December 31, 2018No Comments

Inspiration Behind My First Novel Bloodlines

The bones of the Bloodlines story rattled around in my head for nearly a decade.

The main character, Zane Clearwater, was an intruder into my original story. He had a minor role as a love interest to another character. But as I wrote and rewrote the story and worked out the plot, Zane kept reasserting himself, standing up and waving his hands, even waking me up in the middle of the night and demanding that I pay attention to him. It didn't matter that I had a story outline established. It didn't matter that I had another heroine in mind. Zane was like a sinkhole in the middle of my story landscape, and finally, I just fell in.

I resisted Zane as the main character because he seemed so ordinary. He lived in a trailer park in a crappy Tulsa neighborhood. He had no money and no special skills or talents. He wasn't given to poetic insights about his life. His aspiration was to finish welding school. He had a drinking problem that he was trying to get under control. Many people might dismiss him as a loser, but I came to see him as heroic in his determination to make a better life for himself and his younger sister, Lettie.

I think humans are good by nature, but I also think each of us has a shadow within us. Call it the devil or evil or hate. I followed Zane into his dark places. I let him tell me his fears about his own violent tendencies, his desire for closeness with his long-lost father who may be a cold-blooded killer. I waited to see if his goodness would prevail when circumstances forced him into an awful choice.

What's surprising to me as I look back on the process of writing is how long it took me to find his story. I had wanted to write a funny novel, by the way. I really did. You can still see elements of my attempts at humor with the few scenes about the beauty pageant gown reality show. And other quirky elements, like how Zane worked at the zoo, were little oddball remnants of earlier drafts that still seemed right to me. But the story that Zane wanted to tell was a darker, more serious one. I've learned you can't fight with your fictional characters.

September 22, 2017No Comments

Possibility in a pot

Depending on the light and my mood, the potted cacti and succulents on my front porch resemble either the strange skyline of a science fiction city or the motley cast of characters in Star Wars’ Chalmun’s Cantina. A tangle of golden snake cactus, the opuntia’s sugar-dusted flat pancakes, and the meaty grey-green succulent leaves of kalanchoe all share the light and the warmth of the west-facing porch. They form a friendly welcoming committee to our visitors, even if most days, the only visitor is the postman.

I don’t pay much attention to my spiny community of survivors, relishing in their low-maintenance lifestyle and only occasionally remembering to splash them with water. Heavy winter rains did most of the work for this year anyhow.

As spring drew the sun higher and higher in the sky, the porch began to bake each afternoon in warm rays. As the soil warmed, the cacti and succulents began to grow in all directions. They grew tall, they grew wide. They began to flow over the rims of their terra cotta pots, and pips of new growth formed on nearly every cactus surface. Some pips dropped into the soil and seemed to immediately take root. The front porch burst full of joyous abundance and growth, and I grew excited. I felt like I had sprouted the greenest thumb. My cacti, some of which I had tended for five years or more, were finally thriving after years of stasis. Their green flesh swelled with stored water. The vigorous explosion felt life-affirming and miraculous.

The little mammillaria hardly kept up, allowing its cacti compadres become stars of the show. Two-and-a-half inches tall and shaped like a pincushion covered in fishhook spines, this laggard had not demonstrated the visible growth of its compatriots on the porch. Maybe it had grown a bit thicker, but I barely noticed a difference from its pre-winter form.

Until one afternoon, as I headed out of the house to run an errand, when that pincushion cactus stopped me in my tracks.

Almost overnight, the unremarkable and unchanging cactus did the unthinkable. It had burst into flower. A multitude of fuchsia flowers, each just a bit smaller than the fingernail on my pinky, had erupted from the diamond-patterned flesh in a nearly perfect ring encircling its top. The sheer surprise made me stop in my tracks, and the color and symmetry of the flowers made me fish my phone out of my purse to take a photo.

Cacti have always been the plant world’s strange cousin, able to survive great heat and drought that would kill most mammals, let alone plants. Cacti are peculiar to the Americas, with hundreds of different species growing in deserts from Canada to Patagonia. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some botanists theorize that the first cacti evolved from roses, basing their hypothesis on the cactus flowers that rival showy roses in shape and structure.

History aside, this little survivor on my porch had commanded my respect. While I thought it only bided its time, the cactus grew roots and conserved its energy for a display like I’d never seen before. Seeing those floral eruptions of hot pink made me think that anything could happen in nature.

I sat on the porch steps and counted the flowers while the sun warmed my face and shoulders. There were twenty-three. I counted the petals on one of the flowers. There were fourteen. Up close, I noticed a thin white line along the perimeter of the petals. From a distance, this white line the width of a straight pin vanished in the crazy hot pink pigment, but up close, it formed a pretty detail. I noticed dark brown buds forming above the flowers, and wondered if the bloom had only just begun. I felt alive with possibility, like a witness to God’s work at the cellular level.

Only four things are essential for plants to live: water, light, warmth and some minerals. It’s a modest list, even more so when you realize how little of each cacti need.

I thought about my own feet, planted in the fertile soil of graduate school and life and work and love. For two years, I’ve done little other than read, write, learn and write some more. Maybe I was due to blossom soon too. In that moment, I felt the potential of all the words I hadn’t yet written, of the people I hadn’t met, of the days, hopefully still numerous, left to live on this miracle-filled earth. An earth where one small cactus can spring into fuchsia extravagance one April afternoon without a moment’s notice.

July 10, 20151 Comment

Fiction: Opportunity Knocks, Part 1

The first time it happened she was at the laundromat. Then there was another occasion, a few weeks later, while pushing her cart at the supermarket. Initially it was terrifying, but now it happened nearly every day and Robin was starting to like it. It was certainly more gratifying than the long stints of yoga and meditation she’d been trying in order to replace resentment and powerlessness with peace and acceptance.

Yes, she did feel just the tiniest bit lonely, but loneliness was a tolerable price to pay for this seductive new power. The things she learned! Just today, she’d discovered that Alesha and her husband hadn’t had sex in three months. And that Missy was pretending not to know how to use a spreadsheet program to avoid doing work.

Knowledge was power. And power was something Robin definitely lacked in her dead-end cubicle job at Creek City. She’d tried to accept it, writing out little gratitude lists every morning to try to keep her attitude positive. I am healthy. I have a wonderful son who loves me. I have a job when so many people do not. But knowing people’s secrets turned out to be far more motivating. Her secret knowledge made her feel strong, like a hammer cracking through people’s outer shells, revealing their messy, gooey insides. So she quickly learned not to mind that she’d had to become invisible to get it.

Even Robin’s young boss Paul Boyce, Creek City’s chief of staff, wasn’t immune to the power of her invisibility. She heard his footsteps, quick and agitated, on the hallway tile before he poked his head in the conference room where she had been waiting for him for half an hour.

“I almost didn’t see you. What are you doing just sitting here?” Paul was short and plump, with tiny hands and a high-pitched voice that reminded Robin of her son when he was a toddler, always on the verge of a temper tantrum if he didn’t get his way. Her son grew out of it, but Paul was committed for life.

“You said to meet you down here at one,” Robin said. She tried not to let her impatience leak out. His favorite power play was to make people wait.

His little legs covered the twenty feet of thin office carpet in surprisingly long strides. He started rifling through the box of laminated name tags. With trembling hands Robin fumbled for the smooth black jade pendant hanging around her neck, trying to tap into the calming powers promised by the saleswoman at the Goddess Rock Shop. Try as she might, she could only partially believe in the stone’s mystic powers. If Paul were to ask about whether the stone had any meaning (which he never would) she would deny it and say she simply liked the way it looked.

“Robin, am I going to find typos again?”

The sound of her name hit her ears like the heavy clang of a bell. She could feel his anger rising like a fiery morning sun, even though he hadn’t actually found a typo yet. He was looking for an excuse to erupt.

“I checked them twice,” Robin said.

She tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. After days of enjoying her invisibility, she felt practically naked to be the focus of so much of someone’s attention. Especially the critical kind.

If he found a mistake in the name tags, he’d start yelling and then follow her back to her desk where he would stand over her shoulder watching her try to correct the names with shaking hands. Please don’t find an error, she thought.

He pulled out a random sample for inspection, his green eyes ping-ponging over the names and titles. Robin held her breath. Paul had every name of every commissioner memorized. He was the kind of man who was uptight about the small details but often let the really big things slide.

“Looks OK,” he said, and flung them on the table in a messy heap. Robin’s hands crabbed over the table, gathering them up for re-alphabetization. He turned his back to her.

Her shoulders softened and she took a deep breath to release the tension, like the yoga instructor told her. She was invisible once again.

You can read Part 2 here.

March 27, 2015No Comments

Why I’ll Likely Self-Publish

I've been struggling to find a literary agent for one of my two fiction novels for more than a year now. I've pitched the story at conferences and via email, and received a steady trickle of rejections. Mostly formulaic responses, some nicer than others, one or two with encouraging words, but all the same rejection in the end.

People tell me to take heart. Kathryn Stockett was rejected 60 times before finding someone to accept her debut novel, The Help.

Others tell me to self-publish. After all, the greatest thing about the Internet and the print-on-demand technology is that I don't have to rely on someone else to "give me permission" to publish my novel. I can do it myself.

But since I was a girl, I wanted to be an author, and I thought authors needed agents and publishers. And to be honest, I don't want to sort out ISBN numbers and e-book formats and cover art. I want to write.

However, the truth is that I cannot get a foothold in the publishing business. I've tried to figure out the rules of what makes an agent accept your work. I've been told all of these things:

  1. It's all about the writing. If the writing is good, we'll consider it.
  2. Target agents based on their interests and other clients.
  3. Format your manuscripts properly and be professional.
  4. No typos!
  5. Make me fall in love with your characters.
  6. I've got to be hooked on the first page.
  7. Create a narrative voice I haven't heard before.
  8. Create a world that I want to learn more about.
  9. Develop a platform and fan base first.
  10. It's a subjective business.

I've worked in business long enough to know that following the rules only gets you so far, and by this, I mean that you can follow rules to a "T" but still get rejected for just not being the right fit. Which has led me to the recent conclusion that most of those tips are noise, because number 10 seems to trump them all.

Case in point: take a look at just a handful of the rejection emails (form letters) I've received.

  1. I'm sorry. This is not for me.
  2. You have an interesting idea for a book and there's a lot to like about your approach. But in the end I'm afraid I didn't come away from this quite fully convinced this was something I think I'd be able to represent successfully. (I've gotten this exact same email for both of my novels.)
  3. I’m afraid your book isn’t a good match for my list.
  4. Having considered it carefully, we have decided that we are not the right fit for your project, and so we are going to pass at this time.
  5. As interesting as your novel sounds, I don't believe I would be the best agent to represent your work.

The world of book publishing has changed. I may need to admit that despite persistence and hard work, I may not find a traditional book deal waiting for me. And that I should take advantage of the opportunities afforded by self-publishing to reach readers directly.

I'll just wait until the latest batch of rejections finishes trickling in, to be certain.

 

March 5, 2014No Comments

Setting 101 at Sleuthfest 2014

sfest2Sleuthfest 2014 in Orlando had some great panels on mystery and thriller writing, but two of my favorites were about creating and describing the perfect setting for your novel.

When it comes to writing about locations, fiction writers find themselves in a dialogue with their readers. They are describing streets and cityscapes and buildings that have readers' emotions and memories wrapped up inside, and they must find a way to transport the reader there in an authentic way.

It's like jazz. There are jazz standards, but there is no one right way to play them. An artist like Miles Davis took a classic song like Autumn Leaves and made it say something new and different than it’s ever said before. Want to write about an iconic city like New York or Los Angeles? Be ready with a new way to interpret a place for readers.

One tactic is to reframe the city by uncovering one of its themes. Author Laura Lippman, who sets her novels in her hometown Baltimore, talked about the town's nickname "Small-timore" and how she works this into a theme by showing characters running into one another as though they lived in a town of 60,000 instead of 600,000. It can also come from creating an atmosphere, rather than just describing a place. Greg Herren talked about describing how the air feels, how it smells and the color of the sky in his hometown New Orleans. Little bits of detail are enough to describe the whole world, said Michael Sears.

Location is most authentic when it is seen through the eyes of your characters. A building is more than a neo-classical structure of pink granite; it is the art museum where your protagonist broke up with her boyfriend on an eighth grade field trip. What is your character feeling and sensing as he stands there? In seeing a location through your character, you also give yourself permission to stray from perfectly accurate reporting. Because you are looking through the prism of your character's emotions and experiences, your writing about a place or a space can take some fictional liberties. In this instance, it's better to be convincing than accurate, said Wallace Stroby. It reminds me of that Miles Davis quote about if you hit a wrong note in jazz, then make it right by what you play next.

Thanks to moderators Twist Phelan and Hank Phillippi Ryan, the Sleuthfest 2014 panels on finding the right neighborhood for your novel and urban versus rural settings were my favorites of the three-day conference. First-time author Jamie Mason absolutely knocked me out with her writing in her debut Three Graves Full -- a book set in a kind of nowhere/everywhere North America. I look forward to applying what I've learned to the third draft of my first novel. Thanks to the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America for putting on a great conference.

 

 

October 3, 2013No Comments

Molasses to honey

My first draft writing comes out like molasses, thick and slow, trying my patience and my will. The second draft flows easier, like honey squeezed out of those plastic, bear-shaped bottles at the grocery store. Will my third draft be maple syrup? I wish for words to flow like water.

September 4, 20131 Comment

Streamline bloated writing

Add a powerful punch to your writing by using as few words as you can to express your thoughts. Readers' attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, so concise writing is key to keeping their eyes on the page or screen.

I'm as guilty of wordy writing as anyone. Here's a bloated paragraph I wrote:

The team strives to create a sense of community -- and what better way to make new friends then to ride together with like-minded folks and have fun while giving back. Smith and her team organize ice-breakers and games to get volunteers interacting. They also make time for local non-profit partners to educate the volunteers about their causes, hoping to inspire continued support after the bus ride is over. (74 words)

Look at all the words you could cut out of that sentence and still have it make sense:

The team strives to create creates a sense of community -- and what better way to you can make new like-minded friends then to ride together with like-minded folks and have fun while giving back. Smith and her team organize ice-breakers and games to get volunteers interacting. They also make time for Later, local non-profit partners to educate talk to the volunteers about their causes, hoping to inspire continued support after the bus ride is over. (57 words)

Quick ways to pack a punch with fewer words:

Skip the, a, an, that and which
You usually don't need a lot of these filler words. But he cautions that the state can't afford to wait until we have a crisis to act can be made more powerful with the more straightforward and to-the-point construction California can't afford to wait for a crisis to act, he cautions..

Reduce repetition.
Look for opportunities where you're saying the same thing twice. For example, the sentence General obligation bonds are bonds issued by the state or local government could easily be cut to General obligation bonds are issued by state or local government.

Lose the qualifiers.
Strike out more, really, about, almost and have/had. You won't miss them. Instead of We really must have the recognition by our leaders that we need to cooperate if we are to get things done more efficiently try Our leaders must recognize that cooperation is key to efficiency.

Shorter, tighter writing is not just easier to read -- it's also more likely to be read. Edit your writing just as enthusiastically as you wrote it and you'll draw readers.

August 23, 20131 Comment

Mining for gems in your writing

Writing is not unlike mining for gemstones. It's labor intensive, can be frustrating and sometimes surprisingly rewarding. You can write better reports, blogs, emails and tweets if you break your writing tasks into three easy steps, similar to those taken by a rock hound or gem miner.

Step 1 - Dig and collect.

Gems are embedded in rocks and minerals and are often broken free when miners are looking for major metals, like copper, gold or titanium. This is what makes gemstone mining so labor intensive -- the gems are usually found by sifting through piles of gravel, crushed stone and dirt leftover from other mining activities.

Panning for treasure

First draft writing is the equivalent of getting the shovel and filling your sieve with pebbles, gravel and dirt. You need to dig the words out of your head and place them into sentences and paragraphs. The first draft is a jumble of thoughts, full of promise. It is quantity over quality. Fill the pages with content so you have lots of raw material to work with.

Step 2 - Inspect and sort.

Sift out the sediment and scan your content, looking for gems. They can be distinguished from their less valuable companions by color or weight. Washing the rocks with water can help make the colorful gemstones stand out.

For the writer looking for the gems, this is when you sit back down with the first draft and read it critically. Is it structured to be persuasive? Is it clear? Look at all the paragraphs and see if they are in the right order. When I'm editing my own writing, I notice that I often take a few paragraphs to warm up and that my writing gets noticeably tighter and better further down the page. Sometimes the last paragraph I wrote winds up being the best opener.

Step 3 - Polish and cut.

Found your gems? Time to polish and cut them to maximize their beauty and display. For the writer, it's time to apply the usual elements of style -- omit unnecessary words, rewrite cliches into fresher words, change passive voice to active voice.

With spell check there is really no excuse for errors like "teh" instead of "the." I also find the grammar check uncovers verb tenses that don't match and noun-verb disagreements. Ask a co-worker or friend to proof if you can. Their fresh eyes will catch mistakes that you will miss as you are so familiar with the document. Try reading the document backwards if no one's available to proof. It's an old editor's trick that helps you see the writing as individual words. Error-free writing allows the reader to concentrate on what you are saying, not how you are saying it.

By thinking of your writing as a three-step process of collecting, sorting and polishing, you can greatly improve the clarity and persuasiveness of your document. You'll produce more writing gems easily.

August 13, 20131 Comment

Slow down and breathe

Two minutes of running as a beginner and I was gasping for air. How did people run for a mile? I couldn't make it around the block. I asked my fast-footed sister for advice.

"You've got to slow your breathing down," she said. I had no idea how to do that, but on my next run, I focused on my breathing and tried to slow to a reasonable pant. And guess what? It worked. It seems that focusing on your breath, a common mantra in yoga, works like magic in stopping that fish-out-of-water heaving I thought was inevitable.

Slowing down has turned out to be my favorite Jedi mind trick lately. When I'm about to start a complex writing project, slowing down and finding my place in the moment increases my focus and productivity. And much faster than my past strategy of frantically jumping in and flapping around like a chicken in a swimming pool.

This blog post is a prime example. I get the idea for writing a blog post about slowing down, so when I finally bring the laptop out and start drafting it, I feel this urgency to write it, all at once. Not over hours or days, but now, in this minute.

So I take a breath. I notice where I am. I remind myself that there really is no hurry. I get the words out of my head and onto virtual paper, and then I stop. I let the work breathe, and I come back to it, sometimes in half an hour or sometimes in days. I re-evaluate it, work on it some more. Usually I improve it, sometimes I scrap it. Slowing down the process from rough draft to final often helps me take the work to the next level of creativity and quality. Kinda like how slowing down your breath allows you to run further (I'm up to three miles now) and, later, faster.

Slow down

Slow down

May 1, 2013No Comments

Clear Writing Inspires Clear Thinking

Writing about complex ideas sometimes brings out the big vocabulary words and abstract expressions. This seems like the right approach -- complex ideas should be explained and expounded upon with complex words, right?

Wrong. If reader understanding and retention are our goals, then we want to make our document clear and easy to read, even if our readers are experts. Everyone -- even the extremely well-educated reader with a vocabulary that would put the SAT to shame -- finds simple writing with concrete examples easier to read and to retain. People are busy and do not want to take too much time to understand a knotty, complex paragraph. And with so much content coming at us every day, it's easy for any reader to put a paper or report aside, never to return.

Below are four examples of abstract writing with simple, clear alternatives.

Abstract Concrete
  • Significant fiscal impact is a probable outcome.
  • It will likely cost an extra $4 million.
  • A comprehensive set of recommendations was approved to improve inclusiveness.
  • The Advisory Board voted to move its meetings to 7 p.m. so that more members could attend.
  • The team consolidated the response from the various stakeholders that allowed management to be informed of the concerns as well as those discussions that took place online.
  • The team gave management a written summary of the community's concerns.
  • The web site has been redesigned and restructured to support the implementation of the Strategic Plan relating to accessibility of new employment opportunities.
  • Staff redesigned the web site so that new job postings are on the home page, with the most current ones on top.
 

Putting things into simple, concrete terms helps uncover ideas and issues we or our reader might have missed. Instead of allowing us to hide behind vague sentences, clear writing brings out our clearest thinking.