This ‘n’ That

By Madeline (M.M.) Gornell

Rest Stop on the Writing JourneySeldom do I put together a new year resolution list, or a last year in retrospect list. Something about lists, I guess… Yet, this post might fall into the latter category—sort of. This n’ that are the “ones” which got away. The snatches of thought which weren’t quite big enough for a full post. Or “ones” I thought at the time were of dubious value. Every seven weeks I strive to come up with a post that might make a difference to someone regarding their writing; and during the process and quest for nuggets, over this year of ideas—“many” have flitted through my mind, only to be sent to the “not-quite” slush pile.

Before I start my list which isn’t really a list, here’s a little back story on how I got to this post. My Christmas holidays were spent, reading, watching DVDs (Miss Marple with Joan Hickson, Campion with Peter Davison, Inspector Alleyn with Patrick Malahide, Midsomer Murders with John Nettles, and Maigret with Michael Gambon), and napping. I didn’t get to Christmas cards, didn’t have any guests, barely went anyplace, and did NO housework. Did bake bread. And when I wasn’t doing all that hard work (smile) I was thinking about writing—how to make it better. Somehow, from bingeing with/on my favorite mysteries, reading my favorite authors,[i] eating far too much warm bread, mulling over possible plots, and thinking about my “next writing steps”—came this post! So, here are a few this n’ that tidbits:

  • Besides the musicality in writing (a previous post), imagery as in a
    There was the idea of challenging everyone to describe these cactus. I couldn't do it, so I passed.
    There was the idea of challenging everyone to describe these cacti. I couldn’t do it, so I passed.

    mental-pictures, which take me to new and often beautiful places, was an idea I started a post about. And a corollary thought to location imagery, is the imagery of ideas and emotions. In my mind, right beside scenes from movies, are the imagery Louise Penny brings forth in How the Light Gets In, Carlos Ruiz Zafon in The Shadow of the Wind, Robert Haig in Fire Horses, Paul Alan Fahey in Lovers and Liars, and P.D. James in all her novels–but especially in The Black Tower.

  • Then there’s the small topicsonly paragraph explanations at the most, like alliteration[ii]) such as “nattering nabobs”[iii] which has always tickled my ear. It’s not the meaning, it’s the sound. Another paragraph is on writing customs and conventions; such as Prefaces, Prologues, Lists of Character, and town/village maps. The thought here is, I had an idea of writing about how many of these writing customs were around as I grew up readingand now they’re gone, which saddens me.
  • And then there was the post I was going to tackle about writing styles, right after I’d read P.D. James’s posthumous latest, then read James Patterson’s latest, both of which I enjoyed.[iv] Totally different though, with P.D. being more to my taste. Next I started Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s latest (and haven’t finished yet), where he combines story telling ability, plot movement, atmosphere, and approaches the beautiful imagery of P.D. James. The thought was about the successful bringing together of different styles.

And what is the writing advice or inspiration to myself and anyone looking for writing tidbits from my this ‘n’ that hodge-podge? I think it is to take a moment once in awhile, then take stock of what you love in and about writing. Continue questioning and striving. And here, I’m stealing directly from P.D. James, “Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.” I’m taking that thought and running with it. My version is, I’m going to try to make 2017 a Julia Child type of yearlive with (writing) abandon when possible, and for me, also with plenty of butter!


[i] “Read Widely and with discrimination.” P.D. James

[ii] As mentioned by G. B. Pool in an earlier post.

[iii] William Lewis Safir “nattering nabobs of negativism”

[iv] Trying to find my next  book-club selection/recommendation! Haven’t found just the right one yet…

Beginnings, Middles, and Endings

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A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power; Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “The Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in workbook form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

Beginnings, Middles, and Endings… A Thought or Two

When I start writing a story I usually don’t have the entire story blocked out in my head. Sometimes I have a beginning and an end. That’s the best way because I know how the story opens and blessedly where the story is going to end. Usually I have at least a sentence or a paragraph that tells me what the story is supposed to be about. Sometimes I have a page or two of the gist that provides the flavor of the story. That tells me the sub-genre: a detective yarn, a lighthearted mystery, a darker tale, or maybe a holiday story because I write those, too.

notebookIf you ever come to my house you will see small notebooks all over the place that I can grab and jot down an idea if it drops out of the sky. And they do on occasion. My fellow author, Bonnie Schroeder, gave all us Writers-in-Residence ladies a notebook and pencil set for the shower that writes in the wet. What a concept. So I am covered wherever an idea strikes.

The all-important beginning sets that Tone for any piece of writing. This is when the reader bites off a chunk and chews it to see if they might like to stay around for the rest of the meal. When these ideas strike, they have to grab my imagination, too, or I’ll discard them and wait for another inspiration.

Sometimes the initial idea is a bit of business that sets up a crime. Once I know how it’s done, I have to see who does it. The all-important villain will be the second, if not the first, character I must get to know. Remember, the bad guy or gal is the reason the story is being written. If nothing bad happens, I won’t need my private detective or amateur sleuth or long arm of the law to solve the case.

The Plot might be something that I hear on television that sparks the idea. I seldom rip a headline off the front page because I can almost hear half of the writers out there in “Fiction Land” ripping it off their newspapers and I want to write something new. But I will take a headline and turn it upside down or inside out to get a story.

That’s the old “What if?” game. If there is a story about a politician killing his playmate on the nightly news, what if the playmate sets up the politician instead in the fictional take on that account? I did that in a story in From Light To Dark, a collection of short stories that run the gamut from lighthearted to down right evil.

typewriterStories are everywhere. The writer just has to see the possibilities. But remember, as a writer, you control your world and you can twist the story into something unique if you try. Just try not to twist it into something that doesn’t make any sense. More and more TV shows are turning into pretzels that barely make sense. That’s why I read more books than watch television.

So now you have a great beginning and maybe you are lucky enough to have an ending in your head. As I said earlier, knowing the ending lets the writer know where he or she is going. You don’t want to wander. And this isn’t only for the writer’s sake. If the reader gets lost along the way, they might put the book down and never pick it up again.

Make the ending as stunning as the beginning. When you are having a great meal and the dessert is terrific, too, you know you have had an experience. When someone puts down your book or even finished your short story, you want them to feel satisfied. And you want them to come back for more.

In TV shows, I can usually guess whodunit in the first ten minutes. That’s because of the formula that shows use. Sometimes it’s the lousy actor who plays the part who just looks guilty. He read the script and knows he did it and it’s written all over his face. I hate that.

In a book, I seldom analyze the story as I am reading it to see if I can pick out the villain. I want to enjoy the story and know we’ll get to the end eventually. I never read the end ahead of time, either. I wouldn’t have dessert before the main course, so why soil the meal?

I like to read the set-up, watch for clues, and at the end I’ll go back over the story in my head and see where those clues were if I missed any of them. Good writers leave them in plain sight. Readers just don’t know they were clues. There is nothing better than to say, “Boy, there was that clue right there all the time.” I love that.

The only thing I can caution writers against is dropping the villain and the clues in at the end where the reader had no chance to pick them up. Not fair to the reader or to the story. You can do better.

fat-lady-dancerNow how about the middle? There it sits. Is it a big, hulking middle that the reader has to push around the dance floor with no music or is it thin and bony with no rhythm at all? This middle section is where the reader learns all the little things that hold the story together. Some backstory and some character traits are sprinkled in along with the bulk of the plot. Whether it’s on the high-calorie side with lots of detail or maybe a diet plate with most of the fat is trimmed off, you have to make the middle tasty.

scissorsEditing happens here. Add a little to enhance the story. Cut some off to make the pages turn faster toward the climax. Sweeten it with some good dialogue. Add some choice settings to give it flavor.

Some writers over-write their work. They cut and paste so much that they lose the story completely with all the tape and staples and glue. If your story is ponderous you will lose readers faster than if it is short and sweet.

But don’t shortchange the reader either. They paid for a story, so tell them a story. Give them the details, not an encyclopedia. You want them to know the characters, but remember: some characters are only there for color or to give some vital information before going off stage. Have a few main characters, some minor ones, and everyone else is just there to set the stage.

This holds true for novels and short stories. I have read quite a few mystery novels that packed in so much extra stuff that I lost track of the plot. The characters might be fun and the banter clever, but that dead body lying in the living room still needs to be discovered along with his killer.

Tell me a story first. I’ll get to know the people along the way. Have a beginning that pulls me in. Have a middle that holds my interest. Have an ending that makes me glad I bought your book or read your short story. I’ll look for your books on the shelf again if you can do that.

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SPEAKING OUT

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

SPEAKING OUT

 An interesting fact: most people fear public speaking more than they fear death.

Having recently gone from reclusive novelist to active book promoter, I believe it, and I think writers are especially vulnerable to the terror of getting up in front of an audience and talking about anything, especially our own work.

My first experience in public speaking left an indelible scar, and it wasn’t even about my writing. At the time, I was a supervisor in my employer’s benefits department, and I had to participate in a presentation about certain changes to our plans. I wasn’t particularly nervous until I reached the front of the room. Then my mouth went so dry that my tongue felt like paper; dandelionmy hands trembled; and my previously well-organized thoughts scattered like dandelion fluff. I could tell from the pitying looks on my colleagues’ faces that my talk was a total disaster.

After that debacle, I enrolled in a public speaking class at the local community college, and eventually I got to the point where I could talk in front of a group without showing my nervousness. But I never enjoyed the experience.

In the years that followed, my hard-won public speaking ability eroded—like any skill, you either use it or you lose it.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and my novel Mending Dreams was published: a dream come true. That dream, however, came hand in hand with a nightmare: I had to once again venture into the spotlight, this time to promote my book.  I had to resurrect skills that had never been all that strong in the first place and were now mighty rusty. I needed help.

I found that help in Toastmasters 4 Writers, a delightful group of people who immediately understood my predicament and helped me get back on the public speaking horse. More than that, they made it fun. Since I’d already committed to a launch party for Mendintoastmastersg Dreams, I was able to jump right in and pitch my novel to the group, and their enthusiasm and encouragement carried me through the launch and on into a string of other appearances. Several of the club members even came to the book launch to show their support. The group has become a treasured part of my writing life.

I didn’t realize how far I’d come on my public speaking journey until recently, when I was asked to speak to a group of former co-workers at their monthly “alumni club” meeting. This talk needed to be longer than my usual 10-15 minutes, and the audience included not only people I had worked with during my career, but also some I had worked for. I was slightly intimidated.

However, I practiced the first part of the talk at my Toastmasters 4 Writers meeting and got some incisive feedback so useful that it pulled the speech structure into shape. Armed with that support, I felt ready to take on the (so far) biggest challenge in my book-promoter role.

From my point of view, the talk went really well. I kept the group awake after a carbo-loaded lunch, and they laughed at the parts where I hoped they would. But even more important, while I was talkingnov-2016-alumni-1, I realized I’m not scared anymore, and that awareness was the same kind of high I get when the solution to a thorny story problem suddenly comes clear.

This epiphany didn’t happen by magic. I’ve learned a few things since that disastrous speech many years ago:

  • First and foremost, preparation is crucial. Know your stuff and practice it every chance you get: if not in front of a group, at least to the mirror, the cat, or the dog. If you have the means to video it, do that.
  • Just as important—remember to breathe. Take a DEEP breath and exhale as you’re walking to the lectern, the podium, the front of the room—or simply standing up in place. You don’t want to be gasping for breath, and an oxygen-deprived brain won’t help you recall your talking points.
  • Bring water with you if possible. That dry mouth thing is a killer, and nobody notices if you pause to take an occasional sip of water in between sentences.
  • If your audience is larger than ten to 20, use a microphone. If you’re not strainimicrophoneng to make your words heard, you can focus on more important issues. I used to be afraid of microphones, until I realized how much easier they made things. Take whatever’s available—and if you’re using a hand-held mike, clamp that arm to your side and keep it there; gestures are great, but you don’t want to be waving that mike all over the place.
  • Even if I know the speech cold, I always bring a few notes, usually typed in 20-point Verdana so I can see them easily. This removes the fear of a brain freeze—which happens to even the most accomplished speakers sometimes.
  • If making eye contact is a challenge for you, seek out one or two friendly faces in the audience and return to them again and again for confidence, but focus on others as well. I bet you’ll find that most of them are smiling and looking interested, too.
  • Above all, if you’re speaking to a group interested in you and your writing, remember this: they’re already on your side. They want to like you. Got it?

 

I don’t know that I will ever enjoy public speaking, but thanks to my Toastmasters 4 Writers club, and my loyal friends who show up to support me, an invitation to come out and talk about my work no longer fills me with terror.

Conquering fear is a very empowering act. Maybe next I’ll tackle the Dreaded Blank Page Syndrome. Wish me luck!