How Facebook Can Help You Write More (and More Often)

Thumb Up SignI know, I know. I actually snickered when I wrote this headline.

Most articles we read about Facebook (and other social media sites) report how much time we now spend frittering and twittering away each day. In fact, a recent article posted by Bloomberg BusinessWeek states that the average American spends as much time checking their Facebook feed as they do on their pets or on daily housework (you can read the article here: http://tinyurl.com/ml44ekl).

We really aren’t that surprised, are we? With the ability to check these sites on our phones while standing in line, or waiting at the doctor’s office, those little chunks of time all add up. The question is, “How do you feel after you’ve logged off?” Did you get anything out of it, aside from a brief respite from boredom?

As someone who uses Facebook casually to keep in touch with family, friends and colleagues, I also realize that Mark Zuckerberg is taking every bit of information I fork over in status updates and selling it to companies intent on selling me stuff related to that mined data. I know enough about Facebook and its TOS (terms of service) to realize that I am a product that they intend to monetize in any way possible. So, if we’re going to have this relationship, I might as well get something out of it. If I’m going to be on Facebook, I wanted it to be a better experience, which brought me to this question:

What if we started using these sites to help spur our writing projects?

Writers, by and large, are a supportive group, and this extends to social media as well. When checking Facebook, I specifically check updates of writer friends and authors I enjoy because they often post updates on their WIP or their processes. Reading these status updates, such as “Just finished 2K words this morning!” serves as further motivation for me. While it’s important to not compare ourselves to others–especially since we have Facebook personas that are more attractive and interesting than we actually are in real life–we can be encouraged and motivated by the posts of other writers. Anne Lamott always delivers and Louise Penny is extremely gracious with her updates. So, I now hide the feeds where people share their breakfast choices and opt to read posts from those immersed in the writing life.

Like anything, this can quickly become a rabbit hole of procrastination, so I try not to check social media until after I’ve tackled my own writing first. However, if I’m having trouble getting started, I give myself a 15-minute block of time to check authors’ posts to help spur my brain into action (and yes, I set a timer!).

I’ve also found Twitter to be  helpful  in terms of writing life and related stories because the nature of this format is condensed into 140 characters. Twitter’s format lends itself to sharing stories and blog posts, and I, again, set a specific time, and work to use the posts to motivate me and to help return my attention to writing.

I can’t say that I never waste time on social media but I have now become a bit more aware of how to use it to my benefit–and how often I’m online. Rather than scrolling mindlessly through status updates on things I don’t value, I now seek out specific posts and updates that will help me navigate the challenges of finishing a novel while working and raising a family.   I also make sure to support my favorite authors by purchasing their books and writing reviews of novels I’ve enjoyed.

So, I’m making peace with Facebook and Twitter. Like all technology, these sites make valuable servants but horrible masters, and I realize it’s up to me to decide how to leverage them to my benefit. How about you? How do you use social media in relation to your writing life?

–Laura Oles

Tailoring, Treaties, and Tomatoes: 3 Techniques to Turn You into a Tenacious Writer

Italiano: Pomodoro grinzoso

Italiano: Pomodoro grinzoso (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By Abbasnullius (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a post that appeared here last fall, Austin Mystery Writer Laura Oles asked the burning question,

Can a technique named after a tomato serve as the answer to your time management woes?

Or, more specifically, what does the writer do when it’s impossible to devote a large block of time–several consecutive hours, at least–to writing?

Laura answered the question with a resounding Yes! and went on to describe her success using the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working in 25-minute blocks of time.

After reading her post, I put a Pomodoro on my toolbar. I like it. It helps me log my time, a necessary evil for professional writers, and gives me a feeling of accomplishment.

But my schedule isn’t demanding. I often feel I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to just get through the day, but really–I have time to write.  Pomodoro works while I’m writing.

But procrastination–in my case known as staring into space and thinking about what I’m going to do . . . later–wastes time. I need a jump start in order to start writing.

Even the promise an old-fashioned homegrown tomato is not enough of a carrot to lure me to the page. (Sorry about that.) To move me, there must also be a stick. Fortunately, sticks are available.

One I’ve found helpful is a writing challenge: A Round of Words in 80 Days (ROW80), subtitled The Writing Challenge That Knows You Have a Life.

In ROW80, you set your own goals. They must be specific and measurable, but they’re tailored to your needs. The first day of the challenge, you announce your goals in a blog post; then you put a link to your post on the ROW80 Linky.

I won’t try to explain the Linky, but you can read about it in the FAQs.

There are four rounds each year, starting the first Mondays in January, April, July, and October. Each runs eighty days and is followed by several days off. You check in every Sunday and Wednesday with a blog post in which you report your progress. If you need to change your goals, that’s fine. Just state the new ones and go on from there.

Round 1 for 2015 began January 5. Too late to enter? No. Jump in tomorrow or Sunday, or next week . . .

Your obligations, in addition to writing the Sunday and Wednesday posts and listing them on the Linky are 1) to put a link to the Linky page on your post; and 2) to visit the blogs of other ROW80 participants, comment, encourage them.

ROW80 allows flexibility. You choose when and how much you write, and if you don’t meet your goals, you haven’t failed–you’ve learned something. No pain, plenty of gain. The challenge is a stick, but there’s a lot of carrot in it, too.

A slightly stickier stick appears on Ramona DeFelice Long’s blog, which is an excellent resource for writers. Ramona is a professional editor as well as a writer. She’s successful because she works at her craft. In this post, she describes the persistence and determination required of the serious writer:

Writers write. Writers who get published complete work and submit that work to agents and editors. It’s how it works. The way to write for publication is to commit to it. That means nothing–and no one–stands in the way of your writing goals.

Ramona invites readers to take “The Sacred Writing Time Pledge.” As in ROW80, you tailor the pledge to your own needs–within certain parameters. But after that, there’s no wiggle room. A Sacred Pledge is meant to be kept. It’s simple: You do what you said you would do, or you don’t do it.

The pledge is a kind of treaty, too–a formal agreement between the writer and other parties. In most cases, it takes a village to make a writer. You sign the pledge, but there are spaces for your villagers to sign as well.

What I like best about Ramona’s pledge is its focus on the goal most writers aspire to–publication–and its honesty about what it takes to get there.

Now for a summary: In this post, I presented for your edification three techniques:

 ROW80, which lets you tailor goals to your needs;

The Sacred Writing Pledge, which a comprises both a pledge and a treaty; and

Pomodoro, which is a tomato.

Singly, or in combination, these three can help turn you into a tenacious writer.

But Wait!

I just read over the paragraph in which I referred to Ramona’s pledge as a stickier stick, and I realize the stick part is a gross exaggeration.

The Sacred Writing Time Pledge contains much more carrot than stick. In the first place, publication is as good a carrot as any writer can aspire to. It’s the literary equivalent of carrot cake.

Also, Ramona reminds us that we take the Sacred Writing Time Pledge not to enter 2015 burdened with an overwhelming task, but with hands open, ready to receive a gift:

 Think of it as renewing a vow–or falling in love for the first time, or again—with what you want to write.

Falling in love. What could be better?

Falling in love is carrot cake with a dollop of ice cream on the side.

 *****

And now, for tenacious readers, a pilon:

Tenacious

Cowhide makes the best of leather.
It should. It keeps a cow together.

 ~ Ogden Nash (of course)

 *****

0kathy-blog

  Posted by Kathy Waller,
who also blogs at
To Write Is to Write Is to Write

Mystery/Thriller Recommendations

It’s that time of year! A time for reflection on the past year and anticipation of the new. If you’re like me, you hear a lot of people mention a good book or movie and you think to yourself, “That sounds good! I gotta remember that.” And then you don’t.

So, since I have a lot of friends on Facebook who like mysteries and thrillers, I’ve asked them to recommend at least one good book or movie they discovered this year. And of course, each of us here at AMW has a recommendation too.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Mandy Eve Barnett (author): mandyevebarnett.com – Lucy – it is unusual, exciting and a great twist at the end! A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

2. Beverly Nelms (personal and book club friend) – A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman from a John LeCarre book. It’s about a (most likely) innocent Muslim man being ground up in the system by the Taliban, then by us. PSH plays a German operative with a small group of “assets” who is trying to help him. Underdogs helping the underdog. The view of agents, especially ours, is devastating.

3. Laura Wilson (personal and book club friend) – I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, book much better than the movie, by Stieg Larsson. The main character is a girl with a troubled background who is brilliant with technology and a research savant. There is torture, murder, blackmail and deceit all over this book.

4. Billy Kring (mystery author) www.billykring.com – Suspect by Robert Crais. One of my top reads of the year, and highly recommended. LAPD cop Scott James and his female partner are ambushed, and Scott is wounded, his partner killed. He is broken, suffering, and angry, textbook PTSD. As a last chance, he is partnered with a german shepherd with her own problems. Maggie is a two-tour bomb-sniffing dog who lost her handler in an ambush. She is also suffering from PTSD, and it is her last chance, too. When they begin to investigate the case where Scott’s partner was murdered, they have to rely on each other, and what they encounter in the case could well break both of them.

5. David B. Schlosser (writer, editor) – www.dbschlosser.com – The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. This terrific Australian mystery explores the traditional aspects of a crime/cop story — good guys, bad guys, and their travails — as well as some really interesting cultural challenges in Australia.

6. Kelly Pustejovsky (personal friend) – I watched Dream House yesterday on Netflix, surprisingly good.

7. Tara Madden (personal friend) – Wilde’s The Gods of Gotham and it’s sequel. Fairly new mystery series about the very beginnings of the NYPD set in the 1840s. Very good. Really pulls you into the story. Great richly created characters.

8. Jeanne Kisacky (writer) – It’s been out a while, but Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity defied my ability to see where the plot was going. It was truly remarkable to read a book and not have any of my guesses pan out.

9. H.M. Bouwmann (author and professor) – www.hmbouwman.com – I’ll second the Code Name Verity recommendation. And I enjoyed both Robert Galbraith (Rowling) mysteries–though I loved the first more than the second. Also, just as an FYI, the opening couple of pages are not great. Then: very good.

10. Roger Cuevas (personal friend) – I love Alice LaPlant’s “Turn of Mind.” It’s narrated by a woman, a former hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s. Then one day her neighbor and long-time friend is found dead and the body’s hands have been expertly removed. Did she do it? Our narrator just can’t remember…

11. Morris Nelms (personal, book club friend, professor of fine arts, and musician) (Yea, he’s a cool guy) – The Afghan, by Forsyth. Frequencies, a sci-fi whodunit movie. Crescent City Rhapsody, a sci-fi thriller about what happens when an EMP disables everything.

12. Joseph Huerta (personal friend) – The two “Blood” books by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell that feature warfare against the forces of Armageddon, including angels and devils and a secret band of priests who were once vampires. Yes, it doesn’t really sound like a Joe-book but it was truly fascinating. The third book will be out this Spring.

13. Angie Kinsey (writer) – www.angiekinsey.com – The Martian by Andy Weir – a not too far fetched sci-fi thriller about an engineer who gets stranded on Mars. He has to figure out how to stay alive with the resources he has until he can connect with home. Entertaining and thrilling!

14. Debbie Woodard (personal friend) –  I discovered the BBC’S Sherlock this year. Fantastic production, great actors, character-driven-well-written scripts.

15. Elizabeth Buhmann (AMW member) – I’ve read a lot of good mysteries this year. I think I’ll go for Present Darkness, the latest by Malla Nunn, but my recommendation is not to start here but to start with her first, A Beautiful Place to Die. The setting for these books is South Africa in the 1950s, at the height of the Apartheid era.

16. Laura Oles (AMW member) – My favorite this year isn’t a traditional mystery but I loved it because it had a strong mystery component and very strong storytelling. It was Leaving Time by Judy Picoult.

17. Gale Albright (AMW member) – I was fascinated and awed by Tana French’s In the Woods, from the very first paragraph because her writing is lyrical and compelling. It’s set in Ireland and is her first book about the “Dublin Murder Squad.”

18. Kaye George (AMW member) – I’m JUST like that. I vow to remember the good books I’ve read, but, alas, my memory doesn’t really go back 12 months. I know that every Harlan Coben I read is my favorite. Recently I read “Iron Lake” by William Kent Krueger and it was terrific. It’s the first Cork O’Connor book. I’ve read others, but had never read this one.

19. Kathy Waller (AMW member) – Terry Shames’ A Killing at Cotton Hill. She captures small town life in a southern town while mixing humor with suspense and mystery. I couldn’t put it down. It won the 2014 Macavity Award. 

20. My favorite book that I read this past year was Jackaby by William Ritter. I loved the mix of historical fantasy and mystery. Jackaby is an investigator of unexplained phenomena and the story is told from the POV of his new assistant, Abigail Rook. It’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter. It was delightful and intriguing.

So there you have it! A whole slew of books to add to your TBR (To Be Read) list.

Etiquette for Critique Groups

We all know the importance of getting feedback from other writers, not just from friends and family. For many writers, that feedback comes from a critique group.

photo (16)Last summer, Sisters in Crime  hosted a meeting about etiquette for critique groups with special guest Tim Green, from St. Edwards University. Members of several local critique groups joined the discussion. The following guidelines and suggestions emerged.

Professor Green offered a general framework for face-to-face critiques. First the writer speaks, then readers take turns offering their comments. Finally, the whole group can engage in a general discussion, summarizing what they agree about and answering each other’s questions.

DOs:

  • The writer can introduce her work briefly, explaining what she’s trying to accomplish, whether her draft is rough or finished, and what kind of feedback she wants.
  • Readers should begin with the strengths of the piece (‘What works for me is…’) and move to questions and weaknesses (‘What doesn’t work for me,’ or ‘What I don’t understand is…’) afterwards.
  • Readers should speak to the writing, not the writer, pinning comments to specific passages in the text. This bears repeating! Find the specific words that trigger your reactions.
  • During the readers’ comments, the writer should remain silent, listen carefully, and save questions or explanations for the general discussion period.
  • Everyone should bear in mind that personal preferences are not aesthetic absolutes. Readers are only offering their subjective reactions and opinions. Writers should remember that, too.

DON’Ts:

  • Writers should resist the urge to disparage or apologize for their own writing.
  • Readers should resist the urge to rewrite or copyedit during group critiques.
  • Writers should try not to become defensive.

Professor Green advised that higher order concerns (plot, structure, character, voice, point of view, telling/showing) are appropriate for early drafts. Lower order concerns (dialogue, scene/setting, word choice, sentence management) are more likely to be useful for advanced drafts.

Most critique groups eventually settle on a routine that works for them, but for planning purposes, you could consider the following guidelines:

  • Four to six people is a good size for a critique group.
  • Ten pages is a reasonable length for submissions.
  • One or two minutes should suffice for the writer’s introductory remarks.
  • Allow about five minutes for each reader’s comments.

At this rate, you would expect to spend a half-hour or more on each submission. If everyone submits every time, you might need to allow as much as three hours for your sessions. Timekeeping can help ensure that each writer gets her fair share of attention.

Depending on where you live and what you write, you may have a hard time finding a local group that works in your genre or niche and meets at a convenient time and place. In that case, you could consider joining Authonomy, a website run by Harper Collins where thousands of authors post their work and exchange critiques online.

Elizabeth Buhmann

Elizabeth Buhmann is author of Lay Death at Her Door (Red Adept Publishing, May 2013)

Everyone agreed on the importance of keeping the comments positive. Praise for what works should come first to balance criticism. It may be necessary to curb or even remove a person who dominates discussion or persists in harsh criticism.

As writers, we learn and improve from criticism, but praise is the oxygen we breathe. Your critique group should not leave you feeling discouraged. If it does, drop out.

You should run home from your critique group sessions eager to reread the comments on your work and inspired to make the revisions that will take it to the next level.

A Christmas Pomodori

River Bluff Writers' Retreat 020Star Date: December 13, 2014

It all started with a weekend retreat. Don’t mysteries always start  like that? (Well, some of them.)

It’s like the beginning of a typical forties noir film. Think of a battered private dick, his face wrapped in bandages, trapped in a blindingly bright spotlight at the Hollywood police station. All in black and white with lots of shadows. The police want to know about a murder. When he starts talking, the scene dissolves into a flashback.

Except in my case, everything was in color, in the twenty-first century, and by the San Marcos River in Central Texas–not Hollywood.

What on earth are you talking about? I hear someone mutter. Why, I’m flashing back to how I wrote my fast-paced, hard-pulsing, heart-stopping crime melodrama, Holly Through the Heart, a live radio play done in person for an enthusiastic (I hope) audience (captive) of Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas members.

I had come up with a daring (hare-brained) scheme in September. Why not have an old-fashioned live radio murder mystery play for our Christmas party on December 14? Then I proceeded to ask (beg, cajole) people to be in the cast. I had everything set up. But there was just a tiny, wee problem.

I was having trouble with the play itself. As in, writing it. There were three lovely paragraphs, almost a whole first page done. It was very promising. But I was stuck.

To myself, I said, “Self, you have asked all these folks to be in your play, and we are going to have to rehearse before the show debuts on December 14, so what are you going to do?”

Then fellow AMW critique partner Kathy Waller said we should have a writing retreat the first weekend in October, so we did, at a cabin on the San Marcos River. The cabin was lovely and rustic, surrounded by giant pecan trees and nestled in rural obscurity—except for the eleventy-million trucks hauling monster barbecue smokers in and out of the property next door. There was a barbecue cooking contest being held in close proximity to our cabin on Friday and Saturday. I thought there would be lots of noise and craziness going on next door, but perhaps we might be invited over to partake of delicious delicacies.

But no. There was no offer of succulent meat, but the noise level was kept to a decorous level down by the river. So I couldn’t use loud music and barbecue overdose to excuse my almost nonexistent radio play.

What did I do, you might ask. On Friday night, we went to the Sac ’n Pac on the highway and purchased delicious burgers for our supper. Then we sat around and talked and talked and talked and finally went to sleep.

On Saturday, some troublemaker brought up the fact that we were technically on a writing retreat and that maybe we should write. If I remember correctly, fellow AMW critique partner Valerie Chandler said we should use the Pomodoro technique to write something. We limbered up our laptops and did the Pomodoro. What is the Pomodoro, you may ask? Here’s the word from Wikipedia:

“The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are known as “pomodori”, the plural of the Italian word pomodoro for “tomato.” The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.” Taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

I knew I was not motivated. But I sat there, hands poised over the keyboard, the timer went off, and I pounded away for twenty-five minutes. Took a break and then pounded for another twenty-five minutes.

And guess what?

I wrote the whole script.

That Saturday night, after we had gone back to the Sac ’n Pac to get pizza for dinner, we sat around and talked and talked and talked some more. One of the subjects we covered was my anguish over my current book plot. It needed help. So we all brainstormed, lying on couches, eating Goldfish (the baked cheese kind) and cookies and solved my plot problem.

That’s my story, coppers, and no matter how much you grill me, I won’t change my tune. That’s how it all went down.

So now, as I write this blog post on the evening of December 13, waiting for my pot roast to get almost done before I put in the potatoes (battered private dicks sometimes cook), and anticipating putting on the play tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Book Spot in Round Rock, I think it’s going to be great.

We’ve rehearsed, given feedback, and worked on sound effects. I’ve had directorial angst, but I feel good about the whole thing.

Kudos to Kathy for setting up the writing retreat and for Valerie’s and Kathy’s help with Pomodoro sprints and book plot brainstorming.

Tomorrow Holly Through the Heart has its debut performance far from Broadway, at the Book Spot in Round Rock, Texas. But the journey begins with a single Pomodori, does it not?

I only wish, Valerie, that you had not gotten me addicted to Goldfish, but then artists must suffer, I suppose.

Star Date: December 14, 2014

Book Spot Dec. 14 SINC 028

From left to right: Alex Ferraro, Kathy Waller, David Ciambrone, Gale Albright, and Valerie Chandler, cast of Holly Through the Heart, an old-time radio mystery drama performed live at its debut at the Book Spot on December 14, in Round Rock, TexasBook Spot Dec. 14 SINC 030A  cookie script of Holly Through the Heart, created by culinary genius Valerie Chandler.

By Gale Albright

Serial’s Strange Embrace: A 15-Year-Old Murder Mystery Captivates Millions

Have you been listening to Serial? Each week, millions of people anticipate the next episode of Serial, a podcast-turned-obsession produced by This American Life (TAL), which covers the investigation of a 15-year-old murder case. Serial has done a masterful job of pulling people into a real-life murder mystery, and I am one of those waiting for a new episode each Thursday. serial_logo

Serial is hosted by Sarah Koenig, a journalist and  executive producer working for TAL, who spent a year studying the case of Hae Min Lee, a well-liked Baltimore high school student who was murdered in 1999 at the age of eighteen. Lee’s body was discovered six weeks after she was murdered, buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park (often pronounced as Linkin Park). Leakin Park has a reputation as a hiding place for the dead. It has been said, “If you’re going to bury a body in Leakin Park, you’re going to find someone else’s.”   It is no place for anyone’s child.

Detectives investigated Hae Min Lee’s murder and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, found himself at the center of the inquiry. Before long, Adnan Syed, was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Many believe he was wrongly convicted while others say justice has been served.

The question remains, “Did Adnan Syed kill Hae Min Lee?”

Sarah Koenig’s storytelling skills are impressive and on full display each week. Her recorded telephone conversations with Adnan Syed from prison, as well as interviews with his friends and others who knew him, bring us close to the investigation. Koenig’s analysis helps us realize that she isn’t sure about the truth, either. Each week moves us back and forth on the pendulum swing between guilt and reasonable doubt, even innocence. Each week’s episode has caused controversy, discussion and a broader conversation regarding what should be used to prosecute capital murder cases.

Serial includes a number of discoveries and twists, which I won’t spoil in this post. For those of us who are interested in studying skilled storytelling, consider enrolling in Koenig’s class by listening to this podcast. While many have proclaimed podcasts a medium with little growth potential, Serial has proven otherwise. QuestionsKoenig is clear that she isn’t too far ahead of us in her weekly recordings. They didn’t have the entire season ‘in the can’ before Episode 1 aired, and we can feel the uncertainty as she discusses the case with experts and others involved, including a juror who served on Adnan Syed’s trial.

Koenig reads from Hae Min Lee’s diary and re-traces routes and timelines testified to in court. In her hands, the story unfolds in such a way that even some who feel they know the case are surprised by what she finds. The one thing that has stayed with me throughout my listening journey, apart from the horrific reality that a young woman was murdered and her family forever damaged by living with unfair reality, is that the way in which Adnan Syed was convicted. While I haven’t read the court transcripts, what we have learned so far is concerning. Did Syed commit the crime? Was the evidence used to convict him sufficient?  The issue is being hotly debated at water coolers and cafes across the country.

And with good reason.

Serial achieves a quality of storytelling rarely found in the true crime genre, and the result is a podcast that has broken iTunes records, becoming the fastest downloaded podcast to reach 5 million listeners. It’s a nod to old-style crime radio but with the contemporary twist. Its success has brought new attention to the case as well as some backlash criticism that a murder case should not be used for the public’s entertainment. These are curious waters to navigate but the exploration of true crime stories has been an industry for some time. Serial has simply found a way to connect with listeners in a compelling manner. As mystery writers, while we may be inspired by certain events, our work is fiction. No people or animals are harmed in the process of creating our stories. However, in Serial’s world, we are listening to an investigation involving real lives and real suffering, a viscerally violent foundation upon which this new American obsession rests.

The victim, Hae Min Lee, as reported by friends, was smart, funny and full of promise. She left this world far too soon and the space she has left open in her family’s hearts will never be filled. Yes, Serial is compelling, in large part, because of the real lives affected, because the stakes are high, because so much mystery remains in this case. Let us remember those people at the center of this reality. They are not characters–they are real people carrying this burden, long after each episode has ended.

To learn more about Serial, visit www.serialpodcast.org

Serial logo property of This American Life.

–Laura Oles

Writing, Thinking, Pantsing, and Miracles

Pantsing, when successful, lets you create a story closely resembling the spark that ignited it. ~Janalyn Voigt, Live, Write, Breathe

The first step in starting a blog is finding the perfect name. I wanted to call mine Contrariwise, as an homage to Lewis Carroll and to my ability to locate an argument in nearly any issue I come across.

Contrariwise was already in use, however, several times over, and I couldn’t find another literary allusion that satisfied, so I named it Whiskertips. It was my own invention, an homage to the two whiskered beasts with whom I share living quarters.

The next step is thinking of something to blog about. For most people, determining a theme would be Step #1. Reversing the steps led to a series of posts I like to think of as eclectic. In other words, I wrote about whatever came to mind. I also hosted guest bloggers. Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson appeared often. But after a while, nothing came to mind, and I began to fall back on the beasts. When they IMG_0832.1assumed complete control of content, I withdrew and created another blog. I took its name from Gertrude Stein: To Write Is to Write Is to Write.* In a note in the sidebar, I stated the purpose: I would write about the experience of becoming a writer. I would write about writing.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But the best-laid plans of mice and men, etc. In only weeks–days–I had another eclectic blog on my hands. Why? Because I didn’t know anything about writing.

Or, to qualify that, I didn’t know anything writers–or anyone else–would want to read.

I know the basics: grammar, usage, mechanics, various elements of fiction, methods and techniques learned from reading, attending workshops, taking classes, reading articles, books, and blogs. But I had nothing to add.  Other people had gotten there first. And who wants to read another article about where the commas go?

The worst part was that most of the authorities claimed to have the One True Way:

Write fast. Don’t revise as you go. Outline–you have to outline every scene. Use index cards. Use colored pens. Tape butcher paper to the wall. Never share your work before you’ve completed it. Find a critique group. Write 1,000 words a day, and in ninety days you’ll have a completed manuscript. Write every day. Write morning pages. Keep a writing journal. Keep a bible for your manuscript. Query early. Query later. Have a platform. Establish a brand.

All good advice, I was sure. And frustrating, because I couldn’t seem to follow the rules.

Finally, I gave up. The experts were great at explaining how they write, but they weren’t so good at telling me how to write.

I had to struggle for a while, find my own way, develop my own process, set my own rules, and deviate from rules I’d outgrown.

Now, after years of wrangling with the experts, and with myself, I finally have something to say about how I write:

I don’t start with an outline. I start with a character and a line and go from there. I can’t construct a decent plot until I understand the characters, and I can’t understand the characters until I know their backstories. The only way I can know backstories is to write them, not in a separate document, but as part of the manuscript itself. Afterward, I go back and start putting the material in order. I may have to scrap some of the best parts–the darlings–but they go in a Darlings file so I can use them later if I find a place they fit.

This method is called pantsing–as in flying by the seat of your pants. Some plotters look down on pantsers. That used to make me feel like a failure. Then I read Writing Mysteries, a collection of essays edited by Sue Grafton, in which Tony Hillerman tells about his own pantsing. He said it takes longer, but in the end, he gets there. Since reading that, I’ve stopped apologizing for pantsing. What’s good for Tony Hillerman is good enough for me.

Let me make one thing clear: I revise. The condition of my first manuscript dictates that I revise a lot. The end product looks very different from the original.

Because I’m a pantser, the NanoWriMo program of writing a 50,000-word novel in thirty days doesn’t bring out the best in me. I write more slowly, and I can’t pound out a book on someone else’s timetable. For years I registered for NaNo and then wrote perhaps ten words. That’s called losing Nano.  Now I register and write whatever I want on my own timetable. I lose nothing, NaNo loses nothing.

(There’s another reason I don’t do well with NaNoWriMo. I don’t like to talk about it. But if you want to read about it, check Wikipedia under Passive-Aggressive behavior.)

The exception to my pantsing process occurs when a story comes to me already outlined. One such blessed event happened one night just after I’d gotten into bed and turned out the light: a story appeared, beginning, middle and end. I thought it would take about 600 words, but the final version turned out to be nearly 5,000 words. It included a little pantsing.

When I began this post, I knew only two or three things about writing, but now I realize I know more. Having already run on at length, I will leave the rest for another time. After I’ve pointed out one more thing:

Some writers, myself included, know (There’s another one!)–that writing is  a form of thinking, a way to generate ideas, to learn what we already know.

But I also subscribe to Gertrude Stein’s description:

One of the pleasant things that those of us who write or paint do
is to have the daily miracle. It does come.

I depend on the daily miracle. When I write, and keep on writing, it does come.

 *

*The entire quotation is “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” I presume it was not already in use because no one wanted it.

*

Posted by Kathy Waller 0kathy-blog

Kathy blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write and at  the group blog Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68.

 

 

Writer Unboxed Un-Conference

Salem house

Just got back from the Writer Unboxed Un-Con a couple of days ago and like many of my peers, I’m having a hard time adjusting to real life again. It was so great! What’s Writer Unboxed? I guess I’ll start at the beginning.

WU is a wonderful blog (www.writerunboxed.com) that’s all about the craft of writing fiction and providing moral support for fellow writers. I’ve been a member of the “family” for a few years now and I can say that it’s been invaluable.

This was the first conference and it was held in Salem, Massachusetts and what a wonderful time of year to be there! The leaves were gorgeous and it was right after Halloween so there was still a magical feeling in the air.

The days were packed with classes and workshops. I literally filled my notebook with notes. I wish I could tell you everything I learned and the insights I discovered, but that would take  pages and pages to do. So instead I’ll share some granules of wisdom and some links so you can delve further on your own.

My first class was Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. I’m now a groupie. It was about how stories are the most powerful form of communication and our brains are literally wired for story because that’s how information has been passed down for generations. When someone says, “Let me tell you a story…” your brain releases Dopamine and you’re ready to experience the story. A good story is more important than beautiful writing because you’ll get a better reader response. She compared it to a tricked out car with no engine. It’s pretty, but it won’t get you anywhere. And most importantly—story is internal, not external. It’s what happens to your characters. Lisa has a TED talk all about this. I highly recommend it. It’s almost more like learning philosophy and about writing.

Learned about Setting as Character taught by Brunonia Barry and Liz Michalski. Both are from the area so not only was it a good class about describing your setting, they offered some new insights into the area. Most of it was a writing exercise and some of us shared what we wrote.

Velveteen Characters taught by Therese Walsh. Therese is a founder of WU and organized the conference so she is a powerhouse, to say the least. Basically she said that all of your characters are important, even the secondary ones. You should try to give each one a quirk or flaw, it makes them more real and will enhance the story. She suggested for a writing prompt to make 5 assumptions about a character and flip them. See what happens!

Plot vs  and Story taught by Lisa Cron, Brunonia Barry, and Donald Maass. This was a biggie. To sum up copious notes, story is internal and the changes that happen within your characters. Plot is actions, events and things that affect your characters. Also a side-note,  every single scene should have conflict, action, suspense, and a turning point.

Where Story Comes From led by Meg Rosoff. Basically, you are unique so your voice is unique. It was about tapping into the conscious and unconscious mind, to get to those memories, fears, and feelings that are real. If you can convey those feelings, your voice will be unique and you’ll connect with the reader.

Donald Maass’s class on How Good Manuscripts Go Wrong. So many notes! He talked about how to make your characters deeper and more interesting by giving them flaws and obstacles to overcome. Does your MC (main character) do something that no one else can do? Does your MC know something that no one else knows?  And don’t forget to add tension to every scene. Most books don’t have enough tension.

The last day was an all-day long workshop about 21st Century Fiction. It seems that genres are starting to cross over and readers are expecting it. Plot driven books have deeper characters and literary books have more suspense and action. His method was to ask questions which make you think about your characters and the events. Many people, myself included, had “aha!” moments which made us look at things differently. So insightful.

That’s it in a nutshell. I’m including a video of me singing the Un-Con song. It’s embarrassing and the quality isn’t great, but it was fun.

 

 

 

Hawking Books at the TBF

Every year, Texas author Russ Hall rents a booth at the Texas Book Festival, a downtown event that draws more than 40,000 readers from all over Central Texas.  This year, Russ shared his booth with my romance-writer friend Claire Ashby and me.

Russ Hall, Claire Ashby and Elizabeth Buhmann at the 2014 Texas Book Festival

Russ Hall, Claire Ashby and Elizabeth Buhmann at the 2014 Texas Book Festival

Nowadays, whether you are traditionally, indie or self-published, you have to sell your own books. Claire and I learned a lot about that from Russ over the weekend.

The three of us all have books out with Red Adept Publishing—Claire’s and my first books and Russ’s most recent. We all prepared for the book festival by having posters made of our cover images. The posters are good to have; they’ll come in handy at nearly any local event.

tohell

whenyoulaydeath

 

 

 

 

 

 

A good cover can play a major role in the success of your book. The three of us are happy with ours by Streetlight Graphics, cover designers who subcontract with Red Adept. Consider using them if you are choosing your own cover. And just for laughs, check out these Nine Cover Mistakes to Avoid from Book Bub Unbound.

Hawking to the Crowd

At the book festival every year, Russ shifts into what he calls his extrovert-for-a-day mode. It’s not the most natural state for the average writer, but it’s not that hard to cultivate, either. Russ taught us to greet people and make friendly conversation about the weather (it was HOT in that tent!), the crowds (BIG!), and the festival in general (so much to see).

TBF

Be ready with a quick, catchy description of your book—its genre and its hook. Claire and I struggled on this learning curve. Ask yourself: how would you describe your book in one or two sentences to make it sound like a great read? Practice your pitch!

  • Russ often quoted a line from the Kirkus review when selling his mystery, Goodbye, She Lied: “Cartloads of down-home humor, amusing characters and a hint of romance.”
  • Claire’s book is a “love story about a pregnant woman and a man who lost his leg in Afghanistan.”
  • I learned to throw out the fact that I used to work at the Attorney General’s Office. It gave me and my mystery credibility.

Russ also taught us to make sure people realized we were the authors, not just vendors. It made a difference! We ended up signing every book we sold.

Cover to Title to Blurb

It was fascinating to see the cover-title-blurb progression in action. The cover is the first thing that sells your book to a casually browsing shopper. We could see people’s eyes get caught by a cover, then they would read the title, then pick up the book and turn it over to read the back cover.

Be sure to take bookmarks! Mine included the graphics from the cover, the title and the hook paragraph from my back cover. I found I could easily pull people over by reaching out and offering a bookmark.

bookmark

One woman took the bookmark from me without pausing or even really looking at me. We watched her walk past us, glance down, then slow down, reading. Then she stopped and stood there. She turned around, came back, picked up the book, and read the back cover. Sold!

I went through 200 bookmarks and could have used more. Who knows? Maybe some people went home and read the bookmark later. If they like mysteries, maybe they’ll look it up on Amazon.

Will you have a book out next year? Get your poster and bookmarks and sign up to hawk your wares at next year’s Texas Book Festival! Where a good time is had by all.

THE GARDINER CHRONICLES: PART TWO

SINC August Meg Gardiner 003Or who let the deus ex machina out, what’s a plot, and is this about cannibalism?

hutto oct. 1 2014 023 (2)By Gale Albright

“Plot is soylent green. It’s made up of people!”
Is Edgar award-winning thriller writer Meg Gardiner talking about cannibalism?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_Green

No, she did not advocate turning people into crackers in a malnourished dystopian future. She talked about plotting novels during her August 10 presentation at the Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas chapter monthly meeting.

“Plot or characters are largely the same thing. The story is all about what the characters do. You should know what the ending is. The seeds of the ending must be sown at the beginning of the book.”

She used Jaws as an example. “The first chapter shows what needs to happen at the end of the story. There’s a set up there. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist.” You know from the beginning that somebody has to do something about that shark—pronto! That shark can’t be washed ashore six months later on a beach in South Carolina and die of indigestion. The protagonist and antagonist must engage in hand to hand combat, or hand to fin, as it were.

According to Gardiner, thrillers have a fairly linear, straightforward plot. There’s an “inciting incident” that throws life out of whack for the protagonist, which in turn causes complications. It sets off a chain of events. The essence of plotting is “thwarting desire.”

The protagonist desires something and the job of the antagonist is to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The antagonist is a critical character who keeps the protagonist from getting what she wants.
You need a strong, active protagonist. If everything happens easily for a protagonist, it’s not a story. She doesn’t need to be Sylvester Stallone, but she’s not going to fold when the going gets tough. The protagonist doesn’t go with the flow, she’s willing to put herself out there and take action.SINC August Meg Gardiner 007

Is the heroine an amateur sleuth? Why does she feel compelled to look for answers? Is the villain a murderer? The villain has strong motivations and feels he is the hero of his own story. They must have compelling characteristics. Gardiner likes Moriarty as a villain as he clashes with Sherlock Holmes. Both men are obviously the heroes of their own stories.

Even if you don’t know who the killer is until the end of the novel, you know there is someone out there doing bad things, perhaps a minion of the main villain. In Gardiner’s Dirty Secrets Club, someone is committing murder by forcing the victims to kill themselves. Forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, one of Gardiner’s serial heroines, has to track down the killer.

The story must build bigger and bigger with plot twists and escalating pressure. There is continual revelation and shock. The characters have to make decisions under pressure.

The key to the plot is action. Figure out what the chase is and cut to it. Start with action, not a lot of back story–no dream sequences. The plot has to be emotionally coherent or the reader will feel cheated and put the book down.

To prevent that “sag in middle,” keep the tension up, develop the story, and build in progressive complications with big scenes, time pressure, and a ticking clock of some kind.

The ending must be surprising, yet inevitable. You need some surprise, otherwise the result might be vaguely dissatisfying. Create a dilemma at the ending, forcing the protagonist to choose the lesser of two evils by making a difficult decision.

Always make sure the protagonist is the one who takes action to resolve the issues. The hero/heroine has to take active steps at the end of the novel. Don’t try to pull a deus ex machina out of the bag at the end.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

What is a deus ex machina, you ask? In ancient Greek plays, an actor playing a god was literally cranked out from the wings onto the stage to resolve the ending of the story. He was sitting in a “god machine” made by ancient Greek stage hands, no doubt. This form of achieving a satisfying ending to the story is frowned upon in modern times. The protagonist must defeat the antagonist with her own smarts and heroism.

Meg Gardiner is an Edgar award-winning American crime writer who lives in Austin, Texas. Her best-known books are the Evan Delaney novels. In June 2008, she published the first novel in a new series, featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. More recently she has published three stand-alone novels: Ransom River (June 2012), The Shadow Tracer (June 2013), and Phantom Instinct (June 2014).SINC August Meg Gardiner 005