ON SISYPHUS AND DE-CLUTTERING.… By Rosemary Lord

Trash 2The start of the year always bring out the de-clutterer in people. Especially me.

Although I seem to manage a little clearing-out every weekend, that time between Christmas and the New Year is when I really look around and think “Why am I keeping this?” and “I’d have more room if I got rid of that …” I re-imagine my apartment with fresh new colors to paint and furniture to buy.

As I snatch a quick work-out on my Total Gym, counting repetitions of stomach-reducing exercises, I gaze at the bookshelves in front of me.  “Do I really need to keep all those books?” Hmmm. I pledge to remove those I am not desperately attached to. Someone else might really enjoy them as much as I have.

Total GymRowing back and forth with the pulleys in my pledge to become slim and svelte once more – well I was once, even if it was a long while ago – I turn to the side, to do side-stretches. Aha! What’s that pile of things under the dining table? Oh: more half-hidden things to de-clutter.

Of course, this is the current craze, thanks to a very young, slim Japanese girl called Marie Kondo and her very successful book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Even the kids are following her – clearly parents’ admonishments to “tidy up your room,” fell on deaf ears. Today’s kids think Marie Kono invented that novel idea of tidying up your room.  And if you’re as young as she is, you don’t have a life-time of treasures in your home, or decades of travel souvenirs or years of career-related things. So the task is not nearly as daunting.

IdeasUs writers tend to keep things for inspiration. Shelves of books from our favorite authors, reference books on what it’s really like to hack your way through a jungle, jump out of an airplane and, of course, different ways to murder people. We have folders of song-lyrics, poems, homilies that might be our next book-title. We have copies of every book that our far-more prolific writer friends have produced. And books that we just love to read over and over.

How often have we started to clear a bookshelf, and lost ourselves in reading a passage in a favorite book, only to find the day has gone and we’re in the same spot, eagerly getting towards the end of the story. Even though we know what happens, we relive the journey the author’s taken us on with their carefully chosen words. Bliss!

But where did our allotted de-cluttering time go? Oh, and you can’t get rid of that book.

Ms. Kono says we should ask of every object in our home, “Does it bring me joy?” Well, yes – my books bring me joy. I think that goes for most writers.

Pushing RockAlas, this does little for my de-cluttering attempts. I feel like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain, but on reaching the top, the weight of it pushes him down to the bottom so he has to start again. I keep starting again with my book culling.

I have better luck with my clothes. It’s easier getting rid of skirts or shirts I haven’t worn in ages and scarves and shoes that really are uncomfortable to wear, purses that no longer “bring me joy.”

A young girl I knew only kept things for six months then she’d replace them, including furniture. She had a very minimalist apartment. Besides, her parents were wealthy, so she just kept buying new things.

I even knew someone who de-cluttered her friends: She said that as her husband was signing a big new contract with a major studio, she would be ‘letting go’ of their less successful friends. That is those who didn’t live in the right area or drive the right cars – because their new, very wealthy, successful friends would judge her badly. She wanted to ensure being accepted into this new elite Hollywood circle. I guess keeping less successful friends might have reminded them where they came from – and it might be catching, like the measles or something. Of course Rick and I were part of that group to be ‘let go.’ We didn’t have flashy enough cars or live in the right zip-code. She told me the right zip-code was most important. We never heard from them again – not even a Christmas card! Of course, this was Hollywood! And they weren’t writers…

 

But back to the real world and de-cluttering. It can be a fun adventure. Long forgotten, old favorite things I come across as I open another drawer or cupboard, swiftly take me back to when and where I bought – or was given – items. That is where the writer in me thrives, as a new story starts wandering around my head.

It’s usually after a spell of decluttering that I sit back down at the typewriter – nay, computer – and get back to work, with that satisfied feeling knowing I have an empty shelf or drawer. I write away blissfully with renewed enthusiasm.

Too many booksIt seems to be true what they say: when you clear out old things, you freshen the atmosphere; your energy becomes unstuck, making room for more positive energy.

And space for more books.

Has anyone else got the de-cluttering bug? Or been de-cluttered by a supposed friend?

…………end……….

CREATE A ‘BEING THERE’ SETTING FOR YOUR STORY by Miko Johnston

I’m currently writing my fourth Petal in the Wind novel, which takes place in Prague. Having spent a week there ten years ago, it roused happy memories. I felt as if I were back in the city, if only on the page. However, I recently experienced that sensation of “being there” in another way.

In addition to my historical series, I’m also working on a contemporary mystery set in a fictionalized SoCal town. Stratford, where my heroine Iris lives, serves as a stand-in for Thousand Oaks, California.

You may recall the name – it’s where another mass shooting occurred last November in the Borderline Bar and Grill. I suspect you watched the story unfurl on television, shocked, but not surprised that another senseless slaughter had taken place. Maybe you shook your head and said, “Not again.” You felt sadness for the young victims, compassion and sorrow for their families, like every other time this has happened.

For me, this time was different. Very different.

There’s a scene in my novel where Iris abandons her car and runs when she realizes the men chasing her are not reporters, but hitmen. That spot is across the street from the Borderline.

A gut punch of foreboding struck me as I watched the coverage, wondering if I knew any of the victims or their families. I worked in Thousand Oaks for nearly twenty years. Having lived two blocks from the club, walked or driven by it countless times, I recognized every detail of the TV footage – the building where the shooting took place, the street where the ambulances parked, the gas station down the street. My mind became a camera following the action. I could envision every inch of the route as the ambulances raced to the hospital, the layout in the ER where the victims would be taken, the doors separating it from the waiting room where their families would pace, anxiously awaiting news. I can describe that room down to the pattern of the carpet.

The experience gave me a new appreciation of the importance of setting in stories. Writers may create interesting characters and provide a compelling narrative, but they neglect that third part of the trinity. Creating that “being there” sense in writing really draws you into the story.

Last year our blog published Patricia Smiley’s superb post on the importance of setting. But how does a writer create that “boots on the ground” feeling when writing about a present-day location they don’t know well? One option is traveling to the places you’re writing about. Nothing else will compare. However, if that isn’t possible, then consider the next best thing to being there.

Thanks to internet sites like Google Maps, you can take a virtual tour of any neighborhood. Practice on a place you’re familiar with, like the area where you grew up, went to college, or used to work. “Walk” the streets to see what the predominating architecture looks like, what shops line the avenues, how folks are dressed, the types and condition of cars. You might find the field where you used to play hide-and-seek is now a shopping mall, the yeasty aroma that wafted from your favorite bakery has been replaced by the perfume of exotic spices from the Indian restaurant that recently opened.

When you pick your site, visit it often until you have a feel for the neighborhood. If you’re creating a fictitious location, give it an authentic feel by basing it on an existing locale. Need a place with lots of open space and wilderness? Check out areas near national parks in Utah, Washington and Wyoming. For a once grand area that’s fallen on hard times, look at rust belt cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. One caveat: note the recording date. With a world to document, some of the images may be several years old and potentially inaccurate.

Many cities and towns have travel bureaus or chambers of commerce. Their websites will give you a capsule version of the more positive aspects of the place. Contacting the police department for blotter information will help with the less positive. Local libraries can also provide statistics; reports, ads and calendars in regional newspapers will give a sense of what’s going on.

Be creative. Seek information on local vegetation from area nurseries, botanical societies or hiking groups like the Sierra Club and American Hiking Society. Contact the Wildlife Society and the Audubon Society for information about fauna. A general or special interest travel guide for your locale will provide valuable information (take advantage of your AAA membership). Do a search on a travel website like Tripadvisor. Local lodging, restaurants and activities say a lot about an area. While researching this post, I discovered niche.com, an online rank and review site that evaluates places based on criteria like schools, job prospects, housing and cost of living.

Go beyond geography. Think weather patterns and geology, their potential to add a layer of crisis or provide a much needed respite to your action. Are there any iconic structures, significant history or landmarks associated with your locale?

These tips will help you research locations, but how do you go about finding them? One way is to seek out real estate sections in newspapers or online through realtors. Investigate houses for sale and rental properties. They will give you a baseline of the character and economic health of different neighborhoods, often mentioning if the area is trendy, noted for good schools, or otherwise desirable. Another is to search the internet for legitimate articles (as opposed to paid ads) about topics related to your location. Aside from statistics, any accompanying photographs and interviews with residents will offer a more first-hand perspective.

For example, if I needed to set my story in a struggling West Coast farm community, I might base it on East Porterville, California. The Tulare County town has been seriously impacted by drought, based on a Reuters article I found. Quotes from locals interviewed for the piece would provide great insight into character development as well as plot. Of the five homes I found for sale, three are in foreclosure auctions. Satellite images of the town show modest one story homes, one market, an auto shop, older middle-class cars and pick-ups parked in driveways, and a parched landscape. Although the images are two years old, the article, Zillow and niche.com concur that life has not improved there. Worse, the community abuts Porterville, a suburban city thriving with shopping malls, parks and a medical center. With my research complete, I would weigh the information against its relevance to the plot or characters.

A compelling plot and well-drawn characters are critical to good writing, but the ability to create a realistic setting enhances the experience. Take advantage of the many tools available to help bring that sense of “being there” to your story, and if you have other sites or resources you like, please share them with us.

 

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

A New Year, A New World by Jill Amadio

Books Pop ArtWriting a novel from the perspective of a client – hardly a fictional character, luckily  – is a matter I had not considered in depth until the week of December 15-31 when everyone was between holidays. Living alone and becoming a hermit when I have a deadline, I found myself in limbo after a wonderful Christmas dinner with friends and awaiting a New Year’s Eve party. Those six days in between when families are gathering up the torn wrapping paper and ribbon and buying champagne for December 31st, are quite welcome because I figure I can use the time to write and everyone else is still baking or returning gifts. I always open my Christmas gifts as soon as I receive them which greatly irritates one of my daughters and evokes laughter from the other.  In any event I had long trashed the ripped-off sheets of Santa paper and was back in my mesh office chair to play Solitaire.

 

The hiatus included time spent wondering why on earth I’d wasted months without working on my third mystery during which time my small press publisher went belly up, and accepting freelance assignments instead. But of course, one must keep the wolf from the door.

 

Writer Lady 2During the first week in December I signed a contract to ghostwrite a book, my 15th. A book of fiction. Now, I ghostwrote a crime novel a few years ago, and in fact it catapulted me into writing my own series after that book went into bookstores, and I continued to ghost biographies.

 

Creating a biography is one thing; creating a make-believe world envisioned by someone else is an entirely different experience, in part because they haven’t thought it through and have no idea how necessary an outline or summary is. Memoirs practically write themselves as we use interviews with the client, relatives, friends, and colleagues. Research provides descriptive settings and one-on-one tape-recorded sessions in person allow us to observe body language and behavior. Often winkling out moments of their lives that they considered irrelevant but were actually crucial to the story as a turning point can take persistence on the part of the ghostwriter.

 

Coast LighthouseGrowing up in a Cornish village at the very southern tip of the UK where fishing and shipwrecks were the main topics of conversation, as well as my mother’s hats, our fictional heroines were the young Secret Seven detectives in Enid Blyton’s books (she sold 600 million!!), and adventurous children in The Dandy and The Beano comics. We had no superheroes until Marvel came to town. Steeped in moral issues, we learned all about good and evil in the written word and illustrations, but Superman and Batman were beyond my sphere. I was considered a pragmatic child, and indeed grew up with a practical, realistic attitude.  Space travel, illusions, and magic held absolutely no interest.  To me, everything was explainable instead of an unreal figment of someone’s imagination that could not possibly actually happen, unlike the action in mysteries.

 

Then, I was offered this gig writing a sci-fi fantasy.Space City

 

Could I translate her vision into a saleable book? Sometimes memoir clients simply want a few copies printed up for their families. Others go full blast for commercial sales. This client wanted a blockbuster, sure-fire book that would top the best-seller lists instantly. She had done her homework on sci-fi and had a fascinating plot and characters. So far, so good. Then we got down to brass tacks and it turned out my pragmatism threatened to ruin the deal. I asked silly questions like, “Which pharmacy dispensed Captain America’s serum?”

Superhero

I needed explanations of how and why characters did things, I wanted backstory and detail. I found it simply too difficult to enter her world and believe in it enough to write it. I’d ghosted books for a nuclear-physicist, an Olympic athlete, an arborist, and sundry others but, alas, dipping my toe into a world where I had to suspend belief took two weeks to accept and almost ruined Christmas. But, like all authors, I turned to research, picked myself up and dug into the story, and now I am enjoying exploring this new world of fantasy. Who knew? Come on down, Batman!

Robo Man

More Writing from the Tight Rope

smallauthorphoto2

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of seven award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert.

 

ThinkingHeadtoBookAh, the joy of discovery moments in a book! Or, the waiting far too long for an “it” to happen you’ve already figured out or anticipated. Ideas discussed here before, and from several perspectives.[i] But a recent book I closed last week prompted me to re-visit and add my two-cents because I think it’s a biggie area for thought. And, another writing tight rope skill/art that requires a tricky balancing act—based on one’s personal predilections, storytelling skills, and the complexity of characters and events. When to let the reader imagine and fill in, even arrive at a scene or plot conclusion on their own–versus when you need to supply more clues and details for them to know what’s happening?

On one side of the balancing act—the book I‘m referring to and closed before finishing, was abandoned because I kept finding myself saying, huh? What the heck is going on? And in some cases going back to see if I missed something.

Then there were several recently read books, where I’ve said, out loud even, “I get it already! Move on…” The most recent examples, unfortunately were in my own latest WIP, as I do my slow-going first rewrite. Some authors are sort of long-winded (smile). I can’t pile up too much praise for editors. Still remembering one of my earliest manuscripts, and my editor mentioning how I’d gone on far too long in a suspenseful sequence—with words I don’t remember exactly, but similar to–the reader figured that out two pages back.

And for a little different twist on the topic: a book club member friend shared that her granddaughter in her writing had two characters in a scene/situation she was having difficulty getting them out of. Her solution…she ended the scene there, and moved on, letting the reader figure it out. Brilliant, I thought at the time. Especially since I had the same occurrence happen in my current WIP. And following the lead of this young writer—I moved on.

I personally read on three fronts—audio (especially for classics), paper often for my book club selection, and Kindle eBook if it’s a book I’m thinking I want to have on hand in the doctor’s office. If you’re listening to an audio book, those reader “I got it already” overuses pop right out when a narrator is speaking the words. The main one that my ear often catches in audio books, is the overuse of a character’s name.

balancingActBut then again, balancing again, reminding a reader of a character’s name is often very helpful. But when and how many times?—I’m hoping to improve in that area. This balancing act, I think, is a training of my ear thing. As a reader, on the other side of this tightrope, are the situations where I’ve had to go back to earlier book sections and find the person’s name—especially if they have a title, and both have been used. The same wise editor advised, if you’ve got your POV straight in the telling, your reader is in your character’s head and there’s no need to repeat, repeat, repeat.

So to share my own nugget of writing practice here—I try putting myself in the shoes of a movie director in the splicing room. As I’m rewriting/editing, my book becomes like a movie I’m watching/putting together on the splicing machine (or whatever it’s technically called). And I have available to me, close ups, long shots, predominantly character dialogue scenes, actor narrative or emoting scenes, and setting/scenery shots I need to cut and paste in good storytelling order–and length. The main objective—to give the reader enough info and pictures to enjoy the happenings without wondering who’s who, and what’s what—while at the same time not spilling the beans until the appropriately placed dénouement scene.[ii] Splicing the right scenes, with the right dialogue and narration mix, and in the right order—is not always easy or obvious.

I always keep in mind Eudora Welty, who[iii] professed to cutting her paper work into paragraphs which she would move around to get in the order she wanted. With her process in mind, and as a final thought; in my little word processing world, I’m taking more and more of my “moving around” paragraphs to the electronic trash bin.

Happy continued “tightrope-walking” writing trails!


[i] For one recent example, see G. B. Pool’s excellent post a couple weeks back The Devil’s in the Details with very practical advice in these areas, and much more.

[ii] I sometimes talk to the TV (a habit I learned from my husband) invariably complaining about things that don’t happen in a scene, or telling the actors to, “get on with it.”

[iii] Conversations with Eudora Welty, by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, pgs 244-and on.

Those OTHER Blogs on Writing

signHow many blogs besides this one do YOU read regularly (daily, weekly, monthly)?  Yes, you can confess. We don’t mind. Reading them will help you become a better writer.

Of course there are thousands to choose from. Just Google a topic and you’ll see. Bloggers will give you tips on everything, from where to get ideas to how to publish and market your final product, be it a book, short story, poem or article.

Some writer magazines and blogs publish lists of the Top 50 or 100 from the previous year.  Here’s a link to the Top 50 Blogs in 2018

I have THREE blogs that I read daily and usually take notes on. Okay, sometimes I only peruse them, if the topic is not relative to my needs right then.

  1. Mia Botha’s Writers Writehttps://writerswrite.co.za/

Every day, Mia posts links to articles on a wide variety of subjects. Each article will offer other links to follow on related subjects in an Alice In Wonderland type trail that is positively addicting! And time consuming.  Watch out!

Her daily Writing Prompts will tickle your imagination and sometimes get a story going.

There are usually cute (or smarmy) writing cartoons to make you chuckle.

Finally, there is a list of “famous” authors whose birthday is that day. Each gives his/her advice on some aspect of the writing life.

Writers Write also hosts the “12 Short Stories Writing Challenge” each year beginning in January.  Using a monthly prompt that they supply, you write, finish and polish a 1500 word (exactly) story to submit. You comment on 4 other stories and receive feedback on your own piece. One a month for 12 months. Whew!

Writers Write also offers a variety of online classes which you need to pay for.

 

  1. Edie Melson’s The Write Conversationhttp://thewriteconversation.blogspot.com/

Each day Edie, or one of 10 or so guest writers, presents short articles that inspire, encourage, inform, and teach you all facets of the art of writing and publishing. It is a Christian site, but usually only one in seven posts talks about the author’s beliefs in her writing process.

Here are some topics on recent posts: (You can click on these to go to the blog.)

YOU HAVE A GREAT SCENE, BUT WHAT TO DO WITH IT?

7 TIPS TO MAKE YOU A MORE OBSERVANT WRITER

WHEN AN AUTHOR SHOULD SEEK PERMISSION FOR QUOTES

QUOTATIONS—HOW WRITERS FIND THE ORIGINAL SOURCE

WRITING SO THEY CAN’T PUT IT DOWN

GET YOUR BLOG READY FOR 2019

Edie also uses a technique for readers to easily sharing her posts on Twitter. She types the title of the post or another phrase that describes the topic, and gives it a hyperlink. Readers can click on this and it takes them to their Twitter account. The title and ping-back to the blog posts are already there. They click on “Tweet” and voila’, they have effortless shared your message!

She calls them TWEETABLES.

I tried it in a blog post I wrote on The Writers In Residence about a year ago. It takes a little effort the first time you do it, but it’s a great tool!

 

  1. Tara Lazar’s Story Writing for Kids with January’s StoryStorm Challenge https://taralazar.com/storystorm/

What is StoryStorm? It’s an amazing, month-long, story idea brainstorming event. It’s designed for children’s books mostly, but can be useful for any genre. The weird and whimsical, and sometimes serious topics by a new author each day, are really wonderful!

The Challenge is to create 30 story ideas, one or more each day in 31 days. Maybe it will be a clever title idea, or a lovable character, or a skeleton of a plot. If you follow through, you’ll have a list of at least 30 new, fantastic ideas to flesh out at the beginning of February.

And…. if you read it each day and post a brief comment, you are eligible for a bunch of prizes and free services.

From the topic “Double Story Lines” …. I came up with “I know an old woman who lived in a shoe…store. She had so many shoes she couldn’t fit in any…more.

Enter Old Mother Hubbard who went to the display case to buy some soft slippers for her poor aching “dogs.” But she found nary a moccasin or “mule”.

Enter a Fairy God Mother who felt sorry for the old ladies and turned every shoe into a slipper.

Ms Hubbard bought all 365. The Old Woman sold her shoe store and moved to Tahiti, where NO ONE wears ANY kind of shoes at all!”

From the topic “Stop, Look, Listen” …. I came up with a tale of a musician who paid for an extra seat on an airplane to carry his very valuable and fragile guitar in its case.  But his seatmates complained – I can’t see over the top of it, it’s on my armrest, etc., and caused a near riot. Crew and pilot intervened so the plane could go up on schedule. Ends with the man strumming and all the cabin requesting songs and singing along.

StoryStorm is a really fun Challenge, one of many throughout the year on a colorful, kid-friendly, idea-stuffed blog.

 

And then there are blogs that are more like OUR blog – The Writers In Residence – where multiple member writers and the occasion guest, wax eloquent on some aspect of their writing life.

Here are a few examples, check them out:

Make Mine Mysteryhttp://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/  –  Mystery writing ladies.

Ladies of Mystery https://ladiesofmystery.com/  –  Mystery writing ladies.

Pens, Paws, and Claws http://penspawsandclaws.com/  – Animal loving ladies and gents writing about pets, mystery and other topics.

eat poto

 

I hope this post has whet your appetite for reading OTHER blogs besides ours.  If you already indulge in this “sweet” pastime, will you share some of your favorites with our readers?  Or… if you write one of your own, please share a link to it. Our readers might like to “read you” too!

 

PS: I’m adding a few “OTHER” blogs that I remembered after posting.

Creative Writing Nowhttps://www.creative-writing-now.com/  –  They offer Writing tips, Ideas, Courses (free and paid)

Penny Sansevieri’s  Author Marketing Expertshttps://www.amarketingexpert.com/book-promotion-blog/   –  Wonderful articles about promoting/marketing your book.  You can also sign up for a free weekly “5 Minute Book Marketing Tip” via email or more extensive and personal, direct coaching on selling your book (for a fee).

The Devil’s in the Details by G.B. Pool

Computer Devils

When I teach my writing class, The Anatomy of a Short Story, I hand out a card to each student. I hope they tape it above their computer for future reference. It’s very simple. It’s only 16 words:

 

 

Always Ask Yourself:

Does it Advance the story?

Does it Enhance the story?

Is it Redundant?

Academic WisdomWhat does this bit of “academic wisdom” mean? It means that when you write your story, short story or novel length, and are in the editing phase, at least the preliminary editing portion, look at all that stuff you packed onto those pages. Some is Plot. Some is Character Description. Some is Scintillating Dialogue. Some is Painting a Background Setting. And Some is Just Plain Boring, Trivial, Superfluous, and Unnecessary.

It’s those latter ones we need to get rid of. But how, you ask, are you to know the difference between what to keep and what should you cut? First use Common Sense. I know that commodity can be in short supply if you are blinded by the abundance of words you have written in a fit of creative madness. But let me say this, Too Much is just as bad as Too Little.

Devil Half FaceLet’s say you did massive research on an area of the country that you thought would be terrific as a background setting for your story. You spent time in the library, on the Internet, or actually drove to the area and did the research live and in person. You know every street, tree, nook and cranny and you can’t leave any detail out. Problem: The reader might not want to spend eight pages reading a travelogue about a place no matter how fascinating you think it is. If you were writing an article for a travel magazine you could get away with the detail, but the gal reading your novel might not share that enthusiasm. And anyway, how many times did you mention the waving fields of corn at sunset, the majestic forest in the moonlight, or the quaint country village in the pouring rain? Paint a word picture, don’t graffiti the entire neighborhood.

Often a writer will pack all that cumbersome detail in the front end of the story, weighing it down to the point the reader can’t plow through all that description to get to the point of your narrative and they will put the book down… forever.

Here’s a suggestion: Spread out those details. Some really are worth keeping. Every time the hero drives by that picturesque spot he can see more detail. But remember this; don’t have him see the same thing each time, over and over and over until the reader says, “Enough, already.” The only time seeing the same dilapidated shanty again and again works is if one time the ramshackle building isn’t there. Now the hero has something to investigate. You’ve changed direction. A new path is to be followed.

So let’s take that little card I provided and look at each line a little closer.

Does it Advance the story?

One of the best ways to advance any story is through Dialogue. As each character speaks, they should relate something new about themselves, about others, or about their surroundings. Here’s an example:

Barney came stumbling in the General Store on his bum leg, the one he got in the last war. The few hairs on his head were standing straight up like he had been in a violent storm though the weather was calm at the moment.

“Did ya hear about crazy ol’ Betty up yonder in the haunted house? She done come into a passel a money and is spending it like a drunken sailor.”

_________________________

We got a brief description of Barney and his bum leg, but he Advanced the Story by telling us about crazy Betty, where she lives, and about that money. We also can tell by Barney’s accent that he’s a simple guy, not too well educated, and probably lives a fairly rural life.

Barney might be a minor character in this story, but he knows the town, because where does he run with the news about Betty? The General Store. Isn’t that where the town folks go to hear the latest gossip? From that launching pad others can add their two cents worth of knowledge about ol’ Betty. We will see her from different viewpoints, not one major information dump.

Advance Speed CarDialogue is a clever way to Advance the Story because it does it without beating your readers over the head with detail. It’s a natural way of imparting information because we all tell people what happened in our own lives by basically telling them a verbal story. Your characters will be doing the same thing. But just like the goofy guy up the street who you try to avoid because when he pins you down, he spends an hour telling you some long, boring story that you have heard twenty times before. You don’t want that to happen in your book. Spread the information out. You might even get that last strategic bit of information later from yet another character who knows a deeper, darker secret about ol’ Betty.

Go over the dialogue you have between characters. Ask yourself if one character told enough of the story to keep your reader interested or if they imparted way too many details that got in the way of the story’s pacing.

 

Paint BrushDoes it Enhance the Story?

While you are adding all that detail, ask yourself if it Enhances the Story. Enhancing is different from Advancing. Advancing does just what it says – It gives the story movement. It pushes the plot forward. It directs the reader to some goal.

Enhancing, on the other hand, adds color, texture, depth. But answer me this: Is knowing every fine detail of how an office is furnished necessary? Does the reader really have to know which period every stick of furniture is from? Or is the fact it is rich mahogany, fine old, oak, or from roughly the Louis XIV Period enough?

I have been reading book after book written by E. Phillips Oppenheim lately. He wrote his hundred or so books at the beginning of the last century. He has lots of detail in his stories, but he spreads it out. I get enough detail in a well-written paragraph, not a half dozen pages explaining everything in the room. He sets the stage. He doesn’t drag all that furniture through every scene strapped on the backs of the characters so we, as well as the characters, are weighted down with his prose.

Take that office reference I mentioned earlier. You might very well want to compare and contrast the guy wearing the ten-year-old sports coat with the frayed cuffs who works in a shabby office with grimy windows and torn leather chairs with the man wearing the Armani suit in the elegant high-rise with slick chrome furnishings, polished marble floors, and a monarch’s view of the city from the fifty-first floor.

How much more detail would you add or take away? What’s enough to get your point across? What’s padding? What’s the purpose of the detail in the two samples above anyway? You want to impart to the reader how each man lives. You want to show that one has money while the other is scratching out a living. It doesn’t take too many words to do the job. You might add another bit of detail the next time each man enters his respective office, but you don’t have to mention every scratch on the poor guy’s desk or every porcelain statue in that glass-fronted cabinet in the rich man’s office suite.

Is It Redundant?

Repetitive MarchingThe third line on the card that I hand out to students is the most important and the hardest one to recognize: Is it Redundant? It’s the trap some writers fall into when they have fallen in love with their own words. Not that we don’t love the language. After all, words are our life. But sometimes we say the same thing to distraction. True, we might use different phrases, but they mean the same thing.

For instance:

  1. She was a lovely girl. Petite, but feisty. And she was strong when she had to be strong.
  2. Later, it is said: She was as tough as a boot, a pretty boot, but the leather was sturdy and the seams sewn with two rows of stitches.
  3. And still later: She didn’t mind taking the bull by the horns even with those delicate hands that could rock a cradle, because she was made of sterner stuff.
  4. And finally: She knew how to stand on her own two feet because for a small girl, she had to fight her way out of tough situations using her clever wit.

 

I made the examples sort of corny because too often I have read well-meaning descriptions of a single character that became funny after reading basically the same thing over and over. Or how about repetitive actions like when the characters keep going to a tea room or restaurant and eat and eat and eat. I know real people chow down three times a day, but I would prefer characters in books to forgo a meal or two so we can get on with the story.

The best way to get the point across that the girl is feisty is to SHOW her doing something feisty like jumping off a horse to save a young child or diving into a lake to rescue a dog or maybe standing up to a bully and telling him to leave the handicapped kid alone. Showing the character doing something is always the best way to get your point across. Your reader will get the idea when they see her in action. And don’t they say: Actions speak louder than words. Of course you are writing words to convey that physical accomplishment, but you get the point. So will your reader.

Another classic “filler” in stories, books, TV shows, and movies, is the constant use of someone’s name or maybe a pending event. The movie The Outlaw Josie Wales is famous, or should I say infamous, for using the main character’s name to distraction.

Even in general dialogue between characters, they keep using each other’s name ad nauseam. They both know to whom they’re talking. You don’t have to use “he said” or “she said” all that often, either. If you are worried your reader might lose track of who is speaking, try giving the speaker some action to accompany the dialogue. “Where were you last night?” she sobbed while strangling a handkerchief. The word “said” is replaced by “sobbed” and it’s an action, physical. It moves.

Again, Actions Speak Louder than Words.

Scissors2But now you are saying to yourself, “Okay, I’ve cut out a lot of detail, how do I fill up those empty pages?” This is where the writer in you rises to the occasion. Use that freed-up space to tell a little backstory about your main character. You have gotten to know him or her a little better while writing that first draft, why not ask that character a few questions about his past or her family life or about “the one that got away.” You might discover some new and interesting sides to that character.

Let me tell you what happened when I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook Series. I wrote the first book subtitled Past Imperfect knowing a few things about Johnny. He was raised in a Mafia crime family. His father was consigliere; his mother was one tough cookie. His brother wasn’t as smart as Johnny was, but he went along with the family business as it were because he had nowhere else to go. As for Johnny, he wanted to get out. He did. He changed his name and moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, but he still dabbled in crime. Then he met a female private detective and found a new calling. He became a P.I. Then he went out on his own and one day a new client asked him to find her long lost son. Finding that missing man changed Johnny’s life forever.

My point in telling that story is this: I used all those lovely empty pages to discover who the hell Johnny Casino really was. I asked him questions and dug into his background. This was all new territory. No redundancy. I wasn’t going over the same old road.

(I know you might think it odd that a writer would have a conversation with a character, but trust me, after a while that character becomes very three-dimensional. So just be quiet and let him talk to you about himself.)

You can do the same thing with a secondary character who really could use some more face time in your story. Or maybe there is a sub-plot that needs a little more detail… Did I say Detail? Yes. Sometimes you can actually add layers to the main plot to make the story seem more real. I don’t like to venture too far away from the main plot unless it somehow fits into the main story because it’s like taking a detour down a dead end road. You’ll have to double back to get on the main road again. Big waste of time… and words.

But how cool would it be to find out that the two guys who were hanging around Crazy Old Betty’s place… (Remember, she had come into that money that Barney mentioned earlier.) But What If she had really been a bank robber back in the day and the two guys were the sons of her dead partner? Now the cop in that small town can track down the two guys who just held up the local bank because the cop just got a huge lead. (PS: This is an actual plot from an upcoming short story.)

That What If approach can really help you flesh out a character or story because you take chances, think outside the box. That’s what makes a story memorable… something different, daring, and unexpected.

Layers, not redundancy, my friends. Your readers will appreciate it. It’s like having the apple pie with ice cream… and caramel topping.

So, read every word in that story you have written and see what you have mentioned way too many times. Take some of that redundancy out and then ask yourself, what can I add to make the story richer?

Just remember this…

The devil is in the details.

Devil with sword

Poetry for Prose: Make Your Fiction Come Alive with Music

 by Maggie King

Looking to take your fiction to a higher level? Add a little poetry to your prose and bring music to your sentences and scenes.

This YearI’ve been intrigued with this idea since I read Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel. Yes, that Walter Mosley, creator of the bestselling historical crime series featuring Easy Rawlins. Mr. Mosley considers poetry the basis of all writing and suggests that reading, writing, and studying poetry gives fiction writers a deeper appreciation of the nuances of language.

He has taken several poetry workshops and, although he says he has failed to turn out “even a passable poem,” he’s confident that what he learned from the workshops has benefited his fiction. 

Here’s an excerpt from This Year You Write Your Novel:

Of all writing, the discipline in poetry is the most demanding. You have to learn to distill what you mean into the most economic and at the same time the most elegant and accurate language. In poetry you have to see language as both music and content. A poet must be the master of simile, metaphor, and form, and of the precise use of vernacular and grammar, implication and innuendo. The poet has to be able to create symbols that are muted and yet undeniable. The poet, above all other writers, must know how to edit out the extraneous, received, repetitious, and misleading.

Take Walter Mosley’s advice and sign up for a poetry workshop. You may not become a poet, but you’ll gain an appreciation of language that will make your fiction come alive. If you can’t find a workshop in your community, check online sources.

Who knows … you may become a regular at poetry slams.

Words and Music

In lieu of a poetry workshop—or in addition to one—enhance your fiction with a few tips from the poets:

  • Think in terms of music. When you read your work aloud, does it please the ear? Does the rhythm of your words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs vary?
  • Add words into phrases, delete others, create different words. Try different ways of expressing the same idea.
  • Shorten or lengthen sentences by using words with fewer, or more, syllables.
  • Use beautiful words like mellifluous or enchanted to add music to your writing. Less appealing words like disgust and harangue and the like can evoke a different response.
  • Use the poet’s tricks of alliteration.
  • Play with punctuation to liven up the musicality of your sentences. Take out commas and periods. Combine three or four sentences into one.
  • Metaphors make implied comparisons, and poets use these comparisons to evoke complex images and emotions for readers. “America is a melting pot” is one simple example of a metaphor.

Don’t wimp out

Avoid weak, wimpy verbs. Follow the “show, don’t tell” rule with action verbs that create images and stir emotions.

An example: an unhappy student with a failing grade visits her professor’s office. Show that she’s unhappy. Have her crying, pleading, screaming, kicking the door, throwing books across the room.

Eliminate or minimize to be in its various forms. Change “He’s in love with her” to “He loves her.”

To be verbs aren’t the only weak ones. Strengthen “Larry went to Florida” with “Larry traveled to Florida.”

As for your characters …

Reveal characters by how they speak: smooth words with soft sounds vs. harsh words with harsh sounds.

Try changing the name of a character or place; does it change the mood and tone of a scene? A name can affect how a reader responds to a character.

Further reveal characters by showing their honesty (or lack of). Richmond poet/novelist Vernon Wildy, Jr: “I’ve always felt that poetry was a place where I could not lie. I believe fiction holds that same weight. Characters have to be honest with themselves and how they are feeling. Readers are smart and they can tell if a character is being disingenuous. Also, it messes up the arc of the story if the characters are not being real with themselves and the others around them in the story.”

I agree with Mr. Wildy. However, consider your genre: duplicitous characters have their place, especially in crime fiction. It’s all about the writer’s intention and the character’s motivation.

A Few Caveats

By all means, flourish your writing with poetic touches. But keep the touches light, especially if you write genre fiction. Readers of literary fiction and, of course, poetry, will appreciate pretty, nuanced writing. Crime fiction enthusiasts, on the other hand, want to know who killed Ramon’s odious boss and don’t want to plow through endless metaphors and other style choices.

In a popular thriller that I recently read, the author went way overboard with beautiful poetic styling, constantly taking me out of the story. At several points I wanted to hurl the book across the room. Don’t irritate your readers!

Back to Walter Mosely (who does strike the right balance of the poetic in his crime novels)

If the fiction writer demands half of what the poet asks of herself, then that writer will render an exquisitely written novel.

Now, let’s make music together!

Thank you for letting me visit one of my favorite blogs. Happy Holidays to all!

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Maggie King Author Photo 72 (1)Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology.

Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime, James River Writers, and the American Association of University Women.  These days she lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. She enjoys reading, walking, movies, traveling, theatre, and museums.

Website: http://www.maggieking.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaggieKingAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaggieKingAuthr

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/authormaggieking

Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/2Bj4uIL

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Optional links:

Walter Mosely: http://www.waltermosley.com

Vernon Wildy, Jr.: https://vernonwildyjr.com

Poetry workshops

Key “online poetry workshops” in a search engine or visit the following sites:

Gotham Writers: https://www.writingclasses.com/classes/description/poetry-writing

Lighthouse Poetry Workshop (online) https://www.lighthousewriters.org/workshop/8-week-online-poetry-workshop

Poets&Writers: Writers Conferences, Colonies, and Workshops http://www.pw.org/content/writers_conferences_colonies_and_workshops?cmnt_all=1

For further reading

Norton Anthology of Poetry 6th Edition

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley

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This page was posted for Guest Blogger, Maggie King, by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin.