Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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Painting the Idea Wall

One wall of my writing office is covered with a smooth, glossy surface, currently home to a Rorschach test of various colors. An indigo splotch is running down over a yellow stain to meet a red splat.

I stare at the chaos. There’s an idea I can keep. But that orange one over there is a dead end, I think.

“You know, love, you’d have better luck if you focused more.” My Muse closes the door behind him with a quiet snick.

Of course, he’s right. I drop the powder blue goop in my hand into the bucket of discarded ideas at my feet. It lands with a satisfying bloop. “It’s spring.” ‘Nuff said. The grass is getting green, my tomato plants are outgrowing the nursery “pots” I started them in, and it’s just plain nice outside, at least for the weekend. Sunny and seasonal.

I turn to see my Muse staring at the whiteboard. He’s tucked his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, drawing my attention to his admirable backside. “No news this week?” he asks as he half-turns in my direction. An eyebrow arches. “What?”

Er, ahem. I hope my face isn’t as red as it feels. “Nothing.” I move up beside him. “My agent is on vacation for the next two weeks. Besides, I’m waiting for my readers to send me feedback.”

He crosses his arms on his chest and scans the multi-colored wall. “This looks good.” He points to a somewhat coordinated section of wall. “You can use this.”

“I know. I just need to refine it. I think it’ll jack the danger for my main characters if I go this direction. I just don’t know if I should keep this or not.” The area I indicate is a nice pattern, but I’m not sure if it’ll help the plot.

“It’s only the second draft, love. See how it works.” He settles into one of the recliners facing the wall, examining it like an art appraiser. He scoops a glob from the idea bucket and juggles it in his hand. “What if the drug lord grew up there? What if she knows the chief? Or the victim?” He flings the glob.

It lands with a splat beside the indigo. He picks up another handful. “That way no one would suspect her of doing her illegal business in town.”

Hmm. I draw my finger through the fresh goop and smear it across the indigo. “Maybe. I’ll think about it.”

“You need to do more than just think about it, love.” He chucks a bright fuschia blob. It lands with a squish, then rolls down the wall in a thick, slime-like mass, leaving pink in its wake.  “You need to work through this plot sooner rather than later. The more you can get done sooner, the farther along you’ll be once you need it.”

And he’s right, of course. I drop into the other recliner. It’s coming together. I realized the other day how I can up the tension and conflict. Sort of.

While these ideas ferment, I’ll leave you with a few pics (because I know someone is expecting them–you know who you are 🙂 )

Remember those fuzzy chicks? They’re not so fuzzy anymore. They’ve got real feathers now. And they’re starting to hop-flap, so we need to be careful when we feed them.

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And one of my favorite parts of spring is finally here! I can’t wait until they’re big enough to pick. Can you see the asparagus spears just coming up?

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And I’d hate to leave you without a cat pic, because, you know. Some days I wish I was a cat. All I’d have to do is sleep all day long 😀

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Enjoy your weekend!


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Write what you know?

Sounds like a great idea, right? If you write what you know, just think of all the research you don’t have to do. That’s more time you can spend actually writing. Then again, you miss all the fun of actual research (I mean, just think of the rabbit holes you can explore when you google “lethal food”). Disclaimer: No, I haven’t googled it yet, but I write mysteries, so I’ll get there 😉 .

Not only do you get to skip out on a lot of research, you get to use all that special knowledge you’ve got stored in that gray matter of yours. It’s almost as good as bar trivia, right? I mean, if you find a substitute for drinking a shot every time you get a question wrong (just to keep the record straight, I’ve never personally played bar trivia, but I wouldn’t mind trying it 😀 )

Sounds like a plan. Heck, a lot of writers do it. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, just like Kathy. John Grisham is a lawyer in the South, and he writes legal thrillers set in the South. Right now I’m reading a Jammer Davis book by Ward Larsen. Jammer is an ex-Air Force pilot and aviation accident investigator, just like … wait for it … Ward Larsen. The list goes on.

It’s a good way to make your characters sound authentic. And that’s the idea, right? Make the reader believe your character really knows what s/he is doing. If you are an investigative journalist and know the ins and outs of the business, including working for a television news station, your investigative journalist character will be authentic and believable, just like Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Charlotte McNally.

Since you’ve done the job, you can add extra details to ensure the reader believes in the character. And adding that tidbit to the blurb lends you some weight with readers. Think: well, this author is a third-degree black belt in jujitsu, so this book about a ninja should be pretty good.

But … (you knew this was coming 🙂 )

There’s a line between authenticity and readability. If you worked as a chocolatier for ten years, and your main character is a chocolatier, you can have that character describe how to get the perfect temper for the chocolate. If you, a geologist writing a thriller, make your character a geologist,  that character can describe the aspects of drilling for oil, or searching for gold, or taking core samples in Antarctica.

And just as you’re describing how the change in strata means a volcanic eruption a couple million years ago produced a solid vein of gold rather than gold scattered through the rock, your reader is skipping ahead to where the bad guy has your main character lined up with the cross-hairs of the scope of his high-powered rifle.

See the dilemma? You want to include the details to prove you know what you’re talking about, but unless the reader is interested in geology, they don’t want to wade through that. If you want some examples of TMTI (too much technical information), read Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan books.

dash8 smOkay, so how much do you take out so the reader won’t skip that part? Or, how much do you include to make sure the reader knows you know what you’re talking about? That’s where I’m at with my manuscript. After talking with my agent, and reviewing the somewhat-but-not-very-helpful feedback from the publishers who have passed, I’m tweaking my manuscript to remove even more of the TMTI bits, because we suspect that might be a big part of the reason they passed. If the editors stumble through those parts, it ruins the reading experience. In fact, the most recent publisher to pass said it was a really close decision. If there’d been a little bit less TMTI, would they have accepted it? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something.

For instance, my main character, who is an aircraft mechanic, is asked about the fire bottle for the auxiliary power unit (APU) in an airplane. Initially, she described it thus:

“Fire bottle. If there’s a fire in the APU, it’ll blow. There’s an explosive squib here,” she pointed to a nodule on the bottle connected to a wire harness, “that ruptures the diaphragm and releases high-pressure suppressant.” She indicated the line that carried the chemical extinguisher to the combustion chamber of the APU.

If you’re someone familiar with mechanical stuff, you can probably follow this pretty well. But if you have trouble doing more than pumping gas or airing up your tires, you’ll probably skim this. So, time to leave out more of the details:

Fire bottle. If theres a fire in the APU, itll blow. Theres an explosive squib here, she pointed to a nodule on the bottle connected to a wire harness, that releases high-pressure suppressant.

Why did I keep the detail about the squib and the wire harness? Because it’s relevant in one of the climax scenes. Which is smoother to read? The second one, I hope.

I’ve pulled a lot of the remaining technical details out (by this point far less then in earlier drafts), but it’s still a struggle of wanting to prove I know what I’m talking about (authenticity) and making it accessible to mostly non-mechanical readers (readability). After my guinea pigs–er, readers go through it, I’ll send it to my agent for the next round of submissions. Here’s hoping!

It’s been a short week–at least it seems like it. Had a nice day with relatives last week, and everyone (in-laws) got to meet my son’s girlfriend. Whew, it’s over! For all those who celebrate Easter, have a blessed holiday weekend. For everyone else, get writing!


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Just a bit o’ pics

Hey there. Today is family gathering day. Last week, I threatened to have just pictures. I know, I know, you are sooo dreading this, and I won’t blame you if you leave now. I promise I’ll have more to say next week.

Oh, before I get to the boring stuff (you know, pics), a quick update. Another publisher crossed off the list. Three to go, and hopefully one of the question marks will come back with a positive response, but I’m not holding my breath. After talking to my agent a couple days ago, I’ll go back through the manuscript and make some tweaks before she sends it off again.

Alright, if you don’t make it through the rest of the post, have a great weekend! 😀

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Is this my good side?

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Hey, that’s my spot!

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Is there enough room for me?

Here are our new additions:

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Brown leghorn chicks

Enjoy your weekend!


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Let’s take this show on the road!

Check out the Story Empire Roadshow. Six awesome authors on tour this week sharing tips and insights, and offering some of their wonderful books. Oh, yeah, there’s some prizes involved, too 🙂

Story Empire

Hey gang, Craig here. As you know, Story Empire is a cooperative effort of six talented authors. We try to bring you some wonderful content on this blog, but we’re all authors, too. Doing a bit of collaborative promotion is part of the deal.

This week we’re going on the Story Empire Roadshow. All six of us are doing a blog tour, there will be some deep discounts on our books, and maybe a few freebies along the way. Watch for the Story Empire Bookmobile out in blogland, and tell your friends about it. You might find some wonderful new blogs to follow, too.

For myself, I’m doing some discounts on my books, and giving a couple away, but you’ll have to follow the tour to get the exact dates. At the end, the two most prolific commenters will win some awesome coffee mugs I had made with a graphic…

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Update and a little break

No foolin’ today. I’ve got plans. Sure, they’re plans I’d like to put off, but there is a benefit to inviting one’s relatives over for a family gathering. You can only procrastinate so long before you absolutely have to get things done, like cleaning, organizing, catching up on reading–wait, scratch that last one. Won’t have much time to read this weekend after I get the other stuff done. Ugh.

Today’s supposed to be a wonderful spring day, so I’ve got washing windows and cleaning the refrigerator on my list, along with all the incidentals like vacuuming and organizing. I’m a lot farther behind this year than I usually am because of my self-imposed NaNo from last month.

Which, by the way, I managed to complete by the 30th–woo-hoo! The story isn’t done, and I won’t finish it because the plot needs a serious overhaul. I’ll look at that later, after the whole family gathering thing.

Now to the white board in my writing office. The list of publishers reminds me of how far I’ve come on this writing journey of mine. I got an update from my agent yesterday. Five more publishers haven’t indicated much interest, but they haven’t specifically passed. I put question marks behind those.

“Your agent said they could still show interest, love. It just might take a little longer.” My Muse stands beside me, shoulder to shoulder–er, make that my shoulder to his arm. He’s got a height advantage on me. Today he’s wearing painters pants (yes, like those painters pants, complete with a few paint stains, though I’m not sure what he’d paint that particular shade of orange, or purple) and a faded red t-shirt that might’ve shrunk a bit. Not that I’m complaining…

I pointed to the four remaining publishers who still appear interested. “We’re hoping to hear back from these, but she’s going to call next week to talk about possible tweaks to the story based on what little feedback we’ve gotten.”

Most of the feedback we’ve gotten from some of the publishers who’ve passed is just as helpful–or not–as feedback I’ve gotten from agent query rejections. And it’s all over the board. One likes this, but really doesn’t think that works for them. Two others really like that, but have different opinions about the rest.

“How do you plan to tweak things?” My Muse picks up a marker and starts a list off to the side. “One didn’t like this so much, but two others loved it. One didn’t like the pacing, but all the other feedback you’ve gotten indicates the pacing is good.” He makes a check. “There’s the usual ‘just didn’t connect with it’. And one mentioned voice.”

The dreaded ambiguity of “voice”. What is voice, anyway? I’ll have to do some reading on that, I think. Anyone have any suggestions for a good reference on voice? I’ll also look at Janice Hardy’s blog–she’s got a great one for writers called Fiction University. I’m sure there’s at least one post on voice.

He gives me a sideways glance. “Remember, it’s all subjective.”

“I know. I’m going to try to read through my manuscript with the vague feedback in mind before I talk to my agent. Try to come up with ideas for tweaks before she submits to more publishers.”

I’m not sure what kind of tweaks. The main character in the book is a female aircraft mechanic, so there is some–not much–technical stuff. A lot less technical stuff than there was in the earlier drafts. Maybe trimming even more of that. Which I’m reluctant to do because, I suppose, I feel like it gives her more validity, but if that’s hanging people up, then I’ll work with it.

So, I’ll be busy this weekend. Maybe I’ll have to do a post on voice next week. Wait, no. Family gathering next week. Maybe I’ll cheat and just post cat pics.

Like anyone would complain about that 😀

Have a great weekend and keep on writing!


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Roughing It – 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of creating, writing, bringing characters in your mind to life on the page. When the energy propels you to get the words out, that story in your head takes shape. You can see the unfolding of the plot, the characters, the setting, every bit that is part of the whole. You can’t refine your work until it’s in front of you. Enter the first draft, better known as the rough draft.

I’m working on the first draft of my next novel, and hitting a stretch of frustration that my mental picture of the story wasn’t complete enough to make the draft a smoother ride. It’s not the characters; the book my agent is shopping introduces the characters. It’s not the setting, though I think I’ll have to do a road trip (twenty+ years since I’ve been there). It’s the plot. The timeline. The guideposts along the way.

I tried to outline, but I don’t think I had a clear vision of the story. With most of my other projects, by the time I got to the point of writing the first draft, I had a pretty good handle on them in my head. This one, not so much.

It occurred to me as I was trying to hit my word quota last night that I’ve learned some things over the course of thirteen novel first drafts. I figured I’d share them (don’t worry, there’s pictures at the end–but not of my cat 😉 )

In no particular order, here are 5 things I’ve learned about first drafts:

  • I’m a novelist. Not that I can’t write short stories–my first publishing credits were short stories–but the stories in my head tend to be novel-length: 80,000 words or more. It took me over five or six years to write the first draft of my first novel (not counting the trunk novel I wrote in elementary–jr. high school). I knew I wanted to write a book–actually, rewrite that first book–after my kids were born, but I didn’t want it to drag on until they graduated.

When I learned about NaNoWriMo (50k words in 30 days), I knew that was my ticket to finishing a book in a reasonable amount of time. The key to “winning” at NaNo? Kicking the inner editor into a cage and locking it (that’s besides the 1,667 words a day). I learned I need to treat a new project like I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, no matter what time of the year. It’s only with that 30-day deadline and a restrained inner editor that I’m able to put myself into the frame of mind to just write. It also seems to be the only way I can get back into the habit of writing every day.

  • I outline, in a loose-ish sense of the word. The outline is not the only route from beginning to end for me, but it gives me an idea of the journey. With my current project, I struggled with the outline. I came up with characters, conflict, and setting, but the path through from beginning to end was fuzzy, and it shows during my writing sessions. I’ve learned my draft goes much better when I have a good idea of the story (outline), BUT
  • I’ve learned the process of writing the first draft actually helps bring the story into focus. As I’m writing, I make both inline notes and off-line notes. This particular draft looks less like an actual book and more like a scriptwriter’s attempt to put a director’s vision into some sort of storyboard-in-words. The story is more clear to me now than it was when I started. Maybe that’s because my NaNo-style first draft method is a lot like free-writing. No takebacks, no revising, no editing, just inline notes and writing forward.
  • I’ve learned first drafts are called “rough” for a reason. It’s less like a rock you can polish into something to put in a ring and more like deadwood turned into a functional piece of furniture with class. Rough drafts are UGLY. At least this one is. I mentioned it to some online friends as “sucking like a lemon soaked in turpentine”. Yep. Pretty much. I will never be like George R. R. Martin, with a first draft that’s ready to publish right off the finish line. Then again, my draft takes 30 days to finish, not five or six or more years.
  • I’ve learned to trust my method (your mileage may vary). This project taught me that skipping steps in the beginning (I didn’t lay out a timeline, or figure out the major plot points (just thought about the general direction), or fill out my storyline worksheets from Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days) results in uncertainty and missing my word quota.

When I work through my process, I can often exceed my word count because I can just write. I don’t have to think about where I’m going next. I know I’m headed in the right direction because I plotted my course (heh, see what I did there) ahead of time. It’s like planning a route when you drive to a writers’ conference or retreat. You know pretty much how to get there, even if there are detours along the way. My process has changed over the years (more free-writing, less fill-in-every-entry-in-the-worksheets), but it works for me. This is the first time I got lazy (or uninspired) about planning/outlining, and boy, do I know it.

I’m on the home stretch. One more week (and I get an extra day this month because March has 31 days–heh), and I’ll have 50k words and a complete or almost-complete first draft for my next book. Then the scramble to prep for hosting the fam for Easter in — OMG — two weeks?! I’ve gotta get moving on that.

SO, I might miss my mark in the interest of not embarrassing myself with my in-laws. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a peek into my garden this summer.

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onion seedlings

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tomatoes and a few peppers

Have a great weekend!


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Writing and waiting

Today I use a green dry-erase marker for my writing office whiteboard. You know, for St. Patrick’s Day (even though St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish to start with). Three more publishers off the list as passes, but I add a new one to the bottom. The editor reached out to my agent, so of course she pitched my manuscript, and the editor asked to see it.

Yay! I mean, anytime another editor gets eyes on it is another chance an editor will love it, right?

My Muse arrives in full regalia: well-worn (in every sense of the word) jeans, tennis shoes, a bright green Guinness t-shirt, and a green hat with the requisite “Kiss me, I’m Irish” motto in shiny gold letters. I’m almost surprised he didn’t do a temporary dye job and go red- or green-haired for the day. Almost.

He hands me a mug of steaming coffee. “With Irish Creme, doncha know,” he says with a grin and a pathetic attempt at an Irish accent. “It’s too early fer green beer, but I’ll bring that along later.”

I feel my eyes narrow and a wince escape my control. “Dude, you’re Australian. You’re not even very good at American accents. Gonna have to work on your Irish accent.”

He sips his own coffee with a loud slurp. “So you say.”

“Seriously. When have you ever had to do an American accent? I mean, outside of a Southern accent, and you slip with that. I can’t think of one project, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen most of them.”

“You’re going to blow my cover, love.”

“Phhfftt. Like anyone’s going to know.” I sip the coffee, and suck in air. Woof. Cough. “Holy crap. Just how much Irish Creme did you put in here?”

“Enough. I added a little Jameson to even it out.” He takes another horrendously loud slurp and evaluates the board. “Three more passes.” He points to the new addition. “How does this one look?”

“They’re an independent. They’ve got a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and such on their list.” I wander to the window and look out.

A path covered with bark mulch wends into the woods. A white guidepost stands at the end just outside the office. Another appears beside the path around the first bend. Beyond it, fog hangs thick, obscuring the path and the next guidepost.

My Muse stands next to me. I notice now the rainbow and pot o’ gold motif on the mugs. “What’s up with that?” he asks, lifting his mug to point.

I brace myself for another sip of altered coffee and wonder if the caffeine will counter the Jameson. “My new draft.” I sidestep until I can see a guidepost beyond the fog bank. “I kinda know where I’m going, but I’m not sure how to get there. I’m missing a lot of stuff I’ll have to go back and add. I’m still a day behind in my word count because of it.”

“Or are you behind because you missed another day this week?” At my questioning look, he raises an eyebrow. “I’m watching you, love. Are you going to make your NaNo?”

“Yes, I’ll catch up. I’m taking Monday off from the day job.”

He tsks. “And how much writing do you suppose you’ll put in tomorrow? You’re going to be ‘out’ all day.”

I roll my eyes. “It’s a writers festival.” A local one I’ve never heard of before. Apparently the group has been doing an annual gig in Bloomington. This is their first year in Rosemount. I found out about it through the local Sisters In Crime newsletter. “It’s not downtown Minneapolis or downtown St. Paul. It’s for writing. Not a substitute for the super-awesome UW Writers’ Institute in Madison, but it’s something.”

“Then you’ll have to buckle down, love. You’re going to miss your mark otherwise.”

Yep, I know. And I still haven’t started getting ready for the family Easter gathering. Sigh. I need to start getting the house cleaned (ugh) and organized (double-ugh), since we’re celebrating the weekend before Easter.

The publisher news is disappointing, but I expected to get passes. And there’s still nine publishers who haven’t reported in, including the new one. There’s still opportunity. I haven’t talked to my agent about what happens if none of the publishers like the manuscript. I expect she’ll pick another bunch of publishers to try. The feedback we’re getting is more “we like this part a lot, but this part doesn’t resonate with us” than “thanks but no thanks”. The brief critiques aren’t particularly useful, but it’s nice to know why they passed, and what they liked. It’s kind of interesting when one passes because of something they didn’t think worked for them but others really liked.

So, off to a writing thing tomorrow, then hammer away at the draft. Have a Happy St. Pat’s Day for those who celebrate. Also, Happy Vernal Equinox a few days early 🙂

Write on!

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Don’t wake me until the weekend!