A New Book Release Party!

Release party for Miko Johnston’s

A Petal in the Wind Book IV: Lala Smetana

Sunday Sep 11 2022 5:00pm – 6:00pm

Kingfisher Bookstore, 16 Front Street NW, Coupeville WA

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We are thrilled to announce the long-awaited continuation of Miko Johnston’s Petal in the Wind saga. A founding member of Whidbey Island’s Writers in Residence, Johnston’s historical novels beautifully capture the heartbreaks and triumphs of a young Jewish woman coming of age in early 20th century Europe.

Please join us for an exclusive free event as we celebrate the release of Johnston’s newest novel on Sunday, September 11th at 5 pm in the Kingfisher Bookstore’s lower level. Champagne and small bites will be provided by our neighbor, Front Street Grill.

While this is a free event, tickets are required. Please secure your place by calling the Kingfisher Bookstore at  360.678.8463 or by emailing hello@kingfisherbookstore.com.

Petal in the Wind Book IV: Lala Smetana

As the Great War rages, Lala dreams of someday having it all — marriage, motherhood, and a career. She reunites with Josef Smetana, the man she loves, and they marry. Amidst a world-wide pandemic and political discord rippling through Europe in the aftermath of war, Lala and Josef encounter undercurrents of mistrust and bigotry that sprout like noxious weeds. Lala notes a disquieting change of attitude in Josef as well; he no longer supports her desire to work.

The Smetanas move to Prague and start a family. When an opportunity arises for Lala’s final dream to come true, she plots to keep her secret from Josef, until she learns he’s kept a far more dangerous secret from her. With her family’s fate hinging on her success, together they must navigate a new resurgence of an old hate that threatens to shatter their lives.

A Final Pass

by Miko Johnston

By the time you read this, the manuscript for my fourth A Petal In the Wind novel will be back from the editor and ready for its final draft before publication. Prior to sending it out, I made several passes through it, each time searching for ways to fix or improve the work.

In my first pass I searched for everything from formatting issues to misspelled words. In light of recent events I found parts of the story, which I’d begun writing in 2017, had become dated. I couldn’t gloss over a worldwide pandemic and the social rifts that emerged from political discord. Several new characters who were introduced in chapters written years before the book’s conclusion sounded too generic; I’d gotten to know them better as the story progressed and that needed to be reflected in their earlier dialog and mannerisms.

Other passes looked for repetition, excess verbiage, more precise word choices, missed misspellings, lapses in logic, and incorrect information. With that complete, I sent out my manuscript, anticipating a few more changes would be needed once I heard back from my editor. I took advantage of the wait time to put together all the additional material needed – logline, book blurb and synopsis.

Whenever I have to write marketing stuff, I cringe. It’s not what like to do, or do well. I view it as a necessary evil, and many authors I know feel the same way. However it must be done, and the good news: I’ve found an advantage to it beyond promoting the book.

When you have to encapsulate your x-hundred page novel into a one page summary, then a teaser for the back cover, and finally a one-sentence logline, it forces you to look at your theme in a different way. Gone are the long passages of prose, the snappy dialogue, the transitional scenes and flashbacks. You must have a laser focus on what your story is about – what you’re trying to get across to the reader in terms of theme, character, and plot. By doing so you sometimes will see aspects of the story that are important but may not have been shown in a compelling or complete way. So beyond my editor’s input, I saw that I wasn’t done with my revising.

I came to that conclusion when I encapsulated a 106,500 book into a few paragraphs with just a hint of where the story will eventually wind up. I had my external conflict and internal struggle, and pointed that out in my blurb. Then I wrote my logline:

Amidst the social and political upheaval in the aftermath of WWI, a woman who identifies as an artist marries the love of her life, but chafes at being relegated to wife and mother.

We can understand the difficulties a woman would face in giving up her career to marry and have children, especially at a time when such notions weren’t as accepted as they are today. But had I adequately shown how she feels in the book? Could I have made it not only clearer, but on a much deeper level?

The logline hints at the deeper issue. What she rails against is not being married to the man she loves, or even the challenges of motherhood. It’s losing her identity, having to see herself as only a reflection of her husband and children. When Jane marries John Doe, she becomes Mrs. John Doe. Her baby’s mama. She’d wonder—what happened to Jane?

My character Lala is a woman who’s accomplished a great deal despite her youth. She not survived the trauma and hardships of WWI and kept her family alive, but her home town as well. It’s described as a factory town north of Prague throughout the series. In America we’d call it a company town, where a single business – in this case a furniture factory – provides the economic base of the area.  Circumstances force her to take charge of the factory and oversee its conversion to wartime production. If it had closed, which it nearly did, the town would have been devastated. How can someone like this ignore all she achieved, the skills she developed, the talent that resides within her?

When the manuscript returns from the editor, I will review the comments and make some changes, including a few of my own – adding more layers of my character’s internal dilemma to the story. Then I’ll probably rework my promotional material. A writer’s work is never done…that is, until it goes to the publisher.

 

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including “LAst Exit to Murder” and the soon-to-be-released “Whidbey Landmarks”. The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY? 

by Miko Johnston

No tutelage or reflections on my writing today. I’m attempting to reboot – physically, emotionally and creatively. Instead, I want to know what you, our readers, have to say.

My original idea for this week’s blog post was to ask you if you’ve incorporated any of the recent turmoil in your writing, or if you’ve chosen to sidestep it. I see that topic very differently now than I did when I first wrote this piece.

Back in 2018 I began a mentoring program for a local high school’s creative writing class*. Along with other published authors, I offered critique and encouragement to these young writers. Alas, a combination of budget cuts and Covid put the program on hold for over a year, but it has been reinstated. I recently received sixteen submissions from the current class and as I always do, I read each entry before dividing the work between the volunteers.

In the past, many of the stories mirrored themes from books and television shows that were popular, filled with paranormal characters ranging from vampires to dragons. Other plots were taken from everyday life – going to school, hanging out with friends, getting dumped by a boyfriend, and family squabbles. One or two pieces dealt with darker subjects, usually following a death or other traumatic loss, but the majority had a light tone and many were flat-out funny.

The class assignment was to write a piece of flash fiction. With their submissions came a note from their teacher, informing me that prolonged isolation from school, and each other, had made her students shy and hesitant to share their work, so it lacked the usual peer review. I assumed the writing would be rough, and it was, but not in the way I expected.

I was shocked but not surprised at the bleakness that pervaded every single submission. At least half included nightmarish scenarios, and most involved death or dying. I felt saddened because I knew this was not an attempt to be “artsy”, but a reflection of the reality these teens face in uncertain, and even frightening, times.

My volunteer mentors’ purpose is to encourage and uplift young students in their writing, but somehow a verbal pat on the back for a good story or vivid imagery doesn’t seem enough. Nor do I want to push them into further gloominess. Does expressing dark thoughts on the page exorcise demons, or give them life?

We may have enough time for a second round of submissions. Should I ‘interfere’ and suggest writing prompts that would prod them into some more positive thoughts, or let them write what they want? What would you say to these teens?

*see “WORD FOR WORD”

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder and the soon-to-be-released Whidbey Landmarks. The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

Another Look At Descriptions

by Miko Johnston

In my contributions to this blog, I’ve written about descriptions several times. Describing, or as Jackie likes to say, illustrating in our writing has always presented a challenge to me. Part of it is how much? and is this necessary? There’s also how well…? – am I using fresh word pairings and metaphors that impress, not impede? Will readers not only ‘see’ it, but believe it?

All writing needs description to bring the story to life, but contemporary fiction usually depends on what we see around us. Science fiction, fantasy and, to a lesser extent, alt-reality requires more description as the reader can’t assume anything in a newly created world. So does the procedures of a character with an unusual or highly technical occupation, or day to day life in historical fiction to avoid anachronisms.

Writing historical fiction, as I do, requires a great deal of research, not only of history but images that represent the time. Clothing, hairstyles, machinery and tools, art and architecture infuse the story with the flavor of authenticity. In managing the word count, one picture can truly be worth a thousand words – if you find the right words.

I faced an insurmountable challenge in my latest novel. I wanted a character to wear a dress I’d seen illustrated in a period catalogue, a flamboyant style from the early 1920s. Today I’d describe it as having a side hooped (pannier) skirt with rolls of fabric resembling vertical soda can stackers hanging from each hip. However, that would not be time-appropriate for the era I write in and I couldn’t come up with a better way to depict the dress. It forced me to change her garment into something equally ridiculous but more describable, something Little Bo Peep might have worn.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve had trouble describing something in a way that a reader could visualize it. I envy writers who have that knack. I recently read a piece by Eric Asimov, who writes the Wine column for the New York Times, describing the ideal corkscrew, sometimes referred to as a waiter’s friend. He writes:

“It’s essentially a knifelike handle with a spiral worm for inserting into the cork, a double-hinged fulcrum for resistance and a small, folding blade for cutting the foil that protects the cork.”

Brilliantly descriptive and clear. You can not only see it, but see how it’s used.

Another challenge is trying to describe a situation that many have gone through; for example, pregnancy and labor. If you’ve given birth, you would probably rely on your personal recollections. If not, you’d research what others have endured, like I did. Either way, some readers will tell you that’s not what they experienced. In my first literary pregnancy, I was so concerned about the birth that I left that scene ‘off the page’; my character leaves town a month before her due date and returns with babe in arms.

Now several of my characters have gone through pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve gotten more controversial feedback on that subject than any other, and always from mothers. Certain suggestions, such as those little moments you could never envision unless you were ‘there’, helped. Other comments were less beneficial, for although there is much commonality in the experience, little of it is universal. “That’s not how it was for me,” they’d say, and I’d tell them “Okay, but that’s how it was for my character.”

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As I’ve recently finished my fourth novel in a series, I’ve reviewed the manuscript multiple times and also reread sections of the earlier books. In doing so I learned something about my method of describing. The more important an element is, the more I’ll usually describe it. For instance, in my second book, my character meets a family that will play a prominent role in the rest of the series. It’s my young protagonist’s first impression of them, so I devote at least a full paragraph to the description of each person, I’ve augmented the descriptions as time passed to show how they’ve changed with age. Minor characters, such as the housekeeper, merit a phrase, enough to picture the woman when she returns later in the story. Thanks to Gayle’s tutelage, I’ve learned a title – waiter, shopkeeper – often suffices for ‘walk-on’ characters, though I might include a glimpse to set the scene, such as the wizened mother-in-law of a black marketeer, opulent earrings hanging from her lobes like chandeliers.

The character’s perspective also plays a role. My heroine, Lala, is introduced as a child, “almost eight”, who grew up poor. Her thoughts and observations had to be filtered by her age and experience, which is why it took me weeks to come up with a way for her to ‘describe’ a terrazzo floor (…like flat pebbles floating in a sea of cream). As she matured, so did her perceptions and understanding of human nature. Whatever captures her interest, or she feels passionate about, will inspire a more detailed description.

I approach themes in the same way. In my most recent novel, I chose to represent the political and social turmoil of post-WWI Europe with an image I found in my research. Lala, now married with child, observes it while stuck in traffic:

She perused the art work, most of it propaganda celebrating the recent wave of Communist Party member assassinations in Germany. One placard illustrated a macabre street scene in Hungary, judging by the uniforms worn by a line of soldiers hanging from gallows. Wives and children wept at the dead men’s feet while, standing in the middle of the road, a Bolshevik in uniform observed the carnage with a haughty air of satisfaction. The caption read, Erzet Harcoltunk? – ‘This is what we fought for?’…The artist had placed the smug-looking Bolshevik in the foreground, hands on hips, an unkempt uniform wrapped around his fat middle. Skinny legs stuffed into unpolished boots. Thin arms as well, implying physical weakness…Then she noticed the slight alteration of the Bolshevik’s cap, a subtle nod to a trait he shared with many of the political assassination victims.

The gold star affixed above the brim did not have five points, but six.

Rather than rely on the headlines of the day, I chose to let the reader “see” what she’s describing and understand the meaning behind the images.

This method works for me. What techniques do you rely on to get the right balance of description and imagery in your writing?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth book in her series. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Why Aren’t You Writing?

By Miko Johnston

It’s a valid question. Maybe a few of you can’t think of an idea, but I’m willing to bet that you’re in the minority. In most cases we have an overabundance of ideas and at least one work in progress, if not more. Why are we having so much trouble writing? In a word:

PROCRASTINATION

Okay, we can admit it. We do procrastinate. Why? There are many reasons why, and they’re tied to different types of procrastination.

A dear friend and fine writer often wore a sweatshirt that said, EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT SHINY OBJECTS. This describes procrastinators who get sidetracked by other projects. Often they take on more than they can handle, or they get diverted by the next big thing. The only cure is to acknowledge writing is important enough to do. Focus on what’s in front of you for a set amount of time and literally time yourself.

Do you suffer from perfectionism syndrome? If you have a deadline and still can’t make progress, this may be why. If we can’t get it right, we don’t want to commit to working on our projects. I have a suggestion: GET OVER IT. You can argue about whether there’s crying in baseball, but there is no perfection in writing. Commit to doing the best that you can, then review it and make it better.

Sometimes I open a work-in-progress document and stare at the last bit I wrote, wondering where to go next. Then I close it because I can’t think of anything. Does this happen to you?

Try creating a separate ‘work’ sheet, copy the last paragraphs you’ve written onto it and then…just write. Don’t concern yourself with anything other than getting words down on the page. This technique opens the door to creativity; once your mind is free to explore ideas without judgement, the ideas will flow. Write until you come to a natural concluding point, then read back what you’ve written. I guarantee that most times you’ll find something useful for some part of the story, and sometimes you’ll get what you need. If the block occurs at a point where the story is still open-ended, your ideas may give you some direction to move forward, or warn you, “don’t go there”. If you’re trying to connect your scene with an approaching plot point, try the bridge technique I explained in an earlier post .

Easier said than done, you say? True. But I’m guessing that none of you became writers because you expected to become rich, famous, younger and more beautiful. You did it because you had a passion to write, or a story to tell, or characters whom you’ve created who deserve to live. The world is not an easy place right now; has it ever been? We need your stories out there, whether to entertain or to educate, distract us from our problems or understand them better. Or all of the above. So please sit down, take out your computer, or notebook, or whatever you use to write, and WRITE!.

And why not begin by commenting on this post – do you procrastinate, and if so, how do you get past it?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth novel in her series. Miko lives in Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

FUN WITH WRITING (AGAIN)

by Miko Johnston

It’s summertime, so let’s have some fun. Inspired by Jackie’s piece on Spine Stories, I decided to update my “Fun With Writing” post from five years ago –  here goes:

One Picture Is Worth….

Many groups and websites offer pictures for writing prompts; this is different. If you’ve seen any of the greeting card lines that use old photographs and insert funny comments, then you know what this is about. Select a picture from your photo album or a magazine and write a line or two about it. It can be funny, like one of my favorite birthday cards, which shows a pregnant woman with two pre-school children. The caption: All I wanted was a back rub. It can be poignant, a reminder of how things were vs how they are now.  See if you can come up with a clever interpretation of the photo.  You don’t have to write a thousand words.

Rapid Writing

This is an exercise that my local Whidbey Writers Group has done in the past. One person (usually the host) comes up with a concept and the group has ten minutes to write something. Previous ideas include rewriting a scene from an iconic book, describing an event from the past, and having everyone volunteer a word, then write a short piece incorporating all the words.

Crossover Appeal

If you’re in a writers group or have friends who are authors, try writing a scene featuring a character from another writer’s novel. Compose it in first person so the name isn’t revealed, avoid using any characters’ names or obvious settings. Then see if anyone can guess who you’ve written about. You can also have one of your characters interact with one of theirs.

If you write mysteries, you probably love at least one mystery series. Write a scene where your character meets that detective or P.I. Select a character from the same era as yours if possible, otherwise consider time-traveling the classic character to the present; think of how many modern-day iterations of Sherlock Holmes have been done.

“Honku”

Based on a witty book of haiku – “the zen antidote to road rage” – a  subject rife with possibilities. It you want to attempt poetry, try writing dedicated to driving. If cars aren’t your thing, pick any topic that lends itself to commentary and use the 5-7-5 syllable format to ‘haiku’ your idea. For example, my take on social media:

Why do you delight

 in photographing your meal?

I’d rather eat it

“Spelling Bee”

Last year I discovered this word-making game on the New York Times website’s puzzle section. I got myself and hubby hooked; we played it daily. It helped keep us sane during the pandemic lockdown as well as stimulated our brains. You don’t need a subscription to access the letters, only to play online. Or, play the DIY version:

24/7

Come up with as many seven letter words that don’t repeat letters or include S or X – a challenge in itself. When you have a list, pick a word at random; whatever day of the week it is, use that for your center number. Then make as many words out of the letters that include your center letter. Letters can be used more than once and four letter word minimum. No proper nouns, hyphenates, contractions or foreign words unless they’re in general usage, like pita or latte. Play alone or challenge a friend. Return the word to the pile and use it again on another day, when the center letter would change.

For example: Take the word MIRACLE.  Today is Wednesday, the fourth day on the calendar. My 24/7 challenge would be to make words that include the letter A. Had I picked MIRACLE on a Friday, I’d have to include L in each word.

DYI “Mad Libs”

Take a page from a book, edit out a series of key words and play “Mad Libs”. If you’re not familiar with the classic game, you create a list of nouns, adjectives and verbs and insert them into a story. Try it with a classic novel, a current best-seller, something awful, or if you’re brave, your own work.

“The Dating Game” for words

The clever pairing of an adjective and noun can replace a thousand words, a great way to create the sense of languid prose with brevity. It’s how I came up the phrase, overpriced abscess, to illustrate a McMansion enclave set in a wilderness area in my first published short story.

An interesting two-word combination works in any type of writing, and when it succeeds, it’s like a love match. As an exercise, see how many ‘matches’ you can make. Then save them; they could be incorporated in one of your WIPs.

We at The Writers In Residence always say “writing is writing”, and sometimes mixing it up can encourage creativity. Try an exercise for fun or to stimulate the creative brain.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the A Petal In The Wind saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

Mining Your Own Business

by Miko Johnston

That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?

MINING. Miriam pexels-keira-burton-6147138

How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.

A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?

What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.

We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.

Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind.  Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?

In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.

For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?

MINING. miriam pexels-anna-shvets-5325091

In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference  theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.

A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot?  Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?

Can we? How? Ought we?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the  A Petal In The Wind  saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including  LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels  

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

BACK TO BASICS: Writers’ Boot Camp Part III

 by Miko Johnston

Last year I began the BACK TO BASICS series with BEGINNINGS and then presented MIDDLES, so as this is my first post of 2021, I’m beginning by ending the series with ENDINGS.

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Congratulations. You’ve grabbed the reader’s attention with your opening and kept them rapt through your middle chapters. Don’t spoil things now with a disappointing or frustrating finale – the pages that comprise the lead-up to the climax through the final sentence. 

An off-putting beginning may discourage a reader, and when asked she’ll say, “I couldn’t get into it, but you might like it”. A problematic middle will dampen her interest, but she’ll likely continue, hoping for redemption. However, a bad ending will exasperate her. She’ll fume over wasting her money buying the book and wasting her time reading through to the end, and she’ll badmouth the book to everyone she’s ever met.

Am I right?

Once you’ve convinced a reader to buy your book, you don’t want to ruin all the time they’ll invest in reading it with an ending that falls flat, doesn’t make sense, or comes out of nowhere.  

A good ending must appeal to our emotions as well as our logic; move us, make us think, but also make sense. The best ending, simply put, satisfies the reader. This is not synonymous with a happy ending, which too often can be trite. It means the story finishes in a way the reader feels is plausible, based on what happened throughout the pages. She may be pleasantly surprised it didn’t turn out as expected, but as it ought to have concluded. Or she may be left wanting the story to go further and view the end as merely a good stopping point, which it should if you’re writing a series. Genres often dictate the type of ending needed – the detective solves the murder, the cop catches the criminal, the lovers beat all odds and wind up together. 

To conclude your novel successfully, first consider what doesn’t make a good ending:

1 – A lack of any closure. The point of the story must be resolved. You don’t have to spell everything out, but too many story threads left hanging will frustrate the reader. 

2 – Too ambiguous. You can leave some details to the reader’s imagination, but not the entire plot.

3 – Too neat. The opposite problem; tying up too much or having everything work out perfectly defies credulity.

4 – Too rushed. You want to build tension as you approach your final pages. A fast pace can produce excitement, but slow it down enough to generate that tension.

5 – Too drawn out. If you slow the pace too much you won’t generate tension and worse, you’ll lose the reader’s attention.

6 – Too contrived. Also known as deux ex machina or “the Martians landed”, this ending comes out of thin air with no foreshadowing in the story.

7 – Too predictable. Even if we know how the story will probably end, we still want something satisfying before we close the book.

8 – No ending. The story just stops.

If you’re wondering what satisfies readers you have only to look at book review sites like Amazon and Goodreads, which offer (usually) genuine critique. Your own experience as a reader will inform you as well. Classic endings include:

1 – Resolved: Effective in stand-alone stories where the protagonist has a goal and achieves it. The detective solves the murder. The lovers reunite. The operation is successful. This works best if it involves some plot twist, surprise or emotional satisfaction.

2 – Unresolved: Commonly used in literary fiction, where the point is to give the reader something to consider, or evoke an emotion. It’s often seen in series, where some plot elements are left for the next book, but trickier to pull off in a stand-alone. There’s a fine line between unresolved and ambiguous, so even when done well, many readers don’t find this type of conclusion satisfying.

3 – Open-ended: This is an implied ending, which like the unresolved ending, can frustrate readers who want to know, not contemplate, what happens. It differs from the unresolved ending in that the reader gets a sense of how the story turns out through foreshadowing in earlier chapters, or it might leave the plot open to interpretation, but complete the protagonist’s arc.

4 – The twist: Also known as a surprise ending. It differs from the contrived ending because it’s been adequately set up throughout the plot by lacing the story with subtle clues. Twist endings delight readers of mysteries, but it also works in other genres.

5 – Book-ended: I mentioned this in Part I of Writer’s Boot Camp. If you begin your story with the lead-up to the climax, complete the circle by returning to that moment at the end. Or, instead of pairing an action, create a symbolic book-end by repeating the theme of your opening, very effective in stories about never-ending battles like fighting crime, spies or terrorists.

6 – Statement or summation: This can complement or a contrast a statement or explanation beginning, and like it, tends to be cerebral. A successful version will be metaphorical rather than concrete, leaving the reader with something to think about, or picturing what happened and imagining what will happen next.

*******

The one element all good ending have in common is that they’re successful only when properly set up throughout the pages.

Still struggling? If your finale lacks closure or is muddled, it might be because you didn’t resolve enough story threads. Fix that with addition and subtraction – add enough details to flesh out critical plot point and edit out non-critical bits like multiple red herrings and extraneous characters or storylines.

If the pacing is off, decide whether you’ve rushed or dragged out the climax. If it’s the former, intensify the ending by delaying the payoff enough to create tension. Emotional reactions, thoughts, reasoning out, or physical actions like running, arguing or physically fighting can slow down a rushed pace with added conflict. Trimming might be enough to fix a plodding climax. Shortening sentences to an almost staccato rhythm speeds up the pace as well.

Does your protagonist feature prominently in the resolution of the story? There’s a reason a common synonym for protagonist is hero – we want our characters to be pro-active in bringing about the conclusion of the story. Make them active participants in their quest and its success or failure.

If pacing and character aren’t the problem, then consider the tone. Have you maintained continuity throughout? Can you justify your protagonist’s arc? I’ve read books that changed genres or mood along the way. In some cases the end bears little resemblance to the beginning. Find the scene where you lost your way and let it guide you to what and how much needs revising.

What if you don’t know the ending, or aren’t sure of how to bring it about?

I introduced the idea of writing different beginnings in Part I. It also works in reverse. If you’re unsure of how the story should end, consider the different possibilities and write out a few. See which works best with what you have. For example, if you can’t think of a good twist ending to your mystery, attempt a book-ended or a resolved ending. It may yield an idea for your story’s climax. Or, if you can’t decide between several endings, consider making it open-ended by inserting clues from the potential conclusions into the plot. Then the reader can decide for herself.

If you can’t seem to get to the ending you’ve planned, try the bridge technique outlined in Part II.  Link up the ending with the last chapters you’ve completed by working backwards for a while, then move the story forward to that point.

I hope the techniques I’ve outlined in this series have been helpful. Perhaps you have other methods you employ to open, continue or close your stories. We’d love to hear them.

MIRIAMs blog. kyle-glenn-_AR74EoWdy0-unsplash

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories in anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently completing the fourth book in the Petal series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

GOODBYE 2020

by Miko Johnston

I’m taking a break from BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS BOOT CAMP, which I’ll complete in my next posting.

Goodbye 2020, and good riddance. The year began horribly when last January, a bizarre mishap led to a friend of mine getting shot while having dinner at an upscale restaurant. An 80 year old woman, healthy, mentally alert and physically active, who golfed, gardened, rescued animals and took piano lessons; if you saw her back then you’d never guess her age. She survived, but complications led to amputation of both her legs. If you told me back then that anything worse could top what happened to my friend, I would not have believed you. 

Back in May I wrote, How will YOU tell the story?, referring to “…an experience unprecedented in our lifetime*”. That asterisk referred to the few exceptions, including my then almost 105 year old aunt who’d lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic. She celebrated her birthday last July, but passed away on Veteran’s Day. Thanks to the ‘unprecedented’ times, I could neither celebrate her milestone birthday with her, nor attend her funeral.

When I originally wrote that post, we had little to guide us other than grave concern and dire predictions, most of which came true. Being married to a scientist who spent his career analyzing data, I took those predictions seriously, unlike too many. As we close in on a year of living dangerously, I have to change my question: it’s no longer a matter of how will we write about this, but how can we not?

I can see endless possibilities for mystery writers, from deliberately using COVID-19 as a murder weapon to inadvertently causing a beloved family member’s death. All writers may focus on how the virus instills fear, closes down communities, has us scurrying furtively between home and car, car and essential travel. Many people who live alone have had cognitive issues worsened by quarantine; those who suffer from depression have declined, whether secluded or not.

How will we react when we finally crawl out of our caves of isolation into the light? When will we feel safe? When will we feel normal? Will it ever happen in our lifetime, or will this haunt us as the Great Depression haunted a generation almost a century ago?

I also can see COVID used as a symbol for the dark fears held within us, and the hopes for a brighter future. Exploring the idea of can we versus should we. Or writing about it as part of a cleansing ritual, to wash away the disappointments, pain and sorrow of 2020.

January always brings the promise of better things to come and we’re all rooting for that. The man who shot my friend goes on trial that month. Ironically, that’s when I’m scheduled for jury duty – what are the odds?

As we head into the holiday season, may 2020 end on a more harmonious note for all of us, and may the new year shine like a beacon, beckoning us toward a safer, calmer and healthier future. At last, something we can all agree upon.

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories in anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently completing the fourth book in the Petal series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

*          *          *

Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

*          *          *

Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

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