Writers’ Family Reunion

photo of welcome table at Writers' Family ReunionI had the opportunity yesterday to participate as a faculty member at Writespace’s   Writers’ Family Reunion. Writers of all stripes from all over Houston (and beyond) gathered at Silver Street Studios to meet, greet, and learn about the writing process — from how to get started, through how to keep going and included the multiple paths now available for publication.

Favorite things?

Meeting a writer new to Writespace, who was warm and wonderful. So glad to know you Hilda Davis!

Writerly foods!

Speed Dating for Writers: I am sorry I did not climb up on something to get an arial view of this activity. Michael put down a masking tape map of Houston on the floor of the warehouse, handed out a survey for everyone to fill out that would help them network. He first grouped writers by their home location to say “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Then he moved them to about five different groupings, including genre, experience level, and several other fun options, leaving them enough time to say again, “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Brilliantly done — and fun to boot.

Then on to browse the sponsor tables and play writerly games.

The neverending story was hilarious. Pull a slip out of a hat and write a sentence  inspired by your slip that builds on the previous line in the story. Try working “fern” into an intergallactic story that includes a squished alien caterpillar.

Poetry building included meg-size magnet words on a sliding metal door. Pretty soon we were scavenging each others’ haiku for enough words to complete our own verse.

First page critiques were a lot of fun. The energy of a new writer is something that fuels my fire for writing. Pam and Richard at our table both had so much going on that I really wanted to read more!  (There was one other woman whose name I didn’t catch who wrote a wonderfully evocative scene!)  K.J. Russell and I combined forces to provide critiques for these three aspiring writers.

Then on to breakout sessions. Over the next two hours, panels of local published writers discussed:

  • My Journey as a Writer: What I Wish I Knew When I Started
  • Writing Your First Novel
  • How to Create (Or Join!) a Great Critique Group
  • Publishing 101: An Overview of Options for New Writers
  • Reading Like a Writer
  • The Benefits of Promiscuous Art-Making: How Exploring New Creative Mediums Can Vitalize Your Writing

Now I can’t wait for Writefest the first weekend in May when I get to gather more fuel for my writing engine.

 

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.

When one door closes…

Not that I’m shutting the door on anything just yet, mind you.

But the magazine article writing is going well.

My first article in Texas Gardener comes out in the April/May issue. Look for it at stores near you.

Fiction requires a pretty darn long stretch with no other commitments in it for me to accomplish anything much. I need to clear a few things off my desk first before I can really tidy up the WiP and send it out. I expect to get back to writing my stuff – as opposed to other people’s stuff – within the month. I’ll be back to blogging regularly then.

 

Until then, I’ll leave you with a quote for thought:

“The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

A great exercise to figure out where you don’t want to go is to write, “I am afraid….” over and over again until the sentence rises up off the page and punches you in the gut. Then you’ll know a compelling subject on which to set your sights.

 

Pay Dirt

Picture of CheckI did an interview today. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve done loads of interviews, but this time, I’m getting paid.

Reminds me of when royalty statements came with a check.

It feels good to have income coming in. It is amazing how many writers I know who write for pennies per grueling hour upon hour creating and then revising their prose just so someone can come up to them at a conference and say, “Gee, I downloaded your book from ElRippoffSite.com and loved it.” Notice they did not say they paid for it. Many readers think that writers write simply for the satisfaction of having someone they don’t know read their work. Don’t get me wrong, that’s kinda cool, but the whole work for getting paid thing works for me too. Especially when I get my electric bill.

So how do you go about paying for someone’s work? You can do it the old fashioned way and go into a bookstore and look for the books that leap off the shelf into your hands and beg you to read them. Or you could ask for my books specifically, and, when they don’t carry them, you could – gasp – order them. I know. Delayed gratification doesn’t play well in my house either. The truth is that most authors’ hard work is not carried in all bookstores. Even when the author works hard, play by the industry’s rules and rewrite until their eyeballs bleed, submit to agent after agent and collect enough rejection slips to paper their garret – learning a little about what works on the page and what doesn’t over a period of years – and then, finally, get that contract promising a tiny check upon submission of the completely revised novel. You get paid more if and only if you earn our your advance. Which is what the pittance is called. Don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to pay my electric bill for the year with $2000. (Notice I didn’t even mention rent or water or gas or…you get the idea.)

Back to how to pay for a writer’s work. You can order the book online from any number of places, my favorite being Murder by the Book in Houston. Yeah, you’ll have to pay shipping, but if you order it from your local bookstore, then you don’t. (Plus, then the bookseller in your town will have heard of my books and might, just might, order more than one.)

Then there’s the e-version. Mine are not quite out in that format yet, but machinations have begun to make it so. Once it is accomplished, here’s what you do: Go to Indiebound.com , search for Murder by the Book in Houston, then look me up. (Again, not yet, cause hey, I’m not quite there.) But once I am, then you’d download the book through Indiebound.com and read it on your e-reader. (Yes, even KindleFire can read books from Indiebound.org and you can even set this device to order from stores other than Amazon.

So pick an author, say Miranda James, whose excellent new book just came out. Click on over to Indiebound.org and take a gander through Murder by the Book’s stock. Chances are you’ll find James’ latest book there – plus a whole lot more.

Happy Reading.

Rejuvenation

Despite an injury, I attended a Darcy Pattison revision workshop this weekend. It was outstanding.

Near the beginning of the workshop, Darcy read us the Stages of Learning.

 

First is Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know that you don’t know.

Second is Conscious Incompetence: You know that you don’t know.

Third is Conscious Competence: You know that you know.

Fourth is Unconscious Competence: You know, but you don’t have to remember that you know every minute of every day.

 

Naturally as writers we would like our writing skills to be in the fourth category. But I was delighted to find (although it really stung a bit at the time) that there were some basic writing skills in which I am unconsciously incompetent. It stung because, well, I am human, and we don’t much like to be wrong. But the marvelous thing about this is that I now know I’m wrong – and can fix it.

 

That em-dash for example. (I picked the smallest example, sorry, don’t wish to really immolate myself just for a blog post.) When I had a character trail into silence, or another character interrupted them. I used ellipsis… because that looked right to me. And, if it looks right, it must surely be right.

Right?

Not.

So now I am in the third category, at least with those pesky em dashes (although still making mistakes…) and just as helpful, how to get my computer to make them.

Option + Minus = Em dash on the Mac.

 

If you have the occasion to take one of Darcy’s many workshops — GO FOR IT. Well worth the time, the money and the sting of learning that you don’t know everything you think you know.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

Writing that Makes Sense – part one – Sight

I shared a revised scene in critique group this week that got me thinking again about how to add sensory detail to writing.

Here is the clip from the story:

The crisp air of the late spring afternoon brushed my cheeks as I cued Callie for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn at the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.

“Oxer,” I called out to let everyone know which of the jumps we planned to take.

Another rider circled left to get out of our way and Callie took it clear. It was only two-six, and not very wide, but the size of the jump didn’t matter to me. My heart beat faster every time I let go and concentrated on that one moment: the strides into the jump and the pure joy of flying through the air to land on the other side, my amazing mare already seeking the next jump. After a few more jumps I asked Callie to transition down to a trot and then to a walk, patting the mare on her neck. Even snooty Mrs. Everett had been watching us all afternoon — allowing Callie an admiring glance when she’d gotten the one stride the first time through.

One of the ladies said hearing it made her feel like a fly on the rear of the horse, sailing along with the main character. That was my hope, of course, but it’s never a given that what I see when I write will be what the reader will experience. I consider Maria’s comment a high compliment!

Of the senses, sight is the easiest to convey. Most of us have developed a pretty good descriptive vocabulary for what we see — color, distance, size, volume, positioning, lightness or darkness. But what about the other five senses?

(Yes, you read that right. I believe there are five additional senses that can be evoked when you’re writing fiction. More on that as the “parts” unfold…)

In Diane Ackerman’s excellent book, A Natural History of the Senses, she discusses the first five senses in as lovely a way as I’ve ever found. Once I read a part of her book, my mind was much more in tune to all five senses when I wrote.

Here’s an exercise I use to spark my sense of SIGHT:

Take a piece of paper and draw two columns on it. Label one Verbs, the other adjectives

Begin listing every single word that comes to you. Some of them will not relate directly to sight, but put them down anyway, you can always transfer them over to the sense-page to which they belong later. Fill up the entire page. Call a friend, open the dictionary, do an internet search — there are no restrictions on what you can use to build your SIGHT vocabulary.

Second half of the exercise: Use your painter’s eye to “draw” a scene.

  • Find a magazine featuring your choice of reading material: high-end decorating, lush gardening, delectable cookery, or a travel adventurer’s dream.
  • Pull pages of ads or photo illustrations out at random.
  • Pick one of the scenes that appeals to you.
  • Take a piece of paper and divide it into three spaces.
  • Write the name of three main objects in the scene you chose. People are objects, but don’t pick more than one person to describe. Leave plenty of room around each noun.
  • Draw a line out from the word in the middle of the page and begin describing what you see.
  • Color? Shape? Size? Time of day? Season? Weather? What direction does the light come from? Age of the object?
  • What other things can you see in the picture you chose?
  • Turn the page over and write a bit about the scene. (Making up a story is actually helpful!)

This will give you a good way to “see” how strong you are with your ability to “see” the scene and describe how it appears to a viewer.

Hold onto this scene because you’ll be coming back to it later.

Happy Writing!

Freudian Typos

I have an affliction. I type the first three letters of a word and suddenly it goes sideways and I wind up with a word completely unlike that which I started out to use. (This is similar to, but not identical with the syndrome popularized on websites everywhere about the iPhone completion conundrum.)

The worst of these made it into print, when one of my characters gave another a gentile handshake. I know of at least one potential reader who passed on the book based on that alone. Have to say I cannot blame them.

So what other typos are normal?

  1. They’re     There     Their
    • ‘They are’ is shortened to They’re. (Contraction)
    • There is where you want to go. (Adverb indicating direction)
    • Don’t get on their nerves by using the wrong word. (Possessive Pronoun)

     

  2. Two     Too    To
    • It takes two to Tango. (Number)
    • It is too much if you misuse this word (Adverb)
    • Using poor grammar sends me straight to the moon. (preposition)

     

  3. Accept     Except
    • I accept your apology for misusing that word. (Verb: to receive)
    • I like everything you said, except that you used the wrong word. (Preposition: but or leaving out)
    • Excepting the fact that you didn’t use soap, you did a good job on washing that pan. (Verb: to leave out)
  4.  

  5. Already     All Ready
    • I already told you how to tell the difference. (Adverb: by now, even now, or by then.)
    • We are all ready to learn. (Two words meaning ‘All are ready’)
  6.  

  7. Between       Among
    • Cordelia had to choose between Scott and John.( the ‘tw’ in Between cues you to the fact that it involves two people or things.)
    • Harry choose from among strawberry, chocolate or vanilla. (Used with three or more people or things.)

I could go on, but there are a number of good English Grammar websites out there — these are just some of the examples that plague my own writing.

 

Happy Writing!

Spring is Sprung

I’m about to make Deb jealous again. I started my tomato seeds a few weeks ago and am about to stick the fledgling plants in the ground. Uh-huh. You heard me right. Second week in March. Tomatoes in the ground!

You see I garden on the Gulf Coast where the sea breezes coming from 100 miles away still reach my front pasture. (Where the kitchen garden resides.) Typical last frost used to be counted as Valentine’s Day hereabouts, but now it’s the first of March. I can tell it’s Spring by the blooms on the mulberry tree.

At least I thought I could. And then the temps went back down to the 40s. So much for my poor tomatoes in the ground. Thank goodness for freeze cloth!

Varieties planted in Spring 2011:  Vorlon, Carbon, Roma, Better Boy, Yellow Pear, Cour de Blue, Amish Paste.

Happy gardening!

Let’s Conference About That

 

Big Daddy 2011

I attended the first ever Daddy’s Girl’s Weekend this past weekend in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I cannot recall the last time I had that much fun but it was probably at a writer’s conference. (Although US Pony Club Annual Meetings are fun too! It was at times hilarious, rowdy, wacky, but always, always in good fun.  In addition to the first Big Daddy contest, won by my dear friend, Dean James, there was a peignoir contest, won by a demure Mississippi housewife. Yes, that was her dripping her feathers all over the room while taking her victory lap.

 

Despite all the fun, I managed to learn something too. Sessions on writing and things of interest to readers took place, and good solid information was exchanged. Speakers included authors Carolyn Haines and Dean James, literary agent Marian Young, screenwriter David Sheffield, publisher Ben LeRoy (the other Big Daddy candidates) and Murder by the Book owner McKenna Jordan. Sarah Bewley did an outstanding job balancing all that work and making it look effortless.

 

I feel like I was away from home for a week instead of three days and came back so filled with good writing energy I want to go back next weekend. That’s a good thing. I first started attending mystery-fiction conferences in the 80’s, going to Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mayhem in the Midlands, Bouchercon, Magna Cum Murder, Sleuthfest, Cozy Cats and Hardboiled Heros are among the many offerings. I’ve been to Florida and Alaska, Muncie, Indiana and Tuscon, Arizona. Pretty good national coverage! I came home from each one with a renewed vigor for writing — and a long reading list.

 

This conference was no different. Listening to David Sheffield talk about his three-year stint on Saturday Night Live was informative. While I have no notion of writing a screenplay, hearing his talk was fodder for my thoughts. (I got a terrific idea for a short story during his talk, but I’m not saying what it is until I write the darn thing.) Carolyn was her usual gracious self, inviting the audience into the discussion when she brought up the subject of characterization during one of the writer sessions. The Big Daddy candidates — including a surprise visit from the King himself — were all such good sports about being front and center in one of the most challenging contests I’ve ever seen.

 

Above all, we had fun. While the world was going to hell in a handbasket — husbands being laid off from work, Japan dissolving under the worst earthquake and tsunami in recorded history, Bahrain going the way of so many other Middle Eastern nations, we laughed, chuckled and just plain old enjoyed ourselves.

 

Some might call us shallow for laughing on a weekend filled with such world events, but recall that this took place in an area recently decimated by hurricane Katrina — and which is now pulling itself back up. Hope in a time of despair, so to speak. I know I needed this respite — and the creative stimulation all the attendees contributed. Where’s the next conference? Signing up now!

 

Happy Reading.

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!