal when served on a plate of garbage.

But if tough judges deliver acid, too-kind judges fool us into thinking we're better writers than we actually are. While I loved hearing how wonderful my story was, I knew it wasn't perfect...not by a long shot, and when a judge would say too many nice things I'd begin to doubt his/her credibility. If a judge became overly enthused, I'd think, "This is only my second book. It's not Hemingway, for cryin' out loud!"

Instead, it's better to hear the hard truth about our stories--hopefully delivered with tact and grace. But, like a box of Hogwarts' chocolates, with contests you never know what you're going to get.

One thing I'm sure of--winning a contest simply means you found a judge or judges who really liked your story. Unless those judges are agents or editors, winning doesn't mean you're ready to publish. Yet, as ego-bruising as contests can be, I'm entering two this December.

If you've had experience with contests, beta-readers, and writing courses I'd love to hear what you've learned.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Thursday, November 1, 2012

What I've Learned About Critique (Part 1)

One of the challenges of writing is accurately assessing our work.

Often I'll write a scene and think, 'Brilliant! Best chapter yet.' Two days later I'll read it again--and realize it's the most over-written mule puckey I've ever done. (Then think: "Who uses words like 'obfuscate' in commercial fiction? Idiots trying to sound like writers, that's who!")

And I'm not alone. Most writers (even those who've been published multiple times) admit it's hard to see what's right/wrong about their story.

So we turn to others--critique partners, spouses, beta-readers, friends--hoping for a clear, objective assessment of what we've written. When we get really (desperate) serious we'll even spend our dollars on online courses and workshops, or subject our manuscripts (and egos) to the helpful-useless-encouraging-brutal commentary that accompanies contests.

So here's the first in a two-part series about what I've learned about soliciting and accepting critique:

1) People who love you make lousy critique partners.

Think about it: There's no upside for them. If they genuinely like your work, you won't believe them; if they tell you it's awful, Thanksgiving dinner is going to be really awkward.

Family is wonderful for sharing experience. So grab them and visit the Grand Canyon, go Bungee jumping, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. When it comes to writing share your happiness (I got a request!) and sorrow (but they turned it down.)

And don't EVER let them read your work-in-progress.

If they ask, tell them you'll send a copy once it's published.

2) Critique groups can be wonderful* 

When I showed up at my first critique group, they complimented my writing--then gently informed me that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. The next week they suggested having a line or two of dialogue (or some direct action) on every page.

It's been a long process, but my critique partners have been unfailingly kind as they guided me toward creating readable prose. One long-time member summed it up: "If it's real bad, we'll emphasize what a great typist you are!"

Critique partners catch emotions out of whack, words that don't fit, sections that lapse into exposition or a distant (less compelling) point of view. If everyone gets stopped by the same phrase or section, I need to take another look.

And I learn as much from giving critique as receiving--especially when I look hard for what works, then figure out why.

3) Critique groups can be creativity killers*

Sometimes critique groups become echo chambers where voice, usage and tone get passed from one member to another like a virus. We all have a tendency to seek approval, and when everyone nods and smiles at what you've written, it's intoxicating.

Problem is, we writers tend to applaud people who write just like us.

I'm the worst offender, which became painfully clear when I recently edited a friend's work--and realized I'd changed her 'voice' so it sounded like mine. Then I read a book in her genre (not one with which I'm familiar) and saw that my suggestions would've been completely wrong for her audience.

After apologizing, I vowed to leave the close editing to others and merely comment on her story arc--which is very compelling.

Some 'truths' are nearly universal: Action and dialogue move a story along; exposition slows it down. Backstory is boring in long chunks. Jumping points-of-view can be confusing. Direct action is better than reported action.

But when evaluating critique, sometimes it's important to know what to disregard (at least for now.)

Next time I'll talk about beta-readers, online courses, and contests.

I'd love to hear your experience with critique groups, and how you decide whether to heed or ignore the advice you receive.

Cheers....and Happy Writing!


*My experience with critique groups has been fabulous, but I've heard editors say they can tell when a piece has been 'workshopped to death.'

Friday, October 26, 2012

Five Tips for Overcoming Writer's Block

Yesterday I spoke with a Paranormal Romance writer friend who was struggling with the dreaded 'Chapter Seven Blues'.  What happened, she asked, to the easy thrill of seeing her scenes appear on the screen as if by magic? She'd been in butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard mode for days, yet had written nothing.

Was her Muse on vacation--or had she left for good?

While my friend is an accomplished woman--successful in everything she's attempted in life--she's fairly new to writing. Her first book came easily. She got tons of requests at her first conference, has sent manuscripts to several agents, and will no doubt sell very soon. She'll be a success--as long as she keeps writing.

But the worry in her voice was bone-marrow deep, and it was real.

I can relate to that fear. In the five years I've been writing, I've had moments of soul-grinding doubt: About my writing ability, about the story I'm working on, about my willingness to keep going as the rejection letters pile up.

It's impossible for me to be creative when I'm fearful. For me, fear is the underlying cause of writer's block.

Oddly, the rejection letters provided a great lesson on how to regain creativity. Which brings me to my first tip:

1) Write what you're excited about.

After the first rash of rejections I nursed my wounded ego for a few days, then emailed a well-known author, asking for her take on things. Should I begin the second book in a series I hadn't sold yet? Spend my time revising the rejected piece? Keep everything the same and send it out to more agents?

She wisely advised not to give up on the first piece, but to set it aside temporarily and dig into a project I'm really excited about.

I did, and after a week or two something strange happened: While immersed in the new manuscript, I realized what changes would strengthen the earlier piece. With my new perspective, revising the first piece is a snap. This week I'll finish revisions, query more agents, and then get back to the new manuscript.

2) Skip the (blocked) scene and write another.

If a scene isn't flowing, maybe it doesn't work. (More about that here.) Rather than pound against a brick wall, I've found it helpful to skip past a scene that won't cooperate and write the next one in my head. The skipped scene might be wrong, or it might be 'filler'; a scene that conveys information without adding to the story.

Some editors recommend identifying your weakest scene and finding a way to delete it. Better, perhaps, not to write the darned thing in the first place!

3) Write a scene you won't let anyone see.

If this sounds weird, you're probably right. But sometimes I'm so focused on writing for my perceived 'audience'--usually an imaginary agent or hypercritical editor--that I play it too safe and get bored. And if I want to write bored, I'll go to work composing insurance brochures (and make a lot more money.)

But what if I throw caution to the winds and write that graphic death scene? (Ewww...the blood dripped where?) What if I get inside my killer's head as he plans his next abduction?

If I have the courage to write what I'm afraid to, chances are it'll be exciting. Maybe I'll use the scene, maybe I won't. But at the very least I'll jumpstart my creativity--and maybe find it's fun living n the edge.

4) Put a (limited) moratorium on writing.

I don't know if this works for anyone else, but when I'm writing a lot and accomplishing little, I'll sometimes force myself to close the lid and step away from the laptop. This may be terrible advice for those with twelve unfinished manuscripts under the bed, but if your problem is fear (and it's ugly twin, perfectionism) a little fresh air and perspective might do wonders for your Muse.

For me, trail running opens a channel to the infinite possibilities in the universe, and when the (short) moratorium is over I'm eager to capture all the great ideas flooding my brain. Obviously, the only way to become a bestselling novelist is to FINISH THE NOVEL, so these enforced breaks have a definite start and end time (or date.)

Speaking of overcoming writer's block by not writing, here's my next tip:

5) Read a book by a great author in your genre.

If my Muse is out to lunch, I feed her beautiful words by authors I admire: Elmore Leonard's amazing dialogue, Harlen Coben's strong emotions, Dean Koontz' ever-tightening coils of suspense, Dick Francis' condensed, twisting plots. And for dessert: Scott Turow's multilayered characters, whose backstories melt on your tongue like sweet creme brulee.

When I read wonderful writers, I try not to compare my own crude attempts with theirs, but instead to appreciate the variety of voice and style; to celebrate how each of these authors succeeded by getting very good at being themselves. And when I finish a good book, I'm somehow inspired to pour myself into my own manuscript, to listen to my characters and tell their story to the best of my ability.

If fear is the poison that causes writer's block, the antidote is love. Love of story, love of my characters, love of the process of telling the stories inside my head. And there's one truth that works when fear keeps me frozen.

By writing today, I'll be a better writer tomorrow.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Are you being watched?

If you think you're being watched, you probably are.

And the watcher is likely a novelist.

Writers use every occasion for 'people' research: Family reunions, board meetings, grocery store lines. No one is safe when we're on the hunt for a new character--which is all the time.

For instance, my family is headed to a certain Ozark Mountain theme park, which will be filled with folks who'll wind up in my stories. I'll borrow bits from each person, combine this characteristic with that facial expression, mash them together in my twisted imagination and...Bam! 

New scene, new character.

Take that woman next to me in line--tiny, well-coiffed, permanent smile. She's not as perfect as she seems. The backpack she's wearing has a secret compartment (they really should check better at the gate), and inside that compartment are two Glocks. Her ex-husband's here with his latest squeeze, and she's loaded for revenge.

That man over there? Hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, grey-faced. He can't look anyone in the eye, doesn't respond when one of his four grubby kids tugs on his arm. His wife died last month, and he's barely holding it together. He's trying to talk himself out of the desperate plan endlessly circling in his mind. But the headlines next week will be tragic.

Yet, it's not all gloom.

That frumpy, unassuming woman next to the corn dog stand...the one in green sweatpants, who just bought cotton candy? She's going to break up a drug ring by listening to her intuition. No matter what that county sheriff says, it's just not normal to have so many strange cars out at the Mackey place. She'll have to bake a few pies to get people to listen, but her cousin-in-law Sueann is married to a DEA agent, who pokes around just to keep peace in his home. What he finds is a crooked sheriff with ties to a Texas drug cartel.

No one is safe from the prying eyes of a novelist.

So the next time you're in line at the DMV, look around. If someone glances at you, then looks away, beware.

You could be in someone's next novel.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Monday, October 15, 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the AK-47

I don't usually stray into serious topics, but today is different. As a writer, I love to create my own reality; painting worlds that don't exist, balancing the Karmic ledger so the bastards always get theirs.

But sometimes the heroes are real, and the bastards worse than any I can dream up.

Last week, a fourteen-year-old girl was shot by men who accused her of dangerous, radical behavior and crimes against society.

Her name is Malala Yousafzai. Her crime: Writing that girls deserve to be educated.

Malala lives in Pakistan, and in 2009 her valley was overrun by the Taliban. Girls' schools were burned, women were harassed for leaving their homes unaccompanied by male relatives, men were told to grow beards and keep their wives and daughters in check.

Malala--who was eleven at the time--started a diary. She described how it felt to see her prospects for the future change before her eyes, to face threats and intimidation for wanting to attend school.

"I have the right of education," Malala said in a CNN interview (read story here.) "I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up."

The diary turned into a blog which was picked up by CNN and published anonymously. But Malala's identity became known when she was awarded Pakistan's first Peace Prize, and the Taliban warned her father to keep his daughter silent.

But Malala refused to put down her pen.

Last Tuesday, Malala was riding in a vehicle. The van was stopped by men with guns. They asked which one was Malala Yousafzai.

Then they shot her in the head.

She's in a hospital; alive, unconscious. Who knows whether she'll ever have the life she dreamed about. Whatever the outcome, she paid dearly for using her pen to fight for the rights of women and girls.

Tomorrow, I'll compose another essay about writing. I promise I'll try to be amusing and informative and lighthearted.

But today I write for Malala, because she can't. 


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Shot Rang Out, and In Walked Dirk...

Tall, handsome, with curly, wait, make that straight blond hair.

But maybe he's not that tall. I mean, Johnny Depp is only five foot ten. But if Dirk looks like Johnny Depp--swarthy, mysterious--then he ought to have dark, curly hair.

Okay, it's dark brown. Medium-length. Curly.

What's Dirk/Johnny wearing, though? Red flannel shirt and jeans...or a smooth-cut tuxedo? Think...(Taps chin thoughtfully).

Got it! He's in board shorts. Tanned, shirtless, showing off those Oh-my-God-are-those-photoshopped-abs. In fact he looks just like Matthew McConaughey; rumpled, unshaven, fresh off a surfboard and ready for a roll in the sand.

Except McConaughey's tall, which means Dirk/Matthew has to be tall...and blond. But at least he'll get to keep his longish, curly hair.

Although it would look nice short, like Daniel Craig's. And maybe with eyes like his...pure ice.

Dirk/Daniel has blue eyes, definitely.


In the end, when we think about fictional heroes, is it really their hair/eye color/build we remember? I say NO (except, maybe, in the case of McConaughey's abs.)

When I think about Depp, it's his sensuality I remember. And the way he talks--stringing his words together in loose abandon, like he's had a few pints. He listens, brings you roses. He's a long, slow weekend--with room service.

McConaughey, on the other hand, is a day at the gym. Lots of sweat and charm...and testosterone to burn. He's lovely--like a gladiator on display--but exhausting. And, like the gym, a few hours goes a long way.

Daniel Craig--the newest Bond--is harder to pin down, because there's a vulnerability beneath that stony exterior. He's a visit to the Louvre, followed by an intense, public argument that leads the best make-up sex you've ever had. And, while you're sure it's not going to last, you can't imagine living without him.

Now, a quiz: What does Dirk look like? (No peeking!)

Next question: In the second part, how many physical adjectives did I use to describe Depp, McConaughey, and Craig? (No, don't look. Just think!)

Okay, I went back and checked. We settled on short blond hair and blue eyes for Dirk, and I counted two adjectives: lovely (McConaughey) and stony (Craig)--neither of which describe hair, eye color, or build.

So maybe when I write about Dirk...

...I shouldn't worry about the color of his eyes.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Saturday, October 6, 2012

And those FBI agents are such nice people...

One of the best things about writing fiction is doing research.

While gathering information for my current project I've been privileged to speak with several detectives, an assistant police chief, a former State Police officer, various gun enthusiasts, and the crime scene expert who had the sad distinction of working the Columbine shooting.

On a previous story I spent an hour over coffee with a kind lawyer who covered all the intricacies of a defamation lawsuit, and then helpfully suggested ways to paint someone in his estimable field as corrupt and evil.

Thanks to these folks I know more about blood spatter, fingerprints, and arrest warrants than I ever care to use. (Ditto on the lawsuits!)

I'm sure I'll get details wrong--and in some cases, might willfully ignore facts to juice up the story--but their patience and willingness to share knowledge leaves me deeply grateful.

If you're reticent about contacting experts for background information, I'd suggest starting with the organization that gave by far the most welcoming response: The FBI.

You think I'm kidding?

How's this for great customer service: My first call was answered by a real human--a special agent, I suppose--who apologized and said he wasn't able to answer my question, but connected me with someone who could. The next step was simple, and the person was professional, helpful, and extremely courteous. Two calls, I had what I needed.

Try that with your phone company!

Yes, I love being a writer. I love letting my mind wander to dark, creepy places; love imagining wild romance and danger from the comfort of my cozy study.

But it's also darned fun to start a dinner conversation with, "You know, those FBI agents are such nice people..."

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Monday, October 1, 2012

Step one, two...Cry, one, two. Step one, two....

Editor Sol Stein says the only job of the fiction author is to produce emotion in the reader.

Oh, that clears it up.

But after working through Margie Lawson's module on character emotion, I finally understand why editors decry long stretches of exposition (or as I call it, explaniation). No matter how well-written, pure narrative cannot be experienced. The more I 'explaniate' (as opposed to having my characters experience the pain/joy/terror of the moment) the longer the reader endures a story devoid of emotion.

Which explains why, on rainy days, I don't curl up with a mug of Hazelnut coffee and my treasured edition of the Maytag dryer operator's manual.

But Ms. Lawson goes many steps further. In her lesson, she shows HOW to produce emotion in the reader, and how to keep from spoiling our work with too much exposition. Using examples from writers like Harlen Coben, Lisa Gardner, and C.J. Box (who is in line to be my next literary crush), Margie points out what works...and then shows how removing key elements destroys the emotional impact of a passage without affecting the meaning.

With. Without. Read it again. Now read it aloud.

"See the difference?" she asks.

Oh yeah.

I've written scenes that 'felt' strong (and plenty that didn't), but never understood what made them effective. Ms. Lawson has shown me how to intentionally replicate what works and eliminate what doesn't. The key, according to Ms. Lawson, is to show the POV character's physiologic response: Dry mouth, racing pulse, feet frozen to the floor by panic.

But it's more than flooding the story with adrenaline. Creating authentic emotion is a complicated dance of body language, dialogue, description, cadence, and fresh writing. And she takes the writer through a systematic process to identify each element and address deficiencies. After a few lessons, I'm feeling the rhythm.

If (like me) you have two left feet when it comes to writing emotion, perhaps Ms. Lawson can help.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Saturday, September 29, 2012

"So many trees," said Goldilocks. "I wonder if there's a forest nearby?"


Such a simple concept. Re-Vision: To see again with fresh eyes, a fresh imagination.

Like spring cleaning, revision clears out the junk, improves flow, strengthens the story. It's manuscript Feng-Shui.

"Great," I say. "Let's get started."

I print a copy of the manuscript, eager to prune flimsy sentences; to root out squishy, uncertain phrases and give bold ones room to grow. It's easy at first; the 'weeds' both plentiful and obvious. I pluck out fluff, delete fillers, remove excess dialogue tags.

Then I read it aloud, checking for flow, marking verbal blips with my red pen. Because I'm ruthless, (or so I think), the manuscript soon looks as though I've attacked it with a Weed eater, each whip of the twine leaving telltale crimson stain.

After changes to the piece, I survey my handiwork. "Better," I say. "Stronger. Bolder." I dash off a copy, congratulating myself on my willingness to 'murder my darlings.'

But reading the newest version, I feel a knot forming in my stomach. Something is wrong with my beloved story. A hidden canker, perhaps. A slow, malevolent rot lurking below the surface.

This time the flaws aren't so obvious. Uneasy, I send the manuscript to beta readers. I show it to friends and critique partners in the hope someone will say, "Oh. Here's the problem." But they are kind, even complimentary. "Nice job," they say. "I like your protagonist. Good story."

Good. But not great.

How do you fix good-but-not-great? Start over? Add a new twist? New scenes? Change the point of view?

Suddenly I'm like Goldilocks wandering through the trees in search of the forest. What I need is perspective; a lofty surface from which to view my surroundings.

I think I found it yesterday when a friend suggested writing coach Margie Lawson's website.  Though I've resisted the idea of checklists, formulas, or templates, I've seen how Ms. Lawson's approach to editing has strengthened my friend's work-in-progress.

"Stand up here," Margie says. "See this tree? Remove it. Cut this branch--but leave that one." Already the path is clearer. With renewed confidence I start on the new course, and soon pick up speed.

I'll let you know whether her method helps me locate a certain cabin in the woods.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The knife bit into Lara's skin, and a trickle of blood seeped...

Now what?

I stare at the screen, drawing a blank. The cursor blinks mockingly, as if to remind me I'm supposed to have something brilliant to say right now.

But I don't.

'Okay,' I think. 'Forget brilliant. Shoot for pedantic; mundane, even. Just get something down, quick, because you've got to finish this scene to stay on schedule. You'll juice it up later.'

Half an hour passes. No words appear.

I look around. Certain there's an external cause, I run through the 'Perfect Writing Atmosphere Checklist'. Lighting: Good. Noise: Absent. Temperature adjusted, candles lit, dishwasher loaded: Check, check, check.

At this point the committee in my head chimes in, offering helpful things like: 'I'll bet James Patterson doesn't waste time like this,' and 'Dean Koontz wrote LIGHTNING in seven weeks, from first word to final revision.'

I pour another cup of coffee. Feed the cat. Let the dogs out, then back in. Light a third (or fourth) candle.

Then, I settle back in the chair, open the laptop, and glare at the stupid cursor some more.

Finally, I delete the last line, and write:

Lara wrestled the knife away from Maxwell and tossed it into the river.

"I don't feel like being murdered today." She wiped the dirt from her Yoga pants and retrieved her lost flip-flop. "Better scram, before you find out how dangerous a pissed-off soccer mom can be."

It's not Hemingway, but it's a start. I smile and keep typing, curious where the story goes from here.

I'll make a thousand words today, easy.

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Friday, September 21, 2012

Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust...

Football (the American kind--with a weird pointy ball made from the skin of unfortunate pigs) is often called an analogy for war. But as a lifelong fan, I think it makes a great analogy for almost anything--especially writing commercial fiction.

Think of it this way: NFL players prepare at least forty hours for every hour they play.

That's forty-to-one ratio.

This means that if I hope to 'win the game,' for every hour I spend creating new material I must devote many (many!) hours to sharpening my skill, and even more to checking, revising, correcting, formatting, summarizing and pitching that new creation.

Sometimes the words grind out slowly, inch by sweaty inch. Each sentence feels like 'Three yards and a cloud of dust.' A paragraph takes an hour, a single page consumes a whole frustrating day.

Then, like the receiver who breaks free and catches a perfectly-timed throw, scenes unfold in flowing detail, and pages appears on my laptop as if by magic. At the end of these 'bursts' I sigh, close my computer, and think, "Wow. Now that the chapter/scene/book is finished, the hard stuff is over."

Except it's not.

Like a long pass that nets huge yardage, a super-productive day simply means there's more work to do. If a completed scene is a successful scoring drive, I still need to play defense and clean up the manuscript. Another score (a polished draft)? Now it's time to run it by beta-readers and see where the thing drags--in other words, to play more defense.

Offense (writing) and defense (revisions) look good? Now we work on special teams, because we'll never sell our beloved creation unless we successfully pitch to editors and agents (or market the thing ourselves, which is probably harder.)

No football team can win the big prize unless they develop all three phases of the game (ask Boise State, who broke my heart last season. Go Broncos!)

I'm headed to the lake this weekend to work on my passing game.

Come Monday, I'll be back to playing defense.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Wind Howled...Or Was That A Shriek?

My literary crush Elmore Leonard often discusses his 10 Rules Of Writing--all designed to keep the writer invisible in the story.

First on the list: Never Open A Book With Weather.

The reason is simple: Unless you're showing a character's reaction to the weather, the reader will skip over long sections of meteorological blathering. Yet some writers--myself included--have started scenes detailing everything from wind speed to barometric pressure, thinking we're supposed to create 'atmosphere'.

But if the characters don't care about the weather (in which case we'd show their reaction, rather than the weather itself), why should the reader?

In this interview he talks about reading a book that starts with: "The wind howled like a beast in pain." (Tellingly, I thought it was a pretty cool metaphor.) Leonard, however, laughed, then asked, "Whose point of view is that?"

He was kind, though, and suggested that the unnamed author would probably get out of his own way soon enough; that the writer might have been eager to showcase his (or her) abilities, and hadn't yet learned to let the characters tell the story.

But weather can also be a writer's friend, as in this example:

Imagine a newly-hired crime scene technician, unprepared for real-life investigations, trudging through a muddy field in the midst of a downpour to reach the corpse. Just as our poindexter reaches the ditch on the far side, lightning strikes a nearby tree. Startled, he slips in the mud and slides down the embankment on his backside--much to the amusement of the uniformed officers on the scene.

Congratulations! Weather has just provided you with conflict, tension, and--as the story progresses and our technician learns the ropes--a LOT of room for character growth.

If the story is strong enough, who needs atmosphere?

Cheers...and Happy Writing!


Monday, September 17, 2012

Fifty Shades of Envy

I may be the last American 'woman of a certain' age who hasn't read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James. Even with all the hype, I probably won't.

But every writer, agent, editor and blogger who discusses the blockbuster trilogy agrees it's not well-written. The funniest critiques are the word counts: Holy Crap--38, Mutter/muttered--63, Murmur/murmured--100, and perhaps tellingly, Inner Goddess (James' euphemism for lady bits)--57.

So, like any writer seeking publication, I have to ask why this book is wildly popular, while others--and surely many with better prose--languish in some agent's slush pile.

The answer may be deceptively simple. What if the quality of writing is less important than the story?

To put it differently: Am I concentrating on the beauty and flow of my words, or am I doing my darnedest to tell a great story?

Think about it. What books have stuck in your mind over the years? Were they great literary tomes, or simple ideas that tugged at your emotions.


Writing from the viewpoint of an uneducated thirteen-year-old boy, Rawls uses common phrases and easy language to put us in the Ozark foothills, chasing raccoons with our beloved red hounds. And while the book may be considered Young Adult, I dare you to read it as a grownup without crying (or completely dissolving into sobs as I did a couple years ago trying to read aloud to my son. He actually took the book from me, saying, "Jeez, Mom. I'll finish this part if you want me to.")

Perhaps Ms. James effectively tapped into readers' emotions using simple (and often the same) words. Maybe the story is better than the writing...and readers made it clear which they prefer.

So, after all the fuss over Ms. James' poorly-constructed bestseller, I must admit I'm envious of her success. But envy won't help my career, and it won't make me a better writer.

Remembering that a good story trumps fancy prose will.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

With a sickening lurch, Fiona's truck sailed off the...

                                                              Chapter 2.

...curb and landed in the street. "Darn it," Fiona said. "Now I've scraped both the front and back bumpers."

And there, my friends, is what writing consultant and screenplay guru Trai Cartwright, (who gave a bang-up presentation at the Colorado Gold conference) calls a cliffhanger.

According to Ms. Cartwright, cliffhangers are a great way to jumpstart a story that sags in the middle (more on sagging middle here). Put another way, she suggest never ending a chapter or scene on an 'exhale.' Instead, roll back the last seven lines of the scene and start your next chapter with them.

But she also reminds us to answer the 'question' we posed at the end of the previous chapter. And, if possible, to provide an answer the audience doesn't want. For example, in a serious attempt to create tension I could write:

With a sickening lurch, Fiona's truck sailed off the retaining wall and landed on the wooden drawbridge. She put the truck in reverse and punched the gas pedal, but the rear wheels spun uselessly on the rain-slick wood. Just as the left tire caught, she heard--then felt--the aging boards creak and bow under the truck's weight.

"Hang on, Letitia," she said, trying to quell the panic in her voice. "Mommy's going to get us out of this."

The child huddled next to Fiona whimpered, and then screamed as the bridge gave way.

Chapter 2.

The icy water swirled around Fiona's waist while she scrambled to unbuckle her daughter. "Hold on to Mommy, honey...."

Would you keep reading? I might--if the writer had made me care about Fiona and her daughter.

But if we had ended chapter one AFTER Fiona and Letitia escaped the flooded truck, a reader might sigh with pleasure, set down the book and go make a sandwich.

Instead, Ms. Cartwright insists we want readers to keep reading long past when they intended to stop. We want to be the author who keeps them up until two a.m. on a work night, who compels them to read our book while they walk to the subway station.

I'm going through my current project to see where chapters end on an 'exhale'. I'm sorry to report there are several.

But they won't be there much longer.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Monday, September 10, 2012

Now the Windup. And Here's the Pitch...

After a fantastic weekend at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Conference, I came away with a new (and better) perspective regarding a task most writers detest: Pitching their story to an editor or agent.

Don't get me wrong--I still don't like it.

Pitching is an exercise in selfishness that usually goes something like this: "Hello. I'm going to tell you about my book and how great it is, and why I'm exactly the right person to write this story."

This weekend I seriously thought: Let me get this straight. I'm seated across the table from a fascinating, connected, knowledgeable insider--a REAL New York literary agent--and we're supposed to talk about me?


So I came up with an analogy (sadly, not one about baseball) to help me understand.

In my veterinary practice I often performed surgery on my patients. Early on, I learned that the most technically perfect surgery--the sexy part, where scalpel parts delicate skin and neat sutures magically bind it back--can be undone by poor preparation.

But maybe a great pitch can be likened to a sterile surgical prep--where one carefully scours each finger to redness at the scrub sink, dons sterile gown, mask and gloves, and finally drapes the patient to avoid a contaminated field. Having the right instruments--in this case a strong logline and clear distillation of theme--is equally critical to the patient's survival.

Not to overdo the comparison (too late, maybe?) but I would never have considered performing surgery without a thorough, meticulous prep. Scrubbing wasn't my favorite part, but I took great care because I wanted the patient to survive--and thrive.

When it came to prep I didn't whine or procrastinate. I just went to work.

So the next time I'm seated across the table from a literary agent, I'll consider my patient (my story) and give my best pitch.

Here's hoping the patient thrives!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shoot for the Moon...

...then work on building your rocket!

Last night I witnessed a remarkable display of hard work, determination, and courage by a bunch of seventh-grade football players.

Yes, both teams fought through the suffocating heat. Both teams made mistakes, both got a few lucky breaks. And it was razor-close: The decisive play came when the opposing team completed a long pass that would've put them in position to take the lead. Their talented receiver caught the ball then fumbled, and our team (okay, it was my kid. But as you'll see in a moment, it really was a team effort) covered the live ball.

Thirty seconds later it was over. Our side cheered. Their side graciously congratulated us, loaded their thirty or so kids onto the bus, and went home.

The same thing happens nearly every night in this part of the world. Our sons (and a few daughters) don helmets and pads and fight their guts out for ten yards of dried-up turf on an unlit field in the middle of nowhere. Win or lose, parents are always proud of their kids--and rightfully so. It's hard work.

But what made last night remarkable is this: Our team suited up twelve players.


Since we play eleven-man football, that means most of the players--including the undersized, intellectually gifted kid wearing the number ten jersey--played the entire game without a break. Offense, Defense, Special Teams.

Every snap, every down.

It was over a hundred degrees when the game started, ninety-seven when it finally ended a few minutes after sundown.

We have a few talented players--and some wonderful kids who excel at things other than football. But what I saw last night reminded me that hard work and determination CAN make a difference.

When my husband and I saw all those opposing players pile off the bus and jog to their sideline, we looked at each other and said, "This isn't going to be pretty."

At the end, I'm not ashamed to say I had tears in my eyes.

From now on, when someone tells me it's impossible for an unknown author to get published I'm going to smile and say, "I thought so, too. But my son taught me otherwise."

Cheers...and happy writing!


Monday, September 3, 2012

Hooks, Crooks, and Liars.

One of the toughest skills I've yet to master is answering the question: "What's your book about?"

Should be easy, right? After all, I've spent HUNDREDS of hours on the project; know my characters' motives, thoughts, gestures better than my own; have the plot laid out in a clear, systematic time line on a whiteboard above the desk.

So why can't I distill the story into a single exciting sentence?

With my first book (which I lovingly call a Dysfunctional Romance) I test-drove hooks like, "Boy meets girl. All hell breaks loose," and "Female veterinarian discovers fame comes at a price." After dozens of attempts I calculated the average time to eyes-glazing-over at 0.8 seconds.

Then I hit on a winner: "Lady veterinarian gets accused of murdering a horse in her practice."

"Ooh, sounds interesting," they'd say. "Love to read it." Sweet music to a writer's ears.

Except that's not really what the book is about. It's a complex love story that touches on themes of control, sexual trauma, and self-acceptance. (Try turning THAT into a catchy sentence!)

So I settled for a great hook--and a small lie.

Then I stumbled upon a hilarious website called Book-A-Minute, where great works ranging from GOLDILOCKS to FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS are condensed into twenty words or less. Notably absent: Adjectives and adverbs.

So I applied the formula to a different (as yet unwritten) project and came up with: "Defense contractor's wife gets abducted, falls for kidnapper, fools everyone and comes out on top." The best part is that the pared-down version captures the essence of the story (and might even give too much away.)

So next time we see each other, go ahead and ask what my book is about.

I'm ready.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Friday, August 31, 2012

Help! My middle's sagging...

With every new plot idea, I struggle with 'what happens next?' In other words, how to correct the dreaded 'sagging middle.'

For help understanding this, I turned to the Master of Suspense, Dean Koontz, who has an uncanny skill for creating page-turning bestsellers.

For instance, in his book, RELENTLESS, Mr. Koontz uses several distinct tools to keep us 'hooked' throughout the story:
  • Putting loved ones in danger.
  • Shocking revelations.
  • Introducing characters or plot twists.
  • Foreshadowing.
After the initial triple-peak jolt, there are four separate 'spikes' in tension before the penultimate climax. (Geek alert: Yes, I made a chart.)

With few exceptions, each chapter begins at a marginally diminished 'thrill score' and then builds, with the baseline gradually rising throughout the book. At the end of each chapter Mr. Koontz employs one of his tools to raise tension. Chapters get short, things speed up, and we have no choice but to turn the page.

The overall story arc goes something like this:
  • Peaks 1-3: Trouble's brewing.
  • Peak 4: The devil breaks loose.
  • Peak 5: (Smaller triple spike. We can't catch our breath.) We're losing, winning, losing.
  • Peak 6: We've lost.
  • Peak 7: No! We're going to make it.
  • Peak 8: We showed them, didn't we? Yay good guys!
Again, a general trend is for early spikes to be high/shorter duration and for middle spikes to have longer duration made up of several mini-spikes. The final climax is...breathtaking.

While I dislike the idea of plot formulas, I want my stories to be a thrilling experience for the reader. In my latest project, I've already noticed how using Mr. Koontz' strategy has sharpened the tension.

Someday I'll have to thank him for helping me with my sagging middle.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Liar!" he shouted dubiously...

O dialogue, how thou dost vex me...

Most writers (and all good editors) insist that 'he said,' or 'she said,' is the only proper attribution to dialogue. My literary crush Elmore Leonard sometimes peppers his with exotic fare like: 'Then Frank says, "No,"' Or 'Frank came back with: "No."' But he NEVER adds an adjective. (In fact, it's one of his Top Ten Rules, which I'll explore in another blog post.)

The truth is this: If dialogue is powerful, the attribution doesn't need an adjective. For example, when a character says, "I disliked Kilroy," rather than add, 'He said angrily,' I can change the dialogue to: "Kilroy deserved worse. So I gave it to him."

Still not sure what he's feeling? How about: "Kilroy's with his family. In Hell."

Another of Mr. Leonard's tricks is short, snappy back-and-forth conversations that reveal clues and plot twists. Sometimes a whole page of dialogue contains only a single attribution or motion tag to keep the reader clear about who is speaking. (BE COOL, pg 7.) The effect is like punching the throttle on a Mustang GT: Pure speed.

But there a caveat: The dialogue has to be good. Really, really good. I'll confess my current manuscript still has a few adjectives that modify attributions--usually to clarify a sarcastic remark.

I'm trying to get up the courage to remove even those.

Cheers...and happy writing!


Monday, August 27, 2012

Me, Myself, and Muse

People ask: "How do you come up with ideas?"  I usually murmur something vague, hoping to sound brilliant, thoughtful, and perhaps a little mysterious.

The real answer: I have no clue.

I'd love to claim some genetic gift of imagination, but every afternoon at five o'clock I'm shocked by the arrival of dinnertime and find myself completely starved for ideas. (On any given week we have pancakes at least once. Frozen pizza is a staple.)

You'd think the brainstorming process would extend to meals: 'Let's see...Macaroni could meet Cheese in the pot. They'd mingle for a while, the heat would rise...then Bam; They're inseparable!'

Nope. If my imagination is in charge, we're having pancakes again.

But maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) suggests,  creativity doesn't come from within. Maybe our stories select us, and our job is to sit down every day and do the hard work of writing what our Muse whispers--free of grammatical errors and jumping points of view.

This vision of creativity carries both a blessing and an obligation. The blessing is that it's no longer about my imagination, but listening with a willing heart. The obligation is that I'm duty-bound to perfect my skill. Beethoven gave us beautiful music, but the wonder is lost when it's played on a kazoo.

And I like Ms. Gilbert's vision because it helps me another way.

My muse doesn't do food.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Picking up the thread...

Elmore Leonard says he can write anytime, anywhere--a skill I much admire but haven't yet mastered. (You're going to hear a lot of 'Elmore Leonard says' on this blog. Read one of his books or watch 'Justified' on FX to see why.)

Unlike Mr. Leonard, I have to concentrate--hard--when I write. A door slams, a child's voice rises a half-decibel, one of the dogs jumps off the couch, hackles raised, to announce that my neighbor's pickup needs a new muffler--and I'm no longer inside my character's head, seeing, feeling, and hearing events that exist solely in my imagination.

My worst distractions originate within. Worry, fear, anger, and feeling like I've left things undone can make it nearly impossible to sink into the story and write what I see--a process I call 'Picking up the Thread."

I've tried different strategies to combat interruption: Get up an hour early (better for planning than writing), escape to the makeshift office in the barn (great until it gets cold), noise-canceling headphones (weird).

But the best by far: Escape.

My favorite is a State Park cabin on a lake about an hour from my house. State Park accomodations verge on Spartan--no internet, no radio, rudimentary television. There's no gym or restaurant, and little interaction between guests. (Once, in December, I was the only person staying in the park, which was a tad spooky.)

That quiet simplicity creates room in my head for characters, plots, and emotion. When I 'Pick up the Thread,' the words appear on the page as if by magic and I struggle to type fast enough to capture them.

My latest project came to me during one of these escapes. I began writing at two am, hoping to catch the plot before it vanished. When the sun rose I'd finished chapter one and the outline. I didn't want to stop.

But it was time to go home and be distracted again.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Throwing Rocks

As a writer I tend to make things too easy for my protagonist. The reason is simple: I fall in love with my characters. I want my heroes to experience happy, productive lives, work out their issues in private, and trip blissfully into a fictional Happily Ever After.

Which is about as exciting for the reader as watching cats sleep.

Face it: Human nature is to focus on the anomaly. We don't notice all the cars safely whizzing by on the freeway--we see the lone nut weaving in and out of traffic like a crazed pinball. At the mall it's the weirdly audacious or scary-seeming person who catches our eye, never the mom in a T-shirt with three kids in tow.

Writers like me need to overcome our innate desire to shield our characters from evildoers, bad decisions, and rotten luck. In fact, like cruel puppet masters, we need to pile these on our beloved heroes with increasing ferocity until readers simply cannot look away--at least until they know whether the hero triumphed.

So when my instincts say: "Rescue her, quick!" I must type, "She hung there, breathless, fingers clawing for purchase on the crumbling ledge. A fist-sized chunk broke off in her hand and suddenly she was airborne, tumbling backward over the abyss, eyes wide with terror..."

As a very helpful editor once stated: We need to chase our characters up a tree--and then throw rocks at them.

Happy writing!


Monday, August 20, 2012

Dark and gritty?

Here goes: My first post as T.D. Hart, author of gritty mysteries and dark thrillers.

What do those thing mean? Dark...gritty?

To me, it means stripping away the pretty cover to see what's beneath. Because what hides below our shiny veneers is often the truth: our deepest fears, the parts we know are broken. We frantically conceal the holes in our personalities because we're certain if anyone knew us--I mean really knew us--we'd be unlovable.

Most of my characters hide the same things as you and me: Guilt, anger, pain, greed (which is really fear dressed in an expensive suit); a desperate need to be loved.

Funny thing though. People believe what you show them. So on the surface my characters may display arrogance or pride, courage or humility--things we expect from fictional villains and heroes. My goal as a writer will be to peel back the glossy steel coating and expose the complex human underneath.

Learning how will take years of practice--and a level of honesty that scares me to death.

Let's see how it goes.