Adding the Senses into the Spice of a Story.

Yes, all five. A dash here. A smidgen there. Mix well. Bake until the crux has turned a bubbly golden brown. A wholesome meal good for the mind as you lick lips at every savory word.

Okay. I’m talking about writing, not cooking. So you can stop gnawing on the keyboard now.

I talk about writing whenever I am on the verge of starting a new project. I sit for a time while thinking of all the good parts and tips I had learned in the last story. Then I remember all the new ideas I want to pursue this time. Some of the things I need to immerse myself in (and talk about today) are the human senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing.

It is incredible how these things can shape a story. They can grab the readers’ attention and have the people fall headfirst into your writing as they send you the hospital bill and a summons to appear in court to pay for damages. But oftentimes we forget to explore such realms, except for two: touch and sight. We are doing a disservice to our stories when these are the only senses we concentrate on. And it doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: literary, commercial, romance, YA, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, or short fiction (especially short fiction.) You need to make your story come alive for the reader. You need to capture all their senses until the readers feel as if they are in the room, leaning against the wall, drawing in lazy puffs of cigarette smoke, and wanting to join in or at least take pictures of the scene so they can sell it to the tabloids.

Do you want examples? Of course you do. Everybody loves free samples, er, I mean examples. These are just the ones I have written. You might have a few that can better express the senses.
******************
Sight:

A click sounded and the door swung wide. Mitch had seen a clumsy landscaper’s misplaced delivery in the bedroom. Yet that was in the Spring. This was Summer. Things had changed.

Bushes. Flowers. Thorns. Everywhere. Boards boxed in the floor around the bed and dresser to keep the soil away from the area near the door so it could swing open and close. The dirt lay piled up to two feet high in some places with long rods inserted in the mounds. Wire tied the woody limbs to the stakes to keep them upright. Branches reached outward almost engulfing the few pieces of furniture in the room. They surrounded the bed and over it, allowing a small space for someone to climb in. Leaves created a natural blanket for the sleeper.

I saw movement in the soil and in Clare’s bed. I could guess what it was but flicked on the light anyway to get a good look. My body leaned forward as I saw the earthworm tumble off the pillow and down into the soil on the floor. My fingers reached over and flicked off the light. I backed out of the room. The key made sure the lock caught.

Yeah. All right. A plant nursery grew in my grandmother’s bedroom. I could handle this despite Granny Clare having my mind tripping at the sight without the drugs.
******************************
Touch:

Forgetting the missed cue, Trevor lost himself in the music. His voice thundered into the microphone with his mind completely locked into his special place. Now it was just Trevor and his guitar, as he stroked the strings and they responded to the caress by purring out their notes in satisfaction. His pants tightened below his waist while feeling the vibrating instrument rub against him in this musical game of give-and-take. Pleasure. Sheer pleasure.
*****************************
Smell:

I placed my cheek on the floor, devastated to the point of tears. Musty. The linoleum smelled musty with an old fruity aroma of many shoe prints. Overripe with what the previous occupants had brought inside. Excitement caused by the job promotion as they had never seen the yellow puddle in the grass from the feral cat. Happiness from winning the basketball rematch as the players’ sweat from the auditorium had filled shoe treads. Sadness created by the bad report card as they had stomped with frustration upon every unwary bug on the sidewalk.
*****************************
Taste:

Cold mint. George’s tongue ran over the surface holding a bitter tang and sweet snap of sugar euphoria that he enjoyed when chewing on black licorice dipped in Dr. Pepper. The heat from his mouth stripped away the first savory layer. Yet he lingered on the second. The flavor had changed. Deeper. Pungent. Dirty in the way of many hands covered in salty sweat and bitter perfume and deep-fried foods overcooked until charred.

He tried to tug his tongue away. Yet the chill air had frozen the saliva against the flagpole, fastening his tender taste buds onto the metal. George knew he should have never accepted that sucker bet.
********************************
Hearing:

I pulled my eyes from Mitch’s entry. My feet walked over toward the circular spot staining the gypsum board above. It must have been here Grandpa referred to in his journal. Yet he had mentioned a plaster ceiling. Was it the original covered over by the second made of tiles?

My hand reached up but I was too short to bump a tile out of the metal track. Not even the bone helped as I stretched it upward to scratch the rough surface. I hated drop ceilings. Saw no real use in them. My childhood home had one, and I could hear scratching noises as the mice played relay races on the tiles. Scritch-scratch toward one wall then the same sound toward the other, knowing my father had laid down traps as I waited with anticipated dread.

Scritch-scratch. Scritch-scratch. Scritch-SNAP. Silence.
**********************************
The senses. Explore them all. Place them in your writing. See what you can bake up. But don’t forget to send me a slice. This post has made me hungry.

Quirky Characters

Today, I want to talk about quirks.

We all have quirks, whether it’s the eye roll whenever we hear a tasteless joke, the habitual clearing of the throat to gain someone’s attention, or the hip thrust with the hand placed on one side in the indignant pose when someone is acting silly.

Your characters do have their own unique quirks, don’t they?

If not, you are seriously missing an important element in your writing: creating an engaging character. In my last post, I rambled off a little story post. In this, a child was experiencing her taste of winter as her mother walked into the kitchen. The mother had a very interesting quirk. Let me refresh your memory with a snippet.
*****
The water in my palm splashed onto the outdoor carpet as I wiped my hand on the hard fibers. I scooped another unformed snowball up, flicking away the tainted bits until I found a clean spot. My teeth bit down, shoveling the flakes inside, cooling my tongue. The cold white caused a brief shiver through my muscles and brought a grin to my lips. The snow tasted like presents.


The snorts proceeded her into the kitchen. My mother sucked in air through her nose claiming her allergy irritated sinuses. Every five seconds it happened, punctuating the air and halting her mumbling words spoken to herself. Yet the action seemed more instinctual.


When she had watched television, the noises would stop with her fully focused on the glowing screen. After the show had ended or an annoying commercial appeared . . . snort-snort-snort.


Back in the kitchen, I heard a large deep snort of disgust. She must have noticed the open porch door, felt the cold draft, realized whose shadow sat in front of the sun-filled storm door window.


“CLOSE THE DAMN DOOR.”
*****
For the mother, her snorts became her quirk. A psychological tendency she had during her boredom or when angry as she showed her disgust. When her mind focused on something, like watching television, the snorts never appeared.

A quirk can be anything, but it has to first identify the character. Even more, a writer can change such a trait - evolve it - with their character whose behavior should evolve and change with the story plot.

An example: You have a shy female character. Her quirk could accentuate this shyness, like a lopsided grin she only allows herself as she hides her laughter. By the end of the story, events change where she is more comfortable with herself. The defining moment is when she lets out a guffaw of laughter around those people who once made her feel uncomfortable.

Another example: You have an intelligent male character. His quirk is the classic raising of the eyebrow when around those people he feels are intellectually inferior. During the plot, he meets a mentally-challenged person whose childlike tendency softens his heart. Whenever this person shows bursts of compassionate wit, the intelligent male character no longer raises his eyebrows but scratches them in humbleness.

A quirk doesn’t have to take a center stage in the story. I’ve read one where the quirk was so dominant in the character, spread throughout the text constantly, that I grew bored and disconnected with the book. This was a true shame because it was a really good story. But a writer can kill an audience’s interest instantly when the only thing holding together the storyline is the quirkiness of the character. (I find this happening more often in humorous stories than anywhere else.)
*****
Here are a few types of quirks you can give to your character:

Reflexive reaction/motion - This is when a character’s quirk only appears if something else happens. Oftentimes it covers up their own emotions.

- A peculiar sneeze or a cough during an embarrassing situation.
- A muscle tick or chewing on fingernails in nervousness
- A tapping foot or cracking knuckles in impatience.
**
Psychological habit/tendency - This goes at a deeper level. Something traumatic had happened in their past and it forces them to have such a quirk today.

- A trembling leg whenever seeing a dog cross the street caused by a dog bite happening during their childhood.

- The rubbing of hands when hearing a news story about a house fire or seeing someone flick on a lighter. Perhaps when he or she was a teenager, the character had vandalized a house by setting fire to it without knowing there was someone else inside.

- A clearing of the throat and spitting on the ground when seeing a parent verbally disciplining their children. It goes back to the character’s past when their parents disciplined them, perhaps in a negative way.
*****
These are but a few idiosyncrasies I have listed. I encourage you to find your own to fit into your particular storylines. Give your characters quirks to make them unique to the reader, but don’t overdo it. As with every element involved with writing a good story, find a balance.

Just rambling today to make a post

White. Stark. Cold.

Ice filmed the opposite side of the pane, sloping in a gentle curve, fattening at the bottom. My finger traced the line down, skiing the steep slope, creating a squiggly wake of clearness along the breath fog. I blew air from my chest, long and hot. The line faded beneath the mist. Now I closed my hand into a fist and pressed it sideways against the haze.

My hand peeled away, leaving a sole impression of a baby’s foot. Four dots with my index finger made the smaller toes and a thumb blot created the large piggy who would be going to the market while the others stayed home. A footprint stained the glass, my mark on the world, as ethereal when cast in fog on a warming windowpane as it would be on sand near rising ocean tides.

I looked through the frail imprint. Two white flakes skipped along the pane, blending in the cover of white throughout the backyard. My body shifted to sit on bent knees. I snagged the black pushbutton handle for the storm door. The blast of cold hit into my chest, lungs contracting, airway passages confused over the drop of temperature. Irritated wheezes crawled from my throat as I pulled in large gasps ending in ragged coughs.

I fought off the rising asthma attack. My arm reached out to scoop up a palm-sized wad of snow. It wasn’t entirely white like it should’ve been. It was cold, and it was melting. But the snow wasn’t entirely white. Black specks dotted the surface. The first lick of my tongue lifted my upper lip into a grimace. Gritty. Foul. Beyond the crack along the door, a billowy gray cloud settled onto the barren flowerbed. Smoke blasted from the chimney settled onto the snow, tinting it in specks of burnt coal dust.

The water in my palm splashed onto the outdoor carpet as I wiped my hand on the hard fibers. I scooped up another unformed snowball, flicking the tainted bits away until I found a clean spot. My teeth bit down, shoveling the flakes inside, cooling my tongue. The cold white caused a brief shiver through my muscles and brought a grin to my lips. The snow tasted like presents.

The snorts proceeded her into the kitchen. My mother sucked in air through her nose claiming her allergies irritated sinuses. Every five seconds it happened, punctuating the air and halting her mumbling words spoken to herself. Yet the action seemed more instinctual.

When she had watched television, the noises would stop with her fully focused on the glowing screen. After the show had ended or an annoying commercial appeared . . . snort-snort-snort.

Back in the kitchen, I heard a large deep snort of disgust. She must have noticed the open porch door, felt the cold draft, realized whose shadow sat in front of the sun-filled storm door window.

“CLOSE THE DAMN DOOR.”

The squeak of hinges betrayed my movement when I tried to quietly swing the door shut. Garfield slippers scuffed underneath as I scrambled on hands and knees to the kitchen screen door, keeping low as it banged behind me. Against the dryer, I huddled while spying around the white edge, smelling springtime freshness from leftover fabric softener sheets.

Knowing the dialect

After centering your story on a region where the plot takes shape, you must be aware of not only the temperament and the idiosyncrasies of the nearby habitants but also their diction - their accent.

You DO know where your story is based at, don’t you?

Okay, let’s go back. A writer has to know where the story takes place, even (especially) if your characters will be moving to different places. In fantasy, a writer can get away with a lot simply by creating the world from scratch. Science fiction is also a genre with an easy out with the characters zooming through outer space visiting strange new worlds based purely on the writer’s imagination.

Yet for standard fiction, the plot line has to begin at some region unless you plan to have your characters out swimming in the open ocean. In that case, equip them with scuba tanks and teach them sign language.

If the setting takes place in a foreign country, then there must be people communicating in their native tongue. If the plot takes place in a certain region of your own country, as in mine - the United States, then the characters have to adopt those present characteristics of the area. Rural? Inner city? Suburb? Ghetto? Everybody talks and acts in their own funny, strange way. This is true in real life. If you want readers to relate to your story, mimic this true life.

Here is an example from my finished ms, The Stone Man. The setting takes place at the rural outskirts of a small town in Pennsylvania.
***
The cattle scattered as Graham navigated around the dark cow pies and neared the house. Both dogs trotted out the barn, took one look at the intruder, and barked madly. The farmer came out and gave a curious stare. Graham never knew what Cotter’s first name was and never asked whenever he snuck into the henhouse at night for a chicken dinner.

“Aye, help y’all with something? Um,” Cotter thoughts stumbled for Graham’s name. The farmer recognized the face enough where he felt comfortable with seeing the man on his property.

“Baxter,” Graham said with a shrug. He’d take the situation friendly, like two honest men having a conversation before they conducted their business. He’d ease into it while bringing up the subject offhandedly. “Where’s my dog?”

“Dog?” The farmer took out his plaid handkerchief and rubbed at the sweat on his neck. “Only dogs ‘round here are those two sheperds right there. Petey! Zeus! Quiet. In the barn.”

Both dogs released low growls and then slunk away. They stretched bodies on the loose hay at the barn’s entrance with their eyes still fastened on Graham.

Graham lowered the bat and leaned against it. “Miter. Bloodhound. He’s gone missing. Was in my trailer, sleeping on the bed. I heard a strange noise. Doors locked but the window open. He’s too old a dog for a jump out. Bad legs.” Graham’s hand pointed at the henhouse. “Both of us know about things when involving your roasters, yeah?”

The tone in Cotter’s voice turned cooler. “Yea, I know about y’all. Have that sick boy in the hospital. Wife ran off. Makes due with what y’all gets at the quarry. Sheriff Becken’s always heckling me into filing a report about the hens. Never did it. Saw no need, not with what y’all do for the kids and the owners at the fort. I saw the carvings done for free. Good work. Even trade for a lost hen now and then. Think I took y’all dog?”

“I don’t think you did it. But maybe one of your boys did as a prank? Don’t want to accuse you. But no one else I can think of who could’ve. Everything happened too fast.” Graham felt stupid for carrying the bat. Always thought people wanted a fight and he’d get in his licks first. This was partly his fault for the ban at the hospital.

He felt the moisture along his eyes. The farmer had taken him off balance with those words. Graham wasn’t expecting such understanding or compliments. He held the tears in with all his strength. “Bloodhound is all I got now.”

Cotter nodded. He shouted at the house. “EDDIE. GEORGE.”

They heard the running footsteps inside as the farmer’s sons came out and jogged toward them. When they caught a look at Graham, both boys turned meek. They held hands behind their backs. Their eyes gazed at scuffing feet against the dirt.

Cotter caught their expressions and glowered. “Y’all knows this man? Living down Hanna Mill? Does all them statues for the fort?”

Both boys shrugged.

Cotter cleared his throat. “Was y’all near his property messing ‘round? Did anything y’all shouldn’t be doing? ‘Cause if y’all lies and I find out the truth from someone else . . .”

“George gone and done it! I just followed him,” the younger boy spoke and received a jab in the side by his brother’s elbow. Yet once the squealing started, nobody could stop Eddie in claiming his innocence. “I just carry the tools. He went crawling under the man’s truck. ‘Fix him up right for stealing our hens,’ George said. He was under there for a good two hours. Did something. Don’t know what though. That ‘fore it up on those cement blocks.”

This took both Cotter and Graham by surprise. Someone had tampered with the truck? Yet it made sense to Graham. It’d felt strange when he and Tony went along the dirt bike course. The truck had responded sluggishly whenever Graham turned the steering wheel and pressed on the brake. He figured the bumps did it. Then the truck had slammed down off the big hill and the front axle cracked. He had the truck towed off the track. He’d figured he caused all the damage.
Graham had figured wrong.

The farmer’s face turned a deeper tomato red than one of his prized vegetables for the county fair. He grabbed both boys by their shirt collars and knocked their heads together. “Y’all can go get someone killed like that! Ain’t any bird in the world worth it. His doings in the henhouse are my concern. Ain’t up to the younglings to go meddling with a grown man’s affairs or stepping into their pop’s shoes.” He pulled his sons forward, knocked their noggins again for good measure, and then pushed them away.

Eddie and George fell backward, smacking their rumps hard against the ground. Both rubbed backsides and hung heads. The younger one started crying. George sat there in silence. His sight stayed glued on his shoes, the boy too mad at his brother’s tattling.

Cotter shifted around toward Graham. The farmer’s face filled with remorse. “First I heard about them with your truck, Baxter. I pay the damages my boys gone done. Was y’all in an accident ‘cause of it? Hands cut.” He pointed at Graham’s palms. “Anyone else hurt ‘cause I make good for their medical bills too?”

Graham shook his head. “Cuts on my hands are from handling some barbed wire. As for the truck, I drove it off a hill and messed up the front axle. Nobody got hurt. Only damage is to the truck beside what they might’ve tampered with under it. Don’t know for sure what though.”

“Finds out. Finds out good and I pay for it.” Cotter undid the belt buckle. He left the leather strap still through the jean hoops as he glared down at his sons. “What ‘bout this man’s dog? Bloodhound. Named Miter. Y’all go steals him today? Snuck into the trailer and take the dog this noon?”

“No, sir.” Both boys scrambled backward a few feet when seeing their father unclasp the belt buckle. George pointed one shaky finger at the house. “Go asks Ma. She tells you. We’ve been up in our room all day playing video games.”

“Where y’all shouldn’t have been with all the farmwork we need done outside,” the farmer grumped. He sauntered toward them, and they cowered to the sides as he walked past. The porch door banged after he went inside, leaving Graham near the farmer’s sitting sons. Eddie sniffled and wiped at his wet face. He kept his body tense while ready for the run of his life whenever the door reopened. With features a mask of rage and loathing, George had his eyes focused on Graham.

George muttered, “Your fault for getting us in trouble. Your fault for stealing our hens.”

“Your pop’s right though. No bird is worth killing someone over, and no boy’s business in bloodying his hands with a man’s life,” Graham remarked.
***
And there you have it. Know the dialect. Know the region where the story takes place. Most important, write what you know and research what you don’t know. It’s as simple as that.

Basing your story scenes on actual places

- He rubbed at the beaded water while imaging the train whistle and the whoosh of steam from the pipe. The closest railroad crossing ran along the other end of Hanna Mill Road, past the dairy farm and old fort -

No, I write fiction. But this doesn’t mean I can’t use an actual location to build a fictional story around. It gives the story a solid foundation, a starting point that you can see and walk around and experience for yourself. When you develop real-life memories and incorporate them into your stories, those stories will become more real for your readers. They can relate to your writing.

The first two sentences in this post are from my finished manuscript, THE STONE MAN. I mentioned a place called “Hanna Mill Road.” The road is real, although I changed a bit of its name: Hannastown Road.

Along Hannastown Road are many dairy farms. You can smell the fresh cow manure a mile away. And yes, there is also a fort along the other end of the road - a fort I visited as a child during an elementary school trip.

I can close my eyes and remember the colonial wax makers, the bakers, and the blacksmiths. I remember the fairs and the flea markets and the hot air balloon competitions held in the nearby field.

I mentioned all these things in my story. A part of me lies among those pages. I recreated the smells, tastes, sights, and sounds for the readers to now experience.

There is nothing wrong with creating an entire fictional world. But if you have the opportunity to use an actual place to bring a realness to your story, use it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving your imagination a little extra help by using a real-life place.

Walmart’s “Writer’s First-aid Kit.” Get it while it lasts!

I’ve finished my next manuscript, the Stone Man. I would like to say it was grueling and an emotional roller coaster for me.

It wasn’t.

I would like to say it will need major work to fix plot errors and leaps in logic.

I don’t think it will during the revision stage. I’ve got the main story along with the plot arcs to how I wanted them during the first write-through. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can find all the minor discrepancies and they will be easy fixes.

My major problems involve wordiness and fixing up transitional scenes to make the overall writing flow smoother. And I need to work on my voice to make the story interesting enough for people to want to read it. Those are the sticklers irritating my sides: wordiness and voice. I don’t know why I have these problems, or maybe my “mind’s eye” simply doesn’t catch the problem while I’m typing. I would never make the claim that a first draft should be free of all typos and grammar errors. You won’t ever hear me utter the words that it is a masterpiece ready to be sent out without revisions and editing.

If that were true, I would already be a published author.

I suppose every would-be author wishes these tasks were as simple as stopping by the local Walmart and picking up the “Writer’s First-aid Kit” in the stationery aisle. We could pop open the box, and tiny elves whom the jolly Christmas fat man laid off due to downsizing would sprinkle their dust over the pages and the sentences would rearrange themselves into a saleable book.

Oh, how the imagination can sometimes twist the dagger into the heart!

Yet since this will never become true (Gawk!), I’m hoping the limited knowledge I have will be enough to fix and tweak this story to a readable quality. I have finished the manuscript, but I still have a long solitary road ahead. It’s time for me to lace up my shoes and head out.

Maybe Sam’s Club sells those writers’ kits, in bulk. Or I can find one of those elves to work for me in exchange for gingerbread cookies.

Becoming your character - or our characters becoming us

I’ve begun to notice a strange trend happening while I write. Whenever I have my character sighing, I sigh to imitate their current emotion.

Is this normal?

I can understand why this may happen. We spend so much time perfecting our characters, bringing out their personalities for months or even years. It’s no wonder that we will sometimes take on their characteristics, if only to focus our own thoughts on the particular scene we are writing.

An itch scratched on the character’s leg becomes the writer’s scratch on the head wondering where the plot goes next. A wince of eyes for them at the terrible accident becomes a wince for us wondering if we should tone things down. A tear shed from their eyes signifies the sorrow in our hearts for a tragedy that may have personally affected us and seemed best to add to the story.

Am I imitating my character, or am I writing to make the character imitate me?

Has it come down to having his life as really mine that I wished to live, an alternate reality that can soothe me when I missed out on such comfort?

Have I carbon copied my life with the emotions I should have had for the situation yet can redeem myself in my character’s eyes?

Fiction in reality, or reality turned into fiction? Either way, I plan to make the best of the story.

An update and a question

It’s been awhile since I made a post here. I want to inform everyone of the progress I made in my mini Nano WriMo in April. I had set a personal goal to be finished with my current manuscript in one month. With only a few days left, I am proud to say that I am sooooo not going to complete this manuscript when the clock strikes midnight on April 30.

AHHHHHH!

I think I’m handling this revelation pretty well, don’t you?

Anyhow, lots of things happened to cause major distractions in my life. But you will be happy to know that I have gotten 14 chapters written (will have number 15 done by tonight) - with four of those chapters revised and edited. I averaged about 1 chapter a day, or 13 to 17 pages a day.

That is a lot written if I do say so myself, which I just did. 196 pages written with an estimated 168 pages left to go.

Okay . . .

Of course this has nothing to do with the title of this post. I discovered that the characters in this story have unique and disturbing personalities. I believe this may be the reason that I’m working so fast on this manuscript. I’m excited to find out what is going to happen next. This brings up an important question in my mind.

If the plot consumes your attention completely, does this make it a good story?

I have been wondering about this. Sometimes I will work fast on a project to get it out of the way, leaving minor errors and not caring a flip about it. I would hate to think that I am deluding myself wit the false belief that I am only writing for the laurels of having written something and not for the story itself.

So, where is the line between when you work fast just so you can brag about having another project finished, and when you work fast because the project has so engrossed you that basic needs such as eating, sleeping, and bathing become meaningless?

Hmm . . . makes me wonder.

Now, if you will excuse me, I really need to take a shower.

Switching POVs

While waiting to hear back from the agents over the requested material for my manuscript, “Our Perfect Thorn,” I have started my new project, “The Stoneman.” I’m already up to chapter 5, and I’m going to push myself into finishing this story by the end of April. I’m giving myself a month’s time of work - like a NANO WRIMO in April. An estimated 25 chapters to finish in four weeks.

I have no idea if I can do it.

But I’ll try. I’m really enjoying this story even more than the others. The more I write, the better I get - at least this is my belief (hope). And I feel more in touch with these characters than any of the other stories. Here’s why:

I once did a manuscript in third-person narrative. I won’t say it was a total disaster. I did finish the story, which is an accomplishment in itself. Yet I never connected with the characters. I never ‘became’ them enough to give everyone unique, individual, personalities. In essence, I was a mere observer in the room giving a clinical detachment to the patients of my story.

This lessened the experience. In fact, every time I pick it up telling myself to do revisions, I grow disgusted with the story and the time I waste on it.

So I switched over to using first-person narrative for my next manuscript. I connected with the character, fully. She had personality. She had spunk. I’m hoping an agent will like it enough to take on the project.

But . . .

I still felt I could have done more to flesh out the storyline. “Our Perfect Thorn” is a simple suspense/murder mystery. Since there are only a few characters in it, staying within the main character’s head was fine. Yet it turned out to be a short book because I stayed with one character.

I want to expand myself.

So I began writing “The Stoneman.” It has everything I could have wanted. Suspense. Multiple characters to create several plot arcs. A flawed main character who has liveliness and surliness and ‘realness’ as he goes through his struggles. Also, there is a wonderful unexpected ending that (I hope) will leave people going back to the beginning and reading the story often.

But which point of view should I take?

I began with first-person so I could get in touch with the main character. It worked, with even greater depth than I could have imagined. Yet I had other characters that I could also develop - other personalities to add their own spice to the story. They would allow me to create a longer, and intense, manuscript.

So I changed it to third-person.

Now I sat on the outside looking in again, afraid to lose something in the process. I’m afraid of losing faith in this story. I tossed and turned at night, wondering what to do. How do I make the characters come alive for the reader while I can still stay in touch with my own writing?

My decision: Switch between POVs.

My first draft for each chapter is first-person. I type in which character the chapter is about right at the top of the page. Then I become the character and write from his/her point of view. Once corrections are done, I go back in and switch it to third-person.

Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Yet this process is working for me. I don’t mind the extra time it takes to switch from first to third. I’m happy with the results. I’m experiencing the main character’s angst. I’m conniving like the money-grubbing fiancĂ©. I’m tense like the distraught, naive mother. I’m calculating like the sheriff. I’m even losing a bit of my sanity like the crazy aunt. I’m experiencing them all without staying in one person’s head.

I’m enjoying myself, and isn’t that what writing really means?

Query Letter 4B - an appraisal

I'm back posting this to create a link in my sidebar. This is the original query getting partial and full manuscript requests.
***********************

"Why, Grandmother, what big teeth you have?"

"The better to eat you with, my dear."

There are times when the wolf disguises itself in the clothing of an innocent grandmother. Then there are times when the wolf has always lurked inside the old woman's mind.

Twenty-one-year-old Jena Polsen feels she has stepped into a fairy tale world as she journeys toward Clare's house so she can take care of her sick grandmother. The trail, her life, up to this point has not been a peaceful one during her stay in the drug rehabilitation clinic after stealing the mayor's car. Still, Jena hopes this opportunity will prove that she can pursue a law-abiding life. Unfortunately, several people have gone missing in the neighborhood including a young man related to her new parole officer. It does not take long for the accusations against Jena because of her criminal record. At the discovery of a bone and a journal at the house, she wonders if something strange has happened inside her grandmother.

An inner guilt over a past incident has created a dark personality in Clare after her recent collapse from a mild stroke. Only on those blood-specked journal pages does Jena soon learn about the beast wearing the mask of her grandmother.

Query letter 4B

For those readers who are new to this blog or haven’t stopped by my more active site, The Surly Writer, then you may not know that I am currently going through the submission process for my manuscript, “Our Perfect Thorn.” The process had been a slow one as I perfected my dreaded nemesis: the query letter. I had gone through many drafts and received the standard form letter, or no response at all. Then Query Letter 4B appeared.

I love this letter. Once I switched over to using this one, I’ve gotten responses even from agencies where they have said in their submission guidelines that they don’t respond to queries they have no interest in. I have even read a rejection where although they could not handle my current manuscript, they encouraged me to send them other projects in the future.

Anyway, I am eagerly sending out my query letters. I am still receiving so many encouraging rejection letters . . .

It seems like a paradox. An encouraging rejection letter? It’s like having the dentist say he is going to give you a painless root canal. Yet I believe this is the reason I haven’t gotten upset over the rejections. When I keep getting the same “Although your premise/story/project/idea is fascinating/interesting/fascinating/interesting . . .” or “your work shows promise,” I can’t really get upset over the letter. I believe the best one was, “I found your writing shows promise. Unfortunately, with the state of publishing today, I must concentrate on projects in which I feel deeply passionate about . . . ”

Taste is subjective. I realize this. I would not want an agent who does not feel passionate enough to take on my project. So I nodded my head, understanding her position concerning my manuscript, and moved onto querying the next person.

I have gotten requests for three-chapter partials and for the full manuscript.

This has my nerves in a tizzy, especially when they ask for an exclusive. I never quite know how to respond. Do I give the simple “Thank you - here it is?” Or do I put more into the letter? What should I include that hasn’t already been discussed in the original query? I’ve mainly kept the emails short, hoping they believe jitters have me being unintentionally abrupt. This is half true. I get the shakes when I read, “Thank you for your query. I/We would be happy to look at your project.” My heart starts thumping faster. My mind is running in circles as I read their requirements on submitting. My body wants to drop on all fours as I make low growling noises for no reason at all.

What to do? Does anybody have advice on this? An article? A link? Or maybe share what you have done? I’m kind of lost on this part.

Idea Page

I would steal Marty away.

The doctors laughed about my ideas. Laughed about my stone while my son moaned in pain with all the plastic tubes attached to his vital organs. Marty has spent months with these so-called ‘great minds of medicine’ as they had prodded and poked and conducted research papers about his condition. My son reduced to a shriveled lab rat in a white-walled cage as those witch doctors had attended their seminars and preached about their latest findings while hoping to become nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. I asked them again what they were doing to help my son.

“There is nothing we can do but make him comfortable during his last days.”

“Even with all of our technological advances, we’re discovering new diseases daily that are beyond our knowledge.”


HACKS! LIARS! CHARLATANS!

They wanted him to die. They asked, twice, if I would sign over Marty’s remains for study. I bloodied my knuckles on both doctors overeager faces. They filed restraining orders. They complained about my erratic behavior with my exwife Pam, suggesting my presence might be detrimental to Marty’s well-being.

Pam had called me today. I had told her about my stone. She had said she had agreed to the doctors/butchers’ suggestions. She had threatened, “Graham Baxter. If I see you anywhere near that hospital, I will call the police!”

Why won’t anybody believe me? The stone made dead flowers blossom. It gave my old dog Miter the use of his bad leg. It has even brought statues to life. The hospital staff has seen it work. I had strutted through the corridors and shouted for the nurses to come witness the miracle. I had placed the stone on Marty’s chest. He had opened his eyes for the first time in two weeks. Giggled. Then he had slipped back into his dreamless black void when I snatched the stone from the covers and struggled with the guards. I had run away before the sheriff showed up.

I figured out how the stone worked. It transferred life from one object to another. The first time I had bled over the stone, cut my hands on the barbed fence when I had snuck into ol’ man Sumter’s junkyard searching for the streak of light that fell out of the sky. Drunk and a little high, I had stumbled down Hanna Mill Road with the glowing stone I had found in the rusted carburetor. I had laid the stone in the flowerpot, drank one last beer, and took a nap on the kitchen linoleum. When I woke up the next day, a flower had sat inside the pot. A freaking flower from a black thumb gardener! I could not even grow weeds around my double-wide trailer.

If I gave a little life to the stone, a little life it gave to someone else.

There was something else that I needed to tell you. Something else Pam had said in the phone call. The medical insurance was running out on Marty’s life support. She had to buy the cheap-ass stuff. Neither of us could afford to pay the bills from our own pockets. Hell, Pam worked two dead end jobs while living with her parents, and her family was still getting evicted by the landlord. Me? I worked under-the-table. Not a decent job around for a man convicted of beating his exwife’s lover into a body cast. Three times.

Pam had told me that when the insurance ran out, she would have the doctors turn off the life support.

I would take my son away tonight. But first I needed to give life to the stone. It could not be mine, because I needed my strength to carry Marty from the hospital.

The life would have to come from someone else.
**********************
What you have just read was an idea page. This is one of the many processes I use to understand a story I want to work on. Basically, I sat at the computer and focused my mind on nothing except this one thought:

A moral choice based on whether you would save one person by killing another, and have something involving the supernatural with walking statues.

Think of the idea page as a conversation I had with my main character. I wanted to know what his life was like. He told me the very basic elements of how he was feeling, what dilemmas he faced, and a course of action he was going to commit. In this process I also learned his special voice, his driving force in the story, and other characters. Often, I will use this page as a foundation to build a story. Here is another example. For the manuscript I am currently shopping around for publication, I used these thoughts as a base for the storyline.

What if I took the fairytale, “Little Red Riding Hood,” and broke down the plot? A wolf disguises itself in the clothes of a grandmother. But what if I modernized this? What would happen if the wolf were more metaphorical? It could be the beast of our vices: greed, jealousy, lust, and obsession. The characters could even take on the beast’s personalities: foaming at the mouth when giving in to a drug addiction, a gang laughing like hyenas when they surround a victim, and the grandmother’s glowing yellow eyes when she hides dark secrets . . . etc.

The idea page might be longer than a page, or might even be shorter. It could come from a random short story, a dream, or something I might have seen or heard. It could consist of only the main character, or multiple characters. It could be anything that gets the main story out of the head. Since I have the idea page ready involving Graham Baxter and his stone, here is the expansion of the story so far. I’m not so much worried about grammar and punctuation. All I want is a beginning I can work with.
******************
“Burp! Koff-koff.”

The cold night made the warm beer taste better, as I stared at the can’s picture of rounded snowy mountains and the rushing train speeding off as if those metal wheels aimed for my drunk ass. Doubted anyone would miss me if I died. I, sure as hell, knew my exwife Pam would not shell out a dime for the funeral. I might even be doing the world a favor. There would be less of me to place in the pine box.

Yet what about Marty?

I took a last swig before crushing the empty can against my forehead. Then I threw the crushed aluminum against the tree on Gary’s property as it rebounded into the pile of cans my neighbor saved to collect his nickels down at the recycling plant. My fingers reached under the lounging lawn chair. The next beer pulled out the plastic ring and fizzed when I ripped off the tab. My thumb rubbed against the water beaded on the can as I imagined the train whistle and the whoosh of steam from the pipe. The closest railroad crossing was at the other end of Hanna Mill Road, near to the dairy farm and old fort. Wondered if any trains would be running this late at night? Wondered if I should smoke another bowl of weed before going over there and laying down on the wooden ties? I could lay down and close my eyes and not feel a thing.

Think about how Marty would feel.

Yeah, I could not forget him. I could not take that route of wanting to escape my problems on those rusted tracks. He needed me. Marty had no one else now after his own mother signed those permission papers. Damn her!

The phone rang. I could hear its beeps through the open kitchen window. I placed my hands on the armrest and lifted up to spy the time on the microwave. 12:15am. All of my drinking buddies would be down at Sumter’s Pub and Junkyard too wasted to dial my number. Pam. Her shift ended at midnight at the all-night diner. She had wanted to talk with me about something for the past week. Not really caring what she had to say to me now as the answering machine switched on.

“Hello? Graham? Are you there? Pick up the line. I know you’re there. I have to talk with you.” Two minutes of silence came through the line. “Fine. Be an arrogant prick. And you wonder what happened to our marriage--” Beep.

The machine always cut her off before she could go into her full rant as my arm pulled back and then swung out over my head. The full beer sailed above the double-wide trailer to smack something with a ping on the other side. Probably hit the truck on concrete blocks. I messed up the front axle when Gary and I went off-roading down at the track designed for the dirt bike races. For the past week I was angry with myself over that, and I was angry with Pam over those papers.

Damn the doctors! They were the ones who pressured Pam to do it. Claimed it would be for ‘the good of all humanity and the medical world’ crap if she gave her permission for Marty’s body to become dissected for research study. MY BOY WAS NOT EVEN DEAD YET! But those butchers had already made up their minds. He was a shell of a seven-year-old with an illness causing his organs to “hiccup in spasms until sections failed to receive needed blood and began to die off.” Or so the doctors had attempted to dumb down the explanation for us country hicks. I might not have a degree in medicine. Yet when I see my son strapped to the hospital bed, bouncing in and out of comas, with the monitoring machines fastening their octopus arms of tiny plastic tubes and wires to his body, I could not give a rat’s ass what was wrong. All I wanted to know was what they could do to make things right inside my boy.

“There is nothing we can do but make him comfortable during his final days.”

“Even with all of our technological advances, we’re discovering new diseases daily that are beyond our knowledge.”


They could shove that bull at someone else. If I were a billionaire, they would be falling at my feet trying to help my son in the hopes I would hand over a large donation to open another hospital wing. Dirt poor guaranteed the lowest, cheapest care given that would keep the medical staff from getting sued for malpractice. I fell into the latter category.

My fists pounded on my legs. “HACKS! LIARS!”

Scratching paws sounded against the door along with one plaintive whine. My shout must have woken old Miter. I unwrapped the baling twine from around the armrest and tugged, pulling the other end tied to the trailer door. It opened wide and I waited, listening to his clomps of aged feet. My eyes watched his shadow created from the moth encrusted outdoor light as the bloodhound dragged himself down onto the porch. He had arthritis in all his bones, but worse in the right front leg. The joints stiffened harder than any of my sculpted statues.

Old Miter shuffled sore legs over to the second lounge chair beside me and flopped to the side to get in it. His breath huffed and watery eyes closed. His chest rattled when he breathed, stuttered in short wet rasps as his tongue licked his runny nose in an unconscious habit even during sleep.

Too old. The dog got too old too fast. I could still see him romping through the yard with Marty two years ago, trying to nip at the frisbee my boy held in his teeth in teasing, as I had sat in the bed of my pickup and whacked at the large rock slab taken from the job site. My chisel had hacked off the large chunks. My sandpaper had smoothed the rough areas. Whack! Pam had lounged on the same chair Miter curled in now, as she sipped her Gatorade and flipped through those stupid celebrity magazines. Out the corner of my eye, I had caught her lifting the magazine at me and scrunching her face as she imagined her surroundings dwelled on that glossy page: the mansion, the intellectual athletic son already flocked by admirers, and her sugar daddy who already signed her name as the sole beneficiary on the will. Never mattered to me if she imagined her husband as a movie star. If it made her moan in bed, then so much the better for my sex life.

Lights flashed along the road. Gary never left Sumter’s P&J before closing time, and even then he usually slept on the bar floor until the old man rolled Gary out onto the sidewalk in the morning. The headlights aimed my way. Damn. Was it Sheriff Penghal? Last time the stupid prick drove up here, he had heard about a fight at the convenience store. Figured I had to be the culprit. He was wrong, but it did not stop him for busting me for disorderly conduct on my own property when breaking glass bottles with Marty’s baseball bat.
I sniffed at my clothes and my hands. The weed still smelled strong in the air. There was no way I could hide it from him this time.

The wheels squealed down the ruts along the road, bouncing mercilessly and not caring about the occupants inside. It could not be the police cruiser. I had never made the sheriff that pissed at me, not even when that son-of-a-bitch Mike Larsen stole my wife away. Speaking of sons-of bitches, I now recognized Larsen’s beat-up blue car doing its jiggle shakes toward the trailer. It pulled within the pool of light, Larsen’s face screwed into a mask of anger as he gripped the steering wheel and swung his junk around so the car faced the road back out. When making the turn, I caught Pam’s expression as she sat in the driver’s seat clutching the door and dash to keep from slamming her face into the side window. Annoyance, worry, and maybe a touch of fear dwelled on her lined brow.

What did she do now?
***********

Pitch Paragraph Contest - Theme is Luck

The good people hosting the Book Roast blog are having a pitch paragraph session on Tuesday, March 17. Since it is the official St. Patrick’s Day . . . uh . . . day, the theme is Luck.

That’s right. Craft a pitch paragraph (real or for fun) within 75 words featuring this theme and post it over there. The judges are several blogging editors who will choose their favorites among the entries. Share in the day of fun from 7am to 7pm Eastern Standard Time. Then, afterward, go out and get your drunk on.

Hm? Yes, I do plan to submit a pitch. I just don’t know which one. I spent the whole weekend making reserve posts for my more active blog, The Surly Writer. Then I spent the rest of the time coming up with pitches. I did not want to change the pitch for the manuscript that I am currently submitting to agents just to fit these guidelines. So I am freestyling with several works-in-progress.

Anyway, I have several pitch paragraphs that I must choose from and I will post them here for everyone to see. Come Tuesday, I will make my decision.
**************
Pitch paragraph 1: Stanza - 78 words (need to cut out three words)

Blue Triage: Being a fan of this band can kill you, but at least you’ll die famous.

Trevor dreams of becoming an idolized rock star. He buys picture frames for the paparazzi photos of him lying in the toilet next to a whiskey bottle. Suffering from writer’s block, his luck changes when a lyrical roadie overdoses - leaving behind hit songs. Overcome with greed, Trevor begins killing other musicians. Yet his band mates become suspicious of their sudden fame.
**************
Pitch paragraph 2: The Stoneman - 75 words

Graham has found good fortune not within a four-leaf clover, but inside a stone. He lifted his Coors beer at the heavens in prayer and the glowing rock came down. It is a miracle for his critically-ill son since the stone gives life to anything it touches, although someone else’s life has to end for it to work. A life for a life is the moral choice Graham must make in this suspense, The Stoneman.
**************
Pitch paragraph 3: Scary Darling - 75 words

George has the greatest job. He works near the Broadway star, Mabel Durhan: a temperamental singer at odds with a rival actress. When Mabel wants her competition to disappear, it is his lucky day as he demands for her undying love in reward for his help. Yet Mabel marries a Broadway producer instead. So George has to remind her that it is a bad idea to renege on a deal made with the Grim Reaper.
***************
Pitch paragraph 4: The Tragedy of Paul Gruyna - 75 words

Monique cannot believe her luck when Jeff agrees to have all-night sex with her. The opportunity to murder the man who killed her sister is making Monique all giddy inside. Yet when wiping the blood away from his tattoo, she realizes that she had killed the wrong man. Instead, this is Jeff’s twin brother, Paul. Now Monique must hide her secret from Jeff who begins to fall in love with her during his investigations.

Let the Imagination go wild: Scenes

*This is a repost from my other blog. It is very similar to the other one concerning posts where I used the same elements. Yet for this post, I created a scene using dialogue*

Another reader question popped up in the comments section concerning a writing topic that I might actually give advice about. Im–ma-gin-nat-tion . . . as Spongebob Squarepants would say to Squidworth in the empty box as Spongebob’s hands waved apart and a rainbow appeared (my nephews love that yellow cartoon sponge).

EVERYBODY HAS AN IMAGINATION! Sometimes it can just elude us when the reality of everyday life pushes in. In other words, we get the dreaded Writer’s Block! *SCREAM*

When this happens, we need to find something that sparks our creative fires. There are several places to look when trying to find this tinder. I would like to list the ways I come up with a plot and dialogue, but I cannot. I am one of those weird people who has the ideas crowded in the old noggin. But let’s see if I can help in another way.

List all the shows, movies, and books you have watched and read recently.

I like this idea because you can place yourself in the scenes. How would you have reacted in those situations? What would you have done? What would you have changed? It is incredible what your imagination can expand upon until you have made a story all of its own. And do not stop there. Write a journal of what happened to you today. Yet also add your own fantasies on what you might have wished happened. Change the dialogue you had with someone, but keep the rest of the scene. Then evolve from this by changing the mood, background, and adding characters.

Heck, you can even list what you ate for dinner last week just to get ideas. Hmm . . . let me go with the food topic and give a sneak peek on how my imagination works.

Chicken and dumplings
Pork and veggies
Sausage and pasta
Leftovers
Fish sandwiches.

Let’s stop there. I like that fish part. What words go with fish? Fish and chips. Fish fry. Fish store.

Oh! A fish store, or it could be a marketplace with fishmongers selling their catches. I like the concept of an open market, with stalls everywhere and people mingling. We have the makings of dialogue with this. I am going to stick with the conversation without any descriptive background.
***********
Fishmonger: “Fresh fish! Fresh fish for sell! Right off the boat! You won’t find a better quality at a cheaper price anywhere else.”

Woman shopper: “I’ll take three pounds of shrimp, please.”

Fishmonger: “Here you go, ma’am. Anything else?”
Child: “I want to play with the squid!”

Woman shopper: “You can’t play with it right now. Mommy has to get home to cook for the dinner party tonight.”

Fishmonger: “And besides, you never know when a tentacle will grab ya!”

Child: “Hee-hee!”

Fishmonger: “Okay, who’s next?”

Man shopper: “I’ll take a whole cod.”

Fishmonger: “Here you go, sir. Thanks for waiting.”
************
Let’s stop again. I am really enjoying this part. Most of the conversation is something you would expect to hear at any outdoor market whether you are buying fish, vegetables, or donuts (although I would shop somewhere else if they sold squid next to the chocolate eclairs). Don’t forget that you can go to a store and just listen at how people interact with each other. Great ideas and dialogue will come to you. Listen and watch everyone. Take notes.

Now I will get back to this scene. I need to give the characters, well, character. Physical attributes. Personality. Let’s use the dialogue above to help.
************
A smiling fishmonger with a pleasant attitude because he likes kids. This is the reason he jokes around and does not make any rude comments about the woman holding up the line.

An impatient mother who wishes she had enough time in the day to get everything done. I suspect she has been shopping for most of the morning, with hair strands starting to stick out and her face flushed. It is a very important party for her because she bought this much shrimp.

A bored child since he wants to play with the squid. Obviously this is an adult party. The kid would be dragging Mommy home if it were for him, and no one serves shrimp at a child’s shindig.

A male shopper who is patient with the woman and child because he did not interrupt or push to get his order in.
**************
Okay, we have a little more understanding of the people and the dialogue. We have part of the background on where the dialogue takes place. Yet we still need background for the people. What actions are they doing while talking? What would you expect them to do from the information we already have? Ask yourself questions to paint a mental picture of the scene.

A little boy is pointing at the squid in excitement. His finger is about to poke the cephalopod.

A mother is trying to control her child, hold other purchases, and keep an eye on the time while digging in her purse for cash. She could be double-checking her shopping list to make sure she has everything.

The fishmonger is handling goods, joking with the child, and moving his attention to the other shopper. And the other shopper is studying the fish trying to decide what to purchase.

I need to have main character in this. The obvious one would be the mother because we know why she is there and lots of action is going on around her. Yet I never do anything predictable. Instead, I would pick either the fishmonger or the other shopper because I would feel more comfortable with them. I will pick the fishmonger. For me to connect with this character in so short of a time, I have to become him. There is no other choice for me to linger and watch his mood. So I will write the dialogue in first-person for the fishmonger. Third-person would feel too awkward for me in this situation. Also, I will not have to come up with names for the characters.
*****************

Mid-afternoon. The bendable metal shutter for the counter was still shut. I heard the voices rising in the marketplace, the buyers and sellers laughing and arguing and taken in with the life handed down as roles to play. Where should I be in this drama? How could I return my life to those days? What was my purpose in this stall and in this very existence?

Why could it have not been me on that bus?

My fingers wiped the drops of water from the photo. Then I shoved it into my shirt pocket. My apron helped to erase the wetness from my eyes, and a hearty blow from my nose dried up things there. I turned to the shutter, took three breaths, and slapped a fake smile on my face. My hands grabbed the handle. My ears listened to the clacking as the metal slats rose in the tracking. I gave myself no time to stay on depressed thoughts.

“Fresh fish! Fresh fish for sale! Right off the boat! You won’t find a better quality at a cheaper price anywhere else.”

My bellow drew the few stragglers left in the marketplace. The woman was the first to hurry over with a young lad in tow. A rolling huff blew from his chest. The poor thing. The marketplace held little excitement for a child of his age.

The woman banged her knees against the stall. Her eyes scanned the shelves. Before I could tell her the day’s specials, she had her order placed. “I’ll take three pounds of shrimp, please.”

I had worked this stall for three years and seen all types of people. I knew a harried person when I saw one without having to study the woman’s flushed face and tousled hair. The order sat on the counter and the cash register spat out the receipt before her shoe could begin to tap with impatience.

I said, “Here you go, ma’am. Anything else?”

“I want to play with the squid,” the little lad piped out. His finger pointed at the bin. His body bounced in place as if attached to springs. I had to give a real smile at him. My thoughts thanked the boy for his curious nature.

“You can’t play with it right now. “ The woman took out a notepad and a pen. She scribbled across the paper. “Mommy has to get home to cook for the dinner party tonight.”

I gave a wink at him. “Besides, you never know when a tentacle will grab ya!” My arms lifted and then swooped down at the boy in pretend.

His hands covered his grinning mouth. Yet not before I heard his, “Hee-hee!”

The woman grabbed her order and ushered her son away from the stall. I caught his small wave in goodbye. In return, I waved back. It felt so good to hear a child’s laughter again, even if it was for a moment.

I turned back to the gathering crowd, ready to face the world and all of its uncertainties. “Okay, who’s next?”

A man stepped forward. “I’ll take a whole cod.”

He had gestured at the smallest one. I picked out the biggest fish and charged him half-price. “Here you go, sir. Thanks for waiting.”
*******************
I hope this little peek into my imagination, and how to write dialogue, helps.

Beta Readers

It is an interesting concept, and it is one that’s worthwhile for every writer to have whether they are published or unpublished. I have had my own work read by a beta reader, and his observations were unique when providing a different perspective concerning my overall writing.

Now that I consider it, this is not a new experience for me. It is new with my writing. Yet during other aspects in my life I have either given critiques or been at the receiving end. I have a few examples for you.

From 1991-1993, I attended a technical school during my high school days. I enrolled in Computer Business and Information Science classes, which is just a fancy title meaning I learned how to create computer programs while debugging potential problems in the applications. The class was straightforward. The teacher would hand out textbooks for a certain computer language (Fortran, COBOL, MS-Dos, Spreadsheet) and we had the remaining nine weeks to get as far as we could through the book. The more we did, the higher the grade. The only time the teacher stood in front of the class to actually “teach” was whenever all the students struggled on a particular chapter. That was it. The students were on their own in getting the work done.

We helped each other out, which the teacher allowed so long as we did not copy the other person’s program sheet. Often I scanned over someone’s printout, looking for those bugs that he/she could not find, providing feedback on what would help to make the program run smoother. In essence, I provided a fresh set of eyes and an open mind for what was on the page.

Another time I have experienced critiques is when I am involved with my wedding work. I would create sample invitations that I have sent out to potential clients, who would study the work and which designs they want to keep and which they want changed. Also, I have worked with a florist who has asked my opinion about her floral arrangements. She needed someone else’s attention to detail that would help her in creating a pleasing floral piece.

These instances are similar to what a beta reader does when they look over a manuscript. They have not read the story before, so their minds are quicker to catch those problems (like plot holes or waffly scenes) that the writer has missed because they have become too meshed in their own story to see those problems clearly. The beta reader takes note of those places that need editing out, or something added in, to create a pleasing work that satisfies the reader’s mind.

Critiques are found in everyone’s life. Whether it is having someone taste the spaghetti sauce as they suggest adding more pepper, or you straighten the skewed picture frame hanging on the wall at a friend’s house, we are open to advice that makes our existence a little bit better.

So why not when it comes to our writing?

Thank you, my beta reader.

Let the imagination run WILD!

I have found that a very strange thing is going on. People like to ask me questions about where I get all my writing ideas. I never know quite how to answer their questions, because the answer just seems obvious.

IMAGINATION!

I have a lot of it, and my imagination has yet to let me down. Yet I realize that sometimes it can elude us when the reality of everyday life pushes in. In other words, we get the dreaded Writer’s Block! *SCREAM*

When this happens, we need to find something that sparks our creative fires. There are several places to look when trying to find this tinder. Something mentioned frequently in writers’ posts is this phrase, “Write what you know.” This is sound advice. Yet always be aware that just because you have no knowledge about espionage does not mean you cannot create a story about spies. A writer needs to simply do her/his research on the topic and add something from their own lives (like origami) to give a personal touch to their writing.

A spy novel featuring secret documents disguised as origami in a worldwide paper-folding competition held at a kabuki theater in Japan.

I picked origami because it once was a hobby of mine as a kid. I picked Japan as the setting since origami originated as a Japanese art, along with kabuki (popular drama featuring song and dance) in keeping with this theme.

I know . . . I know. Just because I have an idea for a story doesn’t mean I have a storyline. Yet this post is step one in gleaning ideas from the imagination when your head is coming up empty for a good plot. Remember; every great story began from a tiny idea. Sometimes the hard part is finding the idea. Here are a few ways that might help get the creative juices boiling.

List all the shows, movies, and books you have watched and read.

I like this because you can place yourself in the scenes. How would you have reacted in those situations? What would you have done? What would you have changed? It is incredible what your imagination can expand upon until you have made a story all of its own. And do not stop there. Write a journal of what happened to you today. Yet also add your own fantasies on what you might have wished happened. Change the dialogue you had with someone, but keep the rest of the scene. Then evolve from this by changing the mood, background, and adding characters.

Heck, you can even list what you ate for dinner last week just to get ideas. Hmm . . . let me go with the food topic and give a sneak peek on how my imagination works.

Chicken and dumplings
Pork and veggies
Sausage and pasta
Leftovers
Fish sandwiches.

Let’s stop there. I like that fish part. What words go with fish? Fish and chips. Fish fry. Fish store.

Oh! A fish store, or it could be a marketplace with fishmongers selling their catches. I like the concept of an open market, with stalls everywhere and people mingling. We have the makings of dialogue with this. I am going to stick with the conversation without any descriptive background.
***********
Fishmonger: “Fresh Fish! Fresh Fish for sell! Right off the boat! You won’t find a better quality at a cheaper price anywhere else.”

Woman shopper: “I’ll take three pounds of shrimp, please.”

Fishmonger: “Here you go, ma’am. Anything else?”

Child: “I want to play with the squid!”

Woman shopper: “You can’t play with it right now. Mommy has to get home to cook for the dinner party tonight.”

Fishmonger: “And besides, you never know when a tentacle will grab ya!”

Child: “Hee-hee!”

Fishmonger: “Ha-ha! Okay, who is next?”

Man shopper: “I’ll take a whole cod.”

Fishmonger: “Here you go, sir. Thanks for waiting.”
************
Let’s stop again. I am really enjoying this scene. Most of the conversation is something you would expect to hear at any outdoor market whether you are buying fish, vegetables, or donuts (although I would shop somewhere else if they sold squid next to the chocolate eclairs). Don’t forget that you can go to a marketplace or store and just listen at how people interact with each other. Great plot ideas will come to you. Listen and watch everyone. Take notes.

Now I will get back to this scene. I need to give the characters, well, character. Physical attributes. Personality. Let’s use the dialogue above to help.
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A smiling fishmonger with a pleasant attitude because he likes kids. This is the reason he jokes around and does not make any rude comments about the woman holding up the line.

An impatient mother who wishes she had enough time in the day to get everything done. I suspect she has been shopping for most of the morning, with hair strands starting to stick out and her face becoming flushed. And this must be a very important party for her if she is buying that much shrimp.

A bored child since he or she wants to play with the squid. Obviously this is an adult party. The kid would be dragging Mommy home if the party were for him/her. A child’s party would never serve shrimp.

A male shopper who is patient with the woman and child because he did not interrupt or push to get his order in.
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This male shopper has intrigued me although his description is sparse. Sure, many writers would go with the woman and child, maybe because they might have experienced something similar to this when shopping with their own kids. This is a good avenue to take with lots of possibilities (party with maybe a boss or an old flame on the guest list). But I do not have kids, and I do not trust myself enough to make up a novel-length story featuring children. I want to walk beside the man. I want to understand his life.

What happens next? Well, he just bought a whole fish and he cannot do any more shopping while carrying it around. He has to head home. Does something happen to him on the way? Is someone waiting for him at home? Is there anything special about the fish?

Ask yourself these questions. Ask A LOT of questions about the situation. On occasion, the imagination will create ideas when asked or something familiar will show up. Like the news article I heard about involving a fisherman who lost his wedding ring but several years later he gets it back after catching the fish that swallowed it. I think I will take the ring-swallow route.

So the man goes home. Yet my imagination is saying that nobody else is there although he is married because of the ring. No. Wait. He was married. I do not see any wife wanting to clean a whole fish when her husband could have bought the fillets instead. He also enjoys fishing, yet why wouldn’t he have caught his own? Maybe he once enjoyed it.

This means he is an older gentleman, widowed, who doesn’t mind cleaning his own fish but does not want to deal with the troubles of going fishing.

See how the imagination works. Here are the makings of a story. All I did was create a dinner list, write out dialogue at a marketplace, and create more in-depth information by asking questions. We also have the start of a nice situation featuring a lost wedding ring soon to be discovered. Let’s keep going.
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He ends up finding the ring without choking on a fishbone. Yet where do I go from there? Perhaps I need to examine his life. How did his wife die? Or is she really dead?

Never be afraid to take several steps back and let the imagination have its way on how the plot changes. Having the man as a widow is interesting, yet having the man believe he is a widow could lead to other possibilities. Let’s concentrate on the ring now. What is so special about it? How does he know the ring is really his? There is the possibility that the jeweler has several with the same design. Maybe his wife had something etched on the inside. Lots of people inscribe their love on marriage tokens.

So the man looks inside the ring and reads the words. Ben, my love.

Yes, it is his ring. But wait. Someone has scraped a message into the surface after those words, maybe using a rusty nail.

Help! 26th st. Ann.

Well, that is unexpected.
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Now look at all the possibilities I have created in this outline ( my tiny, plot-spoiler woman is wearing a party hat and lying face down on the rug, belching mightily from the booze and twirling a noisemaker in happiness.) Let your ideas go wild. Make lists. Listen and watch people. Ask questions. Do research. Write what you know and feel comfortable about it. Create a little tinder to ignite your imagination. You will be amazed at what you can create from there.

WRITE ON, GOOD PEOPLE! WRITE ON!

Blog news and Mental Tics

I guess I should make a few posts here. This place has been a sort of dumping ground for tidbits from my other blog, The Surly Writer, and I had yet to decide else to do here. I suppose I can talk about writing topics, since for some reason I am chalk full of them right now. You can still see whatever tidbits from works-in-progress and completed manuscripts I jot down now and again. Yet I will place the links in my sidebar. So be prepared to check over there for any new pieces posted (and when I get the links set up) highlighted in . . . um . . . bright purple is pretty.

One of the recent writing topics pounding in the gray matter involves what I call “mental tics.” I (and I would like to believe this happens to all writers) will sometimes get a certain word mired into my stories. I will overuse this word - ad nauseam - until every paragraph becomes a landmine field of useless jargon. Right next to my computer, I keep a list of words to delete or change whenever I am editing. Here is my list:

was
were
being
became
become
with
so
as
while
if
that
then
when
after
any negatives: no, none, not, nothing, little, never, and the contraction “n’t” as in can’t, won’t doesn’t, don’t, wasn’t
adverbs

I am sure you have noticed in this post that I have used a few on my list. This is because of two reasons. One, I am a little more lenient on my blogs than I am in my manuscripts. Two, go ahead and use the words, just do not OVERUSE them. A paragraph rift with negatives and adverbs and passive voice will catch a reader’s attention in a bad way.

I believe I am improving when it comes to my list, especially for one mental tic: Only. *shudder* I have yet to figure out why this adverb hangs around my typing fingers, but it has made my “Public Enemy Number One” list of words to watch out for and delete with harsh prejudice. Also, I used to be an addict when it came to using the conjunction “as.” This sentence extender had to go. Long sentences crave this word along with “so, while, if, that, with.”

I implore all writers out there. Create a list of your own. Keep it handy. It can help you improve on your writing.
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Sigh. Infinitives just turned into my Public Enemy Number Two. I have to work on getting rid of “to + base verb” phrases, as in “to pull,” or “to push,” or “to go to the store and buy myself more manuscript polish.”