Sunday, January 29, 2012

Tunnel or Wall?

I have all kinds of partial manuscripts and short stories (even poems) that are incomplete: romances, mysteries, mainstream, even some horror. Several pieces of work are just one chapter while others are as long as five or six chapters. The reason they’re just hanging out there unfinished is because I’ve written myself into a corner or up a tree, or to the middle of a pond (or fire), and have no idea what to do next. I’ve always been told if we can’t get a character from one to the next, then our character has taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Probably in the last scene we wrote. We need to identify what caused our character to stall.  When I get stuck, I usually fall into the wrong mindset. I act/think/believe as though there’s only one way to solve a problem. There’s not.  

We had a visiting pastor today who told us, “If the wall is too tall, try the tunnel.” Good thought for writing ourselves out of a corner, huh?
Really, the best way to get out of a ‘block’ is to ask a few questions about what the character can do next--regardless of how silly those questions might be. Sometimes silly ideas can lead to logical actions. Then again, I’ve been known to just let my character sit there  in the corner and think things over. While s/he’s thinking, my subconscious is mulling.  I’ve also heard adding another character can work or skipping ahead to tackle the ending, then working backwards. At least it gets us back to writing. Whatever works.
When you write yourself into a corner, what do you do? Teach me something about writing dilemmas. Tunnel or wall?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Making Characters Real

Several weeks ago, I read a romance novel that I’m still thinking about. I have no idea how it came to be in my To Read stack. It’s not really a book I’d purchase unless I planned to study that genre. Maybe that’s how I got hold of it.

I have to admit, I like the cover. A handsome hero with two beautiful little girls--twins. But that alone makes it an odd purchase for me. I don’t go for stories that involve a lot of kids.

I started reading this one, was immediately yanked into the story and couldn’t put it down. Here I am, weeks later, still thinking of these characters as if they’re real people, friends who live right down the road from me. Isn’t that what a writer wants? Works toward? Yeah, so I wonder what made these characters feel real to me. My kids are grown, don't even have grandkids--and, I really don't like being around undisciplined children. So ...

In this book:
The kids were spoiled and annoying.
The hero still lived with his mother.
The heroine acted as if she had all the answers.
The hero's mom was too stern for my liking.
The story was good--okay, better than good, so it all worked. But why?

Most of the time I think I’ve done a good job rounding out my characters but once the crit partners get hold of my pages, they come back marked up with lots of suggestions. One crit partner always says, "I just can't relate to her!." Only then do I realize I haven’t done my job. I've failed to dig deep into my character. I’ve been in too big a hurry to get to the next point.

There are a number of ways to make our characters real. Here are a few I know of:

Internal dialogue - Their thoughts reveal a lot.

Backstory. That’s the reason a character is the way he is.

Interaction with the other characters. This gives us a glimpse into personality traits; whether they're kind, snippy, rude, etc.

Voice, gestures, dialogue

Can you add more or tell how you might utilize some of the above? What makes fictional characters fit in with our reality, people we can relate to? Teach me something about making characters memorable.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Little Good News

I received some good news.
I'm a finalist in The Phoenix Rattler 2011-2012 writing contest hosted by Christian Writers of the West (ACFW-Arizona) for my entry - A Bad Guy Forever – Suspense/Thriller/Mystery Fiction. There are three finalists in each category. We will be awarded $25, that was our entry fee and an official Finalist award certificate. Call me silly, but I love getting a certificate or trophy or something like that. It's fun.

The final round of judging began on January 11th and will conclude on February 9th. The category winners and overall winner will be announced on February 11th. The completed scoresheets and any manuscript markups provided by the final judges will be forwarded as soon as possible after the contest concludes. Can't wait to see what the judges have to say.

The finalist judges in the suspense/thriller/mystery category are:
Sue Brower, Executive Editor for Fiction, Zondervan (And I've been wanting to get my book in front of her for a very long time.)
Elizabeth Mazer, Assistant Editor, Love Inspired Suspense…Harlequin (Been rejected by LI on several occasions but I'll keep on trying.)

Love the word FINALIST. Love the word WINNER too. I chose this contest because of the finalist judges and the big prize: 
2012 ACFW Conference ‘paid’ registration
(member’s fee of $515)

How about you? Do you enter contests? How do you choose which ones to enter? Teach me something about entering contests!

Friday, January 20, 2012

What A Character!

I have a character in one of my books that’s mean as the devil. When I enter this particular manuscript in contests, there’s always a judge or two that tell me he’s too mean--on the basis of a chapter or two--and that I need to give him a redeeming quality. Sheesh, you’d think there’s no such thing as pure evil in this world! Just watch the news, will ya?

Okay, okay, I understand the need for redeeming qualities, though I’m not sure this guy has any. He just doesn’t have a good heart. I also understand that if more than one person tells you something, you need to pay attention. So, I’m paying attention.
As a test, I put myself in the heroine’s point of view and I watched him for awhile. He’s her brother--quite a bit older. He moved away long before she got out of high school. Lord only knows what he’s been doing. Up to no good, I can assure you. He’s popped back into her life because their mother just passed away so yeah, he’s there for his inheritance.

Anyway, I jumped into her skin, stood at her front door and watched him. He slouched off the front porch not using the steps, walked across the dead grass, stopped and looked around, eyeing the neighborhood as if he had big plans for it. I kept watching, wondering what he was thinking. He looked down and there beside the tire of his banged up car was a little orange and white cat. I was surprised when he scooped it up, held it to his cheek. I could hear him talking to it but I couldn’t make out what he said.
So the guy does have a heart, I thought.

Right before my eyes, he took the cat in one hand and threw it as hard and as far as he could. I’ve never been so shocked--I mean, me the writer, his creator, was stunned--on behalf of his sister too! Believe me when I say his actions put a little fear in his sister. I didn’t cause him to throw the cat; he did it all on his own.
I was searching for some goodness and I saw pure meanness. I told you this character is evil, useless as a human being, and he plans to get what he wants one way or another. What redeeming quality can I possibly give him?

Do you have any characters that are completely void of decency? Do you think it’s necessary that ALL cruel, hateful, evil characters have a redeeming quality? Teach me something about redeeming qualities and evil characters.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Weaknesses: Description and Setting

I’m trying to pinpoint my writing weaknesses and do something about them. Description and Setting need my attention.  Honestly, I don’t care what a character looks like and would rather there be no description so I can assign my own mental visual. If you tell me the hero is a blond or has red hair, you’ll set me on a path you don’t want me to travel since I much prefer dark brown or black hair on my heroes. Sorry, I have my preferences.  I’m sure you do too.  Of course, if it’s Robert Redford reddish blond, by all means, go for it--but be sure to mention he’s got the RR look about him.

My critique partners usually point out where they’d like to see some description. I wonder why I can’t spot those places myself.  Probably because I’m guilty of skipping that stuff in the books I read, though I do like it in movies. Like when Pelican Brief (the movie) opens, and the camera pans the waterways of Louisiana, the swamps, and brown pelicans fly across the sky.

Do you know any published authors whose setting and description are so sparse it’s jarring? I’d like to read them just to see what I think.

I’ve been reading through the journals my father-in-law kept. He didn’t right lengthy passages. He wrote things like:

Woke up and ate oatmeal. Read Chapter 14 in Jeremiah. Went to Sears to find a part for lawnmower. Walked with neighbor--two miles.  Went to church tonight to hear missionary from India speak.

I was surprised to learn I wanted more. Was the oatmeal lumpy or too milky? Did he nuke it or cook it on the stove? What did he learn from Jeremiah 14--Any insight? What was the missionary’s name? How was he dressed? How many people were there? Was the church full? What was learned?
My mother-in-law left behind her life story--condensed to about twelve single-spaced pages.  She jabbed the facts to paper like someone throwing darts at a board.

 “When the John Doe’s were going to the Ivory Coast in Africa, we got cans and a sealer and met at her house out by LeTourneau and canned all of her cake mixes, etc.”

That’s it. We don’t know John Doe’s wife’s name, what kind of cans, what kind of sealer or anything about the procedure. I think details would be interesting, don’t you?
Funny how reading through my in-laws’ memories have given me a new respect for writers who incorporate (and have mastered) description and setting. 

How do you approach description? Does it make your first draft or do you layer it in when you rewrite? Could your story take place anywhere or does your setting actually mean something? Is description second nature to you? I wish!
Teach me something about description and setting. I want to be a fan.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Projects for 2012

We’re 16 days into 2012. What have you accomplished?

I turned in my article on Louisiana author Christa Allan. It will be in the March issue of Southern Writers Magazine.

I’ve put my novel away--the one I completed and marketed to Christian publishers. I took it apart and tried to rewrite it for the secular market. It’s the one that was a finalist at Killer Nashville. Rewriting--a complete rewrite--is difficult. I lost my vision for the book. Well, actually, I didn’t lose my vision, I just lost myself. I thought I could pull out the faith elements and rewrite, but it didn't work that way. The minute I took their faith from my characters, their Christian reasoning, praying, their Christian World View, they became different people, and then I saw the pages being gobbled up and disappearing and well ... I need to step back from it for awhile. Get to know these new characters. I need to do a story board or something, gain better control of the timeline. Anyway, it’s constantly on my mind. I hear my characters conversing, I jot down things they say and do. Hopefully, I'll get back to it soon.

In the mean time, I’d love to pursue obsessive-compulsive organizational habits. I think being organized makes a huge difference in whether one is successful or not--no matter what they attempt. On the whole, I'm not an organized person, but if you give me one project at a time, I'm organized. Make sense? Baby steps, baby steps.

I’ve started two new projects. I’m super excited about both. I’ve been thinking about a nonfiction book for about a year and making notes. I've finally started outlining it. Since a lot of interviewing will have to take place, I'm devising some powerful (yes, they have to be powerful!) questions for my subjects. I’ve never written a NF book. I need to learn exactly how much I should write before I query. I understand one doesn't have to write the entire book before they can query or even sell. The research has been fun. So if any of you have experience pulling together a NF book, any thing you can share will be appreciated.

I’m also working on a novella. No market in site--just something I have to write. Oddly enough, this started out in my mind as a NF book, and then it hit me that I should write the same story but from a fictional character's POV; a fictional character who is a composite of many characters. I’m handwriting it. At some point, I'll start typing, I'm sure, so I'm waiting for that pull to the laptop. Right now, the intimacy of writing by hand is keeping me excited about the story. I've even been waking in the middle of the night because scenes invade my sleep. Don't you love it when you're that excited/obsessed about a subject? At this point, it’s from the male point of view. While I write, I'm very conscious of POV--trying to put myself in his/her/its place and look out at the world. I’m thinking about revising it to an androgynous point of view to make the subject matter more universal. I'll decide about that once I start revising. Could be that from the male POV would be the more perfect love story but I want to use the POV that makes it a more powerful story. Your thoughts?

So now that you know what I’m doing, what’s on your plate? New projects or finishing up old ones? Anything you're super excited about? Obsessed with? Worried about? Scared to attempt? Details!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Published in 5x5 Fiction - I Thee Dead

I have a story published by 5x5 Fiction HERE. 5x5 Fiction is devoted to complete stories (not rantings or poems) exactly 25 words long, told in exactly 5 sentences, with each sentence comprised of exactly 5 words. Don't laugh or poo-poo these little stories, they're tough to write. Fun too.

Some people think short pieces are easy. In fact, I read recently in a writing magazine that short stories are easier to write and publish than novels. I disagree with that one hundred times over. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Of course, the author of that article could have been talking about self-publishing, but I don't think so. Writing short means writing tighter, painting a more visual picture, and to do this, we have to make every word count. I submitted five or six little 5x5s; only one was accepted. I can't remember how many times I rewrote and revised all my submissions, examining every word. I'm thrilled, proud and honored that even one made the cut.

I teach a NF writing class at McNeese University's Leisure learning.  In my class we learn by doing. Some of my assignments are to write to specific markets I share. Maybe I should say I bombard my students with markets, and I don't always limit the markets to NF. Once I learn the interest of each student and where their writing heart is, I search out places for them to submit their work. While you may think 5x5 Fiction is an unlikely 'venue' for my NF students to send their work, I believe anytime we see our name in print, it's like a shot of B-12 or maybe a shot of Red Bull. We feel energized. We feel creative. We feel like real writers, ready to submit to more markets. Getting published is addictive. We want it--over and over and over again.

Last semester, my students and I wrote numerous 5x5s and submitted our work. Read Karen Teigen's piece too. We're both thrilled to be "5x5 Authors" now. :) Read all the stories and submit your own; let me know if you get accepted.

If you're interested in my writing class, here's the blurb. If you have questions, email me.

This online course covers the basics of nonfiction writing. You will learn by doing, discuss and research markets for your work and come away from this class with the fundamentals of being a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers.

Nonfiction Bootcamp
February 7 - March 13

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In Memory Of ... Two Heroes

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and a safe new year. We had good times, in spite of the sadness of losing my husband's dad. He was a fun father-in-law; a good man. I've posted a portion of the obit, but I especially want to show you a pic of him and his brother. They were in the Navy--handsome guys. Ray (on the right) passed away in early August. He would have turned 90 in October. Travis died on Christmas Eve. Without a doubt, these two were heroes and helped make our world a better place. Not only the world--their communities, their friends, their churches, their families, their kids -- and me.

Travis Dale Ferguson

LONGVIEW — Travis Dale Ferguson, 87, went home to be with his Lord and Savior on December 24, 2011. He was born April 12, 1924, in Golden, Texas, son of the late James Thomas and Alma Amanda Morse Ferguson.
He graduated from Car­lisle High School in 1942. He was a member of the first ­graduating class of LeTourneau Technical Institute, now known as LeTourneau University, in 1948 in Longview, Texas. Travis married Flora Belle Carpenter of Arp, Texas, on October 31, 1944.
Mr. Ferguson enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 18 during World War II, serving in the Battle of the Atlantic, European Theatre and the North African Campaign. One of the duties he had as a naval petty officer included that of a signalman using semaphores. He was later called to serve his country again during the Korean War and was stationed in Japan at the naval base at Yokohama.
He worked at LeTourneau Technologies from 1946-54. He was later employed at Lone Star Steel from 1954 until his retirement in 1986.
A longtime member of Longview First Assembly of God Church and Spring Hill Assembly of God Church, he served in numerous ­capacities at the church including deacon and Sunday school teacher.
Mr. Ferguson was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years, Flora Belle Carpenter Ferguson; all his brothers and sisters; his daughter, Amanda Susan Ferguson Wingerd; and his great-grandson, James Darcy Wingerd.   
He will be greatly missed by all.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to ­Dallas Teen Life Challenge, P.O. Box 181794, Dallas TX 75218.
Published in Longview News-Journal on December 25, 2011