Feb 18

The Writer’s Life

I have been a writer since age 5, but it has taken years for others to realize that.

I was always a writer, or, more directly, I was always writing.  The act of writing does make one a writer, but the subtleties of that are profound.  Writing is an activity that kids do as a school assignment or what adults do in their serious job.  Writing is an element of something else, not a stand-alone profession.  Why should writing be considered anything more than a hobby?  It is for the reader.

I was a child who was not good at sports and had no siblings to annoy or be annoyed by.  I had the time, and I recognized at that early age that I was creative.  My parents encouraged me or at least positively tolerated the hours I spent hunched over a pad of paper.  I kept diaries of thoughts, personal struggles, observations, conversation snippets and story ideas.  My middle school English teacher let me write stories for extra credit.  I continued that in high school, writing one teacher-acclaimed sequel to some book we read in class, some sort of social commentary combining 1984 and the character K-9 from the British TV show Doctor Who.  Then came the big moment: I was editor of my high school newspaper.  I made it; I was a writer.

I guess I was.

Wanting to learn more about the craft of writing, I took enough college poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction classes to obtain an English Writing minor.  Despite this, in my mind I was just a kid writing words.  I was not a writer.

Non-writers defined–and still does to an extent–that a “writer” is someone who earns enough money writing to pay the bills and put food on the table.  I had a full-time “real job”, but I did not define myself by that.  When people asked what I did, I said, “I write.”  Inevitably, the next question was, “Ooh, what do you write?”  My reply was always a bit choked: “I write in my journal.”  Because I could not point to a genre much less an actual published anything, people’s eyes glazed, they gave me a polite “oh,” and then looked over my shoulder as if at a dinner party looking for someone more interesting to talk to.  Society dismissed me.  It’s hard to argue with that; they’re right.

A coworker mentioned that she knew someone at a newspaper who was looking for writers.  The editor and I connected on the phone.  After an introduction and some discussion of my experience, the editor asked, “We really need someone to write a singles beat for us.  Do you know where all the 20-somethings go for fun?”

I was 20-something.  I was single.  I wrote.  “Absolutely!” I said.

No sooner did I hang up with the editor–my editor!–with an introductory article assignment, than I picked it up the phone, called my friend, and asked, “Hey, where do single people hang out around here?”

With a foot, or at least a pen, in the door, that first assignment led to another and then another.  My name was in print in a real publication, a free weekly newspaper.  Yes, you did not pay for it, but the paper had advertisers as well as columns on local news, sports and event.  I was legitimately published, and got paid; therefore, it counted as real.

I wanted some of that non-singles writing action, so I approached the Arts editor.  She gave me an assignment, and suddenly, I had a writing portfolio.

She called me after I submitted my third article and said, “Let’s discuss this piece.  You need to make some changes in your writing.”  She proceeded to take me through my article, line-by-line, and pointed out where my writing needed improvement.  She told me where a verb should be more active (she gave an example), where sentence length should be tweaked (gave example), where a description could be tighter and stronger (gave example) and so on.  I learned more about writing in that hour than I did all my years in college.  I followed her invaluable, free advice, and my writing got stronger.  I noticed it and so did she.

I’ve since written award-winning articles for newspapers and magazines, all a bit of luck, opportunity and skill.  I’ve had my queried ideas accepted, giving me freedom and confidence in my skills.  I published my first eBook in 2013, the first of many.  I’m here to share my perspectives and the struggles I have.  I hope you’ll learn with me as I continue my journey of writing.

I mean, my journey as a writer.

Feb 14

Bad Boys–Watcha Gonna Do

What is it about bad boys? Those loveable scamps who are utterly irredeemable but still attract us because their badness is so much more interesting than the good guy’s goodness. You can count on the hero to do the right thing because he’s the hero. You can count on the bad boy to be bad. Now, the bad boy may do the right thing if he feels like it, or for a selfish and egocentric reason. Or he may do the wrong thing and try to spin it as the right thing. But when he eventually does a bad thing, he can’t really be blamed because he’s “bad.” It’s in his nature to do bad and we should have expected it. Here’s an example.

SPOILER ALERT! I started thinking about bad boys after seeing the film Thor: The Dark World (IMDB) in November. My thoughts were prompted by the film’s fascinating bad guy, Loki (Tom Hiddleston – IMDb). Loki is a handsome schemer and magician who casts intricate illusions that fool even his brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth – IMDb), who should know better than to take anything Loki does at face value. While Loki helped Thor do the right thing (Thor is, after all a hero), he still manages to twist appearances to suit himself and his ultimate goal. He steals a great scene where he repairs his relationship with his brother and perhaps squeezes a tear from the unsuspecting audience. *sniff* But watch out! Loki is, at heart, a bad boy, one might even say SUPERVILLIAN, who surprises the same audience within the hour. I left the theater totally psyched for Loki’s next film appearance, ready to embrace the badness.

From the author’s point of view the role of bad guy, or villain, or antagonist, can be a lot of fun to write. Most modern fiction writing guides suggest that the hero needs to grow and change in some manner by the end of the story, but the bad guy can get away with staying the same. No one expects the villain to be redeemed, only subjected to justice in some form. This means that an author can write his or her bad boy as sneaky, lying, and irredeemably bad as wanted–and most people won’t mind. What a rush that is, right? The antagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic, yet he is. His backstory might include tragedy, drama, and loss suffered at a formative age, but remember you’re hearing the story from a bad boy. Can you believe any part of what he tells you? The author doesn’t have to make a charismatic villain logical or even give him a solid motive. The reader will accept him because he’s charming. The author doesn’t have to spend time researching the psychology of badness; he can make the villain sink from bad to worse to worst.

While the mindless and indestructible killing machine type of bad boy like Freddy or Jason may strike horror in the minds of filmgoers, a reader needs a different type of villain. A charming, cultured bad boy can heighten mystery and sexual tension in a story while fulfilling his role as someone for the protagonist to fight. Think about that the next time you’re writing a bad guy. Instead of writing him greasy and disheveled, try making him debonair. And then he can kill dozens of people, or sell the international secret, or betray the unsuspecting hero and we’ll accept him for it.

Oh, and apparently the makers of Jaguar automobiles agree with me. Check out the Superbowl commercial called British Villains Rendezvous (british villains rendezvous) which features Hiddleston, Ben Kingsley and Mark Strong. Then let’s have a spirited discussion about the bad boys you find irresistible.

P.S. I wrote my post weeks before seeing this ad, and I can prove it.

 

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Feb 10

Normal Becomes Paranormal

Paranormal romance ideas can spark from many places and ignite into something wondrous. You as the writer can light that flame of imagination and let it grow into a wildfire. From the simplest things like a key or even a pen, ideas can flourish from ordinary into something amazing.

An example of an everyday item turning into something extraordinary is the use of a book. In Jennifer Probst’s, Marriage to a Billionaire series she uses a book entitled The Book of Spells. Jennifer has her female heroines write the same list with the most important attributes of their ideal man on two pieces of paper. They’re directed to put one copy under their mattress while the other is burned. As the stories progress characters are astounded the magic book gives them their happily ever after. Isn’t that what all romances try to do? We’re just trying to add that one little twist of magic or something extraordinary that would make it paranormal.

Let’s do a little writing exercise. Look around you, on your desk or out your window. What do you see? I see a tree out my window and a knife on my desk.

Ask yourself, what would happen if the two things you chose somehow influenced or have a direct affect on the objects you’ve chosen or the people that encounter them? Once you pick the two items write what comes to your mind regarding the items. It could be a word, words, phrases, anything. It doesn’t matter what they are at this point but how they can become something else to the characters that would be developed around them. Use the old standby of who, what, why, where and when. After you do this, narrow your choices down to your favorites.

The below is a result of my choices and adding magical elements to the everyday.

A wide eyed little girl that only wants love etches a heart into a weathered maple tree in front of her house with her initials and the initials of the boy next door. What if the blade she uses isn’t an ordinary blade (one she’s found in a box buried in her attic) and the tree is no ordinary tree? What if the knife is really an Athame (a knife used in Wiccan ceremonies), and the tree turns out to be an ancient tree and the objects are imbibed with magic from generations of little girls finding their happily ever after because they carved their initials of the one they loved into the tree with the sacred knife? Now, the knife the little girl thought was ordinary when she found it and the ancient tree are something that drives the story of that little girl into adulthood.

Driven away by the bitterness of her mother’s hidden contempt for her family’s tradition of carving in the tree, the daughter only returns to her childhood home because an intruder has killed her mother. As she uncovers more of her family’s secrets in the attic, her life becomes threatened and the boy next door, now a man and cop, reenters her life.

What I’ve done is create a thread of content that causes the main character to delve into her families past, which leads to her Wiccan heritage and the threat that someone wants the Athame. This puts the hero in place to help the heroine, creates tension from the added protagonist (the intruder) and adds magic. Most importantly, it allows the love between the two to kindle that the heroine has been dreaming about since she was a little girl who carved their initials in the ancient tree.

Obviously, this is not the whole story but the spark I talked about earlier. If you can take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, you have what you need for a good start, making that bit of flame into a blazing fire as the story heats up, giving the reader the happily ever after.

Happy writing!

Feb 06

A Possibility

“It’s the possibility that keeps me going, not the guarantee.” — Nicholas Sparks

I’ve always enjoyed the written word and wrote short stories and poetry while in elementary school. In middle school, I wrote for the school paper. My goal was to write for the high school paper. Unfortunately, I became the high school advertising editor because I could easily approach businesses for advertising dollars. But I continued to write in private.

As an adult, I wrote about a theatrical group hoping that I could get an article published in the local paper. I was ecstatic when, not only was my article published but, I was offered a job as a feature journalist for the paper. I couldn’t leave my much better paying job, but it gave me ideas about the possibility of a future in writing.

I continued to write short fiction and memoirs and entered writing contests. Success with several of my memoirs being published in anthologies and a few short story contest winnings gave me encouragement. I’ve continued to write short fiction, but the possibility of completing a full length novel for publication is still there. As I work on my manuscript, I know that there is no guarantee of publication, but the possibility keeps me going.

Feb 03

Crafting: Making the Invisible Visible

We all have our favorite authors. They’re ones whose storytelling draws us in. Their characters’ voices speak inside our heads as old friends or familiar voices that send chills through our body. Some authors have a writing style so distinctive that when a passage is read out of context, we can identify them. A sampling includes: Barbara Parker (list), J.K. Rowlings (list), Ernest Hemingway (list), J.R.R. Tolkien (list), and Richard North Patterson (list). There are many authors who successfully craft writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

inspirationI find myself doing what I’ve heard many other writers do—read other authors for how they use writer’s craft. Reading for author craft while reading a book is a surreal experience. It’s like listening to music while reading a review of the performer. If not careful, it’s easy to succumb to the book’s seductive call to get lost in the writing. Yet when focus is maintained on the craft, there are treasures to unearth that can be used in one’s own writing. Every published author I’ve spoken to has said that they are constantly reading—to stay knowledgeable and—I suspect—to learn how others use writing skills.

For example, I want to learn how…

Hemingway uses spare language to create story tension and characters:

In the excerpt that follows from the beginning of The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway(1) establishes the setting, conflict, and the relationship between characters…

“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

“Santiago,” the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff was hauled up. “I could go with you again. We’ve made some money.”

The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

“No,” the old man said. “You’re with a lucky boat. Stay with them.”

“But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.”

“I remember,” the old man said. “I know you did not leave me because you doubted.”

“It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.”

“I know,” the old man said. “It is quite normal.”

“He hasn’t much faith.”

“No,” the old man said. “But we have. Haven’t we?”

“Yes,” the boy said. “Can I offer you a beer on the Terrace and then we’ll take the stuff home.”

“Why not?” the old man said. “Between fishermen.”

I’m amazed at what’s accomplished in one conversation. Hemingway understood that every word on the page must move the story forward. The purpose served must contribute to the whole story, even if it’s what appears to be a casual conversation.

Barbara Park uses language that sets both tone (humor) and character through dialog:

I can recognize Barbara Park’s main character in any passage, like as a parent, I know my children’s voices in a crowd of students in a loud hallway. She creates a signature character with a unique and irreverent voice: Junie B. Jones—“The B stands for Beatrice. Except I don’t like Beatrice. I just like B and that’s all.“ What follows is a conversation with her Kindergarten teacher on the first day of school(2):

“Her name was Mrs.— I can’t remember the rest of it. Mrs. said I looked cute.

“I know it,” I said. “That’s because I have on my new shoes.”

I held my foot way high in the air.

“See how shiny they are? Before I put them on, I licked them.

“And guess what else?” I said. “This is my bestest hat. Grampa Miller bought it for me. See the devil horns sticking out the sides?””

There is so much to love, laugh, and learn about Junie from this short exchange. Her lack of a filter sets the tone for many situations she gets involved in. There is much to be enjoyed by kids and adults from these stories.

How authors use craft is the stuff of this blog series. On the 3rd of each month, I will focus on an author. Exploring their use of writing skills to craft compelling stories and messages. Feel free to join in the exploration of their use of craft as I will provide an advance on what author will be explored.

March 3rd: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Feel free to read the same book, or refer to a different book by the same author. Uncovering Author’s Craft matters more than which book a person explores.

Other authors we’ll explore together are Aimee Carter (Pawn), Daniel Silva (The English Girl), and Paul Smith (Lead with a Story). Share in the comments what authors and their books that make you go hmmm.

Looking forward to growing in the craft together.

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  1. Hemingway, Ernest (2002-07-25). The Old Man and the Sea (p. 4). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
  2. Park, Barbara (2012-05-22). Junie B.’s First Ever Ebook Collection!: Books 1-4 (Junie B. Jones) (Kindle Locations 67-71). Random House Children’s Books. Kindle Edition. From book 1 – Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus