Why Not Just Enjoy It?

The first thing I do when we check into a motel room on the road is get my laptop up and running – hook up to Wi-Fi, post my location on Facebook for my daughter, then check my email and my stats on WordPress. The other day I received an email from my author account manager at FriesenPress telling me the editorial evaluation of my novel had been completed and was attached. My breath caught and I felt jittery. I debated closing the email and running out the door into the streets of Ashland, Oregon.

But of course I didn’t do any such thing. I opened the attachment and began to read the thing out loud to my husband, who was sitting on the bed behind me. The first paragraph flowed on with complimentary words.

Ya sure. I know the cookie method of feedback as well as the next person – you always sandwich the bad stuff in between layers of positive – no need to overwhelm the poor, novice hack – right?

I read on – waiting and waiting for the bad layer but it didn’t come. The reviewer was positive right on through to the end – sure there are a few things I need to attend to but in her words (somehow I am just positive the reviewer was female – crazy assumption, I know that) the novel is at an advanced stage of readiness for publication and she concluded by saying she had been absolutely hooked by the characters. That last line, combined with her earlier suggestion that my novel belongs in the category of dramatic literary fiction and should not be limited by a designation of romance, had me wanting to burst into tears of gratitude.

I allowed myself a minute to savor this evaluation of my work – 60 glorious seconds where I glowed with the thought that someone who wasn’t married to me, related to me, or had been a friend of mine for decades really liked my book. Then the voices in my head (just your regular garden variety voices folks – nothing dramatic enough to be really interesting and/or life shattering and sad) began to interject doubt.

The dialogue goes a bit like this:

You are paying them, remember? How can you be sure of anything they say to you?

Well – it’s in their best interest to publish something that reads well – it’s their reputation, too.

Come on – you are always so naïve – they’re out to make money. You forfeited the right to glow like this when you went the route of vanity press.

Well, you get the idea. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to rid myself of this doubter voice in my head that tells me I am sitting in coach, riding in the back of the bus. I feel the way I felt after I had worked so hard to get my undergrad degree – years of community college and distant education courses. Another 60 seconds or so of pleasure to be followed by the voice that told me – a degree from Open Learning Institution – come on now – is that something to be so proud of? It’s not like a real degree at all – is it? After completing a Master’s Degree on campus at a very real university, I realized how hard it had been to do that undergrad degree – but of course I didn’t know that then. The old doubter voice had a field day with me.

Old habits die hard. I admit – I let the voice have its way with me once again – what else can one do with such a constant companion. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. At least a hundred times a day – when the doubter voice is quiet, lulled by my seeming acquiescence, I laugh inside and pinch myself (figuratively, you understand) with glee and tell myself – someone I don’t even know read my book and liked it!

Why not just enjoy it?

Writing from a Child’s Point of View

The Thinker

Whenever I spend time with children I find myself totally fascinated with how they think. It makes me excited about the idea of including children as characters in my fiction writing. Trying to write from a child’s point of view – getting the voice and actions right – and by right I mean authentic, is a big challenge.

We were listening to that Train song the other day in the van – Drive By – in the chorus there is a line where the guy sings – if they don’t like it, sue me. Emma piped up from the back seat – “Why don’t they like a smoothie, Grandma? I like a smoothie.” You couldn’t even make this kind of stuff up – no one would believe you.

Kids are like sponges – they’re always listening and they’re always processing and they’re always putting one and one together to sometimes get two and other times to get three or four or five. You just never know.

My eight-year-old niece has an absolute passion for horses. When she was here at the lake this summer she developed a very imaginative game where she pulled a blow-up boat back and forth through the water pretending it was a horse named Rebecca. I was amazed as I sat on the beach soaking up the sun, to hear her run through a fairly extensive catalogue of horse knowledge. She put that pretend horse through its paces day after day, talking out loud to herself the whole time. “Oh darn. Wait. I forgot to cinch your saddle, we’ll have to go back and start all over again.” Amazing.

Way back in the dark ages when I was doing my first child psych course – through distant education at a little community college – I was given the assignment of taping a two-year old child’s conversation. I was then to transcribe the tape and analyze it. The child I happened to be assigned was kind enough to give me a tidbit of language that helped me write an A+ paper. I’ve never forgotten what she said. She leaned into a toy box and pulled out a Raggedy Anne doll and pointed at the hair and said, “Red, red like blood.” I’m amazed to this day that a child that age could use language to wield such a powerful metaphor.

Four-year-old Emma is still working on her juggling skills. The other day she threw the balls on the floor and said, “These aren’t the right kind of balls. When Daddy does it he has the right kind.” For her, juggling is a skill inherent in the objects one uses – not in the hands of the juggler. Interesting – right? Kids interpret things in very unique ways.

If you really listen to kids you’ll find they do a lot of their thinking and processing out loud. It strikes me that a character that walks around freely telling the world what he or she is thinking and how they got to that point in their thought process, could be handy.

I have an idea for a character who is a boy detective and another who is the four-year-old girl he has roped in as his sidekick – he sends her to ask people questions and stand around listening to conversations. Of course this can lead to some comic misunderstandings as she is likely to hear in the way Emma heard the singer of Drive By say he didn’t like a smoothie. But there’s room for more than humour. Speaking truths in a child’s voice can have a poignancy we would be hard-pressed to achieve from an adult character’s point of view.

I’ll leave you with a snippet of conversation between two characters I am working on right now – a ten-year-old boy and his father:

“Father Jack said God has a big plan and my mom dying is part of that plan. He said we can’t figure out a plan as big as God’s plan.” Robbie paused to dig a small rock out with the toe of his shoe and reached down to look closely at it. After a moment he threw the rock out towards the waves. “But I’ve been thinking about that – Buddy Larue was out on the Jodie Lynn that day, too, and he told me it could have easily been him who died and not my mom. He could have been the one close to the wheel-house and stuck in there instead of her.” Robbie narrowed his eyes and said under his breath, “I don’t think Father Jack knows jack shit about God’s big plan.” He shrugged his thin shoulders and continued to stare out at the water.

“Well – a priest’s got a habit of acting like he knows what’s going on with God – I wouldn’t take it for the gospel, either. We got to get moving – you ready?” Robbie nodded and they both got up and headed for the truck.

 

 

 

 

 

What is it About Cleaning?

OK fellow writers and readers – I’ll tell you one thing about me – two hours of cabin cleaning makes the writer’s desk that I couldn’t get away from fast enough this morning, look pretty darned good!

The other day I was fortunate enough to read a great little blog post by The Jilted Genius – entitled Monday Muse  The Genius mentions the Monday morning blahs of coming back from her walk to an apartment that needs cleaning. The words really struck a chord with me.

What is it about cleaning? I am a well-organized person – except when it comes to cleaning. I have always wanted to be one of those people who are super organized about housework – the type of person who schedules certain jobs and keeps up with things. This person – who lives only in my imagination – approaches the daily tasks of cleaning with the calm of a koi swimming idly in a peaceful pond among the beautifully blooming water lilies – swishing gently to and fro through the cleaning tasks with dignity. Well – suffice to say I have never achieved this Zen of Cleaning. I am always behind the eight ball. Jobs get done because we’re having company or because I have reached my maximum level of tolerance for mess – or my maximum level of denial about what is actually surrounding me. Call it what you will. I tear madly through the cabin looking like something from a horror movie – on my face is a look of pure malevolence – all I need is a chainsaw screaming in my hand, waving it over my head to complete the picture. I literally want to kill every person who has put a single thing out-of-place in this cabin. To hell with the fact that there is only Bruce and I and the dog – and we can safely assume the dog doesn’t misplace her things. I assure you, I am as messy as Bruce so my homicidal thoughts are definitely uncalled for.

When I taught at the university and lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in the city – mostly all by myself – I had to hire a cleaning lady. I couldn’t seem to organize myself to clean the bathroom – ever. Like that Taylor Swift song – never – I mean like never, ever. It was embarrassing. I claimed I was too busy teaching and holding down a couple of research positions. The reality is that I have always viewed my life as one that is too busy for cleaning.

It’s the starting that is the biggest challenge. I liken this to the anxiety that can often accompany the beginning a writing project – be it a paper, an article, or a work of fiction. There is this poised on the edge feeling that I find quite uncomfortable. I suppose it’s about knowing you have to step over that edge into something else. I usually bargain with myself a bit. I say something like – OK – I’ll do this for thirty minutes and then stop. Or I put some music on and challenge myself – can I finish 1000 words before the end of this album? Can I get the bathroom done in fifteen minutes? Once I do start – on the writing or the cleaning – the anxiety disappears along with the need for bargaining and challenging. And of course, like many of you, when I push the chair away from the desk after a good day’s work, or put the vacuum cleaner away and look around the tidy cabin – there is this amazing sense of satisfaction. I always tell myself – remember this – remember how good it feels when you’re done. But – I never do. I mean never – like never, ever.

Lake Tahoe – me being way too busy for cleaning

Writing Dialogue isn’t Easy

Today, I struggled with the edits in Disappearing in Plain Sight as if I were wrestling with a snake-headed Medusa. This knock-down-drag-out battle was about trying to reconcile my editor’s request for clarity – in a certain piece of dialogue – with how that particular character’s voice sounded in my head. I was convinced that this character would be vague. I could hear her saying exactly what I had her saying. My editor commented that if my intent was to be confusing it wasn’t really effective. I made some compromises that I feel OK about – more than I wanted but less than what would have probably satisfied my editor.

Writing dialogue is tricky. The dialogue that appears in a novel is a construct. It isn’t exactly how people talk – it couldn’t be. No one would wade through pages that read like the transcript of an actual conversation. Believe me – I’ve transcribed and read through enough research interviews to be sure of that. Most spoken conversation sounds OK when you’re present for it – otherwise not so much.

As fiction writers we work to ensure that every word serves a purpose. Dialogue moves the story along. The words we put in a character’s mouth give the reader important information. How do characters express themselves? What words are chosen – what words are left out or implied? Why does a character choose to talk at a particular time? Why has the choice been made to have a character speak certain words to one character rather than another? Dialogue does all kinds of things, but each thing it does must move the story along.

 

I’ve written chunks of dialogue that were thinly veiled attempts to get pieces of information across to the reader by putting them in the mouths of characters who would never actually say the things I’m attributing to them.  DELETE. I’ve written other dialogue that ended up being my voice and not the voice of the character. DELETE. I’ve written dialogue that is misplaced – how often does someone decide to talk about a painful event in their past in an aside to a colleague during a staff meeting. DELETE. And I’ve written dialogue that suffered so much from colloquialisms and slang – well, it was literally painful to read. DELETE. Dialogue is not easy.

Let’s take a look at what some of the reference books say about dialogue.

Renni Brown and Dave King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writing, point out that our characters come alive – or fail to – when they speak, and it’s no easy matter to put just the right words in their mouths.

Christopher T. Leland, in The Creative Writer’s Style Guide, urges us to be cautious about asking dialogue to do too much narrative work.

Bob Mayer, in The Novel Writer’s Tool Kit, writes that conversation in a novel is not what it would be in real life. We lack the things we would have in real like – all the varied dimensions of nonverbal communication. We must make up for this lack with the words we choose. Written dialogue is more concise than spoken.

And we’ll give the last word to the King. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tell us that dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others . . . many good dialogue writers simply seem to have been born with a well-tuned ear  . . . the key to writing good dialogue is honesty . . . talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut-up.

I love to write dialogue. In some ways I consider it to be the strongest part of my writing. When I start to write a scene it’s always in terms of which characters are going to be talking and what are they going to say. Only later do I flesh out the setting, the beats that pace the whole scene out, and the character attributions that keep the reader on track.

I’ve learned a lot since I began this journey of fiction writing and I know I have so much more to learn. The compass I steer by is my knowledge of the characters I have created – my belief, that after working with these characters for a while, I can actually hear them talking in my head. Having said that, I understand how important an editor’s perspective can be – I have listened to these voices yammering away at me for a long time – it’s quite possible for me to assume that something is obvious, when it is not. An editor or a trusted reader helps snap me out of thinking everything I write is crystal clear. Not a pleasant sort of snap – but very necessary.

The above image was taken at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden – I give you this picture with this post in the hope that you will experience the sheer wonder of this piece of art.

The photos that appear at the beginning of the post were taken at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Peace Garden.

 

Editing – Creating – Building a Social Media Platform – All in a Day’s Work

This blog is supposed to be about my self-publishing journey – so I better self-locate – it seems there are multiple things going on right now.

  1. Final edits on Disappearing in Plain Sight – the manuscript goes to FriesenPress  on or before Oct. 10th
  2. Last week I created an entire timeline for the sequel – The Light Never Lies – and I actually began writing the first chapter last night
  3. Building my social media platform – that includes this blog
  4. Reading various books related to writing and building said social media platform
  5. Getting ready for what is shaping up to look like a phenomenal driving trip to Southern California next month
  6. Loving the warmth of September, busy getting this winter’s fire wood in, and enjoying the garden

The final edits for Disappearing in Plain Sight are picky and tedious at times but the way the writing has cleaned up is like a breath of fresh air. When I read through the edited sections the smoothness is enough to make me quiver. Well – there it is – but admit it – you love your own stuff the same way. It’s part of the process.

Reposted from FriesenPress – I love this little comic

Last week I pulled all 200 plus pages of notes I had written for The Light Never Lies into a comprehensive timeline with all the scenes I have envisioned laid out as they would have occurred in real-time. Some of this will play out sequentially and some will end up as back story. That allowed me to see the entry point to the story and I was able to start the real writing last night. My goal now, is to do a minimum of 2000 words per day. I plan to write-through to the end and then in subsequent drafts rearrange the back story pieces and add the details that will be necessary for readers who didn’t read Disappearing in Plain Sight first. Each novel should be able to stand alone – I recently read that somewhere.

Not my timeline – but sort of interesting

The biggest challenge of all these days is building my social media platform. I’ve read Kristen Lamb’s  popular e-book: We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and am beginning to grasp her whole idea of constructing a social media platform over interlocking Facebook, My Space, and Twitter accounts, plus a WordPress Blog. It is daunting, to say the least. I have been able to follow a couple of her suggestions. I always post a link from my Facebook page to my latest blog entry. And she has got me starting on the road to thinking about the whole concept of branding – scary as that sounds.

I am a bit encouraged as I try to build-up the blog following (a big shout of thanks to those who have been reading – don’t be afraid to click the like button if you do like it or even make a comment – I love to hear what people think of the posts) to learn that it is supposed to take a while if you do it right. My strategy has been to check out the freshly pressed blog posts on WordPress – read through until I find a few I like – press the like button and make a comment if I can think of something fresh and interesting to add to the discussion. Then I sometimes mine through the comments other people have made. I’m looking for something that catches my eye and then I check out that person’s blog. It’s all very time-consuming, though quite interesting. By the way – I can’t just like anything to build a following and I don’t follow anyone for the same reason – so if I liked your post it was because I really liked your post and if I’m following you it’s because I’m really interested! Felt I had to say that. Self-promotion, branding, and building my platform makes me feel a bit of a phony at times.

Funny aside – I made a comment on a very popular blog a while back – broadsideblog – and at the end I said how great the blog name was but instead of broadsideblog I wrote broadstreetblog – cue the video of me shoving a paper bag over my head. I quickly posted an additional comment to apologize. I wrote the correct name of the blog and said it was an example of how one could never proof read enough. This was as good a recovery as I could come up with. Thanks so much broadsideblog for you’re happy face emoticon in response.

I have been reading a couple of Bob Mayer’s  books on writing: The Novel Writer’s Toolkit and Write it Forward: From Writer to Successful Author. He is a very successful author; he’s published in both the world of traditional publishing and self-publishing. He’s written successful novels in a number of genres. His background is in US Special Forces and the Green Berets. His books on writing are a bit like a self-help boot-camp. I’ve picked up a couple of interesting tidbits for sure and I’ve had some really good belly laughs, too. I am always fascinated to encounter interesting juxtapositions. Special Forces training as a model for going from a writer to a successful author are certainly a new set of linkages for me.

The trip to Southern California is shaping up in an exciting way. Blog followers – you can look forward to at least three posts per week with a couple of great photos and as much interesting commentary as I can manage. Travelling with Bruce is a bit like going to boot camp – he is the type of person who wants to squeeze as much out of every single day on the road as can be managed. This  means getting up and out by 6:00am at the latest, jam-packing as much into each day as is humanly possible, and then falling into bed in a stupor by 10:00pm at the latest. Sometimes I don’t make it past 9:30pm! But I will endeavour to make notes as the days go by so I have something to post.

 

This September has been lovely here – we haven’t had a drop of rain the entire month and the garden is beautiful. We’re eating our own beans practically every day and loving it. Bruce has been busy splitting out the last of this winter’s firewood and baking it out in the driveway. Life is good.

So that self-locates me for the moment. What about you? Where are you at in the journey? Let me know – I’d love to hear and I promise to reply.

 

 

 

My First Attempt at Flash Fiction

I just completed my inaugural stab at writing a piece of flash fiction. This is my first contribution to the Ramsgate Women’s Fiction Writing Group. I found them on Facebook – I am their first (and I suspect only) overseas member. The prompt was supposed to be something you’d see written on a post-it note. I’ve never been so grateful for being a quick thinker and a fast typist – we were only supposed to write for 20 minutes and I was determined to honour the parameters. The group was meeting together to do this exercise in what I’m imagining was a really cool little British pub, drinking pints and eating crisps, no doubt. (I’ve never been to the UK so I’m drawing on Coronation Street here for inspiration.) I was all alone at my kitchen table – still, I want to be a good group member! I ended up with 5 full minutes to spare for some edits.

Prompt: Birthday present for dad?

She’s standing in her kitchen holding a tattered, yellow, stickie note that was stuck to a page and buried under yet more paper – all held to the fridge with a heavy-duty magnet. Yes – she is one of those people who uses the front of her fridge as a make shift bulletin board – for all the use it ever does her. She’s never organized anyway. What could that question mark have meant? Did it mean she had wondered if she should get him gift, or if she should mail it, or if it would get to him on time. She has no idea.

Her dad had died almost two years ago – prostate cancer which had moved into a tumor in the bladder. Her one fear, those last months with him, had been that he would lose his mind in some way – maybe not recognize people or start saying odd things. But nothing like that had happened – he was himself right to the end, but a different self, too. He was polite and grateful for the care she gave him, that she had rearranged her life to be with him, that she made it possible for him to stay at home to die. They struggled through a difficult relationship over the years, but he ended things well.

She remembered thinking people who were dying would want to mend fences and have serious talks with family members and friends. After all, her dad knew he was dying and that gave him an advantage over people who dropped dead out of the blue. But she had been wrong about that, too. He had used all his energy to go to the end with dignity – managing to be polite on the way. It had been quite an amazing thing to see.

She remembers the day he looked out at his prized roses – her husband had just trimmed then – and said, “Well, they’ll bloom nice next year . . . but I won’t see them.” One day he wanted to drive across the line – in their family the American border was always called, the line. He wasn’t really supposed to drive but she wouldn’t stop him. Behind the wheel of his truck he looked at her and said, “What a great feeling to get out on the road – I could go anywhere.” They both knew he couldn’t go anywhere – his morphine was back at the house and she didn’t see that he had packed extra pads to deal with the issue of incontinence. Dying with a tumor in your bladder is a messy business.

That last day – sitting by his bed – wondering if he could still hear her – she said, “Dad – maybe death is like going out on big road trip – maybe it’s like getting in the truck and taking off on the wide open road. Maybe it’s like that.” In the room where the silence was broken only by her father’s rasping, choking attempts to breathe, the tears slid silently down her face.

Leo Guenette
1937 – 2009

Jacques Derrida, Freegal Music, the Titanic, and Character Development

This blog is a bit like cleaning off my desk – just what has been going on in my life this week?

Jacques Derrida – I had forgotten all about my methodological love affair with Derrida and the whole idea of deconstructionism.    A Facebook update this week that featured a Derrida quote brought it all back. “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the laws of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.” – Jaques Derrida (Thanks Chris!)

I was, at one time, blissfully lost in what Derrida describes as writing under the conditions of erasure – meaning is never fixed in language – it always escapes – we are forced to let go of each concept at the very moment we need it – the decisions we make are always made under conditions of lack of knowledge and lack of understanding – these decisions are always acts of madness – any decision to use language that doesn’t go through the ordeal of the un-decidable wouldn’t be a free decision at all – maybe legal, but not legitimate. Puts everything in perspective – right? It might also explain why I never finished that PhD dissertation, but that is definitely the stuff of another post!

I remember how sad I was when Derrida died and the way in which he was so vilified in a New York Times obituary. When an outpouring of negative reaction to the Times piece came out, I learned that Derrida was particularly remembered for his generosity toward students – when he held a 1/3 teaching position at Irvine, he taught more than was required of him and the time he spent with students was unparalleled. Derrida would attend conferences on deconstructionism and give serious attention to all presentations. He would take careful notes and ask thoughtful, respectful questions of each presenter – be they lowly student or peer. As a graduate student myself at the time, this only endeared him more to me.

My favorite Derrida compliment was written by Dr. Gerry Coutler of Bishops University in an article entitled – Passings: Taking Derrida Seriously  “From time to time there is nothing on earth like reading Derrida and I for one am glad he will be with us for as long as there are libraries and students to share his work with . . . I wish you fond memories of reading Derrida, late at night when it is quiet, when his prose haunts truth, and I hope you recall that night when you either fell in love with Derrida or passed through him.”

This week I discovered how to download popular music – free from the local library using something called Freegal – what does that stand for anyway? Each library card holder gets three songs per week – but there are two of us so that equals 6 songs – more than adequate for our needs. I can guarantee you that Bruce and I aren’t going to come across more than 6 new songs per week that we want to download to the precious IPod.

I bought the Titanic movie in VHS for 75 cents the other day at a Thrift Store. We still have a fully functional VCR and have no problem viewing movies in this format – though it causes my son-in-law to look at us like we have just emerged from a cave somewhere. What the heck – to him we probably have! I watched the movie the other night. I had seen it once in the theatre years ago. I was surprised to find myself totally caught up in the drama and taking one emotional hit after another. The storytelling is bloody brilliant – as my British buddies might say. (A heads up to the Ramgate Women’s Fiction Writing Group – I just became their first overseas member via Facebook this week!)

Sure, the whole Titanic movie is a bit smarmy and predictable and the sound track is enough to make anyone sit down and sob – but still – it got to me. It brings home the message that certain storylines will always grab an audience – boy falls for girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl – well, in the case of the Titanic – boy dies but girl goes on to live a fabulous and fulfilling life! Not a bad ending at all.

It makes me reflect on the enjoyable times I have had visiting my son and watching various TV series. He once commented on the diversity of things I seem to like – from Firefly, to The Shield and Gray’s Anatomy – to name just a few we have waded through together. I think this has to do with how it’s not really about the setting – I don’t care if the story is set in a Wild West outer space of the future, a gritty police precinct, or a hospital – it’s the characters that matter. They have to be interesting. They have to do and say things that seem real, things that make me think, things that make me care about them. I’m looking to see a story arc for each character that leads, by the end of a single episode or the series as a whole, to the realization that these people have changed and grown in some significant way and through my exposure, I too have been changed. This is the impact I want the characters I create to have when I launch them into the world.

Have the characters in a book, movie, or TV series ever really got to you? Let me know. I’d like to close this post by drawing the diverse threads of these gleanings together but am at a loss as to how. I suppose it is all about living and thinking and being – what more is there?

Julien Dupre – Peasant Girl with Sheep – Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco