We continue our series of animal posts. Today’s contributor is Miko Johnston

I grew up in New York City, where outdoor wildlife was limited, particularly in winter. Pigeons, sparrows and the occasional squirrel coexisted with alley cats and leashed dogs until the robins and blue jays returned in spring.

The reverse was true in Los Angeles, where many bird species wintered in my backyard, at the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains. Some birds left by March, but not all. Red tailed hawks circled the hills, crows commandeered the scrub oaks, blue jays screeched from fences, and the largest hummingbirds I’d ever seen buzzed from yard to yard in search of nectar.

Other critters visited our neighborhood. The ever-present lizards scrambled across walkways and along fences, or lazed in the sun, doing push-ups to attract a mate. Squirrels, chipmunks, and skunks vied with deer for their share of fruit from garden trees. Less welcome were rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion or bear.

I now live on an island in Washington, by an inland sound teeming with wildlife. Cormorants love to perch on the buoys, their wings outstretched to dry. Herons stand patiently on the beach at low tide, searching for fish. The sight of the birds hunched on tree branches reminds me of Gru from “Despicable Me”, and when they fly their prehistoric ancestry is evident. Seagulls and crows use our driveway to crack open mussels and cockleshells. As fall winds down, white-crown sparrows, golden nuthatches, robins and finches go into a feeding frenzy, devouring every blackberry left on the vines and then, as a last resort, the tiny red berries of our hawthorn tree. (Yuck. They taste like petroleum jelly.) In winter, when daytime tides are high, packs of mallards and scoters peacefully cohabit in the calm water near the shore.

I’ve watched deer eat the fallen apples from our trees and had the rare privilege of seeing a stark white fawn. I’ve observed families of river otters sprinting along the beach, and seals hunting in the eelgrass a hundred yards away. Rabbits nibble on our lawn (and tomatoes). In spring, when our hawthorn tree erupts in white flowers, it attracts so many bees it hums louder than a generator.

Several bald eagles nest in nearby trees. One of my great pleasures is watching them soar effortlessly across the sky, circling overhead and diving into the water as they hunt, hearing their distinctive twitter. It takes a few years for the birds to grow into their good looks. Eaglets, with their mottled feathers and ungraceful stance, remind me of awkward teenagers with acne. That was reinforced when I saw one youngster standing on the beach in front of my house, his parents observing from farther away. Crows began to pester him and he finally flew to his parent’s side as if to say, ‘Mom, they won’t leave me alone!’ Later, mom caught a fish and dropped it back in the water for Junior. He went for it, but couldn’t lift it out, so he extended his wings and swam back to shore. I once observed two cormorants fighting over a fish too large for either to swallow whole, when an eagle swooped down and stole it from their mouths. Priceless.

Don’t you agree that animals give an instant sense of place, time and mood? It’s a great technique for setting a scene, which can go beyond the visual:

By midnight, fog had rolled in from the coast, blurring visibility outside and misting the windshields of cars parked on the street. Around three a.m., a howling pack of coyotes in the foothills set off a chain reaction of yelps and barking from a chorus of neighborhood dogs, gradually settling down to a few whimpers as a dark car cruised slowly past the houses on Stargazer Circle.

Animals also make great similes: slippery as an eel, gentle as a lamb. And metaphors: black sheep, lone wolf. In my short story, “By Anonymous”, animals symbolize the disparity between my protagonist and his wealthy client. She lives in a luxury gated and guarded SoCal enclave carved out of coyote wilderness. He, an auto body mechanic working in a downscale industrial zone a few miles away, observes:

Here the gates are chain link topped with barbwire; the guards have four legs and the coyotes, two.

Birds make instant scene setters because they’re both universal and unique to their place – penguins and Polar regions, macaws and rainforests. I used avian references to show a different time and mood in one novel. The first time my protagonist walks through the forest, she hears songbirds and calls it, “God’s music”. Later, after a horrific incident, she’s back in the forest, but she experiences it differently:

Shrill cries pierced the sky and she jumped, sending her ball of laundry tumbling out of her hands. A hawk circled above the treetops, hunting for prey.

She maintains her fear of the forest for years. As an adult, she once again steps back into the woods and finds it peaceful:

Her feet sank into the mulch as she treaded deeper into the forest, her senses alert to danger. Birds rooting for food rustled the dead leaves, intruding on the silence. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye; turning, she watched a hare scoot away.

It’s no exaggeration to say animals are all around us. Many of us enjoy their companionship. Historically we’ve depended on them for food and labor. They provide adventure and entertainment, whether it’s hiking in the woods or going on safari. For some that means hunting, though I prefer to shoot them with cameras instead of guns.

When animals appear on the page, we see them as recognizable characters whether they’re there to comfort, amuse, or terrify us. Without their presence, the real world would be diminished. So would the worlds created on the page.

 

GET YOUR STORY PUBLISHED by Miko Johnston

Have you ever tried to get a story accepted into a writing contest or juried anthology? Wouldn’t it be advantageous to have a confidential resource who can give you a competitive edge? If so, then read on because I am going to share with you my secrets for getting your work published.

First, some background. Several years ago, I tried to get a short story accepted into a Sisters In Crime anthology. I wrote what I thought was a good story that fit the theme and technical requirements. I ran it though a few critique groups to help me polish it. When I got the notification that the piece wasn’t accepted, I was heartbroken. I made it my mission to get my work accepted into the following anthology. The result: my story “By Anonymous” made it into Last Exit To Murder, published two years later. I succeeded in more ways than one; having a story in a prestigious anthology helped me win a publishing contract for my novels.

The experience taught me that it takes a lot more than just writing a good story to get your work into a competitive publication.

I       THE MORE SPECIFIC, THE BETTER

It’s hard enough to figure out what editors will consider ‘good’ or worthy of publication, but it’s even harder when they don’t clearly define what they want. If getting published is your goal, your odds are always better with a single genre competition and a clearly defined theme. Focus on competitions with a limited scope. ‘Stories under 500 words’ is vague , but ‘Heartwarming stories about rescued animals’ is more specific.

II      READ THE SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES CAREFULLY AND BELIEVE THEM

Every contest or anthology will issue submission guidelines that contain vital information. Guidelines begin with an explanation of what the stories should contain or be about. For example, mystery anthologies generally want stories that include at least one murder or serious crime. If there is a theme, the guidelines will often state how the theme should be incorporated. Remember: the more specific the requirements, the easier it is to figure out what the editors want. Pay attention to technical information such as word count, page set-up, method of submission, and deadline for entries. Take that information seriously; consider them demands, not requests.

III     LEARN FROM THE PAST

Writing contests and anthologies are often sponsored by established organizations. Unless the sponsor is new, go back and read their previous publications. Determine what type of writing appeals to them. If everything they’ve published is dark, obscure and literary, your hilarious page-turner probably won’t get accepted. If the mysteries tend to be cozy, save your gruesome piece for another publication.

The sponsor’s website can provide invaluable help. Search online for any information about the selection process or editing of past competitions. I read through the Sisters In Crime L.A. website archives and located an old interview with the editors of an earlier anthology. All of them agreed that stories about previously unknown aspects of the city were more interesting than those that focused on familiar places and events. The anthology selections supported that. Which brings me to the next point:

IV      AVOID THE OBVIOUS

If the theme is U.S. landmarks, leave the most popular choices to ‘Family Feud’ and go with something less familiar. There are two reasons for this: First, many writers will select something famous like the Hollywood sign or the Statue of Liberty. Since editors may want one story based on that location there’s more competition. Or they might get bored reading story after story about the same place and reject them all. Secondly, as already stated, stories about unknown or unusual places and events appeal to editors. Think how omnipresent the White House has been in films, but we vividly remember Mt. Rushmore in “North by Northwest” or Devil’s Tower in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” because they stand out due to their uniqueness.

V       WORK IT, WORK IT, WORK IT!

Everything I’ve shared with you so far will give any writer a competitive edge. The rest is up to you, though. You have to write a unique story. Start early, as soon as the announcement comes out. Brainstorm a few possible themes and work on them until you have a strong idea for a story. Take every advantage you have. I submitted one story to that first anthology although two submissions were permitted. For the next anthology, I finished my story months in advance and decided to write another before the deadline. I’m glad I did; the first piece was rejected, but the second one made it into the anthology.

Will any of my tips guarantee your story will get published? Of course not, but I assure you it will increase your chances of success. Good luck!

 

 

The Wisdom of the WInRs by Miko Johnston

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 3 with Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of A Petal in the Wind and the newly released A Petal in the Wind II: Lala Hafstein.

She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.

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I sincerely hope you, our readers, find The Writers In Residence blog as enlightening as I do.

Madeline’s recent post on story endings reminded me of a project several writers and I undertook earlier this year. We analyzed different endings, both satisfying and disappointing, and came up with a list, but nothing as contemplative as Madeline’s. There’s a difference between knowing a subject and conveying that knowledge with eloquence.

Gayle’s piece on mining your past reminded me of the importance of authenticity. In fact I touched upon that subject in my earlier blog post on killing your characters. My protagonist loses someone dear to her very unexpectedly. I summed up her reaction in a brief paragraph, taken from my own experience with an identical situation. I still get choked up when I read it, and more than one writer giving critique has as well. Mining your life goes beyond knowledge and experience. At the deepest level you hit real emotion. To ensure that I do, I’m following Kate’s suggestions regarding beta readers.

Creating authenticity in our writing has been a thread recently. Bonnie’s post on research, Jackie Vicks’ on writing what you want to know, and Jackie Houchin’s story based on her missionary experiences in Malawi reminded me of that. My current novel takes place during World War I on the lesser know Eastern front. The subject hasn’t been covered in English language literature, which makes it both unique and challenging. But the challenges go beyond research for me.

Like many writers, I struggle to balance writing time with all the other obligations in my life. I’ve lost my ability to multitask as I’ve grown older – or maybe it’s the lack of time pressure now that I no longer work – but time seems to move faster as I’ve become slower. That’s why Rosemary’s post hit home with me. Years ago I found a very effective organizing system called the Funnel Method. Picture a letter-sized page in landscape format. Divide it into three rows across and seven columns down to create 21 boxes. Label the seven top row boxes with categories of what you need to do: appointments, errands, writing, etc. and list what you need to accomplish each week in the appropriate box. Then use the boxes in the middle row to prioritize your lists, from most to least important. The third row is your weekly calendar; assign a day and time for each task based on its priority. It works brilliantly if you follow it. Unfortunately, I don’t – I rebel against micro-management; like Rosemary, ideal time management eludes me.

So thank you fellow WinRs for sharing your insight and wisdom. It’s made a difference in my writing and, I suspect, has helped other writers who read this blog. I’ll end this post with my contribution – the list of endings I mentioned earlier. See if you agree.

SATISFYING ENDINGS:file3171299616544

Summation – where you bring the previous elements back into play and sum up the action or make a statement.

Partial Summation – where some story lines are tied up, but a few are left unresolved for the sequel (common in serialized novels).

Cozy – where everything’s gonna be alright; it settles down at the end and they all have a cup of tea.

Cinematic – zoom in from the setting to the character(s), or out from the character(s) to the setting (like a movie).

Emotional – tug at the heartstrings and pull out the stops; needs to be carefully handled to avoid crossing over to sappiness.

Bookend – where it mirrors, and often clarifies, the opening scene.

Ambiguous/Cliff hanger – promotes discussion as well as sequels; doesn’t tie everything up into a neat bow.

UNSATISFYING ENDINGS:

Trite – there’s no surprise element; clichéd.

Incomplete – story doesn’t resolve or too many important threads left undone.

Abrupt – too rushed or sudden, like a curtain dropping; doesn’t provide satisfaction.

Prolonged – too slow or dragged out; destroys the tension of the climax.

Martians landed – euphemism for a scenario dropped in without being set up.

Cheap shot – solving the issue without input from protagonist.

Mismatched – ending doesn’t have anything to do with the beginning.

Incoherent – ending doesn’t make sense or is rambling.

Sappy – emotionally overdone; turns maudlin or trite.

 

A Life in Pages by Miko Johnston

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 3 with Miko JohnstonMiko Johnston is the author of A Petal in the Wind and the newly released A Petal in the Wind II: Lala Hafstein.

She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.

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Please excuse me while I wipe tears from my eyes. Someone very dear to me has died. Or to put it more accurately, I had to kill someone very dear to me.

Now before you dial 911, let me explain that the person I killed was one of my characters, someone beloved by my other characters as well as my readers. It was difficult, but necessary. My continuing saga would not have the same impact, nor would the surviving characters develop as they must, if this character were allowed to live. As Star Trek Commander Spock famously said, “Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.

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I also needed to do this to prepare myself for what will be coming. My historical fiction
series revolves around a Jewish family living in what is now the Czech Republic. I’m working on the third book, set during World War I, but the final installment will take place after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. As you may surmise, this will not bode well for some of the characters.

Although my story is loosely based on my family history – my maternal grandparents endured pogroms in Russia and Poland, and my father survived the Holocaust – it has been suggested that my characters could escape prior to the invasion and make their way to America, thus sparing their lives. After all, I’m writing fiction. I can change it at will.

But can I? I think not, because when you’ve been involved with a story for over twenty years, it takes on a life of its own. I wish I could change their destiny, but it would ring false to me. Early on I made decisions about the characters: who they were, what they would do, and to an extent, how they would develop over time. However, after awhile some of them began to make decisions on their own. Most were simple and minor – a preference for a particular color or beverage – but one unexpected action taken by two of my characters resulted in converting my trilogy into a ‘quadrogy’.

In a sense, I gave birth to these characters. Early on I guided them, taught them, made sure they were always where they were supposed to be. Now they have a life of their own, and I must respect that. Within reason. I still have final edit. But I can’t ignore their wishes and directives, no matter what I, or some readers, may think. Why? As Captain Kirk observed, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”

When you create your fictitious world, is it set in stone, or do you change it at will? Have you ever found yourself letting your characters decide where they’re going and what they’re going to do? Or do you maintain full control over them?