Thursday, November 29, 2012

Transformation in the Short Story

I once listened to a sermon on the radio. It was a long drive in a rural area in Ghana and we couldn't pick up anything other station. It was an insightful sermon, quite practical in fact and it has stuck with me. The man was speaking about politics and warning people that they should not be fooled by politicians' last-ditch attempts to buy their votes with token gifts like a bag of flour or a bicycle. He said that they should review how the politician has impacted their lives; he cautioned the audience repeatedly that an official seeking reelection should be able to show how he has moved them from "your here to your there."

I believe that the sermon stuck with me in part because at the time I was reading Rust Hills' book, "Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular" and he was suggesting the same thing. Not about politicians, of course, but that in your short story, your main character must be moved, changed, affected somehow or the story is a failure.

I got into a discussion about this with a fourth grader last week when I did a presentation to his class on writing.

"Maybe it's just a story about the fact that the person doesn't change," he suggested.

"Maybe no one will read it," I replied.

Writing short stories presents unique challenges to the author. So much to convey and so little time. I love writing short stories and I am working to hone my skills in this area through practice, feedback and research. This is the first of a few tidbits that I will share over the next few posts. I'm not claiming to be an expert, feel free to counter my tidbits, I am always happy to learn!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Visions of Sugarplums: One Elf's Descent into Madness

[a festive short story to welcome the holiday season]

Detective Peterson found the plant manager standing outside. A little guy; Bangle, he was called.

“We have a disgruntled employee,” Bangle told him. “He’s holding seventy-two workers hostage.”

“Tell me about him.”

“Sprocket has been working here for decades. He’s an electrical engineer, a genius, I might add. He invented the Sugarplum. But he gets angry, doesn’t take suggestions well.”

“And he’s a Christmas elf, right? Those guys…” Peterson looked down at Bangle. “You guys don’t normally cause trouble. What kind of weapon does he have?”

“This is where it gets ugly.” Bangle shook his head. “Sprocket is brandishing our new ElimAnnihilator 6000. It’s a powerful multi-barrel personal cannon capable of firing twelve rounds per second.”

Peterson did the math. “He could kill them all in seconds.”

“Actually,” Bangle began, “the weapon fires molded polystyrene projectiles. They’re quite safe.”

“Let me get this straight; he’s threatening to shoot everyone with harmless plastic darts?”

“Polystyrene, and they’re not exactly harmless. We encourage wearing goggles, especially for children under three.”

“Prudent.” Peterson trained his binoculars on the factory windows. “So why don’t the hostages leave?”

Bangle shrugged. “Maybe it’s that hostage syndrome thing.”

“Maybe. Let’s get him on the line.”

Twelve rings later, Sprocket picked up. “Sugarplum division, how may I direct your frigging call?”

Peterson introduced himself. “Let’s find a way out of this.”

“We can start with a little respect. You don’t just fire a guy after six decades.”

Peterson turned to Bangle. “He was fired?”

“Not exactly, he was side-sourced. He can keep his job if he relocates.”

“Yeah, they want me to move to Bangalore,” Sprocket chortled. “You know what it’s like there? Hot as piss. I’ve lived in northern Canada my whole life. You think I want to move to frigging Bangalore? Last summer we did the company retreat in Puerto Rico and I almost melted. Also, my wife skis.”

“So that’s what this is about? You don’t want to be transferred?”

“Yeah. And another thing, I’m tired of listening to those boneheads in marketing. Every day they want to make another change to the Sugarplum, another modification. I’m sick of it.”

Peterson read the product description that Bangle handed him. “So this Sugarplum is some kind of tablet, like a book reader?”

Silence on the line. A moment later, the factory door opened, and Sprocket fired a projectile. It traveled nearly sixty feet before bouncing harmlessly off Peterson’s shoulder.

“How do you like that?” Sprocket demanded, back on the phone.

“That was just mean.”

“Want another?”


“Yeah? Call it a tablet again and see what happens. Listen, I designed the Sugarplum to be the world’s most advanced personal digital concierge. It’s not just an e-reader, it’s interactive. If you don’t like how the plot is working out, you can suggest an alteration, and the Sugarplum will reconfigure the entire story arc. You think A Tale of Two Cities is dull? Just add another city.”


“If you don’t like a story’s ending, just pop in a cheetah.”

“I like it.”

“What’s not to like? The Sugarplum is also a camera phone and a meat thermometer. It can massage your back, measure your cholesterol, light your cigarette, and balance your pool chlorine. And in a pinch, its polycarbonate casing can be enjoyed as a delicious and nutritious snack.”

“I had no idea.”

“Also, it runs on triple-A batteries. Those are the little ones.”

“So what’s it going to take, Sprocket? Let’s finish this before somebody gets bruised.”

“Here’s what I want: first, the production line stays here; second, no more product modifications. And third, we get a new TV in the break room.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Peterson turned to Bangle. “Who can we talk to in corporate?”

Bangle handed him a slim grey tablet. It was nearly weightless.

Peterson stared as the Sugarplum began to emit a fine mist. A moment later, a hologram of an Asian man wearing a snowsuit appeared in the mist. Behind him, reindeer were being weighed and tagged for sale.

“As head of the transition team at Kwanzou-Gupta,” the man began, “I must inform you that as of noon today, when the papers were signed, we are the new owners of all Christmas gift manufacturing and distribution franchises.”

Bangle gasped. “I can’t believe the Big Guy actually went through with it.”

The man in the hologram smiled. “We made him an attractive offer — there’s a yacht involved. But the Sugarplum is our product now. If any of your employees wish to continue working on it, they are welcome to apply for an entry-level position at our factory in Bangalore.” The image faded as the mist evaporated.

Peterson shook his head. He relayed the information to Sprocket.

A moment later, the factory doors opened and Sprocket ran out. He fired shot after shot into the air as he ran screaming into the frozen wilderness.

“That could have gone better,” Peterson said.

Bangle had an idea. “Maybe it still can.” He backed up the file to where the hologram first appeared, and touched the ‘Plot Alteration’ button with the stylus.

“Identify desired plot device,” the Sugarplum responded.

“What are you doing?” Peterson frowned.

Bangle smiled. “Insert cheetah,” he said. He tapped the button again and watched as chaos erupted at Kwanzou-Gupta.


“So the sale didn’t go through.” Sprocket admired the new break-room TV. “That was quick thinking, Bangle.”

“Yeah, the cheetah ate the entire transition team. Unfortunately, it ate all the reindeer too.”

Sprocket frowned. “That’s going to gum up distribution.”

Bangle stared at the floor. “And the Big Guy isn’t happy; he really wanted the yacht. He’s asking for another product modification.”

Sprocket glared at him. “What kind of modification?”

“The Plot Alteration feature, it has to go. It’s too powerful. He wants a tip calculator instead.”

Sprocket jumped to his feet and grabbed his ElimAnnihilator 6000. He fired shot after shot into the air as he ran screaming out of the factory and into the frozen wilderness.

Friday, November 23, 2012

When it doesn't come easily...

Sometimes I sit down to write and everything flows like I'm just the medium for some muse or spirit who has things to say...other times, getting the words out feels like I'm trying to walk while dragging a load of logs behind me.  I've realized that when that happens, it's because of two main things:

1.)  I'm letting myself be too distracted by other things - social media, news, life's dramas.  I fix this by disconnecting myself from the Internet and taking my Alpha Smart to some quiet place where I'm not temped to see what reply I've gotten to my latest FB posting about the Gaza Strip, for example.  Or, if it's something going on live - I compartmentalize.  I take note of it and file it away to be dealt with when my word count is near where it should be.  (Of course, emergencies have to be dealt with on the spot but, thankfully, those are few and far between.)

2.)  The other main problem is when I haven't done sufficient research into the background of the work at hand so I'm having problems envisioning the setting or my characters or reasonable plot developments.  This is easily fixed by taking a day or two to immerse myself more deeply in the life of the characters - if the setting is somewhere other than where I live, for example, I may spend some time on Google Maps and Street View trying to see what my characters would see.  I check out Wikipedia - not just the country itself or the city, but the things that have happened there recently, the foods, the language, the music, the flora and fauna.  I watch YouTube videos.  Usually, I emerge from this once again brimming with excitement and the will to write.

Other things I think would also help are taking a writing class, joining a writer's group, and reading or re-reading a book like Stephen King's On Writing.  I was once a member of Romance Writers of America and I've kept a lot of the great motivational articles from writing workshops I attended online so I return to that folder every now and then and find them hugely helpful.

What do you do to get your mojo going?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How to Help a Starving Author 3: Authors Helping Authors

Remember my How to Help a Starving Author posts? The first was the DOs, and the second the DON'Ts, and they were aimed at readers and fans who wanted to support their favourite authors so they could continue enjoying their books. Today's post is aimed at authors. In the current independent-spirited publishing climate, authors need each other like never before. Without authors spreading the word about other authors' books, there is little chance of the books being noticed, sold and read. 

So what can an author do to help fellow authors? The answer is: A lot:

1. Befriend each other on Facebook.
2. Like each other's Facebook pages.
3. Follow each other on Twitter.
4. Like each other's author pages on Amazon. (Garner enough 'likes' and the Amazon algorithm kicks in to improve visibility of the books.)
5. Like each other's books on Amazon. (Ditto the algorithm stuff.)
6. Download members' free books during promotions. (You don't need to own an e-reader; Kindle apps, for instance, are free for most devices. Download an app here.)
7. Tag each other's books on Amazon. If the books already have tags just clicking the boxes will do.
8. Host each other on author blogs.
9. Comment on each other's posts, not forgetting posts in blog tours.
10. Write reviews. The bottom line is that reviews are more effective than anything else when it comes to selling books. Take the time to write reviews, keeping the following in mind:
  • Never review a book you haven't read.
  • Always give an honest review. 
  • Avoid spoilers! Giving away the plot spoils the reading experience for others.
  • Don't insult the intelligence of shoppers. Most experienced shoppers can tell when reviews are less than authentic. I can. We have learned to read the signs, like the reams of 5 star reviews from people named 'A Customer' and reviewers who have reviewed nothing else on the site. 
These are the basics; there is much more that authors can do collectively: readings, book signings, advertising, printing of promotional items. There is strength in numbers; the reach of a group is often far greater than the sum of the reach of individuals operating on their own. Cross promotion works. We have seen it happen time after time where authors get together and do all of the above and their books break out of the ranks to become bestsellers. Buzz creates buzz, and buzz sells books. Much of the buzz behind the breakout books these days is created by... other authors.

Do you have a cross-promoting success story? Please share it in the comments.

Liane Spicer

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lessons on Writing from the World's Champion Speaker

Ryan Avery, the 2012 International Public Speaking Champion, has a lot to say about being a professional writer. I know, I heard him say it two weeks ago in Hickory, NC. The fact he didn't say a single word about writing is beside the point.

I'm willing to bet some of you had no idea there was an International Public Speaking Champion. The championship is sponsored by Toastmasters International. Every year up to thirty thousand people in 116 countries enter local Toastmaster competitions with at least some idea of making it to the international bout. Contenders are winnowed out through a series of local, division, district, regional, and national contests until there are only ten. These finalists go head to head at Toastmasters International's annual convention, which in 2012 was held during the second full week of August in Orlando, Florida.

At twenty-five Avery is the youngest person ever to win an International Championship. Not that he's all talk. At twenty-five he is also the Oregon state director of Special Olympics, has degrees in anthropology and journalism, and is beginning graduate work in strategic communication. (I suspect becoming International Public Speaking Champion of 2012 is just one cobblestone in the road he's building.)

This is a YouTube video Ryan Avery made when he set his sights on winning the international championship. Before he'd won his first local competition. Watching it is interesting, but you can learn a lot that's relevant to writing just by looking at the still.
First thing you notice is that the video exists. Avery made a firm public commitment to his objective. He told everyone he knew - and a lot more people he didn't know - exactly what he was doing. He didn't bore them with excerpts from, iterations of, or musings about his speech. He just made sure he was accountable to as many people as possible.
The second thing you'll notice is that his wife let him nail six whiteboards to their living room wall. This tells us his personal support team of one believed in his sincerity and determination; whether she thought he could actually pull it off is something she kept to herself.

Writing, serious writing, requires self-discipline and constancy – it's too easy to goof off or get distracted or do any of a hundred things besides work. Other people in our lives, those close to us, usually don't take our writing seriously until they've spent some weeks or months watching us take it seriously. Avery's wife took his objective seriously because she'd already seen him demonstrate the requisite commitment in earning his two degrees and working with Special Olympics.

Avery's objective is posted in the center of the whiteboards and over the next several weeks he filled the areas around his goal with things and ideas relevant to that objective. He studied videos of past finalists and read transcripts of their speeches. He studied the structure of the speeches and looked at the subject matter. He learned male contestants wore dark suits. More importantly, he learned that winning speeches had 600-650 words, were delivered in just under seven minutes, and shared a three-step structure; averaging fifteen to twenty 'laugh points' – moments of humor – each.

In other words, Avery discovered all he could about his target market, figured out their needs and preferences, and determined what he'd have to do to deliver a product they'd buy. Which is what a professional writer should be doing as a matter of course. Don't send a story to Analog or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine if you don't read either; submitting a story to a market you haven't researched is a waste of your time and theirs. If you have researched a market you want to break into, say the New Yorker, and discovered you don't write the sort of story they buy, you need to decide whether you want to write their way or set them aside and look for another market.
That last bit was the problem Avery faced. He freely admits he is not good with humor, at least not the kind used in the winning speeches. But changing markets wasn't an option; he would have to learn how to be funny.

Until you start looking for them, you don't realize how many Toastmasters clubs there are in the world, most towns of any size will have at least one and cities usually have several. Avery has a pretty good idea how many are in Oregon. He traveled the state, visiting as many as four Toastmasters clubs a week, trying out variations of his speech in front of as many strangers as he could find. His videoed each outing and asked his listeners to be brutally honest, and listened to what they had to say (he reports many said he'd never be funny). He didn't take everything his many audiences said as gospel – a lot of them contradicted each other – but he paid attention and made what adjustments he felt were valid.
Writers often undervalue practice; we want everything we write to sell, to reach as many readers as possible. We like to pretend we don't know we need to write new things, work to develop new skills, even if no one else will ever see our efforts. We need to pay attention to what trusted readers, colleagues, and especially editors say about our work. Don't rewrite – unless an editor makes it a condition of sale – but take note of things to think about and watch for in future projects.

I do want you to take seven minutes and look at the YouTube of Ryan Avery's winning speech. Note the structure of the story. Note how he uses all senses – even the taste of Cheetos – to give each scene impact. See how he employed imagery his audience – at a convention in central Florida during the hottest days of sumer – could identify with, sweating in a hot suit and the jarring sound of a hotel alarm clock. Also note that he recognized the tradition – not requirement – of wearing dark suit was a convention that didn't serve the story or his objective; he wore a green suit in order to stand out.

But also note something else, something that's apparent only in two moments toward the end. He told those of us listening to him in Hickory that the hardest line for him to deliver was "when her curls turn grey." He cried when he wrote it and he almost cries every time he says it. That's the first thing. The second is the last line. Whenever he speaks his wife always sits so they can see each other; he always makes eye contact and he always says the last line directly to her. We were in a small room in Hickory, and I could see both of them legitimately mist up at his last words. Because despite all his artifice, despite all his carefully calculated pauses and inflections, despite the comic mannerisms he forced himself to master, despite his green suit, what drives Ryan Avery's speech – what gives his words their power – is his heart.

Do I really need to explain what that has to do with good writing?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Writer’s Block? I Don’t Have…Oh, Shiny!

Last year when I began my monthly turn here at Novel Spaces, one of the things I mentioned in my “all about me” blog posting was that I don’t believe in writer’s block or the notion of waiting for The Muse to strike. To me, these terms always sounded like a fancy way of saying, “I really, really don’t want to write today.”

Now, bear in mind that this is just my way of not letting myself off the hook when it comes to this kind of thing. Of course writing can be hard, and some days it seems like the words just don’t want to come out and play. However, in my experience, what a lot of people try chalking up to “writer’s block” instead can be explained by a simpler yet less exotic-sounding term: distraction. Oh, yes, distraction is as much the enemy of writing as it is any other endeavor, perhaps more so because you’re usually working alone, with no one to spot you. Therefore, distraction, once it seizes hold of you, often is able to maintain its grip because—more often than not—there’s nobody around to call you on your shenanigans. Having regular deadlines is a nice way to battle this demon, but there are those times when even that doesn’t seem to wield a big enough stick.

Distractions are everywhere, aren’t they? Facebook and Twitter, video games, DVDs or Netflix, that Finding Bigfoot marathon on the Animal Planet: Traps, folks! Every single one, and those are just off the top of my head. I’m as susceptible as anyone to such frivolous time sucks, and my home office is an arsenal of bad influences. I write a lot of media tie-in fiction and magazine and web content, so a television in the office is a necessary tool. It’s also a siren, luring me in with promises of a favorite movie or TV series season set from my rather sizable collection. I don’t have a game system in my office, but I do have a fully functional Star Trek arcade game in one corner. Hey, I use it to…uh…research, you know…space combat tactics. Yeah, that’s it.

As for the actual writing, there are times when I experience difficulty with thinking too much about what I’ve already written, and not about what I’m supposed to be writing at the moment. Even though I often preach “Write now, edit later” as a quick, sensible writing tip, it’s another easy trap, and I’m pretty sure every writer at every level has fallen into it at some point. On other occasions, I stall because I realize I haven’t given sufficient thought to the scene I want to write, where I want the character and plot to go from this point, and so on. Or, maybe my original idea for the scene just stinks. I’m not one of those writers who can just sit and figure out those sorts of things, so I go and do something for a little while that doesn’t require a lot of thinking—exercising, cutting the grass, washing the car. More often than not, my little writer brain unknots the problem while I’m engaged in that other activity, and then I run back inside and jot down some notes so that I’m primed the next time I sit down to start banging keys.

Another trick I use is to set aside the project du jour and start a bout of “writing freeplay,” where I just get stuff out of my head and onto the page. Sometimes I don’t even bother with the laptop and go with pen and paper, or one of those composition books like we used to have in school. I have a handful of those things, their pages filled with all sorts of random, nonsensical scribblings I used as a warm-up, and this sort of exercise often helps get my brain into gear for the day’s “real” writing. Maybe it’s notes for another project, or some dialogue snippet, or backstory for a character that might not even make it into the story I’m writing, but at least I’m working the muscles. It’s a quick little self-therapy session that helps me back on task.

What gets in the way of your writing? How do you fight distraction? Do you have your own little tricks or rituals you call upon to get you back on track?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Guest author John Brantingham: What Writing Sonnets Taught Me about Writing Mysteries

John Brantingham
When some mystery writers find out that I was a poet before I wrote mysteries, they expect me to be a little snobby. I’m not sure why. None of my poet friends are ever surprised to find out that I love mysteries. Most of them do too.

Besides, I love to write sonnets.

The major misunderstanding of the sonnet is that it is a restrictive form of poetry with rules meant to inhibit the writer. Anyone who has worked with the form for any length of time has found the rules liberating. These are not rules that weigh the poet down but tools that help the writer find meaning. Because certain things must happen at certain moments in the sonnet, the poem writes itself.

What I love about the form of the sonnet is that it gives me the poem and the ideas. As long as I allow the tools of rhyme and meter to carry me along, I will always get a poem that is satisfying to me and the readers.

In fact, often the worst thing that I can do is to get in the way of those elements. It’s better to start without a clear idea of what I’m going to say in a sonnet and let the form write the poem. All I need is a word or two or a beginning idea and the form of the poem will help me find greater meaning. Wordsworth knew that. Shakespeare did too.

And Shakespeare would have loved to write a mystery novel.

The genre has built-in tools that help writers create meaning. When I write a mystery, I always come to that wonderful moment when the story takes over. I -- like the reader -- wonder what’s going to happen next.

That’s the form taking over as it does in the sonnet. If the form doesn’t take over, if I am forcing things to happen, then I know something is wrong. Perhaps, the characters have not been well drawn. Perhaps, there is not enough action to propel the story. Perhaps, the antagonist has no real complexity.

What the sonnet taught me to do was to lighten up and not be so controlling. It taught me to surrender to the process. If you like, it taught me to surrender to the muse. That’s served me well in writing mysteries.

I put the murder in chapter one and let the form pull me to the end.

Anyone who writes sonnets well appreciates mystery novels and appreciates mystery novelists. Sonneteers and mystery writers have the same love of form and have the same dedication to craft.

So here’s a question for everyone. Whoever answers first will win a copy of my poetry collection, East of Los Angeles. What important event happens in the last two lines of a Shakespearean sonnet? It not much different than what happens at the end of many mystery novels.

John Brantingham

John Brantingham's work has appeared on Garrison Keillor's daily show Writer's Almanac, and he has had more than 100 poems and stories published in the United States and England in magazines such as The Journal, Confrontation, Mobius, and Tears in the Fences. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a poem in his chapbook Putting in a Window, which was published by Finishing Line Press, and his second chapbook, Heroes for Today, was published by Pudding House Press. He is a full-time professor at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California and one of two fiction editors of The Chiron Review, a nationally distributed literary magazine.

John's website:
His blog:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What Do You Bring To the Table?

Independent presses have a lot to offer today's aspiring authors. The slush pile is smaller and the chance for an unknown, untried author to get a contract is greater. Unlike large publishing houses, there's still very personal interaction between editors and writers. Unlike self-pubbed books, the publishing house takes care of cover art, lay-out, printing and distribution. Authors are nurtured and a bond builds between the author and publisher.

What most authors fail to realize is that they are expected to don the hat of promoter once the ink has dried on the paper. The job's not finished when THE END is typed on the last page of the novel. In fact, the hard work has just begun.

Anyone aspiring to a career in publishing cannot be blind to all the posts and forums talking about book marketing. It's the #1 topic discussed today. Yet, when the long-awaited novel is finally on the shelf, there it sits. Why? Because authors are unprepared or unwilling to dirty their hands in selling the book to the public. Isn't that someone else's responsibility?

Depending upon the contract, the average amount a publishing house gets is less than $2 profit per book sold. It takes the sale of approximately 200 books before a small outfit sees any profit on a title. That covers production cost, plus Amazon gets their cut and the author gets royalties. Industry stats say the average book will sell about 500 copies. Nobody is out to get rich, but in order to keep producing more books, money has to come from somewhere.

Independent houses exist only when authors and publishers work side by side to do book promotion. I would be more inclined to recommend to my publisher a well-written book backed by an enthusiastic marketer over a great novel written by a prima donna who has no interest or intention to sell.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Holidays and Heresies

As I discard the last of the Halloween candy (I thought of donating it, but who needs donated candy?), I found myself thinking about holidays and ancient heresies.  Though we live in a modern world, we keep old pagan notions closer at hand that most of us are aware of.  

Halloween was not always Halloween.  The Christian holiday of All Hallows Eve began as the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Throughout Ireland and Scotland, bonfires were lit to mark the moment when the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest, and the souls of all those who died during the year could pass through.  

When the coming of Christianity, the good Celts were not keen to give up their traditions, so the holiday was reassigned, made a Christian holiday.  But it’s still Samhain deep down.

The Spring festivals honoring the fertility goddess Eostre were similarly re-imagined. The Saxons would invoke Eostre using the egg as a symbol of birth and renewal.  Often depicted with a rabbit at her side, Eostre moved into Britannia with the Anglo-Saxon invasion, finding a fertile new home.  

But converting pagans is never light work, and the cults of Eostre were not going to give up their long-held traditions and beliefs.  The Christians had little choice but to allow the worship to continue, so they created Easter, modifying the name only slightly, and reassigning it a Christian meaning.

Perhaps the toughest pagan holiday to dislodge was Saturnalia, the wine-fueled orgiastic festival that gave praise to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.  The Christians were just going to have to find something else to do with December 25.

Not to be forgotten, Saturn still lives on in our western concept of time - we honor him at the end of each week with his own day - Saturday.  

Lest the gods of the Vikings feel left out, the most powerful among them, Odin, gets his due every Odin’sday or Wednesday as we pronounce it.  Odin’s wife, the goddess Frigg, gets her due on Friggjardar, or Friday.

So as the grocery stores stuff away their Halloween wares, briefly replacing them with Thanksgiving themes, before the arrival of Santa Claus (a pagan Icelandic figure who rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, for whom children left food by the chimney), I’ll be thinking of what to get my wife for Christmas.  

I still have time.  Besides, it’s only Thursday (Thors-day, named for the Norse god of thunder, the mighty Thor.)

Friday, November 9, 2012

Just do it

“Just do it” has been Nike’s slogan since 1988.  I never understood the meaning of it until a few years ago.  You see, like so many others, I had been waiting for the perfect time to accomplish my lifelong dream of sharing the stories that floated around my head with the world.
I often hear people say, “When I retire, I will travel the world… I will write a memoir, I will publish that story.  When I get enough money I will…. (Fill in the blank).  But what if you never live to retirement?  Or what if you are in poor health at the time or just too poor because your nest egg got eroded?

For years I was one of those people.  From a child, my dream was to be a writer and share my stories with the world.  But I knew there was no financial security in writing or guarantees of any kind.  So for many years I followed a more secure path and concentrated on securing an education.  I would write and publish after I finished college… after I finished graduate school… after I got my career up and running….

But nine years ago, before I completed graduate school complications during childbirth almost robbed me of that opportunity.  Preeclampsia had me hospitalized with blood pressure so high I was almost blind.  After delivering prematurely (the only cure for preeclampsia), a spinal headache that went undiagnosed for days put me on the brink.

When I recovered, I looked back at how close I’d come to losing my life.  I realized had I died in childbirth, not only would I not have enjoyed the wonders of motherhood, by my stories would have died with me.  I made the decision to share my stories with the world.  My new motto:  Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.”

While on maternity leave I wrote my first full length novel and tried to publish it.  After many, many, many, many rejections from publishers, I stopped pushing that book and wrote another. Finally, six years after my new motto, I was able to accomplish the dream of sharing my stories with the world.  My book was published.

I know many aspiring authors are sitting on the fence doing the same thing that I did: they are waiting for the right time.  Or they are waiting for the right inspiration.  Guess what?  That time, that inspiration may never come.  “Carpe Diem”, “There’s no time like the present”, “procrastination is the thief of time” “tomorrow may never come” are just a few clichés I can think of to throw at you.  Instead, I’ll just go with Nike’s slogan.  Stop waiting for the perfect time, “Just do it.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What the muse wants...

I began work on a new manuscript a couple months ago.  I've plotted it out, written my outline, done my character sketches, assembled pictures for my picture board, even ordered the cover.  And now I'm almost at 10,000 wds but, in the last week or two, work has stalled.  My output is nowhere near the 1,000 wds. per day I usually aim for.  What, you wonder, is the problem?

Simple.  Earlier this year I started turning over an idea for a new story, a mystery that deals with some of the issues of human smuggling and drug trafficking with which the Caribbean struggles.  I collected articles, roved through countless reports put out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and suchlike but I couldn't figure out the angle I wanted to take, who my characters would be or how the plot would unfold so I turned to the other story, a women's fiction.

Then, for some reason, the crime story began to come together a couple weeks ago.  In my free time I rifle through the articles I downloaded and watch YouTube clips of U.S. Customs intercepting traffickers.  Slowly, slowly, the story has taken form.  And, in the last few days, I've taken to waking up with it on my mind.  I know the names of the characters.  I know what they want.  I can see them. 

My instincts say I must drop the women's fiction, for now, at least, and work on the mystery instead.  It's the one my muse clearly wants written and if I don't get it down now, maybe it will all go wrong and when I finally turn to it, my muse will have weakened, maybe died altogether and the story will be a husk.  So far, I've resisted.  I power up the computer and begin working on the other story because it's the one I've already started and I must be disciplined.  But writing isn't like that, is it?  What the muse wants, the muse gets.  I think I'm going to have to try working on two manuscripts simultaneously.  This will be new to me but we'll see how it goes.  Any tips, anyone?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Remembering Dee!

One month ago today, 10/5/12, our dear fellow author, Dee Stewart, a.k.a. Miranda Parker, passed away. Today, her family, friends, readers and author buddies are remembering her by going Red and changing our FB profile pics in honor of her life and her commitment to the American Heart Association. We are posting the association logo, the Go Red image, pictures of us wearing red, or any photo that each feels best reflects their best way to remind all of us to not forget Dee's struggle with heart disease, and also with lupus, and her beautiful spirit that touched so many lives, and the life of her young daughter. So today, my post on NovelSpaces is also in honor of Dee! R.I.P. gorgeous soul - heaven sent you and heaven called you home to God's comforting arms, no more pain!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

No sacrifices to volcanoes involved

The other day I went to Port City Java to write. Yes, I do have a home office, with bookshelves covering one wall and a comfortable chair. But sometimes I go to Port City Java to write. On days when I think there's a real danger I'll take a nap, for example. Or days when sitting alone in an empty house typing gets on my nerves.

The PCJ on Racine has several small tables, a couple of sitting areas separated by a big sheet of glass with water running down it I think is supposed to be a fountain, and one long, narrow table that seats twelve for study groups from nearby UNCW (or any other groups for that matter). One end of this table butts up against the wall, and my spot for writing is the last seat, right against the wall, facing toward the windows (which I can't really see because of that sheet-of-glass-with-water thing). I don't really want to look out the windows, I face them to keep the glare off my screen. If someone else is in 'my' spot, I'll take up station on the same side of the long table but two seats over.
Before I get my coffee I set up my camp. Power cord in outlet; backup flash drive plugged into USB slot; big honking studio can headphones jacked in; wireless mouse turned on; notes, reference materials, pad with pen laid out; baseball cap on keyboard.
Then I get my coffee. Twelve ounces of the lightest brew they have in a house ceramic mug with two packs of raw sugar.
Back in my chair I fire up the laptop; confirm I turned the mouse on (I hate the touch pad); put on my cap with the brim pulled low so all I can see are my screen and keyboard; settle my really too large but they were a gift from my son headphones over my ears; launch Pandora; and consider what I'm going to write.

I can write without the mouse. I can write without the headphones, though with my ADD it's hard to filter out conversations around me. I can write without the baseball cap, though it's even harder to ignore the world when I can see it. I can certainly write without the coffee, which usually goes cold at my elbow. I can even write when I've forgotten my reference materials, using AAAAA and BBBBB as placeholders for names or factoids I'm not sure of. Without the power cord I can write for two hours and fifteen minutes. Heck, I can even write without the computer – wrote with pen and paper for years before I could afford one (all the baristas are students, I can always borrow a pen and paper). And I know I look like a fussy old man puttering around getting everything just so before I sit down. So why do it?

Because all that nerdy flutter is my tea ceremony, my centering ritual to focus my mind and settle myself so that I can write. The word ritual can conjure images of chanting monks, or priestesses carving the air with silver knives, or cups of blood, or ancient figures muttering over smoldering herbs and bubbling cauldrons. (No, wait; that last one's me cooking.) But the truth is many of us have little rituals; things we do as part of dealing with the world around us or the world inside our heads. Most of us never notice our rituals; but we do feel 'off' or annoyed when they're missing.
I write 20-30% more words per hour at Port City Java when I've performed the camping ritual. Annoying as I may be to everyone else in the coffee shop, I'm not going to stop anytime soon.

What about you? Do you have any rituals – any patterns of behavior you find yourself repeating before settling down to work?

Thursday, November 1, 2012




Two days ago my thirteen year old niece told me she was writing a book. She asked me to take a look at it, and of course I agreed. She’s writing it on one of those websites geared toward young writers like her. Miss Literati is a fun place for teens who love to read and want to write. So I went to read her story. I somehow skipped her profile, but today I read it and she mentioned me as one of her inspirations. I was touched, and so proud of her. She’s written five chapters of her vampire teenager story. Ahem, Stephanie Meyer is actually her biggest inspiration. I know this because a few weeks ago she held her breath after asking me, “Have you met Stephanie Meyer?” Sadly of course I to tell her that I hadn’t. She accepted the disappointment that I couldn’t provide an intro with grace. Smile

I like to think I played a small part in her wonderful creativity and inspiration first; even though Stephanie Meyer has eclipsed Aunt Lynn. I bought her a beautiful poetry book when she was three. By age four her parents thought she could read. You see  they read it to her at bedtime every night for months (she insisted because she loved it so). Then she began reading along, or so they thought. Actually she had memorized the poems, all of them. As they turned each page she recognize the pictures and recited the appropriate poem. I called her Baby Einstein from then on. Now she wants to be a writer, lawyer and chef (she cooks very well). My books have adult content, so Jasmine is still too young to read any of them. Yet she told me at age eight, “I hope to follow in your footsteps”.

Reading and books changes lives. What we do as authors matters more than we know. So if you have the chance to talk to kids about books and writing, take it. You may plant seeds that give them big dreams. If you give to charities, choose a literacy program for adults and one that puts books into the hands of kids. I’ll bet each of us can cite at least one instance in which someone said, “You inspired me!” If you haven’t, don’t assume you haven’t because sometimes we plant seeds but never see the mighty oaks that result.

Here is one wonderful effort to put books in the hands of African children: Worldreader