Friday, August 28, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Joy of Teaching

A couple of weeks ago I taught a writing class at the Words Worth Writing Center here in Dayton. (Well, actually in the conference room at the Oakwood Starbucks).

I tried teaching for the first time last Fall, three 2-hour classes in three weeks and I was so nervous I couldn't really enjoy it, but this time I LOVED IT!

Maybe it was the boost of confidence I got from winning the Golden Heart, or maybe it was just that it wasn't an unknown this time, but I felt like I was in the groove. We talked about protagonists, antagonists, goals, motivation, conflict and conflict locks--all the essentials for writing riveting fiction.

I started off by warning them that I'm not a teacher, I'm a computer programmer, so there was something they didn't understand, they needed to stop me. I wanted the class to be interactive, a dialogue. And that actually happened, and it was great.

The class was primarily based on Deb Dixon's Goal, Motivation and Conflict, one of the best writing books I've ever come across.

I lectured for about an hour and then handed out GMC templates and had them fill them in for their works-in-progress. While the class worked, they were free to come and discuss their work-in-progress with me individually. They had a pretty wide range of skills--some were newbies, others had thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of words on the page and just needed some help organizing them.

A common thread I heard was all this luscious back story they'd worked up for their characters. Which was great, because it meant that identifying the character's motivation, the why? of what they were doing, was pretty easy for them.

The harder part was learning that very little of what they'd accumulated had any place on the page. Mostly, their stories started after all that stuff--parents dying, boyfriends dumping, vampires swarming--happened.

We talked about setting up the protagonist and antagonist's goals so they they're mutually exclusive and only one can win. That doesn't necessarily mean the antagonist has a goal of stopping the protagonist from getting what she wants--stopping the protagonist may just be a by-product of the antagonist getting what he wants.

Here's the sample conflict box I put together for an early draft of Demon's Wager. The final version turned out a little different, but see how their actions interlock to block one another?

Protagonist-- Belial
To win the wager and get Satan off his ass
1)      Volunteers to work at Dara’s clinic
2)      Cuts off all the other sources of funding and offers her a bribe.
3)      Commits malpractice and begs her to cover for him.

1)      Shreds his application and kicks him out of the Clinic.
2)      Assigns him to work in the PEDS clinic, where he catches the measles.
3)      Refuses to cover for him

Dara Strong
To keep her clinic running
1)      Shreds the application of the demon who's trying to invade her Clinic.
2)     Takes the money but assigns him to work in the PEDS clinic, where she can keep a close eye on him.
3)      Refuses to cover for him

1)   Volunteers to work at Dara’s clinic

2)  Cuts off all the other sources of funding and offers her a $250,000 grant.

3)  Commits malpractice and begs her to cover for him.

Words Worth is going to offer the 3-class series again in the Fall. We'll talk about all of the above, plus acts, scenes, beats, turning points and subplots.

I'm already stoked!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fiction Friday: Work Ethic vs. The Muse

When I was in New York for the RWA national conference in July, I got a chance to see two of my writing idols: Jenny Crusie and Nora Roberts. It's hard to imagine two writers whose philosophies are more different.

Jenny was my instructor in the romance writing certificate program at McDaniel College. I give her 95% of the credit for my Golden Heart win. Jenny is a firm believer in Calliope, the Muse of Writing. Well, she actually refers to her muses as The Girls in the Attic. In Jenny's view, the Girls are responsible for the inspiration that allows us to create story worlds. She says, "Whatever you do, don't get in the way of the Girls."

Jenny has published 15 books and is a legend in the romance writing world. Her books are brilliant and witty, with characters you want to hang out with far longer than the story lasts. Her most recent book came out in 2010 and she has legions of fans who are eagerly awaiting the next. She made time to meet with the McDaniel alums on Friday evening. Next to winning the Golden Heart, my favorite memory from the conference is of sitting at the hotel bar with the smartest writers I know, talking about the craft and business of writing.

I didn't get to actually meet Nora, but I did sit in on a Chat with Nora session, where everyone got to ask questions. Nora has published 250+ books over the past forty years. Growing up, she attended Catholic school and the nuns' rulers drove home the value of hard work.Although she is worth approximately $150 million dollars according to the website, The Richest, She still writes 6-8 hours a day, 6 days a week, 50 weeks a year. (She vacations the other two).

Her view of the writing muse is the polar opposite of Jenny's. Another writer once came to her husband's bookstore for a book signing and tried to engage her in a conversation on the topic.

"How do you summon your muse?" he asked.

"There is no f*cking muse," Nora replied. "You just sit there and you write until you have a book."

When my turn came to throw out a question, I asked, "Has there ever been a book you couldn't finish, one you just couldn't figure out?"

"No!" She was outraged. "If that happened, the book would win."

There's no question this approach works for her, but looking at this continuum, I'm closer to Jenny's end than Nora's.

How about you?

Monday, August 3, 2015

My Life Monday: Beauty is in the Eyelashes of the Beholder

A few weeks ago my 11-year-old granddaughter was visiting and we agreed to trade pedicures.

She judged my inventory of nail polish to be completely inadequate, so we made a quick trip to the store to pick up better (to an 11-year-old, anyway) colors.

The false eyelashes were right there beside the nail polish. While she was deciding between pink and red (we went with both), I picked up a set of eyelashes and considered them.

Kylie saw me checking them out. She took the box from my hand and put it back on the shelf.

"No, Grandma," she said. "If you don't have them, you just don't have them."

I love that kid.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Power of Persistence

In the 1970's, I wrote (on a typewriter) a historical romance set in 1870's Wyoming called Wildfire Woman. It featured a rape of the heroine (romances were really rape-y back then) and no discernible plot.

Although the hallmark of the beginning writer is that we believe every word that dribbles from our pen (or platen) is a morsel of genius, even I knew it didn't work. After playing around with it for a few months, I put it in a drawer and (all but) forgot about it.

Then, in the 1980's, I tried again. Deciding I had maybe bitten off more than I could chew with a historical, I wrote a contemporary category romance. Because anyone can write a Harlequin romance, right?

This one I wrote on an early, early PC--a CPM-80 machine. This manuscript also lacked even that faintest vestige of a plot.

As far as I can tell, I never even gave it a name.

In 1994, while living in Minnesota, I became fascinated with the story of the Hinckley Fire of 1894, a forest fire that generated a mile high fireball that could be seen from Iowa, 90 miles south. I spent 8 years doing research. Determined to do a better job with this story, I signed up for a "Writing the Novel" class at my local community college. My amazing teacher, Tim Waggoner, told me that, in his opinion, my prose was at a professional level but my plot "meandered."

Grrr.(Frustration at myself, not Tim.)

Note the "thud factor" on this one--first draft came in at 120,000 words. If your first million words are indeed just practice, this one should have put me over the top. I wrote twelve drafts. I submitted it twice, but when the second agent told me she didn't think my writing was there yet, I agreed and went on to....

romantic suspense. Suspense novels are, almost by definition, plot-driven. By the time I completed it, I reasoned, I would have figured out this plotting thing.

Not so much. When I started shopping it, Jessica Faust from Bookends literary agency told me, "Your writing is strong and I love this idea, but your plot feels like you just threw in everything you could think of."

The pile in the drawer grew deeper.

On to a work of women's fiction. While writing August Lilies, I attended Robert McKee's Story seminar, where I learned about the three-act structure and turning points.

I was getting closer, but I still wasn't managing to create compelling stories. I knew lots of people who were submitting all the time, but I was less interested in selling than I was in writing well.

Kent Haruf, who wrote the National Book Award-winning Plainsong, said, in an interview on NPR: It doesn't seem to me there's a scarcity of talent among students who want to write. But what there is  a lack of is a talent for's so difficult to write and it takes so long to learn how to write well that most people give up on it before they get good enough.

I was determined not to be one of those people.

In 2012, I was ready to give it another shot. After spending the winter obsessed with Stephenie Meyers' Twilight series, I decided to write a paranormal romance based on the story of Job.

I laid out the framework for the book at a Plotting Weekend with Mary Buckham. Then I heard that McDaniel College in Baltimore was offering a Master's certificate in "Writing the Romance Novel." It would be taught by none other than Jenny Crusie. I'd only ever read one of her novels (Faking It), but from that one book it was clear that she knew how to plot. And she'd been an English teacher, so she knew how to teach. Plus, Nora Roberts had partially funded the program, so it wasn't insanely expensive.

And, glory hallelujah, Jenny finally managed to get the concepts of character and story arc across to me.

The proof of this is that on July 20th, 2015, nearly 40 years after I wrote my first book, my novel, Demons Don't (since re-titled Demon's Wager) won the 2015 Golden Heart® award for paranormal romance. That win rated a mention in The USA Today on Tuesday. I don't know that this will lead to traditional publication, but I'm taking it as a vote of confidence that my writing is finally "there."

Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. If I add up all the time I've spent on writing, I'm probably at twice that. (And we won't even talk about how much money all those conferences and workshops have cost.) But for the entire time I've been writing, in every class I've taken, I've been told, "The single most important trait a writer can have is persistence."

That, I have.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Fiction Friday: Protecting Your Creative Process

Today I'm guest posting over on 8 Ladies Writing, the blog maintained by my grad school chums from McDaniel.

The topic is: Protecting your creative process.

Pop over and join us if you have time.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Fiction Friday: Confessions of a Contest Judge

Recently, I received a request to help judge a contest for an RWA Chapter. After whoring my way around the contest circuit all winter, I figured it was time to give back, so I signed up to judge three manuscripts.

They were all pretty good. It was clear none of the three authors were newbies to the writing scene.  They all had strong writing and engaging characters. One problem I noticed across all three manuscripts, though, was the lack of clearly-defined goals for the protagonists. In each case the heroine had plenty of trouble--enough bad things were happening to make her life interesting. What she didn't have was a goal.

David Mamet, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and executive producer of the CBS Drama The Unit, wrote the following in a memo to the writing team for The Unit:

Question: What is drama? the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

Without a goal, it's impossible to make your story escalate. You can intensify the trouble and make things more irritating for your protagonist, even more dangerous, but if she doesn't have a goal, there's no yardstick against which to measure her progress--or her setbacks. 

The most interesting segments of the Twilight novels are when Bella has something to do other than moon over Edward. When she heads off to Italy to save him from the Volturi, the story really picks up. And because she has a deadline, every obstacle along the way is invested with tension.

Now that I understand this concept, I would never undertake to write a novel where my protagonist didn't have have a clear, time-bound goal. Moreover, the goal needs to be something she needs--not just wants, but needs.

I'm working on plotting out a new novel where the protagonist, an artist, must complete a mural in 30 days or she won't get paid. She currently earns a subsistence living drawing caricatures for tourists in Sedona, AZ, but it's the off-season, and if she doesn't complete this mural, she'll be out on the street. She has a history of not finishing big projects, a deep-rooted character flaw she'll have to overcome--especially since her antagonist is equally determined to keep her from finishing.

What about you? What do you do to create tension in your stories?

Friday, July 3, 2015

Fiction Friday: The Writer's Staycation

The following blog post is a shameless plug for a series of classes being offered by Words Worth Writing Center, this summer, including one I'm teaching.

Words Worth is one of the really great things about Dayton, Ohio. Most of the big corporations have shaken my little town's dust off their wingtips, leaving us with few deep pockets to back the Arts, but somehow we've managed to maintain a thriving Arts community in spite of that. There are galleries to all tastes, a symphony orchestra, an opera company and two dance troupes, including DCDC, one of the most well-regarded African American dance companies in the world. There are several professional theater associations and a whole raft of community theater groups. Even without big corporate money, Dayton's art culture thrives.

Anyway, Darren McGarvey, teacher of English and Drama at Centerville High School and a writer himself, thought it would be a good idea if there was a place in the Dayton area where writers could commune with other scribblers and have opportunities to develop their craft. I've taken several classes there. It was through Words Worth that I met my amazing critique partner, Nicole Amsler.

Anyway, the Writer's Staycation classes are as follows:

A Swift Kick in the Pants 
Instructor: Katrina Kittle  
Whether you’ve been writing a long time or are just starting out, finding (and efficiently using) writing time is nearly every writer’s greatest challenge. This class is full of tips, strategies, and motivation to manage writing time, hold yourself accountable, keep your butt in the chair, and get some words on the page! Several writing prompts for those who are stuck and in need of inspiration will also be given.    

Writing YOUR Story
Instructor: Darren McGarvey 
Ever feel like your life belongs between the covers of a book? This workshop will help generate ideas and teach some of the basic techniques of writing journal entries, personal essays, and memoirs. You’ll leave with a few starts, a number of ideas, and will be ready to put thousands of words on the pages.    

Putting a Little (or a lot) of Mystery in Your Fiction
Instructor: Sharon Short 
Your fiction may well be beautifully written and populated with interesting characters... but is it compelling enough? Mystery writing techniques will help you create suspenseful, compelling, page turning fiction... for any genre of fiction. This workshop, appropriate for mystery writers as well as writers in all other fiction genres, will explore the techniques used to create mystery novels and show how you can apply them to your own work. Writing exercises and prompts will help you discover how to make your story as deliciously page-turning as the very best who-dun-its.    

Queries and Questions About Traditional Publishing
Instructor: Katrina Kittle 
This 2-hour class will give a Traditional Publishing 101 overview, explaining the sometimes complicated and convoluted process of getting a novel published through this route. We will look at how to research agents, how to write a strong query letter, and how to construct a pitch. Participants will look at and critique sample queries and will “rehearse” a pitch for feedback.    

Building a Short Story from the Ground Up
Instructor: Erin Flanagan 

You’ve got great characters and a great idea, but how do you set them both in motion and keep the momentum going? Looking at structure and causation in short stories, we’ll discuss strategies to avoid common pitfalls in a story’s beginning, middle, and the ever-crucial end.

Plotting 101: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict
Instructor: Jeanne Estridge  

You’ve got a fabulous premise and you’re totally in love with your characters, but somehow your story isn’t shaping up to be the riveting tale you envisioned. After reviewing goal, motivation and conflict—the keys to writing compelling fiction—we’ll discuss class members’ works-in-progress and apply the techniques we’ve learned to help each other solve plot problems and ramp up the action.    

More info (like When? Where? and How Much? here.


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