I am so pleased to be sharing a signing with Kay Finch at Murder by the Book on June 10, 2017, 4:30 pm. Kay and I are in a critique group together, one that has been in existence for 25 years. Kay has been more constant than I, since my -trying-to-quit-writing stage took me away from the group. (Quitting didn’t stick for me — too many ideas!) Trying to find a good theme to tie together her lovely adult mystery, The Black Cat Sees His Shadow, and my middle grade mystery, BURNED, was giving us fits, we hit on the critique group as the constant between us. I have belonged to several critique groups over the years, and each and every one of them has had something good to offer me.
Other published authors in our critique group are:
Dean James writing as Miranda James, author of the Cat in Stacks mysteries
Anne Sloan, author of several historical mysteries set in Houston Heights
There have been a good many more over the years (I am not the only one who came and went, either graduating from the group for one reason or another) And there are two actives who write a mean book who have not yet made a sale. (But they will. I know it’s just a matter of time.)
Most Patient Husband and I just got back from a wonderful National Geographic trip to Cuba. For a woman who spent most of her childhood hiding under her school desk for five minutes once a week in emergency-we-might-get-bombed-by-the-Soviets-who-have-a-toehold-in-Cuba, this was a big deal.
We don’t often get to go on big trips like this. It’s hard to leave the farm, but my terrific “little” brother came down from Ithaca to be on standby for Dad – and to farm-sit for us so that we could travel worry-free.
I suppose because I was one of those children who had too much imagination, while under my particle board desk it occurred to me that the Cuban children had desks too, and they probably spent time under them wondering, as I did, if they were strong enough to deflect bombs. So when Cuba opened up for cultural exchanges, I thought I’d better go find out.
Right now official travel from the US to Cuba is restricted. You can’t hop a flight from Houston and sip the ubiquitous welcome cocktail at Hemingway’s favorite bar an hour later. Right now you have to go prepared to learn through a cultural exchange that requires a 40 hour-a-week program. (The tour guide said that they have to document attendance and that the only reason for absence from the sessions is for illness. But there are plenty of welcome cocktails!) Or you can fly to another country that allows travel to Cuba and fly in and out from that location. But not officially. (OK, so as of 3/15/16, right after I posted this, the law changed. Stay tuned, more changes to come, I’m sure.)
So, we flew to Miami to catch the charter flight with the rest of our group. Once there, we had the opportunity to catch up with some extended family, who happen to be Cubanos in exile. These family member’s baby brother was our brother-in-law. (Sadly, we lost our brother, Ralph, and their brother, Mike, many years ago.)
These two, brother and sister, also still hate Fidel with such a passion that it transforms them when they talk about all that they lost in the revolution. It is hard to me to imagine how, in one day, the family went from privileged to pariahs. Their father was arrested and hauled off, and the family home and his medical practice became community property. Aside from one impassioned short outburst, neither wished to discuss what they had gone through beyond expressing gratitude for the Catholic church, which got them out through a program that helped to transport 1,000 children to America. The sister said that she prefers to dwell on the good life she’s had here, and the fact that she worked hard and was successful in that work. They no longer have family in Cuba itself, and have no wish to go there while “The Monsters” are in charge.
With this in mind, Cuba was a revelation. Or, as our tour coordinator, Carol, said, “In Cuba, everything es complicado.” The people there, far from appearing to be under the heavy fist of a Monster, looked happy. The free health care, minimal subsidized food rations, and excellent free education in a wide-range of subjects were frequently mentioned during our tour. The fact that there are long lines for everything and that there are shortages thanks to the 60 year-long economic blockade were also mentioned multiple times. Our guide, Rigoberto, “Rigo” for short, was amazingly open and honest with his answers to some pretty tough questions our group asked him. While even five years ago his answers to things like, “Are there shortages?” would have resulted in a response of, “I love my job,” now he is able to respond honestly with, “Yes.”
In his early 30’s, Rigo lived through what the Cuban’s euphemistically call “Período especial” or the Special Period in Times of Peace. This began in 1989 when the Soviet Union’s economy went boom. Imagine a world in which there was no gasoline, not much food available, and that your immediate neighboring country had a blockade in place that prevented many other countries from coming to your aid. It was dire. Rigo joking said he would have been over six feet tall if he had been able to have adequate nutrition. But it’s not funny because it’s probably true. I imagine that Rigo’s generation will exhibit many of the traits that children of the depression era here in the US have. When he mentioned that many of the animals in the zoo were airlifted out of Cuba because they were starving, my heart leapt. “Oh good. They saved the animals!” Then I realized that standing before me was a boy who was not saved. A boy who was not sheltered from that deprivation and who indeed had suffered greatly. This very child grew into a young man who is willing to work taking tourists around Cuba because he recognizes the difference between governmental policy and the people who live in the country which wielded it. Such is the spirit of the Cuban people.
We went to several schools and after-school programs, both government-supported and private, where the arts flourish.
Music is everywhere. The Little Beehive is a government sanctioned after-school dance and singing program for youth who are interested in becoming dentists, engineers, teachers and other professionals. (We asked.)
The Benny Moré Art School in Cienfuegos is a feeder school for the professional colleges. The program we saw there featured second grade dancers who choreographed their own really cool contemporary dance piece, an eight year old guitarist who nearly made me weep, and paintings done by school children that were so good I couldn’t take my eyes off of them.
One private arts organization in Havana had taken over a former municipal water tank and created a community arts center with free arts and music classes. Their education system works.
Can’t speak personally for their medical system because happily we did not need it. But…free health care. Not rationed. They send medical teams throughout the world to both teach and provide health care and they do it for free. Gotta say, that sounds better than good to me.
And music. Every single restaurant we enjoyed had people singing. (And getting a living wage for it! Imagine that.) The sound of music was on every street corner and people danced everywhere.
Our last night was truly special. A rooftop farewell party at the hotel. Then down to the street to go to a Paladar for supper. Our guide surprised us with a fleet of colorful Buicks, Fords, Chevys and even a fire engine-red Edsel (our ride!) We cruised the entire length of the Malecón and back again. We arrived at our destination, a crumbling specimen of the architectural grandeur that is Havana.
Up we went, following an Italian marble staircase through a once-grand receiving room, and up to the top floor where a bustling restaurant serves elegant 5 star cuisine from a very modern commercial kitchen. Keeping in mind that four buildings a day collapse in Havana, (Note: My wonderful brother, an engineer, pointed out that this was probably an exaggeration. 4×365 is a lotta buildings going boom. So, while I did hear this statistic while in Havana, it’s probably four a month or four a year rather than four a day.) I was happy that this one at least seemed to be sturdy, even if the windows lacked glass, the marble handrails had fallen into disrepair and that most of the decorative details on the walls desperately needed varnish or a coat of paint. The photo I took of our group enjoying this feast summed up Cuba for me. Cuba’s buildings may be decaying, it’s people may have suffered heartbreaking loss and deprivation, but they are strong, and celebrate what they have rather than what they have lost.
While I never remembered to ask about the desks, and how sturdy theirs were, I learned quite a bit.
For goodness sake, ignore media blathering about what’s going on down there. Go. See it for yourself. Make up your own mind about what Cuba is and is not. Heck. Go anywhere and do the same. Learn stuff. Think for your own self. You’ll come home with a new appreciation for what home means and how very lucky we are to live where we do.
Vonna from my SCBWI group has been after me to get some news up on my website. So here is a new blog post to fill the gap between my last bylined article and news about BURNED, my upcoming Middle Grade book about a young equestrian who solves a mystery and saves her mother.
But until I have FIRM news, a blog post awaits my fingers.
Most Patient Husband turned to me one evening this week during a particularly interesting television show that had more plot twists than the Longleat Hedge Maze (In Wiltshire, England. Go, get lost, it’s great!) and said, “You do this. How do you come up with those crazy twists in your work?”
I recognized the question as a variant on one of a writer’s most frequently heard questions: Where do you get your ideas?
I used to answer, “Woolworth’s.” I stopped when the average person asking the question no longer knew what a Woolworth’s was. (So sad to remember things that others never experienced. The soda fountain counter. The candy racks. The rack of 75 cent paperbacks by the cash register. As usual, I digress.)
I tried to answer, but wound up just happily soaking up his admiration because it came at such a great time for me. The answer is complicated and admiration thin on the ground just now, so it seemed best.
Then I ran across a photograph I took at the Austin Cathedral of Junk and I realized. That’s my brain! I construct ideas out of bits and pieces of life that other people toss off and leave behind. The woman in the coffeeshop who exclaimed, “There’s Italians in my blood!” The alleyway I walked along going to school as a child. The broken doll a toddler wouldn’t let go of in the grocery store. All of those converge in my imagination and create a story.
Writers are good at making connections. Connect the Italian family with a broken doll under the arm of a petite princess and send her down a dark alley and you’ve got an interesting story waiting to happen. Give it a whirl. It’s kind of fun.
Just to let everyone know that SOON, there will be news of a happy variety. Patience is a virtue.
I had the privilege of interviewing five top Texas costume designers for Arts+Culture Magazine. Barry Doss (Huntsville), Susan Branch Townes (Austin), Christina Cook (Dallas), Macy Lyne (Houston) and LA Clevenson(Houston) were filled with enthusiasm for their chosen profession. I was so fortunate to be able to chat with them and tell their story.
Do you run? Olympic marathon length or short sprints?
Writing is like running. We have different length pieces we work on. I just finished up what I would consider a 5K: a magazine piece for Arts + Culture Magazine about costume designers working in Texas. I am also on the home stretch for a marathon of a project, my first novel for children.
Naturally this lead to research about words. Specifically the word “run”. This took a lovely amount of time, during which I could feel like I was working, but alas, did not produce actual work. Hence the blog post. Gotta do something with all this not-work.
1. to go quickly by moving the legs more rapidly than at a walk and in such a manner that for an instant in each step all or both feet are off the ground.
2. to move with haste; act quickly: Run upstairs and get the iodine.
3. to depart quickly; take to flight; flee or escape: to run from danger.
4. to have recourse for aid, support, comfort, etc.: He shouldn’t run to his parents with every little problem.
5. to make a quick trip or informal visit for a short stay at a place: to run up to New York; I will run over to see you after dinner.
6. to go around, rove, or ramble without restraint (often followed by about): to run about in the park.
7. to move, roll, or progress from momentum or from being hurled, kicked, or otherwise propelled: The wheel ran over the curb and into the street.
verb(used with object), ran, run, running.
53. to move or run along (a surface, way, path, etc.):
Every morning he ran the dirt path around the reservoir to keep in condition. She ran her fingers over the keyboard.
54. to traverse (a distance) in running: He ran the mile in just over four minutes.
55. to perform, compete in, or accomplish by or as by running: to run a race; to run an errand.
56. to go about freely on or in without supervision: permitting children to run the streets.
57. to ride or cause to gallop: to run a horse across a field.
58. to enter in a race: He ran his best filly in the Florida Derby.
59. to bring into a certain state by running: He ran himself out of breath trying to keep pace.
There was more. Much more. The richness of adjective use and noun definition scrolled down my screen until I had to switch to my manuscript to keep from getting dizzy. Who knew one tiny three-letter word had so much meaning?
All this started because I didn’t want my character to “run” around the outside of the house. I needed a specific word that indicated “to move quickly and with great intent.” “Dashed” was my first attempt, but that seemed old-fashioned. I variously tried “loped”, “bounded”, “rushed”, “raced” before settling on “sprinted”.
This whole ten minutes of fiddling with the word “run” reminded me of an exercise that Darcy Patterson did in her weekend Novel Revision workshop she did for the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) a couple of years ago. (No, my mind was not wandering. I originally wrote this book for that workshop.) She challenged us to demonstrate a variety of ways to get from one side of the room to another. I was in a rare panic when I realized I would be demonstrating word number 25. Fortunately no one else used “skulk”. I excel at skulking.
“I write only because there is a voice inside me that will not be still.” Sylvia Plath
This week was fairly productive writerly-wise. I Had It All Under Control.
So imagine my surprise when, during the creation of a new in-between chapter in my WIP, a new, insistent voice came to call. A kernel of an idea so intriguing that I had to come to a full stop to appreciate what I heard.
My first reaction was, “Did I just think of that?!”
My second was, “I don’t have time for this.”
I tried to ignore him, despite the fact that he intrigued me. Voices pop up in my head all the time. Most often when I’m supposed to be working hard on something that needs attention paid to get it right.
Then I remember the day that the main character in my WIP spoke to me. Compelling. Funny. Irresistible. I opened my ear to her and fell in love. So when this nerdy guy started nattering away in my ear, I stopped and take dictation. Because the character who is interrupting me today may be the star of tomorrow’s show.
Will you stop and listen to that voice deep down inside you? The one who wants you and only you to relate their unique story? Don’t block out this gift. Write it down. File it away for when you are able to give that character’s story attention. It may be a gift.
One of the things that children brought into my life was drama. No, no. Not that kind. The kind you find on stage once the lights go down. Serious stuff. Comedic stuff. Lines that make me itch for a pen in hand so that I can savor them years from now. I had the opportunity to write for Arts & Culture Texas about the One Act Play contest. High schools gear up for this each spring and put heart, soul and magic into a forty minute cut of an approved script.
When writing a rough draft, I find it easiest to jump in and write a few chapters to see what the characters have in mind. Which works well for me – except when it doesn’t.
Ten chapters into my latest work in progress I stumbled upon a major problem. I didn’t know how it ended. Worse, I found that I couldn’t see where this story began. This is a stumbling block of insurmountable proportions, so I quickly stopped to take stock to see what I could do to get over, around or through it.
I hauled out every book I own on plot. (Amazingly enough, I own tons of books about writing. I must love to read or something.)
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
The Weekend Novelist by Robert J Ray
The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field
Plot by Ansen Dibell
Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
and No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, or how to pretend to write a novel in 30 days.
Surely these fine authors could help me plow through this challenge easily.
After spending an inordinate amount of time looking at these books – and a multitude of blogs – I came to the harsh conclusion that these folks are not me. Their solutions are not mine. I needed to look at this from my own perspective.
I filled out index cards. (Actually, I let Scrivener print the index cards — love this program.)
I plotted the fifteen point solution to plotting that so many children’s writers use.
I looked at inciting incidents and plot points and character motivations. And still had the front end problem.
So I took it to the mat, AKA my critique group.
They didn’t tell me what to do; They asked me questions. And I found my answer. I still have to do the work, but my critique group helped me find it. (Have I mentioned lately why I love critique partners?)
So what were the questions they asked?
What is her motivation? (She had two conflicting ones, which explains a lot about why I was sitting there treading water with her instead of moving forward.)
What does she want?
Why does she take the job that is central to the book’s action?
What scares her about the job?
What are the stakes for her if she fails?
None of these were new-to-me questions. I had done an extensive character sketch that includes these questions before starting this book.
But remember that duality I was dealing with. I hadn’t decided if she was inherently light or if she had a slight streak of larceny running through her veins. Turns out the duality makes sense for this character. One of her main motivations is to reunite with her family. She’s been cast out for getting arrested for grand larceny. Made sense if her family was on the good-guy side of the art world, but things kept cropping up in the chapters that indicated her family were criminal masterminds. (Which I was loving.)
Then came a follow-up question, the perfect question.
What if it was the character’s family of origin had a split-personality?
One branch are law-biding, fine upright member of society kind of people. The other branch of the family are highly organized thieves. Main Character’s got to make a decision which path to take incidentally deciding which side of the family are “her” people.