Sunday, August 02, 2015

Writing Tips from The Gunfighter: Point of View

If you've ever struggled with point of view, here's a lovely little video recommended by Anne R. Allen that will make you smile as you dive for your red pen. This short video takes us immediately past 'he said/she said' to focus on the dreaded intrusive narrator.

Have you ever peeked inside a book online and virtually set it down? Anne's post also gives us helpful editing tips for those important first pages that readers dip into when thinking about buying a book on Amazon. Her bottom line: 

Writers: Take action on that first 10% of your book. Readers will appreciate your editing efforts if you persevere for the full 100%.

Read more of Anne's tips at "Your 'LOOK INSIDE!' Preview: Will it Turn Readers Away or Close the Sale?"

Friday, July 31, 2015

Editing tip? Lessons from Tess Gerritsen

This month's presentation at Spokane Authors featured  local writers Tina Bratcher and Sue Eller talking about character.

Sue suggested we build depth into our characters by thinking about four basic personality tests -- and recognizing the diversity of each individual. Tina followed by discussing four levels of character reaction -- physiological, physical, emotional, and mental. 

Both ideas sent me back to an exercise I've been playing with for my suspense/thriller (a summer editing project), Mothers Don't Die.

EXERCISE: What can I learn about editing my opening from reading the first few pages of a highly rated suspense thriller? What really grabs me as a reader?

I chose Tess Gerritsen's Die Again because the cover was compelling, and I've enjoyed her stories in the past. Imagine that once-in-a-lifetime safari to Africa. What could possibly go wrong? 

Gerritsen had my attention with the first page! Her narrator, on safari in Botswana, finds a leopard print just outside her tent. Gerritsen skillfully introduces her theme (predators), setting (deep in the wilds of Botswana), and 9 characters by page 7. I'm hooked, and I don't really know yet which character is primary.

Gerritsen easily sneaks in her narrator's discontent with her lover and her situation. Characters are deftly described so you know their physicality AND their emotional life, revealed through summary, action, and dialogue. 

Conflict spills out everywhere, sorting out which characters are alpha male/female, and all the characters are bundles of emotion as they feel their way into this new, potentially very dangerous situation: Doubt, irritation, fear, anger, frustration, and contempt. 

Perhaps one among this group of untried tourists is a predator.

According to 
Julie Beck, in her article "New Research Says There Are Only Four Emotions" (The Atlantic): "Conventional scientific wisdom recognizes six "classic" emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad." But studies conflate four of these emotions to two: surprise/fear (eyes wide open to gather information), and anger/disgust (nose primary to avoid breathing in pathogens). These older emotional/physical reactions are driven by our survival instinct, what Beck calls "early biologic" rather than social. Interesting.

NOW to return to editing that first chapter in Mothers Don't Die:
  1. How many emotions do my characters reveal through dialogue and inner thought? 
  2. How is conflict shown? By character actions? Reactions?
  3. What unforgettable images set the scene? Do descriptions of people and places draw on the five senses? on emotion?
After doing a little more online reading about emotion (and how do readers connect to our stories except as our stories appeal to their emotions?), I'm realizing that writers do reveal their own emotional experiences through their writing, regardless of setting. Yes, we do tend to write what we know. And we may face curious blocks in expressing a full range of emotion.

So how do we develop fuller characters? Perhaps by investigating models of emotions and thinking about our characters, their inner emotional life, their needs, their motivation, and their behavior. Psychology again! And we can read writers we admire to peek behind the curtain, perhaps to discern how others create a compelling story. Die Again is not an easy read, but I think Gerritsen has the reader by the throat! Now, back to my own editing . . .

Read more about Die Again by Tess Gerritsen at Amazon.
Julie Beck's article on emotion is at The Atlantic.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Feeling insecure in July?

The new month begins with temperatures in the 90's for the next ten days. Summer reading? I've just begun Alex J. Cavanaugh's The Insecure Writer's Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond, a collection of short, motivational essays on writing, publishing, and marketing, currently free on Amazon.  

Already, I feel welcomed with advice from writers in this anthology of short shorts. The most important advice for me just now is very simple:  
Commit to writing 30 minutes EVERY DAY. 

Theresa Milstein in "Make Room for Writing," points out that we will NEVER have enough time for our writing. She notes: "Critiquing, reading for research, and blogging do NOT count." 

How many times, even in my current short-term editing of Mothers Don't Die, have I clicked away from writing to check out just one more bit of background? Just this morning I stopped writing to find out the difference between shifts that police work in large cities and rural areas. I discovered different hours, job duties, vocabulary, and a very different culture. Useful? Yes. Writing? No.

So Milstein's advice to write for 30 minutes every day is just what I needed to hear.

Now the Insecure Writer's Support Group is an actual blog hop where participants post the first Wednesday of the month. This is my first time jumping into this group. Their website has many resources for writers. 

Can't wait to read what others have posted! And if you are writing this hot summer, join in and write on!


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Beginnings and endings . . .

I'm working on Book 3, Rivers of Stone. The story begins as Catriona, disguised as a boy, arrives at York Factory, hired as a clerk for the Hudson's Bay Company. She's married to her sweetheart, Dougal McDonnell, the fiddler. It's 1842, and they've left Scotland behind.

All's well, right? At the beginning of the story, we already know that many challenges await. The wilderness. Bears. The journey west. But the main theme of lovers separated and reunited should inform the story that unfolds. After working on the story for nearly two years, I'm 90,000 words in, but the ending eludes me.

As women know who came of age in the 1960's, nothing is certain. We had no role models. The rebel who burned her bra shocked us. We wanted to be that housewife who happily lived in suburbia in a cottage-like home, with an adoring husband and 2.5 children. Blame Barbie. Going to college meant a pat on the head and an opportunity to find that husband.

I was already different. Tall, gangly. Wore glasses. Add the reality that my family was beyond poor, and I was a bookworm. I worked my way through college, taking in typing as if it were laundry. Two jobs. Three jobs. Didn't matter. The one goal that created a sense of direction was getting that degree.

And so it dawned on me this morning that my last book, Years of Stone, and this one are really about that unique quest for survival as a woman.

In Years of Stone, Deidre, standing in line aboard a sinking ship, says, "I know my place." But she didn't. 

In Rivers of Stone, Catriona, also aboard ship just arriving in Hudson's Bay, is chided by a sailor: "You there, no slouching about. Yer to earn yer keep, boy." Cat replies, "Dinna be pushing me."  But life and circumstance do push us. 

I still want that happy ending for Cat and for all my characters. When do our actions or the actions of our loved ones take us well past that outcome? And then what? Some happy endings are hard won.

Frances Anne Hopkins, "Voyageur Canoe (1869)
Click on the image to see more detail. Notice the woman in the canoe. Frances Anne Hopkins. Married to a Hudson Bay Company official, she traveled throughout upper Canada with her husband in the 1860s; her paintings document the fur trade. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Musings on writing a family history . . .

This month, I'm still musing about how to write a family history.  Writing about family -- even a family history that sticks to the facts -- presents some chilling challenges. 

How close do we write the truth? How do we put what happened into a context that either entertains or brings insight?

If I were famous or knew those famous, what to write about would be easier. But, the closest I came to meeting anyone famous was serving coffee at a bank meeting to one of the stars from the well-loved TV series, M*A*S*H. 

I wasn't a secretary, but I was the only woman at the meeting to discuss our loans/investment portfolio. I got grumpy because it was the 1970s, and I knew I was asked to serve coffee because I was a woman. What added insult was later my boss insinuated I would love to go out with this 'famous actor'. No less than four or five times that day, I was reintroduced to this guy as someone who'd really like to know me, ensuring my disdain.

If there were no trauma or drama, no hidden little secrets, no teen-aged mind-blowing experiments with drugs, no sex before marriage, no child given up for adoption, no affairs, no lies, no bank robberies, not a moment that stepped outside propriety, what is left to write about?

I did think seriously about robbing a bank for maybe a full minute.

Back to the seventies. I was a trusted bank officer, and one of our clients needed some fully negotiable stock certificates (anyone off the street could cash these in) stowed away in a safe place overnight. My boss (different boss, different city) asked me to put them 'somewhere safe and to not tell him where.' 

I knew instantly what to do.

I took these beautiful certificates worth several million dollars in my hands, fantasized briefly about running away to the Bahamas, sealed them in a plain, manila envelop, and took them to Jack, who worked the back room and was responsible for the bank safe. 

"Can you lock these papers up for me overnight and give them back to me tomorrow, no questions asked?" I asked. Jack didn't know what they were, but he didn't hesitate. He trusted me. I trusted him. End of story. But the real story played out on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal for the next several years.

Such an anecdote may be amusing. With more detail, it might be litigious. But, similar to fiction, the story telling of a family history serves a point, a theme, a sense -- even unwitting -- of moral purpose. We want to know why someone acted in a certain way.

But to the point, how do we balance the truth with privacy concerns? Even a family history presented as a gift will be read by a wider circle than we might expect.

Kerry Cohen suggests beginning by knowing your purpose. So IF I were writing about those years with the bank in the early 1970's, I might really be writing about the beginnings of the feminist movement and how it changed our social landscape irrevocably for many.

And IF I were writing about some terrible secret family history, Cohen again suggests we should write with compassion. For we do not know what motivates others to act as they do. Unless, perhaps, they write it all down.

"Time" by Vincent Huang (Flickr)

Just finished reading Kerry Cohen's article, "Writing About Family in Memoir." in Writer's Digest (November/December 2014), 60-61, excerpted from her book, The Truth of Memoir (2014).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Getting started with memoir

They needed a teacher. I said, "Yes." So for the next month, I'm reading and thinking about how to get started writing a memoir for an afternoon workshop.

Judith Barrington's Writing the Memoir makes a very interesting distinction between writing an autobiography or biography (organized around key events in your own or someone else's life) and writing a memoir (developed around selected events in your life to support a theme).

I've wanted to write a bit of family history ever since my son-in-law asked me who the lady was whose picture I have in my bedroom. 

My grandmother, Sigrid Elizabeth Torgny, born in Chicago in 1888. This is her high school graduation picture. Daughter of a doctor, she traveled out west and fell in love with a cowboy, right around the time of World War I.

So I could write a biography around my family history -- adding my autobiography. But if I slide to a theme . . . Aha! I will be writing a memoir.

Bibliography so far:

Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir, 2nd. ed. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press, 2002.

Borg, Mary. Writing Your Life, 4th ed. Waco, Texas: Prufrock Press, 2013.

Friday, May 01, 2015

"Z" is a Broken Triangle . . .

The letter "Z" is
a broken triangle,
long ago, a pyramid,
its sides drifted apart,
a zig that zagged,
first right, 
then left, and right again,
now the soft sound of snoring,
zzzzzz. Zounds!
Vat vill zey say?
What was once that first mound
from which all life began 
is now a girl's name,
Zeta, born last,
ze end.

And so ends that Blogging A-to-Z Challenge, a full month of poetry. Some people prepare by planning and pre-writing their entries, but I tried to write each day those thoughts inspired by the letter itself, sometimes the first line arriving, like this one, in a half-dream. And now we are one month closer to summer, the promise of picnics, picking strawberries, more hiking . . .  and more writing on that current work-in-progress. 

Gardens at Giverny (Camp)