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.'