Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Travel Tuesday: Sedona, Arizona

I just got back from a research trip to Sedona, AZ, the setting for my work-in-progress and I was fascinated by the trees there.

 This one was in Oak Creek at Crescent Ranch Park. I should have had someone stand among those roots to give you an idea of scale. The bottom part of the trunk was roughly the size of one of those little Fiats you see everywhere these days.

According to the New Agers, the Sedona area has four "vortexes," where energy converges. They claim magnetic resonances in these specific areas cause the trees there to twist as they grow. Kelly, the guide for our Pink Jeep tour, a great storyteller and not a New Ager, says the twisting happens when part of the tree is injured or diseased and the healthy part keeps growing. I don't know which is true, but the trees were as fascinating as the rock formations.

We saw this one at the vortex near Airport Mesa.


This one was my all-time favorite. Near the Bell Rock vortex, it looked like a sleek modern sculpture.

This one's not twisty, but I had to admire its spunk, growing on the side of a cliff.

This one isn't a tree, it's a yucca plant. Have a little respect, please, because it's dying. The last thing dying yucca plants do is throw up a shoot that's 18 to 20 feet high. Which seems tragic, giving that last gasp like Mimi in La Boheme, until you learn that the DNA in those shoots are exact replicas of the original plant. It's not so much dying as giving itself multiple new bodies to start over with. Who wouldn't sign up for that?

This last one isn't from Sedona, but from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. It's the skeleton of a dead cactus. I always pictured cacti as being all mush inside, which doesn't make any sense, since mush couldn't hold up a forty-foot tall plant. What they have inside is the fibrous skeleton pictured here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Fiction Friday: Critiquing Beginning Writers

I've been doing a lot of critiques for friends in my various writers' groups lately. Some of them are still fairly early in their writing careers, and it occurred to me that the feedback I give to beginning writers is very different from what I share with seasoned veterans of the Writing War. Here are a few tips:
  • Stay positive. I read somewhere once that, when providing criticism, you should offer two items of positive reinforcements/praise for every bit of negative feedback.To be honest, I can't usually pull that off, but I do shoot for a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative.
  • If you genuinely don't want to do the critique, or you don't have time, say "no." A decline is better than writing up a hurried, ill-considered critique
  • Be upfront about your genre expertise. I can offer useful criticism on romance and women's fiction because I write those genres. I'm less helpful with SciFi/Fantasy because I haven't read enough of it and I don't know the rules for the genre.
  • Don't use the critique to demonstrate how clever you are. You're not writing to entertain and amuse. You're there to help. Skip the zingers and stick with simple language, couched as positively as possible.
  • Avoid critiquing word choice. It doesn't matter if it's not the word you would have chosen. When you suggest alternate wording, you're not trying to improve their writing. You're trying to turn it into your writing. Unless the word is used incorrectly, leave it alone.
  • On a similar note, don't try to hijack their story and take it in another direction. If you feel strongly that their premise or plot are cliched, it's okay to mention other books that have a similar story line, but every story is different. Cliches got that way because those themes resonated with people. Let the writer tell the story they want to tell.
  • For first drafts, stay at a high level. At McDaniel, we used the following template:
    • What Must Be Kept?
    • What Needs Work?
    • Where Do I Think This Is Going? (for partials)
That last one is especially useful because it lets the writer know what they're telegraphing via subtext or the use of familiar tropes. I've had several wrtiers say, "Totally didn't realize it was coming across that way," or "Wow, that's a little too obvious. I need to rethink this."
  • Finally, let yourself enjoy the process. You never know when you might be fostering the growth of an amazing new storyteller.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

WWJWD--What Would Joss Whedon Do?

One of my big discoveries while at McDaniel was Joss Whedon, The man is a god where plotting is concerned. He routinely puts his protagonists into situations where there seems to be no possible resolution--at least none that include continued existence and/or happiness. And he equally routinely manages to pull off crazy creative solutions that accomplish just that.

I dream of someday getting a review that says, "reminiscent of a Joss Whedon story." 

Told you that to tell you this:

Recently, I read a romance novel with a plot that was what Jenny Crusie calls a string of pearls--a series of tenuously connected events that are all roughly the same intensity.

The book started out strong. The protagonist was the widow of a famous musician. Her husband had died a year or so before and she was dead broke, living in her car and selling off her possessions on eBay to buy food until hubby's will cleared probate. Only then it turned out hubby had invested everything in some company that failed. There was no money.

Hubby had also, just prior to her death, informed her--on national television--that he had three kids by a mistress she knew nothing about. Especially painful given that she always wanted a family but was never able to have one.

The protagonist and, for that matter, the other characters in the book, were all really likable and believable. Overall, the book had the feel of a Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel. (Another wrtier crush of mine.)

On a 1-to-10 scale of potential for a great read, I'd give this an eight. And I'm a tough grader--I reserve my nines and tens for books that leave a mark on me.

Soon after that slam-bang beginning, though, her former brother-in-law brings her to live in a mansion. She meets the three daughters of the (now also dead) mistress, who are also living there, (bad) but she almost instantly learns to love them, and they her (good).

In order to keep the money flowing in, she has to agree to do another season of the reality show where she first learned about her husband's other life (bad). The studio agrees to pay her an insane amount of money, to place the cameras only where she directs, and to declare anything she doesn't want to share off limits (good). Under the terms of the contract she negotiates, if the show doesn't finish out the season for some reason, they still have to pay her. (unbelievably good)

Her character arc is to let go of loving the douche-bag dead husband who cheated on her (bad) and turn her sights toward the BIL who is really good-looking, wealthy, and has been in love with her since the day he set eyes on her. (good)

It's another case of the author not being willing to torture her beloved characters.

If Joss Whedon had been plotting this, it would have started the same way, but:

1) The kids would have hated her. Everything she tried to do to win them over would have just made things worse, up to the point where kids were running away, using drugs, skipping school and possibly setting the house on fire to make their point.

2) The studio would have given her half what she wanted, but only in return for setting up cameras inside the bathrooms, bedrooms and anywhere else you might want a little privacy.

3) The brother-in-law would have treated her like a gold-digging hooker.

And that, in my opinion, is what Joss Whedon would do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Negotiations with the Tooth Fairy

Recently, my 8-year-old grand-nephew became concerned that he was being shortchanged by the Tooth Fairy. Being the kind of kid he is, he took steps to remedy the problem:

However, the Tooth Fairy, it turns out, is no pushover. In what may be the most brilliant bit of parenting I've ever seen, he received the following response:

With these skills, this kid will grow up to

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fiction Friday: Starting a New Book

This week I wrote the first words of a new book, The Demon's in the Details, Book 2 of what I call my Touched by a Demon trilogy.

I've been fooling around with the idea for the book for several months, figuring out the turning points and the characters and their arcs, while I finished up revisions on book one, Demons Don't.

(This is the back of this month's Romance Writers Report with me on the cover! The back cover, but a cover's a cover.)

This week was the first time I actually started putting words on (electronic) paper, though, and I have to tell you I simultaneously love and hate this beginning stage.

I love it because the work is fresh and full of possibility. At the beginning of each manuscript I always believe that this one, this time, my reach won't exceed my grasp and the story I wind up with will actually be the one I set out to write. I believe that my words will actually capture and communicate the vision that's in my head. Demons Don't got a lot closer than I've ever gotten before.

I hate this stage because there are so many decisions to make, and each of those decisions can lead you toward a destination that is NOT that vision.

You have to start somewhere, though. The journey of 100,000 words begins with a single typed character.

So far, I have about 4000 of them.

What are you working on these days?

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?


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