Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why Book Hoarding is Different

Tsundoku, the Japanese word for “the act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piling it up together with other such unread books”

 

The To Be Read pile is an ambiguous object.

On the one hand, there’s a genuine guilt factor: “I really shouldn’t spend any more on books till I’ve read these. Or at least till the pile is smaller.”

On the other hand, there’s the built-in humblebrag: “You should see my TBR pile! The floor joists are starting to creak!” (“Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must be!“)

Neither argument is relevant for a book hoarder deciding to buy a new book. Books aren’t substitutable. This is something that non-bibliophiles find hard to understand. Raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, “Don’t you have enough books already?”

The fact that David Mitchell’s sixfold fantasy Cloud Atlas, acquired a month ago at the Five Colleges Book Sale, is waiting on my TBR pile does not mean that I can pass up The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy, a novel based on Ireland’s Celtic Tiger property boom.

But is it fair to call this book accumulation hoarding? The book hoarder – or let’s just say ‘owner’ – fully intends to read the books. True, all those people living between stacks of decades-old newspapers also defend their possessions fiercely, claiming that they will, or may, or might read them someday. The social worker brought in by the family claims to know better.

Let us try for objective truth here. The Literary Hub website provides a scientific calculation of the number of books you can read before you die. Plug in your age and your own estimate of your reading speed (“average,” “voracious” or “super”) and they will tell you how many books you’ve got to go.

Getting the number is like hearing the first Bong! of the church bell for your own funeral. My number is 875. Only three digits. On the bright side, my TBR pile is much smaller than that. Even if I count all the TBRs that have moved over the years from the Pile to my shelves, unread, because a higher pile threatened an industrial accident, I can probably buy a few hundred books and still die absolved. Only a few hundred.

Suppose your number is smaller than your TBR pile, honestly counted. Is it hoarding then? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, the criteria for hoarding concern an inability to discard hoarded items. Nothing about how much you acquire. (Note that the APA is vaguely aware of a definitional difficulty here: they are currently debating whether to say “regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions” or “regardless of their actual value.”)

No problem there. I just donated seven cartons of books to the above-mentioned book sale. I now have exactly enough room for my TBR books on my shelves. The only remaining problem is where to put the next 875.

However, the DSM also stipulates that “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (including maintaining a safe environment for self and others).”

Again, we have a definitional problem. Distress or impairment to whom? I don’t mind the occasional spilled coffee when I miss the one remaining mug-shaped space on the table with my current reads because my eyes are fixed on the text. Is the pained expression on my husband’s face “clinically significant”? If so, he must need a psychiatrist.

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IT MIGHT BE SPRING

 

It might be spring if you just planted a couple of pansy six-packs in outdoor planters and then had to bring them in the house because the temperature would be dropping below freezing.

It might be spring if you had the back door open for the noonday sun to warm the house but you still wanted something hot for lunch.

And it might be spring if, while you were heating up said lunch, the cat who had been soaking up rays on the back deck came streaking through the house warning you that there was something outside and that something was a cute, rumply, cuddly, year-old black bear with his nose twitching away at the door in eager anticipation of a home cooked meal such as Mom might have taught him to enjoy.

I shut the door on his cute little nose, and he never batted an eye.

He was awfully cute with his mussy fur coat decorated with twigs and bits of leaves. I watched from the windows as he walked around the house investigating empty planters, glass globes hanging from the naked branches of hydrangeas and lilacs, and turning over with his thumbless hands and huge claws items of suspected gustatory interest.

That was two days ago. The cat hasn’t come out of hiding except to snatch a bite to eat now and then. The sight of bears does that to him. And as adorable as that little tyke of a bear was I also hope he doesn’t come back.

It’s spring when the days are warm and dry, and you want to be out in the yard doing things rather than hunkering down by the wood stove. But hunkering, I think, is more conducive to thinking great thoughts than is basking in the sun. Should I be glad that I live in the north country where summer is literally only 12 weeks long? Would the other 40 weeks give me enough time to write great American flash fiction? Forget the novel. Can anyone in more torrid zones (south of New Hampshire) think clearly enough to imagine great things when they had all those temperate months to bask? I suppose if anyone south of New Hampshire read this post they could accuse me of being a latitudinalist, and they might be correct.

Being anything ‘ist, or phobic these days is bound to get you in trouble. Am I an ursidist, or maybe even ursaphobic if I prefer that cute little feral creatures not wander through my yard when big mama might be close behind? My cat is. And my pansies are exothermistophobes, but then they are pansies; they don’t want to be left out in the cold. Who can blame them?

I’m not sure where this post is going, but I’m going to sit in the sun before it freezes, which it will again tonight. It might be spring in the day, but at night it’s another story.

Fiction Finds Its Fact

 

I had already invented a historic house for my murder. It dated to pre-Revolutionary times. I knew how it had begun –smallish, built by a hard-working tiller of the stony New Hampshire soil – and how it had grown as the family prospered. The foursquare, four-room shelter expanded, front, back and sides, as the nineteenth century progressed. The second story lost its sloping bedrooms and acquired an attic. Greek Revival doohickeys appeared. Even the sheds and barn grew neat.

This week, I got a chance to visit the kernel of my mysterious house. A kindly neighbor is selling his 1775 farmhouse, and he gave me a royal tour. I found myself regretting that I had allowed my fictional Stark House to be tinkered with by a bunch of equally fictional ancestors.

We stepped from the narrow front porch into a graceful swirl of centuries. A narrow wooden staircase on the left of the hall was painted in a deep, vivid blue, like the rich colors that once graced Mount Vernon. The paper on the walls reminded me of the papers Americans imported in the eighteen hundreds, when they established themselves among the nations — as consumers with the best of them.

To either side of the hall were parlors, each with its fireplace, rooms deliberately kept small to conserve heat and prevent drafts. There were signs of new prosperity here, too: the wood-paneled walls may have been the work of a carpenter known to have come through town in the 1830s. He dressed up a number of the local houses – no one wanted to be left behind the fashion. My neighbor had stripped off the centuries of paint that disguised it; you can now stroke the original wood of this 19th-century upgrade.

Behind the smaller parlor was the “warming room.”  It shared a chimney with the large kitchen behind the company rooms. Here babies came into the world and the old left it, tended by the women of the family as they kept the kitchen fire going and the stew on the simmer. Our woods here in the Upper Valley still grow good lumber, but the trees that provided its wide floor boards and the original rafters above the kitchen are no more.

The old kitchen has become a living area, its original rafters once again visible, and the extension of the house to the back now houses a modern kitchen. One thing hasn’t changed: my host had a stew in progress that any Puritan goodwife would have envied (or at least asked for the recipe.)

When we made our way down to the basement, I knew that I had missed a great opportunity for my fictional Stark House. Its walls were made of fieldstone, like the walls that run through all our woods and pastures here, but with a big difference. These had been matched and placed with such care and skill that the corners were militarily precise. Just over our heads – we’re both about middle height – huge wooden beams lowered over us. Many had been replaced over the years, but some were still unsquared trunks from those ancestral forests. Think what crimes I could have committed – and concealed! — in such a basement. Just a little monkeying with the light fixtures….

Outside, under the lawn, there are signs of another foundation, probably the barn. I ached to know whether it had once been connected to the house by sheds and work buildings in the style known as Big-House-Little-House-Back-House-Barn. Those convoluted connections figure largely in my murders.

I can see that I’ll have to write a sequel, if only to add the counterpart of this lovely place to my fictional Oxbow, New Hampshire.

Packing Day

Packing day—to return home—is never long enough. (Packing to go to AZ should be a piece of cake. It starts as soon as I stop wearing my summer clothes. That can be any day from October 1 until the second. Of October. I am not kidding you. That’s when summer ends in New Hampshire, which gives me almost three months to fill two suitcases. Does that mean I start packing on October second? You already know the answer to that if you have been following this blog. Just search “procrastination” and you’ll have a good idea of what day I start packing.)

My largest suitcase (my LARGEST suitcase lost a wheel in Australia and is unfortunately sitting in a landfill) was packed three days ago, though I did struggle. Whittling my wardrobe down to three days worth of clothing was difficult, especially when you consider everything we packed into these last three days.

Saturday we watched a grandson play two games of a basketball tournament; they won both! (The most fun was when the grandmother from the other side of the family and I agreed to collaborate on a book together!) By seven p.m. we were at Rawhide Western Town and Event Center for a granddaughter competing in the Regional Level 7 Gymnastics competition. The other regions represented were Utah, Nevada, Southern California and Northern California. She did extremely well and brought home three medals.

Garden at the plaza

Garden at the plaza in Care Free, AZ

Yesterday the ladies of the Arizona family (two daughters, three granddaughters, and me) dressed up for lunch at the English Rose Tea Room in Carefree. So much fun!! The Tea Room is in a plaza of cute shops with a gorgeous Southwestern garden area. Elephant Bluff and Skull Mesa were visible to the north.  

Last night some of the men (my husband and two grandsons) joined the ladies at San Tan Flat for a farewell dinner. Margaritas, outdoor tables, rancher tips and steak, two vicious games of Uno (my granddaughters are sharks), s’mores cooked over our own fire pit, and dancing to live music. We couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff (unless our sons-in-law were not tied up with work obligations and could have joined us)!!

See you in New Hampshire!!

 

 

 

 

 

PULL UP OUR SOCKS?

PULL UP OUR SOCKS?

That’s what Heidi urged us to do when our blogging was going down the tubes. I looked up the expression and found this:

Socks didn’t always have an elastic band around the top. Our great-grandparents used to wear garters to keep them up. In days gone by, schoolboys in shorts could regularly be seen with socks drooping around their ankles and were told to smarten themselves by pulling their socks up.

Poor kids. Try rolling a hoop down the street with lengths of knitted tubing fluttering around your feet. A definite dog attractor. There are other sock expressions found and explained on the internet, but I won’t go into them here. Some are fun and suitable for a writer to utilize.

So, here we are, pulling up our socks.

Heidi went at it with a vengeance (see two posts ago), with her medieval manuscripts post, and Karen followed with her short story woes. I feel for her; I’m in the same boat, struggling with word counts that don’t allow for character expansion or descriptions out the wazoo. Wazoo is a fascinating word. Thank goodness that it has gone beyond its original meaning and is now acceptable in family settings and good clean writing. At least I think it has. If I use it, if I’ve even heard its new meaning, it generally indicates it’s been in usage for ages. Like, pull up your socks.

My short story woes are slightly different than Karen’s. I enjoy ripping the clothes off my overdressed stories till they are clad only in the basics. Just a tad more than a birthday suit, the suit in which your story was dressed when it first occurred to you. No one wants to see that. Still, I need to have a complete story within the confines of competition requirements, one that sounds right for the word count, neither sparse or wordy, There’s a great word in Yiddish; ungapatchka. It means too much. I love it. Don’t bother looking it up; it’s not there. It’s a word that just is. I don’t think there’s an opposite, an antonym, or maybe I haven’t heard it yet.

I added a program to my computer (drum roll here), that’s been helping me with my writing. It’s called Grammarly. There is no part of my brain that can deal with grammar and punctuation. This program spots all my errors and, with my permission, will correct them for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to memorize Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to no avail. This program is the cat’s pajamas. Probably Dr. Denton’s with the socks attached.

So now I’m whizzing through my short stories like mad, not because I have this program but because all the competitions I want to enter are due at the end of this month. Grammarly is a real blessing to those who have a phobia to usage.

I’ve gotten four stories out already (these were pre-written stories; nobody is that good), whereas I (my critique mates, actually) would still be struggling with the grammar in the first one or two. I’ve spared them unnecessary anguish when their own troubles already besiege them.

You see how well I’ve pulled my socks up, Heidi?

Try doing any of those things with a novel

I’ve never considered myself a short story writer. I read them—and enjoy them–but I never feel as satisfied when I’m done with them as when I read a novel.

Yet here I am, reviving a short story that I’ve been working on for a few years. I have twenty-six saved versions of this story (with four different working titles) on my laptop. When I originally wrote it—back in 2014—the total word count was eleven thousand words. I’ve condensed it to five thousand words. As you can imagine, it doesn’t read like the original story. (And that’s a good thing–I’ve reread the original story.)

Why revive this project if I couldn’t finish it in 2014—or 2016—or 2017?

The need to complete a piece of writing is driving me, not exactly insane…more like to write. Something  that I can submit for publication. Or rejection. Going back and forth working on the novels of my Woodbury trilogy without making any discernible progress has left me frustrated, unsure of my ability to write and revise, over and over, until I can say it is as good as it gets.

Just possibly, I’m finding that writing a short story is good practice for writing a novel. (Or just for learning how to write.)

With my short story, I can revise the entire piece in a day less than a week, submit it to my group for critique, and, within six days, I can produce another revision. Of the entire story. I can keep track of the changes I’m making from the beginning to the end of the story. I can reread the entire story each time I work on it. Try doing any of those things with a novel.

A major problem I am facing with my short story is fitting in all the scenes and dialogue that I need with a limited word count. I believe the story can be told in five thousand words. But I am beginning to suspect that I need more words than that to write it. It’s easier to take words out than to have to add them in. Or so I’ve been told. Maybe I’ll just ignore that nagging word count on the bottom left of my screen and write.

Does this mean I will abandon my trilogy for the pleasure of writing short stories? Doesn’t strike me as likely right at the moment. Though I can envision always having a short story in progress to turn to whenever I need the instant gratification I can’t get from writing a novel.

Remarkable Manuscripts

You know how the writing mavens warn you against letting yourself get carried away by your research? Against noodling around in depth upon depth of interesting stuff instead of turning out text? Today we consider how much fun you can have if you ignore them.

At present, I’m plotting a mystery that will involve a rare books library and its collection of illuminated manuscripts. My first and most valuable co-conspirator is that deeply respectable institution, the British Library. Their daily Medieval Manuscripts blog greets my every morning with some new twist on their very old theme. The BL is digitizing its collection, so you can burrow down to find what interests you or browse just for fun.

A phoenix immolating itself, from a medieval bestiary
British Library, Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

This phoenix was on display at the BL’s recent exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which brought together texts and museum objects that Harry himself might have used to pursue a wizardly education. It comes from a bestiary that might have been the text for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. (The exhibition sold out long in advance for every single day, a first for the Library.)

For facts and figures, and above all to avoid howlers, I’m studying Christopher de Hamel’s 2017 blockbuster, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. (Okay, it may not have been on the bestseller lists. But it’s 632 pages long and weighs three pounds.) De Hamel is the former librarian of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, a treasure house of manuscripts.

De Hamel travelled the world to research this book, visiting twelve of the most important and most beautiful manuscripts in existence. The earliest dates to the late 500s, the latest to about 1515. Each essay combines his travels, accounts of each rare book library and its denizens, his musings on the manuscripts – including some new observations and deductions on the making and history of each – with multiple images of the illuminations, of their present homes and of the men and women who bought, sold and preserved them.

Chapter One concerns the Gospels of St. Augustine, owned by Corpus Christi itself. It is the oldest surviving Latin gospel book anywhere in the world. The saint in question is not the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo but the missionary who brought Roman Catholicism to England. The book’s readings of the text and its imagery served as exemplars for later and more elaborate gospel books down the centuries.

Its predecessors may be even more interesting: scholars suggest links between the style of its art and Ethiopia, a home of early Christian monasticism. That style of Ethiopian religious painting persists today.

Scenes from the Passion of Christ
Gospels of St. Augustine

 

Modern Ethiopian religious woodcut
fineartamerica.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De Hamel’s anecdotes are even more enticing than his scholarship. Here we see him in his librarian persona, dressed in full academic regalia, presenting the Gospels of St. Augustine for Pope Benedict’s veneration when he visited England. That’s Rowan Williams, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left.

Christopher de Hamel, the Gospels of St. Augustine, and others

The Gospels of St. Augustine are also used during the enthronements of Archbishops of Canterbury, and at the last two such ceremonies, de Hamel again presented the book. He reports that in 2003, at the enthronement of Rowan Williams, at the first vibrating notes of the opening hymn, the parchment pages of the book rose and fluttered. He adds that the same did not occur for the current incumbent.

In the succeeding chapters, we meet, among others, the Book of Kells, the Copenhagen Psalter and the Visconti Semideus. Here are a few tidbits that may find their way, suitably transmuted, into my mystery:

Decorative emblems of St. Mark and St. Luke
The Book of Kells

De Hamel says he is often asked if the Book of Kells is like a Book of Hours. And if so, his questioners want to know, what is a kell? Such innocent ignorance pales beside the vandalism of one George Mullen, who “restored” the Book of Kells in the 1820s and saw fit to touch up the decorations with white paint, to “improve the definition.”

The Copenhagen Psalter, we learn, was probably created as a first reading book for a young prince. This purpose is demonstrated by a large, carefully drawn alphabet and a table of punctuation and abbreviations. Its illuminations are certainly royal. If manuscripts, de Hamel says, were accompanied by music, the Copenhagen Psalter would require trumpets and a church organ.

Cat playing a rebec
British Library Harley 6563 f 40

More endearing, though, are the marginalia, calculated to appeal to a child. One of them shows a cat playing a rebec, a sort of early fiddle. This image occurs in many illuminated manuscripts and harks back, de Hamel believes, to whatever tale or folk belief gave us “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” He adds that when a dinner guest of his own, a master of medieval music, arrived with a rebec, an experiment became possible. The musician played, and de Hamel’s cat “rushed in as if drawn by a magnet, rolling on the floor in ecstasy, as punch drunk as a dervish.”

 

The Semideus is a manual on warfare, presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1438. The violent subject matter was appropriate to the recipient, a warlord whose emblem was a blue viper devouring a child. Yet the pictures of tactical devastation are charming, washed with soft pastel colors and full of tiny, perfect detail. This battle scene is viewed from the opposing page by the Madonna and Child, beaming down on the carnage from the center of a sunburst (another Visconti emblem.)

Battle scene of Crusaders attacking a Muslim city
Visconti Semideus

The St. Petersburg National Library is the current home of the Semideus. When de Hamel arrived, he went through a near-Soviet experience of rigid and inexplicable bureaucracy interspersed with casual Russian friendliness. At last he settled down to inspect the precious manuscript. He was so immersed in his work that it was well past lunch time when he looked up. The Russian invigilator keeping watch over the reading room realized he had missed the meal – so she brought him a handful of whiskey-flavored chocolates to eat while he continued to handle the manuscript.

Could I put together my mystery plot with less information than this? Logic says yes. I say no. These winding little back alleys of fact are putting flesh on the bones of my story and slowly filling the memories (and the unconscious) of several of my characters. At any rate, the mavens can’t prove that I don’t need to do this. Until they can, I plan to enjoy myself.

Home from Down Under

We are home from our journey down under. While we miss our room-service breakfasts, our tea at 3 p.m., our mouth-watering dinner menus with four courses and multiple desserts for my husband, our nightly towel animal on our turned down bed, and a new destination to explore every morning, we are happy to be home in Arizona.

The long flights to Australia and home from New Zealand were miserable–if you planned on sleeping. I used my flight time to Australia to read books (fourteen in total during the entire trip) and watch movies (four during the flight home), interspersed with a nap or two. Surprisingly, the jet lag was minimal, similar to a minor hangover. I struggled with eating dinner at 1:20 a.m. on the flight to Australia. No one could provide a satisfactory explanation on how that would help us adjust to the time change versus allowing us to go sleep and serving breakfast in eight hours.

You may be wondering how my clothing worked out. Quite well. Only a few staples were worn more than once while numerous articles were never worn….I may have packed more clothing than necessary. My suitcase lost a wheel before we checked in at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix yet it managed to survive the trip thanks to a roll of duct   tape.

Everywhere we journeyed in New Zealand, locals told us how lucky we were that the weather was sunny, warm, and dry. (Whereas in Australia, we were reminded how lucky we were that it wasn’t blistering hot.) I needed my rain jacket once, the morning we cruised Milford Sound in the Fiordland National Park. We set our alarms to watch the 6 a.m. sunrise–through the rain clouds. The rain brought temporary waterfalls, making the scenery even more beautiful. A school of dolphins performed close to our balcony that morning also. 

Waterfall

Milford Sound, NZ

A few highlights of our trip: snorkeling in stinger suits at the Great Barrier Reef; touring the Sydney Opera house;  observing kangaroos, emus, and koalas in their natural habitat in the You Yangs near Melbourne; watching Tasmanian Devils devour a fresh wallaby leg; feeding kangaroos out of our hands; feeling sad at the Port Arthur convict prison with their memorial to the thirty-five victims of the 1996 shooting; crossing the Tasman Sea without getting sick; loving the beauty of the Milford, Dusky, and Doubtful Sounds; being entertained by sheepdogs herding sheep (twenty-eight million in New Zealand); visiting the Penguin Place, a sanctuary for penguins, fur seals, and birds, with a gorgeous beach that’s off-limits to humans; learning about the Maori culture; enjoying the Napier Art Deco Festival; reveling in the gannets at Plateau Colony at Cape Kidnappers; kayaking through a cave of glow worms on Lake Rotoiti; appreciating the cities of Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington, Dunedin, and Auckland; meeting interesting people from around the world.

While on our ship, the Holland America Noordam, I came up with an idea for a story: four single women troll single, older men on a cruise shop. In a nice way. No one dies an unnatural death. Except for this story.

Prison
Prison, Port Arthur, Tasmania, AU

And lastly–my journal. I wrote twelve pages during the first three days of our trip, mainly while we were waiting in airports or in the air. If I had been able to limit myself to a few comments each day, I might have been able to document our entire trip in words. Instead, we took photos. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I have a journal of one million words. That just might be the right length for our fantastic trip.

On Not Winning the Freddie

Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.

The Freddie Mascot
(The Flamingo of Doom)

The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.

I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.

When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”

The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)

Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:

10  Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8   Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6   Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4   Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2   Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed

By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.

Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.

I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.

  • Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
  • Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
  • Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
  • No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.

Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!

That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:

I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.

Good advice of all of us.

P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.

 

 

Portrait of a Villain

Heidi here, reporting progress for once.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.

After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.

Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.

I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.

As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.

From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.

Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.

This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.

And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.

Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)

The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.

So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.

P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.

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