Five Long Years

Image of clock face
Time

It took me a long five years to write BURNED, the Pony Club-based middle grade equestrian mystery now available from ShopPonyClub.org and Amazon.com (Be sure to use the SMILE program and designate Pony Club as the recipient!) Even during the first draft of the book, I knew that capturing Sophie’s voice was going to take a lot of effort.

I have been a twelve-year-old girl, but that was a long time ago. Fortunately, there are a lot of Pony Club members I could use as example of how that age thinks and speaks. Many people think that writing a children’s book is easier than writing for adults. I’ve done both. I can say definitively that writing a child’s point of view is much harder to capture once you’ve gotten to full adulthood. It was discouraging, to write that first draft and find that I had to toss the entire thing. Despite my best effort at the time, Sophie sounded too old for the audience, and not at all like someone I would have liked as a friend. Then there was the story itself.

The original problem I set for Sophie was one that I thought all horse kids would relate to: the possibility of losing her horse, Cricket. She was supposed to figure out how to raise the money for her partial lease, something I know in my heart a Pony Club kid could do. (For one thing, Pony Club families support one another, and I suspect her Club or Center would help her through that financial spot in her life.) But when I pitched that story to editors, many of them said they didn’t believe a 12 year old could raise that kind of cash. Little did they know the support of the horse community, or the resourcefulness of a horse-crazy young woman.

After a Big House editor told me that the problem needed to be world-changing, I faced a choice: toss yet another draft of the book and quit, or try a third time.

Sketch of two children flanking a horse bursting out of a burning barn/
Fire!

I went home and burned down the barn. Not literally of course. I’m rather attached to my barn. But one of the barns in the book caught fire. As much as it hurts me to admit it, that pesky editor was right. It made my pulse race to write that scene. Hard work to write the book from the beginning again, but worth it. BURNED is a much more exciting read with that kind of danger added.

Once I made that change in the plot, instead of raising money being the sole problem, Sophie must also grapple with the question of adults behaving badly. When her mother is accused of wrongdoing, the very real threat to Sophie’s relationship with Cricket becomes secondary to her anxiety about her mom. Fortunately, Sophie has great friends, and the full support of her Uncle Charlie, and her father, even though he lives all the way across the country from Sophie’s home in Maryland.

Sophie is smart, and strong, both outside and in, just like the Pony Club members I work with as a Chief Horse Management Judge. Horsemanship teaches all kinds of mad skills, and I gave Sophie many of the ones I see most: ability to put together facts and come out with a logical answer, resourcefulness, and I also added the loyalty to friends that serves so many of our barn families so very well.

As part of the story, I had to test Sophie. I did that by leaving enough clues about several possible bad guys so that she had to work for the solution to her mom’s problem. When I got to the end of the book, it was a relief to find that she was up for the job.

Young riders reading BURNED.At my recent signing at Championships in Kentucky, several young riders came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. They liked Sophie’s resilience and her ability to pick herself up and get back on the horse no matter what happened to her. Just like writing this book three times before I got it right, Pony Club kids try, try, and try again until they succeed.

Julie Herman
MysteryGarden.com

This Blog post originally ran on the Pony Club Pizza, where Pony Club piles on the knowledge.

Roughing It

Photo of feet, Mysterygarden dot com
Feet First

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.

 

Alas.

 

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.

 

That sounds like something I can work with.

Conferencing, part 2

I am heading to another conference this weekend. This time it’s a professional day with the Houston chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Truly looking forward to a whole day with professional writers, agents, and editors sharing their wisdom. I hope to come away with some gems that will shine up my own writing. The only question left for me before tomorrow morning is what to wear to give just the right impression to the editor with whom I’ve been paired for my critique.

In a happy coincidence, my sis-in-law, Randi, who writes exquisite short fiction, invited me to attend a Literary Salon sponsored by Inprint! of Houston. True confession — I have been writing for over 20 years now, but I was intrigued — what the heck is a ‘Literary Salon’ anyway? It turns out that it was a talk by a wonderful writer and University of Houston MFA-Writing Professor on critical reading with a bunch of nicely dressed intelligent folk who like to read.

My new shoes, photo from Buckle.com

While I felt the need to buy a new pair of shoes for the event so that I would be sufficiently Literary, I came away with the sure knowledge that watching folks at this salon was the same as people watching at conferences. There’s always one person who feels the need to stand out — not always in a good way. (Not at this particular event, but I needed a segue.)

So for those getting ready to attend their first conference, a few “rules”.

  1. Polish the heck out of your work.
  2. Put it to bed before you go. Don’t take your manuscript with you unless someone has told you ahead of time that they want you to deliver it to them.
  3. Don’t try to talk business in the bathroom. Just. Don’t.
  4. Practice an elevator pitch until you can deliver it in your sleep.
  5. Dress nicely, but comfortably. Those spike heels are killer — in more than one way.
  6. Mind your manners.
  7. Listen. You may hear things you didn’t want to hear. Don’t argue (at least not out loud) with the experts.
  8. Sleep on the advice, then weigh it and see if it hits a chord you didn’t know was there. Not all advice is good advice, but it never hurts to think on it.
  9. Network with folks just like you. It’s fun, and you never know when one of them turns out to be oh-so-helpful next week.
  10. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your nerves cause you to break one of the “rules”. Everybody does it. Everyone gets over it. Just don’t break the same one over and over again, cause that gets old really quickly.

Don’t have a conference lined up this weekend? Do an internet search — there’s bound to be one coming up close to you soon. Meanwhile, sit your behind in the chair and work!

Happy Writing.

Long Story Short

Writing a short story elicits the same panicked feeling that trying to turn my long-bed truck in a tight space engenders. Terror. Anger. Shortness of breath. The sudden urge to clasp my hand over my heart to stop the pressure. But just like parking the truck, it is possible when I expend the right amount of focus and effort.

 

People like Laura Lippman, who posted this morning on her Facebook status that she’d whipped through a 3000 word first draft of a short story this morning floor me. (I’d hate her, but she is one talented woman, and works hard. If these things just fell in her lap…might be a different feeling.) Dana Cameron and Toni Kelner are also talented short story writers as well as novelists. If they can do it, I reasoned, so could I.

 

Except it wasn’t that easy. It took me about three years to finish my first novel. There was  a whole lot of learning going on as I wrote that first book, starting with learning how to leave the first chapter alone long enough to write the second (Put it in the freezer under the lasagna.) and how to figure out what to do with a bad manuscript once I’d typed The End. (Put it with chapter one in the freezer and start something new.) Learning another form of writing was not even on my radar. Then a friend asked me to write a short story for an anthology he was putting together. I shared my feelings of inadequacy with him. He told me to try. He’d let me know if it was good enough. So I gave it a whirl. After whirling with the story for three months, I sent it to him. I don’t know if he was unwilling to tell me how bad it was, or if it was better than I thought it was, but he accepted it.

 

So I had one short story in print. You’d think this would inspire me to write several more. Nope. Not until several years later when the editor of the ACWL anthology wrote me and told me to submit a story did I attempt a second one. To my surprise this one was much better. I’d done some research for a western woman character who had been bugging me, stopping in at the Austin County Jail museum in Bellville, Texas. The woman became a little girl. She wound up having to make a difficult choice concerning her loyalty to her father that stretched her character in the right direction.  That one I’m proud of.

 

I hope to write another one this month — not all in one day like Laura did, but I think I ought to try for one a month to see if I get any better at it.

 

Happy writing!

Read All About It

So you want to be a writer. Do you read?

This may seem like a rhetorical question, but I’ve had students in my classes who have come in expecting to write a best-seller (and who expected me to teach them how to do this!) but who do not read.

That’s right. They think they can out-write the many professional, wonderful storycrafters who populate the midlist. My question to them always is, “How will you know how to write a great book if you don’t read them?”

The best writing class I ever took didn’t cost me anything but time. I read for the Best Novel committee for the Edgar Awards a few years ago. I had already written several books, and been fortunate enough to have two published at that time. It became clear very early on that the vast majority of the books that are published are good books. It was also very clear that a small percentage of writers put out an absolutely amazing book during that one year of their life. An even smaller percentage write amazing books on a frequent and regular basis.  The committee was charged with reading over 400 books that year. Yes, that is correct. Over 400. Most of them were good. There wasn’t one book that I read that didn’t have something to teach me in terms of what worked — and what didn’t — in prose. (I used that double negative on purpose, btw…Sometimes using weak grammar makes a point.)

I learned how some authors used setting as a character in the story. I learned how dialogue can make or break a character’s voice. I learned how description, when carefully placed and beautifully crafted, can be an amazing gift to the reader. All of this has stayed with me, influencing my choices when I write.

So if you want to be a writer, read. Read everything you can. Read the best that is out there — and those books less fortunate in their sales, because those books are helpful too.

And if you don’t want to read, then do everyone a favor, and stay away from the word processor.

Happy reading!

Write Away

I’ve been in revisionist country lately, so haven’t done much new writing. The best thing about all this is that I enjoy revising. It’s so much easier than doing the rough draft. I liken revision to working with clay on a potter’s wheel. Shaping, scraping away unwanted flaws, imprinting patterns, changing the shape of it so that it is more pleasing. Writing a book is like building the clay molecule by molecule, word by word. Once you get that clay into a basic shape, you have your rough draft.

Editing, now, that’s where the hard work of spinning all that clay pays off. You can pinch and pull, turn it around to look at it from all sides — and do whatever the hell you want to with it because you created it. It didn’t “happen that way” because that’s the way you wrote it the first time around. Even if you are channeling Ernest Hemingway, you might be getting interference on the line.

Here’s my recipe for revision:

Ingredients:

  • One completed manuscript.
  • One completed storyboard for each scene.
  • List of overused words: a short example of mine are…just, very, anything ending in ‘ly’, ‘ing’ or fronted by ‘was’, ‘to be’, whatever my critique group says is my word of the month.
  • One finger capable of hitting delete even if I really like that sentence.

Scenes: Pull out the storyboards. On the basis of the info on the page, state why that scene belongs in the book and why it belongs where it is in the narrative. Cut any scenes that don’t move the action, motivation, or character growth forward.

Characters: Do they all form a vital function in the storyline? If not, do they need to stay as a supporting character. Have I over-described supporting characters? (Don’t want the reader to finish the book and wonder about what happened to him/her.)

Dialogue: Read it out loud. Does it sound natural? Does it fit the character who is speaking? Is it age/geographically/gender/socio-economic/etc. appropriate?

Exposition: Where is your white space? (hint: usually around your dialogue or fast-moving action.) Lay your chapter pages out and see if there are any dense areas. Look at them. Does it work? Does it need breaking up? Do you need more description because all you have is dialogue?

Sentence Structure: Have you ended sentences with prepositions? (In dialogue it’s ok, otherwise avoid.) Do all your sentences follow the ‘Subject, verb, Bang/Pow!’ format, or do you have a pleasing variation of sentence structures.

Punctuation: How many commas can you take out and still breathe while reading the work out loud. Did you use parentheses, semi-colons, colons, and quotation marks correctly?

Repeats: (AKA Deja Vu.) How many times do you use a word in the same paragraph? It sometimes throws a reader off if you touch someone on the shoulder over and over again. Have them take their honey’s hand before the awkward pat on the shoulder. Do you have two scenes that seem eerily similar?

Touch/See/Taste/Smell/Emote All The Senses: We don’t just see things. We feel them in a myriad of ways throughout our body. Develop a vocabulary that includes the taste of happiness on the tongue and the fear of fire on our skin.

Color your way to a visual understanding: I go through my rough draft in printout form, using my nifty box of 48 color Crayons to mark sections with sentence structure. Underline the Subject/verb/object sentences in blue, the ones with an independent marker in the middle with orange, and ones where I use fragments with red. And so on. This gives me a nice visual for the rhythm without me having to worry about missing something because I got distracted and didn’t notice I had an entire page of sentences with the same structure. I do the same thing with dialogue, each character getting a different color. I usually do this along the right side of the manuscript page. I mark the left margin of the page with plot. Is the action centered on the main plot or a subplot? Again, each plot line gets its own color.

Then I revise the electronic copy, print it out and do it all again.

Eventually it pleases me enough to let it go. Or the deadline hits me over the head and I have to let it go. Either way it is a darn sight prettier than it was when it started.

I’ve now finished five novels. (Three in print. One more in half-way to rough draft-dom status.) Despite the fact that I could conceivably consider myself an experienced novelist, I still have to do this for each and every book I write. It takes me a year to write a book — at the least. There’s a lot to forget about the process in that amount of time. Must be why I face the blank page of each new book with a feeling of complete and utter panic.

What am I thinking?

I know I’ve done this before, but I have no clue what I’m doing!

Fortunately, now I can go back to some of these blog entries and have at it.

Happy Writing!

Storyboarding

Working on a first draft is chaotic, exciting, and bewildering. In other words, just another day at a novelist’s office. A first draft can take me anywhere from three months (Yea for deadlines!) to three years. Once that rough draft is complete and filed away, I often turn to something else to keep me busy. What I like to do best is to look at older work. To begin working a second draft, I pull up the file of the rough draft, print it out, and fill in a storyboard form for each scene. I got my original storyboard form from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray.

 

This is not your filmmaker’s storyboard. I do sometimes add pictures for reference value, but more often it’s just dialogue, first and last sentences and the basic action put down in a chart.

 

Here is the storyboard from the first chapter of one of my works in progress, Veil of Death.

As you can see, I use color to differentiate the characters, the action and even sometimes the timing.  I do one per scene. Some do this using notecards, but I like to have the additional information I can use to track important objects, character movement, or motivation. Once I have these done, I can lay them out on the floor, or the ping-pong table, and rearrange to my heart’s content. Places in the story where I need to do some real work, like a brand new scene, or a total rewrite, get a placeholder page inserted with notes about the problems I found and ideas for how to fix them. I usually use color paper for these as they stand out when I gather them all up and go back to work on the second draft.

 

This all sounds like a lot of work, but I find it fun and extraordinarily helpful. Doing this work during the second draft allows me to enjoy the breathless adventure of discovery in the first draft. If I know I’ll come back and fix it later, I can trust myself to go on and finish. Second draft then allows me to do all the analytical plot work my inner editor demands of me. Third draft takes me more into the technicalities of the language, spelling, grammar, all of which are challenges for me. Fourth draft is what gets fixed when my beta readers have at it.

 

Do you have a different process? Would love to hear how it works for other writers!

 

Happy Writing!

Growing the Writer Within Me

What does gardening have to do with my work? Nothing, because I am a writer. And yet, everything.

Always one to need a good bit of time alone, I’d hide out under the tangle of forsythia in the yard, just out of earshot of my mother hollering from the back porch for a chore-ready child. I’d prop myself up in the soft dirt, poke a hole in the leaf cover overhead for sunlight, and read.

The summer before I turned ten, I read The Secret Garden. I decided I needed a garden like Mary, Colin, and Dickon had. I tore all the leaves off the branches overhead, fluffed up the soil in my hideout and planted flowers.

All petals and no roots, they weren’t destined to do well. I’m not stupid. I learned from my mistakes. Start from good seeds. Pull weeds. Pat the soil. Sprinkle liberally with water. That was when the initial stories flowed within me. As I worked, I planted my stories, telling them to each flower, branch, and stone.

Now, at the beginning of my day, I weed. I pat the soil. I sprinkle the various plants with various amounts of water. And I remember those tales I told so long ago. Like good garden compost, the stories are richer for having been buried all this time.

I’m working on one of those now, a children’s story for all those kids who want a horse more than anything. My own dream come true.

Tea Sipping

Image from www.designedtoat.com

In Texas a Tea Sipper is a name given the University of Texas students by the Aggies, a rival state institution. I always laugh when I hear someone say this as if it’s a bad thing, because I’ve been a tea sipper from long before I moved to the great state of Texas and birthed a child who grew up to be a Longhorn.

I never did learn how to drink coffee. Despite my gardener’s love for the grounds, the brew itself is too bitter for my taste. My mother got me started on Constant Comment tea when I was in high school and I have since migrated to a variety of teas — I pick the flavor to suit the moment. My palate isn’t as sophisticated as S. J. Rozan’s Chinese-American detective, Lydia Chin, who often sits down to a fragrant cup (the better to get answers out of a recalcitrant witness) but I do have my personal preferences. English Breakfast in the morning. Earl Grey or Constant Comment in the early afternoon. Lemon Zinger in the late afternoon. I also drink most of my tea “white”. I started doing this the year I lived in Moscow and my fellow Nanny, Di Biggin, always put a dollop of cream in without asking. Pretty soon I couldn’t drink it black without feeling uncouth.

There are a number of good mysteries featuring tea. Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are the first that spring to mind.  Alexander McCall Smith’s famous detecting duo at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are tea-drinkers. My second book, Three Dirty Women and the Bitter Brew has tea in it, but the published version had much less about tea than the first draft did. I had to change just about everything in that book once I realized I’d hung the plot on a murder weapon it would be rude to use.

The Charleston Tea Plantation, purchased by Bigelow Tea in 2003 from William Barclay Hall, a third generation tea-taster. (Yes, that’s a real job!) Hall developed the brand American Classic Tea, which is still marketed by Bigelow. As the only domestic American-grown tea, it truly is a treat to enjoy. I took the tour of this lovely plantation in the summer of 2000 with my Uncle Ed, a canny businessman who was very impressed with their business sense. They had a wonderful harvester that clipped the Camelia Sinensis hedges at just the proper level to get the leaves at their utmost freshness. The minute I saw it, the warped and highly imaginative writer in me wanted to use it as a murder weapon. (Fictional!!) I began the story and it sailed on until I got to the middle of the book. In an effort to get my creative efforts back on track, I called the Plantation to do some due diligence by getting permission from Mr. Hall and his business partner to use their location in my book. I had been so wrapped up in my need to write that I hadn’t truly considered how others might feel about this notion of clipping a victim with the tea harvester until I heard the shocked response to my horribly naive question. Out of respect for the gentlemen-owners and their efforts I pulled the location and the murder weapon from the story and started over.

What seemed like a writing (and personal) disaster became a gift. Without the gimmick of using a murder weapon that no one else had ever used, the story became much stronger. In short, I owe this business not only for many wonderful cups of tea, but also for a stronger sophomore effort.

Cheers!