Hearing voices

DSCN1028.jpgDSCN1028.jpg“I write only because there is a voice inside me that will not be still.” Sylvia Plath

2013-04-19 12.04.53This 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.

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.

 

Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!

 

Happy Writing.

 

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.

 

Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!

 

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!

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!

Ground Down

I made a sweet deal with my friendly neighborhood coffee shop. I provide a 5 gallon bucket with a lid, and they will dump their used coffee grounds in for me to take home for free!

 

First load home is destined to go on the roses in the morning. I’ll swab out the bucket to make it nice and clean before returning to the shop for more grounds to add to the spring carrot bed.

 

Why coffee grounds? Well, for one thing, they are filled with coffee goodness and the plants need perking up. Wait, seriously? Coffee grounds are filled with phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper. All things that plants need to grow up healthy and strong. In addition, it’s just plain old good for your dirt. They actually improve the soil’s texture…helping to improve the air and water movement through the dirt under your plants roots. They are acidic, so make sure your Ph is compatible with this before plunking them into your beds. You can neutralize the Ph to your garden’s needs by adding some agricultural lime to the beds at the same time as the grounds. Here on our farm, everything is pretty alkaline so the grounds actually help me keep the soil’s Ph where my plants like it.

 

I am truly excited about having a ready source of “green” matter for my compost heap. No matter now much I trim the shrubs or put kitchen scraps in the compost bucket, I cannot keep up with the horses’ “output”. (I spread the manure in the pastures out on the pastures and the manure from the stalls the area close to the house goes in the compost heap.) Coffee grounds count as Green for the compost. (According to the EPA, no more than 25% of your compost should be coffee grounds.)

 

Added benefit? Ants hate coffee. Good thing. I used the last of my agricultural molasses this week.

 

Happy Gardening!

Writing in the Open

I love doing character sketches. When the children were small, I’d take them on an outing and while they were playing in the sandbox, or the ball pit, or on the swing set, I would pull out a notebook and jot down a character sketch of the Nanny putting her children into the Cinderella Carriage at the Pumpkin Park, or the man reading his newspaper with the collar of his polo turned up against his neck against the morning sun, or the gentleman who drove by me in his truck, speeding up as he hit the puddle to splash muddy water up against the side of the curb with an evil glance sideways as if to say it might as easily been tobacco juice he spat out the window. Each and every person who came into view became a potential inspiration.

A particular way of walking, one shoulder dipping to indicate an old injury, leads to thoughts of how that injury occurred, which leads to thoughts about who else was involved in the accident, which leads to speculation about his motivation for being in that particular place at that particular time. All of these things go into making him who he is. Someone I do not know, but someone who, because I’ve lumped a bunch of motivations and incidents onto his one characteristic, becomes someone I want to know. Make no mistake, I do not consider this construct to be the human being right in front of me. If I’ve done my job correctly, a character sketch wanders pretty far from the truth. At least I hope I have created someone up out of whole cloth. I’ve never been brave enough to fact-check my character study with any real folks. Just doesn’t seem like a likely way to make too many friends.

I first learned about character sketches from a book on writing. Then learned a bit more from a class offering at a conference. Then even more from practice. While I do take notes on my characters while writing my stories (It sure helps to keep the person straight from one end of the book to the other!) I don’t use characters I concocted from my character sketching exercises. Those are more about stretching the imagination muscle and less about finding the perfect character for any particular story. Even more fun for me since I did this so often when the kids were small– my son, Edward, evidently does this when he’s riding the subway into Manhattan for work.

Here’s one way I flex my character sketching muscles :

Pick a likely looking person, one who has something about them that really stands out. For example, that gentleman who came into the park that day, limping on his left leg as if it hurt. It was a clear day, so I decided it wasn’t gout, but the poor dear had been in a terrible accident. I then start looking around and take one physical characteristic from each of the other people nearby. Sometimes this particular character would take hold of me and follow me into What-a-Burger for lunch.

Totally out of the blue: Name: Shorty Gibson

Age of man who just drove by: 57

Sex of first person to enter the door: Female

Height on next person in the door: 6′ even

Weight of woman sitting behind me: 190

Hair of man second in line for the checkout: Sandy, greying, thick, straight, cut like he might have served in the military and couldn’t shake it off. (Since Shorty is female, it will be a little longer than this guys is…)

Then I start making things up:

Favorites: Food, places to sit and relax, family member, pet, vacation,

Happiest childhood memory?

What does she want more than anything else in the whole wide world?

What is she most afraid of?

What is her weakness at work? In a relationship?

Is she in a relationship? If not, how did the last one end? If yes, how did the last one end?

Where was she born? Lived?

Where does she live? City, state, type of housing, own, rent…color of bedroom?

Does she live alone?

Pets?

Who is her best friend? Frienemy? Enemy?

Where does she work? How high up the food chain is she while at work?

How did she get that limp?

How does she get around? If car, what make, model, year, color? Bike? Same…

Does she have any special skills? Fly a plane, know how to wire a light socket, plumb a toilet, break down a shotgun in 1.2 seconds?

As you can see, you can go into incredible detail, or just hit the high points — it’s just a game really — you get to play it how you like. If you make up your own rules, it can be kind of fun, like eavesdropping on the next table during a meal at a busy restaurant. So go out there, write in the open, and have some fun.

Happy Writing!

Persistence

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The logan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

– Calvin Coolidge

 

And a shorter, but equally worthy quote from the same source:

 

I have found it advisable not to give too much heed to what people say when I am trying to accomplish something of consequence. Invariably they proclaim it can’t be done. I deem that the very best time to make the effort.
– Calvin Coolidge