Finding Fiction in Real Life

“There are more bizarre stories in reality than any of us could imagine.” – J. Garth

If I wrote a story about an elephant buried at a shopping mall in the United States, no one would believe the plot was plausible. And yet it’s true. In 1972, Little Jennie, an aging elephant with a traveling circus, died at the mall and was buried immediately at “what is now Summit Place Mall in Waterford.” (Detroit Free Press, August 11, 2014, front page)

If I wrote a story about the compassion and empathy that a gorilla can exhibit, few people would want to believe it. After all, gorillas are just animals. Now that it is documented that Koko the gorilla expressed her sorrow at the loss of her friend, actor Robin Williams, people may now believe that gorillas are closer to humans than we thought.

Who would believe a young man with cerebral palsy could write a novel using only the toes of his left foot? I read Christy Brown’s Down All the Days long before it became the movie, “My Left Foot,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis. The novel depicts life in Dublin, Ireland from the point of view of a young man suffering from cerebral palsy.

When I read the newspaper or watch television news, I’m often amazed by the real world. Why would a young person pour a flammable liquid on his chest then set the liquid on fire on a dare? Why would a woman kill her family and herself because she suddenly lost her job? Why would a child kill himself because he is gay? How does someone strapped with dynamite walk into a building and blow himself up for a cause?

Real life presents some bizarre stories. If you choose to write stories “ripped from the headlines,” you must be prepared with convincing plots, believable characters, realistic dialogue, and sights and sounds that satisfy us. Are you prepared to make the bizarre believable?

Overcoming Passive-Aggressive Writing

The feedback I received on my first submission to my friends in the Deadwood Writers group included many comments about my use of passive voice. Make that many, many, MANY comments.  After I highlighted every instance of the verb ‘to be,’ my pages lit up in yellow.  If I owned a color printer at the time, I could easily have used up an entire yellow ink cartridge.  I had a problem – a passive-aggressive writing problem.

As my first step toward using an active voice instead of passive, I looked up the grammar rules. In its most basic form, passive sentence structure is Object-Verb-Subject: The bear was chased by Tom.  Ho hum.  Yawn.  The sentence sounds like the action is over.  Often the stories we write don’t happen in the present moment and this is where the passive voice snares the writer.  We use past tense forms of the verb ‘to be’ to give the sense of things happening in the past.  Active voice can do the same thing, but in a more compelling way.

Consider the active sentence structure of Subject-Verb-Object: Tom chased the bear. Even though events are still happening in the past, there’s more immediacy and drama.  Comparing the two sentences, you can see the verb ‘chased’ already shows past tense.  Adding the word ‘was,’ as in the passive sentence, is redundant and slows down the pace.

I got a lot of mileage toward improving my writing from this simple sentence conversion method. Here are three examples taken from that first submission:

 

Angela was bombarded with questions from the team.

The team bombarded Angela with questions. 

 

She tried to get an explanation from Fred, but was brushed aside.

She tried to get an explanation from Fred, but he brushed her aside. 

 

Cindy’s fresh coat of nail polish was ruined when she jumped from the surprise.

Cindy ruined her fresh coat of nail polish when she jumped from the surprise.

 

These fixes to sentences using simple past (-ed) versions of verbs were my first round of corrections and cut the amount of yellow highlights down by half. In the second round, I tackled the past progressive sentences that used the –ing version of verbs: Tom was chasing the bear.  I revised these sentences with conversions to the simple past structure:

 

Gladys was now hurling packages of paper at him.

Gladys hurled packages of paper at him.

 

Tom was opening an email from Todd.

Tom opened an email from Todd.

 

The document was making its way to dozens of fax machines around the company and the city.

The document made its way to dozens of fax machines around the company and the city.

 

By this point, I cut the amount of yellow by three-quarters. The highlights remaining required less obvious, more thoughtful changes to achieve an active voice.  In picking out examples for this blog post, I realized the common theme involved adjectives used in conjunction with a form of the verb ‘to be.’  One way to fix the problem is to get rid of the verb ‘to be’ and select another verb that is similar in meaning to the original verb/adjective combination.

 

Tom was a little concerned that someone did something to his cube.

Tom worried that someone did something to his cube.

 

Todd was openly vocal about the lack of work Tom did.

Todd complained openly about the lack of work Tom did.

 

Another fix is to move the adjective to a place in the sentence where the verb ‘to be’ is not necessary.

 

If his hard drive was damaged, it would set back the Granger project even further.

A damaged hard drive would set back the Granger project even further.

 

When these adjustments don’t seem to work, you may have to rethink and rewrite the sentence.

 

That thought was enough for Sylvia.

“No way!” thought Sylvia.

 

Tom opened the file and was not treated to erotic images.

Tom opened the file but did not find the erotic images he hoped to see.

 

Did I eliminate all use of passive voice? No.  A few passive sentences are not going to make or break an entire piece.  In fact, trying to eliminate all instances may bring you to a point of crafting sentences that sound pretentious, flowery, or verbose.

When assessing your use of passive voice, the problem is one of numbers. For example, ten instances of the word ‘was’ in a paragraph is passive-aggressive and clearly needs to be fixed.  A page with ten occurrences is passive-assertive and still requires reduction efforts.  Ten passive sentences scattered across ten pages is mildly passive.  Though not likely to raise eyebrows, it’s worth taking a look to see if you can change some sentences from passive to active.  If you have ten cases in a hundred pages, not only are you in control of your passive-aggressive writing tendencies, you’re also saving a lot of money on yellow printer cartridges.

Inking Out First Impressions

No doubt, you already know how to add adjectives and adverbs to Mr. & Mrs. Fashion Forward’s outward appearance, so I will hold off on the physical aspects of first impressions – height, weight, color of eyes, etc. – until the end of this blog. And I am not going to discuss what it takes for your book to make a good first impression on the shelf – cover artwork, font size, colors and the blurb on the back. That is a separate topic unto itself. This blog is about how to utilize three of storytelling’s four fundamental pillars to build the strongest, most vivid first impressions for characters and scenes, on the page:

  • Where is this story taking place? (geographical and social settings)
  • When is this story taking place? (historically, seasonally)
  • Who is it about? (age and wisdom, but not physical appearance)

It is these three spiraling timelines – where, when and who – that I use to create memorable first impressions.

The other pillar – What is happening? – is plot line, which I discussed in July.

Where. Your story’s setting should have a “connection to place” if you want to make a good first impression. Get to know your scenery up close and personal. Visit. If you can’t go, then find that location in Google Maps, click “street view” and see what it looks like. Search “local events” to get a flavor for the eats, beats and treats around the area, and then pick out a feature or landmark that can help cement your story. Scenery is usually set during your book’s slower moments, away from the action, but don’t go crazy here; it’s only minutiae. One or two quick, accurate, local details will do.

Where also indicates social position. Who are your characters’ circle of friends? What are their family and workplace situations like? How do your characters behave in their community? Not that authors needs to tell all of this stuff to make a good story, but they do need to know all of it in order to develop their characters – in character. It is the action of your characters within their social, home and work settings that shows where their motivation lies.

Case in point. In my upcoming novel, Knock Softly (working title), the protagonist, Edvard Bergman, at the age of seven, loses both of his parents in a house fire. That event dictates how he manages his business and his family in the story. There is no prelude. Readers do not know the backstory when Knock Softly opens, 38 years after the fire. First, the reader sees that Edvard has built a fire station on his research campus because the nearest fire department is 12 miles away. At home, Edvard has installed sprinklers in the kitchen and garage ceilings, as well as above the fireplace, a fireplace that’s never been lit. Readers learn that Ed will not allow his children to sleep with locked doors, and that all second story bedrooms have rope ladders. Ed’s demeanor is played out in actions and reactions long before readers learn why he is pyrophobic.

When. In order to write realistic fiction, the author must be in touch with the era in which the story takes place. That is why contemporary suspense is so popular. It’s the easiest for the author to imitate, and it’s the easiest for the reader to follow. Before you write the scene, think about what was really going on at that point in time. Read the local newspaper for around the time of your story and see what everyone was talking about. You just might discover something newsworthy that will help place your story to that time in that town, city or park. Incorporating history and a few seasonal aspects into your background will lend authenticity to your story and make it seem more real.

Watch out for seasonal changes in longer stories, they can cause slipups that are hard to spot by the author. I needed to cut the line “…acorns crunched under his step…” from one scene in Knock Softly because that scene takes place in July. I first wrote it in the fall of last year. At the time, I was attempting to incorporate a soft sound into a quiet walk in the park. It was just minutiae, but I never caught the error until last July, when I was walking my dogs in the park and could not find a single acorn to crunch under foot… Oops!

Who. Very young kids, up to about the age of seven, will believe anything their parents, teachers, guardians and older siblings tell them. That’s why they make lousy protagonists in suspense. On the page, just have very young characters do what their elders tell them and you’ll be fine. But after about age seven, appropriate behavior for kids is the toughest feature of all to nail down. Especially through puberty – when shoe sizes and career goals change overnight.

Be careful what your characters say with older kids on the page – they absorb everything. Gossip, and how children interpret what they overhear, will grab a kid’s attention in a way that telling them directly cannot. It’s, I learned verses you told me, to their young minds. The older we get, the less we trust hearsay and gossip, but to kids it’s golden nectar.

You can use these three factoids to make great suspense between young and old:

  • Kids and young adults are constantly looking outward to see what else is available. Adults are ego-focused by their mid-thirties.
  • You can’t teach a know-it-all and teenagers already know everything, so they say and do the first thing they think of. A rational adult will take whatever time necessary to make the right decision.
  • When confronted with unknown situations, kids become flustered and everything speeds up for them. Adults become keenly aware in unfamiliar situations, and everything slows down.

These transitions do not begin until we gain more confidence in our decisions–twenty-something for most people.

As you start to draw your older characters, imagine you are meeting them for the first time, just like your readers really are. Your character’s life doesn’t begin at this point. You and your readers are effectively dropping in on them. Yet, even though the reader knows very little about the character’s past, there is much they will assume until you tell them otherwise. I have found these assumptions are true with most adults:

  • Day by day, our ambitions spiral us onward and upward to bigger and better.
  • But in reality, our life becomes focused through a narrower and narrower lens as we gray.
  • The older we get, the more we want, but the less we are willing to accept.

Some glues harden quicker than others, but most people set their course in life by thirty-something. That’s not to say life can’t come unglued. Read: midlife crisis. There are tons of suspense and mystery novels built around this time in a character’s life and it is fun, fun stuff to write. Just keep in mind that by midlife most mortal characters know what sorts of things they’re good at, what kinds of people they like to be around and what entertains them. And they go for more, not less, in life’s next chapter.

Exceptions, of course, always make for better stories. Exceptions to the norm that give depth to the storyline can build lasting first impressions, but if the “exception” does not move your story forward, the words are just bulk. That’s true for scenes and character traits.

As for the physical aspects of character, let me ask you: what color were Dracula’s eyes? On which cheek was Capone’s scar? In the Sherlock Holmes series, on which leg did Doctor Watson received his old war wound? Once your characters are fleshed out, you can color their eyes, skin and hair and dress them as you like; it won’t matter. Fangs, scars, limps and the like all make for great imagery, but it is the personality to which these images are attached that readers will remember first and foremost.

 

Next Month: Not sure yet. Any suggestions? Contact me via the comments section below.

Write What You Know

When I first started writing for Deadwood Writers’ Voices a few months ago, I agonized over what I was going to write about. Then I went to California. There I read some letters that members of my family, who I’d heard about but never met, had written long ago. The letters brought them to life. I could hear my relatives speaking in their own words. I felt that we’d finally met.

I started writing their stories. That was very helpful, besides being enjoyable. I didn’t have to ask myself each month, what am I going to write about? I knew. I was going to write the next part of the story.

Now the series is finished. I need to find something new to write about. This morning I decided to try a different approach. Instead of panicking, I was going to do what all the books said: Write what you know. To be honest, I didn’t have much faith in this approach, but what did I have to lose?

I decided to go swimming. It’s my favorite form of exercise: 45 minutes in the warm water pool going back and forth. I feel so good afterwards, relaxed, happy, stress free. The icing on the cake is I’ve actually lost a few pounds along the way.

It was a perfect day. The sun was shining. It was still cool outside. I felt energized.

I threw my swim bag in the front seat, popped into my car and started driving. It’s eight minutes from my garage to a parking spot at the WCC Health Club.

I drove out of the condo and turned left to go down Dixboro Road. Wow! All I could see on my side of the street was a line of red taillights and not one of them was moving. Ugh! It was five minutes to nine.

The first intersection was exactly one mile south on Geddes. It handles all the cars of people going to work coming down Dixboro and those exiting from I-23 to go down East Huron River Drive to get to Washtenaw Community College, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and, most important to me, the Health Club.

It’s always busy this time of day but never like this: One mile of taillights and no one moved. This was a first! Then I remembered last night’s storm. The stoplight at the corner was probably out. And, knowing the Ann Arbor police, they probably hadn’t sent anyone to direct traffic. Their philosophy is, “Let them work it out.”

In the distance, I could see the headlights of three cars coming toward me. Suddenly the two cars in front of me made very fast U-turns and went up Woodridge Avenue to my right.

Mmmmm. If I’m quick, I could do the same thing. That would take me to Earhart, which would bring me to Plymouth Road where I could get on #I-23 and go south around this mess to Washtenaw Avenue. Then I could turn up Golfside and, voilà, I’d be there. In other words I could make a circle going west around the whole area, come in from the east side and have my swim after all. It shouldn’t take more than about ten minutes.

Congratulating myself on my quick thinking, I turned onto Plymouth Road and drove across the top of I-23 so I could get on the ramp going south.

“Ugh!” was all I could say. Looking down at the southbound lanes I wanted to cry. No one was moving there either. It was just one long parking lot.

O.K. now it’s time for another brilliant idea and this one better work. I could go south on Green Road, then west a little to Huron River Parkway. I could still make the western circle and I’d be down on Washtenaw, which hopefully would be moving.

Then I looked up. Straight ahead, Plymouth Road was stopped. The light was red. The intersection was clogged. No one was going in any direction and it didn’t look like anyone would be anytime soon.

Suddenly, although the sun was still shinning and the air was crisp, it wasn’t such a beautiful day anymore.

Luckily I was able to maneuver myself into the left lane and turn into the strip mall. I drove past Zamaaman’s, the Korean Restaurant, and turned left past Busch’s. Now I could skip the sea of cars at the light and exit onto Green Road.

Heading south on Green Road, I started to smile again: no traffic. The same was true on Huron Parkway. I just floated along and made a left onto Washtenaw and even that wasn’t too bad.

Best of all, every light was working all the way east to Golfside. I turned left at East Huron River Drive, drove past St. Joe’s and into the WCC Health Club’s parking lot at exactly 9:33. Not bad, only 38 minutes to drive what should have taken eight!

Crowdfunding Your Writer Dreams

Did you know people would donate money to help publish your book?

I’m not talking about a publishing house advance. I’m talking about regular people like the grocery store clerk, other writers and your favorite coffee shop barista.  These people believe in you and your project.  How is this possible, you ask?  It’s because of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding is “the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.” These sites allow artists and inventors to connect with supportive people who are willing to invest in something they believe in a product as much as you do. The methodology is similar to the phone fundraising campaigns by public television stations: People give you money to work on your project. You give them stuff in return as thanks.  That’s it.

Weird, right? Why would strangers believe in your work so much that they want you to succeed?  That they want to read your book and help you get that published?  I mean, it’s one thing to ask a friend “Can I borrow $20?” only these people aren’t necessarily intimate in your life.  Since I cannot draw from my 401K, cash in my vast inheritance or withdraw from my millions in lottery winnings, I am exploring this option to get funds to hire an editor and cover artist.

After discussing experiences with others who have used various crowdfunding sites,

I chose Indiegogo for my experiment. Kickstarter was my initial choice because I had explored the site previously, but you only receive the funds if your project is completely funded.  If you ask for $600 but only get $597 in pledges, all the money refunds to the backers.  Indiegogo gives you the option to set up your account to keep whatever money you’ve raised minus a percentage.  To me, something is better than nothing is, so that sold me.  I also found more book projects on that site than on others to use as examples.

HOW TO GET STARTED

To begin a campaign, you have to do some initial research about costs and timing. How much does an editor, developer, or production house charge for their services?  What company offers the best quality of materials?  What is the turnaround time?  Once you have that information, you’ll need to backtrack to determine an end and start date.  Crowdfunding sites offer different lengths for your campaign, much like running an eBay auction.  You have to set up your account, fill in project ideas, possibly make a video…and all of this takes time, so backtrack even further.  Time management is important here.

WHAT WILL I OFFER?

Since I’m writing a memoir, I am looking for personal things. I can’t name a character after a backer–although if I was writing a fiction novel, I’d offer that perk–but I can offer other things like  photos of me and Dad, special unpublished stories, autographed limited print editions, or even an actual letter from Dad to me.

HOW DO I FIND THESE PEOPLE?

How will I find these helpful, adventurous folks to contribute to my dream? Aside from my email list of friends and relatives, I plan to promote it on my various social media.  This is where my “author’s platform” comes into play.  I have a network of people who like my tweets, who read my blog, follow my boards on Pinterest, enjoy my Instagram writing photos, connect with me on LinkedIn and are Facebook friends.  It’s a start.

CONCLUSION

Setting a deadline is good for motivation. Proclaiming it to the world, holding myself accountable to others is a good thing.  My book is publishing on November 20, 2014, which was my Dad’s birthday, and that’s a very good thing.  I have a lot to do in the next 61 days.  If you want to follow my progress, check out my memoir campaign [coming soon].  I’ll continue to share my experiences here and on my personal blog, Wolf Howlings.  I hope you’ll learn something along with me.  It’s a bold new world out there, and you have to be bold.  Just like Dad, I am bold.