Category Archives: Writing Group
The Christmas Book Haul
So, what do a bunch of writers want for Christmas? Books, of course. But a survey of the Thursday Night Writers suggests that Santa’s gift-giving expertise is decidedly wobbly. Either that, or certain persons indulged in some lump-of-coal-type behavior in 2018.
I made out pretty well myself, but not because Santa (or his elves who happen to be related to me) got it right on their own. Brazen beggar that I am, I keep a public wish list on the Amazon web site. During the year, I use it to store the long, long list of books I’ve seen reviewed that I really, really want to read, if only I manage to live to be 175. Come the first snowflakes, I nip in and start moving titles around, shoving to the top the ones I’d like to see under the Christmas tree.
So my haul this year included Wish List #1, Tana French’s The Witch Elm. French is one of the only authors I buy in hard cover. (I’ve been mind-boggled by a recent thread on the DorothyL listserv, in which mystery fans explain why they can’t read her books. Their explanations convince me that they are reading the books of some other Tana French. A sobering thought for us writers who think that our readers read exactly what we hear in our heads when we write.)
Wish List #2 turned up, too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes. The subtitle is An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. Maybe it’s because I turned 70 last year, but I find myself getting crankier and crankier about Upbeatness on the subject of old age. It stinks. End of discussion.
Two of my granddaughters gave me Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles. I am holding it in reserve until a current flurry of life demands calms down. Cats must be contemplated in calm and with dignity. And judging from my Japanese acquaintances, a Japanese cat will be Cat Squared.
Santa clearly approves of another TNWer, a fantasy/mystery author who received Agents and Spies, Thrilling Tales, a Gothic Fantasy anthology from Flame Tree Press. Flame Tree is a new publisher specializing in “excellent writing in horror and the supernatural, crime and mystery thrillers, and science fiction and fantasy.” The anthology combines classic stories with original ones from new authors. Imagine being paired in an anthology with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle or Rudyard Kipling!
Another TNWer, one-half of a pair of love birds married, lo, these many decades, received from his spouse a book of essays on the meaning of it all by one of their favorite columnists. He, in turn, had bought her a compilation of articles on the life of their favorite evangelist. No prior consultations. It’s like O. Henry’s “The Gifts of the Magi”, without the bitter overtone.
Alas, two of us received no books. One, our most prolific writer, is the duck in the hen house: the reading passion is the thing she doesn’t have in common with her family. The other non-recipient is a lesson to us all. Our most voracious reader, she roars through piles of books weekly – on her Kindle. Knowing that her first, second, third, etc. choices are already streaming to her at the speed of light, her family rebel at the thought of offering #17, and give her sweaters. When Amazon offers all the books there are by One-Click, and Google digitizes the world library and Project Gutenberg actually gives books away free… can we possibly have lost something?
Here’s hoping you all found just what you wanted under the tree, books or no books.
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.
Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”
Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.
And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.
Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.
Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.
We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?
I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.
So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.
How To Do Thumbsucking Properly
I was doubtful when my TNW colleague Mike Horton recommended that I take an online writing class with Onestory.com. This online literary magazine publishes just one short story per issue, but it also runs writing seminars. In the end, I decided to sign up, on the grounds that any outfit that could help Mike Horton to write better would have no trouble at all moving me up a step or twenty.
I’m an old fart, I admit it, and I hate computers. Participating in the course meant using something called PowerSchool Learning, a program like the online Blackboard now used in colleges. I don’t understand that either. In fact, I was given my own personal assistant at the Blackboard training session when my curses began to be audible to the group. The geek kept piously telling me that I didn’t need to have anything explained in advance; “it’s intuitive.” Yeah? Well, the PowerSchool Learning Welcome page ends with, “Good luck!”
But lo and behold! I could do it. What’s more, I figured out what it is about living in cyberspace that makes me nervous. It turned out to be exactly the problem I need to surmount in order to write the book I’m stuck on.
The first web page that came up was an essay by the teacher (Hannah Tinti, whose novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was the text for the course.) Within it were links to books and articles elsewhere online. Those pages sent you to other pages, with more links, to pages with more links.
To use again a quotation I overuse: Ceci ne pas un manuel scolaire. The “textbook” for this course is not one you can finish, because it’s a meta-text. The internet is like the universe: finite but unbounded. If a particular chain of links peters out, another will ultimately be found to circle around behind the dead end and bring you to every- and anything else. It’s all experimentation and openness. That’s why the internet makes me so uncomfortable. How do you know if you got the right answer?
There isn’t one, of course, if what you are doing is writing a novel.
That’s why I found the first of the three sessions, “Beginnings” so inspiring. Tinti sent us to an account of Lynda Barry’s book on how to stimulate creativity, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry is a visual artist. Her book is based on a class she taught, “The Unthinkable Mind — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing.”
I thought, “I don’t have time for this. Too much.” Wrong. Barry wants us to journal, but not to write reams of deep reflection. Her template journal page looks like this:
Just be there, so that you actually notice what you are doing, seeing and hearing. Then, no matter how crude your doodles, let your own interpretation of some part thereof appear on the page.
Tinti insists that just this kind of focus on individual things, events, and memories, along with a determination to bring just one such item to vivid life in a single scene, can bring a book into being. With examples from her novel, she convinced me she was right. For once, an author answered, clearly and in detail, that tired old panel question, Tell us about your process.
But best of all, Tinti doesn’t claim that it’s easy if you just use some technique. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti seven years to write – hooray! Answering a student’s question on her experience of writing the book, she began, “A few years in,…” Also, she had a proposal I really liked:
I feel like there should be a secret signal for any writer who has worked on a book for more than five years. Then, whenever someone corners us at a party and asks how the writing is going, we can salute each other silently from across the room.
Suggestions for the signal, readers? I vote for thumbsucking.
Now I’m ready to move on to Lesson Two on dogging one’s way through the middle, with “research” thrown in. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.
I love my ladies
Spoiler alert…I’m indulging in some writer whining. Again.
Tonight, a remake of a movie that holds a special place in my heart, “Dirty Dancing,” airs on ABC. Among many other negative reviews, TV Guide had this to say: “In an era where actual dirty dancing…has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present…”
And yet, knowing that it will be a huge disappointment, I will watch it.
I’ve registered for the 2017 New England Crime Bake. Without allowing myself to consider what it would entail, I paid the extra $49 for the Agent and Editor Program, which includes critiques of a pitch and a query as well as the opportunity to pitch to an agent.
Initially I thought that I should pitch my current project, Gabby, at the conference. She’s nowhere near ready but if I focus on her I might be able to whip her into shape by November. What does pitching Gabby do to my plans for a trilogy that takes place in Woodbury, NH?
If I am committed to creating a trilogy, I am pretty certain it doesn’t make sense to pitch the novel that is chronologically the last one (Gabby). I am also pretty certain that it would be incredible if at the Crime Bake I could pitch a cohesive trilogy.
The truth is that in addition to Gabby, my other rough drafts are not ready to be pitched. Anne, Olivia, and Claire. Yes, that is four novels not three but Anne is begging to be joined with her daughter Olivia, and if I acquiesce, I will have a trilogy. But Anne has no murder. Or murderer. My list of characters reveals that I can change a death to a murder and provides a potential murderer. That was easier than I expected. Now for some suspects…
However, that is not the biggest issue with Anne and Olivia. It’s somewhat like Katie Couric and dirty dancing. The premise works for 1993, when it is set, but not so much in 2017. Will it be relevant to readers?
Claire is next. She has some flexibility as to when she takes place but as a senior citizen she is aging the longer she waits. Luckily, she is endowed with a murder, murderer and some suspects. And a man in the attic is timeless.
So now I’ve created a three-headed monster: Anne/Olivia, Claire, Gabby. Do I put Gabby aside and return to Anne/Olivia because she started all of this? Is what I’ve invested hours of time and brain cells into worth resuscitating? Or am I trying to breathe life into a bunch of Word files that I would be better off jettisoning into the Trash folder?
Funny how I can hear a little voice in my head, let’s call him John, giving me some advice—most likely because I have posed this same question to my writing group numerous times. Don’t worry about a trilogy, just focus on getting one novel in good shape so you can pitch it in November. Burn those early writings. They were just practice. And that’s just some of what I assume his advice would be.
But I love my ladies.
The Ick Factor
The Thursday Night Writers had another set-to this week over my exploding canary. Only four of us were present this time, but the controversy has raged through the whole group since I submitted the first draft of chapter 36 – longer ago than I care to admit.
Here’s the passage:
For my part, I kept the Stark file spread out all over my desk, like one of those impossible variations on solitaire. I inspected every line of every document, straining for some way in which it might imply a deadly secret. I marked Jeremiah’s house purchase with a Post-it memo to trace the sellers. Somehow, the sale wasn’t legitimate? Or Jeremiah’s check bounced? Or maybe way earlier, somebody with the same name had just pretended to be a descendant of Enoch Stark when they bought the house? Pretty thin, Eliza. But it got another yellow sticky note. In the end, the solitaire game looked like an explosion in a canary.
Disregard the plot conundrum. It can’t be quickly explained, and the only problem, as far as the TNWs were concerned, was the canary.
One member is admittedly squeamish. She loves cozies because of their basic rule: no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Simile or not, she does not want a piecemeal canary obtruded into her consciousness. In a later chapter, a mere reference to “my canary” in the context of the annotated documents was enough to set her off. (Granted, she had been recently lacerated by an episode involving a frog in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. It wasn’t a good week to reprise the canary.)
The others, it seemed to me, were going deeper into the image than … I was going to say “a normal person,” but perhaps I should just say “the reader” is likely to. There was speculation as to the appearance of a real exploded canary. A consensus emerged that the resulting color would not be yellow. I believe someone brought up the probable radius of the debris. And there was me, just visualizing little Tweety-colored feathers floating down.
The title of this post comes from a critique I received from Mary Carroll Moore, with whom I’ve taken two live workshops and one online class. She used it when she advised me to abandon the opening sentence of my novel and, indeed, to remove all technical or at least all vivid medical details from the scene, which takes place in a doctor’s office. Here’s the paragraph:
I don’t deny that I was riddled with parasites. I always was when I got back from a field trip. But I saw no reason for Brad to take that tone with a woman twice his age. His father never had a problem with my parasites.
I submitted that paragraph, as part of my first two pages, to a panel at the New Hampshire Writers Day last year. The panel consisted of well-known NH writers – all genres, not just mysteries. Each submission was read aloud by the moderator. The panelists were instructed to raise their hands at the first word, phrase or other issue that “stopped” them.
When my first sentence was read, three out of four of them jumped, but no hand went up. Which means…? You tell me. Please.
(We got well down the second page before I got a hand. Several at once, in fact. But that’s another story.)
So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m made of grosser clay than the average cozy fan. Or maybe I just make my friends and seek advice from lovely people who are more-than-average refined. The one thing I’m sure of is that neither the canary idea nor the existence of parasites would boggle the mind of my protagonist. So maybe I’ll keep them both.
The Ick Factor may be on my mind at the moment because of the winning response to the challenge I posed in my last blog: to use in mystery plot the following two words:
Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe
Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.
And the winner is….
Judy W.! She commented:
Your current words call to mind a Dick Francis-like mystery set in a racing stable. “The feaguing of the poor horse set loose an explosive diarrhea in the stall that splattered the walls like ylem after the Big Bang. Underneath the residue lay the missing gambler.” Ugh. Sorry, but you did issue a challenge.
Congratulations, Judy! After that, an exploding canary is nothing. It wouldn’t even cover up a dead gambler.
It’s mostly about Christmas
December is not my month to write. November-even with Thanksgiving, Black Friday/Small Business Saturday/Cyber Monday, my birthday, and Clam Bake-finds me writing like a whirling dervish dances. (Thank you, NaNoWriMo.)
Though December is a bust creatively, organizationally I need to be on top of my game. (I think this requirement applies to at least 50% of the adult population in the US. You know who you are.) It’s mostly about Christmas, naturally:
- Designing and ordering photo Christmas cards. (No signing as our names are printed on the cards. Nice.) Addressing the card envelopes. (Who did I mail cards to last year? Where is that list?)
- Designing and ordering photo family calendars. (Just a gazillion texts to daughters and searches on my phone and Facebook for the perfect pictures.)
- Shopping for presents. (Pretty much just for my mother. Phew…)
- Writing checks for grandchildren’s Christmas presents. (It’s such a relief to put the burden for buying presents onto my daughters.)
- Shopping for those ingredients-eggs, flour, sugar, nuts-that I don’t normally keep on hand so that I can make cookies with my two local grandchildren.
- Baking cookies without my grandchildren.
- Keeping my husband away from the cookies before I have a chance to hand them out.
- Trekking to the local tree farm to buy the Christmas tree. (My Fitbit appreciates all the extra steps I garner looking for the perfect tree.)
- Perfectly decorating the damn perfect tree.
- Buying gifts for the Yankee swap and making food for the writing group party. (That’s it, one non-family holiday party to attend. No more dashing through the snow to get to those parties crammed into the two weeks right before Christmas.)
- Watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Love Actually,” and all the Hallmark Christmas movies (several times).
- Scheduling and planning the family Christmas party.
- Checking the weather forecast two weeks in advance of the party.
- Rescheduling the family Christmas party for a day when we aren’t forecast to get lots of snow followed by freezing rain.
- Enjoying the holidays!
This list is nothing compared to what it was when I was a working mom with three daughters at home. (About the age that they are now.) And that’s something I’m grateful for. As I’ve gotten older, I am less able-and willing, I must confess-to juggle all of the additional demands that a busy holiday season can place on me. And as I look back over those years of hectic Christmas celebrations that seemed to last for the entire month of December, I wonder if a simpler holiday season would have been a better option for my family.
Now, what really complicates my month of December isn’t Christmas. It’s the amount of preparation it takes to spend the next four months in Arizona. That list just might compete with Santa’s “Naughty or Nice” list. Totally worth it.
Confession: I murdered someone
I have to confess–I did it. I murdered someone. It was a first time for me but probably not the last. I’ve been advised to say no more.
My sister-in-law (also an aspiring writer yet definitely not someone you associate with murder) here visiting from Florida by way of Pennsylvania was a most eager accomplice. While snapping green beans and sipping wine, we planned the murder. Over dinner, she would interrupt the flow of conversation with “what if…”. Certainly not appropriate conversation for a dinner party but totally acceptable among family members.
You’ve no doubt figured out that I am writing a murder mystery and the person I killed is a fictional character in the novel, whose identity I am not at liberty to reveal.
The outline for this murder mystery is supposed to be my submission for this week’s writing group. I’ve been working on it what feels like every free minute I have (which haven’t been many lately). The outline has been inching and crawling toward the murder; at times I have felt as though I am writing away from the murder instead of toward it.
Thus the decision to jump right to the outline of the murder and skip the remainder of the forty-nine unwritten pages leading up to it. (Murders should happen by page fifty, I am told.) I am certain John, our fearless leader, has instructed me or someone else in the group (we all start to blend together after nearly seven years) to do just that. I am beginning to see the logic in it. Now that I have the murder, or at least the first version of the murder, committed to paper, I can return to the beginning and force the actions of the characters to keep the reader guessing who the murderer is. Reminds me of solving quadratic equations. Creatively.
Building the Plot Machine
When last heard from, I was moaning and complaining about my inability to focus in on the important things, in particular, my mystery novel’s plot problems. Since then, I have followed my own advice: “Apply rear end to chair. Write.” Danged if it isn’t working.
What is going down on paper – into electrons, I should say – is not fluent prose but brief sentences in an Excel worksheet. It’s my fourth attempt to organize this monster in Excel. Fourth time’s the charm.
My earlier worksheets were chimaeras. Along the horizontal axis were the four murders I had concocted. Each column was meant to state, in chronological order, “what happened.” The difficulty was that everybody’s “what happened” was different from everybody else’s.
I don’t mean just the characters, though each of them had his or her own body of knowledge about who was where, when and why, and above all, who hated whom. I also had to keep track of what happened as far as the reader knew. And of things that had happened all right, but that were supposed to make no sense until the big reveal at the end. And of the little event-clouds that shroud those baffling happenings in ordinariness for the time being.
Since my mystery is a cozy, my detective is an amateur. Her personal life impinges deeply on her need to solve the mystery. Her biggest personal problem (illness) needs to be consistent with the action. Even more, it needs to cast light on her actions, and outside events have to feed back into her situation. I added another column.
Her biggest challenge in outward life (a lawsuit) demanded a similar treatment. Add another column.
Then there were the police. They had to be hunting in all the wrong places. Their errors needed to ratchet up the dangers for the detective. Another column.
On top of that, mere order of events wasn’t enough. I needed specific dates for every event. Can’t have people building snowmen in May (actually, you can do that sometimes here in New Hampshire) or going on a shopping binge on Christmas Day.
You can imagine what a ragbag my worksheet became. Columns could be plot threads, themes, or characters. I found myself copying and pasting the contents of one box into three more, where they were just as relevant. Excel can be an excellent disordering technique.
Now I think I’ve got it. In the new worksheet, each column represents a single character and its contents are single-minded: what does this person want right now, and how does s/he go about getting it? No date column yet, but I think I’ll be able to stagger each character’s moves with the others – and possibly get them into a tighter, tenser order. That’s to say nothing of the way the author’s errors light up. I wasn’t half-way through entering my data before I found the murderer acting directly against his own interests. Duh.
I’ve been whining about all this in my writing group for so long that our moderator came up with an exercise for all of us to work on. He went to http://writingexercises.co.uk and used their “random plot generator.” Out popped the following:
Main Character: An optimistic 23-year-old woman
Secondary Character: A rebellious 60-year-old woman
Setting: The story begins on a cliff
Situation: A robbery goes badly wrong
Theme: It’s a story about risk-taking
Character action: Your character sets out on a rescue mission
Our assignment is not to write the story, but to come up with the outline of a coherent plot using these elements. I hope to make this a dry run in miniature of my big Excel project.
(By the way, writingexercises.co.uk also provides other sorts of prompts and helps you work on other tasks, e.g., “generate a fictitious ‘English-sounding’ town name.” Check it out.)
So what about it, campers? How do you keep your plot threads untangled? All tips welcome. Or try your hand at the exercise, and let us know how you did.
When you know you’ve made it as a writer
You know you’ve made it as a writer when your career is the subject of one of the questions on the Buzztime Trivia game at Buffalo Wild Wings. We were “dining out” with our oldest grandson at B-Wild at Chandler Fashion Center when I glanced up at the huge screen on the wall connected to the tablet at our table and read a question I could actually answer. In other words, it wasn’t sports related.
The question was, per my recollection, “who writes about the nightmarish side of society?” I’m unsure who the other choices were but I knew immediately that Joyce Carol Oates was the answer. She may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I happen to love her books, as depressing as they tend to be. Wonder what that says about my psychological makeup?
I was fortunate to hear Oates read from her novel “The Accursed” at the Canaan, NH, Meetinghouse Readings on July 11, 2013. (Was it really almost three years ago?)
Anyone living within an hour’s drive, or more, of Canaan, NH, please plan to attend the readings at least once. The Meetinghouse, built in 1793, is worth the trip alone. I don’t know how the moderator convinces such acclaimed authors to make the trek to Canaan but you are certain to find at least one each summer that has you sitting on the edge of your bench, pinching yourself to check that you haven’t ventured into an alternate universe.
If I had to choose between being a question on the Buzztime Trivia game and reading from one of my novels at The Meetinghouse, without a doubt I would choose the latter. On second thought, I’d prefer to follow in Oates’ footsteps and do both.