Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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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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Percolating stories

Remember those old percolating coffee pots? You know, the white ones with the little blue flowers on them and the wide bottom (not the tapered-bottomed ones)? Corningware, I think. My mom had one. Or maybe it belonged to my grandmother. I have no idea what happened to it.

Anyway, I always think of it when I’m working on a story, whether I’m trying to work through revisions or generating a fresh plot. I’ve learned that once I have an idea, I need to let it tumble about in my had for a bit before it really seems to take shape (I guess I could’ve used a rock tumbler for an example, but come on—coffee). It’s like watching the coffee perk in the glass knob on the coffee pot lid. At first it’s really pale, then it gets darker, more coffee-like as the flavor is infused into the water.

I like to think of it as my subconscious working the idea through in the background while I work on other stuff, like my day job. When my brain jams up on the story, a walk outside seems to knock it loose and help with the process.

Now that I’ve finished the revisions my agent suggested, I’ll let my WIP sit for a few days to let it rest before I do another read-through. By the way, don’t skip that part if you can help it. The time away gives you a bit of distance from the story so when you go back to it, it’s easier to be more objective because you don’t have that immediate familiarity with the story. Weeks or a month away from the story is even better, but sometimes you don’t have that luxury.

So, while I’m letting my manuscript chill for a bit, what should I do? I’m reading, but it seems like I should be working on stuff I know I’ll need to do in the future, like figuring out a marketing plan, even though I haven’t sent my revised manuscript to my agent yet. (My agent. Love saying that 🙂 )

Ugh. I’m doing some research on that. A number of my blogging friends have been writing posts about marketing and book promotion lately, so I’ll go through those and take some notes.

I see procrastination in my future…

At one point my agent suggested I come up with some ideas for more stories involving the characters from my book, since publishers often want more than one book (following the theory of when the third book is published books 1 and 2 sell better). I’m good with that; I like the characters from my book, and somehow playing around with new story ideas sounds like way more fun than putting together a marketing plan.

I’ve got a couple ideas, and I’ve let them percolate just long enough to get a rough idea of the story. Maybe now is the time to stick those ideas back into the pot and let them simmer some more. Maybe I’ll do some free-writing of the ideas, like a walk-through of the story, to get the ol’ creative energies fired up.

If my lap-warmer will let me. It never fails. If I’m not doing anything in particular, she just wanders around like a bored kid. As soon as I try to start anything …
zoey1

This is her “I’m here so pet me” face. Or better yet, the “I’m going to sit here until you pay attention to me if I have to sit here all day and don’t bother pushing me off because I’ll be back and it might take me a bit to get comfortable so deal with it” face.

If I want to actually work, she decides it’s time for a nap in apparently the most comfortable spot she can find in the whole house: my lap.zoey2

Seriously.

Sometimes I’m grumpy enough to shove her off anyway before she gets comfy, but usually I relent because who doesn’t like having a cat sleep on them?

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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Another step–with cheers!

There’s something about working toward a goal, whether it’s running a 5k, remodeling a room, practicing meditation, or traveling to the states you haven’t visited yet. Sometimes the road to get there is long and full of potholes and detours.

Sometimes you can actively move toward the goal, like training to run a marathon. Sometimes you prepare for a goal, like saving up for travel or remodeling.

In the writing world, it seems all these come into play. We practice writing. We train by reading about writing and taking classes on writing. We go to writing conferences. We practice some more. We ease into the hot spring with short stories or flash fiction, with entries into contests, with blog posts and guest posts.

We learn about the business, what it takes, the best paths to get to where we want to be. We read. A lot. We align ourselves with other writers, better writers, and writing teachers so we can improve beyond what we think we can do. We accept the challenge of becoming a published writer.

We fall down. We slip a few rungs backward. When you’re a writer, you get up, dust off your pen and notebook, and try again. We feel like we can’t move forward, that nothing we do seems to move us toward that elusive goal many of us seek: to be published.

And then, you see hope. A glimmer here, a shine there. You get partial requests for your manuscript. You place in a contest. You get personal rejections instead of form rejections. You get requests for the full manuscript.

Then you get a request for a revise and resubmit. It might come with specific feedback, or it might have general ideas of where you can take the story. Maybe the agent is open to discussing the feedback. You speak with the agent about where to take the story. You revise with the feedback you received in mind.

Then you resubmit. Sometimes a rejection follows, but sometimes you get more feedback about the story. Sometimes you have another phone discussion.

And then you receive the contract, the offer of representation for the story you created.

Another step closer to seeing your book in print.

I’m excited to announce I have signed with a literary agent to represent my mystery novel.

I have a literary agent.

OMG.

I know what happens next. I know that once I finish my latest revisions, I’ll need to work on stuff like a marketing plan, a cover blurb, and a bio. I’ll probably have to redo my synopsis. When a publisher picks it up, I’ll have more revisions, more planning, more to do.

This being an author stuff is a lot of work.

And I thought writing the book was tough. Actually, writing the draft isn’t so hard. It’s the revising that comes afterward that really takes work and up-close-and-personal time with the Muse.

The key, though, is persistence. You have to keep going, keep learning, keep reading, keep writing. Keep moving forward.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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Anatomy of a Mystery

Sounds like I know what I’m doing, doesn’t it?

Ha! Fooled you!

The idea for this post came as I drove to work this morning pondering again how to strengthen my revised outline for my next WIP. Right now, I’m writing mystery (as opposed to fantasy, my other main genre). In general, and specifically for mysteries, I’ve received guidance from my wonderful writing sisters.

You gals have no idea how much I appreciate your help!

There are a few things I’ve learned about writing, and writing mysteries in particular:

  • Deadlines. There should be some time limit the protagonists are up against, whether it’s a bodily threat or some other threat. It could be anything from the killer striking again to Uncle Buck getting full possession of the estate or the wedding that can’t be rescheduled.
  • Dead bodies. My very first draft of the WIP I’m now working on had no dead bodies. There were threats, and a deadline, but no dead guys/gals. Yeah–no. It’s like a prerequisite. If there’s no dead bodies, it’s less a full-out adult-level mystery and more Encyclopedia Brown or the Three Investigators. Enjoyed those stories, but I don’t write MG or YA, where dead bodies are discouraged (real life is violent enough). Even cozy mysteries have dead bodies.
  • Chapter Hooks. Remember that book you started and couldn’t put down? The one where you had to read just one more chapter? Then just one more? Then there’s only a couple chapters left. Then your alarm clock goes off and you realize you stayed up all night reading. I remember the first book where I really noticed that: Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Yes, it’s a fantasy, but I had to keep reading because at the end of (just about) every chapter there was a question I needed to find the answer to. So, especially with a mystery, the more chapters you can end with a question that lures the reader to keep going, the better.
  • Stakes. In the very first draft of the manuscript I recently completed, the plot involved the main character’s BFF from high school. My writing sisters straightened me out. “Best Friend” isn’t close enough to the main character. Family is better. The main character should be tied to the mystery through a family relation of some sort (at least in the first book of many, if there is more than one). Why? Because the main character has a greater stake in the outcome if it involves family. So, I adjusted. The main character is now tied to the mystery via her brother. This also allowed me to add the additional threat of putting suspicion on the main character, which also jacks up the stakes. The deeper the crime/mystery affects the main character (higher stakes) the more tension you can create, and the more the reader cares if the main character succeeds.
  • Twists. Wow, didn’t see that coming, did you? This kinda goes without saying. Red herrings, false accusations, and soft alibis all contribute to misdirection. In my opinion, Agatha Christie was a master at this. I could never figure out who did it until the culprit was revealed at the end, then I would trace back to find the little clues she dropped along the way. And it always seemed like the innocuous detail was the clincher. This isn’t limited to mysteries, either. I’m sure there are romances out there where the “other woman (or man)” is someone the protagonist least expects. Or fantasies where one of the biggest allies turns out to be a major enemy (LOTR: Saruman, anyone?)

As I work on re-re-re-revising my WIP outline, I’m trying to keep all these things in mind so I can (hopefully) avoid yet another major plot revision.

Dead body? Yep. Died about 70 years ago, ruled accidental, but was it?

Deadline? Yep. My MC has a window in which to solve the mystery, and if she blows the deadline, she loses, like, a six-figure inheritance and a nice chunk of farmland with a house and everything.

Chapter hooks? That’ll come when I redo the draft. Again. Sigh.

Stakes? I’m trying to raise them as much as possible. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on them. It’s another instance of family being central to the mystery.

Twists? Ooo, I’ve got a lot of opportunities for misdirection. The trick will be to keep the misdirection believable without giving away too much too early.

And there you have it. And just because you aren’t writing mysteries doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. All of these (except the dead body) can be applied to almost any genre. You’ll also notice I left out conflict. That goes without saying. All stories need some sort of conflict, and if you’re a writer, you know that.

I’m almost done with my outline, and I’m aiming to start re-drafting this weekend. Besides, with the arctic cold and the snowstorm tomorrow, it’ll be perfect weather to stay inside and write. How about you?

 


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The Days After

Hope you all (in the US) enjoyed your Thanksgiving occasion without too much politicking, eating of yummy stuff, and shopping.

Ugh. Shopping. I’m an armchair shopper; you couldn’t pay me enough to battle the masses for in-store deals.

Well, okay, if I was getting a free shopping spree or something I’d manage.

I’ve got both Thanksgiving Day and the infamous “Black Friday” off of work as paid holidays (Yay!!) My son is home from college, my daughter has no school, and I didn’t have to cook for Turkey Day. I had two things that I wanted to take BF pricing advantage of.

There. Shopping done–for now. The kids haven’t gotten their lists together yet. I’ve got an extended weekend to catch up on stuff. I should clean… Um, I’m sure I have a reason to procrastinate on that.

Just before Turkey Day I sent my revised WIP to the agent who requested the revise and resubmit.

Hurry up and wait. And pray. And cross my fingers.

Now what? Dig into another book that needs revision? Which one? Another romantic mystery? My contemporary fantasy? Oh, I know. I need to come up with ideas for more books using my WIP characters (suggested by said agent).

I never thought about more adventures with those characters. My detective mystery, yes–I’ve got the next three books drafted. This one, though, not so much. Maybe I just haven’t gone that far yet; I’ve been focusing on polishing this installment.

I love the characters, and I love the setting and the premise, but I honestly never thought much beyond this book, though in the back of my mind I knew the possibility existed that I’d need to come up with something more for them.

No time like the present.

Sometimes stories start out as multiple episodes, like my detective series. But what if the story doesn’t start out that way? How do you come up with additional adventures for your characters?

Brainstorm! *sets up the brainstorming wall*

Yep. *looks around for colorful brain clouds amassing for a deluge* Uh-huh. *searches the horizon* O-kay. Any time, now.

I got nothin’.

Now what? You created the characters, breathed life into them, put them through conflicts and trials and heartache and, eventually, success of some sort. They survive to the end of the story, and you wish them good luck and move on to another story with other characters.

Except you need to go back to those characters, knock on their doors, and present them with a new itinerary.

Granted, nothing is for sure in this business, but it doesn’t hurt to be proactive. So, how does one go about creating more adventures for characters you love but just didn’t expect to spend more time with?

Everyone’s process is different. I know the appeal of my characters lies in their professions and the setting, so those are good places to start. My main protagonist works in the aviation industry, something I think people will want to read about, so I need to stick with that. Airports. Air shows. Air museums. Air guitars–er, maybe not. My other character is in law enforcement, so that falls naturally into a mystery.

My characters are developed, so I can shortcut that a bit, even though each adventure should encourage them to change a little. Now what? I need at least one dead body, multiple suspects, and a solid motive. The victim and/or the suspects and/or the culprit should have some sort of tie to the main characters. There needs to be conflict. My main characters have to be threatened somehow, have to have an “all hope is lost” moment, and need to come out on top in the end.

I cracked open a fresh notebook for the project, a two-subject one so I can use each section for a different story. And stared at the blank page.

So I started with the setting. I figured if I could at least give myself a starting point, I’d have something to work with. Then I added the big 6: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why. Then started throwing ideas at the brainstorming wall.

p_20161126_073605_cr The more I tossed ideas around, the more that stuck to the wall as possibilities for the new story. I’m up to five pages of ideas, and the plot is starting to coalesce. I’ve got the tie to my main character, another source of conflict for the main character that leaked in from my WIP, and multiple suspects.

It’s starting to look a lot like a novel-in-the-making. Once I have the story figured out, I can do a rough outline, or (heaven forbid!) a synopsis (cue the spooky music and evil laughter).

Ugh.

Then I can dive into a first draft. I see another self-imposed NaNo month in my future. Maybe February.

How do you come up with “the further adventures of” for characters who didn’t start out starring in more than one book? Days of intense brainstorming? Afternoon walks through the woods? People-watching at the mall?

Enjoy your weekend, and get writing!


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Can’t Do It Alone, or How Betas Rock

I’m talking writing, here. Fiction writing, to be exact, though even non-fiction writing benefits from multiple sets of eyes reviewing everything from sentence structure to fact-checking. You write alone, but critique partners or groups are key in helping you build a solid story.

I’ve been working on my revise and resubmit for the past couple months, and sent my manuscript off to a few beta readers. I’ve gotten feedback from almost all of them now, which gave me the idea for this post.

Beta readers are like the tasting panel for your book. You’ve done the research, mixed and remixed and revised the recipe until you think it tastes pretty good. You’ve let other people sample the brew, maybe even worked in the kitchen with them, and they’ve offered suggestions and advice that improved the flavor, color, and texture of your creation.

Refining the recipe is a necessary step. You’ve done that, and you could release the new and improved product into the wild and wait for people to try it, and hopefully love it.

Better, though, to toss the finished recipe off to a test panel made up of people who just like a good-tasting product, and people who have discerning taste–maybe super-tasters–who can tell whether you used old seasonings, or if the cow that gave the milk grazed in a grassy pasture or munched on hay. The panel can tell you there’s too much nutmeg, not enough vanilla, or just enough cinnamon. They’re the ones who will recommend more marshmallows, or less chocolate, or melting the butter instead of softening it.

They’re the ones that help you make those last-minute tweaks before you submit your creation to the judges.

My beta readers ranged from a fellow writer (in a different genre) to a retired school administrator to a couple of mindful readers. By selecting different types of readers, you get a better picture of how the story might be received by an audience.

Feedback. It does a story good!

I’ve gotten detailed feedback from my betas–some more detailed than others, of course–all useful. All valuable. My betas noted things I totally missed, like lakes are frozen in the winter in MN (don’t ask 🙂 –total brain cramp on that one), and if you mention something significant early in the story that affects one of the main characters, that something should probably play a bigger role in the story later on.

As the writer, you’re too close to the story to see these types of details. Someone who has never read the story has a better chance of seeing those bits and pieces that could make or break a reader’s enjoyment of the work. Beta readers are a resource all writers should utilize, but especially writers of longer works. There’s more opportunity in longer pieces to miss things, leave holes, or overdo bits.

Finding good beta readers might be tough, and might alienate you from those friends for a long time, but people like teachers, fellow writers, and avid readers (of something more than graphic novels or Harlequin romances) can point out what works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved.

I have a couple weeks to revise my WIP before I send it off. Then cross my fingers that the agent will like my changes.

To my beta readers: THANK  YOU!! *applause* *fireworks* You provided me with valuable feedback and great suggestions. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you spending the time not only reading my story, but writing up your notes for me.

Write on!

 


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A Dull Moment?

I really should let my Muse write this week’s post. I can’t think of anything.

Not true. I can think of stuff, just not for a blog post.

Stuff like how I need to change the next scene in my WIP to account for the revised character thread. Or whether I should write a post about starting an outline for NaNoWriMo, even though I’m not doing NaNo this year, but other people might be. Or how my garden is now a den of runaway weeds and sad, sad-looking tomato and pepper plants. Or how my raspberries are bountiful now, while the weather is decent.

Sigh. Decisions, decisions.

It’s October. Oh, boy, where did the time go? Wasn’t it just July? The trees are starting to change here, but I’ve entertained thoughts about driving up north toward Duluth to see the peak colors happening there now. Can’t, though. I’ve got a manuscript to revise so I can get it out to beta readers.

The revisions are going well, but I did spend about a week working through them in my head and on paper before I started. I know there are a mix of planners and pantsers out there, and their own process works well for them. I didn’t used to plan. Back in elementary school and high school, I had the story in my head. No sense writing it down in an outline.

Then came my first NaNo. I chose to write something completely new, not something I’d been playing around with in my head. I knew I needed to plan if I was going to have a prayer of writing 50k words in a month.

I missed the goal that first year, but I came up with a story that surprised me. It wasn’t anything I’d been pondering, but something that grew organically from the process of brainstorming and outlining. It’s not finished, but I’d like to go back to it and write the ending some day.

I learned a lot of things through NaNoWriMo. Outlining gives me a direction when I write, even if I don’t always follow it. I learned to write every day. I learned to kick my inner editor into a cage and lock the door while I write the first draft. I pacify her with platitudes about fixing stuff later, because there will always be at least three or four revisions.

Maybe the most important thing of all, though: I learned confidence. I can write a book in less than two years. I can write fifty thousand words in thirty days. I can outline a book and write from beginning to end without petering out three-quarters of the way through.

I took an online technical writing course through the university a few years ago. The class had a warning in its catalog listing: writing intensive. We’d be writing 12,000 to 20,000 words over the semester, more writing involved in that particular class than any other for that subject. Oh. My. Gawd.

Heh. Child’s play. I could write 50,000 words in one month.

Aced the class.

A writer posted a question in a FB writing group about who had done NaNo and why he should do it. I gave my advice, but as I wrote, I realized my biggest takeaway should be emphasized more than simply writing 50k words in 30 days.

Confidence. It does a writer good.

I’ve got a two-month deadline for my revise and resubmit, including the feedback from beta readers, so my actual revision deadline is about 4-6 weeks. I have no doubts I can do it if I keep my focus.

Thank you, NaNoWriMo, for making me realize I can.