About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar-nominated author of six novels, including the gothic suspense Bliss House trilogy: Bliss House, Charlotte's Story (Booklist starred review), and The Abandoned Heart. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, PANK, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, she grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and claims both as hometowns. Get to know her better and read her blog at www.laurabenedict.com.

First Page Critique: The Last White Rose

Photo by Laura Benedict.

 

Cheery good day, TKZers! It’s time for a critique of an anonymous author’s work. The Last White Rose is an excerpt from a novel that appears to be a modern gothic with both horror and romantic elements. But it might be a thriller.  I’m anxious to know what you think.

 

THE LAST WHITE ROSE

Epigraph

In my dream, I see my own green eyes, filled with terror and tears.I fall to my knees, submitting to the command of invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.His face twists into something else, something evil. He is ending my life. I wake with a strident scream… and stare into the same blue eyes.

Chapter One

Stonington, Connecticut

He was elusive, a ghost I needed to catch. The stranger whose face I’d never seen lurked around town, maintaining enough distance to mask his features in shadow. I saw his face for the first time in late July after the annual Blessing of the Fleet. His bold gaze burned into mine from the opposite side of Water Street. The highland band, piping loud and marching through the center, drew the post-ceremony procession to a close, granting me an unobstructed view.

A shiver slid through me despite the stifling summer heat.

He was magnificent. The kind of man you’d never find living in small-town New England. Imposing height and broad, muscled shoulders defined his stature. He wore jeans and a faded indigo tee shirt that exposed cut biceps and forearms. Sun-streaked, dark blond hair in a classic front wave and a commanding jawline framed his handsome, smirking face.

“Parade’s over,” someone shouted.

Even so, Jess and I held our advantageous spot at the curb. My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.

She elbowed me. “Who’s he and why are you staring at each other? Wait—Ellie, is he…”

My eyes skipped to Jess to deliver a dirty look. When I refocused across the street, he was gone. “The guy who followed me home the other night. Yes, I think so. There’s no one else as tall. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s just staying nearby.”

“And maybe you should say something to someone.”

“Not until I’m certain. Paranoia is my sister’s thing, not mine. Besides, aren’t you always saying I should be more open to meeting new people?”

“You do need to get out of your artsy little head. Just be careful.”

I struggled, trying to reconcile his presence in town and the sense that he watched me. After all, it was summertime. Stonington was a historically rich town, the only one in Connecticut to face the open Atlantic waters, so it attracted countless visitors. It was common to see strangers around town. Drunken tourists wandered the streets at night, unaware most businesses closed before ten. It was a colonial fishing town, and outsiders came from far and wide to work for the commercial fleet. It wasn’t the first time a man from one of the crews or a tourist had looked my way, I reasoned.

Then I saw him again.

The next day after the last of my noisy day-campers had gone, I locked the art studio door and headed for the fishing pier to sketch. It was either that or listen to another of Jess’s lectures. She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.

The pier was a respite from my grandmother and sister’s intrusiveness as well. Gran and Isobel were all I had, and they meant well. Trysts with my art kept me sane, human.

I looked out over the harbor and spotted Neptune trudging her way in. The sailboats beyond paled in her presence. I don’t know what it was about the old girl, but I loved that fishing boat. Her emerald green hull had become chalky over time, and the once black and white hoists and booms were covered in rust, but she was still glorious against the backdrop of the sea. I lost myself in the sketch at once.

Photo by Laura Benedict

 

Dear Anonymous Author of The Last White Rose:

What a pleasure it was to critique this novel opening. There’s so much to work with here: you’ve obviously read a great deal of fiction and have a practiced hand in basic mechanics. Your grammar and sentence structure are strong, and even your barely-mentioned characters are vivid and distinctive. You also know how to structure a scene, which is no small feat, and your first person POV is flawless.

I like the Connecticut setting. It gives the story an immediate New England gothic feel. Gothic is one of my most beloved genres, so I’m particular.

Jess and Ellie have good chemistry. Jess is a lot of fun, though she falls down a bit on the best friend front. (More on that later.) These cracked me up: “My best friend soaked in the late morning sun, sipping her raspberry lemon mimosa, watching me stare at him.” And “She’d go on about how I wallowed in self-imposed loneliness, and how it left her alone to test the waters in the pool of dateable men. The pool was small—blue plastic toddler swimming pool small—and I didn’t need to dip a toe to know there was nothing left in it for me.”

And the scene with the Neptune was completely charming and nicely visualized. I could picture the boat “trudging” its way in. Your descriptions are—for the most part—very nicely done.

Please, dear Anonymous Author, read all of the above twice, because I know that, like most writers, you will forget it immediately as you read my criticisms and suggestions.

 

Here we go:

I’m not sure what sort of novel this is, and that distresses me. It contains gothic and demonic elements and is set in an old New England town. But there’s some romance as well. I need a few more hints. Does our heroine feel strangely attracted to the giant hot guy stalking her? Or is there some menace in the town that he might be connected to? The strong emphasis on the stalking makes me think it’s trying to be a thriller, but the stalker’s attractiveness makes me wonder if he’s a demi-god or paranormal beast or demon. Another mystery is that we don’t know if he’s the guy in the epigraph or not.

There’s a phrase that I learned from my mother-in-law very early in my marriage: “too much of a muchness.” That’s what you have in this opening section. You need to take a breath. Don’t try to tell us everything in 672 words, and definitely only tell us things once. Readers are smart. This section has too many repeated actions, too much stalking, and way too many characters. It’s important to mention or introduce all of your significant characters in the first thirty pages of a novel, but if you try to do it in the first three, your reader is going to be very confused. Fortunately, you can look at this as an embarrassment of riches because you can use much of this detail in other parts of the novel.

It’s also important for you to balance the light and dark. You can have both.

The last thing I want to address is your heroine, Ellie. Good heroines can be tough to write. Sidekicks get to be fun, villains get to be fun. Heroines can be a bit dull. Thoughts on Ellie below.

 

Epigraph

This is a dream: check.

I’m a bit confused as to how Ellie’s seeing her eyes in one line, then is falling to her knees in the next. Is she watching herself? Or is she experiencing it? Just clarify. Even if it’s a dream, it has to have its own dream physics and dream logic.

Perhaps reframe it so we know she is watching it as a scene, wondering at her own complicity.

“Strident” is awkward. As is “invincible blue eyes raging with white fire.” There’s an awful lot happening in those eyes all at once.

“He is ending my life.” Simple and to the point, but “ending” feels a bit tame since she’s about to be devoured/murdered by what appears to be a demon.

Clarify the last line and be specific:

“I wake, screaming, to find those same blue eyes—now watchful and worried (or laughing and scornful, etc)—gazing into mine.”

Chapter One

First paragraph:

The opening lines are confusing. He’s a ghostly elusive guy that has been skulking around the shadows for…some period of time. Months? Weeks? Two days? Then in the next sentence she gets to the immediate scene: “I saw his face for the first time…”

Instead, get right into it.

We’re prepped by the epigraph for scary and dubious. Give us something new at the top of chapter one. I’d much rather read: “The first time I saw Jeremy Porter’s* handsome face, he was smirking at me from the opposite side of Water Street.” Something straightforward adds a bit of levity, and keeps the story from being so frontloaded with ominosity (technically not a word, but ominousness is clumsy). I confess that I’ve been guilty of over-ominosity myself, so I know whereof I speak. He seems more condescending than threatening. If you want to make him threatening, change “smirking” to “staring.”

*Don’t be afraid to name the guy. We know he has a name. As Ellie’s telling the story, she already knows his name because she’s telling it in the past tense. As it is, it’s cheap suspense. If the story were all in present tense/present action, then we wouldn’t find out his name until she learns it. But the cat’s already out of the bag.

By making the opening of Chapter One just another in a series of stalking incidents, you’ve taken away the power of the epigraph, which could be very compelling. The epigraph hints that she dreams of a man who might be a demon, but she wakes to find him watching her in real life. My assumption is that she becomes romantically involved with sexy stalker guy during the course of the novel…? But we still don’t know if epigraph guy and stalker guy are the same.

The epigraph has already set your tone. Let it rest. We get it.

“He was magnificent.”

Our guy is obviously a gorgeous, eye feast of a man, and the word “magnificent” is striking. I kind of imagine him as a blond Gaston, from Beauty and the Beast. Is he unreal in his perfection? Some small flaw would make him more believable—unless you’re going for supernatural perfection.

Let’s break it down:

Why would we never find someone like him living in small-town New England? Where would we see a man like him? Hollywood? The cover of a magazine or romance novel?

Imposing height—how tall? Ellie says: “There’s no one else as tall.” What does that mean? Significantly taller than everyone else in town? Wilt Chamberlain tall? If so, someone would have surely noticed him by now. A man that tall would be a very poor skulker.

Instead of using an indefinite phrase like “defined his stature,” let’s see him through Ellie’s editorial filters:

“I’d never seen a man so tall in real life, at least not one with shoulders so broad that they made me wonder for a moment if he had to have his dress shirts specially made. But he wasn’t wearing a dress shirt. His taut, cut biceps emerged from the sleeves of a beautifully faded black tee that just reached the waist of his indigo jeans. And his black motorcycle boots looked comfortably worn. Most women I knew would pay a fortune to have their stylist give them highlights like the ones that seemed to flow naturally through the waves of his dark blond hair. His jaw was strong and commanding, reminding me of paintings I’d seen of ancient Roman centurions on my last trip to the Louvre.

“Parade’s over,” someone behind me shouted.

I startled, and felt my face flush. The slow smile of the man I came to know as Jeremy Porter told me he’d caught me staring.”

Then you can go on and have her interact with Jess. But let’s have some more urgency and concern in their exchange. Is Jess implying Ellie should call the authorities? Who is the “someone” of whom she speaks? Be specific.

In this next section, we get a lot of new characters introduced: noisy day-campers, dateable men, Gran and Isobel, an anthropomorphized fishing boat, drunken tourists, sailors. It’s overwhelming.

And, suddenly, skulking sexy guy appears again.

What is this book about? Right now I’m just reading stalking scenes, and I’m feeling fearful that they will just go on and on…

Three scenes (including the epigraph, if it is the same guy), three appearances. Actually four, because we learn he followed her home on some other night (super alarming to have a giant follow you home!). We have no resolution of his parade appearance in Chapter One before the pier scene. He has now let her see his face, and he’s still obviously stalking her. Please give Ellie some spunk. She seems incredibly unaffected by his stalking—her friend acts alarmed but then apparently lets her go home and go about her business and go to work the next day without any further investigation of the guy. It’s one thing that Ellie’s not paranoid. It’s quite another to make her seem not very bright. And I think she is bright.

Your opening chapter has to do more than establish the tone, and Chapter One tells us little more than that Ellie is living in a historic small town and is being stalked by a hot guy. It’s an ominous situation, but she’s reacting in a way that’s not credible. And we still don’t know if this is a romance, a thriller, or a paranormal story. Give us better clues.

My first suggestion would be to work on the epigraph and just let it set the tone. Then in your opening chapter, have Ellie confront hot stalker guy after the parade. It will make her the real protagonist rather than a woman who seems to be setting herself up as a victim. I love the sketching scene on the pier, but it’s too much with what you have already. Save the setting and scene—maybe it happens after they’ve actually met.

Having her confront the guy right off puts us immediately into the story, and will surprise the reader. Even if he is our villain, he will be put momentarily off-balance. Ellie and the hot guy instantly become equals, and thus more interesting adversaries. Or a more interesting couple. Therefore it becomes a more compelling story. Be bold.

That’s my two cents. I think this story could go far.

Chatter over, TKZ friends and bloggers. What say you?

 

 

 

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When Is It Time to Let Your Old Work Go?

What do you do with your unpublished/unsold work? Where is your juvenilia? Do you treasure it, or let it go?

I’m a let-it-go person. My first two unpublished, and probably unpublishable novels are around here…somewhere. Well, the second one might be in a box in the mudroom. At least I think it made it onto the moving truck eleven years ago. I kind of hope it’s not, because I really don’t want anyone finding it and reading it when I die. (Let alone trying to publish it–that never works out well for the dead writer. I’m put in mind of some of Shirley Jackson’s early story drafts that were published posthumously. And isn’t there 3/4 of a Hemingway novel out there somewhere?) There are probably also drafts of that second novel on 3.5″ floppy disks in my office closet.

My very first unpublished novel may not even have made it onto a 3.5″ disk. I think I finished it in 1998. Before I wrote it, I read a Somerset Maugham autobiography that suggested that all writers should finish their first novel and then immediately put it away in a drawer. It’s only just this minute that I realized he said, “a drawer,” and not, “the trash.” So perhaps I shouldn’t have completely lost track of it.

I have a 17-year-old son who is embarrassed by everything he’s done in the past–the past being fifteen minutes ago, or longer. I’m not that bad, but I don’t feel the desire to go too far back and look at the writer I was. It took years and years and years for me to get that (third) first novel published. To get it good enough. While I’m very comfortable with reflecting on my own work, or poking fun at my old habits–the first 3 short stories and first 2 novels I wrote all had old-fashioned silver-handled vanity hand-mirror and brush sets in them!–in workshops or, well, here, I don’t necessarily care to see them on paper.

It’s a lot like travel. If I am not overburdened with luggage, I’ll take my SLR camera with me because I love, love, love to frame the world through the camera’s lens. But if I can’t take it, I don’t stress about it. The things I see and do live in my memories. There are times when I’ve consciously said, “I will remember how this looks and how it feels.” And I do. That’s enough.

I remember how it felt to write those books and stories. They are landmarks on my journey through the writing life, and I don’t need physical evidence of them. Bits and pieces of them survive in other work. Creativity is never, ever wasted. The words and ideas make their way through my fingers and travel out into the world. I guess I could go full-on dork and say I set them free and they take on their own lives. Or not. And I get to make new ones. Always new ones.

What’s your relationship with work from your past?

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A Bear Won’t Eat What A Bear Can’t Smell: When Real Life Provides the Dialogue

 

(purchased from IStock)

I’m currently living in the limbo that inspires fear and loathing in many writers, and drives others to query random Magic 8 Balls with the seriousness of a sugar-drunk eight-year-old at a slumber party: I have a manuscript on submission. For the sake of my sanity, let’s step away from the constant checking of email, the extra glass of wine after dinner, and the cold-sweat certainty that there should have been One More Edit before it went out.

So, tell me things, please. Specifically, I want you to think about the sayings you have in your family. They might be well-known sayings, or something you and your siblings picked up from a long lost television episode that stuck with you for whatever reason. Or it might be a saying whose origins are lost to history, but you still use it. These sayings don’t necessarily have the gravitas or moral spin of an aphorism, but when you use colorful or shocking or sweet sayings occasionally and appropriately in your dialogue, they immediately give your reader important information about your characters.

I’ll start. Here are some that show up again and again in the Benedict family, or came from my childhood:

People in hell want ice water. (my dad)

Smooth move, Ex-Lax. (also my dad)

Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite. (my mom)

We like the moon, because it’s close to us. (this video is at least 10 years old)

Biggie fries, biggie drink. (no comment)

Pretty makes up for bad. (this showed up around the time my daughter was five)

Pretty is as pretty does. (this one gives me the same hives it gave me when was five)

Does a bear poop in the woods? (dad, again)

Is the Pope Catholic? (yep, dad)

A bear won’t eat what a bear can’t smell. (from a Saran Wrap commercial–could only find the ad with a tiger)

Measure head size before ordering. (appropriate whenever, well, ordering something–I picked it up from an Elmore Leonard novel)

Same poop, different flies. (from husband’s family)

Cam down, Linwood. (MIL’s family–she said she has no idea where it came from)

Hold ‘er, Newt. She’s headed for the barn! (also from MIL’s family–she doesn’t know where this is from either. but I did find versions online)

Scratch your ass and get happy. (heard this at a family reunion–acquired it immediately)

These three came from workshop students:

It’s a poor ass rabbit that only has one hole. (meaning is fairly obvious)

You can’t look up a hog’s ass and tell the price of lard. (heh)

She’s a real Corinthian. (wish I’d written down the origin of this one–so many possible interpretations)

Your turn!

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Writers’ Camp, Anyone?

I’m curious: what do you think about writing workshops–specifically workshops that are a few days to a week long?

I met my husband at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, in Hindman, Kentucky. He was teaching fiction and I was a newbie writer. (It’s okay. You can smirk. Lots of people have over the years!) I’d never workshopped stories outside the classroom. I’d also never slept in a cabin dormitory, 4 sleepers to a cubby, or washed dishes in a camp kitchen, so the whole week was full of new experiences.

Workshops are intimate. (No, not that kind of intimate, though sometimes there’s, um, activity between consenting adults that can be awkward for everyone. Think of summer camp, or high school. But it doesn’t have to be that way.) Participants work with the same teacher, and the same group of writers, for several days in a row. You get to know each other, and group dynamics emerge quickly. If the instructor is good at their job, it becomes a space where people feel comfortable sharing their work, and receiving and giving thoughtful criticism.

It’s nice spending time with like-minded writers in real life, as opposed to hanging out online. In a well-run workshop, the writer must listen to everyone’s critique before they speak about their own work. Because a writer needs to learn that they can’t be on the shoulder of every reader to explain what they meant if something isn’t clear or understandable to that reader. The work has to speak for itself. BUT the good news is that most workshops schedule plenty of downtime. Often the real learning happens over dinner, around a campfire, or over a glass of wine or two. It’s good to share the journey. And don’t forget the networking thing. It’s important. At a workshop, you can meet professionals (often agents and editors), and form friendships with other writers that can last for a lifetime.

Am I trying to sell you on workshops, or a particular workshop? No. While I encourage you to give one a try, they’re not for everyone. I was scheduled to teach at a workshop in June, but money is tight all around, and my class didn’t fill. It’s disappointing, but I look forward to staying home and writing. Maybe next year.

There are many more glamorous spots for writers’ conferences than Eastern Kentucky–I went there because the mountains were home to my grandfather, and because it was economical. If you want to get exotic, you could go to the workshops at Positano. But you must take me with you.

Tell us your thoughts on writing workshops. Are there any you would recommend to other writers?

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So You Wrote the BEST BOOK EVER! Sorry, There’s More to Do.

 

Writers have a reputation–sometimes deserved–of being drama queens. Right this very moment, I am wearing the crown. 👑 My head aches, my eyeballs are dry as ping pong balls, I just this moment came thisclose to accidentally taking a family member’s Adderall instead of a handful of ibuprofen, when I turn my head, my neck sounds like it’s filled with potato chips, and I’m at the computer two hours past my bedtime for the 13th night in a row. This can only mean one thing:

I finished my latest book and sent it to my agent today!

Maybe it’s just the sleep-deprivation, but I feel a bit…insane. I actually left the house today for the first time in let’s-not-talk-about-how-many-days. Tuesday is the day I schedule appointments and run errands (and, no, I’m not yet eligible for the Tuesday senior discounts!). I have a vague memory of mailing things, and listening to someone telling me about a friend’s son who has a collapsed lung. I could only respond, “Oh, that’s terrible.” But I think I said it about 30 times, because it felt weird to actually be talking to another human who wasn’t my husband and I was having trouble following the details. I could go on about how I’m waking up to the alarming state of our home, and the nutritional paucity of the meals I’ve been slinging to my family over the past two weeks, but you can simply picture a post-tornado scene, littered with Chinese takeout boxes and piles of unopened mail. (Okay. There aren’t really food boxes, but there’s a lot of mail, and I might have had reheated pizza for lunch.)

BUT. The state of things isn’t going to change for the next little while, because while I’ve sent off the manuscript, there’s much more to do. (Hey, I bet you thought this was going to just be a touchy-feely blog. Surprise!)

I suspect that in the long history of TKZ, folks have talked about what an agent needs from a writer in order to put together a nice package for editors. But here’s a refresher. I have an excellent agent, and she has very specific requests. Your experience may differ.

Your agent (or you, if you’re doing the submitting) wants editors to see you as somebody who: 1) has written a kick-ass book; 2) fits into an identifiable category; 3) will be a partner in selling your book. It’s pretty simple, but this is stuff you need to think about between the time you finish your book and start sending it out to agents. Yes, even before you have an agent because if you have all of this information together, you’ll be more appealing to an agent.

A clean manuscript. Tidy it up, make sure it’s double-spaced, in a legible font with page numbers, your name, and title in the header. Don’t include a picture of your cat, child, or sketches of what you want the cover to look like.

A bio. Who are you? Where are you from? Have you published anything else or won any contests? Keep it brief–around 250 words. Don’t share your hobbies or recipes or phone number (that goes on the cover page)

Oh, and do have a cover page with your name, address, phone, and email up in the left-hand corner. Title should be centered in the middle of the page, with “by” and your name below it in a smaller font. No page number on the cover page. There’s a box you can check for “different first page” in the header format menu.

Comps. This can be tough. List writers who write similar books to yours. The Amazon “Customers Also Bought” list is a good place to start. Include as many as you can. Be specific. Don’t list, say, Michael Connelly, if you write bakery mysteries, or romantic suspense. Do reach, though.

Your platform. There are tons of places on the Internet (i.e. Jane Friedman) where you can learn what a marketing platform is. Everywhere you’re found online is part of your platform. (I’m certain TKZ has info–anyone have a link?) Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Linked In, Goodreads. No Tindr or Grindr. I confess I’m not a Snapchat-er. Does anyone here use it for promo? But your platform also includes your website, blog, and email list. (It’s never too soon to start building a mailing list. Start with people you know in real life.) Sex tapes totally count. But they can also count against you.

Professional Associations and Contacts. Networking can be challenging for introverted writers. Most professional groups have associate memberships for unpublished writers or readers. Join. Get the newsletters. Go to conferences and volunteer. Get involved. An editor wants to know that you’re out there networking with other writers and getting your name in front of potential readers Your agent will also want to know if you have writer contracts who might provide you with the B-word: BLURBS. Most writers will tell you that this is by far the most awkward and uncomfortable thing about the business. But it must be done. Blurbs from other writers not only look nice on a cover, but suggest that someone a reader might admire likes your book enough to say something nice about it. A big name can be a huge deal. If you can’t get a big name, a medium name will do. You’ll find that some writers, particularly indie writers, quote reader reviews. It’s fine, but they won’t get an agent’s or publisher’s attention. Don’t make up blurbs. That’s really bad, and you’ll get caught.

If you can get a writer to blurb your book even before it goes to agents and editors you get bonus points. It’s something my agent likes me to do before she goes out with a book.  Talk about a difficult ask…I once had a NYT bestselling writer turn me down for a pre-submission blurb, and she wasn’t very nice about it. It’s worth a shot, though. Give your book every advantage.

Be proactive in describing how you might promote your book. Newsletters, contests, ARC giveaways, guest blogs, etc. Think about reaching out to readers. Even if your publisher has a promotion budget–a rarity these days–you need to do everything you can to pitch in.

Editors. Do you know folks in the business? A friend of a friend? Your agent will have many contacts, but if you know someone, they might be able to direct you to just the right editor in their publishing house.

I think that’s it. Can you all think of anything I’m missing? Remember–You’ve put your heart and soul into your work. Honor it, and take responsibility for it. You can make a real difference for yourself.

 

 

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Choose Writing

 

 

If bet if we all had put aside a quarter for each time we heard someone say, “I’d write if I only had the time,” we could take the entire TKZ crew to Bali for a week, and bring along most of you, dear readers.

People say, “I don’t have time,” as though time were a finite thing, and not an infinite stream of possibilities. Does the idea of time as an infinite stream sound derpy and pie in the sky? Well, okay. Maybe it’s a little derpy. But it’s also true. (Oh, and yes, of course we will all die, but this fact will only serve to support what I want to say today.)

I don’t have time to write, and never have. There are eight million things in my ADHD head, all clamoring for attention. I suck at prioritizing because everything appears to be equally important. So other people set deadlines and I end up juggling them: tax deadlines, teaching deadlines, promotion gigs, car repair, pet and child maintenance. The family likes to be fed, bills have to be paid. And on, and on. It’s easy to feel like I have no time for anything I want to do.

If you don’t set your own priorities, other people will set them for you.

Being a writer is a choice. There are some writers who decide very early that their writing will be the primary focus in their lives, and every choice they make follows from that. What if you did that? What if you made writing your number one priority? What would that look like for you? Maybe it sounds pleasurable to you, maybe not. But many who’ve done that have found enormous success because they followed that narrow path. Those folks are people who, after a few years, don’t ever think twice about what comes first in their lives.

Or maybe that sounds a little freakish to you. Most of us have rather more prosaic needs. We like to have families or lots of friends. Quality of life is important. Or earlier choices we made preclude us from living like a Monk Servant of the Word.

Our writing choices are necessarily different:

We can cook a gourmet dinner, or we can heat up a can of chili and spend the extra forty-five minutes writing. We can binge-watch The Avengers or Stranger Things or The Great British Baking Show, or we can watch one episode and write for two hours. We can sleep eight hours, or sleep seven hours and stay up late to write in that sleepy zone in which weird, dreamlike ideas punch their way through our consciousness. We can take an actual lunch hour at the office, close our door, eat a protein bar, read for half an hour and write for half an hour. We can let the grass get a little too long and admire the words we wrote instead of worrying what the neighbors will think.

We can choose from a hundred different ways to nurture our creativity, even at random times. But if you’re hanging out here, words must be your poison.

Did I say poison? I did. Maybe that’s some kind of Freudian slip. It has occasionally felt like a kind of poison. For a long time I approached writing with a sense of dread, with a sense that I was doing something VERY SIGNIFICANT. Who in the heck is going to want to make time for something dreadful? One of my favorite synonyms for dreadful is formidable. If you’re thinking that what you will write if you take the time to sit down to write must be formidable, that’s a heck of a lot of pressure to put on both you and your work.

 If you’re approaching your work this way, I encourage you to lighten up this very minute.

When we’re writing, what we’re doing is not so formidable that we can’t do it in a notebook when we’re waiting in the doctor’s office. It’s not so important that we can’t jot down the outline of a scene while there are five minutes of commercials of people wearing Ralph Lauren fancy pants while they’re dancing on a glorified party barge as it floats down the Rhine. Is our writing too formidable to be present while we wait for an oil change?

Don’t make your writing an idol. Writing is not special. Writing is telling stories. Yes, there will be times when you need a chunk out of the time stream to organize chapters or write a difficult scene. But you will never have the perfect time to write. There’s no such thing.

So plunge into the stream and swim while you can.

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Do You Journal?

 

Look at all the lovely notebooks.

From the top:

Emerald Leuchtturm-Current Bullet Journal, containing calendar events, daily schedule, car maintenance, random notes taken when the appropriate journal wasn’t available.

White Paper-Masako Kubo–Stapled, not bound.  Last summer’s dream journal, reference.

Red HC Moleskine–Long term ideas for novels and stories since 2011

Light Blue Leuchtturm–Mid-End of 2016 Bullet Journal. I didn’t get into Bullet Journaling until late last year. Now using for blog thoughts and ideas

Teal Flexible Moleskine–Current Morning Pages Journal

Bright Orange Moleskine Notebook–Short story development

Buff Flexible Moleskine--Novel (Formerly The Intruder) WIP notes

Orang/Red Moleskine Notebook–Novel (Untitled cozy–Yeah, gonna give that genre a shot)

Bright Pink Leuchtturm1917 Master Slim–This started out as my 2017 Bullet Journal, but it proved too large for toting around. The 5×8 version (top) fits nicely in any purse or bag. I consider this my Journal of As Yet Unrecognized Possibilities.

For somebody who only owned one non-spiral bound notebook six years ago–the Red HC Moleskine–I’ve certainly made up for lost time. What you don’t see are the notebooks for my last three novels, the Bliss House Trilogy, because I’ve archived them.

As a young writer, I wasn’t much of a journaler. I wanted to write, but I was too embarrassed to write down things that might look silly to other people and carried around my ideas in my head. Of course, journals are meant to be private. I have no idea who I thought would want to even peek at my journals. The words were hardly titillating, the ideas tentative and unpolished. It’s not like I kept money or passwords between the pages.

But now that I’m a woman of a certain age, journals have become critical tools. Not only do I have more pressing/interesting  ideas, I also have a memory like a sieve. Journals are my full-body, writerly Spanx. They keep everything tucked in and looking, if not good, at least organized.

I’ve become very attached lately to the notion of ideas floating from writer to writer, looking for the right one to tell the story. It’s an idea I first read of in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She talks about starting to write a novel that had been sort of pestering her–but she struggled, and it just wasn’t happening. So she temporarily shelved it. But then she talked to novelist Ann Pachett, who described her own work-in-progress. And the ideas were nearly identical. But Pachett’s book was going very well, and she later finished it and sold it.

By writing ideas down, I hope to tether them at least for a while. Collect them, live with them, let them nurture themselves with the attention I can give them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to the pages of that Red HC Moleskin when I needed a quick idea fix.

Still, it’s a rather intimidating pile of notebooks. They don’t travel easily, and I’ve only recently gotten used to having the Bullet Journal always with me. For a while I tried an app called Wanderlist, but tapping reminders and notes into my phone makes much less of an impression on me than when I write things down. Then I forget to look at the app often enough.

Tell us how you keep track of your ideas and schedule. Do you journal? Or do you go the electronic route?

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Are Words Sticks and Stones After All?

 

(Mostly stones, few sticks. Sorry.)

 

I’m going to take a big, fat liberty here, so bear with me, okay?

There’s a powerful Annie Dillard quote that has to do with churches that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

While I happen to agree with the above, that’s beside the point for my purpose. Re-read the paragraph, and put the word “writers” in place of “Christians” and “churches.” I’ll wait…

Pretty interesting, yes? Did you ever think of the power that your words and stories might have?

Your words can influence, inspire, anger, irritate, uplift, depress, frighten, amuse, or engender admiration or scorn. Fictional stories have helped change laws and influenced social progress. There are many novels that have even inspired horrific crimes. When we read things in print—particularly if they look official, free of typos, etc.—we take them more seriously than if they’re just hearsay.

We can’t predict what effects our written words will have on the people who read them. That leads to the question: What responsibility do we have for the effects our words have on our readers?

I doubt that any two writers would answer this question the same way because there is no cut and dried answer. Words are ideas, and ideas are infinite and peculiar to every writer/reader/thinker. A scene or a bit of dialogue that seems innocuous to one reader might lead another to take to social media in protest.

As a writer, I see my job as telling the story the very best way I know how. I may want to appeal to a certain audience, but I feel my first responsibility is to the story. I start with a kind of Platonic ideal of the story I see in my head, and do everything I can to be faithful to that ideal as I write. Everything else is secondary.

But once a story is shared—even in a workshop/classroom setting—or published, it becomes something different. It’s no longer just ours. It takes up space in other people’s heads and they will react to it. We have no control over those reactions, but do we have a responsibility to predict them and change our work to accommodate them?

I’m personally familiar with a workshop situation in which a writer submitted a story that contained an abduction and rape. Several people in the workshop didn’t want to participate in the critique of the story because it triggered distressing emotional reactions in them. There were hurt and angry feelings on both sides. There’s also no clear answer here as to how the situation should be resolved. Does the writer have the right to tell the story as she envisions it? Do the other participants have the right to not be hurt or offended?

Announcing that there are potential trigger issues in a piece of work is getting more common on blogs and in academic settings. I haven’t yet seen it in the commercial writing world. Between cover art and jacket blurbs, publishers do a pretty good job of telegraphing what sort of material is contained inside. Occasionally they get it wrong and readers are misled, and the writer pays by suffering angry negative reviews based on unexpected content. There are many voices on the issue on the use of trigger warnings. Here is one pro voice and one con.

More and more publishers (and writers) are becoming proactive in another area of reader reaction anticipation: the hiring and use of sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers specialize in checking manuscripts for misrepresentation of minorities and marginalized populations. If you’re writing about a population to which you don’t belong, you should anticipate sensitivity scrutiny of your work. Recently Writer Unboxed had a piece on sensitivity readers. It also references a widely shared Chicago Tribune article.

Writers now have access to audiences that most of us could hardly have dreamed of a decade ago. Readers, too, now have larger voices. The world appears to be demanding more from writers: to not simply be entertaining, but thoughtful and, some would say, authentic. But where should that authenticity come from? How concerned should we be with reader reaction issues as we write, and how do those issues affect creativity and storytelling?

I realize I’ve posed a lot of questions here. Let me ask you a few more: (you needn’t answer them all!)

How do you make sure your characters accurately reflect their cultural, societal, or ethnic backgrounds when they’re different from your own?

What is the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?

Have you ever changed your work or held back because you worried about criticism or questions of authenticity?

 

 

 

 

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Writing in the Dream Zone

 

I have a good friend who dreamed the entire plot of her first novel, which became the debut installment in an enormously successful thriller series. Why can’t I have dreams like that?

My dreams alternate between blanket-clutching, dry-mouth terror and the most deadly-dull, anxiety-ridden school scenes, in which I’m either trying to remember the locker combination I had in 1974, or attempting to teach Algebra to a room full of kids who suspect I don’t know what the heck I’m doing (and they would be right).

There are so many theories on what dreams are. Just a few:

Subconscious problem solving.

Wishfulfillment

Random neuron firing

Emotional cleanup using dream symbols

Messages from the future or past

I don’t know about you, but my dreams tend to be a mix of the above, with the exception of messages from the future or past. As an adult, I’ve had some very comforting dreams about my grandparents, but I put those in the emotional cleanup category.

Dreams are as entertaining to me as a good book, and sometimes even more so because I’m participating. I go to sleep hoping the dreams are good. The only time I fear them is when I’m home alone overnight and have paralyzing night terrors about strangers in my bedroom. But most of my dreams contain vibrant colors, vivid situations and storylines, and people I don’t often see. I couldn’t enjoy them more if I made them up myself. Which, in a way, I suppose I do. It’s my subconscious at work—that part of the brain from which I suspect my best writing material comes.

But how to access that material in the waking world? As writers, we are essentially creating dreams for our readers. Stories that are like reality, but just that much better. Just that much less predictable, like any good dream.

Some ways to access the dreaming part of your brain:

Lucid dreaming: Lucid dreaming is dreaming when you know you’re dreaming. You won’t necessarily control your dreams, but you’re likely to remember them. Here’s a comprehensive list of ways to make it happen.

Dream journals: This is one of my favorites. As soon as I wake, I jot down the details of all the dreams I can remember. The exercise of writing it out makes me feel like I have a jump on my creative day.

Music: Do you listen to music as you write? It can quickly put you in the writing zone, but music with lyrics can be distracting. When I wrote Charlotte’s Story, I had this adagio on a loop for weeks. Repeated music is a great self-hypnosis tool.

Rituals: Same Bat Place. Same Bat Time. If you’re in the habit of doing deep work in the same place every time, your brain will begin to relax once it’s in sight.

Silence: I used to brag a lot about how I could write just as easily in a noisy cafe as I could in a silent room. While it’s still true, silence settles me much more quickly. You can almost hear the doors in my head opening.

Do you have trouble recalling your dreams? It’s common.The reason it’s sometimes difficult is because the brain may shut down its memory-recording functions while we’re in REM sleep.

Here’s what I find so fascinating about recalling dreams—or even having them. What if they really are simply random discharges of neurons firing up images in our brains while we sleep? That doesn’t make them any less interesting or less vital. It’s what we do with the connections between those images that makes a dream a dream. Even while we are sleeping, we are constructing narratives. How cool is that? Storytelling is so elemental to our being that we may be compelled to do it unintentionally, while we’re asleep.

That means that we are all storytellers. But to be writers, we have to externalize those narratives.

I love to wake up and share my dreams. If a dream is particularly vivid, I’ll definitely record it in my journal. It surprises me how long the narratives are. Recently I’ve tried to make sure I’m recording only what I remember about the dream. Of course, my inclination is to embellish it, to make it more of a story. Did I tell you about the one where I was babysitting a little white dog, and it ran out of the plush apartment where it lived? I searched all around the courtyard, but found it chained underwater in a big white swimming pool, paddling its heart out to keep its head above water. I felt like such a hero rescuing it. Somehow, though, I don’t think the tale would make compelling fiction.

Maybe next dream.

If you write consistently, you know exactly how it feels to slip into The Dream Zone. What helps you get there?

Have you ever dreamed an entire story or novel, and then written it?

 

 

 

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Betting On The Muse

 

A couple of weeks ago I started writing my post for today, and said, I need to think more on this before I put it out there. So I put it aside, and didn’t get back to it right away because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. As in, I can only focus well on one thing at a time and I had a pretty big thing to focus on: I finished my ninth novel on Monday morning. May I qualify that? I finished my ninth novel, but the first two were practice novels, and I never sent them out. (But now that I’ve typed that out loud, I wonder why I so easily discount those two just because they haven’t been published.)

Number nine is a mess. It’s quite possibly the messiest first draft I’ve ever written. The Intruder is something new for me: a suspense novel without a hint of supernatural in it, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that it has been a little difficult to switch gears. It’s not like I’ve only written supernatural stories. Fully half of my published short stories are straight crime, i.e. contain nothing surreal or supernatural, and those first two “practice” novels didn’t contain any supernatural elements, either. But when my third novel (first one published), Isabella Moon, which was all about the ghosts, sold for actual money, I figured I should stick with what worked. I didn’t look back until about a year ago.

Writing about ghosts and demons is enjoyable to me. It’s fantasy. An escape. As writers—may I speak for us all here?—we spend lots of time in alternate realities. For me, at least, it’s not much of a stretch to envision realities in which the presence of perceivable ghosts is not only possible, but probable. And why not? There’s certainly a market for it.

Why write something different this time? I wanted to try something new, and my muse said, “Let’s go for it.”

I was struck by something the estimable James Scott Bell said in his January 29th post (in fact, the entire post was very timely for me):

“One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.”

That feels very true to me about short stories. They’re low risk. If a new story in a new genre works out, you’ve just opened up a new door for yourself with attendant readers. On the other hand, if you’ve written five thousand words of uneditable dreck, it’s only cost you a few hours’ commitment. No big deal, and you’ve (it is to be hoped) had a good time. Hello, one night stand of the writing life.

But thinking about making such a big jump from one genre of novels to another was, dare I say, hard for me. In fact, it slowed my writing down considerably because I was afraid of screwing it up. Of looking like an idiot. I don’t like to admit it when things are hard. (Insert years of therapy here.) It felt BIG.

On the one hand, it is big. I just spent most of a year writing something very new for me. One hundred and five thousand words of new. If I thought of myself as a brand—and, seriously, I have a very hard time with that concept—then this book would be considered off-brand. My answer to that is that all of my published books are similarly suspenseful mysteries, it’s just that they also contain ghosts. How that plays with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, I’m not sure. Marketing myself as a part of a category has never been my forté, and you don’t even want to get me to hop onto my literary vs. commercial fiction soapbox. (Literary fiction is just a genre. Way too many MFA programs are still teaching people to write for Esquire magazine, circa 1972. The End.) But I digress.

On the other hand…really? I’m a writer. The words I put on the page are just words and ideas. Not pearls of wisdom or gold bricks. They aren’t even fully formed until I play with them and shape them into something readable. Writers who think that every word they spew out, or squirt out, or precisely place with the tiniest, cutest pair of word tweezers in the world is some precious, permanent thing are delusional. We are creating. Playing. And if we don’t write what we want to write (again, thanks, JSB and Mr. Bradbury), then it’s our own fault and shame on us.

Here I am, in between hands. Today I print out the manuscript to see it on paper. That’s my first step of editing. You can’t edit a blank page, but you certainly can edit four hundred pages with words on them. Wish me luck.

As I was working on this, I read a post on Facebook (I know. I get distracted.) that asked if writers found it hard to talk publicly about their writing, and I had to laugh at how many people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t.” I love that TKZ folks talk openly and honestly about their work and experiences. It’s very refreshing.

So that’s my vein-slicing for today. What about you? What’s the biggest, most public risk you’ve taken as a writer?

 

 

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