Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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Reading as a writer … for fun? #amreading #amwriting #amrevising

I indulged in a bit of reading for fun this week, since I figured out what scenes to submit for my assignment.

Okay, fine. I was procrastinating on my homework. There. Happy?

I haven’t read much of anything for a while, with the revisions and homework and all. Oh, and that pesky full-time job. And the garden.

With the upcoming release of Harry Dresden’s new adventure, Peace Talks, I decided to reread the last book in the series to refresh my memory, since it’s been, oh, years since Skin Game came out. Then I had to reread the book that introduced Mouse because hey, it’s Mouse.

After reconnecting with Harry, I was ready for more snarky urban fantasy, or at least snarky mysteries with a paranormal angle. And what luck! Another of my favorite urban fantasy authors just released a new book (some snark included). Not only that, but I ran across a book from a fellow member of Sisters in Crime that sounded like a nice break from serious. And writing.

I have now read 4 books (Skin Game (Dresden), Blood Rites (Harry again), Ann Charles’ first Deadwood book Nearly Departed in Deadwood, and Patricia Briggs’ latest Mercy Thompson book, Smoke Bitten) in the span of three weeks (one of which took me all of a day and a half to read), when I haven’t read much of anything for months.

Reunions with old friends (Harry and Mercy) are great, and meeting new ones (Violet Parker, with her purple cowboy boots) is fun, but you know you are a real writer when IT happens.

Yes, the infamous “Aha! I see what you did there” moment when you read a scene and you can “see” the structure of the scene and how it lures the reader on.

Here’s a “for instance”: In Nearly Departed in Deadwood, Violet has 10-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. She becomes friends with a codger who has a gun named Bessie and a total lack of subtlety, meets the tall dark handsome sexy guy next door to the office (sparks there), and starts dating the tall blond handsome rich guy whose family owns the jewelry store in town. So, sparks between dark sexy and Vi (who resists her attraction to him, yet he obviously likes her), but she dates blond handsome (she likes him more than dark sexy, or so she tells herself).

What’s more fun for readers than the tension between a girl and the guy she is determined not to be attracted to? Oh, and toss in the guy who is a chick magnet and rich. So, what does the author do? She includes a scene in which the codger and dark sexy guy are with Violet at the ER (her daughter broke her arm). Dark sexy is being the good friend, keeping Vi calm and comforting her like any sexy guy would (you know, holding her close), when blond handsome shows up.

Boom! The classic setup for tension with love interests. And the guys, of course, have been trying to win her affection in their own ways. Vi is determined not to fall for dark sexy (he’s been teasing her, all innocent-like, since they met), so she greets blond handsome like a lonely girl greets her boyfriend after he’s been gone for a week.

I find myself noticing all these little things now, the rising tension between characters and in scenes, the scene “cliff-hangers” that draw the reader on, and especially the fresh metaphors and descriptions (how the hell do they come up with those?). The first time I noticed the craft behind the story was when I read Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule, his debut novel, and I couldn’t put it down. I paid attention to what he did that compelled me to read on.

Questions. Every chapter didn’t have a cliff-hanger, per se, but each had some question I just had to find the answer to. Same with the Dresden books, though those are more “how is he going to get out of this?”

Part of me misses that reader ignorance: the point of reading the story is to escape and live in another place and time for a bit without caring about anything except what happens to the characters–find and stop the bad guy or get the prize. I can’t do that anymore without noticing things with a writer’s eye. The setup, the character arcs, the tension, the description, the way other authors convey emotion.

Does it ruin a story for me? Only if the author does a middling or lousy job of keeping my interest (and then I analyze why it doesn’t keep me reading). When I notice these things, I try to take mental notes so I can improve my own writing. After hearing Allen Eskens talk about the craft and how he approaches a story, I notice that now in his books and others.

Reading like a writer means missing a little of that magic that readers search for in a good book, the escape where the real world goes away for a while. But reading like a writer makes me appreciate more the bits and pieces of what creates that magic to begin with.

Happy Summer Solstice! Just think, from this point on (until the winter solstice), the days will be getting shorter. Or, don’t think about it. Yeah, probably better for the psyche if we just enjoy now and express surprise later when it’s dark before 8p again.

Write on!

Zoey sleeping on chair


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Progress … in more ways than one

budding tree branch
Image by MargGe from Pixabay

True to the forecast, Easter reminded us with a couple inches of snow that Winter tends to linger here in Minnesota. All week it felt like November: in the thirties instead of the our typical fifties this time of year. The returning birds didn’t seem to mind too much; they’re just as raucous as usual in spring.

One afternoon amid the cacaphony of the birds staking claims I heard the dog thunder off the deck, so naturally I go to see what on earth she took off after.

soaring bald eagle
Image by 272447 from Pixabay

Three bald eagles, one not old enough for the white head and tail yet, were soaring over the grove and the clearing beyond, suspiciously close to the chicken pen. They looked like they were there to laze about and fly in circles, but I suspect they were eying some easy pickings. The dog was barking and chasing them, as if that would discourage them if they decided to snatch a chicken.

One even flew around one side of the grove, it seemed to test the dog’s determination to chase it (which she did), or as a distraction so the other two could conduct their thievery in peace.

If you ever get to see bald eagles up close (we’re talking maybe 10 feet above the house or less), it’s a treat. Not sure I’d feel the same way if they had a chicken in their talons, but wow, it really is awe-inspiring. They did leave after a few minutes, and yes, we still have all of our chickens.

So ends week 5 of working from home. I contacted our ISP again this week to see if they could do anything about the abysmal speed. I got lucky; this tech support person changed our router settings so we are using a less-congested channel. Yay. Now the internet is at least usable during the day (still nowhere near the 6 Mbps we could be getting). It’s a good thing, too, because the ISP we were thinking of using came out for a site survey. Survey says there are too many trees in the way on the edge of town for a good signal (their transmitter is not on the water tower like we hoped). Sigh.

I turned in my first assignment for my new class. The beauty is I can use excerpts from my WIP for my homework! Speaking of WIP, aka Book 2, I’m starting the first round of revision. One thing I’ve learned about my process is that first–wait, eighth in this case–rough draft helps me put together a plot that works. Then after letting the manuscript sit for a bit, the reread allows me to refine the plot, so when I do start revising, I can adjust as I need to.

I suppose a lot of writers work that way, but I find I have a much better sense of where the story is going now, so I can make sure there is the proper set up early on. And that helps smooth things out later.

So those first seven rough drafts that didn’t work weren’t wasted effort, but they sure felt like it. Two freaking years of effort! Argh. Now it feels like: “Duh, of course this is how the story works. Sheesh. I can’t believe I thought it would work any other way.”

Then I look at those authors who release a book every year (you know who you are), and wonder how on earth they manage a functional plot the first time around. I consider myself more plotter than pantser, but I usually have a story all laid out in my head before I start. Not this time.

Granted, a lot of those authors don’t have a day job (read: retired), but still. Then again, a lot of it, I suspect, is practice. The more you practice, the better you become at putting together a plot that works without wasting–erm, spending time on seven(!) false starts.

The trees are starting to leaf out, our seasonal spring temps are due to return (yippee!!), and my seedlings are looking good. Hope you all are weathering this stay-at-home stuff.

Stay safe, wash your hands, and keep writing!

Zoey the cat sitting on teal recliner


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Automatic writing and plots? #amwriting #nanowrimo #writerscommunity

Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

As I was working on my WIP (yes, THAT one), I realized something. An odd/ad-libbed/spur-of-the-moment aspect of a minor character I created on-the-fly solved a problem I was having with the plot.

A big problem.

It was weird. It made me think of automatic writing, which made me think of one of my fellow authors/bloggers who has just released the last book of her Hode’s Hill series (Congratulations, Mae!) In the first book of the series, Cusp of Night, spiritualism plays a big role, and automatic writing was one facet of that whole movement. Anyway …

Holy crap. I solved one of the problems I’ve been trying to figure out by first creating a minor character I didn’t expect to have and then giving that character a part I didn’t know I needed.

Huh?

See where the automatic writing comes to mind? This sort of thing happens to me on a regular basis. I work through the bigger aspects of the plot, barrel ahead with the mantra, “it’s a crappy first draft, I’ll fix it later”, agonize over the stuff I can’t figure out, then somewhere down the line a piece falls into place, and POOF, the plot becomes more solid, and the story “works”.

It’s like my Muse is doing his job, but his timing is off. Sometimes waay off. *checks for Muse, then in a stage whisper: Psst, I think he’s on a beer run.*

Image by Vicki Becker from Pixabay

As fiction writers, we often have story ideas and plots in our heads. For me, the plot lines often seem pretty straightforward at first. The timelines work, the characters have appropriate motivation, and all is well in the planning stage.

Sometimes in the beginning the plot lines are more like a tangle of yarn that needs to be teased into quasi-order. It’s when things look like they’ll work that you have to keep an eye on those buggers, or they’ll start dodging around like a litter of energetic kittens.

I walk through the timeline over and over, and think I have the threads woven together in some semblance of order. Then I start the first draft.

What seemed to make sense suddenly doesn’t. And of course that realization doesn’t happen until I’m halfway or two-thirds of the way through the draft.

I think the more we read, and the more we practice storytelling and plotting and creating character arcs, the more instinctive we become as writers. I’ve been asked by people how I knew the plot wasn’t working. The only thing I can come up with is “I just knew.”

We know what works because somehow along the way we learned it, even if we haven’t taken a class or gone through workbooks or read Save the Cat or The Writer’s Journey. We can use the tools, whether beat sheets or timelines or whatever your preference, but there’s a part of us we may not be conscious of that knows what pieces and bits to add and when.

And that seems to be the way it works, at least for me. I’ll put something in a story, unplanned but it works, then way later on in the story I’ll write something and think wow, it’s a good thing I added that unplanned thing earlier because that makes this part work.

Magic. Or my Muse. Both. Bottom line, the more you practice, the more you read, the more you learn, the more those writer instincts will help you so you don’t get two-thirds of the way through the draft before you realize the story doesn’t work.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it 😀


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All the stage is a kitchen #amwriting

“You know, love, I try to be inspiring.” My Muse leans over my shoulder, so close I can smell evergreen and fresh-cut wood with a touch of cinnamon. “But I have to tell you that’s a stupid title for your post.”

“Gee, thanks. I don’t hear you coming up with a better one.” Or a post subject for that matter. I lean back in my office chair with a bit of difficulty since he’s standing right behind me, all six-foot two inches of his toned physique. With his red and black flannel shirt rolled halfway up his forearms and worn-well jeans, I envision him more inclined to throw a steak or two on the barbie instead of shrimp. Hell, forget the barbie; just cook ’em over a campfire.

Image by Tommy_Rau from Pixabay

He plants a hand on the back of my chair and bends closer, giving me a view of the individual hairs of his stubble, now more ten o’clock shadow than five o’clock, covering his square jaw and …

“Really, love? That is so cliche.”

“Which part? The ‘throw another shrimp on the barbie’ part or the rugged outdoorsman cooking steak over fire part?” I can feel the heat from his skin. I should probably open a window; it’s getting a little warm in here. “I figure you’re Australian, so shrimp.” It goes with the Aussie surfer image. Then again, the roguish look works for him. Definitely works for him.

He turns to face me and rests a hip on my desk. “We are not talking about shrimp, love. Or steak. We are talking about the scene in your WIP. Focus.”

Fine. “Okay, so the thing is everyone is over at the mentor’s house. Well, his widow’s house. They went over there yesterday after the memorial service, had coffee and caught up on a few things. Some conflict between a couple characters. Another character comes and argues with the son-in-law. A little foreshadowing. The scene takes place in the kitchen slash dining area, of course, because that’s where everyone gathers.”

“Sounds logical. What’s the problem?”

“Well, my other main character arrives at the house the next morning, and of course that’s another meet and greet, also in the kitchen area, because that’s where you do things like that. Then the police chief arrives to share some information, and of course that all takes place in the kitchen, too.”

“So, you’re saying it’s boring.”

“Not boring, but shouldn’t there be some change of scenery? I mean, do readers want to see two or three scenes in a row all in the kitchen slash dining area?”

“Are there any scenes in that sequence that are not in the kitchen area?”

“Well, yeah. The main character goes to the garage, where the mentor died, to look over the scene.” Everything is done indoors, in the same-ish space. “But everyone is at the house. In the house. And they are all sitting around the table drinking coffee.” Because that’s what people do.

“Hmm.” He scratches at his stubble. “What about a patio in the backyard?”

“It’s just before Memorial Day weekend in northern Minnesota. In the morning. It’s chilly outside.” I review the layout of the house in my head. “What if they go into the living room to discuss the chief’s news? Would that work?”

“Sure, it will work,” he says, “but will it be enough is the question, right? All you can do is write it and see how it reads.”

“C’mon, you’re my Muse. Help me out, here. Give me some other ideas.”

“Why are they sitting around the table? What are they talking about? Is it a matter of the characters getting information or the reader?”

“Both. I’m just thinking about how this stuff works in real life. That’s what you do. Someone dies, everyone goes back to the house and talks about stuff because weddings and funerals are when people reunite. You talk about stuff at the table …”

Hold on. Duh. “The first day, after the memorial, it’s later, early evening I suppose, when they get back to the house. They could hang out on the patio then. It’s late May, so it stays light out later.” It would still be cool out, but that might be where the mentor and his wife used to sit and enjoy the flowers. That adds an emotional connection.

My Muse wears a self-satisfied grin. “See, love, I knew you’d figure it out.”

This is how a lot of my scene work goes, though. I write it, it’s not quite right, then I take a walk and talk things through until something clicks. It’s a good thing we’re out in the country, or someone might call those nice young men in their clean white coats 😀

After all the rain this week, I might venture into the garden later, but for now, I have some (lots of!) writing to do. Enjoy your weekend!


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Musing Mysteries, Part 2

Okay, so how many of you are ready to attend a writers’ conference? Let’s see hands. C’mon, don’t be shy. I’d love to meet you. Even though I’m giving you a sneak peek at my presentation, it’ll be way more fun in person. Really. Promise.
WI2018 Check out the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute. It’s an amazing three days (four if you count the extra presentations on Thursday) dedicated to writing. Whether you are practicing the craft (we’re always practicing, right?) or starting the quest toward publishing, the Writers’ Institute is a great opportunity to learn, meet other writers, and enrich your creative energies. Here’s a little view into the fun: Writers’ Institute Pathway to Publication.

Eight-ish weeks to go. I’m getting excited–I’ll get to see my Writing Sisters. Can’t wait!

“Are you about ready, love?” My Muse is leaning on my desk in my writing office. He checks his bare wrist as if he kept a Timex there.

“Why, you have an appointment?”

He straightens and crosses the office to the white board. “No, but you do. What’s next on your list of clues to writing mysteries?”

200w_d

I grab a marker and add another entry to the list on the board. “The clock is ticking. A deadline.”

“Okay. What’s your deadline in Book 2?”

Hmm. “My main characters are only in town for three days.” I hold up a hand. “Don’t. Just don’t. I know, I know, three days. How many impossible missions were accomplished in three days?” That has got to be the most common deadline ever. I mean, outside of Kiefer Sutherland’s famous twenty-four hour countdown.

My Muse sighs. “At least it made a little sense. These days a team of geniouses save the world in mere hours every week. In a one-hour show.”

Nothing like the regular usage of the deux ex machina plot device—the oh-my-gawd-how-lucky-that-theory-actually-came-through (a “magical” intervention of some thing) tropeto allow Team Scorpion to stop a tsunami, or prevent an underground explosion that would’ve destroyed L.A., or catch two kids who have to jump out of an airplane at precisely the same time to land in a net (that was a Valentine’s Day episode). Probably not the best example of working against a deadline.

“Anyway. l’ve got a three-day deadline. Next?”

“Doesn’t seem like your main character is in a whole lot of danger.”

I point to the previous entries. Characters and stakes. “We went over the stakes already. And the characters. And the threat to the main characters, remember? The drug boss. The teacher who helped the protagonist after the attack, and who is now suspected of murder.”

“Raise them.”

“Excuse me?”

He adds to the list. “How can you raise the stakes, love?”

Raise them? More? “You heard the part about the drug boss, right? And how she thinks my main character is involved with the victim who was stealing from her.”

“Yes, I remember.” He underlines the entry on the list. “What can you do to the story that will make the main character less likely to quit?”

Hmm. If the main character was related to the suspect, or the victim, that would increase the risk to the main character. That won’t work with this story. There is a connection between the suspect and the protagonist. And a connection between the suspect and the victim.

“The victim is the suspect’s son-in-law.” I call this ‘blood is thicker than water’, because a connection between relatives has more meaning than between strangers.

“Better. Can you do more?”

A connection between the antagonist and the protagonist, or the protagonist and the victim, or the victim and the suspect are solid ways to raise the stakes. So, how can I ratchet things up?

Aha. “The suspect’s son died in an accident, and he learns the victim was involved. Oh, did I mention the suspect and the victim are family–by marriage?”

“Good. Now use that.”

I am. The trick is going to be using that to increase the threat to the protagonist. I’ll have to noodle on that for a bit. Two more down: deadline and raising stakes even more.

In other news, Week 2 word total is 21,816, about 1500 words short of the 23,338 I should’ve hit. It’s been slow, but I’ve gotten past the inciting incident now, so the story should flow faster. I will say that writing 1 to 2 hours every night is helping charge my creative energies.

Keeping my Muse close doesn’t hurt either 😀

Have a great writing weekend!