Tag Archives: writing

Happy birthday, Dad. Wish you were here.

That's my dad with the notebook in his lap, doing what he did best: reporting.

That’s my dad with the notebook in his lap, doing what he did best: reporting.

Ever wonder what makes a person want to write, or want to be good at it? My dad said a good reporter never lets go of the curiosity, never lets politeness get in the way of a story – but also never lets a story get in the way of basic courtesy and humanity. In my humble opinion, modern journalism allows the story to trample humanity far too often.

We used to go for drives, just my dad and me, and we would talk. He told me about newspapering, reminisced sometimes for the entire ride. It was less a conversation than it was a feast of words.

He could paint such vivid word pictures that often I could not see the landscape through which we drove for all of the images crowding my mind.

He never talked down to me, which sometimes left me struggling to decipher a word by its context.

It seems as though I’ve known the four Ws (who, what, when, where – you all know them) all my life, along with that important H (how). Applying them was second nature even when I was in grammar school. Chasing a story with him, I could often tell him some or all of the Ws of it, which pleased him no end. And of course, it pleased me no end to have pleased my dad.

I wonder often if my personal philosophies were formed less by my own observations and judgments but by his. I can’t recall the specifics of our talks anymore. He died in 1968, and time erodes so many memories.

He was utterly irreverent, could make me sick from laughter or weep with empathy. He disliked pretension, subterfuge, hypocrisy and injustice – especially injustice. To him, family was the highest priority.

My siblings have different philosophies than I do, and although he talked with them and wrote letters when one of them was away, I was the one who went with him on stories most often. And on our long drives, I knew I was the world’s luckiest child.

We had an ongoing squirt gun battle, with only one gun. Whoever had it would sneak up and shoot the other, elude capture and hide the gun. Eventually, the victim would discover the gun’s hiding place, reload it and the game was back on. Months could pass between battles. I once spent the better part of an hour crawling through kitchen and dining room to the living room, to rise up behind his easy chair and blast him in the back of the neck. Boy, did I pay for that one! He trapped me in a closet and of course, I emptied the water pistol at him. But he had a turkey baster and a pitcher of water in his hands. Cheating was fair in our game.

Irreverence – dad went to as many of my choral concerts as he could. He would sit in the  audience and make hideous faces, cracking up not just me, but anyone else in the chorus who caught his act.

There was never a doubt in my mind – and maybe not in his, though he never said – that I would follow in his footsteps. He wanted to write a novel, something that I don’t think even my mother knew. After he died, I looked everywhere, because I’d once seen several pages of a rough draft. I don’t know if I wanted to simply read it, or to finish it for him. But it was gone.  He hadn’t had much time to work on it, anyway, working two jobs to support us until the day he died. Perhaps he chucked it. I don’t know.

That was part of why many of our talks were in the dead of night. He got home at exactly 12:20 a.m. from his second job as a copy editor at the Columbus Enquirer, and there I often was, waiting, even on school nights. We’d talk, eat peanut butter and tomato sandwiches, and eventually he would remember that I was supposed to be asleep. He’d send me to bed, but never rebuked me for waiting up.

All these years later, I often look at the clock and it’s 12:20 a.m. Funny how that happens.

I don’t know if he built a love of writing in me, or if he recognized it and simply tried to help my love blossom. He never said, and it never occurred to me – and there wasn’t enough time – to ask.I’m just glad that I have it, and glad of the things he taught me.

Like him, I became a journalist, and like him, may never see a novel published, though unlike him, I’ve written several. (NOTE: this was written in 1998, long before I published Memory’s Child)

I’m glad I had him, even if he did lie when he said freckles were beautiful. Even if he lied when he said his was transferring some of his freckles to my face when he grabbed me up and rubbed his stubbly face against my cheeks while I squealed and squirmed.

He’s been gone more than three-quarters of my life and I miss him still. He would have been 100 today. Happy birthday, Dad.

Writing Process Blog Tour – My Part!

Many thanks to my friend and fellow fictioneer, Jerilyn Dufresne, author of the charming and funny Sam Darling mystery series. She tagged me in her recent blog post (Read it here). Thanks, Jer! I enjoyed the challenge.

What are you working on now?

Lately, I’ve been emulating a scattergun – I’m working on four books. In addition to researching and writing the sequel and prequel to Memory’s Child, I’m also updating and revamping a mystery/suspense novel (Dying to Meet You) and a romance/adventure novel (Trial Run). Both of the latter are set in Florida.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?Memory's Child

Well, how many books do you know of that were generated by a can of tuna? Seriously, I found myself in a small, neighborhood grocery store one day, staring at an entire shelf section packed with cans of tuna. I thought about all the grocery stores in my city and all the cans of tuna they stocked, then all the stores in the country and so on. The idea of all those dead fish was staggering, and I wondered how long the ocean could continue to pro
duce so much fish if the population keeps growing.  You see where that kind of thinking is likely to go.

Memory’s Child is more than a cautionary or post-apocalyptic tale about humanity outgrowing the resources of this planet, though. The idea of prejudice as a fundamental part of humans’ makeup is another of the book’s premises, and it’s an important one, I think. In Memory’s Child, the circumstances of the past have changed the focus of prejudice. As Shelana, the protagonist says, humans no longer have “distinctions of color or collar or cash,” but have replaced that with another kind of prejudice – against intellect. “Hate what you do not comprehend, wage war on what you fear, and destroy what you cannot have. Prejudice is as old as mankind,” she says. I thought that idea was unique enough to explore.

Why do I write what I do?

Good question, and I have no idea. Much of the story in Memory’s Child simply erupted shortly after the tuna incident. I was not planning a novel, had not thought about this story, and had no idea it lurked in my pen, waiting to attach itself to paper. I wrote the word “aberration” on a blank page in my notebook, and from that point forward, I just went along for the ride. If you can imagine trying to write, longhand, every word of a book as it is read to you, that’s what it was like getting Memory’s Child on paper. I wrote as fast as the pen would move, terrified that I would miss something important, eager to read what would happen next.

Over the cpen_nib_with_reflectionourse of about four days, I learned the story as it appeared on the page. I only stopped writing when I fell asleep, pen in hand. I still have the original manuscript with odd little squiggles marking the page. My husband, Randy, brought me food and made sure nobody bothered me with visits or phone calls.

Those were among the very best days of my life. Later, typing the manuscript from those handwritten pages, I added descriptions and other details that weren’t in the original narrative. The story came first, the details later.

How does my writing process work?

Sadly, no other stories have flowed from my pen the way Memory’s Child did. Writing would be so much easier if they did! Instead, I write more than I should, adding and subtracting scenes as I go, until I find what works. I still write longhand and I do not outline as many authors do. Once I tell the story, I’m done, and an outline is, to my odd brain, the same as telling the story. The book would never get past the outlining stage. Instead, I start at the beginning and just keep going to the end. When the story is written, I add in transitions and descriptions (I prefer dialogue and action to writing description). This is my first edit. The whole thing is put away for at least a month to let the story steep. Then I pull it out and edit, edit, edit until I’m happy with it, which can take months. I still itch to edit Memory’s Child as ideas continue to occur to me.

What are my writing plans for the future?

Once the prequel and sequel are finished, I plan to complete the rewrite of Dying to Meet You, then Trial Run. I have a couple more novels in the very-rough-draft stage: Fair Warning and Katie Enigma. My goal is to finish at least the first four this year, if recent health issues allow. After that, I’d like to take my time on Fair Warning, especially, since the plot of that one is quite intricate.

I haven’t warned them, but I’d like to tag Allyson K. Abbott, author of the Mack’s Bar mysteries, a unique new series, and Lauren Clark, author of Dancing Naked in Dixie, Stay Tuned and Stardust Summer.

Description

description wordleIt’s a badly-kept secret that I prefer writing dialogue to writing description.To me, description should be brief but substantial, so that it delivers plenty of information to the mind’s eye without blathering on and on about the color of someone’s shirt or going into painfully explicit detail about the way the setting sun strikes the forest floor through the tree canopy.

The sunlight is dappled, okay? I don’t need to know that the light is pale lemon yellow as it stabs through the pine needles, or dark and rusty looking as it weaves its way from the sky to the scattered carpet of brown and crispy oak leaves on the forest floor. I really, honestly don’t care. The sunlight is dappled. That’s enough for my mind’s eye to conjure up a crisp carpet of leaves below and a lush canopy above.

I once spent weeks studying character descriptions in novels. I didn’t look at descriptions of the main characters, because those should occur frequently throughout the book.

What I found was that in nearly every case, the author used around 100 words of description when introducing other characters that may or may not reappear in the story, and around 50 words to describe a character’s clothing, gestures and facial expressions if they did reappear. Secondary characters sometimes required more detail than lesser characters, especially if they were doing something like washing a car or firing a weapon as a chapter opened.

That’s what I learned from studying books that I liked to read. It’s not a formula, but I do use that information as a guideline when I write. Many times, trying to write a good description succinctly has forced me to work harder at using that small block of text to its greatest advantage.

My informal research also turned up the fact that, other than character descriptions, detailed descriptions of setting and action sequences such as gunfights and autopsies could go on for pages. I understand that describing the pathologist’s movements and the tools he uses in dissecting a corpse lends authenticity to the book (and thus, the author), but books I love give me a vivid snapshot without showing me the whole movie. Please stop describing Stryker saws to me every other chapter. I already know more about them than I ever wanted or needed to. There’s that dappled sunlight, again.

I force myself to write description, because although I know what everything looks like, the audience does not. However, I skim or skip overly long, descriptive passages when I read other peoples’ work. Too many novels have more description than story. It’s like wearing full arctic gear in Miami in June.

If you condensed all that narrative, you might wind up with a lovely, highly readable short story or a novella. With the minute details of descriptive passages gone, most readers will conjure up their own visions.

Why don’t authors trust readers to employ their own imaginations anymore? I’d read every word of a book with less description, because it would be jam-packed with the important stuff. The story.

Biting the Keyboard

I rarely read reviews, especially on GoodReads, where it seems the reviewers can be egregiously harsh, but I read one this morning. I wish I hadn’t, because like most authors, I try never to respond. 

It’s one thing if the reviewer understands your character and your plot and simply doesn’t like it, and another thing entirely when they don’t “get” the character and don’t even read the whole book.  

I’ve seen reviews, and not just of my work, that smack of readers utterly oblivious to character development. Jane Doe must behave this way on page 300 because she behaved that way 250 pages (and in some cases, several years in the tale) ago.

Personally, I prefer books in which the character changes at least a little over the course of the story. She realizes she’s too trusting, he decides to go back to college, she decides to move away from a toxic family situation, he learns to see homeless people as individuals and not a clot in the arteries of his home town, and so on. A character that learns something as basic as “beauty is only skin deep” gets higher marks from me than one that never stops judging people on appearance alone.

I like it when characters who need to grow and change, do. They may not be anywhere near perfect by the end of the book, but that’s okay, as long as they are heading that way. It’s even okay if they are heading in the opposite direction. Some characters become flawed as the story progresses, and that can be interesting, too.

In my opinion, many books, movies and television shows fail to show any character development. Worse, too many that do try to show character development have all the subtlety of an atom bomb. The moment X happens, the character becomes Y. Please.

How many people do you know who changed in any meaningful way all at once? I don’t mean promising to tell everyone they love how important they are because, you know, their best friend just died in a tragic accident and life really is uncertain….

A resolution like that is not at all unusual, but it rarely endures. Life demands too much attention, and sooner or later, most of us turn back to it despite our best intentions.

Most people don’t change because X happens. They change because A through W happen and bring changes to their character first. The neat thing about a book is that you can weave A through W into the storyline, leading up to X. The bad thing is, some readers don’t notice until you get to X, or don’t notice at all.

I am quite proud of Memory’s Child. I like the story, I like the way Shelana starts out a smart-assed, naïve almost-woman who simply reacts to the world. She’s a character in dire need of character development, and slowly but surely, she grows as the story – and time – goes on. 

So I’ll just bite my tongue – er, keyboard – and go on about my business, which is writing.

 

The Introverted Writer

LimebirdVanessa has a great blog post about writers who may be shy in real life but blossom online.  Take a look! The Introverted Writer.

Guest Post: Top 10 Tips for a Stellar First Chapter

Today’s post is a gift from author Lauren Clark, whose book, Dancing Naked in Dixie, I reviewed earlier this week. The advice she offers here is the kind of “thank you” we writers can all appreciate.

Click on the book image to read my review of DANCING NAKED IN DIXIE

If you’re a writer … in any stage of the game … you’ve likely stressed out about that ominous and all-important first chapter. It’s easy to get stuck on page one, but these tips should help get you thinking and planning your way through it. With some effort, you’ll soon be on your way to chapter two, then three, and beyond.

Here goes:

1. Open with action – Have your character doing something that matters (not drinking tea, taking a shower, or doing the dishes!)

2. What’s the problem? – Your hero or heroine should have a dilemma right away. It can be something that he or she created, an issue that someone else incites (revenge, grief, hate. love, obsession, etc.) an accident, or even a natural disaster.

3. Why should I care? – The main character’s problem should matter, in a small sense or a large one. The hero doesn’t have to be saving the world, but the crisis or issue at hand should be enough to upset the balance of life as he or she knows it.

4. Inject some empathy – Make certain that you show your character (on the premise that your hero is not a serial killer) demonstrates caring for others. It doesn’t have to be rescuing a baby from a burning building, but even a small act of kindness goes a long way with readers identifying with your protagonist.

5. Don’t overload the chapter with secondary characters – When you meet someone new, it’s tough enough to remember that person’s name. Don’t throw a dozen characters at your reader right away. It’s too confusing.

6. Light on the description – Don’t weigh the story down with too many details about the setting, every blade of grass, or the character’s eye color – there’s plenty of time for that later.

7. Skip the back story – Readers don’t need to know everything about the character right away. Save the details for why and how for at least a few more chapters — and later in the story if you can manage it. Remember, offer ‘crumbs’ along the way…don’t throw down the entire loaf of bread!

8. This is my personal preference, but keep the first chapter between five and ten pages (double-spaced in a Word document). Much more than that and you chance losing a reader.

9. Leave the reader hanging at the end of the chapter. Don’t explain everything. Ask a question. Pose another dilemma. Put someone in danger. Give the reader a reason to turn the page and go to chapter two.

 10. Put chapter one away for a day or two. Get it back out, re-read it. Make notes, do some light revisions. Let a trusted friend read it. Let a book-loving acquaintance read it. Make more notes, do more revisions as needed. IMPORTANT: Go on to chapter two. Write the rest of the manuscript.  Then, Go back to # 1 on this list and double-check that you’ve included everything needed for that stellar first chapter.

Looking for examples of stellar first chapters? Pick up a few of your favorite books. Try answering the questions above using those novels. What makes them special?

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Clark

 Lauren Clark is the author of Stay Tuned and Dancing Naked in Dixie. She writes contemporary novels set in the Deep South; stories sprinkled with sunshine, suspense, and secrets.

A former TV news anchor, Lauren adores flavored coffee, local bookstores, and anywhere she can stick her toes in the sand. Her big loves are her family, paying it forward, and true-blue friends. Check out her website at www.laurenclarkbooks.com.

 

 

Smart, Sassy Fiction with a Southern Twist

 Dancing Naked in Dixie for Kindle

Dancing Naked in Paperback

Dancing Naked for Nook

Dancing Naked for iTunes, iPad, iPhone

Stay Tuned

Lauren Clark Books Website

Let’s all ‘Dance Naked in Dixie’

Even if you aren’t a fan of contemporary women’s fiction, or “chick-lit,” Dancing is a good read.

Before I write my review of Lauren Clark’s Dancing Naked in Dixie, a couple of notes. First, I am pleased to call Lauren Clark a friend, though we’ve never met. She’s been friendly, incredibly helpful and a joy to converse with via Facebook and e-mail.

Second, I received an advance reader’s copy of Dancing, but the author did not ask me to review the book in return.  She did ask for a very brief blurb later, which I provided.

Okay, with all that out of the way, here’s what I think: read it.

Lauren Clark’s first offering was Stay Tuned, set in the town where I live, so it caught my interest right away. Plus, the setting was a television news station. I have a (very) little experience with television news and three decades of experience with print journalism. I enjoyed the book and appreciated the spot-on setting and characterizations, though contemporary women’s fiction isn’t the genre I normally choose to read.

Some authors write book after book with about the same level of skill, and some authors can never quite produce anything as good as their first books.

Some, like Clark, improve with experience. While Stay Tuned was a fun read and I certainly don’t resent spending my time on it, Dancing is a leap forward. Clark seems to be fine-tuning a native skill for storytelling.

Dancing starts off funny and fast, then proceeds to send the reader off on a roller coaster ride of romance and adventure, sprinkled with more humor. You might even shed a tear or two, though I won’t say why.

Here’s the synopsis from the product page on Amazon:

Travel writer Julia Sullivan lives life in fast-forward. She jet sets to Europe and the Caribbean with barely a moment to blink or sleep. But too many mishaps and missed deadlines have Julia on the verge of being fired.

With a stern warning, and unemployment looming, she’s offered one last chance to rescue her career. Julia embarks on an unlikely journey to the ‘Heart of Dixie’—Eufaula, Alabama—home to magnificent mansions, sweet tea, and the annual Pilgrimage.

Julia arrives, soon charmed by the lovely city and her handsome host, but her stay is marred by a shocking discovery. Can Julia’s story save her career, Eufaula, and the annual Pilgrimage?

I grew up about 30 miles from Eufaula, Alabama. In addition to camping, fishing and one truly foible-filled 4th of July picnic, I once worked at the newspaper there. I know Eufaula, and when you read Dancing, you will get to know it, too, because Clark shows the town to you with exquisite accuracy.

You can almost taste the sweet tea and hear the slow drawl as the characters interact. Clark is careful to include all the senses, gifting the reader with the sights, sounds and scents of this lovely old Southern town and its people. I laughed out loud when Clark revealed that one of the characters is named Shug Jordan, after the famous Auburn football coach. She even explains the correct pronunciation: JERR-dan. Now that’s nailing it!

While I’m not as familiar with New York City, I suspect Clark, a former television newsperson herself and thus accustomed to extensive research, nailed that city’s “personality” as well.

The pacing is well done. The characters are distinct and generally well-defined. You don’t get handed everything – some subtleties may dawn on you a page or two later. I like that.

Dancing is interesting. As a writer, I read books not just for story but for craft, and Clark has a good grasp of both. I expect we will see her writing career grow exponentially, and I’m looking forward to her next book.

While I received the reader’s copy free from the author, I bought the Kindle edition as soon as it was released. Why? Because I wanted to read the final, polished version, and because I firmly believe in supporting good authors as much as possible.

Click on the image of the book cover to go to the product page on Amazon. Dancing Naked in Dixie is available in e-book and paperback form.