Respecting the Muse by Bonnie Schroeder

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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.

 

 

Most writers inevitably encounter the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I can count, and I often wonder aLife after Lifebout other writers, too.

Where, for example, does Stephen King come up with all his intricate storylines? Where did Kate Atkinson get the idea for Life After Life? 

Actually, ideas are everywhere, and they’re often triggered by those magic words, “What if . . ..?”

In my experience, however, the initial spark tends to morph into something quite different when I begin to work on a story. My first novel, Mending Dreams, came about because I knew a woman whose husband did the same thing my protagonist’s husband did: came home one day and told her he was leaving her because he was in love. . . with another man. “What if,” I wondered, “that had happened to me? How would I react?” The eventual premise turned into something quite different than I expected, as themes of love and courage emerged from the mess I created in those first pages.

I was married to an artist in the 60s and 70s, and as I was looking over old photos from those days, I asked myself, “What if my husband had become really famous?” This led to Write My Name on the Sky, which will be published this summer. The story changed tremendously in the execution, but that first flash of inspiration arose from those old pictures.

A couple of years ago, during my annual physical exam, my doctor remarked that both my hearing and breathing capacity had improved in the past year. Hmmm. What if I was growing younger? That idea became the cornerstone of the novel I’m currently writing, and it’s become more than a case of mere wish fulfillment.

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “Muse” as “a source of genius or inspiration,” but I have other names for her. She is quite a trickster, and if I don’t pay attention to her whispered ideas, they vanish like smoke. That’s why I am almost never without pen and paper—or in today’s world, without my trusty iPhone, which I use to record the Muse’s suggestions and sometimes even to photograph the source of them.

Yes, ideas are everywhere, but writers need to respect them when they appear; don’t squander them; nurture them and preserve them.

I believe the writing process is at least one part voodoo. Inspire

For me, it seems that once I set my intent to write about a particular topic, the creative universe springs into action. For my woman-getting-younger novel, even while I was sketching out the premise, articles started appearing in newspapers and magazines I read, about “age disruption” and “life extension.” My research file on the subject is over six inches thick!

I would love to hear from my fellow writers and readers about this subject. What inspires you? Where do you get your ideas? And how do you hang onto them when they appear? What do you do with them? Please share!

Bloodbath at the Keyboard

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Bonnie Schroeder has been a storyteller since the fifth grade, when her teacher suggested she put her vivid imagination to work as a writer.  She took the advice to heart and has pursued the craft of fiction ever since. In addition to her women’s fiction novel Mending Dreams, she is the author of numerous short stories, screenplays, and nonfiction articles. She lives in Glendale, California.

 

 

Over a year ago, I wrote a post about editing, full of measured and objective advice about reducing one’s word count. I boasted that I had trimmed 5,000 words from my Work in Progress and had “only about 10,000 words” more to cut. I achieved that goal almost painlessly.

Proof that the Universe has a sense of humor: I was offered a publishing contract, but only if I could remove another 3,000 to 5,000 words from the manuscript.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I muttered as I started reading, convinced I had already pared the word count to the bare bone. At this point the manuscript consisted of about 109,000 words.stack-of-papers

This last read-through, performed after the manuscript had “cooled” for a couple of months, was a humbling experience.

There was still plenty of fat left in those pages.

I had apparently developed a fondness for the word “so,”—to the extent that it had become invisible to me on past readings. As in “So,” she said, “what have you been up to?” Or, “So, are you going to tell me what happened?”red-pen

Removing all those “so’s” made a tiny dent in the word count, but I had to get more aggressive.

You know the edict, “Kill your darlings”?

I’d done that, sliced them out with a push of the “Delete” button, and I was convinced I’d purged them all. But oh, no.

The number of darlings I found on this last go-round astonished me.

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Out went some of my favorite paragraphs, ones that looked lovely but added nothing to the storyline.

The bloodbath continued unabated, and this time there was pain. I loved some of those passages—I loved them too much. I’d labored over every sentence, every phrase, every word, and removing them from the manuscript was like ripping off pieces of my skin.

What made it worse, as I highlighted passages and pressed “Delete,” was the realization that no one but me would ever see these words arranged just so, words I’d sometimes had to wrestle onto the page to convey a certain image, a certain feeling. I hated myself for condemning them to obscurity.

“But wait,” cried a tiny voice at the moment of my deepest despair. These precious prose snippets weren’t really gone; they were safely housed in a prior version of the manuscript, safe within a digital file on my computer, backed up to the cloud and three separate flash drives. They could live on, forever if need be, waiting for me to resurrect them in another book, another time.

Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t, but I sleep better knowing they’re there, waiting patiently, and if they never get their moment in the sun, they won’t know.

After all, they’re only words.

Aren’t they?

I did meet my publisher’s requirement, so the agony was worth it. I trimmed another 3,998 words from the manuscript, and it is now a relatively svelte 105,000 words. But I still miss some of those paragraphs. . .

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!

MY SUPERPOWER: PERSISTENCE by BONNIE SCHROEDER

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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.

 

I come from a family of quitters. Sort of.

Several generations ago, my family owned a farm in northern New Mexico, in the Four Corners area. Now, anyone who’s ever lived on a farm knows it’s hard work. There are no vacations, holidays, or sick leave. It’s dangerous work, and you’re always at the mercy of Mother Nature.

So it’s totally understandable that at some point they gave up, sold the farm, and moved on to something less overwhelming. However, the people who bought the family farm went on to discover oil there. And I’m sure my great-grandparents sometimes thought, “If only we hadn’t given up.”

I heard that story from the time I was a little kid, and it haunted me. So when I became a writer, I swore I would never give up or give in to discouragement. I would become a published writer.

Life intervened in unexpected ways, and I had to put my dreams on the back burner for a while, but I never abandoned them. I kept writing, if only in stolen moments on a commuter van traveling to and from my job.

Writing is hard work, and you often must sacrifice other pursuits, many of which are easier and more entertaining. Your friends look at you funny when you tell them you’re skipping the movie so you can work on your novel. Sometimes I’d wonder, “Is it worth it? Who will care about this book anyway?” The answer, of course, was “I will.”

I finally finished a novel, and I even found an agent. Yay! Mission accomplished!

Ooops, not really. My agent was very determined; she got me rejected by all the big publishing houses, until a junior editor at the now-defunct Zebra Books took a liking to the novel. We talked, she suggested a few changes, and I was almost done revising when my agent called. The junior editor’s boss overruled her. No publishing deal.

My agent briskly told me to write another novel— “a mystery this time.” I did. She read it and dismissed it, telling me “that theme isn’t selling right now.” And she gave up on me.

But I didn’t give up. I wrote another novel, and after years of workshops and revisions, I began sending it to agents and to publishers who took unagented work.

I sent 167 query letters over six years before luck landed me at Champlain Avenue Books (well, luck and my friend MM Gornell, a fellow member of this blog.) And after all that time and all that angst, before I could even catch my breath, Mending Dreams came into being—and into bookstores.mdfrontcover-web

I was tempted a lot of times to give up, but that family story stuck with me, and I didn’t want to be the one who walked away and let someone else reap the benefits.

You hear all kinds of slogans on this subject: “Winners never quit; quitters never win.” But in my case the slogan took tangible form, and I’m here to tell you that you CAN achieve your dreams, if only you keep trying. Sometimes just hanging on for that extra day, that extra mile, that extra page—it can make all the difference.mountaintop

I’m putting my words to the test again, working on a new novel—the most challenging one yet. But it’s easier to keep going now, because I know I can do it, and I know that I have to.

Have you ever been tempted to quit writing because it can be so hard and sometimes so discouraging? Did you persist? How did you motivate yourself to keep going?

 

Research 101 by Bonnie Schroeder

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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. Her debut novel, Mending Dreams, was published by Champlain Avenue Books.

 

Science and I have never been good friends—except for high school physics, which was very cool because we learned how to make a hydrogen bomb. And lest this set off any Homeland Security alarms, I write “learned how to make” very abstractly here. It’s not like they gave us a recipe; the teacher merely explained the difference between fission (atom bomb) and fusion (hydrogen bomb), but my 17-year-old brain found it fascinating.

Flash forward several decades and I began work on a new novel, about a woman who suddenly and inexplicably begins growing younger. This has nothing to do with hydrogen bombs, but rather than writing the story as a fantasy—a gigantic case of wish fulfillment—I started asking questions. Could such a thing happen? How?

And this, inevitably, led me back to science.

Full disclosure: I did not find the Fountain of Youth in my travels, but I did learn more than I’ll ever need to know about genetics and cells and chromosomes. I’m not going to lay all that out for you, but I will share a few of my research techniques. Sooner or later, most writers will find they need knowledge, scientific or otherwise, that they don’t yet possess. Here’s how I went about getting it.

  1. I did some general reading first

I began my quest by reading several articles about the work doctors and scientists are doing to slow the aging process and extend our healthy lifespans. I noticed several names popping up over and over. Googling these names, I discovered contact information for several scientists—at places like Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

2. I was audacious

I sent emails to several of these doctors and scientists, explaining my project and shamelessly asking for a few minutes of their time to review the initial premise I’d constructed and tell me if it seemed totally preposterous.scientist

Most of them never replied, but three did, and I learned something from this exercise: Scientists are really nice! They like to be helpful and to share their knowledge, and they can talk in plain English when they want to!

The first scientist I spoke with—via Skype, at his suggestion—reviewed my premise, diplomatically explained it was, in his words, “too specific and too unbelievable,” and sent me on a quest to learn about epigenetics (for the uninitiated, this is “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” Got that?) He felt the clue to my premise lay in this area.

  1. I then read more specific material

My next stop was Amazon, to buy a book called Genetics for Dummies. Yes, there actually is a book by that title. I understood little of what I read, but it gaGenetics.jpgve me the vocabulary I needed to comprehend the technical articles I encountered as I chased down epigenetics and followed the threads that spun out from there.

  1. I was flexible

One of the scientists I contacted responded that she didn’t work with writers as a general practice, but she gave me the name of another scientist who was not on my initial “hit list.” This kind man turned out to be a goldmine of information and enthusiasm and not only gave me notes on my story’s outline, but also offered to read the narrative once I get to the point where science enters the picture and tell me if I got the jargon right.

  1. I was respectful of my sources’ time

This goes without saying, of course. Experts are busy people, so if one of them suggested a time and a method of contact (both Skype and teleconferencing seem popular), I was prepared to cooperate, and I was punctual.

  1. I expressed my gratitude often

There are not enough words in the language to thank these fine people who generously took time from their work to help a struggling novelist. I did thank each of them copiously during our discussions, and of course I will include a big, gushy acknowledgement in the book when it’s published. Because I was dealing with scientists in government and academia, I made sure to get their permission to mention them, because this won’t be the usual place where their name appears. And of course they will all get signed copies of the book, because without them it would have been banished to that box in the garage with all my thwarted projects.

Now I have to write the darned book, of course, and as we all know that’s a long and winding road itself. I have extra motivation on this particular trip, however, because I want to apply the knowledge I gained from my new scientist friends and prove their time wasn’t wasted in talking with me.

Has anyone else out there ever tackled a subject way beyond their area of expertise? How did you go about it? How did it turn out?

What Is a “Book Club” Book? by Bonnie Schroeder

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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.

 

 

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In today’s publishing environment, with millions of books competing for a reader’s attention, having book clubs discuss your work is one sure way for recognition.

But how do you get on the book club universe’s radar?

I wish I knew.

Oh sure, there are websites out there offering to help connect you with book clubs—for a fee.

There must be a better way.

And what defines a “book club book?” Does anyone know? Some clubs go for the best-sellers and prize winners. Others seem to focus on genres, like mysteries.

One way to figure out what makes a book club tick is to join one, which is what I did.

Several years ago, I joined the Brown Bag Book Club at Flintridge Bookstore in La Canada, not as a sneaky way to find an audience—my first novel hadn’t even been published then—but as a means to gain insight into what readers like and don’t like in the books they read.Book Club

Being in that club has enriched my life in many ways. I’ve made good friends, and I’ve read books I’d never have chosen on my own—for example, The Help. A novel about Black maids in Mississippi in the 60’s? I figured it would be too depressing. I would have missed a wonderful, uplifting story if I’d gone with my first impression.

Our club uses a variety of criteria in picking our books: we do some best-sellers and prize winners, but only after they’ve been released in paperback (which is why we’re still waiting to read All the Light We Cannot See.) We also ask individual members to recommend books, but only books they’ve actually read and, preferably, loved.

We take turns “moderating” the hour-long monthly discussions and usually bring a list of Reader’s Guide-type questions to fuel the discussion, but sometimes just asking “How many of you liked this book? And why?” will fill up the hour with commentary. It’s fascinating to see how people’s minds work!

My novel Mending Dreams has been read by two different book clubs, and I sat in on both discussions. The first time it was still in draft form, and the feedback was very helpful in shaping the final version. The second time was with my own Brown Bag Book Club, and the members were ever so kind in their comments. But both times, I have to say it was almost an out-of-body experience to hear them talk about my characters and the story developments. I kept having to remind myself, “I wrote that.”

I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and I hope I get a chance.

Some advice if you are lucky enough to be invited to a book club discussion of your book:

  • Leave your ego at the door if you can. I found that some club members really personalized parts of the book, and I had to remind myself their reaction was colored by their own experiences. Focus on hearing what resonated for readers—and what didn’t—so you can build on that knowledge in the future.
  • Come prepared with a list of questions in case the discussion loses momentum—not just the Reader’s Guide type questions, but your own as well: things you’d like to know about how a certain part of the book plays out, how the members felt about a character, did they see a plot development coming?
  • Be sure to bring bookmarks and/or business cards to distribute, maybe an email signup sheet so you can build your contact base.

If you don’t belong to a book club already but are thinking it sounds pretty cool, where do you find them? All over the place! Many bookstores have them, and so do libraries. One member of my club also belongs to a neighborhood book club. Ask around. You can also find some in your area through the Meetup website (http://www.meetup.com/topics/bookclub/).

Besides getting to read some really interesting books, you might find an audience for your books, maybe even more than one audience. Book clubs often share information. Get in with one (or more), and your book might be chosen by others. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and some book clubs can definitely affect a book’s success.

Happy reading!

CANNIBALIZING YOUR LIFE

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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.

CANNIBALIZING YOUR LIFE

One of my favorite quotes, attributed variously to writers Philip Roth and W. Somerset Maugham, is this: “Nothing bad can ever happen to a writer. It’s all material.”

I take comfort in that reminder when bad things happen in my life; at least I might someday squeeze a story out of the experience. I might think, “So this is what it’s like to be stuck in a hospital ER.” Or “So this is what it feels like to watch someone you love get sick and die.”

Do you ever find yourself taking notes, mental or otherwise, during some traumatic event?

Not to be morbid, but those moments of sheer pain or grief or terror, if captured when they’re fresh, can add depth and authenticity to your writing.

Many years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Inoperable. She was in her 70’s and knew she didn’t want chemotherapy, so she entered a hospice program. As I watched her fade away, sometimes in terrible pain, sometimes in a morphine fog, I didn’t jot notes in my journal as I sat by her bed. But when the dreadful process was over and she’d been laid to rest, I did journal the experience. The entries weren’t poetic or well thought out, but my raw emotions seeped onto the page so that years later I could pull out my journal and refresh my memory—from a safer distance.

I fictionalized my mother’s dying in my novel Mending Dreams—not to capitalize on her suffering but to try and redeem it, to acknowledge her courage. Many people who read the book have told me, “I could tell you’d been there. I have, too.” I like to think they derived some comfort from knowing they weren’t alone, from understanding “It’s not just me. Other people have felt this, too.”

Writing about life’s darkest moments gives me a slight sense of control and helps me get a handle on my pain or grief or anger or fear. And using personal experience, even if I disguise it, adds a layer of credibility to my writing.

Knowing I might eventually write about a painful incident, I try to be more observant. If I’m going to go through this experience, at least I can record it, do it justice, and convert it to something useful after my emotions have cooled.

I’m not the only writer to do this. Here’s another quote, from the late Nora Ephron, a writer I truly admire: “Everything is copy.”

She should know—she turned the failure of her marriage to Carl Bernstein into a very witty memoir, Heartburn, which went on to become a hit movie. And she was able to give her ex a little payback for the infidelity that wrecked their marriage.

So what about the flip side? Does this mean that nothing truly good can happen to a writer? I don’t think so. I journal many peak experiences too, and try to capture the good feelings before they dissipate. Those entries come a little easier.

Heck, you know life’s going to throw us some curves. We might as well use them to make ourselves stronger writers.