Descriptions are for Feeling
I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.
Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.
Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.
At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:
V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.
G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.
At a writing conference:
Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.
A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.
In the room where I write:
A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.
Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.
A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.
In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:
A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.
The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.
Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.
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.
Permission to Age
Botox has been good to me. Not that I’ve ever used it. But it has provided me with a couple of nice red herrings to cover up poisonings.* Fictional poisonings, I mean, of course.
Botox has a bad rep. Nobody ever praises a woman for getting her jowls propped up. You don’t hear, “She deserves that lovely face. Think of the needles she’s endured.” And when a man indulges…! Nothing articulate need be said. Sniggers suffice.
Yet the American public is equally censorious about having saggy jowls when two conditions obtain: 1) you are a public figure, and 2) you are a woman. Yes, there are women who power through the pressure, and men do account for a low but rising percentage of Botox patients. However, my unscientific matched-pair study indicates severe injustice on the saggy issue.
Consider my first pair, an odd couple who may loom large in your nightmares at the moment.
Hillary Clinton – this is just my opinion, now – does not appear as nature made her. Scalpel or needle, this is not the face of a 68-year-old grandmother who’d be fine with staying at home with the darling baby. But why can’t the potential President of the United States look like a 68-year-old grandmother? The alternative President offered us by the Democrats looks like a grandpa, all right, and one with an uncertain temper at that. And somehow that’s fine.
Don’t ask me about Donald Trump. I can’t get past the hair.
Possibly Europeans are less uptight about their political figures. At least until recently, the most successful and respected of them all was “Mutti.” That’s what Germans call their Chancellor, Angela Merkel. (Her actual title is Kanzlerin – “Lady Chancellor.”) And Mutti means “Mummy” in German, not “mutt.”
Moving on to the journalism business and triplets instead of a pair, whom do we trust and revere more than our news anchors? (Well, yes, there was that thing with Brian Williams, but still….) Judy Woodruff of the PBS Nightly News Hour is – again, my opinion – a worthy successor to Jim Lehrer. In particular, she handles the Friday political news round-up with Mark Shields and David Brooks as well as Jim ever did. Now, here’s Judy, age 69:
And here are Mark (78) and David (54).
How is that fair?
I started brooding about all this when I visited the websites of published female authors. A lot of them are “of a certain age.” Not as old as I am, maybe, but they’ve traveled some distance. And so many of them are bloody gorgeous! For whatever reason. Make-up, maybe.
If I ever make it to published status, I’m going to have problems. I’m afraid of needles, and even more of knives. (Hence my fondness for poisonings.) So unless my friends stage a serious intervention, here’s what my readers will see on the back cover of every book I write:
*Before any dermatologists write in, let me point out that, properly administered, Botox does not pose a risk of poisoning. You just aren’t supposed to get it into your bloodstream. So if you do go for the Barbie look, see a doctor and have it done right, okay?
Why don’t I write?
Today’s post on the Maine Crime Writers blog by Bruce Robert Coffin about why he writes resonated with me, as do many of their posts. Beyond the writing connection, it may be because I spent my “formative” years (ages 4 to 14) living in Bangor.
Funny how my reasons for not writing when I should be writing mirror Coffin’s reasons for writing…
He writes to quiet those voices he hears in the middle of the night. When I can’t sleep, I think about my characters and what they are up to and–just as when I was hypnotized on a stage in front of hundreds of people–before I know it I’m sound asleep. No need to keep pen and paper on my nightstand. (I do but, as you may recall, I can’t read what I’ve written so I use it for grocery lists.)
Coffin apparently has some demanding, strong-willed characters in his stories who have no qualms about disagreeing with his plans for them. My characters, on the other hand, hang around as they lean against the walls, hands in their pockets, and wait for direction from me. Don’t they realize how much work they make for me with their lack of gumption and rebelliousness? Give me a protagonist who has a mind of her own and flaunts (my) authority and I’ll step back and let her take charge.
I don’t know where he gets some of his characters, either. Apparently his Sergeant Byron takes Coffin for rides in his car on his way to catch the bad guy. Instead of the other way around. As none of my characters have drivers’ licenses they expect me to drive them wherever they need to go. I just don’t have time for that. Maybe carpooling is the answer?
One thing we do have in common is that he doesn’t appear to prepare in-depth outlines. (And why should he? His characters run the show.) I’m a proud pantser and I surmise that Coffin is as well, based upon his comment that the enjoyment he derives from writing is not knowing what is going to happen in his stories.
Unfortunately for me, a newbie cozy/murder mystery writer, demands are being made of me that I may not be able to meet. After submitting my rough plot summary and character description for a new cozy to my writing group last night I’ve been asked to write the murder scene. Before I write anything else. The audacity! That I should know “who done it” before, well, before I know anything else. Apparently the writer, unlike the reader, should know this prior to investing time and energy into writing the actual book. Sigh. Big sigh. How do I reconcile this with my badge of honor as a pantser? I suppose it could be to ensure that the reader will want to invest time and energy into reading my book…
Adios to the gun
Two Thursdays ago I submitted to my writing group for critique my short story “The Intruder” now renamed “He’s All She’s Got.” As usual, my submission generated a fair amount of “positive criticism.”
Our facilitator, John, pointed out that I had “not fully imagined from the inside” the main scene that involved the gun, the intruder, and the tying up to the newel post of my protagonist. I have since attempted to immerse myself deeper into this scene only to discover that I have imagined it to the fullest extent possible. I just can’t write any more realistically about guns and tying up people.
I’ve given my story a hard look–a VERY hard look–and decided to rewrite it with more of a focus on the relationship between the mother and her daughter. I think it best to say adios to the gun scene. What a relief. Eleanor, who has worked tirelessly on a gun scene for possibly years suggested an alternative to my opening scene that does not involve a gun and I’m going to give it a try. Naturally, this change will ripple throughout the story. It’s all for the good. I am better at writing about relationships than guns.
Once again I am thankful for the input from my writing group. Without their advice, I’d–well, I’d be a wannabe writer without any possibility of publication. With them, my odds are slightly better. When we concluded the discussion of my short story, I made a negative comment about it. Immediately, thousands of miles away, I heard “it’s a good story” and “I like your story.” That was enough encouragement for another go-round. Thanks, guys!
What I find of interest is that when I am working on one project, my short story in this instance, all sorts of ideas for my other current project, (my book, “Anne”) erupt unbidden. I do wonder if all other writers have this problem, or if it just belongs to us procrastinators, for whom it is a means of getting out of what we are supposed to be doing.
Last week I took a break from my writing group and writing as my mother, sister and brother-in-law visited from New Hampshire. We relaxed by the pool at their resort, did a few tourist activities, and ate out, naturally. We were pleased we could reward them for their long flight with sunshine and some record-breaking temps in the 80’s. Too bad they had to return to temperatures that were nearly 100 degrees lower (with wind chill) than what they enjoyed here.
Now I will have time to write–the grandkids will be in school, Joy will be working, Steve will be golfing, and, oh, darn, the sun will be shining and temps will be even higher….
My (so-called) life as a writer
Technology is great (when it works, of course). For the past two Thursday nights I’ve been able to FaceTime with my writing group back in New Hampshire. I hope the second Thursday was an improvement for them–I used my iPad instead of my iPhone and they added speakers. The only problem on my end is that it’s harder to interrupt someone when you’re an image on a screen!
With the two hour time difference, I had no choice last Thursday but to eat my dinner while we had our discussion. I don’t imagine my slurping spaghetti noodles was a very appealing sight. That won’t be an option this week as I volunteered to submit. Tacky to eat and present at the same time.
Yikes. What was I thinking? I’ve been much too busy enjoying myself in sunny, warm Arizona (not so much today as we had a storm blow through last night–thank you, El Nino) to find time to write. And we’ve had visitors from New Hampshire. And the three grandkids passed a diluted version of their debilitating virus to me which kept me in bed part of this past weekend. And this coming weekend we have family from New Hampshire arriving.
And…that’s my life as a writer. Full of excuses as to why I haven’t written. But as I look through my two yellow pads of paper, I see pages of notes about both my story, “The Intruder,” and my book, “Anne.” But notes, in my book, don’t constitute writing. And as useful as they are to me, I can’t submit them to my writing group.
My notes on “Anne” pertain to combining my three related novels into one, not as easy a task as I originally anticipated. The process of writing my thoughts down on paper led me to the realization that I am starting the novel with Anne’s story and I need to conclude the novel with her story. My original plan was to end the novel with her daughter Olivia’s story. I suppose if I keep writing notes about the book I’ll come to a different conclusion.
I did have a motivational experience at, of all places, my grandson’s soccer tournament in Tucson. The opening ceremonies included the typical dais with a podium, microphone, and folding chairs. And a replica Olympic torch. Just the sight of the dais (sans the torch) transported me back to a scene in “Anne.”
Time to write (revise, finish) the damn book!
So heads up, writing group. If I get my act together, you’ll be reading a new (improved?) version of “The Intruder” this week. If I don’t, well…I’ll just have to blame it on technology.
Do what you love
I’m still hard at work on the short story (“The Intruder”) that takes place in my daughter’s house in Virginia. I reduced the word count and simplified the convoluted plot line and am now ready to smooth the rough edges, increase the word count, and add complexity to the plot line. I plan to have a draft to submit to my writing group “soon” after we arrive in Arizona. Warning to my group: do not expect it the week we arrive (next week).
Recently I read on a writing blog (not certain which one) that a writer (obviously) keeps a journal for each writing project that she works on. I promptly went to Barnes and Noble, purchased one of their ubiquitous,
always “reduced price,” journals, and started recording my experience revising my short story. I have two entries.
This is the year (I hope) that we get FaceTime functioning so that I can participate in our Thursday night writing group from Arizona. Even if we are only able to communicate via the phone, I will be satisfied. Without the structure of my group to motivate me, I spend my time there basking in the sunshine, resting, and exploring. Add being a spectator at the numerous sports and activities that our three active grandchildren participate in and you can see why I haven’t gotten much writing done these past two winters.
Something that has limited my writing in Virginia is that, as a Christmas present to myself, I renewed my subscription to Ancestry.com. My daughter and I have been researching rabidly various branches of my husband’s family. She’s traced his paternal grandfather’s ancestors back to hanging out with William Bradford, a Pilgrim governor of Massachusetts. (I thought I had done well to determine my fifth great-grandfather was a Minuteman!) It’s an addictive–and at times frustrating–hobby.
Last year in Arizona I participated in an online support group for writers, “Creative Monsters Club,” with other members from around the world. Our mentor, Marcy Mason McKay, has published (among other writings) an award-winning novel, “Pennies from Burger Heaven.” She soon plans to start work on the second book in the Burger Heaven series. I am going to post a review of her book on Goodreads and Amazon, which I have never done before. The quality and detail of the reviews I have read prior to deciding to purchase a book have deterred me from contributing my own paltry review. But I’m going to take the plunge and submit a brief review of this book. Please read her book–my review is optional!
For some time, I have been keeping a small notebook in my purse in which to capture fugitive ideas, oddities, vignettes, and joyful or horrid happenings for use in future writing. From this exercise has come, among much else, a long list of weird names encountered in the press and occasionally in life. I long to use them in fiction, but since they belong to real people, the best I can hope for is to mix and match. Today, I want to share some of this raw material with you, my fellow writers, who may well come up with better matches and better mixes than I. Feel free.
Some of the names are simply too appropriate to be believed. There are:
- Sir Jock Stirrup, once head of the British armed forces (and now Baron Stirrup.)
- John Stalker, an ex-Deputy Chief of Police.
- James Naughtie, the BBC Today interviewer of a heterosexual man who, after a stroke, “woke up gay.” Naughtie was described by Britain’s Daily Mail as “the formidable BBC pinko who turned the airwaves blue.”
- UK Member of Parliament, Mark Reckless, who bolted the Conservative Party to join the Independence Party.
(The English outnumber the Americans in my list. Does this Mean Something?)
Here at home, the items in my collection seem to come with brief stories attached. I itch to fill them out:
From my cookbook shelf, Crescent Dragonwagon beckons. According to my sister-in-law, who claims acquaintance with her (and that is not the kind of source one questions), Ms. Dragonwagon married an enlightened man who did not insist that she take his surname. Neither of them wanted a hyphenated name, however, so they made one up. The marriage ended, but Ms. Dragonwagon’s vegetarian cookbooks were already well known, so, publicly at least, she will be Dragonwagon to the end of her days. The stuff of tragedy.
I found another name near the end of a news tidbit about the theft of a Stradivarius violin. We were several paragraphs down into an account of the Strad before the perpetrator appeared: “The violin, which police said appeared to be in good condition, was stolen late last month from a concert violinist who was shocked with a stun gun…. Police traced the stun gun to Universal Knowledge Allah, a 36-year-old barber….”
A cousin of Michelle Obama made the papers very recently. Rabbi Capers Funnye of Chicago was nominated to become what an international organization is calling the first “black chief rabbi” of the 21st century. A statement from the International Israelite Board of Rabbis declared that Funnye would serve as the “titular head of a worldwide community of Black Jews.” And why not?
Internationally, my best name source so far came from an account of Ted Cruz being booed off the stage at a gathering of Middle Eastern Christian ecclesiastics. It was also my best source of impressive titles. In the audience were:
- Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Raï, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East;
- Gregorios III Laham, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria, and Jerusalem [pictured at the top of this post];
- Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East;
- Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church;
- Metropolitan Joseph Al-Zehlawi, Archbishop of New York and All North America for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America;
- Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria;
- Ibrahim Ibrahim, Bishop Emeritus of Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle.
I don’t know where to start the character list for my fantasy novel, with the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia or the Bishop of the Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle. George R. R. Martin, look out! (Alas, the first result of a Google search on the Eparchy was a parish listing — in Southfield, Michigan. The glamor is gone.)
Okay, writers, start your pens. Pick a name and give me a scenario.
I just finished ironing some of the clothes I am about to pack to take on our cruise and land tour of Alaska. One of my daughters was aghast that I would bother to iron before the clothes were stuffed into our suitcases, where they will certainly grow new wrinkles no matter how carefully I roll and fold them.
It goes against my grain to perform anything less than to perfection. Just the thought of packing a pair of unironed pants with wrinkles sends waves of revulsion through me. Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. (But as a writer I am entitled–no, encouraged–to hone my exaggeration skills.)
The need for perfection is a known cause of procrastination for writers. “Perfectionist paralysis” is defined by Urban Dictionary as “the inability to start on…any creative task due to the fear of not getting it perfectly right.” Yup, that’s me. And it’s not limited to starting a project, I’ve found. Revision is also included in that category.
But I’m working on it. I’d love to finish that novel I started in 1986.
Four of us from my writing group have committed to join the July Camp NaNoWriMo, similar to the November NaNoWriMo (a 50,000 word novel in 30 days), except in July we have more flexibility with our projects. We are going to use our weekly “pinky swears” as our projects. For the past week, as I’ve been trying to return to sleep after my early morning jaunt to the bathroom, I’ve been laying in bed pondering my project. I think that’s a good start. After all, I still have two weeks to prepare.
One of my writing group members asked if I would get much writing done on my trip. I plan to keep a journal. But beyond that I know without a doubt that my fiction will flounder. I expect to be too enamored by glaciers and fjords, hopefully even some whales and grizzlies, to focus on Claire, Anne, Olivia, and Emily.
And it’s very likely that I’ll be too busy to notice the wrinkles.
On Moving the Tuna
You wouldn’t have thought it would be so hard. The moderator of our writing group suggested, with that air of modest assurance that so becomes him, that I should separate Scene A (in which a ferret scatters tuna fish all over a carpet, with disproportionate results) from Scene B (in which the ferret compounds its alimentary offense with the eliminatory consequence and precipitates a crisis.) He was right: together, the scenes were almost repetitious; separated, they helped create a steadily mounting tension. Scene A needed to move back in time.
It turned out to be a game of jackstraws. I re-dated the tuna scene. How to fill the now gaping void between it and Scene B? As luck would have it, I had a brief new scene already planned that was going to simplify the presentation of later events. It went into the breach. Out came a lot of now misplaced material, before and after. That demanded more of the new scene, to patch up the ragged bits. It became half a chapter. That suggested another move, to slim down a later scene, newly overloaded.
We’re talking three months, here, people! Three months of jury-rigging and jerry-building and tearing down and putting up again from scratch. I think the most painful part was having to re-insert huge chunks of the original text, when repeated efforts proved that they really had to go somewhere. And of course, no person of sensibility can partially edit a text. Time spiraled down the plughole as I inserted commas and corrected diction.
By the time the tuna had settled down, I had been forced to outline that whole section of the book. To my amazement, three of the four subplots were now perfectly in order. (The last one looked like a dog’s lunch, but three out of four ain’t bad.) If I’d done that outline in the first place, I wouldn’t have had to move the tuna at all.
Then came enlightenment. I have always been a devout pantser (i.e., I write by the seat of my pants.) The Exuberant Brethren of the Holy Pants believe that inspiration dies at the sight of an outline. Only by letting the words flow directly from the Muse through the fingers to the keyboard can creation take place. Do not pass brain, do not collect $200. You can clean up any slight problems later. The Severe Order of the Sanctified Plot make up the whole plot in advance. They write it down. They make diagrams. They balance things. Then, scene by scene, they write the first, and practically final, draft. Or so they say. They clean up any slight problems later.
I won’t say I’m ready to join the Sacred Order. Instead, I’m going to copper my theological bets. Four of us Thursday Night Writers have reserved a virtual cabin at Camp NaNoWriMo, an online writing sprint in which we each promise to complete a “writing project” of our choice in the month of July. I’m going to outline a whole second adventure for my amateur sleuth, just to prove I can do it. Who knows? If I ever manage to sell this turkey, I may need a sequel.